Puppetry in Taiwan

Puppetry in Taiwan

One remark elicits a thousand old stories; ten fingers manipulate a million troops.

If you are Taiwanese, you will definitely agree that the 1970s was an unforgettable era. That was the time of the TV puppet drama series “Yunzhou Da Ruxia ; Shi Se-Wen” [Chivalrous Confucian Knight Shi Se-wen] that set all-time highs at 97% viewer share. When the handsome lead, Shi Se-wen, took on the great master of the Dark Side, it was every bit as exciting as seeing the latest adventures of Harry Potter today.

But if you are not Taiwanese, hopefully you will still have seen the movie “Ximeng Rensheng” [Play Dreams, Real Life] by internationally-acclaimed director Hou Hsiao-hsian. The story depicts a puppet master, Li Tian-lu, and how his “life was like a puppet play, and puppet plays like life”.

Puppet shows are at once Chinese traditional shadow shows – music, carvings, and embroidery – a beautiful and vivid art form. Puppet masters realistically bring their small characters to life melding Chinese folk customs and sensibilities as well as historical events. These shows are deeply moving to the spirit.

In the 19th century, puppet shows came to Taiwan from Mainland China. As folk troupes and artists
constantly expanded and innovated, a form of puppet theatre and performances with uniquely Taiwanese characteristics was born. Now, this form is a treasured part of Taiwan’s culture. Even today, the art form continues to be popular, and is the most vital and constantly reinterpreted part of traditional culture. The most surprising thing now is the “Thunderbolt Puppet Theatre” phenomenon. After several decades of operation, traditional puppet shows have made the leap to the small screen, in TV “soap opera” style drama shows. There are not only puppet-only channels on Taiwanese TV, but millions of NT dollars are spent in filming first-class, world-standard puppet versions of stories like “The Sacred Stone.” Combining traditional puppet artistry and digital 3D animation technology, the charisma and appeal of Taiwan’s puppet theatre has been carried into international television markets. The programs are broadcast in Shanghai, Beijing and major Japanese markets. The “Thunderbolt Puppet Theatre” show makes extensive use of sound and lighting, explosions and animated effects. The creators have taken familiar characters and are also able to constantly roll out new stories. As a result, the Web sites related to this show throughout Taiwan now number over 400. Most recently, an online game was also introduced, so that more fans could put themselves into the roles of their favorite puppet heroes.

In terms of its classification in the world scheme of puppetry, “puppet theatre” refers to hand-operated, small puppets. The biggest distinction between these diminutive actors and their larger cousins is that these look like miniaturized real people. Their bodies include authentic hands, two feet and a spine, and with the able assistance of two clever hands, they are able to express the full range of gestures and emotions, as well as go through all the moves of Chinese martial arts and swordplay. They are also equal to tasks like judo, fighting with swords and shields, and even riding on horseback. Traditional puppets range between 24 cm and 30 cm in height. They require a team of puppet masters well-versed in many kinds of traditional skills. The head, hands and feet of these puppets are made of wood, painted and carefully detailed, and helmets must be gilded and made of sculpted paper. Hairstyles of these tiny actors must be done by hand, and their costumes require painstaking embroidery and Chinese knotting skills. The entire process of producing these puppets is time-consuming and demanding. Merely completing one puppet head can take two to three months, and a set of detailed robes and weapons could represent 20 to 30 working days of effort. However, only by upholding the quality of these traditional crafts in making the puppets can the performances express the true spirit of the art.

Secrets of the Puppet Theatre

Heads: the Spirit of the Puppets

The head is the center of a puppet’s spirit. The quality of carving on a puppetユs head will quite often determine the value and overall appearance of the puppet. For more than a century, the traditional puppet world in Taiwan has used very detailed puppets. These primarily came from “Tumentou” and “Huayuantou” in Xuanzhou, Fujian province, and from “Alintou” in Changhua. The manufacturing process involves nine steps in all.

Selection of materials:Xuanzhou’s “Huayuantou” uses mostly silver almond or camphor wood; in Taiwan, kongmu wood or the wood from the Chinese parasol tree is used in addition to camphor.

Blocking out:The wooden block is prepared in the desired head size. A line is drawn to indicate the
center of the face.

Roughing the blank:The eyes, ears, nose and mouth positions are indicated.

Polishing: Rough and then fine sandpaper is used to smooth uneven spots.

Affixing paper:Fine layers of cotton-based paper are affixed to the blank after polishing.

Painting: After the paper is affixed, strained loess soil is rubbed on. After it dries, sealskin is used to polish it.

Foundation: White powder is rubbed on to provide a white colored foundation layer.

Detailing: Colored minerals are selected as pigments and after filtering for lead, the puppet is given its individual character with colored eyebrows, eyes, lips, even wrinkles.

Implanting of hair: After the puppet’s surface treatment is complete, puppets that are to be middle-aged or older have beards rooted in their chins. Others are given appropriate treatments based on their ages.

Names of Puppets

Traditional puppet roles each have a name and a proper use. They cannot be mixed nor puppets selected at random. If this is done, stern criticism from those in the know will surely follow.

1. The “sheng” character is an average, male role. If the boy is under 10 years old, the role is called a “hua tong” [flower child]. Youths are divided into the clear-eyed “wen-sheng” and the heroic-appearing, shiny “wu sheng” fighters.

2. The “dan” character is an average, female role. Young females are called “jie zong dan” while married ones are called “kai mian dan”.

3. The “chou” characters are the comic relief of the puppet show. Their words are light and playful and they often play jokes.

4. The “jing” character is a male Chinese opera character with a painted face. The exact painting style can vary, and expressions represent faithfulness, craftiness, goodwill, evil and other individual
characteristics. The complex code of facial markings is expressed using black, red and green. Black
represents an impetuous, harum-scarum character; red fidelity and bravery, and green evil and hidden plots.

5. The “tong” are used to portray any child character. They come in “sheng”, “dan”, “chou” and “jing” varieties, and enliven the proceedings.

6. The “za” are characters that cannot be classified as one of the above types. These puppets are often supernatural  or spirits, goblins, demons and the like.

7. “Shou” or animal puppets include tigers, dragons, phoenixes, lions, cows, horses and so on.

The Eighteen Weapons

Puppets are nothing more than a miniaturized human world. The weapons they use are detailed and authentic. All are totally lifelike. The lines of a Chinese opera often state that a warrior is “well-versed in all eighteen weapons.” These eighteen weapons are the lance, mallet, long bow, crossbow, jingal, jointed bludgeon, truncheon, sword, chain, hooks, hatchet, dagger-axe, battle-axe, halberd, shield, staff, spear and rake. Puppet use of weapons, in terms of function and method of use, is somewhat constrained by the structure of the puppet, and naturally cannot be as flexible and complex as real people. However, over the years, puppet masters have constantly observed and have learned to imitate the use of weapons and the forms of combat and have brought their knowledge to their art in an effective and convincing way.

Pocket-Sized Props

To enhance onstage emotion and increase the effectiveness of the shows, puppets naturally require props to serve as items of daily use. All sorts of lovely, tiny items are provided for them, such as the four treasures of Chinese calligraphy for the poet puppet, imperial edicts and seals for emperor puppets, and of course wine pots and cups for Jianghu characters. From the horsetail whisk needed by Taoist priest puppets to the banners of the warriors; all are miniaturized in loving detail for these tiny players. Each is an individual work of diminutive art in its own right.

Text: Lu Hong
Source: Se Den Society Foundation, Palm Drama Digital Puppetry Museum

Published in Issue 11 PRECIOUS, 2004