Taiwan Glove Puppetry

Beauty-in the of the Beholder.in the Hand of the Holder

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Taiwanese glove puppetry, or budaisi , was long one of the people's primary forms of entertainment. After a lull it is today enjoying a renaissance, sporting new trappings and traveling via new mediums.

A swordsman flies through the forest air, doing a somersault at treetop level before striking down at his foe with lightning force, his long hair flowing wildly. A scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? No, from Taiwan's The Legend of the Sacred Stone (released 2000), which had far more of an impact on Taiwan audiences than did the same-year Hollywood blockbuster. Though made on a budget of NT$300 million, big by island standards, costs were kept down by paying the stars less than scale. They put up nary a peep about this, for all were glove puppets, without agency representation, and their handlers were the movie's producers.

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The feature was made by Pili Multimedia Co., established by the fourth generation of a family of glove-puppet masters, the Huangs, perhaps Taiwan's most renowned and accomplished family in this area. Glove-puppet troupes on the island have traditionally been based on the clan.

The Huangs have long embraced new technologies, and Pili was opened in 1991 explicitly to take advantage of the television and cinema mediums, with grand success. The Huangs, from the town of Huwei in Yunlin County, established around the middle of last century the form of glove puppetry called olden light that is now emulated by most other successful troupes. This is characterized by brilliant lighting, spectacular special effects, and ultra-fervent martial-arts action - the latter something Taiwan's budaisi had already long been known for. Because of Pili's success the golden-light form is now often called the "Pili" form; "Pili" means "thunderbolt."

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The company churns out two new episodes of its immensely popular TV series per week (studios in Huwei) to keep up with demand. Profits are maximized by releasing the episodes to the retail market first; budaisi lovers snap them up, especially males 20-34 years of age. The characters, their personalities, even their favorite expressions are known to almost all throughout the island; politicians will compare themselves - justly or unjustly - to the most chivalrous "white hat" heroes, fighting the forces of evil.

Origins

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A bit of background. It is believed glove puppetry first took the stage in China in the early 1300s. Waves of Han Chinese immigrants began to cross the Taiwan Strait from southern Fujian and northeastern Guangdong provinces to Taiwan in the early 1600s, early on bringing the folk-art form with them. Taiwan remained a rugged frontier society until the late 1800s, and in most areas puppet theater was the most popular form of entertainment.

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It was much easier for a puppetry troupe to move around than an opera troupe. All that was required was a cart to carry the wooden stage and props, along with a boxful of the stage stars. Before electrification nighttime performances were often performed by the light of oil lamps, and the puppeteers would often emerge at the end of a show with blackened faces. Certainly their lungs must have fared no better.

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During the Japanese Occupation (1895-1945) all forms of traditional Chinese/Taiwanese cultural expression were suppressed. Only a handful of puppet troupes were recognized, one of them that of one of Taiwan's greats, Huang Hai-dai, second generation of the above-mentioned Huang family. To appease the Japanese authorities bushido ("Way of the Samurai") themes were often chosen, but it was common to switch back to traditional Chinese themes after watchful officials departed.

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After WW II glove-puppet theater enjoyed a brief renaissance, but again went into the doldrums with the arrival of TV. Among surviving troupes the Huangs led the way, staging shows in theaters and adapting the special effects so beloved of the silver screen. Other troupes followed. In the 1970s the Huangs made the move to daytime TV, their show becoming so popular that the authoritarian government moved against it, for students and workers en masse vacated the tasks at hand to catch the latest puppet-land goings-on. Pili, as stated, hit the TV stage in the 1990s and the movie stage in 2000. Almost all other troupes in Taiwan watch Pili's innovations and immediately incorporate them (dry ice, flash powder, laser lights, etc.)

The Play's Language Is the Thing

Taiwan glove-puppet theater is performed in Taiwanese. The language is very literary, with heavy doses of poetry and literary idioms. If you don't have a fast-translating Chinese-speaking friend, try to ensure the troupe provides English sub-titles. (see last section)

Themes

Classical glove puppetry can be seen as the "poor man's Chinese opera" or "Chinese opera in miniature." The themes, characters, and costumes were taken directly from the big stage, primarily Beijing opera. The approach was pedagogical, favorite themes patriotism and filial piety. Main characters were most often uni-dimensional, good or bad.

Taiwan, isolated from the cultural mainstream, branched out, acquiring a pronounced taste for dynamic action and the theme of chivalry. Intricate martial-arts acrobatics became a central feature, requiring incredible puppetry skills. Taiwan's masters are the world's best.

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Huang Hai-dai (b. 1901), a great lover of China's popular classics, early on acquired a taste for martial-arts-laden classical tales such as The Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Journey to the West. With TV series and movies the third- and fourth-generation Huangs have been able to flesh out characters, giving them more depth and addressing moral ambiguities in the characters' make-up in order to match the more sophisticated attitudes of contemporary audiences. This approach has proved a winner. Pop music, well-known English and Japanese terms, and other contemporary cultural references are also often incorporated. Huang Hai-dai early on recognized that even "classical" puppetry had always seen change, so the new must be eagerly embraced. It is estimated he trained, directly or indirectly, 40% of Taiwan's current crop of puppetry masters.

Long-Haired Heroes

Note that in almost all cases heroic male characters have long hair, sweeping far past shoulders. Before the alien Manchu established the Cing Dynasty (1644-1911), Han Chinese men wore their hair in this fashion. One of the first actions a rebel against the hated regime would do would be to cut his queue and grow his hair long. The hated queue was obligatory as a sign of submission to the Manchu, originally horse-soldiers. It symbolized a horse's tail; i.e., both horse and Chinese were Manchu chattel. This was one source for the love of patriotic themes in glove-puppet theater.

The Puppeteer and His Players

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During each show, the puppet master will handle all voices, male and female (this includes singing and narration), and also handle the main puppets. An assistant (more properly an apprentice) will handle secondary puppets, behind-the-scenes costume changes, and stage-related matters. The main characters are right out of the opera: the male leads (sheng and mo), female lead (dan), supporting male role (jing), jester/clown (chou), and miscellaneous other roles (za). The puppeteer must be able to handle such complex actions as fighting with weapons, hand-to-hand combat, drinking, and writing. It is said the master is able to "tell a thousand ancient stories from a single mouth, and create a million troops with ten fingers".

Setting the Stage

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Traditional glove-puppet shows were staged on narrow, highly ornamented wooden platforms. They were staged on special days, such as temple openings, birthdays, and during festivals, the point being to thank and honor, through entertainment, the gods that were in attendance and watching over the mortals in attendance. Puppets were about 30 centimeters in height, with small heads and intricately embroidered costumes. Think of the smaller godly icons in temples that sit on frontal altars before the main icons. As with these, the best puppets are hand-carved (wood), costumes hand-embroidered, making them unique and quite valuable works of art.

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As with operatic characters, the color of a puppet's face indicated fundamental personality. A red face represented honesty and loyalty. Black represented an uncouth, unsophisticated individual. Green meant a sinister, scheming soul. As in traditional society, garments indicated social status. Mandarins and gentry had lovely embroidery, with symbols such as flowers, birds, and animals differentiating position. Commoners, as to be expected, wore plain, unadorned garb. (Note that though the past tense is used here, this type of classical theater can still be enjoyed.)

The golden-light form grabbed everyone's attention in the 1950s, mostly performed in theaters rather than outside to capture a larger audience. The term "golden light" came from the use of gold-color lights right in the characters' costumes to lend an aura of brilliance. The stages used in theaters were/are much wider to give more space for movement to the puppets, made larger than classical players. The large backdrops were simple paintings. With more people there to see, puppets were enlarged to 45 centimeters in height. Costumes were simplified so as not to visually interfere with facial features and body movements. Faces and heads acquired greater variety, sometimes verging on the bizarre, even the grotesque.

With TV and now the movies the fixed stage is no more, enabling elaborate three-dimensional mise-en-scenes that constantly change. TV and movie stardom has brought forth puppets standing 90 centimeters, featuring heads approaching life-size; the larger the size, the more lifelike the gestures. Costume remains simple, simply emphasizing sex and character. Puppets now close and open eyes and mouths. New types of characters have been introduced; Pili even has extraterrestrials.

Where to See More

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For more on the Pili/Huang phenomenon, visit www.pilimovie.com.tw. You can also visit the Li Tien-Lu Glove Puppet Museum (www.northguan-nsa.gov.tw; www.litienlu.org.tw ; Chinese only latter site) in Sanjhih, Taipei County, on the north coast; Li Tien-lu and Huang Hai-dai are recognized as Taiwan's two great masters. Live shows can perhaps best be enjoyed at Taipei Eye (www.taipeieye.com), a tourist-dedicated venue (which also has opera and other folk-arts shows) that has accompanying English subtitles. If you want to see the puppet shows on TV, select the "Pili" channel on Taiwan's cable network (no English sub-titles).