The Taiwan Tradition
Chinese puppetry comes in two major forms: the marionette theater and the shadow theater. Often two, marionette theater has the longer history and has spread farther. Since ancient times, puppetry has been a very common and primary way of performing the countly music and the recreational music of China. As early as the Sung dynasty in the tenth century A.D., when other forms of Chinese theater had yet to mature, the performance techniques of both marionette theater and shadow puppet theater were already highly developed. In fact, puppetry had a significant impact on the subsequent development of other Chinese theater forms. Today, theater with puppets and theater with humans continue to influence each other, and have established themselves as the two major branches of performing arts in traditional Chinese theater. For all of these reasons, puppetry in China has historically been considered a performing art of immense visual and aural appeal rather than a casual amusement, vaudevillian production, or child's game.
Traditional puppetry in Taiwan actually comes in three forms: the marionette theater, the glove puppet theater, and the shadow theater. These three dramatic forms were intorduced into Taiwan in the early nineteenth century by immigrants from the southern coast of the Chinese mainland. Marionette theater and glove puppet theater came from southern Fukien Province where they were very popular, while the shadow theater originated in Haifeng and Lufeng in eastern Kwangtung Province.
At first the puppetry introduced by immigrants to Taiwan retained its original performing style. Yet, as Taiwan gradually evolved from an immigrant and agrarian society into the autonomous and prosperous society of today, Taiwanese puppetry acquired its own distinct cultural features and artistic style. As far as Taiwan's traditional theater is concerned, the cultural significance of the marionette and shadow puppet theaters outweighs their importance as performing arts.
The oldest and most widely-used puppet in marionette shows is the string marionette. All marionette theater in Taiwan is now performed by part-time puppeteers for religious rather than purely entertaining purposes. Shows may be performed to drive evil away or to thank the gods. Major occasions for marionette presentations include the birthday of the Jade Emperor (the ninth day of the first lunar month) and that of the Three Great Emperors (the 15th day of the first lunar month). String puppet shows are also featured in a man's worship of the Jade Emperor on the eve of his wedding, and in similar ceremonies on the first birthday of a baby body and the birthday of an elderly person. Marionettes often highlight the "earth-thanking" ceremony conducted when inaugurating a temple or moving into a new house. On such occasions, the marionette performance is regarded not as entertainment but as a solemn rite in reverence of and in thanksgiving and supplication to the gods.
The origins of Taiwan's shadow puppetry can be traced to the Chaochow school of shadow puppet theater. Commonly known as leather monkey shows or leather shows, the shadow plays were popular in Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung as early as the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) Older puppeteers estimate that there were at least a hundred shadow puppet troupes in southern Taiwan in the closing years of the Ching dynasty. Traditionally, the eight to 12-inch puppet figures, and the stage scenery and props such as furniture, natural scenery, pagodas, halls, and plants are all cut from leather. As shadow puppetry is based on light penetrating through a translucent sheet of cloth, the "shadows" are actually silhouettes seen by the audience in profile or face on. Taiwan's shadow plays are accompanied by Chaochow melodies which are often called "priest's melodies" owing to their similarity with the music used by Taoist priests at funerals. A large repertoire of some 300 scripts of the southern school of drama used in shadow puppetry and dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has been preserved in Taiwan and is considered to be a priceless cultural asset.
Taiwan's glove puppetry is derived primarily from the puppet theater of Chuanchow in Fukien Province and supplemented by puppetry traditions from Changchow, also in Fukien Province, and Chaochow in Kwangtung Province. Early performances of glove puppetry in Taiwan saw no major changes in style or musical accompaniment. Distinctly native Taiwanese features did not emerge in glove puppetry until the first decade of the twentieth century. Traditional Chinese historical novels were extensively adapted for glove puppet shows, but the theatrical style was basically fashioned by the puppeteers' creative talent and grasp of performing skills. Most productions adopted the dramatic style of the pei-kuan theater (a form of drama originating in the Chinese mainland that is sung to the accompaniment of pei-kuan music) that was popular in Taiwan at the time. The plots were well-knit, action-packed, and filled with fight scenes that were choreographed to match the accompanying pei-kuan music, which was itself fast-paced and spirited. In the course of the development of the pei-kuan glove puppetry, Taiwan artists introduced a number of martial arts tactics and body movements to go with the rhythm of the pei-kuan music. These include special movements to make the puppet jump, turn somersaults, fight, and proudly strut onto the stage. Taiwanese puppeteers also began using local dialects in their performances, and created their own personal artistic styles. Their efforts contributed to the development of a distinct form of glove puppetry in Taiwan.
Since Taiwan's glove puppet theater was founded on pei-kuan glove puppetry and because plays were initially adapted from traditional Chinese historical novels (and later from an extensive selection of novels), the dramatic range of glove puppetry in Taiwan came to cover an enormous variety of subjects. This, and the absence of a set performing style, gave puppeteers a free hand to employ their talent and contributed to the development of a highly entertaining from of dramatic art rich in native features. Little wonder glove puppetry came to be the most popular theatrical form in Taiwan.
Puppetry in Taiwan has had to adjust to new trends in order to maintain its appeal to a gradually diminishing audience. The stage has been expanded and modified. The glove puppets have been enlarge. More three-dimensional props are used, and a wider variety of plays are presented with diverse themes and greater dramatic appeal. Thus, as the Republic of China has successfully developed its economy, puppetry has been able to blend the spirit of traditional China with the latest technical innovations and continues to play and important role in religious ceremonies and folk festivities.
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