Fierce Faces

Nacha Folk & Arts Troupe Carries on the Tradition of Temple
Festival Performances
By Barbara Zerillo

During my time in Taiwan I have often passed by temples, and whenever there hasbeen a temple festival going on I have been curious about the performers dressedin intricately detailed and brightly colored costumes. As a Westerner, the gods theyimpersonate can be unfamiliar and intimidating. I was therefore excited – and a littlenervous – when I was given the opportunity to meet with the members of the Nacha Folk & Arts Troupe and learn more about the art of "Zhentou," a type of traditional folkart performance seen during temple-festival parades.

Arriving at the troupe's studio in Luzhou, a suburb of Taipei, I took my shoes off at the door, as is the custom for many houses in Taiwan, and was graciously welcomed by a 20-year-old, Chen You-wei. He smiled often, offered me juice and tea, and was so polite that I never imagined he would soon be transformed before my eyes into one of the terrifying guards of the underworld. I was thrilled at the prospect of getting a behind-the-scenes look at the unique form of Taiwanese folk-art culture of which he is a part.

The troupe is one of many in Taiwan whose performers dress up as figures from the Chinese religious pantheon to perform at festivals throughout the year. Although the troupe is skilled at performing a number of different groups of characters, they are most
frequently requested to perform as the Guan Jiang Shou, or Chief Officers, which is what I observed. Zhentou means"head of the parade formation," and the officers are like security personnel, leading the processions to scare off devious demons and spirits and silently announcing the arrival of the god or gods carried in sedan chairs farther back in the procession.

The creator and manager of the Nacha Folk & Arts Troupe, Rex C. H. Kao, explained that while this folk-art form has its roots in centuries-old religious practices of China, the
present form of Zhentou has been developed over the last few decades in Taiwan and is unique to the island. For the performances, males put on performances during religious festivals as a way to both thank the gods and warn an area's mortals. It is believed that the Guan Jiang Shou can capture people and bring them back to the gods to be judged and punished.

I watched in awe for roughly 45 minutes as one of the guards' make-up was meticulously applied. Using a calligraphy brush, one member first painted a white pattern that was later filled in with blue, symbolizing water, and accented with red, black, and gold. Each of the guards can be identified by the dominant make-up color representing one of the five Chinese elements: water, fire, earth, wood, and metal. In the past the make-up consisted simply of a single base color, black eyes, and a red mouth, but has been become more complex over time. As with most folk-performance groups, there is a constant struggle to maintain a balance between tradition and trying to fit into a modern, fast-changing world.

Several novice members helped to dress You-wei once his make-up was complete. They helped him put on the brightly colored robes, long red eyebrows, and sharp teeth, along with a heavy crown complete with flowing yellow paper hair. Mr. Kao explained that many of the members carry a piece of the paper "hair" with them to keep evil spirits away, confirming this by showing me the sample he carries inside his own wallet. This was one of the many times that I was reminded that this is not simply an acting troupe, but a group of performers who believe deeply in the spiritual powers depicted in their art.

They helped him put on the brightly colored robes, long red eyebrows, and sharp teeth, along with a heavy crown complete with flowing yellow paper hair

Mr. Kao explained that they perform for three reasons: to thank the gods, to entertain, and to bring people back to cultural traditions. He talked about the struggle of keeping new generations interested in old-style Taiwanese culture. Today many people prefer to go singing at a karaoke parlor, or simply staying at home, to attending an outdoor temple festival amidst the heat of the summer. One of his goals is to appeal to the younger generations, demonstrating to them that their cultural heritage is a source of fascination. The troupe does a lot of non-profit work, cooperating with schools and performing for students.

After You-wei was in full dress, we went to a nearby temple for a performance. It was truly impressive watching You-wei's face contort into a menacing stare, one that made me doubt that he was the same boy with whom I had spoken earlier. A crowd formed while he performed a series of choreographed moves that illustrated his strength and precision. Watching him seamlessly spin, crouch, and hold complex poses on one leg was a clear indication of how much time and effort was devoted to practicing.

I looked around and watched the crowd looking on with interest. When the performance ended, I heard a boy behind me whisper "Hao lihai!" to his mother, which can be roughly translated as "Awesome!"

After the spellbinding performance we returned to the studio to watch the group practice. Some of the older members, including a man who has been studying this form of art for
fourteen years, led the others through a series of stretches and exercises. Mr. Kao smiled while answering our questions, but was strict with the students, reprimanding them when their push-ups were not done in unison. Since they do not speak during their performances, they need to be perfectly synchronized at all times in order to properly execute the complicated moves as a group.

Only after two years of rigorous training are new members allowed to perform in public. One member told me that he had almost quit during that time because of the difficulty, but has now been with the group for six years. This is, I learned, far more than a mere hobby. Mr. Kao explained that before an important performance abroad the members will spend a week sleeping, eating, and training at the studio.

The following day, I was thrilled to get the chance to see the group put on a full-scale performance when we attended a parade for Bao Qing Tian, the God of Justice. Dressed in their ornate costumes and carrying their unique weapons, a gong sounded and the leader struck his weapon against the ground. Instantly, the five members began to perform with the power and fierceness of one truly ominous unit. The Guan Jiang Shou marched in unison, never once falling out of step or character.

I wondered how much of the grimacing was acting and how much might be from the discomfort of wearing the heavy costumes and make-up

Although only five members perform at a time, the rest of the group follows alongside to help them in any way needed. It was a hot day, nearing 40 degrees Celsius, and performing under such conditions is not an easy job. Performers often become dizzy or faint from exhaustion during processions that can last for hours, sometimes in sweltering heat. Seeing the members' grimacing faces during the performance, I wondered how much was acting and how much might be from the discomfort of wearing the heavy costumes and make-up.

In the past, smiling while performing was taboo. Masters would tell their students that if they smiled it would crack their make-up and the evil spirits and demons lurking about would know they were human.

While this type of art is completely different from anything I have ever before experienced, it is something I would recommend every visitor from overseas witness when in Taiwan. The best time to come is during the third month of the lunar calendar, since the many traditional festivals bring many opportunities to see folk-culture groups performing. Mr. Kao also mentioned that his studio is open to visitors, and foreigners are welcome to come and learn about Zhentou. After all, this is not simply an opportunity to watch a visually attractive performance, but also a unique opportunity to gaze back in time at an old Taiwanese tradition.


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