Keeping It in the Family: I Wan Jan Puppet Theater

By Richard Saunders

A gilded wooden theater stands in front of row upon row of bright-red molded plastic stools, under the enormous entrance porch of Taipei's historic Zhongshan Hall, and at first glance its ornately carved extravagance seems oddly out of place in this informal setting, outside the big front doors of one of Taipei's original spaces formally dedicated to the performing arts. But this is the perfect setting for the evocatively Chinese art form called Taiwanese puppet theater or budaixi, an art form for the masses, like Taiwanese opera, which it resembles in several ways.

Every one of the stools is soon claimed, and late arrivals are forced to stand as a thunderous tattoo, thrashed out on cymbals and drums, signals the start of the performance by I Wan Jan Puppet Theater troupe with a violence that has several of the many young children in the audience throwing their hands up to their ears. After a few minutes the heaven-storming percussion stops, leaving our ears ringing. The remainder of the ten-piece ensemble of Chinese instruments strikes up, and behind the curtains of the little theater the puppet master is glimpsed – a boy of just fifteen.

? This early-starter is from the fourth generation of the Li family's I Wan Jan troupe to master this traditional Taiwanese art form, and the great grandson of the most famous Taiwanese puppet master of them all, Li Tien-lu. Li founded I Wan Jan Puppet Theater exactly eighty years ago, in 1931, and in the intervening decades it's gone on to become the most acclaimed budaixi troupe in Taiwan. Li worked tirelessly during his long life to promote the art form, teaching new puppet masters, giving performances in far-flung places such as the USA, France, and Japan, winning many prizes for his work, and even taking the title role in famed Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien's film The Puppetmaster, which won a Jury Prize at Cannes in 1993 (based on Li's own story). Master Li died in 1998, but his descendants continue to run I Wan Jan, giving numerous performances in Taiwan and touring abroad several times each year – Mexico is on the performance agenda in 2011.

The origins of budaixi can be traced back to China's Fujian province in the early 17th century. It was brought to Taiwan by Fujianese immigrants, gradually developing during the succeeding three centuries into the several forms practiced in Taiwan today. According to one of the troupe's members, Lin Yung-chih, performances of budaixi are far more common in Taiwan nowadays than in mainland China, with troupes developing new, less traditional styles, including extremely popular made-for-TV puppet productions aimed at the younger market, chock-full of action sequences and special effects.

? Lin explains the attraction of budaixi: "Its charm lies in the figure images of the puppets, the skill of the actor, and the combination of the stage set, music, and voices together," going on to say that "Like close-up magic, it makes strict requirements of the main puppeteer. There is one main puppeteer and three assistants, who are responsible for all characters in the play, even though twenty (puppets] may appear."

? For all its continuing popularity with audiences in Taiwan however, finding and training new troupe members has been challenging. Lee Chiun-kuang, executive secretary of Li Tien-lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum, points out that it takes at least three years to train a new puppeteer and with up to twenty puppets to maneuver during each show and about ten shows in the troupe's repertory, there's a lot to learn. In 1984, I Wan Jan launched a new initiative, introducing the art form to elementary-school children around Taiwan, hoping to instill an early interest in the form and recruit some young new talent to swell the troupe's numbers, which range in age from a tender nine years old to over fifty.

For its performance today, I Wan Jan has chosen a short extract from a well-loved Chinese classic, Journey to the West (perhaps most familiar in the Western world as a result of its incarnation as a popular TV series called Monkey). This is apparently one of the more elaborate pieces in the troupe's repertoire, requiring the puppet master and his three assistants to handle (and give voice to) twenty characters, including several animals. As the production starts, a cloud of atmospheric smoke drifts off the stage, and the first figures appear.

? The hollow head and hands of the glove puppets (into which the puppeteer inserts his fingers) are carved from wood, while the body is made of cloth, the clothing worn often elaborately embroidered. Our young puppet master brings life to each puppet via tiny movements of his fingers, showing off his skill through several intricately choreographed sword fights and, in one especially impressive moment, having one of the characters daintily pick up a tiny, long-spouted teapot just a couple of centimeters tall and pour himself a drink. Real water pours from the tiny spout, and not a drop misses the tiny target.

The young puppet master brings life to each puppet via tiny movements of his fingers, showing off his skill through several intricately choreographed sword fights

? As well as bringing lifelike movements to the various puppets in the performance, the puppet master gives most of them their voice as well. The language is Taiwanese, although for their performances in foreign countries the troupe has developed a silent form with the story told purely through the movements of the puppets, a method that was inspired, says Lee Chiun-kuang, by French mime artist Marcel Marceau. For these dialogue-free foreign performances, he continues, the troupe performs both adapted traditional pieces and more unusual repertoire, including I Wan Jan's own version of Shakespeare's Henry IV!

When the performance finishes the puppeteers emerge from behind the stage, and after accepting our applause take out a handful of glove puppets and let the eager children have a go themselves. It's a good opportunity to get a close-up look at the beautifully-made puppets. Lee points out that the over three hundred puppets used in the troupe's performances will have a lifespan of many decades, but hundreds of older and more valuable puppets and other possessions have been put away for safekeeping. Seeing these involves a drive up to the Li Tien-lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum, hidden away on a quiet residential road outside the town of Sanzhi on the north coast of Taiwan, an hour from Taipei.

? The museum occupies a two-story house, which from the outside looks just like the other Western-style, semi-detached residences along this quiet lane. Step inside the front door, however, and a beautiful gilded puppet theater, just like the one used by the troupe for performances, ushers the visitor into a different world. The first floor is given over to hands-on exhibits of the hand-puppeteer's craft. Visitors are welcome to try out the drums and other traditional musical instruments that are part of a budaixi performance, paint and clothe their own hand puppet (for a small fee), and even give their own puppet performance in a second small theater. A small auditorium lined with red-velvet drapes lies hidden away at the rear of the building, and is opened up once a month (usually on the weekend) for performances.

? Heading up the stairwell to the second floor, the face of Li Tien-lu himself smiles at you – a ghostly hologram. The rooms beyond are devoted mainly to displays of Li's magnificent collection of old puppets, musical instruments, embroidered clothes, and other tools of the puppet master's art. The best pieces in the master's collection are kept here, permanently locked away behind plate glass, where the life-like quality and beautifully caught expressions of many of the puppet heads, and the elaborate attention to detail in the embroidery on some of the tiny costumes, can be examined.

? While Li Tien-lu's beautiful collection shows the subtle, artistic side of this uniquely Taiwanese form of entertainment, his descendants continue to ensure the traditions are kept alive, to the delight of crowds of Taiwanese and a few foreigners too. I Wan Jan's traditional brand of budaixi may be an art form enjoyed by the masses, but the skill on display during its performances makes this one form of popular art that can be equally appreciated by those with more "discerning" taste as well.

{English and Chinese} 
Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢
Journey to the West 西遊記
I Wan Jan Puppet Theater 亦宛然掌中劇團
Li Tien-lu 李天祿
Sanzhi 三芝
The Puppetmaster 戲夢人生
Zhongshan Hall 中山堂

Li Tien-lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum (李天祿布袋?文物館)
Add: 26, Zhibo Rd., Sanzhi District, New Taipei City (新北市三芝區芝柏路26號)
Tel: (02) 2636-9174, 8635-3917
Website: (Chinese)


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