Taiwanese puppetry–Budaixi (布袋戲): 1. Introduction

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 13 日 in Taiwanese puppetry (Budaixi)
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Breathing New Life Into Budaixi (布袋戲) Discover Taipei Bimonthly

written by Christopher Peterson, edited by Ben

“A crime has been committed; an outstanding member of the community has been accused. He must now find a way to clear his name, so he searches for evidence to bring before the judge. The story twists and turns in every direction before he is found innocent…”

This could be the scene out of any TV soap opera, but it’s not. It is, in fact, the story line of a puppet show or budaixi performance. A literal translation of budaixi is cloth bag performance—in English they are correctly known as hand puppets. The art is as Taiwanese as oyster omelet. If the first thing that comes into your mind when someone mentions these puppets is a movie like The legend of the Stone (聖石傳說) then you’re right—well kind of anyway.

The origin of budaixi

The story goes that 300 years ago during the Ming dynasty, a very knowledgeable and well-educated man named Liang Bing-lin (梁炳麟) didn’t pass the test to enter the ranks of government. He was very upset, so one day he went to a temple to ask for a prediction. On that night he dreamed of several deities. One of the deities with white hair said since you are so sincere, we will give you five words, “Success lies within your hands.” (功名在掌中)

He woke up so excited, however, he once again failed the exam and returned to his hometown. He became a storyteller to be sarcastic about politics—much like we are today in political cartoons. The content of his stories upset the government, so instead he got the idea from shadow puppets then develop budaixi. And after that his craft became popular. One day it dawned on him that, in fact, success really did lie in his hands. (一口說盡千古事,十指弄成百萬兵)

The old and the new; two styles of budaixi

Budaixi in Taiwan have, over time, developed into two different styles. The traditional type of budaixi is a small hand puppet. This type of puppet is most commonly found in northern Taiwan. The other type is more commonly seen in the movies and is much larger. This type has developed in the south.

Master Chen Hsi-huang, son of probably Taiwan’s most famous puppeteer Lee, Tien-lu (李天祿), started learning the art at age 12. He learned by watching others perform and adapting their system of movements. “The large style is easier to learn because it doesn’t use the fingers as much, but rather a stick to control the puppet,” Master Chen explains. “In the smaller style your hand movements are more important and, therefore, difficult to master, so it is not as popular to learn as the large style.”

Unfortunately, this means that the northern style or the traditional style is slowly disappearing. “Because of the ease of the large style to learn the traditional style is losing popularity,” says Master Chen. “Not as many people are learning the art. There are only a few people left who truly know how to perform.”

 

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