Taiwanese puppetry–Budaixi (布袋戲): 2. Learning the art

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 13 日 in Taiwanese puppetry (Budaixi)
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Learning the art

To begin learning simple moves is quite easy. The stage manager Mr. Wu Jung-chang displayed to a group of children, who had gathered, how easy some of the movements are and how quickly they can be learned. He demonstrated how to make the puppet run, which was as simple as moving your hand up and down. Beyond controlling the puppets the next most important aspect of the performance is the distinctive narration and the music to build the anticipation. The puppets show is performed on a very colorful stage—this allow the puppeteer to hide and gives a special platform for the puppets. The musicians also perform behind the stage.

Many of today’s masters in Taiwan have been born into a long line of performers and the traditions have continued from father to son. It is ironic in a way, but there has been a huge interest in learning the art has come from outside of Taiwan. People from all over the world have traveled to Taiwan to learn the art.

As a foreigner this could sound like an interesting facet of Taiwanese culture to learn, but there are a few things that a foreigner must keep in mind before they jump in. The performance is traditionally in the Taiwanese or Fukien dialect, so most of the masters speak more Taiwanese than Mandarin—you might want to brush up on your Taiwanese first. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t speak Taiwanese that you can’t learn the art. Most people in the industry are more than willing to help foreigners learn all they can about the art, so you will have no problem getting help.

“The importance of the design of each puppet is not just limited to the exterior. A better-designed interior will allow for better non-restricted movements and ease of control for the puppeteer,” says Mr. Chen Yi-hsi, the proprietor of Changyunfang.

Almost any movement is possible for these puppets, however small. The puppet’s eyes, mouths and other parts can all be controlled. It all depends on the skill of the designer.

Making a budaixi puppet

The art of budaixi is an intricate process from raw timber to the final act. For a traditionally crafted puppet an astounding amount of time will go into making the finished product. The head is carved out of a solid block of wood. The next step is gluing paper before it’s coated with clay, smoothed and painted and decorated.

Mr. Chen explained that it is important to make the head out of good quality wood such as camphor. If the grain in the wood is coarse then this can show up in the finished puppet—you don’t want to put in several days of work only to find that there is a fine crack in the piece of wood that could possibly split. Most of the cost in the production of the puppet goes into the head and in total can take up to three months to complete—according to the traditional method. There can be up to 20 layers of paper before the clay goes on. Each piece of clothing takes about seven to eight days to be embroidered by hand then stitched into the finished piece.

Being in the third generation in a family that is associated with budaixi, Mr. Chen is well accustomed in all aspects of the art. This has given him a better understanding of what is needed when making the puppets, both for appearance and practicality.

Mr. Chen says, “these days most of the performances of the puppets are restricted to cultural centers, department stores and school activities. Traditionally they would be seen on special events such as Buddha’s birthday.”

When you are looking for a budaixi, you will notice that there are dozens of characters to choose from. You can do some research or just ask the people in the store about the characters and what role they play. A lot of the characters are based on traditional Chinese folklore, while others are created according to the master’s own idea.

Mr. Chen says, “traditionally in Taiwan it was only the performers that kept the puppets and not until recent times have the puppets become accessible to the general population.”

Prices can range depending on the master who made the puppet and where it was made. You can buy a puppet from NT$200 for a kid’s toy to NT$1000 for a practice puppet and NT$6000 upward for collectors’ items, depending on the master’s skill.

Those people who buy puppets come from all different backgrounds, but most are teachers or people who want to give them as gifts. Even the former president of the US Bill Clinton owns a budaixi. Lee gave the budaixi to Clinton before he was voted in as president. Lee gave the budaixi—the famous figure Monkey (孫悟空) from the tale Journey to the West (西遊記) to him and wished him luck. Lee also received an award from the New York Puppet Association in recognition of his work—he was 76 at the time.

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