Archive for the ‘Taiwanese puppetry (Budaixi)’ Category

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.”



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.

What lies ahead?

Where does the future of the art lay? There needs to be a greater interest in the traditional form in order for it to survive, or else this will turn into a piece of history only to be seen in a museum. Ten years ago budaixi were used to celebrate major occasions such as Buddha’s birthday, these days the appearance of these performances is limited to cultural centers and universities.

Mr. Chen went back to China to find someone to help him with the production of budaixi, but all he found is that nobody even knew what budaixi are. With occurrences such as the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命), it had died out and now only remains in Taiwan. He ended up having to teach the Chinese from the beginning—so in essence he has taken this once Chinese art form back to the Mainland.

Lee Tien-lu, when alive, worked toward teaching the art to insure that it is handed down for future generations. He performed as far away as Germany and the US. His apprentices have even set up their own troupes in countries such as Australia, France, Japan, and the US. Before Lee the art had almost vanished, but through his efforts the art was revised.

Mr. Chen is the first to take these puppets to the public via commercial means. Faced with the prospect of his art disappearing, designer Chen realized that only through turning the art into a commercial venture could it survive for future generations.

“This way it gets in contact with the greater audience,” says Mr. Chen.

Some troupes are now using modern techniques with old to revamp the appearance and enhance the performance to draw in a new generation of crowds. After all, how is budaixi to compete with PlayStation and Nintendo?

Through the efforts of a few intrepid artists, this part of Taiwan’s past will also be a part of its future. Maybe you too can help this beautiful part of Taiwan’s heritage achieve a bright future?