Taiwanese Puppetry – Continuing a Rich Tradition

While evolving from outdoor performances in villages and city neighborhoods to television and the internet, budaixi has maintained its popularity. 

Puppet theater’s rich history throughout Asia is well known. China boasts several styles of puppetry dating back to the Han dynasty. These include marionette puppetry in which the action is controlled from above by strings, and rod puppetry in which the puppets’ bodies are moved around the stage on a long stick while smaller rods are used to control the arms and legs. Shadow puppetry, now more widely associated with Indonesia, creates a shadow performance for the audience with intricately cut leather strips performing behind a backlit cloth.

The most popular type of puppetry in Taiwan is budaixi (布袋戲, also sometimes written as potehi or poteshi), in which puppets are worn like a glove and manipulated by hand. Scholars believe it originated in the coastal regions of China sometime in the 18th century before spreading to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia along with migrants from the China mainland. Though found elsewhere, budaixi experienced its greatest development in Taiwan and has become something of a national art form.

Budaixi literally means “cloth sack theater.” In the early days, the glove puppet bodies were created from square, sack-shaped pieces of cloth, while the head, hands, and feet were carved from wood or molded from clay. The art form was also known as “small-basket theater” after the way in which the puppets were carried between villages and towns by the performers. The baskets were kept backstage and puppets would be tossed into them during the performance to facilitate quick character changes.

The tradition of traveling budaixi troupes changed little in Taiwan from the Qing dynasty into Japanese colonial days. Performances were held at times of important life events in society, including weddings and various religious observances.

The biggest changes in the budaixi world came after the creation of the Golden Ray Theater (Jinguang Budaixi ) in 1950, which ushered in a new era for puppet theater in Taiwan. Golden Ray’s puppets were larger, and their colors, clothing, and hairstyles also changed. Black lights and fireworks were added to create greater fanfare, and elements from foreign movies, music, and cartoons were incorporated into the puppet shows. The popularity of this new style grew rapidly alongside traditional budaixi shows.

The advent of television in the 1960s would cause the art form to evolve even more. Puppet theater was featured on Taiwan television from its early days, but saw a tremendous rise in popularity over the next decade. Considered the father of television puppet theater, puppet master Huang Chun-hsiung refined the Golden Ray style for the TV age, with dialogue in Taiwanese supplemented by Chinese subtitles.

In 1971, his program Shi Yan-wen : the Scholar Swordsman quickly became a sensation, consistently hitting ratings of 90% or higher. Legend has it that when Shi Yan-wen (史豔文) was on air, productivity around Taiwan ground to a halt. The government pulled the show off the air in 1974, accusing it of disrupting the nation’s work schedule and harming the economy. But many suspected that another motivation was involved.

The attention to details, such as with this puppet of Shi Yan-wen, brings the characters to life.

The language issue

During the martial law era, budaixi contrasted sharply with nearly everything else on Taiwan’s popular entertainment landscape in that most performances were performed in Taiwanese rather than the Mandarin that the Kuomintang (KMT) government was intent on promoting. Regulations restricted the amount of Taiwanese programming and even the number of Taiwanese songs that could be performed on TV each day.

Interestingly, a similar dynamic had existed during the years of Japanese colonial rule when Taiwanese art and entertainment were discouraged from promoting themes considered overtly “local.” During this period, many Taiwanese puppet troupes would dress their puppets in Japanese kimonos, only to remove the outer garbs later in the performance (after the colonial authorities had departed) to reveal traditional budaixi attire beneath. At this point, the dialogue would also switch from Japanese to Taiwanese.

So when the government drove the popular show Shi Yan-wen from television, it’s likely that protecting the economy was less of a concern than some political considerations. The show was eventually allowed back on the air in 1982, in the waning days of martial law.

With the show’s return to the airwaves, Huang’s sons Chris and Vincent continued their father’s legacy by forming Pili International Multimedia in 1983. Based in Yunlin, Pili built the largest puppet film studio in the world, utilizing new techniques to enhance their puppet empire. Combining budaixi puppets with computer technology and 3D animation, the Pili series brought the evolution of Taiwanese glove puppetry to a new dimension.

Pili has been highly successful financially and is even listed on the over-the-counter Taipei Exchange. Pili DVDs are sold in convenience stores across Taiwan, and images of its popular characters are used to promote everything from shampoo to alcohol.

Pili’s shows also continue to be hugely popular on Taiwanese television, where they are a mainstay of some evening programming. For many visitors to Taiwan, their first exposure to Taiwanese puppetry comes while channel surfing in their hotel rooms.

Pili’s success has led to a resurgence of budaixi in Taiwan. Today traditional budaixi troupes can be seen performing at temples and public spaces around the island, not all that differently from the way it was done a hundred years ago – except now the stages are generally set up on the back of a flat-bed truck. The dialogue and narration is almost always in Taiwanese. At the same time, several new troupes have emerged, creating new and original budaixi plays for staging before live audiences, on television, and increasingly, online.

GooDoo Puppet Troupe (古都木偶戲劇團)

GooDoo Puppet Troupe is a modern troupe based in Tainan, founded in 2000 by Huang Guan-wei. Huang has successfully turned a love of puppets into a career, performing with his troupe regularly in Tainan and across Taiwan. GooDoo’s shows are based on historical events in Taiwan and performed in Taiwanese, with Chinese and English subtitles.

The troupe aims to teach its audience about Taiwanese history and culture using traditional smaller-sized budaixi puppets, alongside the more modern larger-sized ones.

GooDoo’s 2017 production, Mystery of the Great Mind Ocean, was a historical drama set during Taiwan’s Dutch colonial period. Hardly a children’s play, Mystery addressed a complex series of issues including colonization, taxation, Aboriginal tribal life, prostitution, and (just for good measure) child murder. There’s even an appearance by Koxinga, the 17th-century warrior who drove the Dutch out of Taiwan.

This year saw GooDoo cooperate with famed Tainan danzai noodle restaurant Du Hsiao Yueh (度小月) to create Puppet Art with Du Hsiao Yueh. To celebrate the 123rd anniversary of the restaurant’s founding, the troupe created a video featuring their distinctive puppets and depicting the creation of the iconic noodles.

Also new this year, introduced at the 2018 Tainan Arts Festival, is GooDoo’s latest production, Taiwan’s Legend: Ripple of War, which tells the history of Tainan. Working individuals and events from history into the storyline is important to GooDoo, explains troupe member Roger Chang. “By incorporating real events, we can teach history that people might otherwise not know,” he notes.

With modern technology competing for attention, it can be difficult to convince today’s audience to visit a temple and sit for a two-hour puppet show. To entice viewers, GooDoo makes use of modern music, special effects, computer graphics, and dazzling lighting effects. During Mystery of the Great Mind Ocean , human actors appeared on a side stage for a live action fight scene while the puppets provided commentary from the main stage, humorously breaking theatre’s “fourth wall.”

In addition to performing original puppet productions, GooDoo members travel to local schools to teach puppet workshops in which history lessons are combined with DIY activities. In the workshops, children paint their own puppets and learn how to make them move.

GooDoo is also bringing Taiwanese puppetry to the world stage. The troupe traveled to Thailand in 2015 and performed in Japan last year. In September it will return to Japan to perform Taiwan’s Legend: Ripple of War in Tokyo. Plans are in the works to bring a GooDoo show to the United States next year. “Puppets are relatable and entertaining,” says Chang. “They show people the similarities between cultures and make cross-cultural connections.”

A GooDoo Puppet Troupe member demonstrates budaixi.

NPY Studio (北少流映畫)

Lin Zi-yang, a young Taiwanese entrepreneur who prefers going by the name Snowter, is working to bring budaixi to a larger audience. Founded in 2016, his NPY Studio creates the online puppet show Underworld Rangers (江湖救援團). A unique aspect of the show is that the series is crowdfunded. Over 7,000 fans donated money online to produce the first two episodes, with additional funds provided by Taipei’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Episodes take six months to create and are aired on the studio’s YouTube channel.

Underworld Rangers follows a small group of heroes as they travel the land fighting for justice. More traditional puppet TV shows, like Pili, have complicated storylines told in an episodic manner. “Our stories are simpler, to reach a wider audience,” Snowter explains, noting the fewer characters and more direct plotlines.

Of the 12 episodes that will comprise Season 1, parts 1 and 2 are currently available to watch online. Episodes 3 and 4 will debut this summer, featuring the same cast setting out on a new adventure.

Though the three core team members live in Taipei, the shows are filmed in Nantou to keep down production costs. Fans generally donate between NT$500 and NT$900, and the fan base extends beyond Taiwan to Japan, China, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere.

Unlike traditional Taiwanese TV puppet shows that use Taiwanese dialogue with Chinese subtitles, Snowter chose for his puppets speak in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles as a way to reach more viewers. Although the story takes place during the Ming dynasty, the dialogue is peppered with modern references from eating out at a popular restaurant to ordering a book from Amazon.com. The style of humor is somewhat like Monty Python and serves to broaden the show’s appeal.

In addition to Underworld Rangers, Snowter freelances on other puppet-based projects around the island and is confident that Taiwanese puppetry will continue to grow in popularity. Fans tell him that their older family members watch Underworld Rangers together with their grandchildren.

See Underworld Rangers here.

Snowter, founder of NPY Studio, poses with the budaixi puppets of the online puppet show Underworld Rangers.

Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum

(台原亞洲偶戲博物館)

Taiwan’s vibrant modern puppet scene was made possible by the rich history of puppetry on the island. The Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum (TAPTM) is one of a handful of museums dedicated to preserving this unique art form. Located in Taipei’s Dadaocheng District, TAPTM encompasses both a museum and theater space. The facility has four floors dedicated to puppetry, and features four styles of puppets – glove, marionette, rod, and shadow. In addition to Taiwanese puppets, the collection includes puppets, puppet props, costumes, and stages from across Asia, or as the museum likes to say, “from Turkey to Taiwan.”

In 2000, Paul C.F. Lin, a longtime promoter of Taiwanese culture, donated his extensive private puppet collection to the Dadaocheng neighborhood, a traditional focal point for Taiwanese theater. Partnering with Dutch scholar Robin Ruizendaal, who became the museum director, he established TAPTM. A conservation and collection department was added in 2008.

TAPTM has over ten thousand Asian puppetry artifacts and holds exhibitions both locally and abroad. In 2017 TAPTM took its “Asian Puppet Theater” exhibition to South Africa and this year “A Sea of Puppets: Taiwan” entertained and educated schoolchildren in Honolulu for several weeks.

A series of budaixi puppets on display at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum (TAPTM).

The affiliated Nadou Theatre and Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company performs both traditional and modern puppet shows, often collaborating with master puppeteers and puppet companies from across Asia, Europe, and North America. The company regularly showcases glove puppet shows on an antique stage, celebrating Taiwanese puppeteers’ skill and storytelling arts for audiences at exhibitions, festivals, and other cultural events across the globe.

Original productions include The Honorable Thief Liao Tian-ding, based on a “Taiwanese Robin Hood” who stole from the rich and gave to the poor during the Japanese occupation. The company’s most recent production was A Sailor’s Tale, about a French seaman who washes up on Taiwan’s shores during the Sino-French War in the 1880s.

As education features prominently in the museum’s core mission of preserving and promoting Taiwanese and Asian puppet theater, TAPTM regularly hosts events for the public. In cooperation with the Taipei City government, one of the museum’s programs enables all second-grade students in the city to visit the museum during the school year and to see a traditional budaixi performance.

More information about the museum can be found at its website. It is located at 79 Xining North Road (Tel: 2556-8909; Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets: NT$80 for adults, NT$50 for children).

Looking to the future, GooDoo troupe leader Huang Guan-wei says puppetry in Taiwan can be expected to continue to thrive and adapt to modern times. “Performances will become more complex and increasingly sophisticated,” he says. “We have a responsibility to the legacy of budaixi, but we also acknowledge the needs of this era by incorporating experiences people have had on this land into our performances.”

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