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April 19, 2010

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Bringing tradition to Life - The art of puppetry from Fujian

THE ancient art of puppetry from Fujian Province wowed audiences at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Puppets play important "magical" roles in rural villages and in Taiwan where puppets have been TV heroes for 25 years. Wang Xiaoshan reports.

Four puppets took the stage during the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Moving to the beat of war drums, these four Fujian puppets wielded their weapons and paraded their flags in front of more than a billion viewers around the globe.

Fujian has a long tradition of puppetry that goes back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Among the myriad puppets that can be found in the province, the string puppet, which originated from the city of Quanzhou, is the oldest and most popular.

Mastering this traditional marionette art is no easy feat: It takes at least 10 years of training to become a puppet master. Each puppet ensemble consists of four puppet masters, four musicians and 36 puppets.

Most string puppets are controlled by five to seven strings, which places constraints on the range of movements. However, it takes more than 16 strings (and sometimes more than 30) to operate a Quanzhou string puppet - this allows for an extremely lifelike performance.

I recall a scene from a Quanzhou puppet show, in which a woman was searching for her lost husband in the mountains.

As she was trudging through the wilderness, tripping and stumbling on the rugged trail, I could feel her sorrow and fervent desire to find her husband. I had completely forgotten that it was just a puppet in front of me.

In the remote villages of eastern Fujian Province, puppets do more than entertain; they help connect with the mystical world. Here the puppet masters take on a concurrent role as mediums.

Many villagers have great faith in the power of the puppets and their masters, who are highly respected. Even the children learn very early not to touch the puppets hanging in their homes or in the temples, as these have already been imbued with special powers.

I witnessed a ceremony to repel "negative forces" in a house where someone had fallen ill. First the name and age of the patient was announced. Then the puppet (controlled by the puppet master) would "inspect" every corner of the house, chanting along the way.

Many villagers invoke the power of puppets in a similar way, albeit for other purposes - these range from ceremonies to ensure the well-being of a household to those that are supposed to repel pests - and even to get children to study hard. Clearly, the use of such "magical" puppets is an everyday affair for these villagers.

In many parts of Fujian, funeral rites and activities are usually held for loved ones who have passed away.

These often include puppet shows.

Every 60 years, some areas in the cities of Quanzhou, Fuzhou and Putian organize a large-scale ceremony for "lost spirits" in a temple or graveyard.

Locals believe it takes a few small puppets - and plenty of compassion - to let these wandering souls rest in peace.

Glove puppetry

In addition to the string puppet, the Fujian glove puppet is said to go back to the Ming Dynasty (1368?1644).

Legend has it that a scholar who failed the imperial examinations had to make a living as a storyteller on the street. However, he was too proud to show his face, so a puppet master suggested the scholar tell his stories with the aid of a puppet, and the glove puppet was born.

The wooden head of each glove puppet is exquisitely painted to convey the intended emotion, and a few deft strokes of the brush often mark the only difference between a shy smile and a longing glance.

However, the soul of the puppet ultimately lies in its master's hands. The index finger controls the puppet's head, while the thumb and middle finger control the arms.

An aspiring puppeteer must practice every day to achieve the basic hand posture, where the index and middle fingers are maintained with an angle of 90 degrees between them. This ensures that the puppet's "shoulders" are balanced, and a student must be able to do this with ease before moving on to more complicated actions.

The northern-style puppets from Zhangzhou City in Fujian are known for their fast-fighting actions. These puppets are also capable of highly complex movements.

One scene features a puppet who took out his pipe, filled it with tobacco, lighted the pipe - and then started expelling white smoke from his mouth. Next, the puppet's comrades came on stage to perform dances and acrobatics, which really grabbed the audience.

In contrast to their more flamboyant counterparts from the north, the southern-style puppets from Jinjiang City in Fujian are known for their elegant and delicate movements. One such puppet could open and close an umbrella and even dance with it. Yet another one played around with his fan, with nonchalant ease, in its portrayal of a playboy.

TV puppets

Glove puppet shows are extremely popular in Taiwan, where they traditionally perform scenes from Chinese classics. But in the 1930s the shows switched to swashbuckling martial arts adventures.

This was followed by a rather radical introduction of modern elements - outlandish characters with weird names, the use of pop music as accompaniment (instead of traditional instruments), and even a theme song for the show, as well as new visual effects that added a whole new dimension to the traditional art.

In 1970 Taiwan aired its first puppet TV show, "Shi Yanwen and the Swordsman," which became an instant hit. Every night, thousands would rush home to catch their favorite puppets on television. In 1984, the hugely popular "Pili" puppet TV series made its debut.

After 25 years and more than 1,000 episodes, "Pili" puppets continue to entertain Taiwan viewers. Many people in Taiwan grew up watching these puppets. "Pili" remains the longest-running TV series in Taiwan - a testament to the appeal of puppets from Fujian.


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