Sat, Nov 10, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The Liberty Times Editorial: Keeping traditional ‘budaixi’ alive

A documentary about the emotional bond between puppet theater masters Chen Hsi-huang (陳錫煌) and his father, Li Tien-lu (李天祿), is showing in theaters and winning acclaim from viewers.

Shortly after its release, the movie, Father (紅盒子), won the first prize in the Feature Films category at the 11th Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong and became a box office hit in Taiwan, which is rare for a documentary.

However, amid all the praise and emotion, many viewers have expressed concern about the state of this traditional art.

Budaixi, or glove puppetry, was brought over to Han Chinese immigrant society in Taiwan from China’s Fujian Province during the Qing Dynasty. It continued to develop in Taiwan and became deeply rooted at the grassroots level, eventually transforming into a lively folk art popular at religious, celebratory, cultural and other big public activities.

Although the missionary George Mackay found theatrical performances in Taiwan rather off-putting, he made positive comments about the “puppet shows,” saying in his late-19th century memoir From Far Formosa: the Island, its People and Missions that they were “very popular among almost all classes of people, and are, in their way, decidedly clever.”

Puppet theaters once abounded nationwide and a picture of Taiwanese hand puppets was in 2006 picked by the public as the image most representative of the nation. Budaixi is indeed a treasured Taiwanese folk art.

Budaixi in Taiwan has been suppressed and modified, and has gone through various innovations and developments during different periods of foreign rule. Through these challenges, budaixi became a favorite of many Taiwanese and eventually evolved into its current unique form.

In other words, budaixi is not only an invaluable intangible national cultural asset, but also part of the collective memory of middle-aged and elderly Taiwanese.

One budaixi TV series claimed a viewership rating of 97 percent. Using Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), the TV series caused panic within the party-state apparatus, which was hostile to the Taiwanese mother tongue.

In 1974, TV stations were forbidden from broadcasting budaixi shows to promote Mandarin and because such shows had a “deleterious impact on work and rest in agriculture and industry.”

Afterward, preposterously, Mandarin-language budaixi appeared, which severely hurt the folk art’s development.

Chen’s remarks make it clear how ridiculous it is to use Mandarin rather than the mother tongue for glove puppetry.

“Staging budaixi without speaking in Hoklo is unbearable to listen to; using Mandarin is not pleasing to the ear, because it makes the performance so unnatural,” he said.

After the arbitrary suppression by the foreign rulers, the ban was lifted due to intense public opposition.

Traditional budaixi is extremely precious in that the performances can both be literary and a display of martial arts, providing mass entertainment while conveying artistic cultural values.

Even though its popularity has subsided in recent years, budaixi continues to touch people’s heart and win international recognition.

Puppet making, stage building, script writing, the masterly manipulation by the puppet master, the string and percussion orchestration, and incidental music compositions are pervaded by the flavor of Taiwan. Together, these elements represent an agglomeration of Taiwanese folk arts across disciplines.

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