Sun, Nov 28, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Keeping puppets alive

The preservation of one of Taiwan's unique art forms has fallen on the shoulders of Dutchman Robin Ruizendaal of TTT Puppet Theater

By Daivd Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Robin Ruizendaal has dedicated most of his adult life to studying puppet theater in China and Taiwan.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATALIE FALGARONE

At a theater on Taipei's west side, a set piece is being broken down and hauled out to make way for the next production. A couple of stagehands discuss what they'll need for the show, crunching wood shavings underfoot.

It's a scene played out at theaters the world over, but the stage at this theater is among the world's smallest, and its actors -- the ones the audience sees, at least -- are made of wood. It's TTT Puppet Theater (大稻埕偶戲館) and it's the sole puppet theater in a district that once had 10 such venues.

Presiding over the company of puppeteers, wood carvers and lighting and costume designers is Robin Ruizendaal, an 11-year resident of Taiwan and a paradox of a local personality. Though a man holding a puppet isn't often taken seriously, Ruizendaal also holds a wealth of knowledge on Chinese and Taiwanese culture, gleaned from years of research in sinology.

Ruizendaal first began learning Mandarin at 19 and continued his studies at Holland's Leiden University. In the early 1980s, he began research on his doctoral dissertation on Chinese marionette theater. It was a topic that would gain him a kind of access to Chinese culture that few researchers before him had enjoyed.

"I thought [puppet theater] was a nice window to research Chinese society because it's not upper-class culture, it's grassroots culture," he said.

"At the time China was very closed. We didn't know anything about what was happening in the countryside. I thought it was a really interesting, very localized form of art through which I could observe society, because it's related to religion, social groups, theatre, language, music. It had many elements which interested me."

In China, his research followed people associated with the art form from the Republican period in the 1920s, through the Cultural Revolution and up to the 1990s. Among his several observations, Ruizendaal said he learned that the politics of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party were actually very similar.

"The destruction of Chinese religion was high in the priorities of both parties," he said. "I observed China as a religious state where everything is related to religion; everybody lives from house altar to neighborhood altars to temples. What the Communists were doing, as well as the Kuomintang was trying to destroy that element of Chinese culture."

The Communists succeeded in the cities, Ruizendaal said, razing hundreds of temples in Beijing alone.

"But in the countryside where I worked you see the tenacity of religious structure, which was interlinked with social culture so strong that it made an enormous rebound."

"The same thing is happening in Communist China now as happened in Taiwan, with the government initially against theater, banning it for several reasons. ... But in the 1990s there was this turnaround where Communist cadres started supporting theater as a local art, trying to make it function outside the state system."

Was it allowed to be as bawdy an entertainment as it previously had been?

"Yes. You can't get away from sex and shit," he laughs. "Without them, nobody would come."

But Ruizendaal considers Taiwanese puppet culture special compared with its counterparts in China or Japan or other parts of Asia in that it's been popularized in the media.

"Starting in the 1970s, there was an enormous craze for puppet theater -- televised puppet theater -- and so it's really part of the heritage of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They all have a warm feeling for puppet theater even though they don't watch it anymore."

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