Fri, Jul 11, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Master of puppets

Disciples of the late Li Tien-lu, founder of the I-Wan-Jan puppet troupe, are staging a series of performances in the Taipei area this weekend to honor his legacy

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER


Puppet masters in Taiwan are household names, but none more so than Li Tien-lu (李天祿), founder of the I-Wan-Jan (亦宛然掌中劇團) puppet troupe. Since his passing, the troupe has fallen out of the spotlight, but it has continued to work following the principles he laid down. The 2008 Taipei International Puppet Festival (第一屆大台北國際偶戲節), which will be held this weekend at the Taipei MRT’s Danshui Station (捷運淡水站) plaza, along with other smaller venues, aims to commemorate its founder and tell Taiwan that it has continued to preserve his legacy.

With Li’s encouragement and blessing, I-Wan-Jan spawned many splinter groups — and not only in Taiwan. Joining the commemorative activities will be Frenchman Jean-Luc Penso, founder of Theatre du Petit Miroir (法國小宛然), and Madeleine Beresford and Margaret Moody of the Galapagos Puppet Theater (美國如宛然) from the US, all of whom studied under Li, who was known for his extraordinary generosity to his students. “Unlike many Chinese masters, he never held anything back. He would give you as much as you could take away,” said Huang Chiao-wei (黃僑偉), who served as an apprentice in the troupe from age 10 and has now risen to become its artistic director and principle performer, which is now led by Li’s son Li Chuan-tsan (李傳燦).

In addition to the many splinter troupes that have been formed by former students of Li and his sons, other local groups have been invited. “We don’t want people to think we are keeping this event all to ourselves,” Huang said, acknowledging that Li’s heritage extends far beyond the “Wan-Jan” group of troupes. Sheng-Wu-Chou Puppet Troupe (台中聲五洲掌中劇團) and Ching-Hua-Ke Puppet Troupe (清華閣掌中劇團) will both be making an appearance, as will the Taiyuan Puppet Theater Company (台原偶戲團), whose principle performer is Li’s eldest son Chen Hsi-huang (陳錫煌). “It is unfortunate that we could not get more local troupes to participate, but this is a busy season and they have many commitments,” Huang said, adding with a wry smile, “and the financial issues are easier to resolve with the ‘Wan-Jan’ troupes.” Two groups from China that had accepted invitations to perform failed to get visas for the trip.


What: 2008 Taipei International Puppetry Festival

When and Where: Taipei MRT Danshui Station plaza, today and tomorrow from 10:30am until 9:30pm and Sunday from 11am to 5pm; Cathay Financial Center (國泰金融中心), 9 Songren Rd, Taipei City (台北市松仁路9號), tomorrow from 2pm to 6pm; Hsinchuang Stadium (縣立新莊體育館), 66 Hehsing St, Hsinchuang, Taipei County (台北縣新莊市和興街66號), Sunday from 10am to 5pm

Tickets: Admission to all events is free

On the Net: Visit the I-Wan-Jan Web site,, for detailed program information in Chinese

I-Wan-Jan is the only puppet troupe in Taiwan to have broken away from a traditional family-based model. “We are trying to become more like a modern organization,” Huang said. This involves the very unartistic tasks of training people to do administrative work. “If you can produce a good proposal that the government likes, you are more likely to get grants or subsidies. It’s as simple as that,” he said, recognizing that the government is a crucial paymaster if the art is to survive.

On the artistic side, Li established a very solid foundation of skills within the troupe. “The one thing he didn’t do — carving puppet heads — he made his sons go off and learn,” Huang said. As a result of Li’s insistence on commanding all the skills necessary to his art, I-Wan-Jan has been able to produce both traditional and innovative works that retain a high level of quality. “We carve our own puppets, make the costumes ourselves and also have our own orchestra,” Huang said. “This is naturally a considerable outlay, but it means we can tailor everything exactly.”

Another aspect of Li’s heritage is his emphasis on education, which is the reason why so many “Wan-Jan” troupes have been established. In the 1970s Li pulled back from life as a full-time professional performer to focus on teaching. He took in many disciples, rejecting the exclusivity of the family. “He always saw the success of his students as something to be proud of,” Huang said.

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