【Life of a Performer, Envisioning Truth – The Glove Puppetry of Li Tien-Lu 】
/ Li Jun-Kwan
Li Tien-Lu (hereafter referred to as “Li”) was born in Dadaocheng, Taipei, in 1910. He studied glove puppetry with his father, Hsu Chi-Shui, from a young age. In 1931, Li established the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe at the age of 22, formally initiating 60 years of glove-puppet theatrics. In his later years, Li centered his efforts in the promotion of glove puppetry and cultural diplomacy. He was presented the Global Chinese Culture and Arts Award and the National Cultural Award. He was also named a Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and National Artist by the Taiwanese Government, becoming a national treasure of Taiwan. In summary, Li has dedicated his life to honoring to the performing arts.
Glove Puppetry Is a Crucial Taiwanese Folk Art
Li’s representational glove puppetry is not only an important traditional art in Taiwan but also a symbol of Taiwan’s cultural image. In the early agro-industrial society of Taiwan, people’s entertainment options were limited. Glove puppetry and other forms of folk theater functioned as physical and mental relief for farmers and industrialists. The historical romance and chaptered shows coupled with the religious events held by local temples allowed audiences to reflect on history and glimpse the future. They also served educational function, teaching audiences about loyalty and obedience.
According to a previous study, glove puppetry originated in the south Fujian region roughly during the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. It was roughly mid-Qing dynasty (Emperor Jiaqin, Daoguang, and Xianfeng, 1796-1861) that glove puppetry spread to Taiwan from Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, and Chaozhou. In the 150-year history of glove puppetry in Taiwan, every stage of development, from emergence and prevalence to recession and reform, presented a distinct performance and style. In the following sections, we characterize the differences based on music, venue, and existing form.
In terms of music, glove puppetry did not develop its own musical system. Rather, shows adapted popular local genres at various stages in time. Nanguan was the primary music genre when glove puppetry first entered Taiwan. Nanguan is a gentle form of music, creating an elegant theatrical atmosphere. The audiences of glove puppetry during this time were primarily upper-class people and was thus unpopular among the common folk. Gradually, backstage musicians grew old and passed away, and the scores for the puppet shows were replaced by the then-popular beiguan. Beiguan music was lively, high-pitched, and fast-paced. This genre emphasized wind and percussion instruments, such as the drums and suona. During this time, plays centered on battles to coincide with audience’s demand for excitement and beiguan musicians were abundant. Therefore, beiguan became the mainstream genre for glove puppetry. In addition, Peking opera music combined with the luogu was also extremely fast-paced. This genre, therefore, became a popular choice for theater troupes. Among the puppet theater troupes, the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe established by Li Tien-Lu was the most popular. Yiwanran not only incorporated Peking opera and luogu into their shows but also used features of Peking opera in their puppets’ costumes and styles. Their shows were therefore coined the “waijiang faction,” which means “foreign.”
In terms of venue, early puppet shows were organized to pay tribute to gods. Therefore, they were largely held in front of temples. These shows were known as “open-air theatrical shows.” Glove puppetry gradually moved indoors during the 1950s to perform chaptered martial art shows. Different from open-air theatrical shows, which were free to the public, audiences were required to purchase a ticket for indoor shows. As television popularized, Taiwanese glove puppetry entered a new era, in which it transcended the limitations of live shows. Televised glove puppetry boldly utilized post-editing, light and sound, and special effects and incorporated popular music, tailored characters, and strange and wonderful storylines. Such shows satisfied the demand for surprise and excitement of modern audiences. In early televised glove puppetry, Mr. Huang Jun-Hsiung’s “The Great Hero of Yun-Zhou” was considered the most popular. This popular show was surpassed by “Pili Drama” in recent times.
At present, Taiwanese glove puppetry comprises televised glove puppetry, jinguang glove puppetry, and traditional glove puppetry. Televised glove puppetry has been discussed in the preceding section. Jinguang glove puppetry is considered the predecessor of televised glove puppetry. This type of show is dissimilar to live shows and televised shows. Jinguang also incorporates light and sound effects, popular elements, and custom puppet characters. Its storylines are not limited to traditional contexts. Rather, they are imaginative and unrestrained.
Traditional glove puppetry preserves the original form of glove puppetry. These shows used small-sized puppets (roughly 30 cm) and maintained the character classifications of traditional opera, specifically, sheng, dan, jing, mou, and chou. Shows are largely adapted from chaptered novels or historical events, and music is primarily live beiguan or Peking opera music. Traditional glove puppetry is detailed and elegant and relies heavily on the skills of and agreement between the puppeteer and the musician. More important than entertainment, traditional shows value art form. Because traditional glove puppetry is an extremely demanding art form, only a few troupes still persist in this form of theatrics. The focus of this paper, the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe established by Li Tien-Lu, is one of these troupes.
Li Conceives the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe
Li was born into a family of glove puppeteers. His father, Hsu Chi-Mu[JY1] , was a renowned glove puppeteer who apprenticed under Hsu Chi-Shui, founder of “Chu Yang Tai.” Hsu Chi-Shui’s mentor was the most popular nanguanglove puppeteer in Quanzhou, Chen Po. Li attended a private school at the age of seven to learn the Han dialect. He then entered a public secondary school at the age of 12. Li studied the Three Character Classics and Poems of a Thousand Masters by day and learned the basics of puppetry and participated in open-air theatrical performances with his father in the afternoon. Equipped with his newly acquired skills, Li joined a troupe in the Wenshan, Shenkeng, and Shiding region at the age of 14. He spent the next four years traveling and sharpening his skills in the performing arts, solidifying his ability to one day become a renowned puppeteer.
At 24, renowned Quanzhou glove puppeteer Chen Po visited Taiwan for the eighth time. Chen Po was so famous that no puppeteer in Taiwan dared assume the role of the second puppeteer. Li proclaimed himself to be naïve and fearless, boldly collaborating with the eighty-six-year-old mogul in performing “Tian-Bo Hall,” for which he received immense praise from Chen Po.
On the seventh day of the eighth lunar month in the same year, Li encountered his first ever tri-troupe performance and his opponents were two famous troupes in Taipei, “Wanruozhen” and “Xiaoxiyuan.” Li formulated a contingency and urgently borrowed a special backdrop from Keelung’s “Lichuanyuan” and outperforming his competition with the performance “Li Wanders in Hell.”
The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, during which the Japanese Emperor implemented the Japanization policy in Taiwan, restricting outdoor performances. During this period, Li decided to temporarily retire, stopping all performance by Yiwanran. Li and the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe returned in 1945. All bans on outdoor puppet shows were lifted in 1951, and Yiwanran lead the industry in entering the golden age of glove puppetry. In the next year, Li led Yiwanran to participatein the national glove puppetry competition for the first time. Since then, Yiwanran sequentially won the northern championships 20 years in a row, securing its position as the leading glove puppetry troupe in Taiwan.
Due to the prevalence of novel entertainment media such as television and the emergence of jinguang glove puppetry at the end of the 1960s, traditional glove puppetry lost its competitiveness and gradually declined. Li performed his last puppet show on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month in 1978, thereafter announcing the retirement of Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe. Surprisingly, Li coincidently gained the opportunity to reappear on Taiwan’s cultural stage six months after his announcement to retire. He not only successfully promoted glove puppetry in schools but also spread traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry overseas.
Reflecting on Li’s journey of performance, he is certainly the hegemony of glove puppetry and the life-force of traditional glove puppetry. His efforts enabled the world to notice and recognize Taiwan’s culture. In summary, Li’s glove puppetry made the following contributions to Taiwan’s cultural industry:
Preservation of Trditional Theatrical Styles
Li’s traditional theatrics did not remain unchanged. He accepted the inspirations and influence of nanguanglove puppetry. He also accepted beiguan theatrics. His adaptation of Peking opera grew into his unique performance style, searching for the ideal performance style within the broad framework of tradition. After the popularization of jinguang glove puppetry in the 1960s, many traditional troupes were no match for the challenges of the industry, succumbing to jinguang glove puppetry’s use of large puppets and recorded scores. Li, on the other hand, chose to retire than to harm the aesthetics of traditional glove puppetry.
Li’s persistence rekindled the trend of traditional glove puppetry in the late 1970s. With the help of a number of people in the industry, Li led Yiwanran into schools to promote glove puppetry. Under the perseverance of Li and his son, Li Chuan-Can, Yiwanran is now operating into its fourth generation and insisting on traditional performance styles.
The Spread Taiwan’s Culture to Overseas
In 1974, traditional glove puppetry had already entered a period of recession in Taiwan. During this time, three French visitors came to Taiwan via correspondence to learn glove puppetry from Li. However, Li was met with strong opposition because glove puppeteers believed that the art should not be passed to foreigners. However, Li believed otherwise. He maintained that anybody with the right mindset should be allowed to learn the art.
The three foreign students began learning the basic gestures and movements to performing entire shows. From their first visit, the three students trained for three years. In 1978, the three students formally established the “Theatre du Petit Miroir” in France and began performing across France, Europe, and later the world.
Theatre du Petit Miroir successfully introduced Taiwan’s traditional glove puppetry to the world and, by extension, earned Li international fame. Suddenly, a large number of people from all over the world were arriving in Taiwan to seek apprenticeship, including French people, Americans, Japanese people, Koreans, and Australian Chinese. Overseas performance invitations were constantly received, forcing the already-retired Li to reinstate the Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe. This launched a series of cultural diplomatic events, successfully spreading Taiwan’s representative traditional culture to the world. In 1993, the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication named Li a Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, praising him for his exceptional contribution to the diplomacy between Taiwan and France.
Promotion of Glove Puppetry in Schools
retirement, Li realized that the differences between past and present environments made it difficult to preserve glove puppetry through traditional mentorship systems. In 1984, Juguang Primary School in the Banqiao District invited Li to teach glove puppetry at the school. Li and the school immediately formed a strong relationship. Li not only refused to accept compensation but also invited former Yiwanran frontstage and backstage professionals as guest teachers. When the school was still budgeting for the course, Li even ordered the props once used by Yiwanran to be sent to the school for students to practice. In 1985, the “Weiwanran Children’s Glove Puppetry Troupe” was established in Juguang Primary School. The troupe gained extensive media coverage and rekindled the public’s interest in traditional glove puppetry and schools’ interest in offering glove puppetry classes. Chinese Cultural University, National Taiwan University, Taipei Hsinpu Junior High School, and Ping-Deng Elementary School sequentially join the cause, facilitating the preservation of glove puppetry.
Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical Museumand Digital Archiving
Yiwanran puppets are known for their beauty and durability. In early times, Li often collected the used puppets of disbanded troupes. He selected the quality puppets to be used in his troupe and sold the inferior ones. Among traditional glove puppets, the antique puppets created by Jiang Jai-Zhou are collectors’ dreams. The art has been recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Chinese Government, making these puppets extremely valuable. Li’s collection of Jiang’s puppets is considered among the best in terms of quality and quantity. To share these priceless collections, Li established the “Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum” in 1996 and the “Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Theatrical Foundation” the following year. These dedicated institutes serve to preserve and promote traditional glove puppetry.
In addition, the Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum sequentially launched digital archiving projects in 2003 (National Center of Traditional Arts Project), 2008, and 2011 (National Science Council Project) to diversify the preservation and application of his collections. These projects digitize audio and video data and recapture the images of physical artifacts. Overall 4,000 artifacts were archived. The database is now open for interested parties to access.
Display Name: Du Dan
This display is the jewel of the Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum. The puppet is roughly 200 years old and reflects the work of Quanzhou’s garden faction. Quanzhou’s garden puppets are among the most exquisite of glove puppets. The Du Dan retains the original paintwork, which is incredibly rare. In the 1980s, a Japanese collector offered a hefty price for the display. However, Li refused the generous offer. The Du Dan is currently displayed in the Li Tien-Lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum.
Display Name: Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom
The image reflects a segment of the puppet show “Havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom.” In this segment, the Monkey King has eaten the peaches from the Heavenly Peach Garden and wrought havoc in heaven. The Jade Emperor dispatched his Heavenly Guards to capture the Monkey King and return him to the Jade Court.
This image was taken with a slow shutter speed to better reflect the rhythmic movement of the battle scene.
Display Name: A Chance Encounter Leads to Marriage – Ceremonial Bow/ Photograph: Wang Wei-Chang
This image shows the extremely joyous ceremonial bow scene. It was originally recorded in a glove puppet book published by the General Association of Chinese Culture in 1994. The image was taken from the show A Chance Encounter Leads to Marriage performed by Yiwanran. The show is a story about heroism depicts using a series of eloquently detailed glove puppets. The show was termed “Astounding. An unprecedented surprise.” by the New York Times after its performance in the United States.
Display Name A Chance Encounter Leads to Marriage – Affection / Photographer: Wang Wei-Chang
This image is another scene from A Chance Encounter Leads to Marriage. It depicts the affection of the male and female characters. In the show, the male character coincidently encounters the female character, who had been captured by kidnappers. The male character rescued her and later took her hand in marriage.
Source: The Glove Puppetry of Li Tien-Lu