Repairing the strings

By Li Jingjing in Quanzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-12 22:23:01

Puppet festival sounds the alarm for protecting traditional culture

Taiwan's Chu Lou Shan Puppet Troupe performs a puppet show on Monday in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. Photo: Courtesy of Guo Hongsong

Wang Jingxian wasn't particularly passionate about puppet shows when he took a job as the leader of the Quanzhou Marionette Troup over 20 years ago, but over the years he gradually fell in love with this traditional art form and decided to dedicate himself to its continued development in today's society.

As such he couldn't have been more happy about the 4th International Puppet Festival that was held this past week in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, as part of the  14th Asian Art Festival.

The festival was a big deal for Wang as the last puppet festival in Quanzhou was held 15 years ago in 2000.

Changing times

China has a long history with puppetry. It is generally accepted that the art form got its beginning during the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) and reached a golden age during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). More recently, Chinese puppetry was added to China's National Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2006 by the State Council.

Throughout history Quanzhou has been particularly famous for its marionettes. Through hundreds of years of inheritance, the region has developed its own music, rules, performance styles and methods for making puppets.

But today the public pays little attention to this art form. 

The first puppet festival held by Quanzhou took place in 1986. According to Wang, this was not just the first to be held in Quanzhou, but in China as well. The second was held in 1992 and the third in 2000.

"I'm entering retirement age. I'm honored to help organized one more puppet festival before my retirement," Wang told the Global Times.

It's Wang's belief that the cultural gap left by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had a huge impact on young people's understanding of traditional culture and art. He also recalled that during China's reform and opening up in the 1980s, a time when the entire nation focused on redeveloping the economy, he would often hear the slogan: "Culture should pave the way for the economy," a stance that made people value material things over culture.

So now after 30 years, he's glad to see that culture is firmly back in the spotlight.

This year's festival gathered troupes from different countries and regions, including Oma Alvarez Titeres from Argentina, Dream Puppets from Australia, The Fifth Wheel from Germany, Wayang Kautaman from Indonesia, Ila Van Der Pouw from Netherlands and the Bajkamela Puppet Theatre from Serbia.

Unlike previous festivals in which Chinese troupes focused all their effort on showing off their best material, Wang explained that the Chinese performers decided to step a bit. 

"This time, we gave our stage over so foreign troupes could perform more. That shows that we Chinese are more confident in our culture and that we sincerely hope audiences can get to learn more about foreign arts, as well as have foreign artists come to better understand our audiences."

Sharing the best

An opening ceremony featuring shows from different countries was held on Monday at the Quanzhou Marionette Theatre.

The entire hall was filled with the enthusiasm of the puppeteers. For instance, Hector Lopez from Brazil's Teatro De La Plaza Company dressed in a red suit decorated with CDs and floppy discs and a small umbrella on his head.

Carrying a puppet made from iron, as soon as he walked into the hall the flashes of cameras were blindingly bright.

He told the Global Times that he made his puppet with the garbage and left over puppets he found in his garage.

"I did this because I wanted to tell the audience to be careful with our world and to not produce a lot of garage," he explained.

During the show, no matter if it was shrimp puppets singing opera during the Dream Puppets' performance or The Fifth Wheel's  gypsy marionettes singing and dancing, the Chinese audience was continually wowed by what they saw. 

A performance by Taiwan's Tsu-lo-san Puppet Troupe brought the audience to tears of laughter has he had his puppets dance to South Korean rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style," while the Three Mice by the Hunan Puppet and Shadow Art Protecting and Inheritance Center also brought smiles.

It seems no matter the country, puppetry is closely connected to a nation's culture.

"Our Chinese shows focus more on tradition and performing styles. Many puppet shows from elsewhere can't compare with us when it comes to the how accurate our puppets' movements are," Wang said. However, the fantastic creations and strong cultural characteristics from other places deeply surprised and inspired him.

"This is why exchanges like this are so important, we can't just show off what we have, we have to learn from each other," he said.

"China has a long, long history. Technique in China is extremely well-done, unique and skillful, but sometimes Chinese have to open their mind to new technology," said Jacque Trudeau, the Secretary General of the Union Internationale de la Marionette.

Trudeau stressed the importance of using new technology to lead the evolution of today's puppetry, not just for Chinese troupes, but for puppetry around the world.

"With new technology, shows are changing, they cannot be the same. You have to adapt traditional characters. If those characters stay the same, young people won't like it," he said.

Most of the Chinese puppet shows presented at the opening ceremony mainly featured traditional Chinese dramas.

When asked if he was  worried whether these traditional shows would interest younger audiences, Wang didn't appear worried.

"Don't underestimate traditional topics," Wang said.

He believes it's not that young people don't like traditional stories, but they just have a problem understanding them.

"Culture inheritance needs to start with children, like what we are doing now," he said pointing out that his troupe is trying to bring shows into kindergarten and elementary schools to educate the younger generation.

Posted in: Theater

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