I’ve been living in Beijing for one and a half years and during all this time I’ve tried to find a traditional big sized puppet performance, but when I asked about where to go and see it the reply I got was to go to the provinces and look for shadow theatre, not big puppets. The Chinese Puppet theatre was born in the South of China, and the place with the major tradition is Fujian Province (1); although I plan to travel to that region, I expected Beijing, as a capital city of a reborn Empire, to support (as part of its cultural plans) a National Puppet Company, or at least to give money for some performances by traditional trouppes. One day I found some big puppets on sale in Panjiayuan’s artcrafts market in Beijing, and another day in the central city of Xi’an I found another kind of big puppets, but never a performance. Should I wait for my Fujian trip or even go to Taiwan, where they say you can find the highest techniques of puppet work (2)? Maybe it’s bad luck, I thought.
It was at the beginning of this year, 2007, with the celebration of the Chinese New Year, that one Puppet Company from Beijing decided to perform one traditional piece about the Monkey King story, making use of that kind of puppets I wanted to see. The advertisements said it was a rare opportunity to be a spectator for this kind of theatre. I was very excited, of course.
Finding the theater was easy, the taxi driver knew very well where the theatre was located; it seemed to be a venue for Beijing’s children he said. Like a bad copy of a Western medieval castle, the theatre facade was not the best introduction to the spectacle; trying not to compare that with my experience at the Bunraku National Theatre in Osaka (3) and The Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok (4), I went to the pink and orange colored building and took my seat.
It was a disappointment. What I saw was a ‘modern’ attempt to imitate traditional Chinese Opera with medium sized puppets and, worst of all, a very poor technique. Yes, it sounds strange, Chinese traditional artists are known for their high technical level. Well, not here. Imitation is not creation. Children entertainment is not an Art. I have to recognize that the “puppets” were nice and attractive like many puppets are, and it was funny to see their movements, specially since I know the movements that belong to the real Beijing Opera, but nothing there was no amazing technique or work like in Japan’s Bunraku or like at the Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok.
The video tells everything, not just my words(see new addition); I hope to finish soon the editing of the visual material I have about Bunraku and Thai Puppets and to present a good point of view and of comparison between those theatres.
We do know this: Mainland China and India are the sources of Performing Arts in Asia, and China without doubt is the source of the Asiatic Puppet Theatre, but I’m sure that, now, it is companies from Japan, Indonesia and Thailand that perform with the highest technique in the world, and not mainland China anymore. Has China lost the sources of its tradition and all it has left is its Shadow Theatre in the South? After my trip to Fujian I will answer this question.
(1) About one Fujian Puppet performance:
(2) About a taiwanese master and its company in France:
(3) I visited the Bunraku National Theatre in Osaka in July 2006.
(4) I visited the Joe Louis Theatre in Bangkok in December 2006.
(5) Link to my videos in Youtube recorded in Wuzhen village (close Shanghai) showing one Chinese Shadow theatre performance.
After one comment about the way to say my judgment over this performance, I decided to put the raw video and photographs I took that ocassion. It shows, in my point of view, in a claire look what I was talking about.
Non edited video: