The Rich Tradition of Taiwan's Performance Arts

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Rich Tradition of Taiwan's Performance Arts

Henkin, Stephen, The World and I

Like many of the economically developing countries of the Pacific Rim, the island nation of Taiwan struggles to balance its cultural traditions with its increasingly high-tech society. Indeed, the capital of Taipei not only lays claim to the world's tallest building, it also boasts the renowned National Palace Museum, a vast repository of the collected ancient art and artifacts of China.

Following the arrival of the first aboriginal ancestors in 4000 B.C., Taiwan has played host to a series of international guests, some more welcome than others. The expeditions that were sent by successive mainland Chinese dynasties, which traversed the one hundred miles across the choppy Taiwan Straits, were interspersed with Mongol invasions and followed by visits from the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese, and by the "great mainlander" immigration to Taiwan to escape the Communist armies in 1949.

While a thoroughly modernized Taiwanese society daily confronts crucial questions of both its political and social identity--especially in relation to nearby Communist China--it increasingly relies on its rich arts traditions to connect with the nation's long and varied history to help maintain its place and purpose in turbulent times.

Perhaps most honored in the pantheon of Taiwanese culture are the classic performance arts, since they can most dramatically relate the nation's long-told stories and legends. Above all, Chinese (Beijing) opera, and its close cousin, Taiwanese opera, along with the Taiwanese puppet theater, are the most beloved cultural attractions.

While opera in Taiwan is constantly being adapted to modern technology and continues to absorb diverse cultural influences, the genre's many stories, acting roles, costumes, stagecraft, and symbolic elements, similar to those in the puppet theater, are highly defined. In the classical tradition, the many female roles continue to be played by men. In both opera and the puppet theater, Confucian virtues are extolled by moral scholars, young women flirt, female clowns carry on, and kings wear fearsome, painted masks.

The painted-face character, a well-known device in the West, is attributed to the Qin dynasty, of which legend recalls a delicate-looking king who painted his face with a fearsome image to frighten his enemy. The ploy worked, his army won, and intricately painted mask design became a staple of Chinese opera to this day.

Other conventions shared between Taiwanese opera and the puppet theater include the colors employed for the various characters' painted faces--red conveys courage and honesty, a white face connotes deceitfulness, while silver and gold are used only on gods and spirits. During the opera production, stylized gestures and movements play a key role in communicating with the audience. Elaborate Ming dynasty costumes accentuated with long sleeves permit some fifty different stylized sleeve movements in story telling. Hand gestures--the fighting fist, swimming hand, pointing finger--likewise convey much narrative information, as do foot movements--a drunk's staggering steps, slipping on wet ground, dismounting a horse--which further involve the audience in the unfolding drama.

Taiwanese opera

While Taiwanese opera peaked in the 1960s, other theater traditions also are popular. The Flying Horse Henan Opera Troupe is well known for performing the Henan operatic style, sung in a natural voice. Older beiguan operatic forms are performed by several troupes on the island, and the Nanguan Opera Performance Program of the National Institute of Arts produces a more subtle form of the genre. Taiwanese opera developed from the beiguan and nanguan operatic forms brought to Taiwan by immigrants from Fujian and Guandong. Its musical style was shaped by the folk songs of Ilan County, which were further influenced by aboriginal songs.

Unlike the superb, though earthbound, characters of the opera, those in the Taiwanese puppet theater have the additional abilities of being able to fly or transform themselves into other beings.

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