Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Master Puppeteer Huang Hai-Tai

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Master Puppeteer Huang Hai-Tai

Article excerpt

Ninety-four-year-old Huang Hai-Tai, who comes from Yunlin in central Taiwan, bears the secrets of a very ancient tradition. He is probably the oldest hand-puppeteer still at work, and has trained and influenced many others. His wife and some of his twelve children work with him, and several of his grandsons are also puppeteers. One of his daughters is currently in Budapest studying the tradition of Hungarian puppetry.

As well as being highly entertaining, his puppet shows have a sacred purpose. They are accompanied by catchy music and are full of symbols that have profound significance for those who know their language and context. "Almost in spite of himself," one specialist has written, "the puppeteer is the High Priest of popular ritual. He is invited to inaugurate temples, attract the blessings of Heaven, ward off evil and generally fulfil his role as a creator and provider of good things."

In September 1995, at the Maison des Cultures du Monde, a Paris cultural centre, Huang Hai-Tai put on several shows based on two classics of Buddhist literature, Legends of the Mad Monk and Journey to the West.

Even for the uninitiated, Huang Hai-Tai's subtle art has great fascination. In Paris, the audience was particularly delighted when, at one point in the show, the Master came out from behind his curtain, sat down smiling in front of the stage and manipulated some of his puppets. At the end of the evening he asked the gods to bestow good fortune and happiness on the audience.

During the following interview I was struck by his fine, slender hands, the pride of his bearing and his mobile, radiant features.

* You are a singer and musician as well as a puppeteer. What are the origins of your art?

- My father taught me bei-guan, the singing style I use to accompany my shows. It probably originated in the Fujian region, on the east coast of China, and crossed the Straits of Formosa in the seventeenth century. The words are a blend of Taiwanese and Beijing dialects, but their origins go back to very ancient times. They have religious overtones, and although this form of puppet theatre has popular appeal, its purpose is profoundly moralistic. It aims to encourage virtue and to teach values such as kindness, justice and fidelity. Some of the musicians' instruments come from Hunan province in southern China. My father knew how to play them all, except the violin.

* If someone wanted to enter your profession, what would they have to do?

- First of all, they would have to learn how to work the puppets' hands, which are articulated. Then they would have to learn the dialogue and the different voices, which are conventionalized. As in Chinese opera, there are archetypes: the female servant, the monk, the scholar, the devil, the Taoist, the young bride and the monkey. Each one has a specific vocabulary and vocal range. You have to know how to bring the characters to life and give them their specific colour. Then you have to learn the beiguan style of music, which is the most widely used today in Taiwan, and how to play the instruments, first the pei-gu drum (the drummer leads the band), then the cymbals and the violin. …

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