Faith as a Motive for Innovation
───── Jun-ying Su
Time: August 18, 2015
Interviewee: Jun-ying Su
Interviewers and Guests: Jow-jiun Gong, Mirr Lo, Juliet Lin
Location: Su’s grandfather’s house
Compiled by Hsiang-wen Chen
Translated by Wen-ting Lan, Li-fen Wang
Glove Puppetry—Enlightenment from Family
I enjoyed being alone. When I was little, my family ran a grocery store. Many people would come and go, and most of them were strangers. I spent most of the time playing in front of the temple, because the adults told us not to play in the store. I could only talk to the elders in the temple or watch the shows in front of it. Most of the shows were about the story of gods, which made me gradually develop interests in temples. At first I knew nothing about traditional glove puppetry. My grandmother idolized Sú Iām-bûn, one of the most popular characters in Taiwanese glove puppetry, and told me lots of stories about him. Then, I paid thirty dollars for one or two puppets at a bookstore, and when friends came to my home I would play the puppets for them.
Bone collectors, undertakers, and councilors would come to the grocery store for chit-chat. I would sit beside them and listen, so basically I grew up with lots of stories. For example, one bone collector said he attended to a dead body crushed by a train and the flesh parts were still stick on the rail. The councilors talked about the experiences working as a government official and how tens of millions of dollars were spent on a construction project. So I picked up their tones naturally, and learned different ways of speaking from moneybags and government officials to ordinary people. I then included those in my performances. The audiences also found it interesting. Traditional glove puppetry has its own set of tones, for example, to “study tens of thousands of scriptures” means to study scriptures enormously, or “eighteen martial arts, not exaggerating, wise and brave that’s what I am” means “Mastering all kinds of martial arts is not an exaggeration, I am wise and brave.” Usually, the audiences did not understand these kinds of lines. Therefore, although I was just in elementary school, I started to think about interesting ways to perform glove puppetry.
When I studied art in Hsinshih Junior High School, Chin-An temple was under renovation and was listed as national heritage. I chatted with the painting artists working there and started to grow interests in temple painting. I still remember the ridge of the roof curved upward, the caisson ceiling, the sculptures and a painting on the wall in which a woman rode an elephant. I wondered why the woman wanted to ride an elephant. It was because of all these things that I started to have interest in temple painting and its architecture. I remember when I was still in junior high school, I read a donated book called The Jade Calendar which described the scenes in hell. I then drew my first picture that depicted the scenes of the eighteen levels in hell according to Buddhist stories.
I was one of the best in the class in my elementary school. When I went to junior high, I did not like study and became the worst in my class. I also learned how to cheat. Many people came to the grocery store and they often told my family about how I did in the class, which made me feel sick and pressured. Moreover, all of my classmates had learned about sketch and western art since they were in elementary school, so they thought my drawing was ugly. That was why I did not have a good relationship with them. Not until I met a teacher, who had been encouraging me to draw, did I continue to create. My parents sent me to private Hsing Kuo Senior High School because of my bad grades, but the situation became even worse. I did the fine art assignments for students in regular classes and charged them fifty dollars for each case. Sometimes I could even earn more than a thousand dollars. With the money, I took a train to Tainan city and transferred to Anping by bus to purchase a puppet worth hundreds of dollars. Since then I have collected around hundreds of puppets. I was crazily in love with the puppets. It was like “puppet cancer” to me and I could not stop buying those puppets. I felt I was like a glove puppetry performer.
My uncle is a host in charge of ceremonies for temples in Shanhua. Usually when a temple finished a reconstruction project, they would have a ceremony. After school, I liked to see the ceremonies in which people played ghosts and Taoist priests would slaughter the ghosts. With only a few paintings on the wall after the reconstruction, the atmosphere suddenly became serious. I found the atmosphere of temples very interesting, so after I graduated from senior high school, I started to create some works related to religion, such as the scenes of burning paper money for the dead. I wanted to study at the Department of Theatre Arts of Chinese Culture University when applying for university. When I was having the interview, I performed kho á, which can be seen as the rap or doggerel in glove puppetry. I thought I would definitely get myself a place in the class, but I failed. Later I found out the reason that I failed was because the professors did not understand Taiwanese at all, so they had no clues about what I was performing. I won a lot of awards in high school, and I thought I was going to have a bright future in Taipei. I never thought I would fail the entry exam. I was so frustrated and started to wonder maybe no one would understand glove puppetry. At that very sad moment, a piece of paper was sent to me just like one of those movie scenes. It was an application form of Department of Fine Arts of Tainan University of Technology. I thought this must be fate and I had to try anyway. The result was I got the ninth place in the entry exam.
Tainan University of Technology is in Yongkang, which is not far from my home. But I insisted on moving out because I wanted to engage more in puppetry. I established a glove puppetry club in university and started to learn the dialogic expressions of Chun-hsiung Huang, a leading figure in Taiwanese glove puppetry. At the beginning the club did not have funds, not to mention puppets, so we had to make tsông kiànn lîn “Mirror Man” (a popular character in Taiwanese glove puppetry) by using styrofoam and cloth. We made two very “rough” puppets to perform. Gradually we managed to save some money to purchase puppets. During the practice sessions we watched videos of Chun-hsiung Huang and studied his tones. For instance, how hard we had to press our nose to create the voice like Tsin Ké-sian (another popular character in Taiwanese glove puppetry) and how much force we had to use on our throat to speak like Sú Iām-bûn. We also studied how to do vocal impersonation from books, and learned resonance and manipulating the puppets all by ourselves. Many students in the university were also interested in puppetry.
We then made lots of rough props and puppets with newspapers and managed to perform more than two hundred shows in one semester. We, a group of dozens of people, could only get three to four thousand dollars for each performance. Some of us had to fix the stage onto motorbikes with ropes, and others had to carry the puppets on their back, but we still had fun visiting different venues.
I had some basic knowledge about performance and making stage props in university and had also known some people who were in the theater business, so I went for puppet show business soon after graduation. The puppet show business then was not big enough to support a troupe consisting of about a dozen people, so when someone got a case, others in the troupe would also go and help, or sometimes we would co-operate with other troupes.
One time when I was performing Sú Iām-bûn in Chiayi, a journalist came and videotaped my show. Later I got a legal attest letter from Chun-hsiung Huang saying that my performance was an infringement. I felt very upset because I just graduated from university and was sued by my idol. For a period of time, I just did not feel like performing.
Later on, I became a substitute teacher. People knew I could draw and perform puppet show. Coincidently, many schools were interested in glove puppetry because of the government’s policy which aimed to develop each school’s unique feature. I started to teach at Chongming Elementary School. Gradually, I found that in fact the students loved to play puppets. Although they did not have the chance to learn glove puppetry before, they found it very interesting. Apart from the curiosity about glove puppets, they also created some interesting lines and puns by themselves, such as, “lí bô kán-tan” (“you are something” in Southern Min). Then the next line is: “if you don’t have Tantan (a Taiwanese fast food store) why don’t you go to McDonald!” Because of these, my passion for glove puppetry was reignited and I went on buying puppets.
Some craftsmen thought there would be no future for the puppetry industry and they did not want to put any more effort into it, then I would buy their puppets and redecorate them. I could turn an ugly puppet into a witch and make a villain into Lady Gaga. Gradually, I established my troupe and got chances to perform in many places. I also found out audiences were quite interested in adapted plots.
I think the audiences are crucial if we want to revitalize the glove puppetry culture. At this moment, what we need is audience. In the past, grandfathers would take grandchildren to the square in front of a temple to watch puppet shows after school so that they would go to puppet shows naturally after they grow up. But nowadays, children go to cram schools to study and then go home to finish their homework. They do not have the opportunity to go to a temple, so temple events have declined. Without the audiences’ support, the temple will cut the budgets, but the quality of shows depends on the amount of money a troupe can get.
Striving for a Platform Where Tradition Meets Innovation
What I really want to do is to perform. Being a teacher is to assure my parents I have a stable income. After all it is hard to survive just by performing puppetry in this environment. People say to manipulate puppets you only need to put them on the stage and leave them there, they even say a peddler who sells guavas can perform puppetry if he stays in the square in front of a temple long enough. The current situation is that after you set the scenery and have some puppets to manipulate, you can then perform your show. The temple will pay you a few thousand dollars and it is done. In the old days, you needed two puppeteers, you still need one more to speak the dialogue, another for the music, and still another for stage props, making it at least five people to perform a show with the cost up to ten to twenty thousand dollars. But now, some people are willing to do a show for the price of three to four thousand dollars just to get a case. Once the price is higher than ten thousand dollars, the temple committee would rather have someone else who charges less regardless of how good you are.
I earned more than a million dollars when I graduated from university, but I spent most of the money on equipment and only had tens of thousands of dollars left. If you want to have a show with good quality, you have to invest a lot. You cannot make a fortune if you want to run a troupe well, and that is why my family worries about my living. I have had a lot of help from friends. For example, my friends in the fine art department helped me with posters and props, but the things we made were pieces of junk to traditional craftsmen. Once we considered retaining some brushwork traits in a painting, but the craftsmen yelled at us, “This looks too complicated. It will never sell!” Old craftsmen hold that the scenery has to be clean, so that it brings out the puppets. As long as visual depth is achieved, a craftsman does not put too much attention to small details. They know about perspective, but their concept often contradicts to what we have now. There is indeed a generation gap, but I still believe I have learned from both the old and the young generations. On the other hand, it means the pieces I create are neither fish nor fowl. For example, I carved five piggies and named them “The piggy family.” Each of them represents a different character in puppetry, they are: Sheng: the male leading character; Dan: the female leading character; Jin: the supporting male character; Mo: the supporting elderly male role; Chou: the jester. The old masters thought I was mischievous, but Master Yang-lang Shi from Taichung said if I put some tattoo stickers on piggy Jin’s face, it would become Hua-lien (the male role with a quick-tempered and treacherous personality). They use small things to innovate, but what I need now is to learn traditional techniques, tricks and programming. I want to make my creations innovative but still keep traditional traits.
If we want to attract more young audiences, I think I have to create new stage props and add some humors in the show. Also, I can teach them some things in the show. For instance, the phrase “What the three littles are you looking at” (“What the hell are you looking at?” in Southern Min) is not foul. It was because in the past puppetry needed to have little Sheng, little Dan, little Chou, the leading male role and the leading female role, so “what the three ‘littles’ are you looking at” refers to watching a puppet show. When you add this kind of information into performances, the audiences will find them fascinating and they can learn something new. Meanwhile, we still learn traditional puppetry. For example, the ways a female puppet walks or combs her hair are different from those of a male character. But that is the beauty of the tradition which enables detailed movements to be shown with dexterity. It is a shame that the audiences today do not have time to enjoy traditional puppetry, neither do they understand where the “highlights” are. To me performing in the square in front of a temple does not make much money, but the advantage is I can perform whatever I want and I can immerse myself in the play. To enjoy myself is the thing I care the most, and I can even criticize politics. The reason why I can do so is that I did not learn puppetry from the troupe, so I am not restrained by any fixed languages. I can talk about nonsense to make people laugh and perform the shows that audiences like. Naturally I can transform the tradition into a new language.
Unlike the glove puppetry on TV in which you can add special effects to make it exquisite like an artistic work or a painting to be enjoyed anytime you want, live puppet shows must create proper atmosphere on the spot. There are people touting guavas, backed squids, and sausages at the temple square, so you have to beat the smell of food and win the audiences over. Different from TV puppetry which can be edited, live puppetry has to create lots of special effects along the show. Explosions, smokes, or water spray are the tools to draw people’s attention. Moreover, a puppet on TV is small and exquisite as it is the miniature of a real man. Some even have pores on their face, and the animation was created by software. But in a live show you have to have a transformer box on site and wire two iron bars to create the sparkles when you tap two of them together. You may also need to spray some insecticide to create the spitfire. For that same special effect, sometimes we put cleaning naphtha on a board and ignite it. We even learn how to make explosives. There are too many back stage stories to tell. Sadly they are forgotten when the puppetry culture declines. Now if we bring back those old tricks, people will still be amazed.
We now have animation as background scenery, and we can re-package old techniques to introduce them to our audiences. There is no boundaries for puppetry. Foreigners who coming see a show can tell which one is the good guy and which one is the villain. As for the plot, if I am going to perform for three days, I will try to get people’s attention on the first day, and then to perform the repertoire with interesting plots on the second day. By doing so, people would want to come on the third day to watch the ending. Therefore, the shows on the third day have to integrate surprises into plots. The audiences will then find watching puppetry in these three days an interesting experience.
Besides the performances in the square in front of temples, we performed in Quanzhou, Sichuan, Macau, and Xiamen in China and once in Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art. There are more marionettes than glove puppetry in mainland China and a puppeteer plays only one kind of character throughout his whole career, so the puppeteers there can often show the best quality of a character. However, the case like “Da Men Fu” which has been passed down through apprenticeship for hundreds of years is less innovative and creative, so when I performed there, they were all amazed to know that glove puppetry could be presented in this way, and they were all interested in my stage props and characters. They also found Taiwanese puppetry very creative and could see the traits of Taiwanese culture. I would carve a pineapple as a Pineapple Hero living in Guanmiao and use a banana to associate people with Taiwan. As an island country, Taiwan has so many unique features, and most of the audiences also respond to those features. Sometimes the reaction of the audiences is better in foreign countries although we do not speak the same language. Once they see the design of the characters they all laugh, on the contrary, audiences in Taiwan do not appreciate the shows because they think tradition means something outdated and lacks innovation.
Religious Belief and Art
As for religious belief, there are several conventions in our profession. For example, we cannot say the word “snake” in our performance because of a myth. It is said that a large python wanted to bite our patron deity Lord Xiqin when he was resting under a tree. His loyal dog fought with the python and both of them were seriously injured during the fight. Therefore, Lord Xiqin had fear for snakes ever since, so we cannot say the word. The other convention is about our second patron deity “Marshal Tiandu.” He was an abandoned baby and was saved by a mitten crab. Therefore, we do not eat crabs to express gratitude for the mitten crab.
Only when we have religious belief do we have respect for our performances. The audiences and puppeteers should be fully involved in the show so as to make a performance perfect. The belief can be transferred. Suppose I have to perform to gods, I believe they will bless me and then the puppets are no longer tools but my partners. When carving a puppet, we have to put our soul in it. Otherwise, the puppets you carve will not meet your expectation. I have friends who are Christians or believe in other religions. The puppets they make all look like those made with plastic soil and have no souls. Because they do not put love or emotions in the making of puppets. That is why I believe when creating artistic works one must create with interest and gratitude for the pieces to have a soul.
My mother would give me money when I was still little and said, “Jun-Ying please don’t go to temples any more. You can go to an internet café or play video games instead.” One day my family had a dream in which the goddess, Matsu, told them not to stop me from going to temples because She needed my help. Because I have associated with gods since I was a child, I am like a soldier in a temple. Every time I paint in a temple, I would calm myself by lighting joss sticks to tell gods that I am going to paint for them. For me faith is the motive.
Before I would concentrate on the brushwork and the force put in art pieces, but now that my state of mind changes, the feelings I have is also different from before. Some of the pieces reflect the inner world of the artists and the viewers of the artistic works are too quiet, which makes me feel uncomfortable whenever I perform in museums, because people like us are passionate performers who engage audience with our passion. But from a different point of view, I should take it as a challenge. I ought to make audiences laugh and I will be very upset if they do not.
We are facing serious problems with carrying on traditional crafts in Taiwan. The frescos in European churches attract many people, and they also promote the concept of cultural preservation. Various Japanese festivals fascinate people and also help to pass down the traditional religious ceremonies. These unique architectures and festivals enable local traditions to be passed down to future generations. As for Taiwan, people do not want to understand or participate in these events if they have not done so before. If you do not put new things into traditions, there will be no sparkles, and if there is not enough sustainable driving force to preserve traditions, the cultures will slowly decline. The government should be thinking about how to make glove puppetry a unique Taiwanese culture and promote by say issuing certificates to people engaging in it. Then, younger generations will have an incentive to learn. Taiwan has so many fascinating cultures. If people ignore or have wrong perception of them, there will be no space for our cultures to present themselves. Taiwan is like a culture hodgepodge, and it has taken hundreds of years to develop its own local cultures. It would be a nightmare if we cannot carry them on, or worse, if we misunderstand or even hate them, Taiwan will eventually become a country without its distinctive cultures.