Tung-Hua Shadow Puppet Theater

Tung-Hua Shadow Puppet Theater

◎Text (English & Chinese) and Photos by Hou Ya-ting



 Established in 1820, Tung-Hua Shadow Puppet Theater is the oldest shadow puppet troupe in Taiwan. This family-run group is now led by Mr. Jhang Fu-guo, a sixth-generation descendant of the founder. He has dedicated himself to the family business since he became director in 1987. In 2020, Kaohsiung City Government honored Mr. Jhang as an official cultural heritage conservator for shadow puppetry.

Photos by Hou Ya-tingPhotos by Hou Ya-ting Wherever Tung-Hua performs, audiences are mesmerized by the stories it tells through its silhouetted puppets. Tung-Hua's signature program is a pastiche of Sun Wu-kong (aka Monkey King) battling Princess Iron Fan, an episode in Journey to the West, the classic 16th-century Chinese novel some Westerners know through the Japanese TV adaption titled Monkey.

 Sun Wu-kong, riding on a somersault cloud, flees in the blink of an eye, then returns with a jump. He turns himself into a bug and hides in a cup of tea, from which Princess Iron Fan is about to drink. Members of the audience applaud the agile movements of the puppets, brought to life by master puppeteer Mr. Jhang and two assistants who skillfully manipulate the silhouette puppets and control light effects.

 The team works behind a translucent white cloth screen, where a light behind the colorful puppets cast shadows on the screen. Light and shadow combine to create an intriguing atmosphere. Mr. Jhang's seamless collaboration with his assistant puppeteers is an essential element in every show.

 Amazingly, Mr. Jhang also narrates all the roles in Hokkien (also known as the Taiwanese language) while performing. His narration reflects the emotions and personality of each character. A group of musicians playing the tam-tam, drum, and erhu provides improvised accompaniment; no sheet music is used. Shadow puppetry works best when performed in front of a live audience, as their reaction contributes to the event.

 Mr. Jhang says that some fans feel that the shadows cast on the screen bring out lifelike aspects in a performance. As director of Tung-Hua, he pays attention to every detail during performances and tries to satisfy different types of audience.

Photos by Hou Ya-ting Mr. Jhang stresses that a lead puppeteer has to be a good narrator and speak clearly. Furthermore, painting skills and creativity are crucial if a puppeteer is to make an exquisite shadow puppet out of cowhide. The family that runs Tung-Hua Shadow Puppet Theater has passed down painting techniques which involve gradations of tone on cowhide, following by carving. When Mr. Jhang beholds a script that is more than a century old, and which has been passed down through the generations, he feels a humble devotion to preserving this traditional cultural asset by touring at home and abroad.

 A shadow puppet is held up by two rods, while the puppeteer operates additional rods. Mr. Jhang jokes that he wishes he had 18 hands while performing shadow puppetry. This recognized master of the art strives to give his best performance each and every time. Mr. Jhang's son works beside him as one of the assistant puppeteers; the father and son collaborate so intuitively there is no need to speak. Together, they ensure that the glory of Tung-Hua will continue to shine.

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