Zhoushan Hand Puppet Master Hou Yafei
Once upon a time in the Tang and Song dynasties of China, theatrical art was an integral part of life for commoners. The slowpaced, artsy life of the ancestors of today’s bored urbanites has long vanished into historical oblivion. The poetic quality and romanticism of going to the theatre in all weathers – the daily artistic enjoyment that used to be at everyone’s fingertips – has become a luxury in the dreams of today’s people. The inexplicable charm of puppetry is described, disturbingly, in an episode about the fifth emperor of the Western Zhou Dynasty and a puppeteer called Yanshi, in Liezi (a Daoist text attributed to Lie Yukou and believed to be compiled around the 4th century CE): “The emperor took out the heart of the coquettish puppet and the puppet became dumb; he then took out his liver and found it had become blind; he tried taking out its kidneys and the puppet became paralyzed…” The show
Our car ascended a winding country road in downtown Dinghai leading us to a quaint and slightly crumbling local temple. Under the scorching sun at noon, everyone was already sweating profusely. The petite temple stage of Hou Yafei’s hand puppet team was full of steamy vicissitude of the glorious age of the Tang Dynasty. Before we could feast our eyes on the puppets, the bounding animated voice of the puppeteer could be heard echoing throughout the courtyard. Drums and various percussion instruments clicked and clacked, drawing us closer to the centre of the stage. A feast for the ears, as well as for the eyes. The show was already in full swing as we climbed up the stairs to have a peek at the backstage setting. As part of the fifth generation of Zhoushan’s timehonored hand puppet art, Hou Yafei sat amongst her magnificently dressed puppets in traditional outfits, where she was ready to draw upon any character she needed at any given time. Surrounded by her hanging wooden performers, she also had a box of wonders, just like Mary Poppin’s never-ending bag, there seemed to be a never-ending supply of props. There were miniature swords and other weaponry, trinkets, and even horses to add dramatic effect to the storyline of the puppet show. Many pockets with surprises stashed inside. Drenched in sweat, the steering wheel of the threehour matinee was straining every nerve, as she always does in all her performances, to bring the wooden puppets to life. Although she sat behind the stage, unseen by the onlookers, Hou looked like she was part of the scene. She wore a vibrant rainbow-patterned dress fitted with black-laced sleeves and sparkly shoes, as her voice boomed into the microphone in front of her. Her voice plays an essential role in capturing the audience’s attention and brining emotional value to the performance. Her exuberant presence shines through the drawn curtains during every act.
Sitting behind Hou Yafei were three accompanists also dripping with sweat. A
Cigarettne budtts rusty electric fan seemed to be the only luxury. were piling up in a washbasin on the ground, while mosquitoes danced in the smoky air. The performance would not be complete without the support of her ensemble, known collectively as the ‘Hou’s family’. Accompanied by two men, and a young woman, each of them played multiple percussion and string instruments. Almost dizzying to watch from behind, the instrumentalists switched from one instrument to another in a smooth fast-paced motion. The musical instruments used within the musical score included: big and small gongs, drums, erhu, banhu, muban, bo, and suona. As well as providing the musical score, the accompanists also aided their voices to create harmonies. At various moments during the performance, their voices would wind up and a burst of sound would be let out. Their vocal harmonies all working together provided moments of elation for the onlooker throughout the performance. As the mood escalated, the puppets ceased to be heartless and everyone in the audience looked like they were in a hypnotic state. The young woman backstage, who was Hou’s niece, fascinated me. She sat hunched over a small stool while scribbling down notes and playing a game on her mobile phone at the same time. If that was not a multi-tasking feat in itself, at various moments she would pick up a gong or beat a wooden stick. It was astounding to me how she could remember when to pick up an instrument at the correct time while also transcribing the show and playing a mobile phone game. After being in the business for about 10 years, she must be a true natural. Being backstage to see the workings of a puppet master was a show in itself, but moving to the front you could see the ease at which Hou could command her characters. The royal subjects gracefully moved on stage as they bounded on horses, or twirled their swords to the beat of the drums. The puppet stage consisted of two doors where the male and female characters would pass in and out as they moved back and forth. The month-long show, was commissioned by a local who arranged the show and
Almost dizzying to watch from behind, the instrumentalists switched from one instrument to another in a smooth fast-paced motion.
paid for everything just to celebrate his securing a job as a civil servant and to say thank you to the Buddha for such a blessing. The performance was Hou’s debut of Xue Gang Against Tang, a story about the blood feud between a man destined to rebel and the tyranny of the imperial court. The audience was entranced, as their eyes were fixated on the small stage. For this performance, there were only elderly men who sat crossed legged on pews. Many journeyed from smaller villages further afield to attend the puppet show. I spotted one woman sitting behind the pews on a bench closer to the temple. As life in the countryside can be laborious, this was an opportunity to relax. If we were to play a word association game, to me the word ‘puppet’ recalls childhood memories where television programmes like Sesame Street would use ‘puppet shows’ as a method for education or anecdotal short stories. For China, and for Dinghai, there is a cultural significance at play. It is believed that the hand puppet art and craft of China has a history dating back to the Han period and reached its prime time in the Tang and Song dynasties, as vividly depicted in Life and Dreams in Kaifeng, penned by the Northern Song essayist Meng Yuanlao. Hand puppet (glove puppet, not ‘rod puppet’) plays are an important folk entertainment in Zhoushan archipelago, boasting a history of more than 150 years. Folk artists and craftsmen from Zhoushan have been a major player on the country’s hand puppet stage, with the Dinghai version of the art form standing out as a very special variation. It is widely believed that a Ningbo street performer known as Zhu Tanshan was the founding father of Zhoushan hand puppetry, called by the older generations of fans as ‘xiao xi wen’. The man brought a new form of entertainment into the hard, isolated life of the islanders and opened a whole new, surreal world for wornout fishermen to restore their energy for another day’s toil on the furious billows. Perhaps the mythical puppeteer that enchanted the ancient emperor also left his magic in Zhoushan, allowing for this ancient folk art to remain strong until today.
Colloquially “xiao xi wen”, or “ziwei puppet show”, Dinghai hand puppeteers are unique in their ability to manipulate multiple puppets at the same time with great ease, without relying on an abundance of over-the-top props. The puppets are comparably easier to perform and transport, which allows for more mobility of the players, most of which are islanders whose daily transportation relies mainly on boats. The puppet show can be staged anywhere – in the living room of someone’s house, on a fishing net drying ground, or on the deck of a fishing boat. As well as endless possibilities for performance locations, there are also endless stories to be told. There is an element of spontaneity to the show and within a couple of days Hou can learn a new story to perform.
Born in a hand puppet family in Dinghai, Hou Yafei showed her outstanding talent in taking the family’s relay baton as the successor of the family glory at a very young age. She made her debut as a puppet maker at the age of eight. The ease at which she commands her puppets, reveals her experienced past. Her father Hou Huiyi was a key player in the development of this Zhoushan folk cultural hallmark. He not only brought the art to a wider audience in various places in eastern Zhejiang Province such as Ningbo and Shaoxing, but also proved himself as a great innovator by introducing Shaoxing Opera elements into the way of singing to produce more sonorous vocal presentations and a more compact rhythmic flow. One of the man’s greatest contributions to the folk art was to reform the vocal music by using accompaniment of high-pitch ‘erhu’. Generations of creativity and hard work from the Hou family added colour and variety to the hand puppet culture of Zhoushan. It was Hou Yafei’s strong resolution and passion that saved the art form from sinking into oblivion in the country’s ‘cultural gap’ throughout the 1960s-70s.
The Zhoushan-style puppetry, represented by Hou Yafei, is valued by the Japanese performing art circle as having “immense literary depths” because of its primitive truth and power. For today’s city dwellers lost in the monopoly of ‘fast food’ pop culture, such purity that comes from the soul and the innate beauty of ‘sense of ritual’ is a perfect antidote to urban sufferings, and is undoubtedly the springhead of the unfailing vitality of Zhoushan hand puppetry. For the elderly sitting piously on the benches and fixating their eyes on the mise-enscene on the stage that can barely be called a stage, the enjoyment of gathering to watch the show transcends the comical fun gained from watching the performance, as the act of gathering together achieves a sense of community. Rather than watching a drama unfold on a telvision screen, the spectacle is ingested through all the senses, and soaking in the atmosphere by being present in the moment, is part of the whole experience. The silent communication between the puppeteer sitting behind the curtains and the audience of the matinee is the most beautiful illustration of c'est la vie. In the unruly hair of the puppets, the blood and soul of the dancing puppet of Yanshi can be felt. In a torturous game of sorcery, the energy of life is breathed into the skeletal structures. Dancing through time, the reincarnations are given the grace of a dancer as they pirouette on stage. Their vibrantly painted fixated expressions are granted a sense of emotion through vivacious body language, and impassioned vocal accompaniment. As the curtains are drawn, the audience claps in admiration and leaves for the day eager to return for the next installment. After an exhausting workout from Hou, she has earned herself a well-rewarded rest, so she can bring newfound energy to tomorrow’s performance.
It was Hou Yafei’s strong resolution and passion that saved the art form from sinking into oblivion in the country’s ‘cultural gap’ throughout the 1960s-70s.