The Mati­nee

Zhoushan Hand Pup­pet Mas­ter Hou Yafei

That's China - - Je T'aime, Dinghai - Text by / Gemma Piali

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.

Hou Yafei

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.

Cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance

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.

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