Master of Puppets

At the plush new Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, buttressed with hefty government subsidies, and built on a main road, with ample parking and amenities, we look in upstairs at the wardrobe department, two girls hunched over sewing machines making miniature Song-era courtiers’ robes. In the next room, two wood-carvers are cranking out heads for characters in the next big play, which is scheduled to be The Water Margin.

Do not despise the snake for having no horns,” I immediately begin. “For who is to say it will not become a dragon?

“Someone shut him up,” sighs the director.

So may one just man become an army!” I insist. “Is that Hu San-niang?” I ask one of the puppeteers, pointing at the camphorwood head he is carving. Yes, he says, a little bit surprised that I would know who Hu San-niang was.

“I always fancied her when I was a kid,” I explain. And it’s not like she is that difficult to spot. There’s only really one girl who does any fighting in The Water Margin. Another product of my misspent youth spent watching Japanese dramas based on Chinese legends on BBC2, with what would now be considered scandalously racist dubbing directed by Michael Bakewell. But I digress. Most of the puppets have fixed expressions, which requires the creation of multiple heads displaying multiple emotions.

Master Xia Rongfeng tells me that there are 700 scripts in the tixian mu’ao (hand-string-wood-puppet) theatrical tradition, mainly dating from before the Ming dynasty. Puppet theatre migrated to the south-east in three waves, all connected to unrest elsewhere in China, and from Quanzhou, once China’s largest port, out to the overseas Chinese communities in south-east Asia. The Qing dynasty, which is to say, the Manchus who ruled China from 1644 until the fall of the Last Emperor, provided very little material for new plays and looked sternly upon adaptations of current affairs, forcing the repertoire to fold back on itself, clinging to tales and legends of increasingly bygone eras. Today, the performances on offer are largely set in a dreamtime from the late Middle Ages. When they are performed properly, they are performed in a “pure” form of Chinese that is no longer spoken by modern people.

When Lei Haiqing was born, he was black all over. His parents abandoned him in a field, where they child was kept alive by a friendly posse of crabs and ducks. He was adopted by the elderly couple who found him, and was soon revealed as a musical prodigy. At the age of 18, he went to the capital, where his skills caught the eye of the Xuanzong Emperor, grandson of Empress Wu. Despite his lowly origins, he was appointed as the Number One Scholar, and the master of palace music. When Xuanzong’s bright, august, golden age collapsed into the rebellion of his portly Central Asian general Rokshan (a.k.a. An Lushan), Lei Haiqing was murdered by Rokshan’s supporters after he refused to play his pipa for the usurper’s jury-rigged court. Subsequently, his ghost somehow saved the life of Xuanzong (I have yet to find any source that explains why), and the grateful emperor, his power and realm greatly diminished, conferred upon him an honorary name. But in a typical Xuanzong-era cock-up, he got his name wrong. That was 1200 years ago.

Regardless, Lei Haiqing is now known as Tian Duyuan, and he is China’s guardian god of performers. His effigy, a red-faced (not black, don’t ask me why) and fearsome puppet, sits on the stage-altar in the old headquarters of the Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, which is now largely used merely for rehearsals. The theatre-temple which dates from the 1950s but is built in a classical Minnan style with pointy eaves and courtyards, would begin each performance with prayers to this God of Performers, who is said to watch only over performers – anyone else who prays to him is liable to get short shrift unless they are a relative.

Master Xia has brought me here to show me how to operate a marionette. He unhooks a scholar character from the rack behind the stage, and talks me through the operation of the gou-pai (hook-board), a spade-shaped wooden control from which all the strings hang. The foremost and rearmost points each hold a string tied to the front and rear torso, which is wound on a dowel to keep both taut before the puppet walks onstage. When both strings are taut and the gao-pai is at a 45-degree angle, the body is held upright and the ear-strings, which hang from the haft are also taut, allowing the puppet’s head to be moved right, left and up and down simply by twitching the dowel.

The two next strings back from the top of the spade move the legs. The next four move the hands and arms. Master Xia holds the strings in an elaborate cat’s cradle, allowing him to make gestures. With seemingly effortless flicks of his wrist and fingers, he can make his scholar walk like a man, mince like a girl, stagger like a granny, or skip like a child. He can even make it do cartwheels, which is some feat with a cat’s-cradle of string attached to it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).

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