Chiu Tsu-Yin first encountered glove puppetry at around the age of five. In the early 1970s, “Scholar-Swordsman Su Iam-bun of Yunzhou”, part of the Golden Light series of TV puppetry broadcasts, made waves all around Taiwan. Nearly half a century later, he has forgotten many of the particulars of the program, but the image of Su Iam-bun rising from the dead, face obscured by disheveled black locks, remains emblazoned in his memory. And he dimly recalls that his boyhood toybox contained a puppet of Su Iam-bun, as well as another that was (he thinks) Bucktooth Habe, a clown-like character. Asked to recall why puppets captivated him, Chiu says, “I guess because you can slip them on and play with them, make them dance around like miniature people in the palm of your hand.” Puppets entertain us, but they are much more than toys. They provided Chiu with the seed of a story.
A Last Glimpse of a Dying Art?
Whenever he is asked where he got the idea for his novel Puppet Dreams, Chiu always mentions the documentary his good friend, director Yang Li-chou, spent ten years shooting, Father – the film focuses on ninety-two-year-old master puppeteer Chen Hsi-huang. At one point, over a shot of the puppeteer’s bare hands, the director’s voice instructs the audience, “Take a good look. It may be the last time any of us ever glimpse this.” The audience is at once both taken aback by the raw expressivity of the puppeteer’s hands, though there is no puppet anywhere to be seen, and overcome by grief, knowing this traditional art form is on the brink of extinction.
Chiu’s main occupation is arts and culture journalism, and he began covering the documentary early in the production process. Left waiting for long periods, he was struck by the idea of writing a story about glove puppetry. As he had interviewed numerous glove puppeteers, writing a work of non-fiction would have been simple enough, but he chose to write a novel because it was the puppeteers’ indomitable spirit, their refusal to give in when times got tough, that moved him the most. A novel, he thought, would be the best way to encapsulate the character of the Taiwanese, their “ever-increasing courage in the face of increasing difficulties”.
Having completed the outline of the novel, Chiu spent two years studying with Master Chen and his disciples, learning numerous puppetry techniques. As an enthusiastic amateur, Chiu found it an extraordinary experience to study with a master, something like learning basketball with Michael Jordan. Chiu disagrees with scholars who scorn crowd-pleasing Golden Light puppet shows and acknowledge only traditional glove puppetry as art.
Through field observation, Chiu realized that glove puppetry was an art form that had always been in flux. Early glove puppetry was accompanied by slow, leisurely nanguan music; later, as acrobatic fighting shows came into vogue, this was replaced by beiguan music played by large percussion and trumpet ensembles. The form of glove puppetry Master Chen had inherited from his father, Master Li Tien-lu, had transformed, too – had in fact been transformed by Li, a lover of Beijing opera who fused the lyrics of ballads from Fujian with operatic northern vocal music, setting his shows to background music by Beijing opera ensembles.
After the Second World War, performers innovated to survive, coming up with Golden Light glove puppetry. The shows got past censors thanks to their wholly imaginary settings, and crowds loved them: they featured easily understood, black-and-white conflicts between good and evil, and the florid, flamboyant sound and lighting effects inspired by Hollywood movies were a sight to behold. Though Golden Light shows diverged dramatically from traditional glove puppetry in terms of both the appearances of the puppets and the structures of the stories, the performances did adhere to tradition in numerous other ways, such as the spirited demeanors of the characters, the singing-speaking nianbai style of delivering lines, and the use of unique opening lines for each character. Through this process of change, glove puppetry, originally a product of China, became a truly Taiwanese art form, and in recent years, the production values of Golden Light shows have become ever more exquisite; this ancient art has never stopped evolving.
Thus, Puppet Dreams focuses on the colonial period and the post-war period, depicting how puppeteers overcame challenging circumstances and physical obstacles, adapting to survive. By the end of the novel, which traces the early development of Golden Light glove puppetry, the reader senses clearly that Chiu approves of this historical transformation.
Story: The Art and Magic of Time
Despite having extensive access to real-life puppeteers and other materials, it took Chiu a full five years to complete Puppet Dreams. He jokes self-deprecatingly that novel-writing is a peculiar, malignant affliction – and it is true that he lavishes peculiar care on his work in pursuit of an ideal level of polish.
Regarding the form of the novel, Chiu has interwoven Chien Tien-kuo’s life and memories with the stories of sixteen different characters, employing a unique narrative style free from traditional temporal restraints, granting great vitality to the characters and exquisitely balancing their roles in the unfolding drama.
Further, Chiu has taken full advantage of the special characteristics of the novel’s fictional format. Parts of the book originate from true stories, but most of the characters are original creations, for instance, Chien: “You’ll never find a blind glove puppeteer in Taiwan.”
Additionally, Chiu loves inserting fantastical elements into his tales, and this too requires special care. In the book, Chien Tien-kuo leaves home and spends years wandering, encountering all sorts of difficulties and dangers – at times like these, Chien leans not only on the kindness of others, but on guidance from a puppet with a childlike face called Huatung. The reader ultimately realizes that the appearances and disappearances of Huatung mark phases in Chien’s internal psychological growth and resonate with the “performances” and “dreams” in the novel.
The key “peculiarities” at the core of the novel also originate from Father – after seeing the official trailer, Chiu was inspired to invent names for two ultimate glove puppetry techniques, “Empty Hand Chasing the Wind” and “Observing the Divine Descent”, and ended up rewriting the whole book after revising the text of one-hundred thousand characters (approximately seventy-thousand English words) numerous times. The trajectory of the novel was completely altered: in the finished work, Chien loses his sight in a disturbance related to the theft of secret puppetry texts.
A Storyteller’s Pursuit
Chiu, having written a novel filled with tears, laughter, and dreams, calls himself a “literary peasant”. He explains that his creative philosophy is the same as the dramatic philosophy described in Puppet Dreams – he hopes that his works will be “like Chinese novels written centuries ago – no one knows who really wrote them, but they are great stories everyone remembers.” He plans to use the same approach to continue telling tales of the struggles of other Taiwanese traditional artists.