Life Is a Theater

Tags: entertainment | opera | performance | play | puppetry | theater


"The Peony Pavilion," one of the Kun Operas written by Tang Xian-zu in the Ming Dynasty, is performed for a TV show.

Photo by: GIO Photographer (1968-06-26)

Established over a century ago, the Ming Hwa Yuan Theater Troupe has dedicated itself to the promotion of Taiwanese Opera. Photo shows a performance of the “Immortals of Penglai.

Photo by: GIO Photographer

A performance is presented by Taipei Li-yuan Chinese Opera Theatre, established in 1977.

Photo by: GIO Photographer

"A Startling Dream in a Garden of Joy" is performed at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in August 1982.

Photo by: GIO Photographer (1982-08-00)

"Liang Shan-bo and Zhu Ying-tai," a shadow puppet show, is performed by Chong De Elementary School students in Sijhih, Taipei County.

Photo by: GIO Photographer (1993-05-08)

A performance by Yiwanran Puppet Theater Troupe, established in 1931 by Li Tien-lu, is underway.

Photo by: GIO Photographer

Taiwan's people like to watch Chinese theater, but this is not for nothing. In the sixteenth century, land reclamation and religious beliefs made Chinese plays performed in the vernacular a part of the lives of Taiwan's Han immigrants. On the occasion of paying respects to deities and during festivals, it was considered essential to invite Chinese theater troupes to put on a show. Besides professional troupes, amateur troupes performed in the countryside.

Most of the vernacular Chinese theater performed in Taiwan consisted of varieties popular in the immigrants' hometowns in China, including nanguan (southern music), peiguan (traditional orchestra originating in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces), shadow puppetry, glove puppetry, marionette shows, and Peking opera. The only style native to Taiwan, guasi (Taiwanese opera), did not make its appearance until the 1920s.

Before the advent of stage plays, radio broadcasts, movies, and television, Chinese theater was the major form of entertainment in Taiwan. The original method of performing guasi, which was at open-air theaters, changed with the rise in popularity of television in the 1970s, at which time this art form began to be broadcast. Television also brought about the rise of the famous actress Yang Li-hua.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, guasi was gradually transformed into an elegant stage performance that is still very popular across Taiwan. The major troupes include Min Hua Yuan, Holo, and "Heritage." In their presentations, each finds a balance between commercial considerations and art, and incorporates modern theater's experience and techniques, winning acclaim both at home and abroad.

For the same reason, glove puppetry has found its way into the living and dining rooms of Taiwanese families. "Erudite Swashbuckler Shi Yan-wen," produced by Mr. Huang Chun-hsiung, still lives on in the memory of many theatergoers. Today, "Thunderclap Glove Puppetry" is growing in popularity with Taiwan's young people.

Although open-air theaters have largely become a memory, two living masters of this traditional art, Mr. Huang Hai-dai and Mr. Li Tian-lu, still live. They have done much in trying to pass on the torch to a younger generation.

Shadow and glove puppetry depend on silhouettes and lighting effects. Workshops held by students and private organizations have allowed this traditional art to be passed on. Taiwanese marionette shows, meanwhile, are mostly staged at religious ceremonies and when evil spirits are exorcised. They are less of an entertainment form and are even considered by some as taboo.

Peking opera in Taiwan is faced with the double crisis of not being passed on and becoming irrelevant. In the 1970s, many in the literary and art fields worked to reform the art form. Among the most well-known of these was Ms. Guo Xiao-zhuang, famous for her "Ya Yin Ensemble." Toward the end of the 1980s, Mr. Wu Hsing-kuo put together an innovative group, "The Contemporary Legend Theater," which uses Western scripts presented in the forms of Peking opera and experimental theater. Kun Opera is a consummate art form known as the "progenitor of a hundred theaters." The United Nations' Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization named Kun Opera one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity due to its artistry.

Up through the "theater movement" of the 1990s, Taiwan has gone through an untold number of developments, including creating operas based on modern language, experimental operas, and musicals. Some borrowed a leaf from the manual of Western theater, while others combined elements of traditional Chinese opera forms such as connecting performances by use of Peking opera's percussion instruments or adapting classic Chinese literature and thus conferring upon the classics a new, modern interpretation. New performance styles are also flourishing. All of this indicates the indomitable spirit of Taiwan's pursuit of theatrical innovation and change. Noted troupes include "Performers' Workshop," "Pingtung Acting Troupe," "Godot Theatre Company," and "Green Ray Theatre."

In the 1990s, children's theater grew rapidly. Whether it was the modern "SONG SONG SONG Children's & Puppet Threatre" or the more traditional Wei Wan Jan or Siao Si Tian troupes, it marked the beginning of theater's growth in the hearts of children. Hopefully, this has laid the seeds for the future development of theater in Taiwan.

Taiwan Image - Photo Archive

Text and images are provided by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (TAIWAN)