There was a time in Fujian, China, long ago, when strings bound all puppets to their puppeteers. Never did anyone in the arts community expect that the failure of a young scholar would usher in a new era in puppetry, one without such restrictions. Nor did many artists believe that dedicated young people would still wish to interpret and sustain this tradition in the twenty-first century.
Researchers trace glove puppetry to the end of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century. Stories recall the form developed in Fujian Province from the marionette puppets in use since at least 200 BCE.
The legend goes like this: a scholar named Bing-Lin Liang was sitting for the keju, a civil entrance examination in use since the seventh century. Like hundreds of other young men, he sought a bureaucratic position and, with it, the blessings of the gods for a good life. An oracle appeared to him in a dream and told him that fame was in the palm of his hand. Liang took this message as a sign of future bureaucratic success, but the results did not turn out as he expected. Dragged down by three years of failed attempts to pass the test, a frustrated Liang turned his attention to something else.
One day, as Liang wandered the city, he came upon a marionette performance on a street side. A thought crossed his mind: if craftsmen sized puppets to the human hand, and if they dispensed with the strings, perhaps the dexterity of the whole performance would increase. His realization set free the old form of puppet performance. By cutting the strings and keeping figures small, puppeteers could manipulate a puppet more gracefully, more intuitively with one hand. A new era of puppet artistry began.
“For the performers, it is easier to make a puppet move in a more human way, and that makes things more compelling for children in the audience,” says Guan-Lin Chen, a young Taiwanese glove puppeteer. “The intimacy created between puppets and their performers is much stronger. A puppet becomes an extended part of the performer. They must cooperate to become the character on stage.”
A few decades later, in the 1750s, Chinese migrants brought glove puppetry, known as bodehi in the Hokkien language, across the water to Taiwan. Soon, the form became an intrinsic element of Taiwanese culture.
It can be said that Taiwanese society is literally based on religion, and this contributed to the early flourishing of bodehi. The island republic is home to over 15,000 buildings dedicated to religion, including temples, churches, and cathedrals—on average, more than one per square mile. And by tradition, glove puppetry is performed at religious temples. The goal of performers was to appease local deities and entertain the emperor.
“Taoist temples used to serve many functions in Taiwanese society,” says Mao-Hsien Lin, a Taiwanese folk culture specialist. “After a hard day’s work in the fields, people would grab a seat and enjoy an intriguing bodehi performance.”
In the 1970s, the peak of bodehi development, Taiwan boasted more than 800 puppet troupes. During temple performances and televised broadcasts, people, obsessed with the charm of bodehi, would leave the streets empty.
Today, temples function only as religious centers and no longer host artistic performances. Tai-Ing Hsu, a specialist in folk religions, says that young people have weaker connections to local temples. “It is hard for those bent on moving somewhere else to see the value of temples as an irreplaceable center of community networks.”
Puppetry is no longer mainstream. With a growing list of entertainment options and a flourishing economy, puppetry has lost ground to the pop cultures of Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and the United States.
“After all, traditional art is like the flavor of cilantro: not everyone is capable of embracing it,” Chen says with a laugh. “Each temple or puppet may seem alike to the layman, but the soul of them lies in many nearly imperceptible details.”
There are far fewer troupes, and it can be difficult to find an audience. Even so, the bodehi tradition is deeply embedded in Taiwanese culture, and small groups of enthusiastic young people are determined to master and pass down this art.
Chen is a puppeteer; Ting-Ru Tsai plays the suona, a double-reed woodwind instrument essential to performances. Though they are from different cities, both grew up in communities immersed in local religion, Taoism and Buddhism, where countless celebrations are held each every season. Bustling religious parades, ceremonies, and the stories told through puppetry are rooted in their DNA.
Chen developed an early interest in glove puppetry. He sees both puppetry and religious ceremony as living arts. At the age of fifteen, he apprenticed with the Chen Hsi-Huang Traditional Puppet Troupe, and then he studied Peking Opera at the prestigious National Taiwan College of Performative Arts. His master, Chen Hsi-Huang, a master puppeteer who has been recognized by the Taiwanese government as a living national treasure, taught him basic skills to work a set group of puppet characters, including kings, princesses, civilians, and buffoons. Then came the memorization of scripts.
For all the demands of the craft, Master Chen would not scold him for inaccuracy, which is atypical of an apprenticeship in the traditional arts.
“I can always sense the differences in the movements of my puppets and the master’s,” the younger Chen admits. “Of course, ideas of giving up often crossed my mind. But seeing a puppet beautifully come alive in my master’s hands is my impetus to practice until I reach perfection.”
As Chen learned, puppeteers must be observant of human behavior in order to properly render each character’s emotions and movements: the demeanor of a macho emperor as he enters the stage, a princess who listlessly combs her hair while waiting for her lover to visit. Working a puppet without strings helps immensely.
“An exquisite puppet is as attractive as a god,” Chen says, rolling a glove puppet fluidly in his hand. “But gods in temples usually sit in chairs and are always far from us. I have close eye contact with my puppets.”
Expert puppeteers must also understand how to handle unexpected performance situations, such as the failure of audio equipment and lighting, or problems with puppet costume changes. They must read the audience’s expectations and adapt each performance accordingly. One top of movements to master and scripts to memorize, it’s a lot to learn.
A successful bodehi performance includes a skillful narrator, a puppeteer’s adept manipulation of glove puppets dressed in exquisite clothes, and musical accompaniment that emphasizes the mood of the characters and the atmosphere of the story.
Ting-Ru Tsai has worked with the Chen Hsi-Huang Traditional Puppet Troupe since 2020 and is now a full-fledged member of the orchestra. Driven by her love of Taiwanese opera, also known as Ke-Tse, she enrolled in the National Taiwan College of Performative Arts at the age of eleven in hopes of one day becoming a frontline performer. Unfortunately, her body could not tolerate the intense martial arts training and acrobatics. She had no choice but to switch to music.
“I was deeply disappointed about it,” Tsai says. “But my lecturer reminded me that through music, I am also interpreting a character, even the atmosphere of the whole performance.” She also learned to play the traditional beiguan music that accompanies the ritual set pieces performed before Taiwanese opera or bodehi shows. These “god plays” are performed in hopes of securing the blessing of the deities.
Music is crucial to bodehi. Puppets are incapable of exhibiting the facial expressions of human actors in Peking or Taiwanese opera. Background music embellishes and heightens the emotion behind each story. Due to the narrow size of the stage, orchestras are usually capped at ten members. With such a small ensemble, every musician must master more than a single instrument. To be known as outstanding, Tsai says a musician must learn to improvise.
Bodehi stories take in the sweep of politics, history, and art. Since the Qing dynasty, performances of Chinese chivalrous novels like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Water Margin have remained popular, as have dramas written when Taiwan was a colony of Japan from 1895 to 1945.
Although glove puppetry is deeply ingrained within Taiwanese culture, the tradition is not completely safe. Television channels rarely broadcast puppetry performances. But as with any traditional art form, the responsibility for keeping it alive does not rest solely with practitioners.
“The survival of bodehi relies on the audience,” Chen urges. “Without the audience’s appreciation, how can we perform?”
Today, based on the number of annual religious festivals and support from audiences, performers can make a full-time living. But the money isn’t enough to support a family, and the time commitment is vast. Many performers do other work and remain amateurs.
“We must ask the audience to take some time and think about what we’re doing,” Chen says. “Audiences will not appreciate the efforts of our performers unless they learn something about it.”
To regenerate interest, Chen has opened all-age workshops and performed at alternative venues. At the same time, Tsai has opened suona classes in her school to cultivate more young performers.
The internet helps. As most Taiwanese people have some kind of connection with glove puppetry, puppets have made for interesting multimedia connections. In a recent collaboration with the popular science YouTube channel PanSci, Chen uses puppets to reveal the secrets of the microwave oven and discuss the folk belief that ghosts walk at midnight. Not surprisingly, viewers seem to like the combination. One commented that he “never expected to see modern knowledge interpreted by traditional art.” Another labeled the new storytelling strategy “brand new,” an innovation. “I never expected to see bodehiexplain anything other than historical stuff,” she wrote.
According to today’s young performers, shorter works better. Tailored for modern audiences, bodehi shows no longer last three hours, but ninety minutes. Directors dispose of anything in a script that audiences might feel repetitive. Troupes add more fight scenes and even incorporate references to current affairs.
Both Chen and Tsai see this heritage as an honor worthy of the struggle to pass it on. Both take to glove puppetry with passion and a sense of accomplishment. “Being able to improve a story by dropping in a current event, or receiving a compliment from an audience—these things are my silver linings and why I continue doing this,” Tsai affirms.
In considering the future of the art form, Chen finds himself laughing. “I feel like my personality is somewhat like a buffoon’s, so I am optimistic about the situation. Learning to perform traditional art never ends. I hope I can improve every day.”
Like Bing-Lin Liang, the legendary inventor of bodehi, these young performers feel tomorrow rests in the palm of their hand.
Yijo Shen is a multimedia intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a photojournalism graduate student at George Washington University. With her Taiwanese background, her work focuses mainly on the small island nation. Special thanks to Nora Yeh for her expert review.