Big Puppets in North Sichuan
By Tian Lan
Puppet show has a long history in China. It is commonly believed that puppet art derived from Han and thrived in Tang dynasty. Another evidence was the pottery tomb figures excavated in the relics of Shang dynasty, Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. Thus, some believe puppet originated from tomb figures.
Tomb figures are fake men buried with the dead. It developed into a form of performance and art with transforming functions from sacrifice to entertainment. The craft of making puppets have also advanced in leaps and bounds and presented several structures, namely, puppets of threads, wooden sticks, iron sticks, and pockets.
Compared to other forms of puppet art, the big puppet in north Sichuan is characterized by large size. It can be as tall as an adult. It is said a great Russian dramatist praised the big puppet as a wonder in world’s art.
Rumor has it about 300 years ago in Qing dynasty during the immigration from middle and south China to Sichuan province. A Yang family brought the big puppet from Hubei to Sichuan and then it was introduced to north part of the province. In 1914, a puppet performer played musical instrument in a theatrical group, and later bought the puppet and formed a team named after Li. Compared to other teams, Li team were more professional as they vividly presented puppets, thus gaining popularity. The Sichuan Big Puppet Theater today is based on the Li team.
Li Siyuan is the fourth generation of Li team. He started puppet performance with his grandfather as eight and could act on stage when turning twelve. When he was 18, he performed in China’s top government. The performance should be learnt from scratch and requires versatile skills and knowledge. It takes performers two to three years to practice basic skills. Now Li Siyuan has more than 200 students who perform on a regular basis and he will do puppet show in important occasions. The fifth generation has been chosen to ensure the essence of puppet art can be passed down.
Wooden sticks control the movement big puppets. Performers grasp a stick that connects the head and hands of puppets, moving eyes and joints. Li team has improved the materials of big puppets for several times. First were wood, later paper and now some chemical materials. Puppets get lighter and firmer. Big puppets can be 10 to 15kg lighter.
Performance also advances and verifies in its contents. In addition to some traditional plays, various skills are added to make puppets lifelike. Puppets can pick up flowers, put off hats and dress in 8-meter-long sleeves, which are the longest in China’s theatrical performances.
Skills in Sichuan Opera like changing facial masks and spitting fire are also integrated in the performance of big puppets. Changing masks is much harder in puppet show for performers’ both hands are occupied by sticks. Therefore, a set of devices is designed to facilitate the show. Puppets can also write Chinese characters, which means the performers should have a good command of calligraphy and a pair of agile hands.
In the past, puppet show was performed in temple fairs. After 1949, the Puppet Theater of Yilong County was established and renamed as Sichuan Big Puppet Theater in 1999.
E Mei Yun is a local gala composed and rehearsed by Sichuan Big Puppet Theater. With big puppets as a highlight, it integrates Sichuan folk art and takes place in E Mei Yuan Theatre in Meishan on a regular basis since July of 2006. The distinctive Sichuan culture in the show is popular among audiences. The gala includes puppet show, long-sleeve puppet dance, and puppets changing masks, tea art, martial arts and Sichuan Opera. The gala has run for 6 years and offered over 1,800 shows, featuring a local culture brand and promoting local tourism.
Sheng Xiang E Mei, composed in 2010 by Sichuan Big Puppet Theater in Emei, highlights big puppets and combines other tourist galas with culture, natural scenery, tradition and art. With multi-media, paintings about magnificent scenery are presented to audiences. The show is on daily basis and has offered 500 plays, featuring another local tourist brand.
The art of big puppets is passed between generations. Li Siyuan, the third generation, is proficient in multiple skills and good at playing wild yet sentimental characters. His performance is very lifelike and adopts many stunning techniques. The younger generations like Ding Jianping and Qin Yinglan also perform a serious of classical and impressive plays.
Shengxiang Emei, Mount Emei
Address: Xiangcheng Grand Theater, number 6 on Daguangming Road, Emei.
Performance time: 19.30-21.00
Take tickets between 19.00-20.00
Price for reference: 260-360rmb (group discounts)
Address: number 132 on Qintai Road, Chengdu
Opening time: 18.30-21.30
Performance time: 20.00-21.30
Price for reference: 140-320rmb (group discounts)
A ticket covers a cup of tea. Booking should be more than 2 hours in advance. Taking tickets takes half an hour. Tickets taken allow no return.