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Reviewed by:
  • Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou
  • Bradford Clark
Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou. By Robin Ruizendaal. Sinica Leidensia 73, ed. by W. L. Idema. Netherlands: Brill, 2006. 470 pp. Hardcover. $150.00. ISBN-10: 90-04-15104-4; ISBN-13: 978-90-04151-04-8.

Between 1991 and 1995, Robin Ruizendaal, a Sinologist who received his doctorate from Leiden University, conducted extensive fieldwork in southern China. Marionette theatre of the Fujian city of Quanzhou and its ritual function had previously received little scholarly attention in English. Nonnarrative, Chinese string puppetry, which emphasizes virtuosity in manipulation within a secular, "cabaret" performance context, is better known in the West. As Ruizendaal notes, with the exception of government functions featuring state troupes, most Quanzhou marionette performances take place as part of greater ritual events. Prior English articles describing narratives and religious functions of Chinese and Taiwanese string puppetry are usually brief. This study, based on Ruizendaal's dissertation, makes Quanzhou's tradition of ritual string puppetry available to a wide audience (along with associated genres in other parts of China and Taiwan).

Organized thematically, the book examines diverse aspects of this marionette theatre. Chapters discuss the pre-Communist history of this theatre, manipulator training, plays (including both written scripts and ribald interludes improvised in the local dialect), stages, performance contexts, the ritual prelude of exorcism, and the economic realities. In one of the most valuable sections of his study, Ruizendaal describes the puppet figures (which descend from thirty-six basic characters) and explains the significance of warriors, kings, gods, and spirit types. He observes that Chinese printed sources themselves identify figures in an inconsistent manner; this study based on informants' understandings may be the first in any language to identify figures with accuracy. Diagrams and black-and-white photographs of varying quality are presented throughout the text. Additional illustrations would have further clarified puppet iconography and design elements described in the text.

The study focuses on four companies, each representing a different skill level, production scale, technical sophistication, and revenue-earning ability. The troupes range from a privatized subsidiary of a large state-owned company to a small temple-based company founded by a Taoist priest. (Interestingly, the less skilled, privately owned rural companies provide a better income for performers than large state-owned companies.) Ruizendaal writes candidly of the personal and professional relationships between companies; he obtained an insider's perspective during his interviews. His insights prove especially interesting as the troupes experience the roller coaster of twentieth-century Chinese politics, popular culture, and contemporary marketing. He examines the family ties that once linked troupes together, and contrasts this with the contemporary organization of major companies. He documents small surviving companies in rural areas whose ritual functions are primarily tied to Taoist beliefs, though they sometimes provide accompaniments for Buddhist rituals as well.

Ruizendaal had surprising access to treasures of the individual companies. [End Page 534] Many Quanzhou libretti were burned during the Cultural Revolution, so in some cases scripts have had to be transcribed from senior performers' memories. But scripts of rural companies fared somewhat better. Ruizendaal obtained copies of handwritten scripts and other primary materials and produced sketches to document the physical layout of each company's presentation. Appendixes include the first English translation of Wu'an String Puppet Company leader Cai Suipai's reconstruction of selected acts from Dou Tao (with photographs of the handwritten Chinese text). An annotated translation of the ritual prelude to performances, Da Chu Su, follows. He thus provides examples of both the dramatic and ritual texts cited throughout the book, though it is noted that textual variations exist between companies and performance venues.

The puppet performances are part of religious activity, often including a purification dance by the puppet of Chief Marshall Tian. As these ritual events convey a sponsor's wishes to higher powers, they must be carried out in an effective manner. The performances, which follow these ceremonies, serve as entertain the gods and spirits invited to the celebration. I have never come across a clearer explanation of the complex relationships of and distinctions between ceremonial and entertainment functions. Ruizendaal offers in-depth descriptions of performances, identifies the steps...


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pp. 534-535
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