- Marionette Plays From Northern China by Fan Pen Li Chen
Fan Pen Li Chen has recently published a new collection of translated plays and excerpts from the Northern Central Chinese marionette tradition. The book is a great resource for teachers or students looking for usable play scripts from this region and medium to analyze or perform. Chen's previously published books, Visions for the Masses: Chinese Shadow Plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi (2004) and Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion and Women Warriors (2007), focus solely on China's shadow puppet traditions. In this new work, Chen returns to Northern Central Shaanxi province as the center of her fieldwork, but shifts her focus to marionette traditions.
To situate her book, Chen points to past publications on Chinese marionette traditions and explains that while China's southern region has been thoroughly researched (such as in Robin Ruizendaal's Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou 2006), northern central China has not. [End Page 229] During her fieldwork trips in 1999 and 2004, Chen confirmed that the only remaining practitioners of the northern marionette tradition are in Heyang county, Shaanxi province. As many folk puppetry forms in China are swiftly fading, Heyang county is the exception to the rule for marionette practitioners; "Although theatrical performers were considered of low social status, and the theatre in general was condemned by orthodox Confucians, this seems not to have been the case in Heyang" (p. 18). Still, prior to 1949s Communist revolution, Heyang city alone boasted thirty-six troupes. In 2004, there were just three.
Heyang's marionette tradition purports nearly 500 play titles in its repertoire, although only 200 are said to have survived. Of these plays, few were written down and even fewer were archived. The source of Chen's play translations, therefore, are artfully cobbled together from a myriad of sources: some are full-length play scripts given to her by the former director of the official marionette theatre of Heyang county, some are small excerpts and skits from a published booklet and a few have been derived from a VCD of taped performances from which Chen transcribed text.
The book begins with a very brief introduction that provides just enough to contextualize Chinese marionettes and touch upon the previously overlooked role that religion has played in shaping the marionette form (Chen dives into this much more thoroughly in her 2007 work). But, similar to Visions for the Masses on shadow plays from Shaanxi and Shanxi, Chen here lets the works speak for themselves. The bulk of the book is comprised of selected plays and excerpts, divided into three sections: (1) Post-Midnight Skits, (2) Historical Fiction, and (3) Romance. Additionally, each play has its own informative and engaging introduction with a few colored photographs of relevant marionette puppet characters, which helps the reader keep the translated plays within the realm of marionette performance and envision the play's characters on three-dimensional forms.
The post-midnight skits are the most unique contribution, as few have ever been translated. These selections are short and sweet, none numbering more than ten pages. And, they're characteristically hilarious. Bawdy in nature, their categorization of post-midnight denotes the desired audience demographic, void of the young and the very old after midnight. Over time, as these skits were performed in different time slots, their sexual content sanitized.
The post-midnight plays are a great example of how witty and uncensored Chinese folk puppet performance can be. The characters are vivid and clownish, sly, and even elegant while pontificating on base topics. In the first offering in the category, Lai Baozi, the play's main [End Page 230] character "weasels out of being punished for theft by expounding on the ridiculous topic of farting" (p. 28). For a countryside audience who has stayed past nearly everyone's bedtime, one can only imagine what raucous fun this material would incite.
The most deserving of the category post-midnight is certainly the bawdy Baldy's Wedding Night (which includes an appended excerpt from...