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Reviewed by:
  • Glove Puppet Theatre in Southeast Asia and Taiwan ed. by Kaori Fushiki and Robin Ruizendaal
  • Matthew Isaac Cohen
POTEHI: GLOVE PUPPET THEATRE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA AND TAIWAN. Edited by Kaori Fushiki and Robin Ruizendaal. Taipei: Taiyuan Publishing, 2016. xxii + 196 pp. Paperback, $22.00.

An oft-repeated tale of the origin of potehi (known as budaixi in Mandarin), China's best known form of glove puppet theatre, purports that it was invented by a "wannabe" literati who repeatedly flunked his civil service examinations. He attempted and failed at string puppetry but discovered that by handling figures directly in his palms he could animate the puppets and move them in a convincing, life-like fashion (Cohen 1981: 33–34). Potehi, since its beginnings in Fujian Province in the eighteenth century, has been an important Hokkien-language medium for literary classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. Like China's shadow puppet theatres, Potehi functioned as a poor man's opera, performed by itinerant professional companies. Plays were derived from the repertoire of gaojiaxi, an operatic genre from southern Fujian, and were mostly occasioned by temple celebrations. Millions of Hokkien speakers left China after Amoy (Xiamen) on Fujian's coast was established as a treaty port in 1842. They brought with them their most portable forms of culture, including Potehi.

Fushiki and Ruizendaal's edited volume Potehi: Glove Puppet Theatre in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, traces the parallel development of Potehi in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Singapore from the nineteenth century to the present. Through available archival, newspaper, museum, oral historical, and ethnographic sources, the international team of authors take stock of the form's continuities and innovations, flowerings, and flounderings.

For much of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, until the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, Potehi troupes departed regularly from Fujian and toured the region. All of the sites where Potehi was or is practiced contain artifacts—ancient and often-revered puppets made by expert craftsmen in Fujian and regularly repaired and restored by troupes. Plays were transmitted orally in some locations, or with the aid of manuscripts and published sources in others. Stories were performed serially over many days and nights—sometimes a month or longer—with repertoire determined by magical divination. Music was almost invariably live, performed by small bands of instrumentalists and singers who sat backstage with the puppeteers. A few temples had permanent puppet stages, but most companies traveled with booths to be erected in temple courtyards or on the streets. The facades of some of the booths are richly carved and decorated.

Potehi remains a fairly conservative art, although it has produced some noteworthy post-traditional offshoots, including the Pili television [End Page 500] and film puppet animation of Taiwan and Hand Stories (2010) and other contemporary stage productions by fifth-generation Potehi puppeteer Yeung Fai (b. 1964 in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province) and his French collaborator Yoann Pencolé. (These innovations merit only brief mention in this volume, unfortunately.) Some degree of localization and modification has occurred wherever Potehi has taken root, especially after 1949. Proponents of Taiwan's "golden rays puppet theatre" (jinguang budaixi) modified Potehi starting in the 1950s with larger stages and puppets, special effects, and recorded sound. Potehi companies in Malaysia and Singapore replaced the gaojiaxi plays with a more popular operatic style known as gezaixi, imported to peninsular Southeast Asia from Taiwan by traveling opera companies, vinyl records, and opera films. The vitality of Potehi, as Hokkien-language heritage, declined in Singapore with the initiation of the "Speak Mandarin campaign" of 1979 and today most Singaporean puppeteers are older women trained in gezaixi. In Indonesia, Potehi is considered to be a form of wayang. Performers are mostly Javanese. Except for some formulaic Hokkien words and phrases, they perform in Indonesian and Javanese and use wayang terminology to describe their art. (For example, the Hokkien-language songs used to introduce characters are called suluk.) Since reformasi in 1998 and the lifting of anti-Chinese laws, wayang Potehi has been embraced as a symbol of Chinese-Indonesian identity, and celebrated through publications, exhibitions, and high-profile performances. A chapter on...


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