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Master of Puppets | Toshio Huang

  • Date:2021-04-13
Puppetry master Toshio Huang

Name: 黃俊雄
Year of Birth: 1933
Place of Birth: Yunlin County, Taiwan
Did You Know That...?
From March 1970, "The Scholar Swordsman (雲洲大儒俠)," a puppet show produced and performed by Toshio Huang, was broadcast on the Taiwan Television (TTV), which aired a total of 583 episodes, setting a stellar new record for televised traditional drama performances. Watching Huang's puppetry show became a national pastime, with an audience that transcended ethnicity, gender, age, and social status and a profound impact on society, education, and theater.

Toshio Huang was born in 1933 in Huwei Township, Yunlin County, and he learned traditional Taiwanese puppetry, known as pò͘-tē-hì, from his father, renowned puppetry master Huang Hai-tai (1901–2007). From an early age, Toshio Huang learned classical Chinese literature and traditional nanguan and beiguan music, showing a particular talent for beiguan percussion. His father was recognized as a puppetry artist with deep knowledge of classical Chinese literature among his colleagues of the pò͘-tē-hì circle, being able to recite at will from numerous classical works. The father had helped Toshio Huang to develop a foundation for profound understanding of classical Chinese literature.

At the age of 19, Huang formed Wu Zhou Yuan Third Troupe, building on the foundation set by his father’s training to establish his own distinctive performance style. From the start, Huang held himself to a high standard, requiring himself to have good understanding of the words and background involved so that he could convey the stories, written in archaic prose, in a form more readily understandable by modern audiences. Huang also has a love for incorporating elements not shown in traditional pò͘-tē-hì, such as dance, music, and film, into his works in intriguing ways. This integration of various art forms became the unique creative impetus behind his works.

In 1957, Huang inherited his father's business, forming the True Wu Zhou Yuan Puppetry Troupe and started performing at the Fuyuan Theater in Kaohsiung. This troupe was characterized by a breakthrough, boldly bringing its productions into film, television, and even records, beyond the traditional pò͘-tē-hì performance venues.

In 1966, Huang recorded a series of shows that would prove an essential part of making his name in commercial theater, including "Liuhe and the Bloodstained City," "Meteor Man's Bloody Battle on Death Penalty Island," and "Liuhe and the Three Secret Spirits Break the Human Head Bridge over the Sea of Blood." All of these were accompanied by traditional percussion, and the characters would even sing in beiguan style as they appeared in the scenes.

In 1968 and 1969, Huang also made three pò͘-tē-hì movies: "Journey to the West," "The Flying Dragon," and "The Massacre." These films boasted tremendous creativity and were the first to incorporate modern film techniques in the presentation of pò͘-tē-hì puppetry, a revolution in the folk art.

In 1969, the troupe began performing at the Songhe Hall at Today's World in Taipei, they were the first to present the shows through innovative stage setups, coupled with trendy modern music. Through this, they gave traditional puppet theater a new, modern look that could stand tall in the world of commercial theater.

The following year, in 1970, Huang brought the protagonist of "The Scholar Swordsman," Shi Yanwen, to the screen in a bold experiment of incorporating the traditional with the non-traditional. His puppet show combined classical Chinese language with vernacular speech in Taiwanese, creating a vibrant and charming show. Shi Yanwen, the protagonist he created, became an important part of the shared memory of a generation of Taiwanese, and the production unveiled a new era for pò͘-tē-hì, as it moved into a more professional realm with a division of labor. Thus, some 50 years ago, Toshio Huang created a legendary success story with the televised puppet show “The Scholar Swordsman.”

In the beginning, Taiwan Television broadcast "The Scholar Swordsman" twice a week. Eventually, it became a nearly daily fixture, and watching puppetry on television became almost a national pastime.

With the same deep roots in traditional pò͘-tē-hì as his peers and the experience gained from countless innovative experiments in more than ten years, Huang has made extensive and daring use of modern technology, fully mastering the technological attribute of television. He has created unique theatrical effect, skillfully combining the languages of TV and pò͘-tē-hì. This amounted to a kind of "creative destruction" for the art, creating an "era of discontinuity" in the development of Taiwanese puppet theater as the art was reborn for modern society. Huang has set a new model with the combination of television and pò͘-tē-hì.

In addition, quite a few theme songs used for leading characters of Huang’s pò͘-tē-hì were adapted from traditional nanguan and beiguan music, and the newly arranged Taiwanese-language songs have also enjoyed lasting popularity. These songs have helped breathe new life into the traditional opera music and through popular culture, the audience may come to appreciate the richness of traditional theater.

In 2009, Toshio Huang was named a Preserver of Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Council of Cultural Affairs. Two years later, he was honored with the title of National Living Treasure, and on November 12, 2015, he received the Order of the Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon.