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Preserver of Shadow Puppetry | Chang Fu-kuo

  • Date:2023-03-10
Preserver of Shadow Puppetry Chang Fu-kuo

Chinese Name: 張榑國

Born: 1956

Place of Birth: Kaohsiung (Southern Taiwan)

Did You Know?

Kaohsiung is considered the home of Taiwanese shadow puppetry, and Tung Hua Shadow Puppet Theater (東華皮影劇團) from the city's Dashe District is one of only three traditional shadow puppet theater troupes registered as intangible cultural heritage; it is also the oldest shadow puppet theater troupe in Taiwan. Chang Fu-kuo is the sixth generation of his family to lead the troupe, and he is sparing no effort in preserving and passing on the art of Taiwanese shadow puppetry.

Chang Fu-kuo has been performing with Tung Hua Shadow Puppet Theater since elementary school, inheriting the family’s enthusiasm for the art form. He is able to design new puppets based on the atmosphere of each show, and capable of restoring and re-carving old ones. He has developed new materials and tools, including introducing leather and updated control levers to make the puppets more refined and the puppeteers more comfortable. While maintaining the traditional techniques, he also adds creativity to his performances, incorporating elements of current events and humorous scenes into his flexible and rhythmic performances, along with gorgeous lighting effects. What is particularly special is the ability of Chang and up-and-coming seventh generation of the troupe to adapt their art creatively to the times, combining it with various events and promotions to produce custom-made plays that have been well received by the public.

In addition to visiting temples to entertain the gods and perform for the business world, he has also brought shadow puppet shows and teaching to schools and academic institutions. Chang has been invited to perform in the United States, South Korea, Costa Rica, Japan, and Hong Kong, and in 1994, he and the troupe were awarded the Golden Lion Award for Artistic Excellence and the Top Ten Outstanding Youth Award. In 2018, the Kaohsiung City Government honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to art education, and in 2020, he was registered as a Preserver of Shadow Puppetry Techniques by the Kaohsiung City Government. Shadow puppetry is an intangible cultural asset that preserves the wisdom of the ancestors and highlights the uniqueness and diversity of the region. Chang Fu-kuo's emphasis on finding a wider audience while preserving traditional culture is perhaps the reason why this family of shadow puppeteers has been able to sustain this culturally rich performing art.

The history of shadow puppetry in Taiwan can be traced back to the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, when it spread from Fujian and Guangdong in China to Taiwan's Kaohsiung and beyond. Tung Hua Shadow Puppet Theater was founded by Chang Chuang (張狀, 1820-1873), and has passed down through the hands of successive generations down to Chang Fu-kuo today. The name of the troupe has changed from the Hsin Te Hsing Shadow Players (新德興皮戲班) and Taiwan Shadow Painting Art Troupe (台灣影繪藝術團) to the present day Tung Hua Shadow Puppet Theater over the course of its nearly 200 years. Since its humble beginnings in the Qing Dynasty, through the Japanese period, the Nationalist government’s decampment to Taiwan, to the present day, the troupe has borne witness to the development of Taiwan’s popular entertainment culture.

The reason why Tung Hua Shadow Puppet Theater has survived to become the oldest shadow puppet troupe in Taiwan is that they have always been able to innovate and improve according to the times. The shadow puppets from the second generation of the troupe were simple and vivid, lifelike despite being mostly monochrome. The third generation, meanwhile, organized the scripts and revised the control method for the puppets, going from the original three rods, which made the puppets seem slow in their movements, to a more streamlined two-rod control method that resulted in greater agility and an even more vibrant and lifelike show.

The fourth-generation troupe leader was also very creative. The shadow puppets were originally uncolored, but he experimented with painting them with a special pigment to make them bright and vivid. He also improved the lighting effects by replacing the carbide lamp with an electric lamp, and he copied and compiled many new scripts, which have become heirlooms of the Changs family and a valuable source of information about shadow puppetry in Taiwan. During the period of Japanese rule in the early 20th century, even as the Japanese kominka policy of assimilation was in full effect, he led the troupe, then called Taiwan Shadow Painting Art Troupe, to perform in Japanese, enabling them to survive during this extraordinary period and continue to grow and flourish.

The fifth-generation leader of the troupe, Chang Te-cheng (張德成), inherited his father's business and renamed the troupe Tung Hua Shadow Theater. He chose not to limit himself and the troupe to traditional techniques, instead working to improve the shadow plays in a variety of ways. For example, he increased the size of the screen and the puppets and increased the colors of the puppets from the previous four colors of green, red, black, and white to ten colors. He also evolved the puppets from being presentable only side-on to also having oblique faces, at the same time giving the puppets two eyes rather than the traditional one and making the performances all the more realistic. From 1950 to 1965, Tung Hua Shadow Theater, under the leadership of Chang Te-cheng, was the only shadow puppet troupe to travel to all the theaters in Taiwan, and was well-received wherever they went. They earned such a strong reputation, in fact, that they even got invites to perform in Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, the US, and elsewhere, taking Taiwanese shadow puppetry international.