During my Fulbright tenure, I had a few friends who took their precious two-week out-of-country trip to nearby Taiwan. Their reports were so glowing I was suspect. “The air! The order! The internet access!”, they’d exclaim. Could it be true? In the year that has followed my return, I’ve heard countless people recount the same wondrous impossibilities to me: “no one spits!” “I didn’t get travel diarrhea!”
Finding out I was headed there this past November to travel with the Taiyuan Puppet Company (whom I met in Beijing last year) on their Touch Taiwan project and check out the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museums Chinese shadow puppet collection got me so curious. I was going back to China, or was I?
Mainland China and Taiwan’s political conflict runs deep. If you know anything about the Communist Revolution, then you’re well versed why. But, it goes beyond that. Since then, their relationship has remained tenuous at best.
I arrived on a long flight from the Netherlands and couldn’t tell quite where I was. They were speaking Chinese, yes, but so much of what I had come to know and love about mainland China wasn’t immediately present. There really was no spitting. And – so. much. order. The Taiwanese people wait in line quietly for the next subway. These waiting lines are painted in clear pathways on the platform floor and no one is a step out of place. (I actually butted ahead of someone, not noticing the painted lines, and got a ‘she’s from the mainland’ dig from a person behind me.) The sense actually didn’t make sense to me. I don’t mean to say that mainland China is only a bundle of chaos, but there is a level of unpredictability and disorder that exists just under the surface, all the time. Adventure, good and bad, is always in the air. Taiwan was immediately safe and knowable.
After a few days fighting off a terrible cold and flu, I finally made my way to the oldest part of Taipei, the Dadaocheng district, to meet up with the Taiyuan Theatre Company. Here, the streets narrowed, the smells erupted and the sound pollution tripled. I felt a familiarity in the air. The puppet theatre resides in a cozy four-floor building and butts up next to their partner museum that houses a lovely, comprehensive Asian puppetry collection. The entire place is a physical manifestation of my brain and heart: half practitioner and puppeteer, half researcher and archivist. It instantly felt like home.
The office was exactly as I’d imagined – a hive of activity and laughter. It took me but a moment to get situated, meet everyone and I spent the rest of the week working on various projects including scenic painting for their latest puppet show.
Rehearsal for their next show, with the Golden Ray style of hand puppets – which are slightly larger than the oldest form.
Scenic painting some desert rocks – in progress.
The puppet theatre
When I’m not in the workshop, I climb the rickety stairs out back to another haven: the beautifully kept puppet archives. Inside the frosty chambers are shelves upon shelves of treasures so beautiful, I feel subservient. You can reach out and touch them, actually touch them. All of them, perfectly laid out on their corresponding shelf – everything from hand puppets, shadow puppets, rod puppets, head pieces, and accessories from nearly every Asian country.
They look like they’re just resting there, waiting for you to appreciate them.
I spent a couple afternoons helping the museum identify a few sets of Chinese shadow puppets and to simply spend time with the pieces. So few collections are this close to me. Usually, the great pieces in the mainland are behind glass and unable to be touched, others are in collections so wrapped up in red tape, I’ll probably never see them. It was great to touch, to smell, to scrutinize in glorious leisure.
When my time came to an end, they waved me off in characteristic style. We split a feast of food at their meeting table and shared a few gracious toasts. I was sad to leave, but as usual, confident I’ll find an excuse to return.
As I found my way to the airport, without a hitch in the getting there, I was again made to recognize the benefits to Taiwan’s ideological proximity – somewhere in between mainland China and the west. The collection in particular. My inquiries of pieces, of origins, of context are met with equal interest, never offense. The education that intimacy with the pieces brings is unparalleled. Just as I was grateful for the opportunity here, I grumbled about the treasures that will most likely remain out of my reach on the mainland – forever. I may spend a lifetime in service to the art form and never get a moment with the true ancestors.
Still, in some ways, I missed the fight, the adventure, the obstacles that the mainland always presents to me. It has helped me tangibly connect with my own desire to understand and champion the art form. So, glad for the mainland and glad for China-lite – both of which give me an different entry point into this tradition that I love so well.
Thanks for reading~