Part 1: The Puppets

by fingerplayers

This Digital Resource is a repository that accompanies the Turn By Turn We Turn audio theatre, holding together the stories of traditional Chinese hand puppetry and how it has touched the different artists in The Finger Players. This segment features Tan Beng Tian and Ong Kian Sin, Co-Founders of The Finger Players, introducing us to the art of Chinese hand puppetry. 

Ah Liang: Children as young as toddlers can tell the difference between the characters! Even they can understand and appreciate the tales of heroism, struggle and celebration in our stories! Why not foreigners?”
阿良: 三岁小孩都懂得分辨生旦净末丑!无论是爱恨情仇,还是什么帝王将相、才子佳人,连孩子都会欣赏的故事,这老外又怎么会看不懂呢?

Traditional Chinese hand puppetry originated in the 17th century in the Fujian province, and was initially performed in the Minnan dialect. The puppet is made up of a fabric glove, which forms the torso of the puppet. The head and limbs of the puppet are intricately carved out of camphor wood and painted by craftsmen. The costumes are meticulously embroidered and sewn by hand. Most of the traditional hand puppets at The Finger Players are from a master craftsman based in Quanzhou in the Fujian province of China.

1. Warming up the hands 手部暖身

The puppeteer first starts with warming up their hands. The warm-up consists of stretching the fingers apart, to loosen the muscles and skin, as well as going through the basic hand puppetry moves. 

– 整肩, the neutral position 

– 点头, nodding

– 挥手, waving 

– 鞠躬, bowing

– 拍手, clapping

The puppeteer typically goes through this routine every day, in order to maintain the flexibility of the hands and fingers. This flexibility can be seen when the puppeteer does the neutral position of the hand puppet, called 整肩 zhengjian, literally translated as the neat placement of shoulders. If the puppeteer’s hands are not warmed up sufficiently, the puppet will be seen as having lopsided shoulders.

2. Wearing the puppets 穿戴布偶

This is how the puppeteer wears the glove of the puppet – the thumb goes into the left hand of the puppet, the index finger goes into the head, and the middle, ring and little finger are grouped together, and goes into the right hand of the puppet. (From 0:21)
操偶员是这么戴上手套的。首先,拇指穿入布袋的左边,成为布袋偶的左手,食指穿入布袋的中间,成为布袋偶的头。最后,中指、无名指和小指一起穿入布袋的右边,成为布袋偶的右手。(0:21 开始)

3. Introducing the characters 介绍人物

There are five main character types of Chinese hand puppets.
传统布袋偶有五个主要角色 ,生旦净丑杂。

  • “Sheng” (生: Gentleman) 
  • “Dan” (旦: Maiden)
  • “Jing” (净: Painted face)
  • “Chou” (丑: Clown) 
  • “Za” (杂: Miscellaneous)

The video above features some of the character types that are featured in Turn By Turn We Turn.

  • “Sheng” (生: Gentleman),

    The “Sheng” are male roles, and can be short for 武生 wusheng (warrior), or 书生 shusheng (scholar). The 武生 has a fisted hand to hold weapons, while the 书生 has an open palm.
    “生” 是男性角色,可以代表武生,或书生。武生通常握着拳头,方便握武器。书生不需要挥武器,所以手掌是张开的。

  • “Dan” (旦: Maiden), 

    The “Dan” refers to the maiden, or female roles. The “dan” characters can be differentiated based on their characters, such as 老旦 laodan (old maiden), 苦旦 kudan (sorrowful maiden), 武旦 wudan (female warrior), 花旦 huadan (youthful maiden). 

  • “Jing” (净: Painted face),

    The “Jing” is the painted face role. These are typically male, and have strong, domineering characters. Each colour of the face represents a different character trait – red for loyalty, black for short-temperedness, and green for evil. 
    “净” 是花脸角色,通常以男性为主,性格刚硬,霸气十足。“净“的脸部颜色也代表不同的性格 – 红色代表坚定的忠诚,黑色代表易怒的性格,而绿色,就代表邪恶的个性。

  • “Chou” (丑: Clown) 

    The “Chou” is the clown role. These are typically male, and are meant to lighten up the mood with their comical ways. They can be differentiated by the white patch that is painted in the middle of their faces, around the nose. 
    “丑” 就是小丑的角色,通常以男性为主,诙谐逗趣的 “丑” 经常给大家带来欢乐。辨认 “丑” 角非常容易。他们的鼻梁中心一定会抹上白色一块。

  • “Za” (杂: Miscellaneous)

    The “Za” literally translates as “miscellaneous”, and is the category for which other roles belong. Some examples include animals, devils, deities or monks.
    “杂” 就是其他无法归类的布袋偶,例如动物,恶魔,神灵,以及和尚。

4. Performing a scene 表演桥段

During a traditional Chinese hand puppet performance, the audience typically only sees what is above the puppet stage (走马板 zoumaban). 

This is a short scene in Turn By Turn We Turn, where performers present an excerpt from Journey to the West. This excerpt features Monkey King and his fight with the Heavenly Warrior after acquiring the Golden Rod as a weapon. 

In this video, the puppeteers verbalize the percussive beats of the music in a traditional Chinese hand puppet performance “kuang cey dai cey”. This helps with the rhythm of the fight and creates accents to the movements.  
这个视频当中,偶戏演员通过口述 “kuang cey dai cey” 来模拟传统布袋演出的音律节奏。这样一来,武打动作就更有节奏感,也更铿锵有力。

Videographer and Editor 摄影与剪辑: Jai Rafferty