Xuegang Tan
Deputy Director, Protection Department, Fujian Provincial ICH Protection Center

With the accelerated urbanization and the rise of modern popular culture in China in 1990s, and against the macro-environment of technical rationality, traditional arts lost their holding in many fields. Among these arts, Fujian puppetry, which has an uninterrupted thousand-year history, encountered a difficult situation related to transmission. There was simply not enough interest and the number of practitioners began to wane. To face these difficulties, the representative inheritors of Fujian puppetry–the principals and artists of the Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe, Jinjiang Hand Puppetry Troupe, and Zhangzhou Puppetry Troupe–have been searching for support from all possible channels and calling for attention to and promotion of puppetry. Among these proponents is the director of Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe, Mr. Wang Jingxian, who started to popularize puppetry while in his early twenties and continues to do so today as he approaches sixty. The success of their efforts to reignite interest in Fujian puppetry can be measured by the increase value that local governments and communities have been placing on puppetry and can also be reflected in the Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe relocating to a new venue and expanding the exhibition and performing venues to accommodate its needs.

The core of protecting and transmitting intangible cultural heritage is the practitioner communities. Therefore, the target strategy for training coming generations of Fujian puppetry practitioners involves educating practitioners, potential practitioners, and appreciators.

The incoming generations of practitioners are mainly educated through apprenticeship under the supervision of senior practitioners. There are only fewer than two hundred apprentices receiving elite education. Governments and communities have granted capital and venue support in this regard. For example, the Chinese government grants ten thousand yuan each year as an inheritors’ allowance to registered senior practitioners who are providing apprenticeships, and the Fujian Provincial government grants 3,000 yuan as an inheritors’ allowance to stimulate the senior practitioners’ enthusiasm to pass on the skills and techniques of puppetry. Up to now, Fujian has f if teen national level inheritors, twenty-five provincial-level inheritors, and eighty-three municipal-level inheritors registered in the list of inheritors.

Potential practitioners are mainly educated through professional education in schools and colleges. The three troupes have set up puppetry per forming and production majors at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, Fujian Vocational College of Art Zhangzhou Branch, and Quanzhou Art School, among others, and fostered over one thousand professionals. After graduation, the recent graduates become potential puppetry practitioners, and hundreds of them turn into true practitioners. Moreover, the professionals who chose not to pursue puppetry as a career become the third group we are trying to foster—the appreciators. When it comes to school education, governments have coordinated cooperation between schools and troupes and provided policy support. The schools also invite senior practitioners of the troupes to teach and set up student organizations like puppetry societies as a way of providing opportunities for more students to understand and experience puppetry.

Appreciators of puppetry can be formed in various ways, and they are also the foundation on which puppetry can be inherited and promoted. We have been promoting puppetry as a performing art by holding puppet shows in schools and theatres. In doing so, it becomes possible for more people to see and understand the sophisticated skills and rich cultural connotations of puppetry. We promote the Fujian puppetry in schools and classes by encouraging the puppetry troupes to create puppetry hobby groups in colleges and middle and primary schools, which provide an opportunity for students to write and perform glove puppet shows during extracurricular time. We have also set up the Training Program for Teachers in Middle and Primary Schools and Kindergartens to popularize puppetry on the campuses and initiated the One Hundred Puppet Shows in One Hundred Schools campaign to disseminate and popularize puppet performances and, at the same time, foster new audiences and new generations of inheritors. For example, the Zhangzhou Puppetry Troupe has set up puppetry societies in universities; the Red Scarf Puppetry Troupe of Xiangkou Primary School in Xiangcheng Town, Zhangzhou, has written, directed, and performed over seventy children’s plays under the guidance of both new and senior ar tists of the Zhangzhou Puppetry Troupe; the Jinjiang Hand Puppetry Troupe conducted the One Hundred Puppet Shows in One Hundred Schools campaign; and the Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe often performs puppetry at home and abroad, and even perform at the United Nations’ Headquarters. And the fact that some puppetry practitioners have travelled to over sixty countries denotes a high frequency of cultural communications of the troupe with foreign countries.

To help puppetry settle down and flourish, with the joint participation and efforts of the inheritors, the governments, and the communities to which they belong, Fujian Province set up the String-Pulled Puppetry Protection and Demonstration Base (Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe) and Jinjiang Glove Puppetry Protection and Demonstration Base (Jinjiang Hand Puppetry Troupe) in November 2011, and Glove Puppetry Protection and Demonstration Base (Zhangzhou Puppetry Troupe) in June 2010 and renovated and built a series of venues for performances, training, and exhibitions. For example, the Fujian Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Garden was set up in 2009. Additional venues include

  • The Quanzhou Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum
  • The Communication and Exhibition Hall of Quanzhou Jiali Museum
  • The Jiang Jiazou Puppet Head Carving Art Training Studio and Exhibition Hall under the auspices of Quanzhou Municipal Culture Bureau
  • The newly built puppetry theatre of the Quanzhou Puppetry Troupe
  • The Museum for Fujian-Taiwan Glove Puppetry under the auspices of Zhangzhou Municipal Culture Bureau
  • The Zhangzhou Zhuchu Puppetry Art Studio founded by Xu Zhuchu (a representative inheritor registered on the national list of intangible culture heritage)

We believe that with the attention of the UNESCO experts of intangible cultural heritage, under the coordination and management of cultural administrative authorities at various levels of the Chinese government, and with the joint efforts of the heritage bearers and the communities to which the puppetry troupes belong, the strategy for training coming generations of Fujian puppetry practitioners will lead to a brighter tomorrow.