Wizards of Wood

A project for the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland

Text by Hsin-Mei Chuang
Photos by Matthias Messmer

Wizards of Wood

We are told to meet the Lingao County Wood Puppet Troupe in front of the Confucius temple of Lincheng, a county seat on Hainan Island. Untypical for an autumn afternoon, it is still humid and warm. The smell of fish hangs in the air. A few men are gathered near the riverbank drinking tea or chewing the fat. Their faces are covered in the steam of sizzling cooking pots. The performance is planned to start at eight o’clock in a village near Lincheng. We should leave. Our car drives through shady streets and into the dimness beyond. Outside the county seat there are few street lamps. The space is crammed with trucks, vendor carts, and motorcycles. A few are driving in the same direction as we are. They, too, must have heard the news of the wood puppet show at Bocheng village.
There is not a single eatery in the village. Everything is immersed in darkness. A friendly man invites us to follow him through the dusty lanes. A mouse alertly sneaks into a hole of a stone wall lit up by torches. Finally, with some relief, we hear noises. To our surprise, we spot a round table covered with fish, chicken, shrimps, and vegetables. Everybody is excited about the show tonight. Even the hens seem
to sense the unusual excitement in the air. They stride freely into the kitchen picking grains of rice from the floor. Suddenly, the village loudspeakers announce that the performance will begin earlier because of possible rainfall later in the night. A big crowd is gathered in front of the stage. Elderly men sit or stand at the rear chatting about everyday things, while children rush to the front to be as close as possible. The stage is set with modern lightening and audio equipment. A dozen musicians are playing full of

verve and dedication. Colorfully dressed actors are singing enthusiastically and moving their wooden puppets in a powerful and agile way. The puppets, whose eyes look so inspirited that they seem to be alive, move elegantly to the sound of the music and fly into the dark night. – Tonight’s story is about a beautiful girl who is being harassed by the empress’ impudent brother while hoping to marry a poor scholar. Children keep pushing each other at the front edge of the stage. They lift their heads like nestling birds making it look like they were part of the proscenium. It doesn’t matter whether they understand the love story, they just love it. The backstage offers another, quite different scene. An elderly actor takes the opportunity to have a rest and a smoke. He is a good storyteller: “In the old days, the show would go on from dusk to dawn. Performers didn’t wear uniforms, and the puppets were much smaller,” he says, his pink eyelids quivering and his red lips moving like two sleek fish. “Moonlight and bonfires were very important for the performance back then.” They resumed the theatrical work in the late 1970s. People had to reinvent the performing techniques. “It’s a process of modernizing our old wooden puppet theatre. But maybe not all changes are an improvement.” He pauses and takes a long puff. His festive reddish makeup and stiff wrinkles melt in the smoke.

The audience stays almost until midnight. Some children fall asleep in their mothers’ arms amid the boisterous music while a few youngsters gather around small tables at the edge of the square. They enjoy the background show while trying their luck at a game of dice or cards. The event is a festivity for everybody in an otherwise monotonous life. It is time for us to leave for Lincheng. The young receptionist in the gloomy hotel lobby looks lost and darts an indifferent look at us as we enter. Unlike most of our countryside trips, we stay in a simple hotel rather than with the farmers this time. The fluorescence-lit hotel is built with cheap materials and the beds are covered with spotted sheets. There are dark holes burned by cigarettes on the thin plywood floor and a unpleasant smell diffusing from the bathroom weep holes. Frankly, the facilities are still undeniably more comfortable than those in a village house. We realize the money-minded development has been roaring on its way. According to the acclaimed goals of the Chinese government’s policy, the farmers, their children or children’s children will one day be able to afford a better life. The path has so far been paved with much trouble and grievance and there is still a long way to go. Perhaps, when most peasants eventually afford those uniform-looking modern apartments, they will miss the earthy warmth of a simple countryside home that once was, as we already do.