Rod Puppet show originates from Tujia witchcraft in the west of Hubei and Hunan provinces. It is widely spread in Yongding minority settlement, Yongshun, Longshan, Laifeng and Hefeng of the west Hubei. In ancient times, puppet show was derived from the sacrificial activities of wizards.
In sacrificial activities, wizards held up the well-dressed puppet of their gods to display the historical events and religious stories, which was used only for sacrificial activities. However, in the late Ming and Qing Dynasties, influenced by operas of the central area, a large number of historical and traditional operas were introduced and transformed into a unique opera integrating witchcraft culture and opera performance, which has been passed down from generation to generation.
Rod puppet show is a local opera preserved by seven generations of the Ding family in Qiaotou Township. It mostly plays the traditional performances by its special singing skills. It went through ups and downs. After the opening up and reform, some artists led by Ding Yulong voluntarily reorganized the puppet troupe which was dissolved for some historical reasons.
With the strong support of the governments at all levels, the show has been performed in the countryside for many years and has been welcomed by the people. Every year, the troupe performs no less than 200 times, with an audience of 30,000. The troupe often performs voluntarily for the aged in nursing homes. These have brought it both social and economic benefits. The troupe was awarded the honorary title of "Top 100 Opera Troupe" by Hunan Provincial Culture Department in 1998.
There are different singing skills in the traditional plays and religious plays. The performance highlights the unity of form and spirit, requiring very difficult and complicated acting skills. It is of great significance in many aspects, it is the bond linking ethnic minorities in Western Hunan and Hubei provinces, and it is a wonder of the Tujia traditional operas in Zhangjiajie.
2. Main Features
Qiaotou rod puppet show which is preserved till now has the following characteristics.
First, the puppet is 1.1 meters tall with a weight of 6 kg. Its solid body is made by bamboo basket, which appears like a real man. Most of the props such as the heads, crowns and ribbons can be added and made at any time, and the facial makeup also can be updated at any time.
Second, the artists are usually versatile and can play different roles. Their performance can endow the puppet with spirit, vividly showing the characters of the role. Two musicians play ten instruments, which is something no other troupe can do.
Third, a rod puppet show does not need many theatrical properties, so it is easy to go anywhere for the actors. And only a space of sixteen square meters is enough for the performance.
Fourth, it has a large marker and mass foundation in the rural areas of the western Hubei and Hunan.
Fifth, it is a kind of ancient cultural art and it enjoys great reputation in the world for its rarity and antiquity. In Hunan, the only remaining rural rod puppetry is Qiaotou theatrical troupe.
3. Important values
The rod puppetry is important to spread and inherit western Hunan civilization and it is the product of the combination of the central plain culture and the western Hunan’s witch culture. The excavation and reorganization will contribute to the research of the historical changes of various nationalities in Western Hunan, to a better understanding of the influence of witchcraft culture, and to the inheritance and promotion of Zhangjiajie local culture.
The rod puppetry favors the love stories between heroes and beauties, which is of symbolic significance for the Chinese nation to love peace and bring its culture to the world. To promote rod puppetry also can help unite western Hunan people at home and abroad.
4. Developing difficulties
There are two crises in developing rod puppetry.
With the popularization of television and internet, various kinds of shows and plays have improved audiences’ appreciation and requirements. However, the puppetry, with a single plot, few characters and old costume, has gradually lost appeal to young people.
In recent years, there is no excellent inheritor with strong ability of cultural innovation. Due to the lack of funds, the educated young people have gone out to work and only the old ones are still playing, so it is urgent to find new inheritors to pass down this ancient art. If the related departments don’t take protective measures, the puppetry with thousands years history will completely withdraw from the historical stage, which will be a great pity for the Chinese nation.
5. Measures taken and achievements gained
1) Related departments are exploring and sorting out ancient books and historical materials about puppetry to compile the performance techniques and inheritance ideas and also continue to promote it.
2) On June 6, 2013, the Zhangjiajie puppetry association was set up, which has become the driving force to develop rod puppetry.
3) Over the years, experts engaged in opera, history and literature are invited to be the consultant for the research and promotion of rod puppetry.
4) Further strengthen the excavation and compilation of rod puppet shows, as well as the talent cultivation and base construction. A puppetry museum and a rod puppetry performance center were built through attracting investment, so as to protect, inherit puppetry and provide a platform for the promotion and innovation of puppet shows.
5) In October 2016, Hunan provincial government announced puppet show (rod puppetry) was listed in the fourth batch of provincial intangible cultural heritage protection projects.
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