A Puppet Show For The Gods

A puppet show fit for the gods
A random roadside puppet show in rural Changhua County.

Bùdàixì 布袋戲 (a form of traditional puppetry) is a common sight all around Taiwan. These puppet shows are typically staged in front of temples in the late afternoon regardless of whether there are any mortals looking on. Dialogue, often in Taiwanese (not Mandarin Chinese), is amplified over a rudimentary sound system. The puppet show outfits I have seen are typically one-man operations working out of a modified blue delivery truck, somewhat like the more elaborate electric flower cars.

As I understand it, there is a repertoire in traditional puppet theatre, with many of the same stories told over and over again for the amusement of the gods residing in the temple wherever the performances take place. I was fascinated to learn that certain gods are known to be especially fond of puppet shows, but if you’re interested in seeing one all you have to do is roam around and keep your eyes open. You’ll see one eventually—even in Taipei 台北.

I haven’t yet chanced upon a puppet show that was lively and well-attended. Usually it’s just a few old people lounging in the shade, as was the case when I snapped the photograph above on the outskirts of Yuánlín 員林. I am aware, from doing a little research, that there are master puppeteers, non-mobile stage setups, and even television shows based on the practice, but I’ve only seen the working class, street-level version, which is kind of fun to be honest. There’s nothing quite like taking a wrong turn on a country road and finding a lone puppeteer at work.