February 06, 2006

Taiwanese hand puppet drama hits Cartoon Network

On February 4, the first English adaptation of a Taiwanese hand puppet television series appeared on the Cartoon Network. The series is titled "Wulin Warriors - Legend of the Seven Stars" and began with the pilot episode, "The Saga Begins." This project has been in the works for four years, but with the series finally appearing on television, this news was on heavy rotation on Taiwanese TV over the weekend.

For the English adaptation, music and voices have been re-dubbed, and the series has been re-edited. The series has been adapted to make the plot less complex and to avoid cultural aspects that may be too unfamiliar for young viewers, who are the target audience for the English version of the series. This contrasts with the audience of the series in Taiwan, which seems to be primarily adults and young adults.

This gives English-speaking viewers a chance to appraise the hand puppet form of drama, which is traditionally very inaccessible to non-Taiwanese. The greatest obstacle to enjoying these series is language. Hand puppet dramas are usually performed in Taiwanese, and very rarely in Mandarin. In addition to language, there are other impediments to enjoying these puppet shows. The plots are complex and the episodes are of a serial nature, so it is difficult to understand if one only watches one episode.

The last factor impeding cross-cultural appreciation is that these are puppet shows for adults, which is a foreign concept. The Taiwanese have been able to get their heads around this concept, and there must be an interesting story as to how that happened, but for Westerners, taking puppets seriously takes some effort. My first reaction to seeing hand puppet dramas on TV was, "Don't their mouths even move? Wouldn't this be a lot cooler if they used stop-motion animation or marionettes?" Later, I found out that adults, and often older adults were the biggest fans of this series, which was mind blowing. One sign I saw for a video store advertises porn VCDs and hand puppet drama VCDs. Although I assume the audiences for theses two genres of video are different, it is clear that the store is not selling to children. There are clubs at colleges devoted to hand puppets. Fans can buy hand puppets and re-enact the series and create their own dramas. It still boggles my mind that there are stores that exist solely by selling these puppets and accessories; but take a look at the prices on Yahoo! Auctions, and it becomes a little easier to understand. In US dollars, prices for puppets are in the hundreds, even in the thousand range. Like fans of Japanese cartoons, puppet drama fans also make costumes and dress as their favorite characters at fan conventions.

Although the English adaptation provides a window on Taiwanese culture, there is the possibility that the adaptation was bungled and the English version is not representative of the Taiwanese original. But on the other hand, it could be the next Power Rangers in America. I'll be waiting to check it out next time I'm near the Cartoon Network.
An article from March of last year, "Ultra Popular Taiwanese Puppet Show on Cartoon Network," includes a brief introduction to hand puppets. It also refutes the popular notion for why the series was cancelled in the 70s. The article states, "The series ended up being banned for several years, officially because it 'caused students to skip classes and farmers to abandon their fields.' ... More complex political reasons involving the Mandarin-promotion policy of the Taiwanese government are often believed to be the actual root cause of the show's cancellation. "

Taipei Times article
Taiwan News article
Pili official webpage in English


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