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Puppetry: A Performative Reenactment of Taiwan

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Abstract

This dissertation examines Taiwan through puppetry. The unique philosophy and ontology of puppetry perfectly narrate the performative nature of Taiwan. My interests in puppets and research on puppetry can be divided into three major thematic concerns that underpin this dissertation: 1) puppets’ association with life and death, existentiality and ontology; 2) their connections with our bodies and souls; and 3) how puppets preserve or smuggle knowledge and memories. I am especially interested in a puppet’s ability to be and become any beings or states, which I refer to as a puppet’s becoming and unbecoming. Becoming and unbecoming point to the dynamic and transformative processes through which puppets negotiate with time and space, as well as other existents, to transform themselves into distinct beings and further expand their lives to create relations with others. Such actions and dynamics are then adopted to the study of Taiwan, Taiwanese culture and identity, which are also performative and always in transformation.

The questions surrounding both puppetry and Taiwan are generally derived from a sense of inherent contradiction and uncertainty. For instance, are puppets humans or nonhumans, alive or lifeless? Are people on the island Taiwanese or Chinese? It is the goal of this research to contest these “either…or” questions, and suggest an unbound narrative of “neither…nor” or “both”—puppets are neither humans nor nonhumans, and can be both alive and lifeless. Puppetry and Taiwan, the two most critical targets of this study, are tied together empirically and theoretically to generate dialogues, including their interdependency. My attempt is to provide a fresh perspective to understanding what Taiwan/puppet is, can be, does and can do.

This dissertation consists of three main chapters. Chapter 1 traces the ongoing journey of budaixi from the eighteenth century as it parallels Taiwan’s historical and sociopolitical development. I also examine how budaixi contributes to nation-building projects in the twenty-first century. Chapter 2 focuses on puppets’ potential to serve as a medium to address, redress, or reimagine the national trauma of Taiwan’s White Terror. While the first two chapters solely pertain to the Han Chinese or Taiwanese experience of puppetry, Chapter 3 turns to Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples. I study how puppets, specifically giant puppets and shadow puppets, are adopted to convey and embody Indigenous mythologies and knowledges that have been orally passed down for centuries.

In sum, all three chapters exemplify the capacity of puppetry to be a vessel and repository of Taiwan’s distinct social, political, and cultural journey as it has traveled collaterally with the evolution of Taiwanese subjectivities.

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This item is under embargo until October 19, 2024.