Travel in Taiwan Museums

Taiwan Theater Museum

By Steven Cox, Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung



A typical stage for Taiwanese theater.

Such treasures as the National Palace Museum in Taipei show that the ROC govern-ment has taken great strides over the years to preserve and promote Chinese culture in Taiwan. However, the culture promoted in the past was mostly that of China, less of Taiwan. Only in recent years has the government begun to emphasize the fact that Taiwan has its own culture worthy of attention.

In line with this new policy, the Council for Cultural Planning and Development of the Executive Yuan began to support cultural centers around the island in the late 1980s. In Ilan county, an area in northeast Taiwan famous for its music and theater, the council helped establish the Taiwan Theater Museum.

The museum is dedicated to Taiwan's theatrical arts and to Taiwanese opera in particular. In this day of karaoke and Jackie Chan videos, opera no longer draws the audiences it once did in Taiwan. It remains important, however, as the island's only indigenous thea-trical art. Furthermore, it's still fun to watch.


These standing metal gongs make a visual as well as auditory impact on stage.

The museum is located within the Ilan County Cultural Center in Ilan city. Visitors are greeted in the lobby by the effigies of three colorfully dressed gods, the appointed protectors of Taiwanese theater. The second floor is devoted to temporary exhibits. During my visit this area was given over to an extensive collection of Taiwanese wooden puppets. Hand-carved and hand-painted by masters of the craft, these works are clearly the products of gifted imaginations. Especially notable are the ghosts, which with their distorted features and weird paint jobs look like characters from some psychedelic horror movie.



Martial arts weaponry is among the props used to depict the warfare and conflict of ancient China.

The third floor is the museum's permanent exhibit area. Visitors find along the wall a collection of Taiwanese opera costumes and props. As is told here in words and photographs, Taiwanese opera originated in Ilan county around the beginning of this century. Coming from a rural culture, it borrowed elements from other Chinese opera forms, such as Peking opera, and blended them with elements more familiar to common folk. For instance, whereas Peking opera uses the Hopei dialect, Taiwanese opera is sung in Taiwanese. This naturally makes it accessible to a wider audience.

A Taiwanese Art



The Taiwan Theater Museum periodically hosts live Taiwanese opera and puppet performances.

This exhibit area prominently displays a large replica of a traditional Taiwanese opera theater, a scene from a typical Taiwanese opera depicted on the replica's stage. Next to this is a model of a contemporary Taiwanese indoor opera stage. Again, this time using life-sized wax figures, a scene from a representative opera is depicted.



The costumes reflect the fact that Taiwanese opera borrows much of its style and drama from Peking opera.

True to its rural origins, Taiwanese opera can also be performed outdoors. During festivals and other occasions, roving troupes commonly set up portable stages on roadsides or in front of temples. Radio and television performances are common nowadays as well.

Further along the exhibit room are introductions to famous troupes and actors. One learns here that, while in Peking opera it is normal for male actors to impersonate female characters, in Taiwan it has been more common for females to play male roles. For example, the most famous star of Taiwanese opera, Yang Lee Hwa, is a woman who exclusively plays male characters.

Also provided here is an explanation of the eight basic movements in Taiwanese opera and their symbolic meanings. In this respect Taiwanese opera borrows many of the stylistic man-nerisms of Peking opera. To express bravery, for instance, an actor may clasp his hands behind his back. To express worry, he may wring his hands.

Realizing that wax figures and photographs cannot capture the true spectacle of Taiwanese opera, the museum has a large audio-visual room where filmed performances are regularly presented. Across the way is a row of six listening stations, where you can don earphones and listen to a range of Taiwanese operatic songs. Westerners will note that this shrill singing is a far cry from Verdi. To the ears of its aficionados, though, the high-pitched notes lend emotional strength to the song's lyrics, and the prolonged wails accentuate the singer's mood. When accompanied by thumping drums, clanging gongs, whining flutes, and screeching violins, the result is both ancient and oddly beautiful.

The museum periodically hosts live Taiwanese opera and puppet shows as well as other cultural activities. To learn of upcoming events, call the museum at (039) 322-014. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to noon and from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and national holidays.


Travel in Taiwan Museums
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.