Skip to main content

A Wayang Potehi Riddle

20 January 2021
When are Chinese puppets not Chinese puppets?

Originating from southern Fujian in China, potehi—a cloth glove puppet theatre, arrived on the Indonesian island of Java in the 18th century, and soon became a feature of many Sino-Javanese communities.

While more traditional temple-based performance persists, much contemporary potehi patronage exhibits the strategies of the mixed-culture non-Chinese-speaking communities of Java to perform a streamlined and loyal Sino-Indonesian identity.

But what does this mean for the identity of the art form?

Photograph of Wayang Potehi puppet

Once banned in Indonesia for being considered "too Chinese", Wayang Potehi is now embraced as a national art form and is often performed by indigenous Indonesians. 

Photo credit: Ariane Defreine

31 January 2020, Jakarta.

Dr Woro Retno Mastuti, frangipani blossom in her grey bun, leaps up from behind the stage to welcome me to the rehearsals for Rumah Cinwa—Rumah meaning home or house, and Cinwa officially Cinta wayang (love wayang) or Cina wayang (Chinese wayang). Bu Woro first took an interest in potehi in 2004, and founded the Rumah Cinwa in 2015. Beginning as a dalang herself, she has now passed all performing responsibilities onto the students, who are from a variety of departments, mostly at UI.

This time the morning performance is of Sun Go Kong (Sun Wukong), telling the familiar story of the fight against Princess Iron Fan and the Bull Demon King. Ritual aspects are observed—the incense burning in front of the stage, and the ritual completed before the show by puppets representing immortals. The fact that both the dalang (puppeteer) and the orchestra are non-Chinese has been usual in East Java for a generation, and for Sun Go Kong, the usual Sino-Indonesian orchestra is used.  Certain aspects are less common: the youth of the dalang and orchestra, most of whom are in their early twenties. Perhaps for that reason, the dalang mixes in English (“oh my god! You terus steal my fan”) the meowing Princess Fan exclaims while Sun answers “bye bye”) as well as Mandarin and the occasional Hokkien phrase. The scripts are loosely confected by students, mostly from Universitas Indonesia, with the assistance of Bu Woro, then mischievously improvised upon.  Percussion is used, as in Chinese puppetry or opera, to create suspense, to suggest disturbance or tumult, to accent movement, and to represent the mental processes of the characters.

The evening performance, however, represents a new development in potehi practice, because the plot is not from a Chinese story at all. The story, theoretically set in 15th century Majapahit, concerns the hero Darmawulan, a warrior who must defeat and kill the nefarious king of Blambangan to win the hand of the maiden queen Kencanawungo, defending himself against multiple plots. While the stage has not changed—it is still the same portable Sino-Indonesian type, modelled by Bu Woro on the stages in use in East Java—the music is furnished by a gamelan orchestra with voice supplemented by dalang speaking as well as by a Chinese gong. The puppets, commissioned by carvers in Yogyakarta, depict ethnic Javanese characters, their features bearing some resemblance to topeng masks or the white-faced varieties of golek puppets. Although story, language, and music are all thoroughly Javanese, the physical vocabulary and the basic scale of the puppets remains derived from potehi.

As one person in the Q&A asks, at what point does it stop being potehi? This question, considered at any length, can only with difficulty be separated from the question of the position of the Chinese minority in Indonesia: what are the boundaries of genres? What are the ethical stakes when performance exceeds its original ethnic affiliation? Are they different in Indonesia, in China, in Taiwan, in Europe, in ‘New World’ settler/migrant states? What makes this kind of adaptation, that might be considered appropriation in other contexts, generally welcomed by the representatives and associations of Chinese Indonesians?

The Rumah Cinwa performances are the most fully Javanised example of a process underway over the last twenty years of the historic Sino-Javanese puppetry form wayang potehi. Since the end of the Suharto period, this Hokkien-derived glove puppetry practice has expanded, with troupes increasingly travelling abroad to interact with related puppetry forms (for instance in Taiwan and Penang), while also engaging in the tourist trade and performing outside the historic traditional geographic range (Central and Eastern Java) and venue type (Chinese temple grounds). Since Sino-Indonesian identities are highly contested, patrons use the genre as an opportunity to frame this cultural product as an ethnic contribution to Indonesia’s rich practices of performance arts. Indeed, the genre has increasingly been identified by its sympathisers as a form of wayang, and Indonesian institutional actors (such as the Wayang Museum or editors of a recent wayang encyclopaedia) are beginning to countersign this taxonomical shift. Rumah Cinwa’s performances suggest that even the Chinese narrative and the carving conventions can be subtracted from potehi without the genre losing its visible connection to the Chinese ‘original.’ At the same time, the intensification of Indonesia’s identity politics in the last few years—we need only think of the 2017 Jakarta election and the Ahok blasphemy trial—means that symbols such as wayang potehi constitute an important way for Sino-Indonesian and Javanese subjects to insist on pluralism without having to abandon the moral high ground of ‘tradition.’ 

About the author

Photograph of Dr Josh Stenberg
Dr Josh Stenberg, The University of Sydney
Dr Josh Stenberg is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. A scholar of Sino-Southeast Asian performance and literature, he examines the intersection of ethnic and political identity through the cultural performance of minority ethnic communities.

Related articles