Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
— Vincent Van Gogh

Within the fading Peranakan culture in Indonesia, nothing struck me more than the recent exhibition of Wacinwa (Wayang Cina-Jawa) - a theatrical marriage between Chinese stories and Javanese puppetry and language.  The entire scene is beautifully accompanied by a traditional gamelan orchestra from the Java region. 

Created in 1925 by Gan Thwan Sing, the first scripts were inspired by Chinese folklores and written in Javanese hanacaraka letters.  Gan went to make two great puppet scripts: Sie Jin Kwie Tjeng See (薛仁貴征西 / Xue Ren-Gui Marches West) and Sie Jin Kwie Tjeng Tang (薛仁貴征東 / Xue Ren-Gui Marches East). 

After 47 years of quiet slumber, the second script was performed at the Jogja Gallery last October 6.

The performance brought to life two chapters from the full story, borrowing pieces of a surviving puppet set from Museum Sonobudoyo.  This puppet set is one of only two remaining Wacinwa sets in the world; the other set is housed in Yber-lingen, Germany as a private collection.

History of Shadow Puppetry

A noblewoman Wacinwa puppet with intricate headpiece and costume

A noblewoman Wacinwa puppet with intricate headpiece and costume

Shadow puppetry in China can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) where legend claims it started when the officers of Emperor Wu tried to cheer up the mourning emperor.  They projected a shadow of his late concubine using oil lantern and donkey leather puppets as though she was walking past the corridors of the imperial chamber.

In Indonesia, most notably in the island of Java and Bali, shadow puppetry has been a staple centerpiece in religious and spiritual ceremonies with stories adapted from popular Hindu epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana. 

Legend of Sie Jin Kwie

Sie Jin Kwie (in white) with the band of bandits meeting Ji Bo Kong, a hermit and advisor who works for the Emperor.

Sie Jin Kwie (in white) with the band of bandits meeting Ji Bo Kong, a hermit and advisor who works for the Emperor.

The story of Sie Jin Kwie was taken from a historical character that lived during Tang Dynasty’s Emperor Taizong’s reign (around 650 AD).  Xue, on which the character is based, was a legendary general who won almost all of his expeditions – rising from the ranks of a poor farmer to become one of China’s greatest generals. His life story and inspiration is immortalized in books and stories written during Yuan and Qing dynasties; Sie Jin Kwie is one of those stories written during Qing era.

The Making of Puppets

Gan’s Sie Jin Kwie Tjeng Tang puppet set comprises of more than two hundred characters and set pieces.  Some of the more intricate puppets have removable heads with different headpieces and emotions which can be alternated with other bodies to make numerous other characters.

Research by Ibu Nani managed to identify forty characters in this set, enough to perform the first two chapters of the story. Each puppet was carefully crafted from leather and handpainted by Gan Thwan Sing himself in sizes smaller than regular Javanese puppets.

Wacinwa Qilin Puppet.  Qilin is a mythical creature in Chinese folklore, said to appear with the passing or arrival of a great ruler or sage. Depictions of the Qilin show a creature with the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the skin and scales of a fish, the hooves of an ox and tail of a lion.

Wacinwa Qilin Puppet.  Qilin is a mythical creature in Chinese folklore, said to appear with the passing or arrival of a great ruler or sage. Depictions of the Qilin show a creature with the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the skin and scales of a fish, the hooves of an ox and tail of a lion.

Out of the Shadows

Those who have not had the chance to watch the performance in Yogyakarta, might be able to catch them live in Universitas Indonesia in coming months.  For more information regarding Wacinwa collection and other Javanese cultural heritage, you may visit:

Museum Sonobudoyo
Jl. Trikora No.6, Alun-alun Utara
Yogyakarta - Indonesia
Tel: +62 (274) 385 664

Opening Hours:
Tue-Thu, Sat-Sun: 08:00 - 15:30
Fri  08:00 - 14:00
Closed on Mondays and National Holidays

Wacinwa 3.jpg

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