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Wayang potehi: Glove puppets in the expression of Sino-Indonesian identity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2015


This article examines wayang potehi, a cloth glove puppet theatre of southern Fujian origin performed on Java. It outlines the genre's emergence in Fujian, its arrival in the archipelago, and historical and contemporary practice. This article seeks to respect potehi's Hokkien roots, Indonesian practice, and the place of its genre in a dynamic regional history as it traces the development, practice and uses of the genre. Contemporary potehi patronage often exhibits the strategies of the mixed-culture non-Chinese-speaking communities of East and Central Java to perform a streamlined, integrationist, and loyal Sino-Indonesian identity.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

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1 A bilingual English–Chinese book will provide up-to-date information on the genre(s) in regional context: Kaori Fushiki and Robin Ruizendaal, eds., Potehi: Glove puppet theatre in Southeast Asia and Taiwan (閩南布袋戲在東南亞與台灣) (Taipei: Taiyuan Publishers, forthcoming).

2 Ien Ang, ‘No longer Chinese?’, in Diasporic Chineseness after the rise of China: Communities and cultural production, ed. Louie Kam, David M. Pomfret, and Julia Kuehn (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013), p. 18.

3 Frederick Lau, ‘Morphing Chineseness: The changing image of Chinese music clubs in Singapore’, in Diasporas and interculturalism in Asian performing arts: Translating traditions, ed. Hae-Kyung Um (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 30.

4 For the state of the field in Chinese Indonesian studies, see Siew-Min Sai and Chang-Yao Hoon, ‘Introduction: A critical reassessment of Chinese Indonesian Studies’, in Chinese Indonesians reassessed: History, religion and belonging, ed. Siew-Min Sai and Chang-Yao Hoon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 1–19. The particular question of internal heterogeneity is dealt with on pp. 7–8.

5 See Josh Stenberg, ‘Sketches towards an Indies and Indonesian xiqu history’, Asian Theatre Journal (forthcoming).

6 See Lindor Serrurier, De wajang poerwa, eene ethnologische studie (Leiden: Brill, 1896), p. 141; Godard Arend Johannes Hazeu, Bijdrage tot de kennis van het Javaansche tooneel (Leiden: Brill, 1897), pp. 92–3; Moens, J.L., ‘Een Chineesche poppenkast en het spel van den linen zak’, Jade 12, 3 (1949): 19Google Scholar; Victoria M. Clara van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi: The Chinese glove puppet theatre in East Java’, in Performance in Java and Bali: Studies of theatre, narrative, music and dance, ed. B. Arps (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1993), pp. 14–15.

7 See Victoria M. Clara van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, pp. 13–16.

8 One poem by Liu makes reference to budai zhangtou ‘cloth bags [and?] rod [puppets]’. The context, which uses performance as a metaphor for the transience of life, is taken by some to be conclusive evidence of an early origin of Fujian budaixi. The evidence is striking, but it remains problematic that over five centuries then pass before the next use of the term in Fujian. It seems to me that one can know little from such a passing reference about the relationship of such practice to later forms. See Ye Mingsheng, Fujian kuileixi shilun [On the history of Fujian puppet theatre], vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 2009), pp. 16–17.

9 For the section summarising the history of puppetry in Southern Fujian, I am indebted to the following articles and book: Tseng Yong-yih (Zeng Yongyi), ‘Zhongguo lidai ouxi kaoshu (xia) [Investigation into Chinese historical puppet theatre (final section)]’, Xiqu xuebao (2010): 21–62 (especially 52–5); Jianhua, Ma, ‘Minnan muouxi shiji gouchen [Review of historical materials on southern Fujian wood puppetry]’, Fujian yishu 2 (2012): 32–5Google Scholar; Yilin, Wang, ‘Zhangzhou zhangzhong muouxi liubian jiqi dui Taiwan chuanbo [Development of Zhangzhou zhangzhong wood puppet theatre (i.e. potehi) and its spread to Taiwan]’, Fujian luntan 1 (2006): 225–6Google Scholar; Mingsheng, Ye, ‘Fujian minjian kuileixi de jiyi wenhua tezhi [Special characteristics of the ritual culture of popular Fujian puppet theatre]’, Wenhua yichan 3 (2010): 3640Google Scholar; Xie Zhongxian, Taiwan budaixi fazhan zhi yanjiu [Research into the development of Taiwanese potehi] (Taipei: Daoxiang chubanshe, 2009), pp. 17–59; 221–2.

10 Xie, Taiwan budaixi, p. 22.

11 Ma, ‘Minnan muouxi’: 34; Wang, ‘Zhangzhou zhangzhong muouxi’: 226; Xie, Taiwan budaixi, p. 222.

12 Tan, Sooi-Beng, ‘The glove puppet theatre (po te hi) in Malaysia’, Asian Music 13, 1 (1981): 5372CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Tong Soon Lee, Chinese street opera in Singapore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 44. There are references to it also on the Singaporean blog, and YouTube videos such as the following, of the Xiaofeng zhangzhong (i.e. budaixi) troupe, (both last accessed on 21 Mar. 2015). The National Museum of Singapore also owns articles from troupes that arrived in the 1930s. All sources agree that the art is now in decline. Chinese and Sino-Thai puppetry exists in Thailand as well, including the hun lek marionettes (made by Bangkok Chinese starting in 1878), and the Hainan-inspired hun krabog rod puppets (made by Thais starting from the late nineteenth century), which performs Three Kingdoms repertoire. See: Natthapatra Chandavij and Promporn Pramualratana, Thai puppets & khon masks (Bangkok: River Books, 1998), pp. 58–83, 94–105; Craig J. Reynolds, ‘Tycoons and warlords: Modern Thai social formations and Chinese social romance’, in Sojourners and settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, ed. Anthony Reid (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001), p. 131.

14 Hirwan Kuardhani, Mengenal wayang potehi di Jawa (Mojokerto: Yensen Project Network, 2012), p. 31.

15 Liem Thian Joe, Riwajat Semarang (Semarang: Ho Kim Yoe, 1933), p. 50.

16 Liem, Riwajat Semarang, pp. 23–4.

17 Chen Menghong, ‘De Chinese gemeenschap van Batavia, 1843–1865: een onderzoek naar het Kong Koan-archief (Ph.D. diss., Universiteit Leiden, 2009), p. 70.

18 Van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, p. 7.

19 De Locomotief: Samarangsch handels- en advertentie-blad, Semarang, 7 Dec. 1877. Digitised by the National Library of the Netherlands (Koninklijke Bibliotheek) as part of Databank Digitale Dagbladen,

21 De Locomotief, 23 May 1902, ‘Jan Klaasen en Po The Ki’,

22 ‘Po tay hie, merdeka tampil di mana-mana’, Kabar Indiependen, 5 Aug. 2012,; Feifei, Xiao, ‘Yinni Sishui “Fengdexuan” miaoyu budaixi tuan fazhan shi [Historical development of potehi at the Hong Tiek Hian Temple in Surabaya, Indonesia]’, Minsu quyi 170 (2010): 245Google Scholar, 252.

23 Ardian Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi of Java, trans. Hermanto Lim (Jakarta: Afterhours Books, 2014), p. 42. Another source gives the arrival as 1909, and identifies Toni Harsono's great-grandfather as the first migrant. Dwi Woro Retno Mastuti, ‘Wayang Cina di Jawa sebagai wujud identitas etnis Tionghoa di Jawa’, in Chinese Indonesians: Their lives and identities (Surabaya: Petra Christian University, 2013), p. 256.

24 Van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, p. 17.

25 According to Toni Harsono, the Gudo patron of potehi. Toni Harsono also told me an anecdote about a young Oei inviting a friend to watch potehi. In a rush to reach the show, his friend accidentally damaged some wares, which Oei convinced his father to pay for, since — having invited his friend to watch the show — he was responsible for the associated risks. Presumably, the anecdote is meant to demonstrate Oei's probity; it appears in several places on the Sino-Indonesian blogosphere, for instance:

26 Matthew Isaac Cohen, The Komedie Stamboel: Popular theatre in colonial Indonesia, 1891–1903 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), p. 277.

27 Hazeu, Bijdrage tot de kennis van het javaansche tooneel, pp. 92–3. This remains a highly speculative association, along with all others which suggest that genres of wayang were influenced by Chinese puppetry at a formative stage.

28 This circumstantial reference consists of the information that wajang meant to Padang people ‘Javanese or Chinese box puppetry’. Arend Ludolf van Hasselt, Volksbeschrijving van Midden-Sumatra, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1882), p. 131.

29 De Sumatra Post, ‘Een en ander over het Chineesche tooneelspel’, 6 Sept. 1901,

30 De Sumatra Post, Medan, ‘De volksspelen’, 25 Sept. 1925,

31 De Sumatra Post, ‘De opening van den Pasar Malam’, 25 Feb. 1933,

32 Maskurin, Sunariyadi and Alrianingrum, Septina, ‘Perkembangan wayang potehi di Surabaya 1967–2001’, Avatara: E-journal Pendidikan Sejarah 2, 3 (2014): 177Google Scholar.

33 Maskurin and Alrianingrum, ‘Perkembangan’: 177.

34 Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, pp. 42–4.

35 Java-Bode: nieuws, handels- en advertentieblad voor Nederlandsch-Indie, Jakarta, 4 June 1954, According to Matthew Cohen, Malay and Hokkien were already being combined in potehi in late nineteenth-century Surabaya. Cohen, Komedie Stamboel, p. 39.

36 For names and areas of activity of mid-century potehi dalangs, see Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, p. 44.

37 Yilin, Wang, ‘Zai shuai san jie haishi zunshi yanghui — Zhangzhou mu'ou jutuan fazhan licheng chuyi [Dying out or biding its time — Humble remarks on the developmental process of the Zhangzhou Puppet Troupe]’, Fujian jiaoyu xueyuan xuebao 10, 4 (2009): 111Google Scholar.

38 The information on Thio is based largely on my interview with him in January 2013, while corroborating via Kuardhani, Mengenal wayang potehi, pp. 95–7, and Jakarta Post articles: Chinese puppeteer back on stage after 32 years’, 9 Apr. 2000,; Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti, ‘Teguh Chandra: Exit the persecuted puppets’, 20 Mar. 2009,; and Ganug Nugroho Adi, ‘Thio Tiong Gie: Preserving the vigor of potehi’, 10 Nov. 2010, Also valuable were the Semarang blog Saetu Baik, (Oct. 2013), and Wibowo Wibisono, ‘Finding Thio Thiong Gie’, My Journal, 26 May 2013, Wibowo also kindly granted use of his photo of Thio.

39 Hirwan Kuardhani, Toni Harsono: Maecenas potehi dari Gudo (Yogyakarta: Isacbook, 2011), p. 35.

40 For xiqu in the Indies, see Stenberg, ‘Sketches towards an Indies and Indonesian xiqu history’. Genre boundaries, even in China, between various opera forms are disputable. Trying to rigidly apply Mainland genre terms to extinct performance practices in the archipelago may be anachronistic.

41 Suluk is a Javanese wayang term, designating a kind of ‘mood-song’ sung by the dalang periodically to generate a particular atmosphere. Generally, characters who first appear in Chinese theatre (including puppetry) explain who they are, and what they intend. These fixed Hokkien phrases have been retained in potehi; the term suluk has been applied to them by analogy in potehi.

42 The repertoire is heavily weighted towards Qing fiction, especially when set in the Tang Dynasty. Several of the same narratives feature in the Quanzhou marionette repertoire, and puxianxi troupes (a xiqu form originating in Putian) performing in Malaya between 1920 and 1930 also had a similar repertoire. Xue Rengui narratives are recorded also as Chinese shadow puppet narratives, including in Taiwan. The same stories were also much translated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and enjoyed great popularity in the Indies. For instance, Xue Rengui appeared in Malay in 1883; Xue Rengui's campaign to the west appeared in Javanese in 1859. The association of potehi with Xue Rengui has gone on to influence other forms of theatre, such as Jakarta-based Teater Koma's trilogy of Sie Jin Kwie pieces, which incorporated potehi elements in their productions. Lai Bojiang, ‘Youjiu er duocai de Yinni Huaren waiwen wenxue [The long-standing and colourful foreign-language Sino-Indonesian literature]’, Yishu Yanjiu 1 (2007): 137; Claudine Salmon, ‘Introduction’, and ‘Malay translations of Chinese fiction in Indonesia’, in Literary migrations: Traditional Chinese fiction in Asia (Beijing: International Culture, 1987), ed. Claudine Salmon, pp. 6, 410, 658; Wang Hanmin, Fujian, pp. 14, 19; Robin Ruizendaal, Marionette theatre in Quanzhou (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 151–2.

43 I am indebted for this observation to Robin Ruizendaal, who notes that potehi has proven a great deal more innovative than Quanzhou marionette theatre. This, in turn, may have its roots in the greater ritual importance and therefore the conservatism of the marionette theatre.

44 Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, pp. 50–52. The lotus flower apparently recalled the banned Sino-Indonesian organisation Baperki.

45 Xiao, ‘Yinni Sishui’: 253.

46 Margaret J. Kartomi, ‘Indonesian-Chinese music in the Netherlands East Indies’, in Music and the racial imagination, ed. Ronald M. Radano and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), pp. 298–303.

47 van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, p. 11. While Santoso is still active in Tulungagung, and the Gudo practice will be discussed below, it would seem that there is no longer a Kediri group.

48 Dede Oetomo, The Chinese of Pasuruan: Their language and identity (Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU, 1987) p. 52.

49 Maskurin and Alrianingrum, ‘Perkembangan’, pp. 178–9; Xiao, ‘Yinni Sishui’, pp. 252–4.

50 Indra Harsaputra, ‘Sukar Mudjiono: Puppet master bridges worlds’, 11 Feb. 2010, Jakarta Post,; Indiependen, ‘Po tay hie’.

51 Kwee, John B., ‘A study of potehi, the Chinese puppet theatre in Indonesia’, Asian Culture 20 (1996): 47Google Scholar.

52 Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, p. 50.

53 van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, p. 18.

54 Interviews with Pak Sesomo in January and May 2013 as well as Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, p. 52.

55 Koji, Tsuda, ‘The legal and cultural status of Chinese temples in contemporary Java’, Asian Ethnicity 13, 4 (2012): 389–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 In an interview, Surabaya potehi researcher Ardian Purwoseputro puts the percentage of pribumi musicians and dalangs at 90 per cent. Dinie Tama, ‘Wayang potehi Indonesia lebih original’, Portal Jatim, 30 Aug. 2013,

57 ‘“Wayang potehi” at Beachwalk Kuta’, Jakarta Post—Bali Daily, 16 Jan. 2013,

58 In Nurfahraeni Dewi Putri, ‘Melirik kebudayaan wayang potehi di Makassar’, Tempo, 8 Feb. 2013,

59 Kartomi, ‘Indonesian-Chinese music’, pp. 298–303.

60 Fatkhul Muin, ‘Imlek di Klenteng Hian Thian Siang Tee Welahan’, Detik, 8 Aug. 2012,

61 Martina Claus-Bachmann, ‘Portative dreifache zuflucht im urbanen alptraum: wayang potehi in Jakarta’, in Musik verbindet uns. Festschrift für Marianne Bröcker, ed. Heidi Christ (Uffenheim: Forschungsstelle für Fränkische Volksmusik, 2006), pp. 65–76.

62 This list is derived from interviews as well as from the lists given by Kuardhani in Mengenal wayang potehi and John Kwa on the Budaya Tionghoa ([Sino-] Indonesian Culture) website. As is usual for Javanese dalangs, many are referred to by the honorific Ki, i.e. Ki Subur.

63 Yuli, ‘Pentas wayang thithi tiap hari sampai 2 bulan lagi’, Tribun News/Surya Online, 3 June 2013, Thithi sometimes refers to potehi, and other times to wayang kulit Cina-Jawa.

64 Lambertus Lusi Hurek, ‘Wong Jawa dalang wayang potehi’, Blog Hurek, 15 Jan. 2007,

65 Koji, ‘The legal and cultural status of Chinese temples in contemporary Java’. Not surprisingly, Koji also notes potehi performance present in many temples.

66 van Groenendael, ‘Po-té-hi’, p. 18.

67 The troupe is centred around Pak Yensen's residence, which also has a stunning potehi exhibit. However, Mojokerto's principal Chinese temple Hok Sian Kiong has featured performances by both the Yensen Project troupe and Ki Mudjiono's Surabaya troupe.

68 See also Kwee, ‘A study of potehi’: 49; Xiao, ‘Yinni Sishui’: 254–6.

69 Personal communication, as well as Sutono, ‘Jelang Imlek wayang potehi banjir job’, Tribun News/Surya Online, 4 Feb. 2013,; Norma Anggara, ‘Mengintip seni wayang potehi di klenteng Hong San Kiong Jombang, Detik, 4 Feb. 2013, Also worth noting is Cohen's account of meeting Pak Sesomo in Yogyakarta, posted on his blog Indonesian Performance ( for 9 Feb. 2009; Kuardhani, Maecanas potehi dari Gudo, p. 36.

70 In Surabaya, there have also been potehi series based on the novels of Sino-Indonesian author Kho Ping Hoo. Xiao, ‘Yinni Sishui’: 256.

71 ID Nugroho, ‘Let the potehi puppets perform’, Jakarta Post, 23 Jan. 2009.

72 Sri Susuhan Pakubuwono XIII Sinuhun Tedjowulan, ‘Sambutan Sri Susuhunan Pakubuwono XII Sinuhun Tedjowulan Surakarta’, in Hirwan Kuardhani, Toni Harsono, pp. 6–7.

73 Didik Nini Thowok, ‘Sepatah kata dari seniman tari Didik Nini Thowok’, in Kuardhani, Toni Harsono, pp. 8–9.

74 Jan Mrázek, ‘Masks and selves in contemporary Java: The dances of Didik Nini Thowok’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36, 2 (2005): 266.

75 Pramono, ‘Pameran karya seni Cina mengenang Gus Dur’, Tempo, 18 Feb. 2010,

76 Penerbit Buku Kompas, ed., Gus Dur: Santri par excellence (Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2010), p. 40.

77 Noviyanto, ed., ‘Hotel Majapahit gelar seni tradisional wayang potehi’, 14 Jan. 2012,

78 Kuardhani, Mengenal wayang potehi, p. 105.

79 Ibid.

80 Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, p. 11.

81 Ibid., p. 19.

82 Kuardhani, Mengenal wayang potehi, pp. 105–6.

83 Historian Didi Kwartanada, on the obi (the promotional strip of paper around the book) of Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi.

84 A third piece is mentioned on the poster, but I was told by Pak Kekek that this was an error.

85 It is worth noting, however, that Pak Yensen is not a klenteng member, being a Protestant.

86 ‘Kenali wayang potehi, hasil asimilasi Tionghoa dan Indonesia’, Tourism News, n.d. [Jan. 2013] (last accessed 10 Dec. 2013). Herno's account tallies closely with what I heard from Pak Yensen, staffers, and local municipality workers.

87 Kuardhani, Mengenal wayang potehi, p. 108.

88 These projects were being planned during my 2012–13 visits, and I was subsequently kept informed by e-mail and Facebook.

89 Pandam Guritno, Wayang, kebudayaan Indonesia dan Pancasila (Jakarta: Penerbit Universitas Indonesia, 1988), p. 14.

90 Cohen, Komedie Stamboel, p. 172.

91 Pandam Guritno, Wayang, p. 14.

92 Eko Sutriyanto, ‘BCA dan Kompas TV gelar “Wayang masuk Mal”’, Tribun News, 27 Feb. 2014,

94 Eddie Lembong, ‘Recent developments in Indonesian government policies towards ethnic Chinese’, in Ethnic Chinese in contemporary Indonesia, ed. Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008), p. 55.

95 Ang, ‘No longer Chinese?’, pp. 26–7.

96 See tables and glossary, Purwoseputro, Wayang potehi, pp. 106, 288–9.

97 The only information here which is not from Wang's comparative analysis concerns the wood of the Gudo puppets, which Wang identified only as not being camphorwood.

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