Them bones! A Taiwan-French connection

by Dan Bloom
Special to The Wild East

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a finger bone from the body of the late Li Tien-lu, the great puppetmaster of Taiwan, was buried in France under a plum tree outside a private home north of Paris. In addition, a bone from a finger of Li’s son, who passed away this year, was also buried in that rural French garden.

According to the Times reporter on Sept. 8 this year, Roger Cohen, a highly-respected and veteran columnist who has a home in France, a French woman who once studied puppetry with Li in Taiwan in 1975 apparently arranged for someone to exhume Li’s body, take a bone from one of his fingers and airfreight it over to France so she could bury it in her garden.

Master Li
Master Li
This story might be true, but then again, who knows where the truth may have been stretched? It was reported in the New York Times Weekly Edition supplement in the United Daily News here, an English-language supplement that appears as an insert every Tuesday. The article did not appear in the regular edition of the New York Times, and has not been put online at all. However, the print article exists only in the United Daily News files in Taipei.

As some readers may know, Master Li — one of Taiwan’s national treasures — died in 1998 and his son died in 2009. puppetPosterThe film Puppetmaster tells the true story of Li’s life as a master puppeteer faced with demands to turn his skills to propaganda during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in World War II. Li also plays the paterfamilias of the extended Chinese family facing the events surrounding the A City of Sadness (1989). The third film in the trilogy is Good Men, Good Women (1995). [Source: Wikipedia]

As far as is known, both Lis were buried, or cremated, in Taiwan, according to local tradition. Cohen says the story is one of those “East meets West” exotic set pieces, in which a finger bone fragment of a master puppeteer from Taiwan somehow gets later buried beneath a plum tree in a remote village an hour away from Paris. Prayers were said, wine was drunk, New Age beliefs were intoned.

Cohen informed this reporter that he knows about the bones story because he was at the re-burial ceremony in France when it happened last summer. He has a home in the same town.
“We met under the plum tree,” Cohen wrote. “Or rather India and China met, and France too.
As the bells chimed from the 12th century steeple of technologoy. Marrying East and West, past and future, life and death, the global village lives.”

When I pressed if he really believed that finger bone fragments from Li and his son were really buried in France, and if he actually thought that Taiwan was in “China”, Cohen hedged, and replied: “I stand by my story.”

Here is a verbatim excerpt from Cohen’s column: “Back in 1975, Claire studied puppetry in Taiwan with one of the great glove puppeteers, Li Tien-lu. They became friends and, in later years, Li often visited [France]. Such was his attachment to Cherence, France, and such peace he found in this French village, that when Li died in 1998, he requested that part of his anatomy find its final resting place here. At a ceremony in 1999, a piece of bone — believed to be a fragment of the great man’s finger — was buried under the plum tree in France….[In 2009] Li’s son died. Naturally, he wanted to be close to his father. So arrangements were made …as father and son, or rather tiny fragments of each, were united beneath the plum tree.”

When Tom Brady, the editor of the New York Times Weekly Edition, was asked about the veracity of the claims that Cohen made about Li’s finger bone fragment being shipped from Taiwan to France and re-buried there, Brady replied: “I’ve talked to Roger, and the standards editor here at the New York Times, and all I can say at this point is that we stand by the column.”

If Cohen’s tale is true, it is indeed an interesting addition to the history of the Li family in Taiwan. If so, this writer feels the subject deserves front page play here in Taiwan’s Chinese-language newspapers.

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