Water puppetry was taken into royal palaces to

Water Puppetry, known as “the soul of Vietnamese rice fields” by the
French, is a Vietnamese unique traditional folk stage art that originated from
the Northern of Vietnam. Developed from a folk art, water puppetry has become a
traditional art form, the quintessence of the wet rice civilization, a special
creation of Vietnamese people.

Origin and Development

Water Puppetry traces its origin to the Red River
Delta of Vietnam in the 10th century. The place which marks the
appearance of the earliest water puppet troupes is Nguyên Xá commune ( ?ông
H?ng district, Thai Binh province). People at that time held firm beliefs
that spirits took control of all aspects in their lives, from houses to the rice
paddies so the farmers in this region created a form of entertainment and worship
to make these spirits satisfied. At some point, the farmers recognized that the
water was an excellent mean for puppetry: it not only concealed the puppeteers’
rod and string mechanisms, but it also produced interesting effects like water
waves and splashes. As a result, water puppetry was invented.

This art form didn’t take long to reach its
peak during Ly and Tran Dynasty. According to the inscription on the Sùng Thi?n Di?n
Linh Stele, built in 1121 in Long ??i S?n Pagoda, Ha Nam province; water
puppetry was taken into royal palaces to be performed for the court and the
nobility since the 11th century and maintained its fame for a considerably
long time.

However, the art of water
puppetry had fallen into decline due to the French occupation before the August
1945 Revolution; moreover, equipment and puppets were destroyed by a Vietnamese
war with the French in 1946. Hope for the resurrection of water puppetry
appeared in 1954 when the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam25
reintroduced it throughout the country, revitalizing its popularity.

Contents

The theme of the skits surrounds rural lives and has a strong
reference to Vietnamese folklore. It tells of day-to-day living in rural areas
of Vietnam, brings wry humor to scenes of farming, harvest, fishing, festival
events such as buffalo fights, dragon dancing, swimming contest and children’s
games of marbles, coin-toss or kite-flying. Water puppetry also recreates Vietnamese
folk tales that are passed from older generation to younger generation like “Tam
Cam”, “Thach Sanh”, “Tre va Coc”,… Besides, scenes include legends and national
history such as : Trung Sister, King Le Loi,… are immensely popular among water
puppetry stages.

Puppets and Chú T?u Character

Each puppet is a traditional
sculptural work. The face of the puppet and its dresses bear typical
features of Vietnam, reflecting different topics such as the fight and defense
for the country liberty of our ancestors through different stages of history or
the daily life of the people. The puppets are carved
out of wood, painted with colorful lacquer and often weigh up to 15 kg. Attached
to their bodies is a rod, which the puppeteers used to control the movements of
the puppets.

If the most typical puppet in Western Puppetry is
Punch, in Vietnam we have Chú T?u. Chú T?u (Chú meaning “Uncle” and T?u derived
from the ideographic script signifying “laughter”) appears in almost every
water puppet program. He serves as the “Master of Ceremonies” commenting on the
stories, critiquing corruption and rejoicing with the couples in love stories. He
appears to be relatively immature and ill-suited for the given title—appearing
fat with disheveled hair—but at the same time, his rosy complexion and
cheerfulness make him more valuable to the production than the rest of the
puppet characters. He is a powerful personality on stage and his crude
appearance (sometimes crude humor as well) has transcended all social classes.
Audiences enjoy Uncle T?u who serves as a contradiction to the serious tone of
some of the scenes, by flailing his arms around, while wearing a loincloth that
exposes his fat belly, and taunting the audience. The other puppets involved
are only limited to individual scenes, so their versatility does not match Chú
T?u’s. Chú T?u also acts as a catalyst to begin performances on time by
encouraging the audience to sit quickly. Troupes use him to introduce
performances, the style of which can vary from troupe to troupe.

Performance

The unique feature of Vietnam’s water puppetry is its stage.
Differ from other kinds of puppetry in the world that are performed on ground
stages, Vietnam’s water puppetry is conducted on water stages with no more than
8 puppeteers. Water stages are usually built on one of three venues—on
traditional ponds in villages where a staging area has been set up, on portable
tanks built for traveling performers, or in a specialized building where a pool
stage has been constructed; and resemble a temple with a split-bamboo screen.  Puppeteers stand all behind the screen and
control puppets performing a play or a dance through a long string mechanism
under water surface. The audiences cannot see
what is going on under water. What is skillful of the artists who created this
art form is that they can calculate the floating level and propulsive force of
water so as to make the puppets live in the water surface more lively. And this
is one of the secrets handed down by each water puppet troupe. Ancient people did not
hand down their traditional craft to their daughters fearing that when getting
married, they will disclose the secret to other guilds. So each guild has its
own puppets and plays.

Along with the stage, the background music for
a water puppet skit is provided by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra with the
help of traditional musical instruments like: drums, wooden bells, cymbals,
horns, two-string Chinese violins and flutes. On that music background, singers
of Chèo (a Vietnamese form of opera) with origin in North Vietnam will sing the
songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets. The musicians and the puppets usually interact during
performance; the musicians may yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or
a word of encouragement to a puppet in need.

Future
of Water Puppetry

Recently,
there has been a significant decline in the number of water puppetry audiences
due to the development of technology and other means of recreation. The road
for audience development for traditional water puppet shows seems
not to be implemented overnight. Except two professional puppet theatres, puppet troupes
from different regions including ethnic minority areas also have to “expose”
their creativeness and quintessence. Some recent puppet plays have combined
traditional puppet art and innovation with colorful costumes, breathing a new
life to puppetry.
This is a new experiment in which artists try to combine contemporary factors
with traditional puppet art without making the latter misfitted to
traditional puppetry. The success of new puppet plays in
their experiment will be the voice of the gratefulness of present practitioners
at present to their ancestors for preservation and development of the
traditional culture of the nation.