The history of Vietnamese Water Puppetry art

Nga Do
Water puppetry is an unique art that originated in Vietnam’s wet rice civilization, when farmers from the Red River Delta near Hanoi created water puppets or as its known here in Vietnam, mua roi nuoc. During flooding of the monsoon season in between crops, farmers introduced water puppets to entertain themselves and their families with plays about famous events in Vietnamese history, such as battles or things that had happened in that village.

Puppetry art perf ormance

The puppetry art has existed in Vietnam more than 1000 years, the most strongly developed in the Ly- Tran dynasty (XI – XII centuries). According to the content described in “Sung Thien Dien Linh” stone stele in Ly Nhan Tong dynasty (1121), the puppet shows were played to celebrate the King’s birth. It proved that Vietnam Vietnamese puppetry was established for a long time and more and more developed.

The Vietnamese folkloric water puppetry has connected closely to communal faiths and folkloric festivals. The puppeteers were athletic artists who performed at leisure after harvest time. The folkloric water puppet guilds and villages were established and respectfully remained and preserved until now.

The Vietnamese folkloric water puppetry includes: land puppetry and water puppetry.

The first - Land puppetry: 

Land puppetry comprises of various kinds. Most of them use rhythm of traditional operetta, Ca Tru, Tuong (classical drama), court music… for introduction, accompanying singing and performance.

– Hand-puppets are rarely performed on the stage by in pagoda festivals.

– Pole-puppets: The heads and the bodies are carved together. Heads consist of hair, ears, and hats. Wooden hands are connected with wrists. They are operated with bamboo poles; metal poles attached to the bodies or the wrists of the puppets under clothes.

– Machinery-puppets are very popular. The whole bodies are carved with wood. Each part separates with the other and was put together with joints. Machinery-puppets are controlled by strings and poles. Especially, they are used in water puppets, children toys, kite puppets, wind puppets, firecracker puppets.

– String-puppets: They have wooden heads, wooden arms but no legs, are operated by bamboo strings, silk strings or hemp strings. The stage is built on “choi” (cottage) in markets, or near  casinos…

– Shadow-puppets have been lately found. They originated from Kien Giang province or from Cambodia, but it doesn’t exist now.

– Mask-puppets: The masks are made by pasted paper, sponge, wood… and painted and drawn according to portrait of characters. Mask-puppets are controlled by hand or placed on heads of puppeteers.

– “Lốt” puppets have just been recently appeared in Vietnam. The puppeteers perform in the appearance of characters.

In Vietnamese puppetry art, characters are various. They can be legendary or mythic,… even modern characters. Especially, in a puppet shows, even the plants and animals are given breath and become alive and lively. Many researchers call the puppetry art “Wonderful life of childhood”.

The second- Water puppetry: 

Water puppetry is one of typical statge art of Vietnam culture- showing the intelligence, creativeness of people; being specialty of Vietname wet-rice civilization. Water puppetry includes two basic components: Puppets and water.

Water puppets are seemed to be simple and rough sculpture-works, solid lines, poor colour, and zigzag movements; they evoke the general conception of human beings and other things to the audiences… However, the liquid feature and reflection of water creates the fickle. On water stage mirrors, everything becomes sparkle, flexible, changeable in front of the audiences’ eyes.

Water puppetry theatre is called Thuy Dinh, set up outside, including: 

– Firsly: Water pavilion – occupied in the middle of the pond, there was a floating chamber of bamboo closed at the three sides with a bamboo screen hanging in the front. The puppeteers stood waist-deep behind the sreen in the water to manipulate the puppets.

 – Secondly: Stage – the front of the screen was the square water stage of about 4x4m. There were low fences, which surrounded the state where puppets performed.

 – Thirdly: The space for the audiences – the edge of ponds, the two sides of the stage, beneath the trees around ponds…   The water puppet theatre was the main place of the festival. The audiences were fascinated by the exciting atmosphere and beautiful surrounding of the fesetival.

The water puppetry performance are various, includes: 

 – Everyday life activities of Vietnamese people;

 – Healthy and useful entertainments;

 – Plays setting examples of national heroes;

 – Traditional opera plays (Cheo, Tuong).

In 1428, after more than twenty years fighting against enemy, Lam Son uprising led by Le Loi succeeded, establishing Le dynasty (1428 – 1788). The Le dynasty attached importance to the traditional theatre so the traditional opera plays (Cheo, Tuong) developed; the puppetry art which was formerly not originated from art with words, returned popular festivals. However, in the literature of Le dynasty, puppets stilled appeared. The largest outside theatre has currently existed in Thay pagoda (Ha Tay), built in Long Tri pond, in front of the pagoda yard in the Later Le dynasty.

Later, although Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) only focused on developing Tuong, the folkloric puppetry art still remained its tradition staying closely in the villages…

The history of establishment and development of Vietnamese puppetry art from the Great Viet has still been under the presumption of researchers. The historical documents and proofs have clearly shown the operation of puppetry in Vietnam from the Xth century by now. Located in Thang Long capital, Vietnamế feudal state was really powerful, the national strength and self-control were determined. On the basis of building palaces and pagodas, good handicraftsmen were gathered, their skills were improved; speeding up the development of sculpture and architecture. To commend the merit and power, many festivals such as celebration of work inauguration, pagoda festivals, festival of looking for queen, or King’s birthday… were held with many exciting and strange plays. The puppetry art which appeared earlier had many favourable conditions for development.

Puppetry is the traditional art form closely connected with the long-standing spiritual life of the Vietnamese people. Puppets of different kinds can be found all over the country, however, puppetry art has been developed and diversified as well as popularized mostly in northern midland areas and the plains in Vietnam. In the old days, puppetry shows were performed without words. Later on, thanks to the development of national literature, accompanying words were applied to these shows. Water puppetry was performed in the day and mainly used drums, la and heavy sound as crackers, “tu va”… The puppeteers stood waist-deep behind the screen in the water to manipulate the puppets…

Water-stage used in puppetry art performances is a special thing of water puppetry art. The actions of puppets do not only depend on pole-and-string apparatus but also on the force of water as well as the system of rudders and floats in a “controlling machine” of the puppets.

Plastic art has always played an important part in puppetry art performance, making up more 60% – 70% than the puppets. Characters of water puppetry have the same opinions: The personality of characters is clear, dull and quaint.

In the water puppetry art, music is an indispensable factor which not only plays the role as bridge between two items but also affects the atmosphere of the shows. The rhythm acts directly on the puppeteers’ control of puppets. Music plays the important role to show clearly personality and actions… of puppets, inspiring and attracting the audiences.

The main music used in the water puppetry performance is music of Cheo which is the specific traditional art in the Northern plain. In addition to instrumentalists, there are Cheo singers. Music, songs, words in combination with movements of puppets lead the audiences to understand plays… aiming at summarized introduction of cultural values, customs, and festivals featured by national characters in Red River delta.

The main musical instruments used in the water puppetry art are: drum, two-stringed fiddle, flute, drum kit, 16-chord zither or monochord. In the water puppetry performance, many kinds of firecrackers were also used such as crackers, fireworks, powder-filled paper strings, duck-shape firecrackers. The explosion and miracle light of fireworks made the performance more attractive.

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