Water Puppetry
Part of Vietnam’s Cultural Heritage


"Not watching a performance of water puppetry means not visiting Vietnam yet". This is the practical advice appearing in many guidebooks in Vietnam. And it is so true that most visitors to Vietnam try to watch a performance of water puppetry at least once. And after the performance, most of them are excited and always repeat this advice to their relatives who are going to take a tour to the beautiful country named Vietnam.

Water Puppetry is full of joys, lighting and colors, myriad charms and shocking surprises. This is the feeling of those who are watching a performance of water puppetry. Now, we can watch water puppetry on videotapes, CDs or television programs. However, none of these can replace a real-time performance in which we sit near a sparkling water surface.

At the village pond, a swimming pool or the water stage in the puppetry theater, colorful puppets dance and perform numerous interesting items accompanied by animated music and singing. They can even perform acrobatics or spectacular acts which cannot be done by modern robots. You will see no puppeteer, no machines or instruments, and even no controlling strings and poles. You only watch the puppets on a shimmering water surface.

That's Vietnamese water puppetry, an original performing art preserved and handed down for nearly 1,000 years. In Vietnam, traditional water puppetry is performed in rural villages in the Red River Delta. It was not until 1958 that water puppetry was first displayed in Hanoi. And in 1973, the first state-run puppetry troop was established to serve the public audience. Vietnamese water puppetry was introduced abroad for the first time in France in 1984. Since then, the world has come to love this original performing art.can replace a real-time performance in which we sit near a sparkling water surface.

Stage on the Water's Surface:
A Historical Primer

Watching performances of water puppetry, these questions may come to many people's mind:
    - Why did Vietnamese people choose water as the stage for their puppet shows?
    - When was this folk art created?
    - Who created water puppetry?
    - What locality did water puppetry originate from?
    - Why does water puppetry survive in Vietnam only?
All these questions have been posed not only by viewers but many Vietnamese and foreign researchers. Unfortunately, up to now, there have been no satisfactory and accurate answers, only suppositions of different credibility.

In Vietnam, the oldest record mentioning water puppetry is the inscription on a stone stele dating from 1121. The stele called Sùng Thiện Diên Linh is located in Đọi Sơn Pagoda, Duy Tiên District, Hà Nam Province, about 50 km from Hanoi.It describes a scene: "A golden tortoise with three mountains on its shell was seen on the rippling surface of the water. It showed both its carapace and four legs... the carven's entrance opened and fairies in the play appeared...Flocks of precious birds and herds of animals sang and danced...".

Actually, no written document with accurate details on this original performing art has been found. In water puppetry villages, the troupes and puppeteers worship different founders who sometimes have no names or specific identities. Interestingly, it is these secrets that have made this art more attractive to audiences, performers and researchers.

Water Puppetry and
Vietnamese Traditional Music

Like in other traditional performing arts -popular opera (chèo), classical .opera (tuồng), and renovated opera (cải lương) -a water puppetry programme always starts with a boisterous music composition to attract attention and create a joyful atmosphere. In the past, in the water puppetry villages, drums and buffalo horns were used because they could provide loud and echoing sounds to attract the audience. The water puppetry orchestra could be that of a "chèo" or "tuồng" troupe or some villagers who play musical instruments.

In modern theaters, the orchestra consists of professional musicians and singers. They play traditional musical instruments like drums, clarinets, cymbals, Chinese guitars, bamboo flutes, zithars, and twostringed violins. The most noteworthy instrument is the monochord with a single string which can create wonderful tune found in Vietnam only. The singers not only accompany performing items but also converse with puppets, especially Uncle Tễu, a puppet functioning as a humerous and intelligent M.C.

Previously, such open and impromptu talks between the audience and performers was an indispensable part of the village's performances. In the past, most Vietnamese farmers in the Red River Delta had a great passion for "chèo" performance at their village's communal houses during traditional festivals.

Tunes and songs all originate from of folk music. Audiences are treated to classic tunes that harken back to simpler times.

(Information above cited from the book Vietnamese Water Puppetry of Pham Hoang Hai)
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