Water puppetry is deeply imbued with the cultural characteristics of the people of the Red River Delta. Water puppetry first appeared around the 15th century, when post-harvest, artists who were also farmers would gather to perform and relax. The custom remains today in many localities in the Red River Delta such as Dao Thuc, Phu Da, Dong Ca, Nguyen Xa, Dong Ngu, Nhan Hoa and Nam Chan.
Hong Phong, Hai Duong Province is possibly the most prominent of the water puppetry guilds. All members of the guild hail from Bo Duong Village, Hong Phong Commune, Ninh Giang District, Hai Duong Province. Bo Duong is one of a handful of villages preserving the objects and culture that are the inheritance of a long history of water puppetry. Carvings in the village temple, which were chiselled in the post-Le Dynasty, express many of the stock water puppetry characters. Carvings of Fairies, wrestlers, squirrels climbing a pillar and the ever-present Teu, give the Hong Phong water puppetry guild a history dating back to the 17th century.
The puppet is the basis of the art. All puppets of the Hong Phong water puppetry guild are made from old fig wood, which is light, with twisted fibre, and floats well on water, according to Nguyen Xuan Chiem, head of the Hong Phong guild.
To craft a puppet, a fig log is cut into many short trunks, appropriate for making puppets of different sides. While the bark is whittled and dried, the trunks are preliminarily whittled into figures and dried under shade. Then the bodies are polished, fitted with limbs and strings, and finally painted.
The secret to making puppets nice and durable is all in the painting, which is layered seven times. Popular colours of Hong Phong puppets are black, green, lotus petal, yellow, and flesh-tone.
Hong Phong puppets are often a little larger than those used by professional water puppetry troupes because they are used to performed on village ponds, not in professional stages. The tales the guild members tell are based on the real life drama of rural life. Reputed traditional stories of the guild are still recounted today such as The Tortoise burns the flag, Parasol opening, Squirrels in the horserace, and Teu fixes the festival flag.
Along with singing, traditional musical instruments like drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, two-string Chinese violins and flutes create the atmosphere, while the decorations set the stage for each particular style of water puppetry. Researcher Nguyen Huy Hong believes water puppetry combines sculpture, architecture, painting, music, stage and literature.
Water puppetry has always gone hand in hand with festivals. Each Lunar March 13, Bo Duong villagers hold village festival to commemorate their tutelary god. Aside from worship, the festival is also an opportunity for villagers to relax by watching water puppetry, taking in fireworks displays, flying kites and entering cock-fighting contests. The festival always attracts thousands of attendants. Village festivals are for are great wind down for farmers and artists alike.
VietnamNet - (07/10/2003)