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Water-Puppet Show in Vietnam

The puppet show is an age old traditional genre of art closely connected with Vietnamese people�€™s spiritual life. There are many kinds of puppet shows, for example land-puppet, water- puppet, rope climbing puppet, etc.

The show could be performed in various ways, bearing masks as in the Xuân Phả dance (from Thanh Hoá province) and in that performed among the various T� y and Cao Lan ethnic groups, or in disguised dances such as in Khmer Ro-bam dance (from South Vietnam). But the most popular and dynamic is undoubtedly the water-puppet show with its artistic performance.

The water-puppet show is in fact a derivation of the theatre, using puppets, wooden statues and disguised appearances to act in a play on the stage. The characteristics of this theatre are the water stage and the puppets. It is not quite clear when this artistic form came into existence in Vietnam, but in the period of Th�ƒng Long - Hanoi, it was recorded quite early. The Complete Work of Đại Vi�‡t History mentioned: In the second month in Spring, the 12th year of Tân Dậu (1021), on the Great Anniversary, bamboo-trees were used to erect the South Mount of Longevity at Quảng Phúc Gate; upon the mount, figures of birds flying, and wild animals running make the picturesque spectacle with a multitude of aspects, and men are ordered to imitate the singing of birds, and the roaring of animals to please the spectators.

The most interesting feature is the presence of water puppets tossing on the flow of the Red River... Golden tortoises bearing three mounts upon their heads, fluttering in the river flow, displaying their golden shells and showing their four feet. Swimming in the sluggish flow, casting a side long glance to the river bank, ejecting water from their mouth to the shore, looking upwards to the royal diadem, bending down over the water to survey the blue sky, regarding the steep rock in the melodious hymns... on the back of golden tortoises, gates are opened in grottoes to let land puppets in angels roles appear, performing the dance of "wind is coming" singing the "good chance" song, bands of rare birds are singing and dancing, groups of deer are tottering. This proves that since the Lý dynasty there already existed not only both of two kinds of puppets (land and water) but they were combined in perfect harmony, thus making the performance most sophisticated.

Later on, during the prosperous period of the centralised state (XV century) the art of puppet performing as a whole suffered the same destiny as other traditional performing arts, such as the classic operas of Tu�“ng and Chèo, and they had to draw back into folk art. But it was just in this environment that the water puppets were not only preserved and nourished but even complemented with additional folk features, making this style of theatre become a most unique and diversified artistic form. Enhanced with warm breathe from the countryside, the puppet show has become quite lively and attractive with scenes praising the joys of agricultural activities, providing various kinds of entertainment and expressing historical events.

In earlier times, the puppet show was performed without words. The combination of puppets�€™ actions and accompanying words was a later creation. Since then the performing artists have unceasingly enhanced this combination to make the puppet-show win all hearts, adults as well as children.

Water-puppets are made of light wood with tough fibres and painted with lacquer. The show is performed through a remote-control device consisting of strings or poles. The puppeteers stand behind a screen in water up to their waists, controlling the puppets movements with a system of strings or long bamboo poles. The show is accompanied by musical instrument such as gongs and cymbals, and resounds with sounds of fire-crackers. Today the music is played by a traditional orchestra. In every water-puppet performance, a puppet-actor called Teu always appears playing the introductory role of the story to be performed.

The water-puppet theatre always consists of two parts and occupies the middle of a pond. There is a floating chamber of bamboo closed at three sides with a bamboo screen hanging in the front. The puppeteers stand behind the screen in water to control the puppets. The front of the screen is the square water stage of about 4 x 4m, where the puppets perform under the control of puppeteers.

The spectators stand in courtyards in front of, or at two sides of, the stage. In earlier times, the chamber for puppeteers was a brick construction called water-pavilion. Vestiges of this can be seen now in some places such as at the Master Pagoda and Giãng Temple. Notably in Đ� o Thục village, Thuỵ Lâm commune, Đông Anh district remains of a water-puppet group hundreds years old can be seen. Nowadays in that village the traditional plays still exist and young generations of puppeteers are following their elders in training, creating and performing to serve the villagers and taking part in various national festivals of art.

VNCG-VDC1 - (31/03/2004)

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