If you are planning to visit Hanoi, it will be very regretful if you miss the feat of water puppetry. Water puppetry is an ancient art that originated hundreds of years ago, but the modern water puppetry dates back to the 11th century started by the local villagers of Red River Delta. The modern art of Vietnamese water puppetry is a different and unique variation of the ancient tradition of water puppetry. Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, has become the center of the tradition and history and water puppetry is at the heart of it. Let us talk about the history and origin of this ancient art that has become the most indigenous cultural traits of Vietnam.
A brief history of water puppetry
The origin of the art of water puppetry is unknown. Scholars debate if the art originated in China where a lot of literary citations occur in the history books or in Vietnam where water puppetry art has astonishingly bloomed today. There are references for the very first wooden puppet powered by water during the reign of Emperor Ming-ti (227-239 C.E.). This wooden puppet could beat a drum. The art of water puppetry continued to develop during Sung (960-1126 C.E.), Ming (1368-1643 C.E.), and Qing dynasty (1644-1912 C.E.).
The very first reference, through the courtesy of an inscription from the Doi Pagoda in the province of Nam Ha, to Vietnamese water puppetry is found in 1121 C.E. The reference describes that the water puppetry was for entertainment purposes at a birthday party for King Ly Nhan Ton of the Ly Tran period (1010-1400 C.E.). The oldest Vietnamese water puppet stage is located at the Thay Pagoda that was built during the Le period (1533-1708 C.E.). This ancient stage is still the center of water puppet performance at the annual temple festival.
Very little is known about the art of water puppetry before the 20th century. It was mainly an art of the villagers; hence it was scantly noticed by historians. Few ancient water puppets such as the figures at the Keo Pagoda in Thai Binh have endured the tests of times, but rest were destroyed by the hot, moist climate and the plethora of insects. However, it is confirmed that this art is ancient, and it developed gradually over the tenure of centuries.
How are Vietnamese water puppets made?
Fig trees are abundant in Vietnam, and water puppets are hand carved from the wood of these trees. The production of water puppets is a blend of art and science because the wood is varnished through the lacquer tree’s resin to make the wood water-resistant. The puppets are 12 to 40 inches high with 15 kg of weight. Bamboo poles and strings are the remote controls to control the puppets.
How do Vietnamese water puppets work?
Rice growing regions in Vietnam are the frontrunners in the art of Vietnamese water puppetry. This art is a kind of lively creation of the local farmers who spend their lives in the flooded rice fields. Therefore, a watery stage is necessary for the exhibition and also for the working of the water puppets. Traditionally, a waist-deep pond, a river, or a flooded rice field would have been used as a water puppet stage. Now the stage has evolved over time into water tanks that are permanently located in the water puppetry theatres. Portable water tanks are used by touring puppet troupes.
Puppets perform on the water and are controlled by the puppeteers usually hidden behind the screen. Nowadays, a variety of devices are used to control puppets. Devices are hidden beneath the water to create the effect of theatrical illusions of water puppets without strings. Moreover, the water also aids in providing a dynamic play surface where puppets can appear, disappear, and splash. Fiery effects are easy to create with the help of aqueous stage. When the spectators behold the reflection of theatrical lightning, it is impossible not to be mesmerized by the magic of the scene.
The role of words and music during the performance of Viet water puppets
“Chèo”, a type of opera, is performed by musicians and singers to accompany the performance of water puppets. This group tells the tale that is being acted by the water puppets. The musicians continuously interact with the water puppets and convey words of encouragement, bravery, or even warning. This role of the Chèo adds to the overall performance.
The theme of the performance is mostly rural and tells the stories of local folklores that reflect the daily routine of the local villagers who originated this art. These tales and folklores are a phenomenal way to exhibit cultural values, folk religion, and different traditional celebrations. National history and the tales of the great legends are also told through short performances, especially those that involve the stories of day to day living. The humorous twist is also incorporated in the story. The Vietnamese love a happy ending where the good is triumphant over the evil.
Festivals and the Vietnamese water puppetry
Festivals and water puppetry also have a deep link. Festivals assign the villagers an opportunity to relax by watching overwhelming performances of water puppetry. One such festival is the festival on each Lunar March 13 when the Bo Duong villagers arrange a classic festival in the memory of their tutelary god. Such festivals gather thousands of locals along with the visitors. These festivals are the best show for you if you want to know the culture and traditions of Vietnam and its residents.
Thus, Water puppetry is a very ancient art that dates back to centuries ago. It has evolved significantly over the years. Vietnamese water puppetry now has become a significant cultural art in Vietnam. Hanoi is the center of water puppetry where a lot of water puppetry theatres are located. Based on our traveling experience, we are sure to say that no trip to Vietnam is complete if you miss the opportunity to behold the remarkable performance of the Viet water puppets. It is a unique experience that keeps you in charm over the years. So you should not miss it at any cost.