Hanoi Water Puppet Show 

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Hanoi Water Puppet Show

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

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.

Hanoi water puppet show

Hanoi water puppet show in Hanoi

+ Programme on the Show


“Uncle Tễu” A Rural M.C. and a Friend of the Poor

“Uncle Tễu" is the name given to a puppet who is a young healthy, jovial and poor farmer. He is half-naked, wearing only a loin-cloth. He represents loveable young men in many popular legends. Poor but honest, they are all supported by Buddha and the gods and then become wealthy noblemen who always show their sympathy to the poor.

During the program, Uncle Tễu gives no performance. Instead, he appears at 'the beginning and ending of each performing item. He utters a jubilant and humorous tone to introduce a new item. Many centuries ago, on the water puppet stage in Vietnam, there was a character acting as the master of ceremonies (M.C.). Uncle Tễu is a successful M.C. who attracts audiences and puppets to the virtual and real stage of water puppetry. Perhaps, few M.Cs can conduct this task as smoothly as Uncle Tễu; he prolongs the applause of the audience when a performing item ends and then makes viewers eager for the next item.

Through Uncle Tễu, people can see the image of buffoons in different forms of traditional opera, such "chèo" or "tuồng". These characters make use of their inferior status to mock bad habits in society and protect justice and the poor. In folk performances, Uncle Tễu often wittily gives extempore stories about the village. Thus, in producing puppets, the artisans always try to depict the original spirit and features of the loveable Uncle Tễu.


The Dragon in the Soul of the Vietnamese

The most colorful and spectacular part of water puppetry is the performances of dragons; two dragons playing together, dragons:; playing with a ball, dragon spurting fire and so on. Imposing but mild and friendly, Vietnamese dragons symbolize the power of justice, nobility and authority. They are considered powerful gods ruling the sky.

They often land on earth to make it rain during droughts or spurt fire to kill invaders. The beautiful Hạ Long Bay (the Bay of Dragons Landing) is thought to be the place where dragons landed to defeat the enemy. In the past, Hanoi was named Thăng Long (the Holy Land of Rising Dragons). The Mekong River divides into nine branches in Vietnam and is called the River of Nine Dragons. Dragons are also the symbol of power, so only Emperors and Kings could use costumes embroidered with dragons as well as the dragon throne.

All Vietnamese know by heart the story of Dragon-Fairy and consider themselves descendents of the Dragon and the Fairy. Legend has it that, a long time ago, it was Vietnam where the Dragon Father got married with the Fairy Mother and they gave birth to 100 eggs which hatched into 100 sons. Later, 50 children followed their Dragon Father to the sea, and 50 went with the Fairy Mother to the mountain. They became the ancestors of 54 brotherly ethnic groups in Vietnam. So, Vietnamese people call their compatriots “đồng bào”, meaning siblings from the same brood.

Among these performances, the most interesting are the items of dragons spurting fire and water. These are also techniques in water puppetry which really attract the audience. Fire spurted from the dragons' mouths is not a real flame but flashes of fireworks, a folk game popular in Vietnam, especially during Lunar New Year. How is water spurted out from dragons with multi-sectioned bodies? How to set off fireworks when dragons are in the water? They are wonderful secrets from the hundred-year experience of Vietnamese water puppetry.

Between water puppet shows, there are some animal dances. These solemn rituals are often performed in religious and royal ceremonies. Good virtues of these animals are reflected in four sacred animals (tứ linh): Dragons, Unicorns, Phoenixes and Tortoises.


Peacefull Childhood in Countryside

Watching water puppetry shows, one's heart seems to be softened by the appearance of playful boys. A boy sitting playing flute on the back of his buf falo is the most typical image of simple and peceaful happiness in the countryside. This is also a beautiful picture of man and nature in harmony. A Vietnamese folk song says: "Who dares to say that raising buffaloes is a hard work. No, it is very happy!" Among folk woodblock prints of the Đông Hồ village, there is a famous one called "Grazing Buffaloes and Playing Flute".

For the Vietnamese farmer, buffaloes are the major source of power and the most valuable animal because they are hardworking and loyal. This close relationship is depicted in " Mùa Len Trâu " (Buffalo Grazing Season), a Vietnamese movie that won dozens of awards at international film festivals in 2005. Buffaloes also symbolize strength and bravery. In Vietnam, buffalo fighting is organized in some traditional festivals.

This game has been introduced into water puppetry to become an interesting item. Unexpected variations in its epilogue have become different performing versions of different water puppetry troupes: The defeated buffalo with a broken horn will run away or get into a large smoking pipe.

Everyone watching a water puppet show is likely to feel younger during the scenes of children swimming in the water. Two arms and two legs move in water and the body goes up and down. They look so happy, carefree and funny that even real-life children or animated characters cannot imitate them. In their excitement, viewers wonder why those puppets swim well without controlling machines. And the scene in which a swimmer suddenly jumps onto the head of another boy is really an elaborate prestidigitation. Everyone will stand up to applaud and show their admiration. It is the great attraction of Vietnamese water puppetry.


Traditional Daily Life in Rural Villages

For thousands of years, Vietnamese farmers have lived by farming. Their most important chore is to cultivate wet rice. First, farmers plough and rake their fields with buffaloes. Then, water is channeled to flood the fields. Then rice seeds are sowed throughout the fields. When young seedlings grow, farmers pluck and transplant them to the main field. During the harvest, ripe rice is cut and carried home. All these stages of rice cultivation can be introduced within a water puppet show.

Out of cultivating times, water fields are the main area where peasants earning their livelihood by raising ducks and catching fish and frogs. The rural artists have brought all these activities to the water stage as attractive items.

Water puppeteers not only adopted their daily work as main themes but also gave them a peaceful ambiance and a beautiful tempo of life through singing and dancing. It was in such a happy life that the ancestral generations formed different layers of their folk culture. Among all forms of arts, only water puppetry can depict the folk soul in such a nice, accurate and expressive way.


Heroic Legends and the Vietnamese Spirit

Vietnamese people always respect their long history, That is why there are a number of water puppet plays retelling Vietnam's history and national heroes. Among these items, the legend about the returning the magic sword by King Lê Lợito the Gold Tortoise is the most wonderful one recreated in water puppetry.

In the early 15th century, the Ming Dynasty in China invaded Vietnam, Lê Lợi, a fisherman in Thanh Hóa, caught a holy sword by chance and he led the resistance war lasting for 10 years, In 1427, Lê Lợi defeated the invaders and proclaimed himself the king. One day, taking a boat trip on the lake, he met a huge tortoise which seized the holy sword in his hands then sank away. The King understood that the tortoise wanted to tell him that, after the war, the major task was to develop a prosperous and peaceful country. Then, he named the lake " Hoàn Kiếm" (Sword Returning Lake).

The difficulty of this scene is how to control a swimming tortoise to open its mouth and snatch the sword in the King's hands. Then it must disappear in the water, carrying the sword in its mouth. This performing item praises a national hero and retells a mysterious legend while displaying original techniques of water puppetry.

Some hundred-year-old tortoises are now living in Hoàn Kiếm Lake at the center of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. The small tower in the middle of the lake is named Tháp Rùa (Tower of Tortoises) and is considered one of the symbols of Hanoi. In the Ngọc Sơn Temple on an islet of the lake there remains the mummy of a huge tortoise over 2m in length. Opposite to the temple is the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theater where many water puppet shows are shown to foreign tourists daily.


Vietnamese People’s Traditional Fondness for Learning

Living in a feudal country deeply influenced by Confucianism for centuries, Vietnamese have respect for examinations and academic qualifications. In the past, a young studious man who could pass royal examinations to become a mandarin Fondness for was always a good example for everyone and the dream husband for many girls. Traditionally, after passing the royal exams and being conferred academic honors by the king, the laureates were solemnly escorted back their native village to show their gratitude to ancestors, parents and teachers. Their names and achievements would be carved on stone stelae in the Temple of Literature.

In water puppetry, this solemn procession is depicted with a convoy of soldiers carrying flags and banners behind a young mandarin's palanquin and horse. Villagers enthusiastically receive them with flowers and offerings. This is a typical performing item in which puppets are controlled with strings, so called " máy dây" (string machines). Thanks to a submarine system of poles and strings planted to the outermost edge of the stage, the procession can move around the stage and even stretch far from the manipulation room. Some troupes can control the mandarin to dismount his horse and ascend the palanquin carried by soldiers.

Viewers will fully understand this performing item if they have an insight into the Vietnamese traditional fondness for learning. At present, Vietnamese students studying in other countries have a reputation as hardworking students gaining high academic results.


Folk Festivals: Ritual Processsions and Games

Vietnam is the country of folk festivals. Almost all villages have their own festivals. Famous pagodas and temples also organize their annual festivals attracting a large number of visitors and pilgrims. All festivals consist of religious rituals (worship ceremonies, processions) and festive activities (games and feasts). There are many folk games and contests carefully prepared by villagers, such as boat racing, folk singing, cooking rice, making cakes, setting off firecrackers and buffalo fighting.

At the water puppetry villages, during the festivals, a pond or lake is used to perform water puppet shows. Interestingly, young boys and girls play on a swing in the communal house's courtyard while on the water stage, there are also swinging game of puppets. After the boat race in the river, people call to each other to watch the boat race on the water puppet stage.

Though there are many traditional festivals, it is not easy to attend them. But whenever watching a water puppet show, you immediately experience the boisterous and joyful atmosphere of folk festivals. And sometimes, what you fell in a water puppet show is stronger than attending a real festival because puppet performances are the combination of many factors (lighting, music, colors). Particularly, the jubilant and sweet puppets enchant you with hilarious games. This is a power which can be found in water puppet only.


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