Vietnamese Water Puppetry
The art of Vietnamese water puppetry is over 1000 years old, but was virtually unknown outside of Northern Vietnam until the 1960s. It appears to have originated with rice farmers as a form of satirical entertainment during the times of flooding of the padi fields. Puppets were modelled on the villages themselves, animals from their daily lives and more fanciful mythical creatures such as the dragon, phoenix and unicorn. All stories and scripts express the farmers' desire to have good weather and a bumper harvest, and a peaceful life. The performances traditionally took place in the flooded rice padi fields.
All the scenery is entirely rural, centreing mainly, not surprisingly, on rice paddies. The performances generally contain a lot of action - battles between fisherman and fish; fire-breathing dragons; a cat-and-mouse game between a jaguar, a flock of ducks and the ducks' keeper; and a flute-playing boy riding a buffalo. The stories are about work, the village, and the family. Good and evil are part of the performance, with good bringing happiness and evil bringing it's own lessons.
During the Ly (1010 - 1225) and Tran (1226 - 1400) dynasties, water puppetry moved from being a simple pastime of villages to formal courtly entertainment. Thereafter it all but disappeared. Luckily it has seen a huge revival in the past 50 years and is now one of the most popular and best-known forms of Vietnamese art forms.
The puppets are carved from water-resistant fig tree timber, and are painted with a glossy vegetable based paint. If used continually each lasts only about 3 - 4 months. Sizes can vary up to approximately 50 cm long.
Some puppets are simply attached to a long pole while others are set on a floating base which in turn is attached to a pole. Most have articulated limbs and heads; some also have rudders to help guide them. There can be as many as 3 poles attached to one puppet, and in the darkened theatre it looks as if they are literally walking on water.
The considerable skills required to operate the puppets were traditionally kept secret and passed only from father to son, never to daughters through fear that they would marry outside the village and take the secrets with them.
The main characters in most performances include the following.
Teu, the Master of Ceremonies