After 50 years of studying water puppetry, one researcher is bringing the Vietnamese art back to the countryside.Water puppetry Viet Nam’s lively art commands the attention of domestic and foreign audiences across the world.
Water puppet artists are passionate people by nature, and have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to keeping the traditional craft alive. Researcher Nguyen Huy Hong is one.The 80-year-old creative artist spent 50 years observing and studying the quirky art from its beginning, when only farmers in the countryside knew about it.
Over time, with the help of enthuasiastic artists, water puppetry has come to be universally loved by people of all ages and cultures.The first challenge was to reel in the younger demographic. This was no easy feat, considering the youth of today are increasingly drawn in by modern computer games. To jump this hurdle, Hong opened a water puppetry research centre/museum in Phu Xuyen District, Ha Noi.
His museum covers an area of 500sqm in Dong Vang village, Hoang Long commune. It showcases water puppetry’s colourful paraphernalia, drawing attention to its history and development.“Water puppetry illustrates the ordinary life of Vietnamese in rural areas. Snapshots of farmers ploughing and growing rice or catching fish are brought to the stage. For this reason, I thought it would be worthwhile to bring water puppetry back to the countryside—its cradle,” Hong said.
Water puppetry reveals day-to-day living in rural areas of Viet Nam and Vietnamese folk tales that are usually told by older generations to younger generations.Water puppets bring wry humour to ordinary country scenes and traditional festivals such as buffalo fights and children’s games, like marbles and coin-tossing. Legends and folklore are passed down to younger audiences through the art.
Hong has collected water puppet treasures worth 50 billion dong (US$2.9 million). Amongst his trove are 5,000 photos of rare, ancient puppets and puppets unique to certain areas.He has also opened a library with an impressive collection of books where he gives classes to local artists, teaching them how to attract the young.
In Hong’s museum, “visitors will have a chance to deepen their understanding of Viet Nam’s traditional art,” said student NguyenThuy Linh.“I watched a puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre when I was a young girl.
At that time, it was a huge mystery to me how puppets could dance on water. But now, through reading books and looking at photos, and hearing Hong talking about the history of water puppetry of Viet Nam, I understand more, and find water puppets more interesting,” Linh said.
“Water puppetry educates people on Vietnamese culture in an entertaining way,” she said.Professor Nguyen Van Huy, former director of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, believes the key to preserving the art lies in the development of local puppetry groups.
“Many artists nowadays seem to adopt modern styles, which neglect important professional skills,” he said. He added that water puppetry’s appeal comes from its simplicity. Rural artists, he said, perceive the beauty of the rice fields and can bring this passion to the stage.
Vietnamese water puppetry originated from the Song Hong (Red River) Delta of Viet Nam in the 10th century.It began to grow in popularity from the 15th century. At that time, farmers performed the art and used it as a means to relax after the harvesting was done. The custom is still alive and well in many parts of rural Viet Nam.
Water puppetry was created by lively farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields. They noticed that water was an excellent medium for puppetry, as it concealed the puppeteers’ rod and string mechanisms, and provided exciting effects like waves and splashes.
Water puppetry is performed in a chest-deep pool of water, with the surface as a stage. The puppeteers stand behind a screen and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and strings hidden beneath the water’s surface.
A puppet is carved out of wood and often weights up to 15kg.A puppetry show is performed to a backdrop of a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. Singers of Cheo—traditional North Vietnamese operetta—tell the story. Ostentacious decorations colour each show, and traditional musical instruments such as drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, two-string Chinese violins and flutes set the tone.