It’s Not about Pulling Strings in Water Puppetry

Spending one night watching a water puppetry show in Hai Duong Province’s Hong Phong Commune and one will surely remember the standing ovation, the spectacular performance, the colorful wooden puppets bobbling about in water and memorable background music and singing.

Hong Phong has long been viewed as a cradle of this art form in Viet Nam thanks to local artists who spread this unique popular folk art throughout the Red River Delta in the north. According to Mr. Pham Van Phong, 74, a veteran puppeteer of Hong Phong Puppetry Troupe, water puppetry stems from the creativeness of peasants in ancient time who spent their days in wet paddy fields.

It was introduced into Hong Phong about 300 years ago and quickly became an indispensable entertainment for local people as well as those in neighboring areas in annual festivals ever since.
Phong added that over centuries of ups and downs, water puppetry unfortunately became a dwindling art and was just rescued from near oblivion a decade ago.

As its name suggests, water puppetry is performed in water. A bamboo booth depicting a temple facade is erected on the pond surface and serves as the background of the stage. Up to eight puppeteers standing in the water under the bamboo booth use pulleys and bamboo rods hidden beneath the water surface to control the puppets.

Puppeteers stand in water using bamboo rods and pulleys hidden beneath the water surface to control the puppets

Despite being an entertainment of and for farmers, research shows that Ly and Tran dynasties in the twelfth and thirteen centuries were ardent patrons of the art. Phong cited that a water puppet show was staged in the year 1121 to celebrate the birthday of King Ly Nhan Tong (1066-1127).
He explains that the puppets are usually carved out from the light and soft wood of the jackfruit tree so that they can float on water. Pulleys are attached to the limbs of each puppet before it is covered with a layer of waterproof paint and several layers of lacquer to maximize its longevity. Traditionally, water puppets are usually up to one meter tall.

All the puppets employed by troupes in the commune are hand made and hand painted. Since each puppet has its own stage role, its identity and characters are demonstrated through the decoration on its face, costume and movements.

To control a puppet weighing up to 15 kilos requires a high level of skill from the puppeteer. Sometimes it may take a performer a few months of practice to make a puppet move about in a desired way.

Phong said that aside from the lively and natural movements of the puppets, another factor that contributes immensely to the success of a puppet show is the effective combination of the visual effects provided by fire, light, sound and water waves.

 

To start the performance, a puppet known as little Teu, a tiny and comical wooden figure of a four year-old wearing a red unbuttoned vest to expose his belly, takes the stage to introduce the show. While cute puppets appear on the stage to dance, artists of Cheo, a form of Vietnamese popular theater taking roots from festivals in ancient villages in the northern delta, sing songs to narrate the story being acted out by the puppets. Their singing is accompanied by a small folk orchestra.

Themes of stories in water puppet shows are about day-to-day village activities including farming, fishing, festival events like buffalo fights, and important events in the national history, children’s games and Vietnamese folk tales that are handed down through generations.

Phong said that a decade ago, troupes in the commune only made performances in festival events in the region. Now that Hong Phong Commune has become a tourist attraction, his troupe performs almost every night to serve visitors.

Identify and characteristics of a puppet are demonstrated through the decoration on its face, costumes and movements

For most of the audiences, water puppet shows are full of enchantment, colors, charms and joys and enjoying a water puppet show is considered a must in their agenda to Viet Nam.
Although the art has been revived in the commune, Phong fears that it may die out in the coming future again.

“Local young people have all gone to big cities to earn a living while skillful artists like me still have one of our feet in the grave. The tough problem is how to preserve and develop the unique art passed down from our ancestors. For many young men, there’s not much to do here and working as water puppeteers does not bring much financial reward to them in return.” 

Thuong Hai Ninh, Phuong Lan

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