As it is officially known today, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV; Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam) is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in South East Asia. In the past, Vietnam was intermittently part of other empires and nations: of Imperial China (from 111 BCE to 938 CE) – after which successive Vietnamese royal dynasties flourished as the nation expanded geographically and politically into South East Asia –, a colony of France (1862-1954) and, for the ensuing twenty-two years, a country divided into North and South Vietnam, which led to military intervention from the United States of America on the side of the South resulting in the Vietnam War. The country was reunified in 1976 after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Vietnam’s Puppetry Traditions
Roi means puppet in Vietnamese and we find the name attached to villages, pagodas, and pools where water puppetry has been practised. Puppetry is often associated with ritual. For example, in Dong An in Hai Hung province large male (Dung) and a female (Da) figures made of bamboo and papier-mâché are danced in procession. In Thay Pagoda in Ha Tay province is found a votive statue of King Ly Than Tong with movable jointed wooden parts. Puppet statues are used in funeral ceremonies of the Bahnar and other ethnic groups. Puppet stages may be part of temple complexes. At Thay Pagoda in Thai Binh province where a water puppet stage from the Later Le period (1428-1788) in Long Tri Lake faces the sanctuary; performances as part of the annual temple festival continue today.
The Complete History of Dai Viet tells that in 1021 CE for the birthday of the king a miniature mountain that included flying birds and running animals manipulated by puppeteers was displayed. The first reference to water puppets or water puppetry (mua roi nuoc), also in the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225), is a 1121 inscription from the Long Doi Son Pagoda in Ha Nam. It describes the king’s birthday performance with a swimming tortoise and fairy dancers – scenes that remind us of figures seen in the beginning of the 21st century. In 1293, during the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), an official reported that he saw rod puppets at the Vietnamese king’s banquet. Under the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788), puppetry was largely left to village performers and its designation as an art of the people rather than the aristocrats prevailed through subsequent regimes. During the French colonial period a troupe (Run Company) from Thach Khe was brought to the colonial exhibition in Europe. But puppetry until the l980s was essentially a folk art.
Thus puppetry in various forms has existed since at least the 11th century in many variations from proto-puppets (including toy puppets, wind puppets, firecracker puppets, and mechanical figures) and stage puppets (which are customarily divided into land puppets and water puppets). Water puppets are probably Vietnam’s most distinctive contribution to world puppetry.
Toy puppets include den keo quan (paper lantern with moving figures) which are comparable to shadow puppetry in technique. Children’s games include dances of the four sacred animals (dragon, unicorn, tortoise, and phoenix). Masks and body puppets made of papier-mâché and cloth are used for lion dance and other performances. Wind activated figures like kites are a significant art for display and competitions. Kites often represent characters, seen in manipulated puppet form. Display figures of dancing girls or drummers made of light wood are also set outside to be danced by the wind.
Firecracker-activated figures are widespread. Structures of firecrackers consist of layers approximately 40 centimetres square, which are hung with firecrackers and strung with figures. For example, two wrestlers fight or rice pounders pound. Structures explode in a dazzling blaze as string mechanisms activate them from a distance.
Glove puppets are presented at many pagoda festivals and usually have heads and hands of wood. A cloth bag into which the hand is inserted creates the body.
Rod puppets are about 30 centimetres tall with the head and body carved out of a single block and hands attached to the shoulders by cord. Rods that manipulate hand and body are inside the costume which hides the mechanism and the puppeteer’s arm.
String puppets are found in Cao Bang province. With wood heads attached to a body of woven bamboo, the figures are operated from a bridge. Mechanical puppets, triggered with rods and strings, are made of wood and have jointed limbs.
Traditional body puppets include the lion dance with patterns related to leonine figures found in all areas where Buddhism and Chinese culture exist. Shadow puppetry was once found in Kien Giang province but is now defunct.
Contemporary land puppetry developed after Ho Chi Minh’s revolution. In l956, Ho Chi Minh hosted the Czech troupe Loutkové divadlo Radost who performed glove and rod puppetry. Recognizing that puppetry could be an educational tool for children, he encouraged local cheo folk theatre artists to study Czech models and the result was pieces like Who’ll be Boss, which critiqued the Diem government of South Vietnam. The Central Puppet Theatre (also called Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre or Nhà Hát Múa Rối Quốc Gia Việt Nam) in Hanoi grew from this encounter. The Central Puppet Theatre spearheaded professional modern water puppetry discussed below. The company also continues to perform all kinds of contemporary puppetry, usually for schools or child audiences: often rod puppets or mask-actor-puppet fusions. Traditional and modern narratives from around the globe are in the company repertoire. Many of the artists working in puppetry today have also trained at Hanoi University of Theatre and Film (Trường Đại học Sân khấu – Điện ảnh Hà Nội) where glove, string, rod, shadow, and water puppetry are taught. Directors, manipulators, musicians, designers and others are trained there or in programmes at the Central Puppet Theatre/Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre.
Aside from passing references in court records, little is known of water puppetry prior to the 20th century. Older water puppet figures from Keo Pagoda in Thai Binh resemble temple and village communal house sculpture. The same carvers probably created all. Figures are usually 20-30 centimetres in height, carved out of water-resistant wood, lacquered and painted in bright colours which reflect brightly on the surface of the water. They are mounted on a base of metal or wood which serves as a float and keeps the figure upright. Simple figures will have a long bamboo pole, masked by the murky water, which goes into the base. A rudder mechanism allows the figure to change direction. Strings descend from inside the hollowed out body and run along the pole; they can be pulled for a fairy to display her gossamer cape.
For more complex scenes, groups of figures will be mounted on a raft-like structure which is attached to ropes that run from the manipulation room through the middle or sides of the stage. When the main line is pulled the figures float delicately across the stage. Puppeteers waist-deep in water are hidden behind a bamboo screen in the staging house.
Performances are series of short scenes that show mythological creatures, village activities, or scenes from the folk opera (cheo) or the court opera (tuong). Village water puppet troupes were all male societies, called phuong. Members were sworn to secrecy about the mechanisms that allowed for the seeming magic. The leader (ong trum) and the “engineer” (truong tro) would guide members who performed at temple or village festivals on a muddy pond while audiences watched from the banks. In the 1930s, a portable pool was invented, allowing touring. World War II and the struggle for independence had a negative impact and troupes faltered. Today, village phuong remain active in only eight villages of the Red River area.
Beginning in the l950s, government folklorist Nguyen Huy Hong undertook research on the arts and with his help in the 1970s a professional artist from Hanoi came to study with villagers and later wrote about it. By the late 20th century, the art of water puppetry was and continues in the 21st century to be taught at the training school of the Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre founded in 1956 and at Hanoi University of Theatre and Film (Trường Đại học Sân khấu – Điện ảnh Hà Nội).
Major professional companies are the Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre (also called Central Puppet Theatre). Ms Dang Anh Nga led the group in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century Mr Vuong Duy Bien was director. The theatre performs for mostly local audiences but has toured internationally, performing both land and water puppetry. It may offer a more varied programme, and has collaborated with international artists of projects such as Amricans Theodora Skipitares and Ellen Stewart (1997). Even more visible is Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà Hát Múa Rối Thăng Long) or Municipal Thang Long Puppet Company in Hanoi where, under Le Van Ngo’s leadership, contemporary artistic ideas have further developed the traditional art. Thang Long performs for large local and foreign tourist audiences daily and has made many international tours of water puppetry. They also send smaller groups out to take puppetry back to the villages. These troupes have given rise to offshoots in Ho Chi Minh City – Ho Chi Minh City Puppet Company (Đoàn Nghệ Thuật Múa Rối Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), and a small group at the National Museum of Ethnology. Other groups have developed dinner shows specifically for tourism. Sculptor Dang Van Thiet has made many of the figures for these professional companies. More companies have risen to serve tourism and local consumption and follow the model of the first two groups.