Unique rural puppet art struggles to survive

By Grant McCool

CHANG SON, Vietnam - The water puppet performers rub crushed ginger onto their skin and drink fish sauce to keep warm when they stand waist deep in cold rice paddies and ponds.

Practitioners of the 900-year-old art in Vietnam's northern Red River Delta endure discomforts for love of their craft.

But the few surviving traditionalist water puppetry troupes struggle to keep afloat. They lack money and personnel while two professional indoor theaters thrive in the capital, Hanoi.

"If they didn't love it, they wouldn't put their bodies in the water. They would not stand all day to perform," Professor Nguyen Van Huy, director of Vietnam's Museum of Ethnology, said of the farmers and carpenters who make up the troupes.

"If they cannot nurture their love for the art form, it will die," Huy said.

Troupe members build wooden and bamboo pavilions in a pond, the roofs curved at the corners in the style of Buddhist temples.

At show time, wooden puppets 10 to 18 inches tall emerge from behind a bamboo blind, often in a blaze of colorful flags. The puppets are painted red and black, orange, brown and green.

Some scripts carry the audience into a fantasy world of dragons spitting flames, unicorns, dancing phoenixes and fairies. Exploding firecrackers can add to the excitement, filling the air over the watery stage with smoke.

The unseen puppeteers stand barefoot, wearing only their underwear, in the pond or paddy and send puppet people, elephants, buffalo, snakes and other animals gliding along the water using a system of rods, strings, levers and hinges.

These techniques are among the craft's most closely guarded secrets, passed down through a family's male line. For the past decade, women too have performed the task in professional arenas.

It takes years of practice to make the puppet's maneuvering mechanism or to develop skills to move its body parts.

The dolls are accompanied by musicians playing drums, flutes and other wind instruments while a narrator tells tales, some up to 90 minutes long, with titles such as "Water buffalo creeps into a pipe," "A hero fights a tiger," or "Fishing for Frogs."


One favorite in the furniture-making village of Chang Son in Ha Tay province about 28 miles southwest of Hanoi is "Betel Nut Offering." Traditionally, offering betel was the way to start a conversation in Vietnam.

Village market vendor Phi Thi Hang said she first saw puppets when she was 15. Fifty years later, she still attends shows.

Hang admiringly described a puppeteer skillfully maneuvering a puppet to hold up a tray of betel nuts while it floated around the pond. The puppet offered betel to audience members who removed the nuts and left money on the tray.

In the past three years, a pond in the heart of Chang Son has become unusable, polluted with sewage and plastic shopping bags.

The pollution distresses troupe chief Nguyen Van Dau, whose skills as scriptwriter, carpenter and puppeteer were passed down over four generations. His son is now in the 22-member troupe.

"This is a real pressing issue in our minds," Dau, 65, a retired army captain, said at the pond's edge. "It is also about civilization. It's a big regret."

He feels a deep sense of duty toward his ancestors' heritage. Chang Son village is one of the places where water puppetry arose in the 11th century, according to ethnology museum documents.

The troupe is the only one that has books of folklore and songs for water puppetry written in Han, which centuries ago was the official language of Vietnam using the Chinese-based script.


The art form is unique to just six provinces clustered in the delta around Hanoi, and no sign of the art has ever emerged in neighboring China, Laos and Cambodia or even central and southern Vietnam, despite similar agrarian environments.

This puzzles historian and puppet expert Nguyen Tran Dung.

"Agriculture in the North and South is based on the same water rice paddies and other countries around also have rice paddies, but they don't have water puppets. That's a big question," Dung said.

Historians say that before Vietnam's succession of liberation wars from the 1940s to the late 1970s, there were as many as 28 troupes, compared with 13 still active in 2005.

Shows were suspended during wartime, when puppeteers like Dau became soldiers, and bombing made it too dangerous to perform.

Since communist-run Vietnam adopted an open-door policy of economic renewal in 1987, professionalism has been brought to this ancient folk art. Museum director Huy acknowledged it had also spurred the provincial troupes to improve.

Thousands of foreign tourists attend the daily professional shows in Hanoi, and these troupes have toured abroad.

In centuries past, people were initiated into a troupe after the new member and other members had cut themselves, drunk the blood and sworn not to reveal trade secrets or they and three future generations would die.

Chang Son troupe chief Dau says the secrets are no longer a matter of life and death, but fears that if his village pond is not cleaned up, his beloved puppets may never perform again.


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