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Vietnam's Water Puppet Show Secret Discovered

Smile of Puppet,  Named Chu Teu

Smile of Puppet, Named Chu Teu

Smile of Puppet,  Named Chu Teu

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  • Image © 2009 Ha Pham

A cacophony of flutes, gongs and drums fill the theatre. A procession of colorful flags moves across the waterway stage, banners fluttering out over the ripples. The four sacred animals - dragon, phoenix, tortoise and unicorn - dance in line. This is the traditional water puppet show.

Water puppetry, an art form unique to Vietnam, is a said to have been inspired by the annual flooding of the Red River delta, when religious statues floating out of the temples gave the villagers the idea of creating a new form of wet season entertainment. It is called the soul of rice fields because of its close association with water and the paddies, and was historically performed in thuy dinh, a two-storey village hall where the top was used for worship, and the bottom for performances.

Villagers would gather for shows at festival time or after the harvest in provinces around Hanoi. The traces of Thuy dinh dating back three centuries can still be found in several districts, the most famous being Thay pagoda. Water puppetry reached its peak during the Ly dynasty (1009-1225) - a show was performed for royalty in 1121 to honour King Ly Nhan Tong's great age.

The puppeteers stand waits deep in muddy water behind the bamboo curtain. The troupe was traditionally an amateur social group of 70 - 80 people, but only 20 of them were puppeteers. The head of the troupe, an elderly man acknowledged as the most experienced puppeteer, made all the decisions. According to village custom, females were forbidden to join the troupe for fear that when they married, they would reveal the troupe's secrets to their husband's families.

Water puppet themes involve both the rhythms of village life and national heroic legends. It can take up to 150 puppets to express the 16 legends that form the commercial repertoire of city theatres.  The most popular character is the peasant compere Teu. Chubby Teu comes out in a bright red loincloth and sing let, admonishing villagers for their bad habits with a big smile and mischievous eyes. Teu is considered the creator of roi nuoc, and was traditionally worshipped during the performance.

A French newspaper wrote that the puppets are manipulated the unimaginable cleverness. It's as if they are being commended by an invisible power" The music and fire works, cleverly syncopated with the story, add to the excitement of thus folk art which combines sculpture, painting, embroidery, dance, fire work making, poetry and music.

Today, water puppet performances attract a steady audience of tourists than villagers celebrating the harvest in their thuy dinh, but the stories are the same and the crowd is no less appreciative of the magic and skill on show, finding it as entertaining as the peasants have for centuries.          

A Floating World
Vietnamese water puppets are respected internationally as an important art form, and a wooden statue of Chu Teu by Phan Van Ngai can be seen in the Louvre in Paris. Puppets are made from the wood of the fig trees that line village ponds. The first stage of puppet making is the carving of the wood by craftsmen, to give it its unique character. Then it is covered with gold or silver leaf, or other colors.

A final layer made from resin of the son tree- the raw material of lacquer - is added to waterproof the wood. It takes months to make a finished puppet. The average weigh is at about 2 kg, but some weigh in at 8 kg. The puppets are attached to a system of rods, with silk wires and a pulley system worked by both the hands of the puppeteer and the water, creating the illusion of the floating world

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Excerpt from the program notes of a water puppet show at the Thang Long theatre in Hanoi.

1. Musical Prelude. Each performance opens with two or three traditional Vietnamese tunes, played on traditional instruments. These tunes will vary from show to show. Both the artists and their musical selections are listed daily on an updated program.

2. Raising the flags and introducing "Chu teu", the M.C. It would not be a festival without colorful flags, traditionally in five different colors. The challenge, and indeed the art of water puppetry, is to keep the flags dry, even under water. Chu Teu's role is similar to that of a Master of Ceremonies, but with a uniquely Vietnamese style.  He appears as a relatively young man with a comical young boy's haircut.  He is also rather underdressed and acts as though slightly naive, at times irreverent but always with a sharp wit.

A sample of his introduction:

Teu toi von dong tren thien thuong
 I, teu come from heaven
Boi hai dao bi truat xuong tran gian
 Exiled down here for stealing a peach
Thay su doi boi roi da doan
 Seeing that this society is full of complicated problems
 Nen toi phai lan loi de lo toan su roi day ba con a!
 I must wade in and try to sort out these entanglements!

(In Vietnamese boi roi often means "concerns" or "problems a play on words for "roi" in the next line which means puppets. Likewise "lan loi" figuratively means trying or struggling very hard and literally means diving and swimming - a clever if not too subtle reference to "roi nuoc" or water puppets)

3. Dance of the Dragons. According to legends, the Viet people are descended from a Dragon and a heavenly Fairy. They were said to be powerful, wise and  benevolent. The Dragon Dance, like the flag dancing before gives the puppeteers the chance to show off their technical ability and dexterity.

4. On a Buffalo with a Flute. A popular to Vietnamese song asks: Ai bao chan trau la kho ( who said that tending buffaloes is a hard- knock life?) and the song goes on to list the various enjoyments spending a day outdoor on the back of a buffalo:

Toi xin ke ve dong lua nuoc ru bong tre
 Let me tell you about the rice fields, the villages
Xanh ngat que lang lung trau sao thoi veo von.
 Enclosed in emerald green bamboo

The sound of a flute from a buffalo's back
Hoi ai con nho co huong thi ve
 Come back all those who  yearn for the homeland.

5. Farming Activities. The part of the show has the puppets performing various agricultural tasks such as tilling the land, transplanting the rice seedlings and irrigating the rice fields with large buckets.  Incidentally many of these practices are still used today and can be seen in the Red River Delta.

6. Catching frogs. This is a comical sketch in which the farmer tries in vain to capture frogs in his basket.

7. Fox stealing a Duck. Another vignette of Vietnamese agricultural life. In both the Red River (Song Hong) and Mekong (Cuu Long) deltas rice field and plentiful number of  ponds exist.  These provide a natural habitat for ducks. Unfortunately every once in a while, a certain creature finds a fat juicy duck simply irresistible!

8. Fishing. Fish is the major source of protein in the Vietnamese diet, from the famous (and pungent) fish sauce and shrimp paste to the delicate fish jerky and shredded dry shrimp.  With its long coastline, Viet Nam has hundreds of rivers and thousands of lakes and ponds. As this performance shows, fishing can be both relaxing and also character building. 

9. Triumphant Return. In the center of Hanoi the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) still records the names of all literary doctorates who passed the national examinations, dating back to the 11th century. Large stone steles rest on the backs of giant stone turtles commemorating their achievements.  The turtle represents longevity and highlights the importance of learning in Viet Nam society.  The exams were held every three year in the capital to select mandarins.  Graduates were then appointed to all levels of the bureaucracy, including the Royal Court.  The graduates would then make a triumphant return to their home village in full regalia with all the benefits of office: fine clothing, honor guards, trumpets, flags, carriages and offerings.

This selection system, which has been observed for centuries, reinforces the Vietnamese attitude towards learning. This involves not only respecting learning for its own sake but also using it as a means of escaping poverty.  In the most recent refugee crisis learning again proved its undeniable value: a person may lose everything he or she possesses; from status and wealth to loved ones, but education is something that can not be taken away. 

10. Dance of the Lion.

11. Dance of the Phoenix.

12. Legend of the Restored Sword. In Vietnamese history, Le Loi successfully led a ten -year uprising (1418-1427) to regain independence from China.  Legend has it that, Le Loi was greatly helped by a magical sword. In 1428, after he became the king, one day when he went boating on a lake in the capital a giant turtle surfaced and asked for the sword to be returned.  The king duly agreed and the lake was named Hoan Kiem or Restored Sword Lake to honor the event.  As the performance states:

Ba thuoc guom than giup nuoc khi
 This lengthy sword has helped me before
Muon quan xam luoc het ra uy
 It defeated tens of thousands of invaders
Thai binh than kiem ve nguyen chu
 Now in peace the magic sword is returned to its owner
Hoan kiem ho nay dau khac ghi
 And this lake shall be remembered as Hoan kiem

13. Swimming. Water, as well as being the sustainer of life in Viet Nam can be also source of fun especially for these youngsters. 

14. Boat Racing.

Loa loa loa!
 Oye oye oye!
Mo dau ngay hoi la tro dua thuyen
 To open the festival is the boat race
Thon dong chit khan dieu
 The eastern hamlet wears red scarves
Thon doai mang khan luc
 The western hamlet wears blue scarves
Thon muc buoc khan vang
 The muc hamlet wears yellow scarves
Loa loa loa!
 Oye oye oye!

15. Unicorns Competing for the Prize

16. Dance of the Fairies. A reprise of the Dragon and fairy theme, representing the ancestors of Vietnamese.

According to legend King Lac Long Quan (about 2800 B.C) married Au Co and together they had 100 sons. After a time he told her "I came from the Dragon and your ancestors were the fairies it would not be possible for us to last forever together. Why don't you take 50 of our sons up to the mountains while I take the other 50 down to the sea"

They split up Lac Long Quan established the eldest son as the king of the new realm, Van Lang. The new king named himself Hung Vuong and established the first Vietnamese dynasty.

17. Dance of the Four Magical Animals. The Four animals with magic power are: The dragon, the Unicorn, the Turtle and the Phoenix

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Published on 2/1/09

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Comments [1]


Contributor: minhly [19] 2/24/09

4 of 4 people found this comment helpful.

I am Vietnamess,too. I am very proud of Warer pupet. Your writing is very interesting.

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