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Vietnamese Traditional Performing Art: Water Puppetry

Updated on October 19, 2012
The wooden puppets
The wooden puppets

The setting

As its name suggests, water puppetry is literally performed in water. The stage is often a pond in which a puppeteers' booth shaped like an East Asian pagoda is built. The performers stand in this booth with their bodies half in water to control the puppets through sophisticated mechanism. The puppets are made from light wood (most commonly wood from jackfruit tree) and coated with silver sheets and several layers of lacquer so that they are light, waterproof and durable. Making puppets requires skill and experience because a mistake will render the puppet useless.

Water puppetry performers
Water puppetry performers

The performers

It is interesting to note that most water puppeteers are not professional. They are farmers participating in their villages' water puppetry guilds in their free time. They perform mostly for their fellow villagers without any charge in temporary "theaters" built in natural ponds surrounded by rice paddies. However, a water puppetry guild is very discipline and its members are sworn brothers who all share in the joy, the hardship as well as the expense of their artistic activities. There is a strong competition between water puppetry guilds. Each guild has its unique plays the secret of which are grudgingly kept. It is said that when it comes to water puppetry, water is thicker than blood as puppeteers are ready to sacrifice their family ties to keep the guild's secret.

The "Teu" character
The "Teu" character

Common themes

Though performance set varies from guild to guild, all the plays reflect the life both physical and spiritual of the agricultural Red River Delta villages. The topics are often scenes from everyday life, feats of national heroes, popular fairy tales and criticism of the society. The characters are very diverse, from everyday people and animals like a farmer, a water buffalo or a stork to heroes and heavenly beings like fairies and dragons. The most famous water puppetry character is Teu ( meaning "laughter" in ancient Vietnamese). He is in the form of a happy, carefree farmer. He appears in every play where he acts as introducer, commentator and joins in the action in comical scenes. All plays start with a greeting from Teu though each guild has its own version of his speech.

The "daily life" acts

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WeavingGrinding riceSawingParading
Grinding rice
Grinding rice

A typical performance

Water provides the puppeteers a versatile background. The puppets may appear anywhere on stage according to the will of the controllers. As it is almost impossible to create a setting for each play, half of the soul of a play lies in the sound, music and comments (deliberately composed for a specific part) performed by the orchestra who often hide behind the puppeteers' booth. Though performances are set in water, the performers have found a way to use fire and crackers in their plays, which add thrillness to the scenes where characters suddenly "vanish" and "appear" (in fact they go into or out of water) and the battle or competition scenes. Last but not least is the ingenuity of the puppeteers who decide the liveliness of the puppets. Without them, there will not be a delightful show.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A water puppetry performanceAnother performance, this time outdoors. This setting is actually how water puppetry is traditionally performed.Heaven's MaidensDragons
A water puppetry performance
A water puppetry performance
Another performance, this time outdoors. This setting is actually how water puppetry is traditionally performed.
Another performance, this time outdoors. This setting is actually how water puppetry is traditionally performed.
Heaven's Maidens
Heaven's Maidens

A video of water puppetry performance (not by me)

Water Puppetry on Stamp


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