19 June 2012

Vietnamese Water Puppetry

Vietnamese Water Puppetry is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century CE when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. Today's Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition. I had seen water puppetry before at a few international festivals, but never in an outdoor setting, as I had witnessed in China. It was an incredible experience to watch a performance that has been going for nine hundred years and a tradition that had been kept alive by being passed down from generation to generation.

The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play.

The theme of the skits is rural and has a strong reference to Vietnamese folklore. It tells of day-to-day living in rural Vietnam and Vietnamese folk tales that are told by grandparents to their grandchildren. Stories of the harvest, of fishing and of festivals are highlighted.

Legends and national history are also told through short skits. Many of the skits, especially those involving the tales of day-to-day living, often have a humorous twist.

I interviewed the director of the Hồ Chí Minh City Puppet Company (Đoàn Nghệ thuật Múa rối Thành Phố Hố Chí Minh) (above) at the 21st UNIMA Festival  in Chengdu, China, in May 2012.

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