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Water puppetry (also known as water puppet) is an ancient form of traditional folk art from Vietnam. Scholars in this field agree that water puppetry originated from the Lý Dynasty, at the beginning of 12th century. Water puppet shows are usually performed during the traditional Tết holiday, or other Vietnamese festive occasions. In Vietnam, there are 30 traditional, and hundreds of modern puppet stories that narrate folktales as well as describing the everyday lives of Vietnamese people.
Water puppetry is the unique creation of the native people who inhabited the Red River Delta. One unique aspect of water puppetry is that the show is performed on the water’s surface. The stage – known as “puppets’ house” or “water palace” – is created in the middle of a pond or a lake with a symmetrical structure, symbolizing the village’s communal house in rural areas of Vietnam. The stage, the backstage as well as other tools like flags, fans, elephants, canopies, gates… are the miniature versions of the real communal house in the village, with a curved roof reflected on the surface of water.
[quote_box_right]Acts of water puppet shows clearly display ordinary activities about life and customs of Vietnamese farmers.
Puppets are the products of the wood-carving skill of the people, which infuses reality with simplicity, amiability and romance.[/quote_box_right]
The manipulating technique in water puppetry is of utmost importance, since it transcribes into the activities of the puppets on “stage.” That is the pivotal point of water puppet shows. The beautiful puppets are only valuable in terms of carving arts, but the way the puppets perform and move is far more prized.
To soak oneself in the water or in the mud to manipulate the puppets is not a pleasant job. Only those whose destiny is tightly attached to water – like farmers who cultivate rice by hydroponic measures in rice paddies covered by water – can transfer their sentiment to the puppets, so that there is passionate synergy between the puppets and the puppet handlers. On “stage,” the wooden puppets “perform” according to the skillful manipulation of the behind-the-scene people, who manipulate the puppets using strings. The show is accompanied by the exciting sounds of drums and firecrackers.
At the shows, the audience will enjoy the artists’ maneuvering skills that result in many wonderful puppet performances. These shows reflect life and activities of Vietnamese farmers, fairytales, tales of history, and the people’s wish for a good harvest. Tools that remind people of their native village such as fish traps, grinding mortars, bamboo beds, oil lamps, rain coats, traditional hats… also take the audience to a different performance level beside what’s on the stage. Simply a pure Vietnamese atmosphere! It is not a coincidence that Marco Polo, an Asian Culture magazine, chose to publish an article about traditional water puppetry of Vietnam. On the cover of the 30-page magazine, photos of water puppet shows with unique puppets were vividly portrayed. And the two-page article by Catherine Belkhodja began with “Ethereally beautiful, water puppetry of Vietnam really is part of the immaterial heritage of the world.”
Water puppetry, the amiable and sacred performing art, is the symbol of the dreams fostered by the Vietnamese people. Efforts have been made to preserve this artform, so that it can deserve its place in the cultural heritage of the nation.