Out on the water, three wooden puppets depicting the female character Thi Mau move in unison, gliding in front of the stage and flicking their wrists to unfurl pink hand fans. They seem to move effortlessly, as if controlled by some machine beneath the pond’s surface.
The reality is more impressive.
Behind the curtain, another kind of synchronised dance is in motion. Wading through thigh-deep water, a half-dozen men — two assigned to each puppet — gracefully weave around and sidestep each other, all the while pulling the strings and turning the knobs that give life to their creations. This hidden choreography takes months of practice, and that’s just the start of their lifelong dedication to the traditional art of water puppetry.
The secrets of Vietnam’s “traditional water puppetry ward” — Dong Cac Commune in Thai Binh Province — were revealed recently to a group of expats and visitors who travelled there with the Friends of Vietnam Heritage organisation. The rare visit by foreigners inspired hope among villagers that tourism could save their beloved ancient art from extinction.
An Age Old Story
Dong Cac’s water puppet guild is one of 14 in Vietnam. Of the 21 members from Dong Cac, only five are under the age of 50. The youngest is 30 and the oldest is 84.
“The youngsters do not pay much attention to water puppet arts and performances,” says Nguyen Van Thanh, chairman of the Dong Cac Water Puppet Association.
The younger generation is busy chasing education and work opportunities, many of which lie outside the district. As the village’s craftsmen age, fewer people have the technical know-how to pass on tips of the water puppetry trade.
“This is what we are very concerned about — how to maintain and preserve this art in the future,” Thanh says.
He said they must find a way to earn local government’s support, in addition to financial aid from NGOs or other groups. But they must also attract tourists and audiences for their shows. To date, no organised tours travel to Dong Cac, which is about a two-hour drive from Hanoi’s centre.
Representatives from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre came to the village to see a show four years ago, but the village never heard any feedback on whether it was eligible to become a world heritage site.
For now, passion is enough to keep the craft alive. In addition to retirees, guild members work as farmers, carpenters and factory workers, among other professions. Any hours logged at the village’s puppetry shop are on their own time and dime.
Craftsmen do not sell their finished products, save for a few puppets displayed at the ethnology and fine arts museums in Hanoi. Performances are seldom held outside the village, and those don’t exactly rake in the cash.
So how can craftsmen earn money to sustain their art?
“That’s a hard question that we are trying to solve,” Thanh says.
Ancestral tradition is another driving force that keeps the craftsmen chipping away at wood. Most craftsmen learnt the trade from their fathers, who learnt it from their fathers before them.
The craftsmen, at least in Dong Cac, are exclusively men. In ancient times, women used to serve as puppetry performers because they had to voice the dialogue and songs for female characters. Now, everything is pre-recorded.
Pham Dinh Viem, 67, started learning the craft when he was 14. He said at least four generations of his family have made water puppets.
One of his most vivid childhood memories involves a puppet that is particularly tricky to control — an acrobat perched on a wooden swing who soars higher and higher until eventually doing a full loop-the-loop, to the applause of audiences.
The string to manoeuvre the swing must be pulled with the right force at the right time for ultimate momentum — a feat harder than it looks.
“(As a child), I was assigned to make the character, the one that swings upside down,” Viem says. “I was so nervous I couldn’t eat or sleep until the performance was successful, then I felt relief.”
He says he wanted to preserve the art of his ancestors, adding, “It’s very important to me because it’s a tradition of my family.”
Water puppetry can be traced back to the Red River Delta in 1121, as evidenced by a stone engraving from the Ly Dynasty. According to the book Indian Puppets by Sampa Ghosh and Utpal Kumar Banerjee, it was rice farmers who founded the art.
“It is said that a thousand years ago, rains flooded rice fields of the Red River Delta around Hanoi,” reads a section of the book on Vietnam’s water puppetry. “The peasants could not work and spent time (carving) puppets from water-resistant sung (fig) trees: painting them, rigging them with strings and attaching them to long bamboo poles.
“The villagers entertained themselves while paying homage to local spirits and praying for a beautiful harvest. As techniques improved, they began to incorporate legends and myths. According to legends, the union of a dragon Lac Long Quan and a fairy Au Co gave birth to the Vietnamese people. Both appear prominently in water puppetry.”
Some acts depict myths, but most highlight the everyday activities of Vietnamese farmers; fishing, duck herding, playing and working in the fields with buffaloes.
The art of water puppetry was not widely known until after the 1960s, coinciding with efforts by the Government to promote the art form. After reunification in 1975, water puppetry expanded south.
In 1994, the Dong Cac puppet troupe participated in its first national water puppet festival and took home three gold medals and three silver medals. They continue to win awards for their original performances and craftsmanship.
Devil in the details
Eight craftsmen crouch on the floor in a circle, whittling blocks of wood into faces and animals. A simple duck puppet can be churned out quickly, while other characters require more time and precision.
The puppets are hollow inside and have a detachable back. An apparatus inside connects the puppet’s limbs to strings, allowing different parts to be moved and manipulated. The puppets are then attached to long poles, which function differently depending on the style of puppet. Some have levers to lift the arms and a dial to spin the puppet around.
During the show, one humorous act features a character who catches a fish in his hands after several unsuccessful attempts. The big reveal at the end, when the character dives underwater and surfaces with his prize, is made possible by a pole fashioned with two puppets on each side — one with fish in hand, and one without. The performer merely has to flip the pole over.
In total, the guild has 127 puppets in its inventory, and the puppets last about two years. Craftsmen try to create new characters and new scripts to spice up the performances, which are held in the village during Tet, the Mid-Autumn Festival, harvesting season and other special occasions.
While the craftsmanship is difficult in itself, it is another challenge entirely to master the subtle movements that convey humour, frustration and joy.
“The most difficult part is to control the puppet with human emotion,” Viem says. “If you want to control it fluently and make the puppet have emotion, it takes three months of practice.”
Harking back to childhood
Pham Ngoc Huyen, who grew up in Dong Cac but now lives in Hanoi, accompanied Friends of Vietnam Heritage on the trip to her home village. She recalled the happy — and not-so-happy — memories of watching water puppet shows as a child.
“It’s very beautiful, but when I was three or four years old, my grandpa performed with the (character) Clown Teu, and I was scared because his face was very white and he had a big belly,” she says. “But now I think he’s cute and funny.”
For Huyen and every other Dong Cac native, water puppetry was an indispensable part of their childhoods. The timeless power of water puppetry is that it encapsulates the joy and memories cherished by countless generations of Vietnamese. This shared experience is what drives the passion of craftsmen.
“Those memories are very beautiful and unforgettable,” said Ha Hai Duong, who lives in Hanoi.
Although his father is from the village, Duong had never seen how water puppets were made or operated until he hosted a pair of curious magazine journalists.
But some connections run deep, and water puppetry is one of them. The childhood magic Duong felt while watching water puppet performances has been transferred to his own son, who loves seeing shows during festivals and special occasions.
With a little support and elbow grease, the village hopes this tradition can be passed down the line for many more generations to come.