Saturday, September 20, 2014

Magic in the Pond—Vietnamese Water-Puppets

                                                           by Jim Goodman

A procession begins at the Hanoi theater.
      Of all the possible sights and activities available to a first-time visitor to Hanoi, attendance at a water-puppet show, a truly authentic indigenous tradition, is all but obligatory.  The architecture of the city’s temples and public buildings derives from Chinese and European models.  The cuisine and street life resemble that of Southeast Asian neighbors.  Water-puppets, however, are uniquely Vietnamese.  No other country has this tradition.
      Most visitors catch the show at the water-puppet theater conveniently located at the top end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  They sit in ascending rows behind a pool of water lying in front of a curtained stage.  The orchestra of traditional instruments sits to the left of the pool.  The lights dim and the musicians perform a classical number 
Ông Tễu, the show's emcee
as prelude to the show.  When they conclude, a larger-than-normal puppet pops up on the water from behind the curtain and introduces himself as your emcee Ông Tu.  After a brief summary of what will follow and encouragement to the audience to enjoy the show, he scoots behind the curtain and does not reappear.
      A variety of skits now commence.  Brightly painted wooden puppets representing people and animals emerge from behind the curtained screen, move, march, dance, play, float or thrash on the pool surface, manipulated by puppeteers standing waist-deep in the water, hidden from view by the screen.  With the puppets’ reflections rippling across the water, the effect is that of a magical swirl of color, all the better because the source of the colors’ movement cannot be seen.
a vignette of rural life
      Some of the skits are vignettes of rural life, as befitting a tradition born in a watery environment like the Red River Delta, with its innumerable streams, ponds and canals.  These may include fishing with traps or with rods and lines or from little boats, making a raft, riding a buffalo, plowing a field, tending ducks, etc.  Other skits feature dancing phoenixes and energetic dragons.  More complex skits involve processions, either religious ones or that of the successful scholar’s escort home, boat races, a dance of fairy-goddesses and the famous story of Lê Lợi, founder of the Lê Dynasty in 1428, returning his sword to the divine golden turtle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  At the show’s finale of writhing dragons, smoke and fireworks, the puppeteers emerge from behind the screen, wade into the pool in front, and bow to the audience.
The Golden Turtle takes the sword back from Lê Lợi
      The show presents a fine sampling from the repertoire of over a hundred skits and vignettes in the water-puppet tradition.  It is a very slick and professional performance, carried out mostly by villagers from Nam Chấn, in Nam Định province, one of the two dozen or so Red River Delta villages that still maintain their water-puppet tradition.  The Nam Chấn ensemble was the one the government chose to introduce the tradition abroad on a world tour in the early 90s as Vietnam opened its doors to tourism.  The success and interest aroused by this tour prompted the government to build the theater beside the lake and hire Nam Chấn puppeteers to handle the performances.  These have now grown from once nightly to several per day.
      No origin tale exists for water-puppets, but a record exists of an early Lý Dynasty Court show at West Lake that featured a turtle, with three mountains on its back, that moved across the water.  The other puppets in this show were conventional rod-puppets, but water-puppets are a kind of rod-puppet and whether this Lý Court show was the first use of a water-puppet or not, by the time of the Trần Dynasty in the 13th century, water-puppet shows were part of Court entertainment for visiting envoys.
water-puppet pavilion at Chùa Thấy
      Besides a pond, the essential requirement for a water-puppet show is a pavilion on the water.  From inside this pavilion, standing in the water, shielded from view by a split-bamboo screen, the puppeteers manipulate their puppets.  Villages that maintain the tradition sometimes build permanent pavilions.  The most outstanding example is the graceful 18th century puppet pavilion at Chùa Thấy, west of Hanoi, which still stages performances during the pagoda’s festival, 5th to 7th days of the 3rd lunar month.  Other villages keep a collapsible canvas pavilion that they erect for shows in their own villages or take with them when invited to perform elsewhere.
      So that the puppet can float easily and last a long time, the wood used to make it has to be light, durable and easy to carve.  The fig tree that grew alongside ponds and lakes throughout the Delta fit these requirements, though carvers had to work quickly on it after cutting it, for it didn’t stay soft for long.  Within the puppet workshop ordinary and apprentice carvers made the simplest puppets and the parts for the more complicated ones.  Skilled specialists added the faces, costumes and props.
portable pavilion erected at the Kiếp Bạc festival
      After completing the carving, the next step was to paint them using the traditional lacquering process, in eight steps, with five days break in between coats of lacquer.  The finished product was a lightweight, colorfast, water-resistant puppet that moved and floated easily and lasted over fifty years.  Some puppets are relatively simple figures with few movable parts, like people or farm animals.  Fish and dragon puppets, though, are likely to comprise many linked parts, all the better to make them wriggle in the water.  A final category of puppet is the prop—the boat, fish trap, altar, loom, sedan-chair, etc—that is made the same way from the same materials. 
spouting dragon Chùa Thấy performance
    The puppet itself consists of a carved body, with movable parts, mounted on a base attached to one or more rods.
  The base varies according to the size and shape of the particular puppet.  Human figures stand on a round or square box.  More elaborate figures, like phoenixes, fish or dragons, are mounted on a stick base.  The base in either case holds control mechanisms to allow it to float just below the surface of the water and keep the puppet vertically upright.  It is attached to one end of the manipulation rod over a metal pin that serves as a rotating axis.  With this operating, the puppet can assume different standing positions.  Below this same end of the rod is a small rudder, by which the puppet can turn easily.
      The visible puppet and the hidden manipulation rod come together at the base, which thus acts as a fulcrum for the movement of the puppet.  The base must be kept below the water’s surface to conceal the controlling mechanism.  But it cannot be held deeper under the water for there will be more resistance moving the rod, more energy sapped from the puppeteer and the risk of the puppets’ movements losing their vigor.
puppets mounted on manipulation rods
      The simplest manipulation rod is a pole of wood or bamboo 3.5-4.5 meters long.  By thrusting the pole underwater forwards and backwards and swinging it laterally the handler can make the puppet move around in a given area, even quite quickly.  But the base also contains string mechanisms attached to the head and limbs from inside the puppet’s body.  By moving the strings at the same time as the pole, the puppeteer can make the head, neck and limbs of the puppet move simultaneously.
      For larger sized puppets, such as Ông Tu, the emcee of every water-puppet show, as well as for groups of puppets performing closely together, a manipulation rod is insufficient.  In the former case the puppet is too heavy for a pole.  With groups, like the Eight Fairies, individually held rods would too easily interfere with each other 
the Dance of the Fairies
and the dance of the fairies would be disharmonious.  Some skits involve puppets on boats or puppets doing military maneuvers.  Individual manipulation rods are inappropriate in these circumstances, too.
      Instead of poles, the puppets are fixed to a sliding platform and this moves along a system of plaited split bamboo or coconut fiber ropes, connected to submerged stakes in the manipulation room and out to the staging area of the pond.  Waxed strings of plaited hair, coir or silk attach the parts of the puppets to the framework.  If the figures ride in boats, then the boats themselves are the sliding platforms.  Group scenes like the Dance of the Fairies or the depiction of a naval battle or boat race, requiring coordinated puppet movements, utilize the sliding platform method of manipulation.
ancient battle scene at Chùa Thấy
      The puppets’ ability to maneuver also depends on its size.  Puppets used for the performances at the theater near Hoàn Kiếm Lake are larger than those made in the Delta villages that have preserved the tradition.  This enables them to glide easily across the surface of the water, remaining relatively upright.  Those used for the Chùa Thy festival, for example, are smaller, more agile but also more difficult to keep upright and likely to tilt in the water.  With these smaller and lighter puppets, though, the puppeteers can make them climb a pole and light firecrackers to start the show, even leap through flaming hoops, something not possible for the puppets in the Hanoi show.  
      Like the carvers, who pass through a period of apprenticeship, the puppeteers also undergo a period of training.  Since all such related skills are imparted at an early age, traditionally girls were kept from such training, for villagers believed that since women married men from other villages, they might betray the village’s water-puppet secrets.  Since every water-puppet village had its own individual contribution to the general tradition, it wanted to differentiate itself from others following the same tradition.  Nam Chấn village, the one chosen to present the water-puppet tradition to the world, was the first to allow women to become puppeteers.  This attitude has spread, and now it is not unusual to see at least one women emerging from behind the curtain at the end of a village water-puppet show. 
catching fish
      To cover the expenses of both making the puppets and training for and putting on the show was the responsibility of the village guild, a crafts organization set up to maintain the tradition. To meet the guild’s expenses for the annual offerings to its founder and associated rituals, as well as for the maintenance of equipment, the wood and paints needed and so forth, the village allots a section of its communal land to the guild.  Not every villager is a guild member, nor is every member directly involved in the making or performing of the puppets.  Some join for the prestige of being a guild member and to express their desire to uphold an ancient tradition.  All members upon joining take an oath to preserve the craft’s local secrets, confirming it with a drink of rice wine mixed with chicken blood.
      Nowadays the main secret preserved is the manipulation of the puppets, for not only are the puppeteers concealed by a screen from the audience, no one is allowed to observe them within the pavilion.  The techniques of manipulation, though, are pretty much the same everywhere.  More important is the repertoire.  Vignettes of daily life, cavorting dragons and skits like the procession of the returning scholar or the Dance of the Fairies are common to all village shows, but the tradition draws on a variety of sources for the skits.  These include famous scenes from tung opera, chèo popular dramas, incidents from Vietnam’s history and tales from the Chinese classic The Three Kingdoms.  To surprise their own villagers and impress visitors or “spies” from rivals, the guilds constantly seek new material and keep it hidden until ready for performance. 
festival performance at Nam Chấn
For the guilds the biggest day of the year is the annual festival honoring the village guardian spirit, who in some places is the man who originally introduced the tradition.  The program includes the usual rituals at the communal house, perhaps a palanquin procession, a local market and various kinds of entertainment, the highlight, of course, being the local guild’s water-puppet show.  Villagers of all ages crowd around the pond to watch this always fascinating, magical spectacle, dazzled by both the usual skits and whatever new skit that was created for this year’s event.
      And in the presentation of the skits their village artists touch on all those aspects of life they all have in common.  They perform scenes with mythical animals or religious figures known to everyone in the audience.  They depict tales from their history and mythology with which the spectators are quite familiar.  They show festival activities like those so many fellow villagers have witnessed.  And above all, they perform the vignettes of everyday life that remind their audience of their very own village, always the best place on earth in which to live.

The puppeteers take a bow in the Hanoi theater.
                                                                        ° ° °
     A water-puppet performance is part of the program for my cultural-historical tour itinerary                                     for Vietnam.  See http://deltatoursvietnamcom for details.

No comments:

Post a Comment