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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Deifying National Heroes in Vietnam

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Trần Hưng Đạo, Ngọc Sơn Temple
            It’s the 8th lunar month and time for a run of festivals in Vietnam.  The whole nation observes the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Tết Trung Thu, the Children’s Tết, and over a dozen Red River Delta villages stage their annual festivals honoring their local protective deities.  As several of these villages have chosen the famous 13th century general Trn Hưng Đạo for this role, the month thus becomes a time to celebrate the nation’s tremendous victories over three separate massive Mongol invasions, in 1257, 1285 and 1288.
            Trn Hưng Đạo was born in 1228, less than three years after the foundation of the Trần Dynasty.  As a boy he was witness to the machinations of the regime’s godfather Trần Thủ Độ when the latter forced his father Trần Liễu to divorce his pregnant wife so that she could marry the childless king, Trần Liễu’s brother, and provide the new Dynasty an heir.  Trần Liễu protested by raising a revolt against Trần Thủ Độ, but his brother intervened and compensated him with a fief in the northeast.  Before he died Trần Liẽu enjoined his son to take revenge on Trần Thủ Độ. 
            But by this time the Mongol threat was imminent and Trần Hưng Đạo decided to rate national interests higher than filial piety and did not carry out his father’s dying wish.  Instead, he served as Trần Thủ Độ’s leading commander in the 1257 campaign.  Employing a strategy of “empty houses and gardens,” evacuating all people, food and animals before the Mongol advance, the Vietnamese forced the enemy to have to forage immediately, while their guerrillas picked them off easily.  It took the Vietnamese 18 days to expel the invaders. 
Trần Hưng Đạo in the Mongol Wars, woodblock print
            By the time of the second Mongol War in 1285, Trần Thủ Độ had died and Trần Hưng Đạo was now Generalissimo of the Vietnamese armed forces.  The Mongol forces numbered around 400,000, nearly half of them attacking the Chăm state of Vijaya to the south.  The Chăm abandoned their capital and waged guerrilla warfare from the nearby hills.  Soon enough the Mongols, suddenly also susceptible to tropical diseases, gave up and marched north, only to fall into trap after trap until they had no more army left.  As for the Mongols who had marched into Vietnam, the Vietnamese employed the same strategy as in the first war and by the end of the campaign the Mongols scurried back to China with less than 20% of their forces.
            Outraged by the defeat, Kubilai Khan order another in 1288, dispatching a half million troops, half by land and half by sea.  The Mongols defeated the Vietnamese navy, occupied the capital Thăng Long and waited for their supply ships to bring them their provisions.  But Trần Khánh Dư, loser in the first encounter, rebuilt the navy in time to attack and sink all the supply ships.  Faced with the same quandary as in the first two wars, the Mongols decided to evacuate and go home.  Trần Hưng Đạo’s generals harried and decimated the land forces, such that only handfuls managed to cross the border
Trần Khánh Dư hears his royal orders 
As for the Mongols on board their 400 ships, as they proceeded down the Red River to the Gulf of Tonkin, Trần Hưng Đạo laid a trap for them that he took straight out of the nation’s history.  Like two 10th century kings foiling Chinese naval invasions, he had sharpened stakes placed in the river bed that would be below the water’s surface at high tide.  When the Mongol armada arrived his side’s smaller boats engaged the enemy not to defeat them, but to slow them down so that when the tide receded they found most of their fleet impaled on the stakes.  That made them easy targets for the Vietnamese. Those ships that swerved away from the part of the river with the embedded stakes found themselves assaulted by rafts full of kindling, which the swimmers rammed into the Mongol boats and set them alight.  The entire fleet was destroyed and there were few, if any, survivors.
            As the man who led the nation to these great triumphs, a man who valued patriotism above family loyalty, who strove to unite not only rival factions in the Trần clan but the whole country in a noble cause, it is easy to see why Trần Hưng Đạo is a paramount Vietnamese hero.  Major streets across the cities of Vietnam have been named after him.  Statues of him stand in various places, even as far south as the riverfront in Hồ Chí Minh City.  In addition, though, many temples are dedicated to Trần Hưng Đạo and it is this phenomenon that gives a very different significance to the meaning of a national hero in Vietnam compared to, for example, my own country.
            We have our national heroes like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, with a national holiday that honors them.  We built monuments to them, and to Thomas Jefferson, too.  These are on the itinerary of every visitor to the capital, whether citizens from around the country or tourists from abroad.  But the holiday doesn’t involve much more than a day off from work or school.  No publicly performed dramas of events from the men’s lives.  No processions in period costumes.  And those who visit Lincoln Memorial do not light candles, burn incense, kowtow or bring food offerings for the spirit of Lincoln to bless.
devotees with offerings toTrần Hưng Đạo, Kiêp Bạc Temple
            These are precisely the characteristics of the festivals honoring Trần Hưng Đạo and other Vietnamese heroes.  The events are not national holidays but local village affairs.  The heroes are not just role models of exemplary behavior.  They are deities, part of the ancient tradition of the thành hoàng, the tutelary deity or guardian spirit of the village, conscripted on its behalf because, having been so successful fighting temporal enemies while on earth, he will be equally formidable fighting spirit enemies in the afterlife. Unsurprisingly, in view of his character and accomplishments, Trần Hưng Đạo became thành hoàng for more villages than any other national hero.
            The cult began right after his death in 1300, with the erection of a temple to him in his home village of Kiếp Bạc, Hải Dương province.   The temple has been rebuilt several times but nowadays hosts a six-day festival, beginning full moon day, in honor of Trần Hưng Đạo.  Devotees bring trays of food on their heads for him to bless, spirit-mediums dance before the altar and merchants set up booths outside offering drinks, snacks, toys, games of skill and chance and sundry other items.  The festival program varies each year, but at times will include battle re-enactments, boat races or even a visiting water-puppet troupe, besides the endless rituals within the temple.
            Besides Trần Hưng Đạo, northern villages honor other heroes of the Mongol Wars, including the Quan Lạn Island festival for Trần Khánh Dư [see my earlier article The Island That Remembers], featuring a drama narrating events of the times.  But Vietnamese national heroes are not always men, nor are they always victors.  Just as dear to Vietnamese hearts are the Trưng Sisters, who launched the first rebellion against Chinese rule way back in the year 40 C.E.   
Lâ Chân, Nghè Temple, Hải Phòng
the Trưng Sisters at the Dồng Nhên show
            The revolt began when the local Chinese Governor murdered Trưng Trắc’s husband.  With her younger sister Trưng Nhi and the support of native lords, she raised the banner of revolt and evicted the Chinese garrison.  Proclaiming independence, she established her capital at Mê Linh, northwest of Hanoi, and announced an immediate two-year tax exemption for the population.  The Chinese sent down a large expedition the following year, but the Trưng Sisters managed to keep their regime alive another two years before final defeat, upon which they drowned themselves.
rites honoring Lê Chân, Nghè Temple, Hải Phòng
Besides the Trưng Sisters’ temples in Mê Linh and elsewhere, especially Hanoi’s Đồng Nhân Temple in Hải Bà Trưng district, other places honor her female generals, such as Lê Chân, legendary founder of Hải Phòng.  The city’s Nghè Temple worships her at a festival 8th day 2nd moon, an event that sometimes includes a procession of flags and men in ancient warrior costumes.  The biggest related event, though, is the celebration at Đồng Nhân from the 6th day of the 2nd lunar month. 
            Like other hero-honoring festivals, it will have streams of people bearing offerings to be blessed, usually balanced on their heads, rituals within the temple, a palanquin procession, quan họ singers on a boat in the pond, dragon dances, entertainment in the courtyard--one year bird-fighting matches, another year a cooking contest.  Like the Quan Lạn festival for Trần Khánh Dư, Đồng Nhân Temple will host a drama about the Trưng Sisters, in particular how they launched the insurrection, for the festival marks that particular day and not, like Kiếp Bạc’s, the day of the heroes’ deaths.
The Trưng Sisters review the troops.
            Dressed in resplendent gowns and robes, wearing feathered headdresses and brandishing swords, actresses playing the sisters enter the courtyard and stand on a platform in front of the temple.  There they make proclamations and speeches for a while and then review the troops.  Several performances follow as different contingents dance with their weapons, including female warriors wielding longbows.  A bit of comic relief interrupts the set in a skit depicting three terrified Chinese soldiers fretting about their safety in the wake of the insurrection.  The scene ends with one soldier shaking so much from fright that his companions have to carry him away.  After some more martial displays the show concludes with a double dragon dance, celebrating the initial success of the uprising. 
frightened Chinese soldiers in the Đồng Nhân show
Though the Trưng Sisters’ revolt ultimately failed, another Hanoi festival marks a victory over the Chinese that was every bit as dramatic as the expulsion of the Mongols.  It occurred at the end of the Lê Dynasty period in 1789.  In the years previous an army of rebels led by three brothers from Tây Sơn village in Bình Định province in south central Vietnam had overthrown the Nguyễn Lords ruling in the southern half of Vietnam and had marched north, expelled the ruling Trịnh family from Hanoi and reinstated the Lê King.  But by late 1786 the Trịnh family had squirmed back into power in the court of the youthful, inexperienced Lê sovereign.  To deal with this de facto usurpation, the Lê King had called on the Chinese to restore his authority.  
performers take a break at Đống Đa
bringing offerings to Quang Trung
            The Qing Emperor in Beijing obliged by dispatching an army of a few hundred thousand to oust the Trịnh supporters and occupy the capital.  Nguyễn Huệ, the Tây Sơn general who had recently restored the Lê to power, decided that by bringing in the Chinese army the Lê King had forfeited his legitimacy.  He proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and assembled forces to march north.  It was early 1787 and the Lunar New Year was approaching.  Quang Trung ordered his troops to celebrate the New Year early this time and then, with the official holidays just beginning, led his army on a quick march to Hanoi.
Quang Trung and his soldiers, Đống Đa festival
            Those who know of 1968 are inclined to think of this campaign as the First Tệt Offensive.  Quang Trung had sent a messenger ahead to the Chinese commander, demanding his withdrawal.  But the Chinese commander executed the messenger and refused to reply.  Over-confident, complacent and pretty well inebriated since the start of the holidays, the Qing troops were in no condition to fight.  Quang Trung’s army launched their surprise attack on the 5th day of Tết.  After routing the defenders south of the capital, the Tây Sơn army swarmed into Hanoi, surrounded the main Chinese force at Đống Đa, southwest of Hanoi’s Citadel and completely annihilated them.  Very few survivors managed to flee all the way back to China.
            The Vietnamese mark this victory with a grand festival at Đống Đa, beside the hill where the accumulated bones of the slain enemy were buried.  Besides a procession, the usual presentation of offerings to Quang Trung and two rounds of human chess, the day features a stage show re-enacting scenes from the famous campaign.  While not of such a sterling character as Trần Hưng Đạo, and not a thành hoàng of any particular village, Quang Trung is likewise a spiritual protector of the nation and, by extension, the well-being of those who live in it.  And in the light of periodic tensions with their northern neighbor, nowadays the Vietnamese regard their deified national heroes as more relevant than ever.
Quang Trung at the victory dance, Đống Đa festival

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