White, green, red, grainy, sticky, fried or cooked. In a soup, in sweets, in paper, in cocktails, salads, gruels, for breakfast, for dinner and supper, on weddings, funerals, in a street bar and KFC. In Vietnam you can find rice everywhere- it dominates in Vietnamese menu, and the cultivation of rice determines the rhythm of life of many people across the country. More than thousand years ago the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta discovered, during the cultivation of this ubiquitous rice, the potential of water element. It could be used not only as a base for cultivation, but also as a stage where you could show folk tales and legends. They performed puppet shows on marshy fields to provide entertainment to their gods because they believed that the gods were present everywhere. Water covered completely arms that moved the puppets and enabled to create exciting effects such as rough waves and spouting streams.
The water puppetry is currently performed in a pool of water 4 square meters. Behind a bamboo screen that resembles a typical Vietnamese temple facade hide up to eight puppeteers who control the puppets using long bamboo rods. Those rods can be even 4 meters long. The characters carved out of wood weigh up to15 kg, therefore, some of them (see creatures, dragons) are often controlled by several puppeteers. Puppets enter either from side of the stage or, to the delight of the audience, they emerge from the water unexpectedly.
Performances are full of Vietnamese folklore. They tell of farmers’ day-to-day living in the countryside- of cultivation of rice, fishing and celebration of traditional holidays. The stories are interweaved with humorous scenes showing fishermen pursuit of sea creatures, buffaloes’ fights, peasants teasing at work. We will see children wrapped up in rural games, but also authentic characters that show the history of the country.
Popular stories and legends are another important element of the performances. They show fantastic creatures disrupting the calm surface of water - sea- lions and dragons.
The show of two dragons is the most spectacular and exciting part of every performance – they breathe fire, play and spit the water. A dragon in Vietnam symbolizes power, justice and authority. Buffaloes are not mythical creatures, but they are faithful and hard-working animals - the most valuable for the Vietnamese farmer. They play an important role in the theater, symbolizing strength and courage.
The show could not be performed without the presentation of the legend of the brave fisherman Thanh Hóa, who defended Vietnam against the invasions of the Chinese Ming Dynasty using a holy sword. After the war the sword was taken from him by a monstrous turtle so that for the next few years the country could develop in peace, without taking part in wars. The master of ceremonies and our guide through the play is a character of young, strong peasant Teu. Although he is poor and modestly dressed, he is a good hearted man with ready wit. In his satirical comments he criticizes bad habits and social phenomena. Teu does not perform during parts of the show but he leads us into to each of the consecutive scene.
An inherent companion of the water puppet theater is a small folk orchestra that plays traditional Vietnamese instruments. Among them there are: đàn nguyệt (2- string lute), đàn bầu (1-string cittern) and also sắt (25- string cittern) and wind instruments. Music is a background for the events and builds suspense. Musicians are not passive to what is happening on the water scene - from time to time they yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or make fun of puppet’s clumsiness. The main commentators of the events during the spectacle are singers chèo- Vietnamese theater-opera form. Traditionally cheo performers were farmers who formed amateur groups to entertain people with their stories.
This unique form of art is created and developed only by Vietnamese. Currently it is popular both nationally and globally. In Vietnam’s capital there is water theater Thăng Long and in Sài Gòn we can find Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Water theaters’ performances are a permanent part of celebration of Vietnamese holidays because they attract many children.
In Warsaw, in the Center of Integration Thang Long there is a miniature water puppetry. The shows can be seen mainly during the events promoting the culture of Vietnam. Individuals, schools or organizations can also rent the theater for a fee.
Text by Đàm Vân Anh
Translated by Justna Bajus-Chmiel