Puppeteers keep tradition alive in Hanoi

Park Chung-bae and his Ko-rean friends say that they'll always remember the puppet shows they witnessed by farmer artists and elderly artisans in Dao Thuc village, in Hanoi's Dong Anh district.
Park Chung-bae and his Ko-rean friends say that they'll always remember the puppet shows they witnessed by farmer artists and elderly artisans in Dao Thuc village, in Hanoi's Dong Anh district.

"We were very surprised to see that local farmer artists could preserve a quintessential art that has been handed down from their ancestors for 350 years," Park said, adding that audiences could see the beauty of the puppets playing in the rural landscapes, such as in Dao Thuc.

Park told the English-language daily Vietnam News that he liked the narrator, Teu, the most, and that it was the most important character and the soul of the water puppets.

"Teu plays a role comparable to an emcee, with a Vietnamese twist. He is entrusted with the task of opening the festival, introducing the programme and reviewing current village events.

"His frequent appearances enable him to serve as an intermediary, creating sympathy between the audience and the puppets," Park said.

All of the different items, such as Phung Hung Fights a Tiger, A Buffalo Hides in a Pipe, The Dragon Dance and Thach Sanh Kills the Python, are very interesting too, said Park.

"It is very enjoyable and relaxing," he said, adding that he was amazed to see puppeteers cut off the head of a tiger and carry it on their shoulders when combining their skills with each other.

Park's remarks were echoed by many other foreigners in the audience, Nguyen The Nghi, head of the troupe's marketing unit, said.

Nghi said that his troupe planned to restore 22 old items for the guests, but due to financial shortages, the troupe often played only 17 of them. But they were still very interesting, he noted.

About five years ago, the Ford Foundation and the Swiss Fund supported Dao Thuc puppeteers to help restore their old plays and build a water stage in the village's pond, said Nghi.

"We've been invited to perform both inside and outside of the country, such as in Japan , China and the Netherlands . We also always win big prizes at local and national puppetry contests," he said.

Dinh Huu Tu, 50, an artisan with a passion for performance since he was a child, said that he doesn't tire of training young artists in the village.

"Since the troupe's fame has been expanded far and wide, our farmer artists and villagers' living standards have improved, because after working in the field they can perform puppet shows for local and foreign guests," Tu said.

The troupe still boasts several elderly puppet artisans, including Dinh Nhu Sinh, 67; Dinh Huu Nghiem, 74; and Nguyen Van Bon, 75.

"Foreign guests are particularly interested in the way the stories are told through the skilled performances," said Tu.

The troupe has 35 members and is divided into two teams. The youngest member is 12 years old.

In the past, females were kept out of the art, but now artisans have changed their minds and will train anyone, male or female, if they have a passion for the art, said Tu.

Moreover, coming to Dao Thuc, guests also have a chance to visit the village's ancient Thanh Phuc Temple and Communal House, and a 300-year-old structure where four generations lived under the same roof. They can also see a workshop producing beautiful puppets for both performance and sale, as souvenirs for guests to bring home.

The guests will also be invited to enjoy very delicious glutinous rice planted in the fields by the villagers, Tu said.

The Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism has chosen Dao Thuc Village to host a national puppetry festival to be held in October to celebrate the capital's 1,000-year anniversary, said Nghi.

An official from the department also said, "We chose Dao Thuc because it is a rural area that knows how to preserve and develop the very special traditions of puppetry."

All 15 puppet troupes across the nation will join in the festival. "It will be a good opportunity for puppeteers and artisans to exchange experiences and learn from each other," Nghi said.

He said that his Dao Thuc puppet troupe and 14 others have been proposed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to UNESCO for recognition of their water puppetry as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The troupe hails from Dao Thuc Village , Thuy Lam Commune in Dong Anh district, more than 30km from the centre of Hanoi .

The villagers believe that their ancestor, Dao Dang Khiem, brought the art form to them around 350 years ago when he returned home after working as a high-ranking mandarin during King Le Y Tong's reign (1735-40).

Khiem, also known as Nguyen Dang Vinh, was born to a strictly Confucian family and showed artistic promise from an early age.

He was trained to become a virtuous man before being appointed to work at the Le court.

When the Le dynasty began to go into decline, Khiem returned to his homeland and helped the villagers to end their dependence on rice farming and supplement their income by growing cotton, raising silkworms and making textiles.

Once living standards began to improve, Khiem helped set up four major guilds: teachers, martial artists, rice-mill makers and puppeteers, to help develop the village's cultural life.

When he died, the local villagers turned his death anniversary into a village festival, which is held every year on the 24th day of the second lunar month to commemorate his services.

Thus, his legacy lives on, although the puppeteers comprise the only one of his guilds that has survived until the present day.

"We perform every day from 2.00 to 3.30pm for guests from as far away as Italy , France , Germany , the US , Japan and the Republic of Korea . These guests are brought to the village by roughly 300 travel agencies and companies in the north," said Nghi.

For further information, please visit www.roinuoc-daothuc.com./.

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