Vietnamese water puppetry shows unique folk art

Founded in 1992, Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre is one of a few playhouses in the north which have no problem selling tickets.
Founded in 1992, Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre is one of a few playhouses in the north which have no problem selling tickets.

Six years after its foundation, the theatre became financially independent, as it no longer relied on the State budget to fund its operations, and began making a profit. Since then, the theatre has been experiencing a year-on-year increases in its revenues, from 4 billion VND (190,000 USD) in 1998 to 40 billion VND (1.9 million USD) in 2013. This has allowed the theatre to pay a puppeteer an average income of 15 million VND to 20 million VND (about 700 USD to 950 USD) per month, depending on their seniority.

Theatre Director Nguyen Hoang Tuan attributed its success to the wisdom of the ancient rural Vietnamese, who had devised water puppetry as a form of entertainment whenever rice fields were flooded. "The art has become so unique and attractive that no other country in the world has water puppetry except Vietnam," Tuan said.

Water puppetry is believed to have originated from the villages of the Red River Delta in the 11th century, when the perfoming guilds of nine northern provinces practiced the art. Evidence of the link between water puppetry and farming can be seen in the traditional puppetry guilds, which are located around the fertile land of the Red River Delta.

This area consists of numerous rivers and is often prone to flooding. Research by the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre in 2005 showed that of the 27 active practicing guilds from 1955 to 1976, only 14 remained active and most of them couldn't make a living by performing the art. Le Tien Tho, President of Vietnam Stage Artists Association, said that traditional puppetry guilds were in danger of becoming extinct because many young people no longer wanted to perform the art.

Low audience attendance and the high cost of making sets of puppets are the main reasons behind the guilds' decline. Tuan said it would cost the theatre 100 million VND to 120 million VND (4,800 USD to 5,700 USD) every four months to make more than 100 puppets. Thus, it would be a waste if the guilds spent such a huge amount of money for their puppet shows.

Meanwhile, the number of guild performances was far too few to compensate for their spending, Tuan added. Having the advantage of a good location in the centre of Hanoi also helps the theatre win its laurels. Since domestic operators usually offer competively-priced packages to tourists who want to visit the most popular sites near the area, there is no doubt that the Thang Long Theatre has since become one of the capital city's most popular tourist attractions.

Last year, the theatre was recognised as unique in Asia for having performed water puppetry shows for 365 consecutive days, Tuan noted. Although water puppetry is unique and indigenous to Vietnam, it has yet to be recognised as an intangible world cultural heritage.

Puppetry artist Phan Thanh Liem recalled an informed source telling him that the recognition couldn't be carried out because Vietnam lacked sufficient historical evidence to prove the uniqueness and indigenousness of the art. According to Tuan, the oldest record mentioning water puppetry is the inscriptions on a stone stele dating from 1121. The stele can be found at Doi Son Pagoda in Duy Tien district, Ha Nam province, about 50km from Hanoi. It describes a scene: "A golden tortoise with three mountains on its shell was seen on the rippling surface of the water. It showed both its carapace and four legs. The cavern's entrance opened and fairies in the play appeared. Flocks of precious birds and herds of animals sang and danced." "It may take years for the art to receive the UN culture agency's recognition, but preparation for this should be done now," Tuan said.-VNA

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