I.      Water Puppetry – a folk entertainment

River, lakes and ponds are familiar sights in the natural landscape of Vietnam.

In the process of growing and harvesting paddy rice, Vietnamese peasant have to cope with constant natural disasters and a difficult environment.

Village festivals, usually held to mark either the end or beginning of the agricultural cycle, are the means by which the peasants express their hopes for more abundant crops through which they derive enjoyment and diversion. Each village festival features traditional folk entertainment’s which reflect ancient religious beliefs as well as customs, such as boat – racing , wrestling, swinging, kite-flying, board racing , firecracker and so on. At festivals in the delta region of Bac Bo ( the north ) there is usually a puppet show on the surface of a lake or pond.

Village ponds constitute a vital factor in the ecology of the plains of North Vietnam. People dig these ponds to obtain earth with which they raise the level of the floors of their houses against heavy rain and flooding . Ponds also constitute a source of water for cultivation and for every day use . They also contribute to peasant’s incomes by producing cattle feed.

The location of a water puppet theatre is selected in accordance with the scope of a show. It may be a permanent structure forming part of an architectural complex with the “ Thuy Dinh “ ( Waterside pavilion ) ( At Thay Pagoda and at Dong Temple ) : Most water puppet theatres were built for temporary use intended for itinerant shows and located in places both convenient for audiences and linked to festival entertainment’s , since water puppetry was a village festival art form before in became a theatrical one as it is today.


II.        History – Literature, and Music

1.  History

“ The golden tortoise, swimming in a leisurely way, carries three mountains on its head above the rippling waves, its carapace, its feet visible in the clear slow-moving waters. Casting a glance at the bank, it opens its mouth to spurt waters towards the jetty, turns its face up to admire the king’s crown, then bows its head to examine the immense sky ( the clouds mirrored in the water, and the steeple – rising escarpment. A Cortical musical prelude is played, the door to grotto opens and fairies appear in a dance entitled The Wind Comes while singing in praise of Good Fortune; Flocks of birds dance and twitter, herds of innocent.

In the above – mentioned passage from ancient literature, the scholar Nguyen Cong Bat was clearly describing an item from water puppetry possibly attended by the  King , Similarly several literary works by Phan Truong Nguyen ( 12 century ) and other by Kinh Tran Thai Ton ( 1225 – 58 ) appear to confirm that water puppetry was a courtly entertainment during the reigns of the Ly and Tran dynasties.

The history of Vietnam is one of the successive wars which left in their wake destruction of the nation’s monuments and heritage. Only humble examples of water puppet theatres remain such as the pavilion at Thay pagoda built in the later Le period ( about 1533 – 1708 ) and the one at Dong temple built in 1775.

The above – mentioned historical confirm that water puppetry was in vogue at the court of the 11th century, and the existence of such records indicate that it must have existed even earlier in the rural villages where it was first seen.

At agrarian festivals in rice-growing areas, one of the earliest forms of religions was the offering of prayers to various deities for good crops since the results of the peasant ’s labors depended heavily on seasonal rainfall. The ritual water  procession has been preserved virtually in its traditional form, with its many water-related objects and activities both concrete and abstract, form releasing a captured aquatic creature back into its environment, washing statues of the Buddha and various deities, cleaning pagodas with water , people bathing and washing , and so on, to prayers for rain and games which take place in water such as swimming contests , rowing competitions, and water puppetry.

Apart from taking rural religion belief as the probable origin of water puppetry, it is also important to highlight a number of material factors which enabled peasants to develop this form of entertainment by themselves. Since the beginning, they have utilized rudimentary materials which were always within reach, and the simple handicraft techniques, as well as mechanical control principles, were always available. The paddy fields, rivers, canals, lakes, and ponds of the northern delta provided a favorable natural environment which inspired and facilitated the development of entertainments requiring little effort to find or create.

Rice cultivation techniques, together with associated traditional occupations and customs, including pastoral amusements, gave rise to water puppetry, a form of folk culture origination from the natural environment and in complete harmony with nature.

We can not be sure of precise details regarding the origins of water puppetry. But it is certain that it was the countryside of Vietnam, particularly the Red River delta that preserved and nurtured this unique traditional theatrical art over many centuries.

2.  Literature

As with all forms of ground ( or ordinary ) puppetry, water puppetry originally consisted of acting without words, the mime. The part played by literature comprises scrip – witting and word composition, all based on traditional methods used to formulate puppetry items. In other words, the gestures are perfected first, the words of the characters are composed depending on the results of the characters actions and circumstances.

The words are usually composed using verse derived from sudden inspiration, not always in accordance with the gestures of the characters. For instance, a lonely fisherman speaks of La Vong’s fishing, a horseman speaks of how Kwan Yu rode his black horse. The words of water puppetry items deliberately remind the audience of the stories behind the gestures.

In these circumstances, the use of words Nom, a variant of Chinese, can partly reduce the aesthetic value of the items. Items in Nom were usually compiled by village teachers who used various historical references and ascribed them to the activities of the characters.

The main element of literary value and suitable for water puppetry is folk poetry and folk songs. Such rhyming text describes work and everyday activities in words that are usually simple, cheerful and full of strength.

The words of items with stories borrowed from Tuong and Cheo are short extracts modifies enough to introduce the contents of these excerpts and make them suitable for water puppetry. This is why the narrations of puppetry swiftly bring them back to the familiar storylines.

Water puppetry was originally a form of mine. The literary works appeared later than the performing art and its folk character is clearly expressed invariants on the words of conversations and songs.

3.  Music

Traditional water puppetry used percussion instruments to accompany the gestures, keep up the rhythm of a performance, and create an atmosphere of great animation.

The main traditional instruments used are drums ( both large and small ), cylindrical drums, wood and bamboo bells, gongs, horns, and shells. Firecrackers, in addition to constituting their own items, also provide sound effects for others.

Although there are songs in some water puppetry items, no distinctive music of its own has yet appeared, rhythm plays the main role.


II.   Characters in water puppetry and the beauty of the puppets.

The traditional water puppets at age is home to many characters – historical , legendary and mythical – but most abundant are those embodying the essence of the ordinary Vietnamese peasant living in an age – old village protected by clusters of giant bamboo’s . Their remarkably accurate portrayal in water puppetry is based on observation of their prototypes, observation of themselves by the artists. The puppet makers first of all wanted their works to resemble them in countenance and recreate their liver and work , causing them to emphasize or even exaggerate certain external characteristics while omitting non – essential detail.

The traditional puppets, sets beside carvings in communal houses dating from the 17th – 18th century, have several obvious similarities. Their homogeneity in form and similar subject matter warrant the source of their origin. In our cultural inheritance , these , together with other object d’art, enable us to gain some appreciation of the relationship between the various artistic genres preserved in villages of northern Vietnam.

Its aesthetic value thus comes from each artisan’s ability to express himself as well as his appreciation of nature revealed in each puppet. In short, each puppet bears the stamp of his creator . This is one of the rare examples of traditional Vietnamese arts. The artistic inspiration of the folk artisan derives directly from real life without influence from particular religious concept or beliefs, nor is it governed by any previous style of sculpture.

Teu stands out from other puppetry characters with his role as a master of ceremonies. This role is similar to that taken by clowns in traditional Tuong and cheo dramas. But unlike these, Teu’s outward appearance is that of a strong and dignified young ploughman, not slovenly or comical as in the later ; such a vantage – point enables this character to embrace the whole of the performance as if running the show. Teu is entrusted with the task of opening  the festival , introducing the programmer, reviewing current village events and so on. This comic character is on a par with other water puppet characters : he is free to make fun of everyone and everything . In many items , Teu also assumes the role of one that admonished the world. His frequent appearance enables him to serve as an intermediary creating empathy between audience and puppet characters on stage and drawing from the former repeated applause. 

Thanglong Water Puppet Theatre

 Coming into being in October of 1969, Thang Long Puppetry Theatre was first called Kim Dong Puppetry Association with the task of serving children in the capital. In 1975, it changed into Hanoi puppetry Association and in 1993 with its own address at 57B, Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi city with the new name of Thang Long PuppetryTheatre

From 1969 to 1989, the public did not know the familiar name Thang Long puppetry Theatre. Since 1990, the theatre has provided thousands of local and foreign audience with 500 shows, earning billions of VND each year. From 1993 to now, the theatre has lighted every weekday, every year. Apart from growth revenues, the theatre has also provided free puppetry performance for the task of Hanoi City people politics and joined social activities.

In 1992, the start of 30-day performance tour in Osaka, Nogoya – Japan with Water puppetry art marked a historic turning point for strong development of the theatre. It restored water and land puppetry, seeking back Thang Long – Hanoi traditional puppetry characters. Uncle Teu, Thang Long stepped to city professional stage from countryside ponds with the skillful and harmonious combination of folk character and light in the stage, adding new beauty. The theatre restored 17 forms of traditional water folk puppetry, creating an art breakthrough step for local and international audience. The theatre went on tour in over 50 countries in all continents, such as: Mexico, Cuba, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, France…

Thang Long Puppetry Theatre attended domestic and international puppetry festivals and achieved many gold and silver medals for pieces: Aladdin and the magic lamp, Call of children, The straw puppet, The Myth of the fairy and the dragon to take over the Wall and many certificates of merit presented by the Ministry of Sport culture and Tourism and Hanoi people’s committee. In 2008, it was given the title of the head flag of Culture sector and was the revenue leading theatre which implemented art socialization earliest in the country.

  • In 1999, it was awarded with 3rd rank Labor Medal by the Government.
  • In 2005, it was awarded with 2nd rank Labor Medal by the Government.
  • In 2013, it was awarded with 1st rank Labor Medal by the Government.

Especially, it was certificated “ Thanglong Water Puppet theatre of Hanoi, Vietnam, has been performing the traditional water puppet art for the longest duration ( 19 years ) by doing four to six shows everyday since 1994 “ by Asia Book of Records.

50 years is an itinerary of art creativity with the talented and experienced actor staff. It has also expanded stages with more water and land puppetry show, attracting a domestic and foreign audience, socialized performing activities, put puppetry into life, developed steadily in the new millennium.