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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 129-141

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The Metonymy of Art
Vietnamese Water Puppetry As a Representation of Modern Vietnam

Kathy Foley


How is it that the art of a limited and specific group comes metaphorically to represent an entire nation? How do we approach genres that, via governmental or circumstantial election, seem raised from ordinary entertainment to a more rarified sphere? While I will not in this short report attempt to present a comprehensive theory, I hope this case study of Vietnamese water puppets will indicate some of the larger issues of this metonymy of art. This unique [End Page 129] form of puppetry has expanded in the last 25 years from a local, seasonal performance in the Red River delta, to become an iconic representation for national and international audiences of contemporary Vietnam.

Puppets That Walk on Water

Mua roi nuoc literally means "puppets that dance on water." Water puppetry was an art of performing guilds, called phuong, found in nine provinces in the north area of Vietnam. An attempt to make a comprehensive listing of guilds by Margo Jones (1996:258-63) noted 28 guilds, of which 8 were active in 1996. The art is more commonly seen today in daily performances by professional urban troupes in Hanoi or Saigon. Research on Vietnamese water puppetry is young and the major sources in European languages are the works of Tran Van Khe (1984), Nguyen Huy Hong (1985), Nguyen Huy Hong and Tran Trung Chinh ([1992] 1996), and Jones (1996). My observations for this article rely on my research in 1995 and 1999 and reflect the practice of the Central Puppet Theatre and the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi in the late 1990s.

Contemporary Vietnamese water puppetry takes place in three venues: on traditional ponds in villages where a permanent or temporary staging area has been installed, often facing the local temple; in an outdoor portable tank built for a traveling performance; or in specialized buildings where a pool stage has been constructed. In each instance, the masking of performers is similar: behind a scrim decorated to resemble a temple facade, eight or more puppeteers in water up to their chests manipulate the dozens of figures involved in a show. The carved, brightly painted and lacquered puppets measure from one to three feet in height. The figures are carefully ballasted and fitted with movable parts, so they can both float on the surface and be deftly manipulated by long poles or by string mechanisms that move on a track around the perimeter of the four-meter-square performing area. Two doorways are visible on each side of the scene house which hides the performers: the "door of life" on the east from which track puppets enter and the "door of death" on the west to which they will return (Nguyen 1985:12). Pole-manipulated figures are more flexible and can pop from under the surface at any spot in front of the stage house, emerging magically from the murky water at the precise site the manipulator selects. [End Page 130]

The performance starts with a musical prelude by an orchestra consisting of a zither (dan tranh), a bowed string instrument (dan nhi), a lute (dan nguyet), flutes (sao, tieu), drums (trong cai), a wooden bell (mo), clappers (phach), and a gong (thanh la), all accompanying the singer who chooses lyrics from the folk repertoire and cheo, the popular song theatre of the northern region. After the musical overture, a burst of firecrackers initiates a promenade that marks the perimeter of the playing area with flags of five colors that suddenly appear from beneath the water. 1

The first puppet to appear is Chu Teu, the clown, his hair gathered in the childish hairstyle of two ponytails, one sprouting from each side of his head. This character, a variation on the pan-Southeast Asian god-clown figure, chatters with the musicians, sometimes noting his heavenly origin and repeating local gossip. He teases and warms up the audience. Then comes a...


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