Water Puppets of Vietnam
Vietnamese water puppetry is an age-old art that is intimately tied to the rural culture of rice farmers.
Origin and History
A unique form of Vietnamese puppetry called mua roi nuoc can be traced to the Red River delta region of northern Vietnam in the twelfth century. An inscription dating to the Ly dynasty provides the first record of a water puppet performance. It was given in 1121 in honor of the longevity of king Ly Nhan Tong, but no one knows how long rural farmers had been performing before then. Over the centuries, as with many other kinds of artisans and craftsmen in Vietnam, the puppet makers and puppeteers formed guilds in a few of the villages.
Characteristics and Operation
The puppets are carved from fig wood, decorated with bright colors, and covered with numerous layers of lacquer to make them waterproof. They have movable heads and arms and are mounted on a base that features a rudder and acts as a fulcrum for the strings that control the upper body. The puppets measure 18-36 inches in height and weigh 20-30 pounds. The figures exhibit a variety of forms: humans of all sorts, animals like water buffalo and cormorants, mythological beings like fairies and dragons, and familiar objects like boats and fish traps. The puppeteers stand in waist-high water behind a curtained backdrop and control the figures with bamboo rods and string mechanisms below the surface. Complex maneuvers can make dragons exhale smoke or fish shoot sprays of water at the audience.