Performed in villages and closely attached to water rice agriculture, water puppetry is a unique performing art and is the intangible cultural heritage of the Viet people in the Northern Delta region of Vietnam. Created in the tenth century, the first historical record on water puppetry was inscribed in an ancient stele in 1121 called the Sung Dien Dien Linh in the Long Dọi Buddhist Temple of Ha Nam Province. The inscription reads that water puppetry was performed to entertain the king on the occasion of his longevity ceremony.
Puppeteers, water, and puppets are the three core elements of water puppetry. The cultural spaces for water puppetry in villages are ponds and lakes. Different from other art forms, puppeteers do not appear on the stage, which is a two-story pavilion on the water face. The top floor is for worshiping the ancestral puppeteer; the lower floor serves as the backdrop and is very evocative. Puppeteers stand in the water behind a curtain and manipulate the puppets with sticks. They are talented and brave people as they stand in the cold water for hours performing puppetry, a job which is extremely taxing.
The puppets are hand-made from a special wood, which is light and floats. The process to fully complete the construction of a puppet is a long one, from carving the core to final decoration. The puppet is then painted with natural resources so that it is water proof and durable. The puppet makers create puppet characters according to performances that are related to legend, historical periods, and folktales such as the Fairy, the King, the Queen, the God, the Villager, the Girl, the Man, the Boy, and amiable animals. All are inspired by the vitality of life and the rich imagination of peasants in the Northern Delta region.
The puppet is composed of two parts: the body and the base. The body is the part that floats on the water and represents the character and the base is submerged under water and keeps the body floating. The base also holds a mechanic system which moves the puppet using two manipulating systems involving the use of sticks or strings. Both the sticks and the strings function in the water using the waters force to remotely control the movements of the puppets. The performers stand behind the curtain and control the puppets by manipulating each stick or a system of strings outside the pavilion or under water.
Each puppet show includes many scenes, which are short stories. The stage is decorated to evoke the story’s background using elements of light, music, sound, color, and especially language to make the water puppet stage cheerful, lively, and attractive.
In the past, many villages were well-known for performing puppetry, but now only a few villages keep this tradition alive. They are Dao Thuc (Ha Noi), Thanh Hai (Hai Duong), Nguyen (Thai B.nh), Vĩnh Bao (Hai Ph.ng), and Rạch (Nam Dinh) to say a few. Some village organize puppet shows and tours in many parts of the country and abroad.
At present, Vietnam’s water puppetry is not only performed in villages with ponds, lakes, fields, and villagers, but also in performing arts theaters and centers in towns and cities. Water puppetry has also been performed internationally, however, despite its development, the water puppetry of communities as a living heritage, is facing the risk of oblivion. Ancient performances have been forgotten, old puppeteers do not know who to pass on the tradition, with many Vietnamese people having never seen a water puppet show and are unfamiliar with it as part of their own heritage.