Study of puppetry art



                                                                                                        Dang Anh Nga


Puppetry is a highly synthesis performance art. The center of the stage is the puppet. Without puppetry, there would be no puppet show stage – the face of the puppet show stage is the result of shape design and performance technique of the actor.

Puppetry appeared long ago in Vietnam, but no one knows when and where the puppetry appeared. According to the inscription on Sung Thien Dien Linh stone inscription (in 1121) in Nui Doi (Ha Nam province) was built in the second year of Thien Phu Du Vu, “....the puppet show was performed in the King's longevity wishing ceremony...” It proved that the puppetry skills as well as the puppetry art at that time reached a high level, were very skillful and had a long time of performance.

In the past, because there was no writing, our forefathers did not save important events for posterity. Since the beginning of writing, they were saved for posterity – including the activities of puppetry (on Sung Thien Dien Linh stone inscription). According to Prof. Tran Quoc Vuong (in Bac Ninh, on April 9, 2002), the archaeological site in Phap Van Pagoda shows that the puppetry was in existence at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century. Regarding the rule of natural development, the puppetry must appear sooner. This can only be judged based on folklore. Puppetry was brewing from Hung King period. Legend of Golden Turtle God from the river emerged to give An Duong Vuong the claw to make the magic crossbow, legend of White Chicken God broke the fortresses, etc are examples of land puppet show and water puppet show.

As an synthesis performance art, on the puppet show stage, there are the arts such as sculpture, painting, architecture, music, etc. Puppetry in the form of DYNAMIC ART: audience received puppetry in a dynamic state like cinema, singing, dancing and music.

The characteristic of puppetry art is the combination of shaping art and performing art. Referring to puppetry art, it is impossible not to mention the creativity of the designer. For the performance on stage, the contribution of the graphic artist can not be lacking.

Puppetry has a variety of puppet and stage design. The shape design and stage decoration contribute to the results of the repertoire. Puppet shaped design contributes to the puppetry art.

Firstly, the decision of the puppet type and stage is based on the script, then based on the intentions of staging the repertoire of the director. The shape design and fine art decoration for the repertoire require unity and empathy in the artistic creation between the director and the artist.

On the puppet show stage, the story is usually fairytales, parables, mythologies, etc. Therefore, puppetry is loved by children and it is the stage for very young audience.

Vietnamese puppetry was traditionally performed in folk-based guilds including water puppetry and land puppetry. In Complete Annals of Dai Viet, it was recorded that “ the 12th year of Tan Dau, in February, took the birthday of the King to Thien Thanh day, took the bamboo into a strange way...” (Nguyen Huy Hong - Vietnamese Water Puppetry”, San khau Publisher, 1996). Thereby, we see the design work of the ancient artisans is very elaborate, worth studying.

The folk puppet shaped by the farmer artisans – they are skilled who built temples, pagodas, communal houses, carved ancient God and Buddha statues.

Due to geography, climate and living conditions, Vietnamese puppetry was created with unique characteristics, unlike neighboring countries’ puppetry. Although folk puppetry includes water puppetry and land puppetry, but water puppetry seems to be more popular. This is evidenced by the existence, activity and number of water puppet shows handed down to date. Natural environment and climatic conditions are the source of water puppetry. Agricultural life is the fulcrum and creative material for the water puppet shows.

The folk puppet shape is simple and realistic. The puppet shaped artisans simulate the puppets in a conventional way to express the content. Shaped on the basis of the fact, but not stereotyped. It is very suitable for the blending of puppet shape and the design of the machine controling the movement of the puppets. Puppets are have a funny appearance (such as children play with water, old duckeepers), also express the dream of its creator about the results of their work (fishing with big fishes) – these are the real aspirations of the workers.

The folk sculptors are the makers of puppets, but the puppets have their own vitality. Because the puppets are made for performance, their appearance is completely different from the Buddha and Saint statues in the temples. The Buddha and Saint statues are monolithic, have majestic appearance for the worship of the sanctuary. In contrast, the puppets have varieties of shapes (simulating the shapes of the working men), with joints to be able to move when controled. The spirit of puppets is funny. The color of the statues is illumination, but the puppets’ is more colorful. Painting for the puppets also depends on the cases.

The folk puppetry was interrupted for a period due to historical circumstances: The Ming Dynasty invader (1406) when occupying Vietnam wanted to destroy the native culture to assimilate the Vietnamese. The folk puppetry also fell into that general condition. The later feudal dynasties were interested in cultural development, but mainly literature and Tuong stage (in the Nguyen Dynasty). Puppetry is still active and handed down in folk. Some well-known guilds were invited to the capital to perform, but only that, no moreattention.

In the Later Le Dynasty (1533 – 1788) cultural activities were interested, including puppetry, so the water communal house was built in Thay pagoda (Ha Tay) to perform water puppet shows on the annual festivals.

On March 12, 1956, the puppetry sector had a historical development - according to President Ho Chi Minh, Minister of Culture Hoang Minh Giam signed the Decision on professional activities funded by the State. Thus, Vietnamese children have their own stage. The professional puppetry atives parallel to folk puppetry, learning and drawing the experience of folk puppetry combined with the knowledge and experience from international puppetry to complement their creativity and artistic activity.

  • Puppetry is entering professional activity, so it has many innovations:
  • Many professionals and actors are trained by the foreign art professionals (Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, China).
  • Train the actors in foreign countries under the university program or visit, practice (Czechoslovakia, Rumania).
  • Join the International Puppetry Festivals and Symposia.
  • Exchange puppetry guilds as exchange a national cultural exchange.

These activities have greatly enhanced the profession for the land puppetry. In the past, the land puppet show was widely admired by audience (including adults) with a number of repertoires in the following types of puppetry:

  • Hand puppets (Trong com choir, in the bottom of the ocean, white goat - black goat, etc.)
  • Stick puppets (Thach Sanh, Nung Phai – Gau Du, Tam – Cam, Dan Noi, etc.)
  • Rope puppets (May and Ly, playing swing)
  • Shadow puppets (Turtle and Crane)
  • Flat puppets (The floral shirt)
  • Puppets variety (Flag Dance, Lion Dance, Swan Lake, Kalinka...)
  • Mask puppets (May and Ly, Holy Giong, Two maple, Boxing, etc.)

With the long puppet shows as well as repertoires in many types of stage and puppet shape, the design work also developed parallel to the performing arts. Regrettably, the previous successful puppet repertoires no longer exist. Puppets and decayed scenes were discarded or sold. The construction of the puppet museum at the present is difficult. The generation of puppeteers today is unaware of their forefathers’ work in the difficult difficult but glorious situation of professional puppetry.

From literary scripts to performance on stage, there are many things to consider. Firstly, the script must have conditions to create the play, must be a script for action (not only dialogue). Puppet characters have lively physical structures in action. A script with a good dialogue, interesting structure… is not necessarily suitable for the puppet show stage if not facilitate the acting of the characters on stage (at that time, the puppets only functioned as illustrations for literary scripts on stage).

When introducing drama characters to the puppet show stage it is necessary to have the conditions to emphasize (exaggerate, of course, must be based on fact) that audience (especially young children) can absorb. Creativity in shape design and fine art decoration must be based on fact.

The puppet show stage though for very young audience, but also can not arbitrarily, carelessly in the composition as well as negligence in artistic expression. Furthermore, with its unique feature and richness of expressive forms, the puppet show stage can “bear” and convey many problems that puppet makers want to express. The puppet show stage can also satisfy the demand for artistic enjoyment for older audience. It's not easy to get a good puppet show. It depends on the talent, common sensitivity and artistic sensitivity of the puppeteers.

Shape design and fine art decoration for puppet show stage is not like the actor stage (drama, cheo, tuong). Professional puppetry has been actived for nearly half a century, but many people mistakenly think that the shape design and decoration for the puppets is the same as costumes for the actor stage is just to create embryo puppets, dressing up, there will be puppet characters. There are even case that created embryos, then bought costumes for dressing up the embryos – has not follow the artist's outline – the performance without understanding of the profession or carelessly, negligence in shaping and decorating has contributed to the “amateurism” of the professional puppetry.

Water puppetry is an art product in the folk cultural treasures that needs to be preserved and promoted. But land puppetry is a “fertile ground” for the artistic creation of the puppeteers. Shape design and fine art decoration of puppetry plays an active role in the success of this art. The shaping and decorating of the puppets facilitate soar and success of the director and actor, or vice versa.

In the puppetry art, there is a high synthesis of other arts, the result is also synthesized. Therefore, there is a need for unity and synchronism among creative artists. The training also needs the synchronism: scriptwriter, director, fine art designer and actor. The synchronous training should not only focus on professional puppetry, but also pay attention to folk puppetry. In 2002, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the Bureau of Performing Arts presided over the support and training of artisans for succession of the traditional puppetry guilds in the Red River basin: a series of young artisans are trained, the performances of the guilds became exciting. But in shaping, artistic design reveals some things that can not be ignored, that is the puppets were painted sloppily. Artistic face of folk puppet show stage becomes a mess – What a pity! However, there are some guilds made “awful” puppets because it is too real (as visual aids for students), affecting the soar of the water puppet show stage. In addition, it became gassy with a series of minutiae, the audience can only “see” when sitting near the stage and puppets are in static state on grass (there is no convention, generalization, simulation, etc. of folk puppetry, harmony, impression and grace of the five colors also lost).

Over the long lime, some puppetry organizations have been very effective in performing folk puppet shows both inside and outside the country and are widely loved by audience. Meanwhile, the land puppetry is almost unnoticed. If only perform water puppet shows, though unique and proud, but the puppeteers will gradually become artisans who make and control the puppets, not become puppet creative artists.

Creating a new repertoire for the water puppet show stage should be based on real life, as our forefathers had created before. The actual situation of social life in cities today is not the environment for the creation of water puppetry. With the characteristics of the water puppet show stage, to creat a puppet script with plot, there should be space and context to convey the content. It is not simple without combination with land puppetry. Therefore, we – the puppeteer – should not overlook the land puppetry as it is extremely rich every aspect of artistic creation of this art.

In the current social circumstances, puppet show stage not only stands alone, but around it there also other attractions attracting very young audience. Unlike before, the audience came to the puppetry, today the puppetry must find the audience. This field is really hard. In order to get results, everything is looking forward to the tirelessly creative work of puppeteers ourselves.






                                                                    Artist Vuong Duy Bien


For the first time (March 1984), Vietnamese water puppetry troupe arrived in Paris, Lyon, Marseille… (France) and several Italian cities were warmly welcomed by the public. It can be said that there has not been any foreign art troupe when performed in Paris made all newspapers (including right-wing newspapers) praised, although restrained.

From surprise to admiration, European audience gave our art special sentiments. The “World” Newspaper with the big title “Do not miss it! Water puppetry is great” or “This is an opportunity to discover and admire all the wonders of a thousand-year-art… Traditional art? Folk art? That's for sure” (Catholic Evidence Newspaper - April 1984), or as Mr. Serip Kaznada, director of the World Cultural House: “Water puppetry enriches the cultural heritage of humanity, preventing the risk of being pushed into the “hidden”, “forgotten”… state (March 1984). Recently, Vietnamese water puppetry is also welcomed in many cities in Japan and Australia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, etc.

Everywhere, our water puppetry is always a kind of favorite art. Why does it have that power? Why can it conquer Western Europe which has a long-standing culture? In order to find the answer, we return to the source for analysis and evaluation from a historical point of view.

    Sung Thien Dien Linh stone inscription in Long Doi Pagoda (Ha Nam Ninh) records that “Puppetry was the circus show for Kings of Ly Dynasty in the Kings’ longevity wishing ceremonies” (XII century) có thể đã có. Thus, our puppetry has a long history of about 1000 years.

     Vietnam country, Vietnam countryside is rich in fertile farmland, abundant bamboo and numerous of ponds, rivers, canals, etc. The life of farmers always associated with the buffalo herding, duck grazing, rice pounding, rice grinding, and “husband ploughs, wife transplants, buffalo rakes”, etc. The water puppetry was born in these scenes and separate emotions. The life on the river has defined the unique form of this art – water puppetry and water puppetry shaping.

      That art exists parallel with the development of ancient sculpture, evident from the early period of consolidation of flourishing feudalism – Ly– Tran Dynasty buddhist sculpture to Le Dynasty royal sculpture and village communal house wooden sculpture at the end of Le Dynasty (XVI, XVII, XVIII centuries, especially in the XVII century when the village communal house wooden sculpture was standing firmly).

The audience comes to the water puppet show firstly to see the beauty, the appearance of the puppets. What is this animal? Who is this character? Good or evil? ... And since then, these characters have made the audience see the activity of a lively miniature society… Shaping art is considered as one of the most important characteristics in this art. It not only helps the audience recognize the face, shape of characters (life history) or animals (dragon, unicorn, turtle, phoenix) but also leads the audience to understand the meaning and content of a repertoire played by “puppets”.

Water puppetry shaping art depicts the royal traditional sculpture and the folk sculpture. These two elements cover all the ancient performances that we have known so far. There are two main types:

  • The first type: Affected by folk sculpture (often depicted as life characters such as fish trapping, man fishing, fishing boat couple, rice grinder, rice pounder, etc.)
  • The second type: Affected by royal sculpture (often depicted as national heroes such as Le Loi, Hai Ba Trung, Tran Nguyen Han, etc. and animals such as dragon, phoenix, crane, unicorn, etc.)

Although there are many types, there is almost a general concept of shaping: clear personality, playfulness, water-friendly (from size, color, weight to internal machinery)

You can see in each type a few main works to evaluate carefully. In the royal sculpture, the “Four spirit animals” (dragon, unicorn, turtle, phoenix) and the “Eight Immortals” is the most typical. Here, we see the face and spirit as when entering the temples, pagodas, communal houses, etc. The color of the traditional lacquer as well as the look and the way of finicky contour can describe the details of the eyes, nose, feathers, tail (such as dragon, phoenix, etc.) and folds of clothing, dress (of the immortals).

Contours in this type are usually smooth and elaborate sometimes meticulous. The dragon heads, unicorn heads, costumes of immortals are clearly decorated, even in the color of illumination. The strength is honored, as under the puppet is surface water. It makes the luster of the traditional lacquer more splendid. The patterns that we have encountered such as But Thap Pagoda, Tay Phuong Pagoda, Temple of Literature, etc. are fully inserted and “puppetized” to match the puppets and performance (performance of the puppets) without losing its traditional beauty. The talent of artisan is to express worship motif of temples, pagodas into “performance” for the audience and the audience also accept.

For example, in Le Loi yacht show, if the pagodas worshiping Le Loi in a respectful manner, conversely, in puppet shows, the audience was happy to see Le Loi was a small wooden statue can move, sit on a dragon boat, drew the sword out of its scabbard and lobbed it towards the golden turtle (The legend of Hoan Kiem Lake). Apparently, Le Loi was a king, who opened a dynasty, but under the eyes of puppet shaped art, King Le Loi is very close to common people, another aspect of honoring the national hero and cherishing the historical tradition.

In summary, the type takes on royal sculpture is one of the strongest segment of the puppetry. Not only strong in the performance, the important also is the impression of attractive decoration and shape.

The folk sculpture occupies a lot of typical shows of agricultural activities and wet rice civilized life such as: fishing boats, fish trapping, buffalo fighting, duck grazing, frog catching, ploughing, transplanting, etc. Unlike the above type, here, the audience is enjoying the creative style of fresh and conventional shaping. If in the above type, the rich imagination of art reached the top, then in this type, the “do what you see” viewpoint let the audience see the freshness and naivete. Puppets are eliminated many unnecessary things and kept what it needs to express.

For example, in the “Fishing boat couple” show, the couple with big bodies showing almost from the belly upward, so the upper part is much bigger than the lower part on the small boat… Or the “Fish trapping” show, two people who trap the fishes are small but fishes are very big (!)Thus, in the first show, the couple is main characters, and in the second show, fishes are main characters. Here, artisans will make the main character bigger for the audience to easily recognize.

The measure that not depending on reality makes the puppets more lively. The usage is daring and unstructured. Make art like playing, playing like real.

Romantic and daring look was clearly shown in “The old couple duck grazing”, the old man was wearing a loincloth, the old woman was a wearing a skirt and a women bib … while showing her long breasts … In fact, they was not so big? But in the “puppetry” the artisans exaggerated than in real life (meaning made the bib of the old woman smaller) to make the audience laugh –the laugh is very witty, funny but not vulgar.

In this type, the audience will encounter scenes of living, working and production of the farmers with muddy hands but is poeticized.

In the “Buffalo fighting”, “Agricultural activities”, etc. shows, the buffalo was stylized very close to the buffalo in the folk paintings which we often see today. They are simple contoured seemingly these animals are as rustic as humans (similar to the fish, duck, fox, etc.)

In general, the puppets’ shaping styles are fully affected by traditional sculpture and evolving through each period of history. However, when creating the puppets, the artisans have been skillfully modified to create a rather special type for the purpose of use for performance. Therefore, in addition to the beauty of contour, color, etc., the puppets have also clearly depicted personalities. The main characters – evil and good are all clearly defined (Lieu Thang is in opposition to Le Loi, the enemy is in opposition to the insurrectionists). The character personality is a factor that is focused in shaping. The common characters such as the old man duck grazing, the man frog catching, the woman transplanting, the woman fish trapping, etc have different aspects to express their jobs.

In combination with the contour, color is also used to enhance the character personality. The color of the dragon, unicorn, crane must be different from buffalo, duck, fish. Skin, clothes, and hat of Le Loi must be different from Lieu Thang. Even when drawing a beard or an eye should pay attention… to let the audience immediately recognize good and evil, recognize who is the villain, who is the protagonist.

Paint material has contributed a lot to create the charm for puppets. Indeed, with the space surrounding, the color has shown the best with its shiny, smooth, shimmering and glamorous.

In addition, it is necessary to mention some religious or divine shows (priest praying, whispered praying, parasol opening, sacrifices, koi fish becoming dragon, etc.) have color and shaping style of Hang Ma toys. Using the unreal to express the real, but successful and making the audience agitated.

In the water puppetry, in addition to the puppet, we must consider an indispensable element, it is the surface water. Why did our forefathers create an art that needed water? Is it because of life attached to rivers, ponds and lakes all the year round? … Obviously, water is a very important factor, helps puppets become active, lively and soulful. The surface water helps to hide the performance instruments such as pole, stick and wire while controlling the movements of the puppets.

The facial shape and water with reflective nature and wetness can create the scene virtualization, it shimmer, soften, smooth and change the shapes, lines, colors of illumination. Water is the space of the puppets, the surface water is using as the foundation for the puppets. Therefore, whether the water is clear or muddy, the shakiness and wetness water is the best place for romantic puppets.

Obviously, water is an indispensable element in the water puppetry that makes the puppets more beautiful, lively and attractive … And the best puppet is when standing on the water. “Water and puppets combined together, they are a symbiosis that resonate together to create efficiency”.

In addition to the water element, other elements such as firecrackers, fireworks, drums, gongs, wooden tocsins, flags, pennons, parasols, etc also enhance the special atmosphere of this “unique” art.

Imagine that the puppets were presented in a museum or a traditional room, and those puppets are presented in a space with the resounding cheers, the sound of wooden tocsins, drums, firecrackers and the flags … And those puppets can move, laugh, say, cry, etc. We will see two different effects and two different information values. Water puppetry displaying in the museum cannot be as effective as performing on the water. Conversely, when they are in the water, the audience will understand them better when they are displayed in museum glass cabinets.

In summary, the space of the water puppetry includes the above factors, together with the beauty of nature such as bamboo, pond, grass, trees, flowers, blue sky, wind, etc.  It is a very unique, poetic and lyrical space. Our puppets “fall” into there as falling into a “miniature society”… In that place, the real is like the unreal, the unreal is like the real. They are always intertwined.

Our forefathers have skillfully exploited the traditional sculptures (royal sculpture and folk sculpture) to put the beauty into the puppet shaped art to make it worthwhile, and it has crossed the national boundaries so far.

We believe that, with the initial success (old puppet show that performed in Western Europe since 1984), we can develop the water puppetry in a promising new step that puppets having necessary artistic values, to harmoniously combine the nation and the modern, the respect and preservation of traditional culture and the selective absorption of the contemporary beauty.