Puppetry has a long and varied history that spans the globe, but only in Vietnam do puppets slice off each other's heads. Sure, Indonesia has the graceful Javanese shadow puppets and Japan, the bunraku theater with black-clad ninja puppeteers. Europe offers the rambunctious Punch and Judy, not to mention fantastic nose-growing marionettes like Pinocchio. And in America Jim Henson created Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and all the other members of the madcap Muppet gang. But amphibious Vietnamese water puppets beat all these diverse strands of puppetry.
The 800 year-old water puppetry has its origins in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. Many towns and villages in this area feature communal ponds, and it was in these public spaces that the art of water puppetry first developed in the eleventh century AD. As it evolved over the centuries from folk art to a more established art form, the simple theater stages of wood, bamboo and cloth developed into permanent structures. Due to their solid construction, some of these stages have survived until the present day. Vietnamese Traditional Water Puppetry features photographs and detailed architectural drawings of the two oldest stages still hosting puppetry performances in Vietnam: the Thay Pagoda stage (dating to the Le Dynasty (1533-1708) and the Dong Temple stage (dating to 1775)).
Puppeteers carve their puppets from the ubiquitous fig tree and waterproof them with resin from the lacquer tree. Puppets range in height from 12 to 40 inches (30 to 100 centimeters) and in weight from two to ten pounds (one to five kilograms). During performances, puppeteers control their puppets through a pole-and-string apparatus concealed by the pond water. This apparatus extends behind the stage curtain to the hidden puppeteers who stand in waist-deep water. In this way, explains the book, Vietnamese water puppetry differs from marionettes (control from above) or finger puppets (control from below).
Over time, as with many other kinds of artisans and craftsmen in Vietnam, puppet-makers and puppeteers banded together into guilds. These tended to be named after the members' home community, such as the Rach and Tay Ngoai Guilds. The book provides a complete list of the guilds, and also states that to become a member of such an organization, one must "be decently dressed," which rules out the average western tourist. In addition, one must place rice wine, betel rolls and areca nuts on the altar of the guild's founder. If accepted to the guild, a new member must drink a vermilion concoction that symbolizes human blood and then take an oath to keep the secrets of the guild. Failure to do so "is at the cost of the life of the father and that of three successive offspring."
Vietnamese Traditional Water Puppetry also summarizes the many plots of water puppetry performances. Characters can be heroic, legendary ormythic, but most are ordinary peasant characters living in an age-old village protected by clusters of giant bamboo. Plot lines tend to be action-oriented as it is beyond the ability of the puppets to convey emotional conflicts. A common plot device involves decapitation. For example, in a scene titled "Felling Banana Trees," a luckless character named Lieu Thang loses his head?literally. And in a vignette from the classical drama Son Hau, Khuong Linh Ta's head is severed and drifts away on the lake water. However, the resilient character chases after his own head, picks it up and carries it offstage. Such climactic moments often feature quantities of fireworks, which explodes while diving underwater like a foraging duck. Along with the pyrotechnics comes a cacophony of drums, gongs, cymbals and bells, plus assorted enthusiastic noises from the audience.