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Official Gazette

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Exploring Dao Thuc folk water puppetry

Updated: 17:00’ - 08/10/2022
Do Thi Nguyet Que

Located in Thuy Lam commune of Dong Anh district on the outskirt of Hanoi, Dao Thuc water puppet village, formerly known as Dao Xa water puppetry guild, is an interesting place for tourists in the capital city where they can enjoy water puppet shows of various themes, ranging from village life and folk tales to national heroes.

The village’s historical documents revealed that the founder of the Dao Thuc water puppet village was Dao Dang Khiem, who was born in 1654 under the name of Nguyen Dang Vinh. In 1687, at the age of 33, he was appointed to the rank of third-level mandarin by King Le Hy Tong. In 1705 when King Le Hy Tong abdicated and King Le Du Tong took the throne, Khiem gave up his post and returned to his hometown in Tu Son district, Kinh Bac region (now Thuy Lam commune, Dong Anh district) where he set up four guilds which were specialized in literacy teaching, martial arts training, mortar making and water puppetry performance. The guilds’ founder, Dao Dang Khiem, died in 1732 and while the other three guilds gradually declined, Dao Thuc water puppetry guild, still exists until today. Nowadays, on the death anniversary of Dao Dang Khiem on the 24th of the second lunar month every year, Dao Thuc villagers hold  an incense-offering ceremony to show their gratitude and respect to the founder of the guild.

Water puppet shows depict folk tales and lessons about life and convey messages of philosophy__Photo:

The most unique feature that distinguishes water puppetry from other genres of puppetry is the stage where the performance takes place. For water puppetry, the stage, called thuy dinh, is set up in a waist-deep pool. Puppeteers stand in the pool behind a curtain and control puppets through a stick-and-string apparatus.     

Dao Thuc water puppets are made from fig timber whose lightweight allows them to float easily on the water surface. In the past, puppets used to be coated with a waterproof layer made of Chinese lacquer tree resin which is now replaced with synthetic paint. A water puppet is controlled by one puppeteer or even two or three puppeteers depending on the complexity of its movements. The puppets are manipulated perfectly in sync with dialogues between characters as well as the narrative voice. Another feature that makes water puppet shows become watch-worthy is the live performance of folk bands during the shows.

A water puppetry stage in Dao Thuc village__Photo: VNA

The village’s 84-year-old artisan Dinh The Van told the Vietnam Law & Legal Forum magazine that in the past, the art of water puppetry was the sole form of entertainment for not only Dao Thuc villagers but also people in adjacent areas. During leisure after harvest time, amateur puppeteers pulled a cow cart stacked with water puppets and musical instruments to neighboring areas and staged water puppet shows in a nearby pool of water. Nowadays, Dao Thuc water puppet artists perform in not only local communities’ thuy dinh but also big stages in other provinces and cities in the country and even foreign countries.

Water puppets carefully examined before the show__Photo:
According to the incumbent head of Dao Thuc water puppet village Dang Minh Hung, a water puppet show of Dao Thuc village is often started with cheo (traditional operetta) signing, stand-up comedy performance by a smart-looking character named Ba Khi, who plays the same role as character Teu of other puppet troupes, or “dot phao phat co”, a firework display with flag waving. After the opening act, the show continues with different scenes depicting villagers’ daily activities, spiritual life, and traditions and customs of which tu linh (four sacred mythical creatures) is probably the most attractive one. During the scene, colorful puppets in the shapes of dragon, unicorn, phoenix and tortoise puppets beautifully dance in the soundtrack of traditional musical instruments. The show ends with chau van singing and dancing (a traditional musical genre usually performed in rituals dedicated to the Mother Goddesses).-

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