No strings attached

Water puppetry gets all the headlines, but land puppetry is an equally vibrant form of puppeteering.

By Story: Le Diem on October 17,2017 02:48 PM

No strings attached

Photos: Manh Ha, Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre, KPVN

To the beat of different instruments, the puppets talk, move, and sometimes dance under the skilled hands of puppeteers, sending people’s wishes to the gods for favourable weather, peace, luck, and prosperity. While puppetry on land is common in many places, it is the exception in Vietnam, where water puppetry, a unique artform of the country, overwhelms. This ‘land’ puppetry has its own special features and spiritual role for groups of ethnic minority people, especially the Tay people in their homeland of Dinh Hoa district, northern Thai Nguyen province.

‘Land’ puppetry is now over 200 years old, much younger than its cousin, water puppetry, which appeared around the 11th century. It is said that Ma Cong Bang, a farmer in Tham Roc village in the 18th century who loved performance arts, went to neighbouring areas to learn their arts and entertainment to bring back to the village. One day he returned with a couple of puppets and began performing in front of his neighbours. He received a warm reception, as there were few entertainment options on offer after a hard day of farming. He also created a new trade for local people, known as Tham Roc Puppetry.

No strings attached

While water puppetry requires a system of strings and poles underwater that are controlled by puppeteers hidden behind a curtain, ‘land’ puppetry is also called ‘stick’ puppetry, which suggests its form. Each puppet can move flexibly, not by gloves or strings like other popular kinds of puppetry, but from a distance, by bamboo sticks connected to its head, body, and limbs. The bamboo has recently been replaced by steel or aluminium.

‘LAND’ PUPPETRY IS NOW OVER 200 YEARS OLD, MUCH YOUNGER THAN ITS COUSIN, WATER PUPPETRY, WHICH APPEARED AROUND THE 11TH CENTURY. 

A ‘land’ puppetry performance commonly has 13 puppets, including two leaders of a larger size. It takes a few days to make a puppet. Thung muc, a tree found in mountainous areas, is usually selected for its durability, according to Ma Quang Chong, the 13th descendant of Ma Cong Bang and the leader of the Tham Roc Puppetry team. Steps include whittling the characters, painting and drying them, and making clothes for them. All are done by hand. Thanks to talented craftsman, rough dead wood transforms into lively characters. They usually depict various types of people, such as emperors, mandarins, and farmers, as well as real animals like dogs, horses, geckos, and cranes, together with fictitious animals like dragons and phoenixes.

The puppetry is performed at festivals and major events, in particular the annual Long Tong Festival on the sixth day of the first lunar month, which is the most important festival at the beginning of the New Year, seeking favourable weather and bountiful crops.

A traditional performance includes eight acts. It starts with vibrant drums and a call to get people’s attention. Puppets then appear in different roles, acting out daily activities and tales of people in support of folk melodies from various traditional instruments like drums, khen (pan-pipe), flute and dan nhi (two-stringed fiddle). The role of men and women is also different in this type of puppetry, according to Chong. Most of the team’s male members are responsible for creating the puppets’ gestures and moves while the women provide the voices, both talking and singing. One woman can take on a few roles in one act. The content of the conversations usually has rhythms and express the wishes of the people.

No strings attached

Under a mysterious light with darkness around, the puppets depict history and culture in different periods, both with their costumes and the roles of different social classes from the past. The most famous act in the ‘land’ puppetry of the Tay people is the closing act, which is ‘a person climbs a tree to catch a gecko’. It usually brings a lot of fun and laughter among the audience, as the puppets climb up and down, jump, run, and pull at both the climber and the gecko.

According to Chong, people in the past usually relied on plants and animals when predicting the weather and if they could farm. For example, when the chirp of a gecko lasts an odd number of seconds it will rain, and when even, sun can be expected. Inspired by the habits of Vietnam’s cultivation culture, puppeteers have created unique fun acts like ‘the gecko climbs the tree to catch the rain’ and ‘a person climbs a tree to catch a gecko’. In the act, the gecko, representing nature, climbs up the tree to show he has ability to forecast the weather and to ask the gods for higher standing than farmers, representing humans, who merely produce food. If the farmer disagrees, they have a fight. Eventually, no side wins or loses; they cooperate to live together in peace. The story implies that humans and nature should blend together to the benefit of both.

Behind the skilled moves of the puppets is talent and also a secret part of Tham Roc Puppetry. Just a little has been revealed, which is that the puppets have a role to play more than just being characters for entertainment. Tay people believe there is a soul or a deity in each puppet. Therefore, they need to take care of them or bad luck may come. In addition, before performing, puppeteers usually burn incense to worship the father of puppets and show respect towards him as well as the puppets. When a puppeteer dies, his puppets are buried with him. The Ma Quang family has a collection of 33 puppets kept in a wooden coffin in their worship house, like protector saints, which have been preserved through 13 generations. Only the first son has the key and the responsibility of taking care of the worship ceremonies.

The ‘land’ puppetry of the Tay people has been through many ups and downs and was neglected for a period, due to war and the challenges of modern life. A few years ago, it was revived by a local research team, and Tham Roc Puppetry was then recognised as a national intangible heritage in 2015. Since then, every year, the ‘land’ puppetry of the Tay people has appeared at the district’s Long Tong Festival.

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