Water Puppets of Vietnam
Are Making a Comeback


HANOI, Vietnam — A grinning
tiger splashes through the water, grabs a duck from a helpless farmer and
races up a palm tree 20 feet away, its prey dangling from its mouth.

    The audience
roars at the antics–controlled by puppeteers standing thigh-deep in water
behind a bamboo screen. Long underwater poles and ropes transmit the complex
motions to the colorful hand-carved puppets–including dancing maidens,
smoke-belching dragons and fish that pull lazy fishermen into the deep.

unique water puppets have been portraying the foibles of rural life for
nearly 1,000 years. They are among many traditional Vietnamese performing
arts that nearly faded away during decades of war and communist revolution,
but have now found new audiences. About a dozen water puppet troupes are
currently performing, mostly in villages in northern Vietnam’s Red River
Delta. Most of the puppeteers are farmers who devote long hours to practice
but perform for free.

puppet shows originally were performed in rice paddies or ponds when farm
work allowed, either after spring planting or harvesting.

    The performances
intersperse vignettes of life in a farming village with legends about Vietnam’s
creation, magical turtles and brave kings. In many, the humans are outfoxed
by nature, to the delight of generations of rural Vietnamese.

puppetry nearly disappeared during the decades of wars against France and
the United States, poverty and communist revolution.

the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Communist authorities believed that traditional
culture and festivals were backward and frivolous in a time of extreme
poverty and political upheaval. That policy began shifting in the mid-1980s
as Vietnam introduced economic reforms that ended its failed experiment
in collectivized agriculture and a centralized command economy.

    The government
now officially encourages many traditional arts in an effort to forge a
national cultural identity, and this year plans to ask UNESCO to designate
water puppetry as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

    In theaters
in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, water puppet performances are packed every
night with foreign tourists. But the art form’s future is less certain
in its countryside roots, where it faces growing competition from TV, pop
music and the allure of private enterprise.

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock