In Part I, we learned about water puppetry in Vietnam. You may remember that those miraculous puppets are skillfully controlled under the water. The ingenious combination of hard-to-move puppets and waving water has created a significant attraction to visitors from all over the world to visit Thang Long Kinh Ky (the old name of Hanoi.) Have you ever been curious about how water puppets are made of? If the answer is yes, explore it with me.
Puppets are meticulously crafted from wooden blocks. However, not all kinds of wood can be used to make puppets. Because one part of its body sinks below the surface of the water, a puppet must be made of durable wood and more importantly, float on the water. That makes fig wood and milkwood become suitable materials.
To turn a block of rough wood into a beautiful puppet which is a close description of people and their lives in the countryside of Vietnam requires deft hands of artisans. First of all, the artisans must rough-cut the wood blocks to mould a character. Then, they continue to carve small details meticulously and delicately. After that, the wood blocks are shaved and dried under the sun.
As the puppets are immersed in water, the artisans need to apply multiple layers of paint to keep them durable and waterproof. The puppets are then exposed to sunlight until completely dried. The process must be repeated 3-4 consecutive times to produce qualified puppets.
The decoration is perhaps the most interesting and creative stage. The puppets are painted in many colours, especially on the face in which their characteristics are described. For example, the puppet Teu (Chú Tễu), the embodiment of a young and strong farmer, serves as a narrator of village festivals. He has the duty to open the festival, introduce the program and announce the events happening in the village. This character has the freedom to talk sarcastically about anything or anyone. With the above characteristics, Teu has a funny “makeup” with a wide mouth and bright eyes.
Bringing the wooden pieces to life
While the puppet’s body represents the character, its base contains manipulating machines for it to perform on stage. Here lies the key of water puppetry. The machines can be divided into two main types: pole machines and wire machines. The machines, hidden in the water, take advantage of water force to create remote controls for the puppets and give viewers many amazing performances.
Witness the process of making water puppets
If you want to see in person the process of making water puppets, you can go to Dao Thuc Village (Thuy Lam Commune, Dong Anh District, the outskirts of Hanoi), which is famous for its 500-year tradition of water puppetry. From the centre of Hanoi, you can cross the Duong Bridge, turn left and follow the Highway 3 to Phu Lo, then go along Ca Lo River dyke to Dao Thuc Village. The total distance is about 24 km.
Linh Dang – Nhu Tran