Skimming the water, puppets tell of Vietnam

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Skimming the water, puppets tell of Vietnam

The first time I saw the Vietnamese Water Puppets was in the chill of early fall. My friends and I sat outdoors on makeshift bleachers with jackets wrapped around our legs. We shivered to the sound of eerie instruments as a handful of traditionally dressed musicians performed folk music. A wading pool was set up in front of us, with a red-roofed dinh, a communal home, as its background.
And then the program started. To this day, I don’t remember whether it was in English or Vietnamese. Puppets skimmed across the water, depicting scenes of rural Vietnam, children’s games and legends. There was a dragon, a phoenix, ducks and plenty of children. They were enchanting tales, woven by a dozen hidden performers.
The Vietnamese puppet show is coming to Korea for performances Tuesday to Aug. 1 at the National Theater of Korea. The outdoor performance at the Haneul Center will have a Korean narrator.
Vietnamese water puppetry is known to date at least to the 11th century. When the rice fields of the Red River delta flooded, villagers used it as an opportunity for fun. Farmers set up curtains on top of the water, which became a stage. Standing chest-deep in water, behind the curtains, performers manuevered puppets carved from water-resistant fig trees, rigged with strings and attached to bamboo poles. Some puppets required the expertise of three people.
Over the years, the practice became an art form. Villages fiercely protected their puppeteering methods. The tradition passed from father to son; daughters were kept ignorant, in case they married outside the village and gave away the secrets. To this day, village guilds of puppeteers in Hanoi refer to their complex maneuvers by code names.
In the 1960s, the North Vietnamese government began promoting water puppetry as a national art form. Troupes were established that admitted both men and women. After the country reunified in 1975, the tradition spread to South Vietnam.
Kenichi Okubo, who is involved with bringing the show here, says he hopes “to share Vietnam’s culture with Korea.” It has only been a decade since Korea and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations, and while there are raittaihan, or descendents of Korean soldiers and Vietnamese women from the Vietnam War, in Korea, it is only within the past few years that the Vietnamese culture has started to find a welcome here.


by Joe Yong-hee

For more information, call 02-794-0632. Tickets are 15,000 won ($12.50).

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