We do not know whether water puppets appear in other countries or whether they remain only in Viet Nam, but we do know that they continue to spread and gain intimacy with their audiences. If you want to see puppets in their true environment, you must watch them in the cradle whether they began – in the open air of a village in Viet Nam northern Red River Delta.
The village had organized the performance to celebrate spring. The puppeteers were not professionals but, instead, farmers from a village puppetry guild. They had practiced with puppets they’d carved. Their characters were men, women and children, the old and the young... The performers used stories from Vietnamese traditional theater and tales of national heroes who have resisted invaders. Their characters cultivated rice, caught fish, and tended ducks. Everyone laughed when a fox puppet nabbed a duck and when uncle Teu (a puppet serving as master of ceremonies) made a joke.
Vietnamese water puppets probably began as a ceremony to pray for water to nourish the rice crop. For that reason, the mythical dragon (a positive image in Vietnamese culture) is a particularly strong character. The Red River Delta is hot, humid and filled with rivers. Every village has a pond or lake that can serve as a water-puppet theater. The weather must be warm since the performers stand in waist-deep water for hours. A theatrical set, which is often a village temple, separates the audience from the performers who works from behind a bamboo curtain. They manipulate their puppets at the far end of the bamboo pole about two meters long and must keep the pole under the water. The heavy wooden puppets held so far from the puppeteers require that performers be very strong.
During French colonialism, urban Vietnamese did not know about water puppets because only farmers perform such puppetry and only for their own neighbors. As the result, water-puppet scenes take place in rural settings with rice paddies, fishponds, bamboo thickets, banyan trees, wells and of course the village temple. The scenes include cultivating with water buffalo, buffalo fights, irrigating, harvesting and winnowing rice; boat races; kids swimming and racing and performing water acrobatics; cavorting fish and frogs; dancing turtles and phoenixes; and dragons spewing smoke.
The casts of puppet characters also includes farmers and village workers such sawyers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. All settings are within the village. The only connection to the outside is a procession for a villager who returns from successfully completing the competitive mandarin exams.
Farmers in the Red River Delta traditionally make their living from wet-rice cultivation. They must work hard in the rice paddies and continually fight against floods. Since farmers prize their intimacy with earth and water, their water puppets praise the labor, perseverance, and optimism of farming life in both the family and the village. Double meaning and satire illuminate the struggle between good and evil, with evil resulting in its own lesions.
Water puppets incorporate Vietnamese animism as well as Buddhism, Taoism and especially Confucianism. Spectators sitting amidst rice paddies as they watch the water puppets soon sense how Vietnamese farmers live together with spirits in an atmosphere of pantheism.