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Water Puppets of Vietnam Are Making a Comeback

July 05, 2002|DAVID THURBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

Vietnam's 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.

Water 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.

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

After 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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