I have always wanted to ask a puppet, in private, what it is like to be enslaved and forced to do its master’s bidding, subject to being cast away when another more appealing stage star comes along. In Vietnam, and south Asia in general, the puppet population is denser than in most places, but my queries of them there only drew docile, blank stares.
Given its vast “wet rice” producing history, Vietnam’s particularly unique art form of water puppetry originated as a form of entertainment, education and altar of communal folklore. The puppets are built out of wood and lacquered and the dance-opera shows are performed in a waist-high pool of water. A large rod beneath the water is used by the puppeteers, usually concealed behind a split bamboo screen, to support and control their serfs. Rice fields would flood and the villagers would entertain each other, and even engage in puppet show competitions between villages. This led to the establishment of exclusive and sometimes secretive puppet societies.
The main music used in the water puppetry performance is music of Cheo singers (music and dance opera) and instruments: drum and cymbal (the dragon’s call), two-stringed fiddle, bells, bamboo flute, 16-chord zither or monochord, and other effects (like firecrackers).
The puppetry art has existed in Vietnam more than 1000 years. Inhabitants of wet rice farming also attributed sacred qualities to the sex characteristics of life and the act of mating, creating a unique form of fertility cult. The Vietnamese tribes, the Khmer of Cambodia, and other southeast Asian people all revered the universal yin and yang principles, the female and the male.
Wooden tomb statues of Gia Rai people at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi, feature aggrandized sexual organs and orgy-like behaviors that no longer are confined to the jungles of central Vietnam’s highlands. I looked on with sideways glances.
Prudish behavior — see no evil!
“Long” and “tall” are descriptives that extend beyond the sex organs display at the museum to the Ede longhouses and tall houses of the Bahnar ethnic people that provide the iconic dwellings and council rooms of the highlands. The museum offers a very comprehensive collection of artifacts and customs practiced by Asian cultures ranging all the way to India and Indonesia (with its own even more defined shadow puppet population, Wayang Kulit).
"How joyful to have a Trong Com; and it is an honour for those who can clap it skillfully, oohh ah bong ah bong...", melody of a famous song from Vietnamese folklore about Trong Com. (Trong Com is a traditional bronze drum).
casket adorned for travel in the dragon's body
Hanoi museum's lobby decor
color is happiness
Shadow puppets (Indonesia)
(to be continued)