Methods of Manipulation: an Analogy between Vietnamese Water Puppetry and State Propaganda

Seb Rumsby is the holder of an RSAA Sir Peter Holmes Memorial Award.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Hanoi’s Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre, located on the bank of Hoàn Kiếm Lake next to the Old Quarter. Water puppetry has become an iconic representation of nation, and is now seen as an essential part of the ‘Vietnam experience’ for international tourists, myself included. Originally a Punch-and-Judy-esque form of entertainment for children, Vietnamese language comprehension is not a prerequisite to enjoy the show’s pantomime atmosphere, slapstick jokes, and excellent musical accompaniment. It might not be expected that such an innocent and neutral form of art would be within the realms of state propaganda.

‘To manipulate’ literally means to operate, to manoeuvre, or to influence. Tran Van Khe, the prominent Vietnamese ethnomusicologist who recently passed away, wrote an article about Vietnamese Water Puppetry back in 1985. The second section is entitled “Methods of Manipulation” and explains to some detail how puppeteers who stand waist deep in water behind a screen can control and direct the wooden puppets, which appear to move on their own accord through the water from the view of the audience. The simplest way is to attach puppets to long poles which are immersed under the water and operated by the puppeteer (see image); traditionally, the water should be fairly murky so that the poles cannot be seen from above.

water puppets 2

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