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.
More complex systems of manipulation include the use of multiple poles, wires connected to different parts of the puppet’s body, and an underwater operating board enabling puppeteers to operate more than one puppet at a time. Beyond that, details get even murkier than the water:
“Specific methods of water puppet manipulation are well-kept family secrets, however, handed down from father to son. In fact they are so carefully protected that the eldest son of the ‘director’ of one water puppet theatre could not marry the girl he loved because she was a member of a rival theatre group.” (Tran 1985:76)
Now to most of us, the word ‘manipulation’ has negative associations, like the word ‘propaganda’. (As it happens, the Vietnamese term tuyên truyền, ‘to propagate’, does not carry the same bad connotations as in English, and state propaganda posters are unashamedly plastered on billboards across Vietnam.) In 2001, Foley argued that water puppetry itself has been used – manipulated, if you will – by the Vietnamese state as a tool of cultural diplomacy by the state, to promote the country’s culture to the world as an alternative to Hollywood’s image of Vietnam as a site of war and trauma (Foley 2001:135). Not only was it invested in and promoted as a tourist attraction, but the state paid for water puppet troupes to travel the world and perform in dozens of countries.
Upon visiting the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre in 2013, I was confronted with a shocking development: the performance had been completely rewritten, and was almost unrecognisable from the show I had seen at the same venue a few years before. At a time when ethnic tensions in Vietnam were at a peak, the show’s content had an obvious political agenda to promote a façade of national unity by portraying and describing Vietnam’s different ethnic groups as having a strong “sense of common ancestry and mutual attachment”.
Initially I was convinced that this water puppet performance was being manipulated by state propaganda – just as the puppets themselves are manipulated by the puppeteers. The article I wrote for Asian Affairs was an attempt to uncover the methods of manipulation; if the show was being influenced or controlled by people or forces from behind the scenes, who exactly were the puppet masters and how did they operate? This was no easy task, given the opaqueness of the Vietnamese state and the difficulty anyone faces wanting to research ‘politically sensitive’ topics. In fact, the results were not exactly how I expected them to turn out, instead revealing a more nuanced picture of the dynamics behind water puppet manipulation. However, the analogy still stands in one respect: to borrow Tran Van Khe’s words in a different context, “Specific methods of water puppet manipulation are well-kept… secrets”. Feel free to read on here!
Tran Van Khe (1985) “Vietnamese Water Puppets”, Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 73-82.