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Official Gazette

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Local artisans’ efforts to preserve Te Tieu puppetry

Updated: 15:00’ - 10/05/2023
Do Thi Nguyet Que

Located in Dai Nghia township in Hanoi’s outlying district of My Duc, Te Tieu traditional rod puppetry guild is famous for rod puppet plays with scripts developed based on folk tales or excerpts of traditional theater performances.

Emeritus Artisan Pham Cong Bang carves puppets for a new show__Photo: The Dai/Vietnam+
According to the Hanoi Department of Culture and Sports, the city is home to six traditional puppetry guilds of which only Te Tieu puppetry artists can perform both “ground” puppetry and water puppetry while the other five guilds are specialized in water puppetry. In 2020, Te Tieu rod puppetry was added to the List of Vietnam’s National Intangible Cultural Heritages.

Rod puppets of Te Tieu puppetry guild__Photo: The Dai/Vietnam+

Legend has it that the rod puppetry guild was founded in Te Tieu village in late 16th century by Tran Trieu Dong Hai, a mandarin of the Le dynasty. Through many ups and downs for more than 400 years, thanks to constant efforts of generations of passionate artisans, Te Tieu rod puppetry still exists today.

Rod puppets of Te Tieu puppetry guild__Photo: The Dai/Vietnam+
In the past and at present, rod puppetry is a unique form of entertainment for villagers after days of hard work, especially during special occasions such as New Year festival, Mid-Autumn festival and public holidays. A Te Tieu puppetry show can be seen as the harmonious and delicate combination of the art of the stage, puppet-manipulating techniques, and performance techniques with puppet characters performing skits and playlets about Vietnamese folktales as well as heroes and history.

Emeritus Artisan Pham Cong Bang carves puppets for a new show__Photo: The Dai/Vietnam+
The particular feature that distinguishes Te Tieu puppetry from other puppetry guilds lays in its theatrical genre. While other guilds often combine puppetry with cheo (Vietnamese traditional opera), Te Tieu puppeteers choose to create their performances based on tuong (Vietnamese traditional classical drama), which is much more complicated than other genres of traditional musical theater in not only characters’ makeup and costumes but also dance moves and vocal techniques. According to Emeritus Artisan Pham Cong Bang, head of Te Tieu rod puppetry guild, it is very difficult to manipulate puppets following tuong dance moves. The movements of each character have their own particularities; hence, it often takes years of practice before a puppeteer can master the technique of manipulating puppets. Te Tieu rod puppetry guild now boasts about 100 playlets, including 20 excerpts of tuong, Bang told the Vietnam Law & Legal Forum magazine.

Puppets manifesting characters from tuong (Vietnamese traditional classical drama)__Photo: The Dai/Vietnam+
It can be said that “ground” puppetry and water puppetry share the same basic puppet-designing, -making and -manipulating techniques. However, while water puppets are solid sculptures, “ground” puppets are hollow statues which are manipulated by three or five metal rods connected to their arms, legs and heads. Te Tieu artisans often use lightweight timber like bead-tree and fig to make puppets. These are common kinds of timber which can be easily found in the Vietnamese countryside. Particularly for water puppets, as they are frequently soaked in water, they can be quickly damaged. Hence, in Te Tieu guild, “whenever there is a show, we create new puppets for it,” said artisan Bang.

A puppet show of Te Tieu guild often begins with folk singing and drumbeating, followed by the presentation of a storyteller called Lao Truong (the old Vietnamese-language word denoting an old man) who will return to the stage several times to introduce characters and lead audiences through different scenes and stories. The show is accompanied by a traditional musical band including vocalists and musicians playing drum, bamboo flute, dan bau (Vietnam’s indigenous monochord zither), dan nhi (bowed string instrument with two strings) and dan tam (three-stringed zither).

The theme of almost puppet shows makes frequent references to Vietnamese folklore, depicting a peaceful life in the Vietnamese countryside, recounting legends and national history or telling the stories about national heroes. Nowadays, Te Tieu puppeteers have developed new scripts, trying to employ the puppetry art to tell stories about contemporary issues with a view to reaching out to new audiences, thus conserving and promoting the value of this genre of traditional art.-

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