TRẦN VĂN KHÊ : Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 1

Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 1

In Viet-Nam the traditional theatre is called hat tuong or hat boi. Hat means to sing. The etymology of the word boi is controversial. At all events, the hat tuong, a term used mainly in the north of Viet-Nam, indicates a form of theatre which was formerly performed at the courts of the kings or emperors of the old Viet country. The word hat boi, used by the inhabitants of southern Viet-Nam, indicates a type of theatre which had its origin in the court theatre but which is tending to become a folktheatre.

The Viet-Namese theatre has more than a little in common with the Chinese theatre but it also differs from it in several ways. The similarities are insufficient to allow us to assert that the Viet-Namese theatre was derived from the Chinese theatre, any more than the differences permit us to maintain that the Viet-Namese theatre has no link with the Chinese theatre. In speaking of the Chinese theatre, moreover, we think mainly of the ching hsi, the sung theatre of Peking, and the points of comparison in this article have been drawn from the ching hsi.

To be completely objective, we must recognize that the Viet-Namese hat tuong or hat boi has been influenced by the Chinese theatre, but it has not sought to copy that pattern slavishly. It has been able to retain and develop its own originality, to adapt the text of the plays, the stage effects and the songs and elocution to the taste of its public. Let us try to go back to its beginnings and to follow its development in a quick historical survey and to see the reaction of the Viet-Namese public to these recent innovations.

According to certain authors, in approximately the twelfth century and under the Ly dynasty, a Chinese Taoist initiated the Viet-Namese into the Chinese theatre art. In the history of the Viet country, the name is recorded of an actor in the Yuan army, Li Yuan Ki (Ly Nguyen Cat in Viet-Namese) who, captured by the soldiers of General Tran Hung Dao, saved his life by teaching the Viet-Namese the songs and dances of the Chinese theatre. The play Tay Vuong Mau (Si Wang Mou, the Queen of the West), performed at the court by Li Yuan Ki and his troupe composed of Viet-Namese actors, was very much appreciated. In the first month of the third year Dai Tri (1360), King Tran Du Ton (1341-69) commanded the princes, dukes and princesses to give theatre performances in competition. The king judged them and rewarded those who gave the best. It appears from these historical documents that the traditional Chinese theatre was introduced into the old Viet country about the end of the thirteenth century, and the first companies of this theatre, which was intended for kings and court dignitaries, were formed early in the fourteenth century.

Other authors are more cautious about the Chinese origin of the traditional theatre. Mich Quang, in particular, throws doubt upon the Chinese origin of the hat tuong on the grounds of differences between the costumes, make-up, theatre properties, songs and dances of the two theatres. It is very probable that a theatre of Viet-Namese tradition existed independently of the theatre of Chinese tradition and that it continues to this day in the hat cheo (folk-theatre of northern Viet-Nam) the origin of which is lost ‘in the mists of time’. It is undeniable, however, that the hat tuong bears the stamp of the Chinese theatre.

In this sphere as in many others, the Viet-Namese people have been able to assimilate notions learned from the Chinese and thus to create an original art, a true combination of foreign contributions and of elements of their own art heritage.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, performances of hut tuong were still given simply to entertain the court, to enliven banquets and even in connexion with sacrifices. In 1437, during a ceremony in the royal temples, King Le Thai Tong abolished theatrical performances and forbade the playing of music. Historical documents examined recently show that the hat tuong was in favour not only with the court but also among the people during the last period of the Le dynasty (eighteenth century). The hat tuong developed chiefly at the Nguyen court in the south, while in the north the hat a dao (song of female singers) was taken up by the Trinh lords. The emperors of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945) were interested in the traditional theatre, as were their ancestors the Nguyen lords. Under the reign of Ninh Manh (182040), the master of ballet and singing in the official troupe was a Chinese actor of the name of Kang Kong Heou (Cang Cung Hau). The Emperor Tu Duc (1847-83) invited scholars to collaborate with him in writing new plays. The Emperor Thanh Thai (1889-1909) was extremely fond of the theatre and did not hesitate himself to take a part in a play. Under the Nguyen dynasty, especially in the reign of Tu Duc, more than 300 actors and actresses were recruited from among the best in the whole country, and plays requiring a large number of actors were produced. Authors such as Dao Tan wrote plays which were considered masterpieces. With regard to the inner meaning and the form of the plays, and the technique and the costumes of the actors, the hat tuong tended to become a little closer to the Chinese theatre.


*** Source: The Performing Arts in Asia – Unesco Paris 1971

(Edited and with introductions by James R. Brandon)

TRẦN VĂN KHÊ : Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 2

Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 2

Analogies between hat tuong and Chinese ching hsi

A foreign spectator is immediately struck by the great resemblance between the Viet-Namese hat tuong and the Chinese ching hsi.

For instance, as regards the stage and the properties, there is the same stage devoid of scenery, decorated with a single piece of plain fabric or material as backcloth; the properties also are few. In the hat tuong as in the ching hsi, the table and a few stools may serve as furniture just as well in the dwelling of a court dignitary as in a poor student’s cell. A tablecloth embroidered with dragons spread over the table indicates that the scene takes place in the throne room. A stool placed on the table makes mountains shoot up. The riding whip represents a steed and the oar a boat. Two strips of white cloth held vertically on each side of the actor and bearing the pattern of a wheel, represent the royal chariot. Add to the objects mentioned above some wooden weapons painted black, red and silver, some many-coloured flags, a piece of material wrapped round some bamboo sticks representing a missive (a private letter or a royal message), a carafe and some small wooden or china cups, and you have nearly all the properties of the hat tuong and the Chinese ching hsi.

As to the actors and their parts, the characters belong to all the classes of the old Viet-Namese or Chinese society: kings, queens, princes, princesses, civil and military mandarins, citizens, scholars, peasants, servants, soldiers, brigands, and also some immortals, goddesses of Chinese or Viet-Namese mythology.

In the Viet-Namese theatre there is a clear distinction between the parts of the good men (trung) and the bad men (ninh). In the Chinese theatre there is a great variety of female parts: ching i, a modest and virtuous young woman; hua tan, roguish and given to flirtation; kuei men tan, a young unmarried girl. In general, and 74 The performing arts in Asia apart from a few variations, the same types of part are found in both theatres.

Examining make-up and costumes, it will be seen that if the painted faces are looked at in detail, they are not the same in the two theatres, Viet-Namese and Chinese. But the symbolic meaning of certain colours on the other hand is nearly identical: red for the good and loyal characters; white (or grey in the Viet-Namese theatre) for traitors; green for demons; black for the straight and honest parts. In the Viet-Namese theatre, use is rarely made of blue, yellow and brown, symbolizing respectively courage, intelligence and obstinacy in the Chinese theatre. A beard with three or five tufts indicates the loyal part; a sparse beard, fairly short and in the form of a Newgate frill, a traitor’s part; a bushy beard, a violent character. A face painted white with black and red streaks indicates the non-Chinese origin or the violent character of a person.

The costumes also differ in detail: the soles of the Viet-Namese boots are rounded and not flat and rectangular like those of the Chinese theatre. But the costumes and hair-dressing have been designed with the same idea: broad silk tunics decorated with dragons with five claws embroidered with gold thread for kings, phoenixes embroidered with gold or silver thread for queens; heavy chasubles spangled with tinsel with little flags on the back for warriors. Peasants, servants and soldiers wear cotton jackets without embroidery. Students wear a black or dark blue cap while court dignitaries wear head-gear decorated with gems and provided with two lateral wings. The head-gear of generals, knights or warriors is decorated with pheasant feathers. Certain conventions in materials and colours are found in both theatres : light yellow silk for kings, black cotton for impetuous or unpredictable characters, grey for old persons, etc.

In both theatres, gestures and attitudes are stylized and conventional. Some are identical, like the manner of tasting a cup of tea or liquor, the gesture of wiping away tears, the setting-off of a horse marked by striking the Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam 15 boot with a riding whip, the crossing of weapons between two combatants. Others are specifically VietNamese or Chinese. In the Viet-Namese theatre, it is impossible to distinguish hundreds of sleeve movements, hand play and steps, as in the Chinese theatre. But the walk, the way of opening a fan, of stroking the beard peculiar to a traitor’s part are very well exploited in the Viet-Namese theatre. Also very characteristic is the manner of moving sideways without lifting the feet, movements facilitated by the rounded shape of the soles of the Viet-Namese buskins, to express suffering or deep emotion.

For themes of plays, the history of China, especially the period of the Three Fighting Kingdoms (third century A.D.), Chinese mythology, even the Chinese romance Tay Du (Pilgrimage to the West) with the King of the Monkeys, have provided Chinese and Viet-Namese authors with material for their works. The texts of Viet-Namese plays contain many Sino-Viet-Namese words understood solely by scholars. The plays have approximately the same ending: the good are rewarded, the wicked punished, the kings restored to their thrones though they are for a time threatened by traitors, who are often killed at the end by the loyal subjects.

If the two theatres are examined in detail, numerous differences appear, more particularly in the inner meaning and form of the plays, the songs and the music.


*** Source: The Performing Arts in Asia – Unesco Paris 1971

(Edited and with introductions by James R. Brandon)

TRẦN VĂN KHÊ : Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 3 (END)

Traditional theatre in Viet-Nam (Prof.Tran Van Khe) – Part 3 (END)

Differences between hat tuong and Chinese theatre

In plays, subjects drawn from the history of Viet-Nam or from certain Viet-Namese romances are not rare. We mention among others : Tru’ng Nu’ Vuong (The Two Trung Queens) by Phan Doi Chau on the exploits of the Trung sisters fighting against the Chinese invaders (40-44 A.D.); Duong Ve Lam Soh, glorifying the fight of the VietNamese people against the Ming, under the leadership of a peasant patriot Le Loi, founder of the later Le dynasty (fifteenth century); and Luc Van Tien, a romance in verse of Nguyen Din Chieu. Although loyalty to the sovereign formed the theme of plays in the Viet-Namese theatre, the fine parts were given to loyal subjects, often of humble birth. At the end of tuong thay (history) plays, the crown princes, pursued by traitors but protected by the people, ascend the throne, reward the loyal subjects and punish the felons. The language of the principal characters is that of aristocrats. The servants and clowns, when they speak among themselves, use the language of the people. Although in the tuong pho, the text is largely written in the Sino-Viet-Namese language, in tuong thau and especially tuong do domestic plays, much room is left for the national language. The musical repertory is very different in the two theatres: there are of course speeches (noi loi in the VietNamese theatre, pai in the Chinese theatre) and songs. In the Chinese theatre, the songs are in two principal styles : hsi pi and erh huang. The pang tse may also be mentioned. They are absolutely different from the hat khach, hat num of the Viet-Namese theatre. The passages called kouo men (literally ‘to go through the door’), played as interludes, and the pieces calledya ti (literally ‘elegant A utes’) intended to accompany pantomimes or a particular stage effect in the Chinese theatre, do not exist in the Viet-Namese theatre where on the other hand a large number of pieces for percussion are found such as: Khai troung or Trong duong dau (overture) before the beginning of the play; Dam bang or Bai chien for battle scenes.

Reform and change

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a tendency to ‘reform’ the hat tuong was shown by the appearance of the hat boi pha cai luong genres (traditional theatre mixed with the so-called reformed theatre) in southern Viet-Nam, the hat bo Xuan nu (traditional theatre, Xuan nu style : ‘springlike young girl’) in central Viet-Nam, and the hat tuong Saigon (traditional theatre, Saigon style) in northern Viet-Nam. In fact, the reform consisted mainly in imitating the play, gestures and make-up of the Chinese actors, in introducing pieces of relaxation music into the traditional repertory, and in using the scenery and curtain as in the Western theatre. The production has even been seen of traditional plays taken from a fashionable novel such as Toi Cua Ai (Whose Fault?) and Ai Len Pho Cat (Who is Going up to Pho Cat?). In the countryside, however, the public always calls for the traditional plays. Immediately after the revolution of August 1945, and during the War of Resistance, the hat tuong in the north and the hat boi in the south went through a period of decline. In some provinces, the hat tuong companies tried without success to perform plays for spoken theatre instead of the traditional theatre. From 1952 onwards, by order of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, it was decided to restore the traditional theatre. Plays taken from the ancient or contemporary history of Viet-Nam appeared. We mention among others Tru’ng Nu’ Vuong (The Two Trung Queens),Dung Ve Lam Son (The Road Back to Lam Son, the place where the struggle began against the Ming invaders in the fifteenth century), Dau Tranh Giam To (Fight for the Reduction of Farm Rents), Chi Ngo (Chi Ngo the Fighter). Each hat tuong performance was attended by thousands of spectators, and many young people were trained in the hat tuong section of the National School of Dramatic Art. In southern Viet-Nam, the traditional theatre is dying out. A single company gives performances in Saigon which are poorly attended. In Dinh Dinh, the cradle of the hat boi, there are about fifteen village troupes. Recently in Saigon, the Association for the Encouragement of Theatre Studies and of Traditional Singing (Hoi khuyen Ze CO CU) organized several hat boi performances for an audience of connoisseurs and students. In the south, however, the so-called reformed theatre (hat cai Zuong) has almost completely replaced the traditional theatre. At the present time the young people are turning towards the new music (tun nhuo) or the variety and dance music of Western countries, and they are completely ignorant of the subtleties of song and speech in the traditional theatre. The task of educating the public is just as urgent as that of preserving and handing down the art of the theatre. In northern Viet-Nam, all the forms of theatre are taught in the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art. Research groups are collecting documents on the hut tuong, hut cheo, hat cui Zuong, hut bui choi; and together with the study of a historical or aesthetic nature, experiments are being made to reform or adapt the theatre to living conditions of the present day. The public is sympathetic towards efforts made to find a new and original formula for the traditional theatre, which continues to develop in the north. Only the return of peace and the reunification of Viet-Nam, or at least the re-establishment of cultural relations between the two parts of Viet-Nam, will make it possible to give new energy to the work of restoring and developing the traditional theatre.


*** Source: The Performing Arts in Asia – Unesco Paris 1971

(Edited and with introductions by James R. Brandon)



Vào cuối mùa Thu năm 2008 vừa qua ở Hiện Quán Trà của chúng tôi có tổ chức một buổi tọa đàm về Trà Việt Nam. Chúng tôi rất vinh hạnh được đón tiếp một vị khách rất đặc biệt, đó là Giáo sư Tiến sỹ Trần Văn Khê.

Ngày hôm đó Ông thể theo lời thỉnh cầu của chúng tôi đến, thứ nhất là thưởng thức một buổi trà mùa thu, thứ đến là Ông sẽ nói chuyện về Trà Đông Tây, kim cổ. 

Chúng ta hầu như ai cũng biết Giáo sư là một người rất đỗi uyên bác không những trong chuyên ngành nghiên cứu âm nhạc dân tộc mà trong lãnh vực văn hóa Việt Nam Ông còn là một người có kiến văn quảng bác, có tâm hồn yêu nước sâu sắc và luôn tự hào về truyền thống dân tộc.  

Thật đáng được yêu quý và trân trọng biết bao vị Giáo sư, người Thầy khả kính, một nguời Việt rất Việt Nam của chúng ta.  

Tối mùa Thu khí trời dịu mát, trà sen thơm lưu luyến, trà Cúc thơm kín đáo nhẹ nhàng mang đầy phong vị của mùa Thu.

Đèn vàng dìu dịu, mấy bức thư pháp chữ thảo trầm mặc và ung dung, tiếng đàn Cầm thong thả nho nhỏ như thả một hồn Thu vào trong từng chung Trà vàng nhạt ánh trăng…

Thầy Khê nói về Trà Việt Nam qua Ức Trai thi tập, Ức Trai di tập, mà trong dòng lịch sử được nhắc lại đó Nguyễn Trãi hiện về như một Trà nhân tuyệt vời, ung dung, tự tại… 

Rồi Thầy lại kể về những kỷ niệm uống trà ở Đài Loan đẹp và thơ mộng như một bài thơ Đường, một điệu từ Tống… 

Sau đó Thầy lại kể cho khán thính giả ngày hôm đó nghe về một trích đoạn trong một vở cải lương do cậu năm của Thầy sáng tác năm 1927 (Cậu Năm Thầy là Ông Nguyễn Tri Khương, cháu ngoại của danh tướng Nguyễn Tri Phương).  

Thầy nhắc đến trích đoạn nói về các món ăn và cách thức làm các món đó được Ông Nguyễn Tri Khương viết theo thể văn biền ngẫu. Câu cú, từ ngữ đối nhau chan chát hàm ý sâu xa về lòng yêu nước và sự khinh miệt, chê bai những kẻ khom lưng, quỳ gối, bẩm bẩm, dạ dạ với thực dân Pháp ngày xưa.  

Thầy nói đến trích đoạn để muốn nhắc nhở rằng:

 “Văn chương trong cải lương không phải là tầm bậy, tầm bạ không có lề lối, không có quy củ mà những người viết cải lương, làm cải lương “chân chính” là những người hết sức đàng hoàng, trọng nhân cách, sống có ý thức và có lòng tự hào yêu nước ». 

Tôi xin viết lại đoạn trích từ bài nói chuyện của Thầy: 

« Một người làm quán ăn nói rằng:

– Quán tôi không bán những món hàng của ngoại bang mà chỉ bán những đồ thổ sản:

« Này thịt Đa đa 

Này lòng Quốc quốc 

Này rắn Hổ đất 

Này bụi Cải trời 

Này là tôm luộc để ăn chơi 

Này là ếch xào xơi nhậu lũi 

Này rau Sam Núi 

Này củ Gừng Non 

Này Dọc dọc con 

Này Dền dền tía 

Thứ làm Bò bía 

Thứ thấu Mắm chà 

Thứ xắt trên da 

Thứ nhồi bóng cá 

Lòng con Bạc má 

Xương gáy Cá Ông 

Lưỡi Phụng, gan Công 

Da Hầu, gân Ngọc 

Này giò Cồng cộc 

Này thịt Điên điên 

Thuốc lá chỉ thiên 

Rượu dầm Thục địa »

Khách mới hỏi rằng: « Những món ăn này anh chế biến nó ra như thế nào? »

Chủ quán đáp:

« Đốt than Tòng nấu thịt Đa đa 

Nhen lửa Bá ram lòng Quốc quốc  

Dùng chảo sắt xáo tan bầy Hổ đất 

Lấy nồi đồng nấu rụi đám Cải trời

Giống khum lưng là đồ Tôm luộc để ăn chơi 

Thứ co gối là Ếch xào xơi nhậu lũi  

Gà rừng xáo với rau Sam núi 

Cá biển chưng cùng củ Gừng non 

Măng Mạnh tông nấu với Dọc dọc con 

Bầu Tử lộ chưng cùng Dền dền tía  

Vỏ dưa hấu xắt xào làm bò bía 

Con tôm tươi lặt luộc thấu mắm chà 

Sứa gành tiên trộn gỏi bông da 

Bột hoành thánh nấu dồi bóng cá 

Canh Cam thảo nấu lòng con Bạc má 

Rượu Phục linh tẩm xương gáy cá Ông.”

(Viên Trân ghi lại theo bài nói chuyện của Thầy Khê)  

 Quả thật người sáng tác ra vở cải lương này là một người quá tài giỏi!

Ông đã vận dụng kiến thức nho học, y hoc, văn học… vào trong thể văn biền ngẫu mà chỉ dựa vào vài món thổ sản dân dã ông đã công khai nói lên chủ ý của mình là yêu nước, hiên ngang, khí phách như Tòng, Bá lúc nào cũng canh cánh nợ nước thù nhà:   

« Đốt than Tòng nấu thịt Đa đa – Nhen lửa Bá ram lòng Quốc quốc »  

Ông đã công khai khinh bỉ những người khom lưng cam chịu sự thống trị của bọn thực dân:

« Giống khum lưng là đồ Tôm luộc để ăn chơi – Thứ co gối là Ếch xào xơi nhậu lũi »

Ở đây chắc chắn là Ông Nguyễn Tri Khương chẳng những dùng hình tượng con tôm khom lưng mà Ông còn ví những nguời tôn thờ ngoại bang như con tôm phân ở trên đầu không sá gì đến tổ tiên dân tộc!  

Tiếp theo là hai câu:  

« Dùng chảo sắt nấu tan bầy hổ đất – Lấy nồi đồng đốt rụi đám cải trời »  

Ngoài ý nghĩa Chảo sắt đối với Nồi đồng, Đất đối với Trời ra rõ ràng, Ông công khai bày tỏ phải dẹp tan những con người làm hổ danh đất nước, phải tiêu diệt những kẻ dám cãi với mệnh trời.

« Nam quốc sơn hà Nam đế cư 

Tiệt nhiên định phận tại thiên thư 

Do hà nghịch lỗ lai xâm phạm 

Nhữ đẳng hành khan thủ bại hư » 

(Lý Thường Kiệt) 

Nghĩa là:  

« Sông núi nước Nam, Vua Nam ở 

Rành rành đã định tại sách trời 

Cớ sao lũ giặc sang xâm phạm 

Chúng bây sẽ bị đánh tơi bời ».

Tiếp theo là những những câu đối với nhau rất chuẩn như:

Gà rừng đối với Cá biển  

Rau Sam đối với Củ Gừng   

Núi đối với Non  

Măng đối với Bầu   

Mạnh tông đối với Tử lộ (Là hai người học trò của Đức Khổng Tử)   

Dọc dọc đối với Dền dền  

Con đối với Tía…

Thật là hay! Thật là tuyệt! Nếu không có một người có trí nhớ xuất sắc như Giáo sư Trần Văn Khê nhớ và đọc lại đoạn trích trên thì làm sao những kẻ hậu sinh như chúng ta có dịp được biết đến những điều hay ho như thế.

Xin thay mặt cho trà thất, cho những khán thính giả gần bốn mươi người ngày hôm ấy chân thành cảm ơn Thầy, cảm ơn một tâm hồn Việt Nam chân thật và khả kính!  

Trà chủ Viên trân kính bút.   

Sài gòn, đầu mùa Hạ 2009      

(Ảnh do nghệ nhân VT cung cấp)