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)

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