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.

TRAN VAN KHE 

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

(Edited and with introductions by James R. Brandon)

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