A bird's-eye view of Hat boi theatre
Vietnamese Hat Boi (1) is a dramatic art form with distinctive characteristics and a tradition in Vietnam. It appeared under the Vietnamese Tran dynasty (14th century), if not earlier. Historian Ngo Si Lien wrote in the Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu (Contplete History of Vietnam) that in the war against the Mongol Yuan dynasty a renowned actor in the Chinese contingent, Ly Nguyen Cat, was made a prisoner of war by Vietnamese troops. The Vietnamese court asked him to teach the art of' acting to the young offspring of influential families and "since then began the dramatic art in our country".
The fact that, Hat Boi theatre had its origin in China and, after taking root in Vietnam, developed into a distinct Vietnamese art form detracts nothing from its worth. Such an example of successful acclimatization is found to be common in the history of the arts in many parts of the world. However, it seems only appropriate to elaborate on the question.
It is know that an art form, whether native or imported, can survive and develop only when the right socio-psychological conditions exist. Hat Boi is a dramatic art form combining singing dancing and instrumental music around a play. A Hat Boi play may or may not be something formally committed to paper. Hat Boi plays range from the simple or crude to the complex or elaborate.
Archeology and ancient records indicate that the arts of singing, dancing and instrumental music existed in Vietnam in the Dong Son culture era (first millenium B.C.)
These art forms lasted through the Chinese occupation (which nearly covered the first thousand years of the Christian era). In the 12th century A.D. these art forms were in a fairly flourishing state. By their there was tendency for them to combine, not to become a part of religious rituals but to form a theatre art. Up to then there had been no trace of influence exerted by Chinese drama. However, conditions were ripe for the birth of a Vietnamese theatre when contact with Chinese, drama was established through the production by Ly Nguyen Cat of the play Tay Vuong Mau Hien Ban Dao (The Queen of the West offering the flat peaches). The appearance of Ly Nguyen Cat in Vietnamese history takes on a special importance because it hastened the birth of the dramatic art in Vietnam (2).
We may conclude that Hat Boi came into being through the smooth combination of' native Vietnamese singing, dancing and music with accretions from Chinese drama and that Ly Nguyen Cat played an eminent role in the introduction of Chinese theatre into Vietnam.
No records ire available recording the development of Hat Boi under the Tran dynasty and in the beginning years of the Le dynasty. We know that under the reign of King Le Thanh Tong the dramatic art was bannished from the royal palace. The Hong Duc law code ruled that any public official, regardless of rink, who contracted marriage with a daughter of theatrical people would be punished by flogging and forced to divorce her. Sons of theatrical people were barred from taking government examinations which might open the way to appointments in the service of the state
This government policy remained effective throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. We know the case of Dao Duy Tu (1572 - 1634). He was a scholar of great ability. Being a son of theatrical people he was excluded from examinations which might lead to public offices. That was the reason why he left Dang Ngoai (the northern part of Vietnam nominally reigned over by the Le kings but actually ruled by the Trinh "shoguns").
He came south to settle in Dang Trong the southern part of' Vietnam and became famous for services to the Nguyen vice-roys in their struggles against the North. The court in Hanoi was unsympathetic to the dramatic art. However, that art hid been enjoying-a long popularity with the people at large. It did not die out but its development was slow, weak and incomplete. In the late 1600s and early 1700s there were signs that Hat Boi was developing favorably again. At the banquet that viceroy Nguyen Phuc Chu offered iii honor of Chinese Buddhist priest Thich Dai San in Thuan Hoa in 1695 Hat Boi was part of the entertainment.
The historical annals Hoang Le Nhat Thong Chi mentioned some form of entertainment faintly resembling Hat Boi taking place at King Le Hien Tong's palace. In his Vu Trung Tuy But Pham Dinh Ho was more specific: "Iii the Canh Hung years (1740 - 1786) Hat Boi companies started to incorporate, Tuong elements into their art and actors wore make-up to dance, sing and jest".
In the year Canh Tuat (1790) the citizenry entertained itself with such Hat Boi plays. In actuality Hat Boi developed strongly in newly-settled Dang Trong instead of in Dang Ngoai, the older northern part of Vietnam.
In the 17th century when Nguyen Hoang left the North to establish himself in the South, his troops seemed to have brought Hat Boi along in their march southward. Subsequently when Dao Duy Tu himself left the, North to come to Binh Dinh, Hat Boi theatre developed in Binh Dinh. In Dang Trong, the Nguyen vice-roys, instead of rejecting Hat Boi, used it at first for recreation and very soon after as a means to uphold traditional moral principles. As a result Hat Boi had a chance to develop. Binh Dinh can be seen as the cradle of Hat Boi in the Dang Trong part of Vietnam. In the middle of' the 18th century the art of Hat Boi showed a fairly strong development in that section of the country. Chang Lia, the leader of a peasant uprising,- which preceded the, Tay Son movement in Binh Dinh, was a Hat Boi enthusiast when he was a young child herding buf'f'aloes. When he established his military base at Truong May he had Hat Boi companies come there three times to give performances. King Quang Trung was a Hat Boi actor for some, time before his rise to position and power. It is also said that some of his generals were former Hat Boi artists. Worthy of special attention is the fact that Truyen Sai Vai was written in the noi 1oi style used in Hat Boi.
That book was one of the first literary works produced in Vietnamese, Nom characters in the Dang Trong part of Vietnam. It was authored by Nguyen Cu Trinh when he was a public official in Quang Ngai province. In a color illustration shown in the book A Voyage to Cochin China in the years 1792 and 1793 by J.Barrow (London, 1806) the author drew the picture of a contemporary Hat Boi scene in which one can see that at that time Hat Boi artists wore make-up and stage costumes and performed in the open air instead of on a stage.
There were no seats for the audience. Hat Boi researchers are of the opinion that the three plays Son Hau, Tam Nu Do Vuong, Duong Chan Tu came into being in the above period and underwent revisions afterwards.
After destroying the Tay Son dynasty a scion of the Nguyen hereditary vice-roys became the founder of the Nguyen dynasty. Under this new dynasty and starting with the early 1800s, conditions became still more favorable for Hat Boi to develop. The Nguyen kings liked Hat Boi. In King Minh Menh's reign the court set up an agency in charge of artistic matters among which Hat Boi received the main attention. Besides the royal court, many public officials and members of the royal clan had their own Hat Boi troupes. Many Hat Boi companies were also established by the citizenry.
Hat Boi developed strongly at the capital and in the provinces (Binh Dinh, Quang Nam in Central Vietnam, Gia Dinh, My Tho in Southern VN). The development of Hat Boi also occurred in Northern Vietnam (Bac Ninh and Thanh Hoa provinces and the city which is now called Hanoi). Hat Boi begin to be produced on a stage in an enclosed space. In the capital city of Hue or in big towns, Hat Boi performances were usually produced at fixed sites in permanent architectural structures covered with a tiled roof. In rural localities when festivals or religious events took place Hat Boi performances were given in temporary shelters erected for the occasion and dismantled afterward.
It was under the Nguyen dynasty, especially in the period starting from the mid- 1800s (from King Tu Duc's reign onward) that renowned playwrights first appeared. Most of them were Confucian scholars. They were people who had a breadth of knowledge derived from extensive studies and who were endowed with a literary talent such as Nguyen Ba Nghi, Nguyen Gia Ngoan, Bui Huu Nghia, Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Nguyen Dieu, Dao Tan, Nguyen Hien Dinh, Phan Boi Chau, Nguyen Huu Tien, etc.
Standing out among, them are Dao Tan and Nguyen Hien Dinh. Dao Tan (1845 - 1907) was a poet, a playwright, a stage, director aiid a Hat Boi theorist. He is known to have written or revised over 40 Hat Boi plays. Most remarkable among them are Dien Vo Dinh, Tram Huong Cac, Hoang Phi Ho Qua Gioi Bai Quan, Ho Sinh Dan.
Nguyen Hien Dinh (1853 - 1926) wrote tragedies as well as comedies. Famous plays of his included Vo Hung Vuong, Ly An Lang Chau, Luong Quoc Tra Hon, Truong Do Nhuc.
In the above period Hat Boi made use of episodes from multi-volume Chinese fiction works dealing with periods in Chinese history such as Tam Quoc Dien Nghia (Story of the Three Kingdoms), Dong Chu Liet Quoc, Chinh Dong, Chinh Tay, Han So Tranh Hung. There were also plays which put the action within the context of various Chinese historical eras but were entirely the products of' the creative writing of Vietnamese Hat Boi playwrights. In the case or comedies the context and characters were entireIy Vietnamese. A Hat Boi play was generally made up in three acts. However, there were one - or two - act plays. Some plays which were written by officials on order from the court might include nearly or over 100 acts which required nearly or over 100 nights for the perf'ormance of one play.
Such was the case of the plays Van Buu Trinh Tuong, Quan Phuong Hien Thuy, Hoc Lam..
It can be said that during the whole 19th century, as well as before that and during nearly 20 years following it Hat Boi had a near monopoly on the Vietnamese stages.
We know that in the same period in the plains of Northern VN there were also Cheo theatre and puppet theatre. However, these two theatre art forms were for the masses and existed only in rural areas in Northern VN. They were never practiced on a national scale as was Hat Boi.
In the early 1920s Southern Vietnam saw the start of a form of social entertainment provided by amateur musicians. At first it was singing accompanied by the music played on a stringed instrument. Later the singer made use of gestures while singing. This new combination was called ca ra bo. This new development was the basis from which Cai Luong theatre art sprang up, with very little time intervening between the two forms. Cai Luong partly adopted Hat Boi's way of acting and partly showed the influence of Western people's spoken drama.
The contents of Cai Luong plays were familiar to their contemporary audience and particularly to town people. The words used were, in their entirety, vernacular words. The singing voice being projected from the throat instead of coming from below the navel it took less effort and energy to sing Cai Luong parts. All those features contributed to the great popularity of Cai Luong. Cai Luong developed rapidly in Southern Vietnam and about the years 1923 - 1925 spread to Central and Northern Vietnam. Hat Boi was an art form with a long history and perfected techniques. However, it had major disadvantages such is the presence of many words of Chinese origin in the lines; the way of delivering the lines which made it hard for the audience to catch the meaning; the long scenes and the long time and exacting training required to become a skilled Hat Boi artist.
Hat Boi, faced with the competition represented by Cai Luong, saw the size of its audience. growing smaller and smaller.
From the late 1920s to the August 1945 Revolution one witnessed the very serious and constant decline of Hat Boi.
In that period Hat Boi in order to preserve its traditional characteristics, had to withdraw to rural areas and share the painful existence of its loyal but very poor audience. Hat Boi people, who continued to practice their art in the towns gradually tried to take lessons from Cai Luong and to incorporate Cai Luong features into their art to produce two types of plays. One type covered the plays which were transcripts of the contemporary novels describing moving love stories. The other type included Hat Boi plays which used the rather mawkish Xuan Nu tune as the main tune for the lines. In regions like Binh Dinh, Quang Nam which had a long Hat Boi tradition the addition of Cai Luong elements to Hat Boi also occurred but was kept at a more subdued level.
After the August 1945 Revolution, Hat Boi was considered by the authorities as a product of the hated feodal system. So Hat Boi performances were forbidden in the first few years following the revolution. The ban was soon lifted and gradually people came to recognize that Hat Boi had its merit. When the war of resistance against the French ended, North Vietnam (which advocated the development of traditional native culture) looked after the interests of Hat Boi, Cheo, Cai Luong and puppet theatre arts. The state organized professional troupes, founded institutions doing research on these arts and opened training schools for performers. The 1960s were the best years for Hat Boi in North Vietnam. In South Vietnam the people involved in Hat Boi were mainly private persons. Hat Boi troupes existed in Saigon, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, but their activities differed little from those before the August 1945 Revolution;
After the reunification of the country in 1975, conditions became favorable for a renewed development of Hat Boi, especially in Binh Dinh and Quang Nam (which have a long Hat Boi tradition). However, how to preserve and develop the art of Hat Boi in the new social context is a problem to be seriously and thoroughly studied.
(1) Hat Boi is the oldest name. Another name is HatBo. In North VN the common name for Hat Boi is Tuong
(2) Chinese drama exerted its influence on Vietnamese Hat Boi not only at that time but also at later times. In the first years of the Manchu Ching dynasty (when Chinese left China to settle in Southern VN) and particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s (when Saigon began to have a large Chinese population) Chinese touring troupes frequently came to give performances. Those were opportunities for Vietnamese Hat Boi, especially Saigons Hat Boi, to have renewed contacts with Chinese drama (mostly of the Southern Chinese school "Nam Hy") and to be exposed to Chinese influence. Nevertheless, these later influence were not as imfortant and as those received at the time of Ly Nguyen Cat.