Enjoy Cheo, the Theatre of the Red River Delta!
and cheo are Vietnamese traditional theatrical art forms.
Vietnamese tuong originated in China and was influenced by Chinese opera.
Cheo, however, is authentically Vietnamese. If Chinese traditional
theatre is exemplified by Beijing opera and Japanese theatre by noh
dramas, then traditional Vietnamese theatre is best represented by cheo
uninitiated, tuong and cheo are Vietnamese traditional
theatrical art forms. Vietnamese tuong originated in China and was
influenced by Chinese opera. Cheo, however, is authentically Vietnamese.
If Chinese traditional theatre is exemplified by Beijing opera and
Japanese theatre by noh dramas, then traditional Vietnamese theatre
is best represented by cheo.
“It made me very happy to see so many classical cheo roles performed by companies from all over the country!” Tat Thang said.
than one artist played the same role because the players performed the
same cheo stories more than once. Five artists played Xuy Van, a
character who feigns madness to abandon her poor husband to seek wealth
and fame. Three other artists played Thi Phuong, a woman who allows a
devil to pluck out her eyes and make a medicine from them to save her
mother-in-law’s life. Two artists played Chau Long, a young woman who
helps her husband’s poor friend to study for the royal exams to become a
According to Tat Thang, audiences packed every session. Actors and
actresses came without fail to see their colleagues perform. Theatre
critics in Viet Nam have been known to walk out of bad performances and
write critical reviews, but the festival’s performances were so good the
critics arrived early to ensure they got the best seats. So few seats were
available that the enthusiastic audience had no choice but to sit around
the jury’s table. Those who had invitations but arrived too late to enter
shouted, banging on the closed theatre door and growing even angrier when
they heard the audience inside erupt into applause.
Though Ha Long City is not known as the home of cheo, the local audience was extremely enthusiastic. Imagine then how enthusiastic the inhabitants of Nam Dinh, one of the traditional cheo provinces, would be.
Falling out of favour
situation was so critical that the Ha Long City festival organisers
weren’t expecting to attract much interest. They were in for a big
So why was the festival so successful? One reason seems to be because the festival returned to the origins of cheo. Artists performed only traditional, authentic cheo. The programme included no modernised plays. The festival also provided an opportunity for those involved to review and assess Viet Nam’s classical cheo plays through edited and adapted versions and then decide which elements to preserve and which to let go. The intent was to perform traditional cheo yet ensure that the performance related as appropriately as possible to contemporary Vietnamese life.
origins of cheo
Cheo originated from folk music and dance, especially tro nhai-simple mimetic skits which originated in the 10th century. These skits showed the lives of ordinary people as well as members of the royal family. Over time, writers consolidated cheo’s short stories based on these skits into single, long plays.
significant in this development was the Vietnamese capture of a soldier
from the Mongolian army in the 14th century. The soldier was an actor, who
introduced Chinese opera to Viet Nam. Previously cheo involved
speaking and sometimes the rhythmic reciting of folk poems but no singing.
As a result of the captured soldier’s influence, cheo turned into
kich hat or singing drama.
15th century, King Le Thanh Tong, who was deeply influenced by
Confucianism, restricted the performance of cheo in his court.
Without royal patronage, cheo returned to its original supporters,
the farmers. It drew on nom stories, which were Vietnamese verse
narratives written in modified Chinese characters. By the 18th century,
this form of cheo had become widely influential. Cheo continued to
develop and reached its peak by the end of the 19th century.
dramatic characteristics of cheo
embodies a desire for happiness and for a harmonious social world. Good
inevitably wins in the struggle between good and evil, with a happy
ending. Kind-hearted and gentle students always pass their exams and
become mandarins, and the faithful wife is always united with her husband.
Cheo’s moral messages reflect the benevolence of Buddhism and the
virtues of Confucianism, including the latter’s emphasis on harmonious
social relationships. Step-mothers must love their husbands’ children.
Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law must live in harmony. Friends should
treat one another as if they were members of the same family.
examination of a number of classical cheo plays provides an
understanding of cheo’s themes. Quan Am Thi Kinh (Thi Kinh,
the Goddess of Mercy), for example, is a story about a good
woman, Thi Kinh, the victim of a glaring injustice who then becomes a
Bodhisattva (potential Buddha). Luu Binh – Duong Le is about the
friendship between two students and about fidelity between husband and
wife, through which the characters overcome all difficulties. In Chu
Mai Than, the wife, Thiet The, so craves a rich life that she leaves
her husband to become the concubine of a mandarin. Instead of finding
happiness she is bullied by the jealous wife of the mandarin and dies in
ignominy. Xuy Van in the play Kim Nham has a husband who is a long
way from home. A merchant seduces her; she feigns madness to leave her
husband and finally kills herself after being abandoned.
Audiences tend not to judge Thi Mau and Xuy Van because the characters’ own behaviour condemns them. Instead, audiences sympathise with the characters, who express women’s aspirations for love in a society constrained by Confucian morality.
play an important role in cheo plays because satire is a
characteristic of the genre, as it is on the traditional stages of other
Southeast Asian countries. Buffoons amuse audiences, especially in sad
stories. According to Shakespearean tradition, life is a mixture of
happiness and sadness. In cheo, buffoons and funny scenes are an
opportunity for ordinary people to lash out at the vices of a feudal
society, its kings, mandarins, village officials and the rich. Cheo’s
buffoons were free to ridicule just as the fools did in the royal palaces
of European kings. In Chu M·i ThÇn, for example, there’s a
hilarious scene in which the first wife of local official TuÇn Ty gets
into a jealous quarrel with the second wife and slanders him.
There are two types of satiric characters in cheo: the main one is the buffoon, including he moi (buffoon dancing without a stick) and he gay (buffoon dancing with a stick), who is often a servant. The other type may appear in various roles, such as fortune-teller, medium, drunkard or village chief. Sometimes these characters provoke laughter that is not directly related to the play, for the buffoon (or the fortune-teller or drunkard, etc.) may comment on characters and incidents in society at large.
in cheo is always linked to romance, another significant feature of
cheo. Cheo is romantic because it expresses people’s individual
emotions and feelings and reflects the common concerns of all people:
their concern for love (as expressed by the characters Thi Mau and
Chau Long), for friendship (represented by Luu Binh and Duong Le)
and for compassion (as found in Quan Am Thi Kinh. Characters
in cheo, especially women, struggle with fate, making cheo
similar in some ways to Greek tragedy, except for the former’s humour and
Narrative technique in cheo
narrative method is not realistic but instead is based on conventions and
stylisation, which are similar to tuong and Brecht staging. Cheo is
also rich in folk stories and narration. These characteristics determine
cheo’s language. Since tro nhai, people have created cheo
skits which incorporated songs, dances, gestures and speech. From these
came scenes in the lives of the characters. When combined, these scenes
formed the body of the play. Cheo does not have the fixed structure
of five-act plays, as is the case in the Aristotelian theatrical
tradition. Rather, cheo artists frequently improvised during their
performance: the play was often extended or cut depending on the
inspiration of the artists or the requirements of the audience.
Improvisation is important because cheo is an art form that combines speech, singing, dancing and music to tell a story. Speech may be combined with poems and folk songs. Poems often have two parts and four sentences, with characters displaying their own way of reciting lines. When singing, artists must pronounce their lines clearly (cheo differs from tuong in this respect) to express the character’s feelings. Unlike European opera in which a singer must memorise arias and perform them according to the directions of the conductor, cheo artists are free to modify their songs to convey their characters’ emotions. The number of cheo airs hasn’t yet been determined, but according to estimates, there may be more than 200.
The minimum accompaniments for cheo singing are two string instruments, the nguyet and nhi, and the flute. Musicians use percussion, especially drums and cymbals, to add excitement and beat small drums to maintain the rhythm for dancing and singing.
past, cheo artists were farmers without much money for staging,
musical instruments, costumes or props. Their plays weren’t lavish
affairs, yet through convention and stylisation in speech and singing,
they created space (mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.), time (day, night,
dozens of years, etc.), weather (rain, sun, etc.) and backgrounds (fire,
fight, etc.) in the imaginations of the audience sitting around the small
Quan Am Thi Kinh (the Goddess of Mercy) provides an example. To describe the heroine on her way to seek Buddhist conversion, the artists sing “Duong truong” (Long Journey) followed by drums and bells to replicate the sounds of a pagoda. A song about Buddha follows. Other examples of these techniques include singing a song about rowing a boat to convey the idea of crossing a river and then a different song about the landscape to convey the idea of arrival at the other bank.
cheo performance follows a regular scenario, beginning as follows:
future of cheo
the August Revolution of 1945, the Government supported the recovery of
Vietnamese traditions, including cheo. In 1957, a group of cheo
researchers collected over 100 skits from artists in four traditional
cheo centres of northern Viet Nam-east (Thai Binh Province), west (Ha
Tay Province), north (Bac Ninh Province) and south (Ha Nam Province).
Their research and editing of traditional cheo plays achieved
encouraging results. However, the modernisation of cheo did not
succeed in bringing the audiences back to the theatres.
Renovation in 1986, competition from modern entertainments such as TV,
radio, movies and jazz created even more difficulties. Artists performed
only extracts. “The future is very difficult to predict,” Duong Ngoc Duc,
former General Secretary of the Association of Theatrical Artists comments
on the reconstruction of the theatre. “No one can ensure we will have
regular audiences once the theatre is rebuilt.”
success of the First National Traditional Cheo Festival in Ha Long
challenges Mr. Duc’s fears, showing that cheo is still vital enough
to attract audiences. Given the enthusiastic response in Ha Long, we can
rest assured that Viet Nam’s audiences still enjoy traditional cheo.
The deceased playwright Tao Mat succeeded in modernising cheo plays
by reinterpreting the features of traditional cheo. Modern
Vietnamese will discover two important elements in cheo: the depth
of the Vietnamese soul and the social conduct of the traditional