I have earlier reported on how chèo Quan Âm Thị Kính (The Benevolent Thị Kính), an ancient Vietnamese folk art, was transformed into “The Tale of Lady Thị Kính” – a grand opera in Western tradition. Here is a super short history of how chèo came into existence.

Professor and composer P.Q. Phan has spent a lot of time studying traditional Vietnamese music. He said that many researchers believed the term hát chèo (traditional Vietnamese theater performance) derived from hát trào phúng. Omit phúng and we have hát trào. In the North, the pronunciation of hát trào is hát chào. Gradually, hát chào became hát chèo. The short term for hát chèo is chèo.

In terms of performance history, researchers believe chèo originated around the 10th century. This is the time when King Lý Công Uẩn was carrying out renaissance reforms in Vietnam. The tenth century also witnessed  the second rise of nationalism in the history of the country after decades of Chinese domination. To locate the emerging history of chèo at the 10th century making it one of the most ancient art forms of the Vietnamese is understandable. No one would argue about the original Vietnamese art value of chèo. There are merely contentious dates on the exact time it emerged. “Exactness” is relative, anyway. And, time-wise, we may not be able to find out otherwise. Through all the discussions, what is certain is that chèo appeared before hát bội (13th or 14th century) – hát bội being another kind of traditional Vietnamese theater performance that involves singing dancing and elaborate as well as extravagant make-ups and costumes.

Yet, there should be no confusion between this hát chèo/trào phúng with another hát chèo which existed in Vietnam even before the Western calendar. This kind of hát chèo is close to hát chầu văn (traditional Vietnamese art form combining trance singing and dancing) and was used as funeral music – to be more precise, it was used after the funeral to honor the dead or to communicate with them. There are drawings of this kind of service on Đông Sơn drums (first millennium B.C.).

Source: Interview with P.Q. Phan, by Anvi Hoàng. 09/10/2011.

A version of this article has been published by Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.