A society of 37,126 souls

Mr Alang Avel playing the abel, a Cơ Tu musical instrument, with a Cơ Tu woman, at a festival in Tay Giang District, Quang Nam Province, August

Vietnam Heritage, May-June 2011 -- The Cơ Tu are a people who inhabit the mountainous districts of Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue Provinces, in Central Vietnam, with a population of 37,126. They live in villages, each with 15 to 40 houses. These facts are supplied by writer and photographer Nguyen Van Son, who has been working at Quang Nam Province museum since 1997 and has been studying the culture of the Cơ Tu ethnic-minority people. With writer and photographer Le Quoc Ky, he covers for Vietnam Heritage Cơ Tu adornment and dress and then covers Cơ Tu funeral practices.

Mr Dinh Van Luong, 75, of the Cơ Tu ethnic minority, who lives in Phu Tuc Village, Hoa Phu Commune, Hoa Vang District, Danang, opened his mouth to show his ground down teeth. He introduced his wife, an elderly Cơ Tu, who was sitting with him on the porch. He said, ‘If I hadn’t ground my teeth down when I was young, she wouldn’t have married me . . .’

Men at a Cơ Tu festival in Tay Giang District, Quang Nam Province, September 2009; a Cơ Tu man at a wedding in Song Kon Commune, Dong Giang District, Quang Nam Province, July 2009; Mr Luong shows his filed teeth 
Photos: Le Quoc Ky

Cơ Tu (as it is rendered in Vietnamese script) people old enough to know provided information about customs, as follows:
Mr Luong: the Cơ Tu of the past thought young men had to grind their teeth and young women had to have their earlobes pierced and pulled to make big holes when they became mature, otherwise they would be ridiculed and despised and wouldn’t be able to marry. Men had to prove their maturity by using a stone to grind their teeth down to near the gumline. ‘Grinding shakes the teeth, causing bleeding, and the gums are swollen for a long while, so we could only drink thin rice gruel during that time.’
Mr Alang Avel, 86, of Ta Lang Village, Bhalee Commune, Tay Giang District, in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Nam: the Cơ Tu used to have the custom of colouring their teeth. They used the sap from a type of tree in the forest mixed with ash from the stove. They used a small stick with a piece of cloth tied to it to apply the mixture once a month and the sap stuck to them making the teeth black and shiny.
Pham Van Croi, 58, Ba commune, Dong Giang District, Quang Nam: the sap was taken from a tree called chờ on. The practice of dying teeth disappeared in the 1940s with the arrival of communication and the view that such customs were undesirable and to be eliminated.
Mr Arat Chop, 70, of But Nga Village, Song Kon Commune, Dong Giang District, Quang Nam: Cơ Tu women used to have their earlobes pierced in the centre and pulled to make a big hole so that they could wear big earrings. A thorn from a tree was used to pierce the lobes. First they used water with some ginger in it to massage the earlobes, making them softer. The piercer had to be an elderly woman who was highly respected and experienced. If a hole was not pierced in the centre of an earlobe, it would be difficult for it to support a big earring and could tear. After the thorn had been put in it was left there. Every day the earlobe was washed with water that had been boiled with salt and ginger. When the wound was dry and healed, the thorn was screwed in further, every day, until the bigger end of the thorn had gone through the lobe. Then a larger thorn was used to make the hole bigger still. Some earlobes tore when giant earrings were worn. They were repaired with a thread and washed every day with water boiled with salt and ginger. It used to be common for Cơ Tu women of an aristocratic family to wear big earrings made of ivory. Many Cơ Tu men and women would wear ivory earrings when greeting visitors, visiting friends and relatives or going to festivals. Ivory was so prized that a pair of ivory earrings could be bartered for a big buffalo, an ancient jar or a few big, copper cooking pots. Poorer Cơ Tu people used a smoothed animal bone, bamboo or faux ivory of dried sweet potato or manioc.
Mr Colau Blao, 62, of a village of the Cơ Tu ethnic group, Voong Village, Tr’hy Commune, Tay Giang District, in Quang Nam Province, bordering Laos, said his father had taught him to make bark clothes.
‘Cơ Tu people don’t cut down trees,’ he said. They just used a bush hook to cut two lines around a tree to get a piece of bark. [This does not harm the tree and the bark grows back after several years, according to Mr Avel, mentioned below.] Then, they used a piece of wood or a stone to beat the bark until it was soft, boiled it in water with cinnamon leaves, lemongrass or fresh galangal roots, so that the clothes smelled nice and were not attacked by insects. The bark was put in water for ten days, so sap or resin was removed. After that, it was left out to dry in the sun and during the night for several days.

Left: one of the defenders of the tomb; Central: one of the smaller figures looking over the coffin; Right: the tomb is watched over by smaller guardians and defended ferociously by bigger ones.

Bark clothes are usually yellowish white and are sleeveless. Sewing thread is of rattan. There may be seams from the armpit to the hem. The insides of the shirts are smooth and the outsides somewhat rough. There are different shirts for winter and summer and thick ones for protection from animals or enemies. The shirts are strong and durable. Bark is also used to make loincloths.
Mr Alang Avel, 86, in Bhalee Commune, said that in the past the people had been very poor and there had been no roads on which to go and buy things. The people had also had difficulty making brocade. Bark had been the main material. Clothes of bark, elaborately made, and beautiful, had been and still occasionally were worn by Cơ Tu aristocrats. People no longer wore bark clothes every day, only on big holidays.
A few Cơ Tu can still make bark clothes. Bark shirts can be bought for from VND100,000 ($5) to VND500,000 ($25).
To the Cơ Tu ethnic minority, a buffalo is food for a big ritual and the image of a coffin sculptured as a buffalo is a gift to the deceased carrying the desire that he or she should have plenty to eat in the other world.
The person’s body has been buried in the ground for a specified period before the bones are exhumed and, in a second funeral, consigned to an elaborate, symbolic tomb, which can be in the guise of a small house with a pair of buffalo heads leading it. The torso of the wooden buffalo can begin with the coffin. A big log is split, hollowed and put together.
I [Nguyen Van Son] have surveyed tombs of the Cơ Tu people in the districts of Nam Giang, Dong Giang and Tay Giang, in the Central Vietnam province of Quang Nam, and I have seen wooden sculptures as women with babies in their arms, women sitting and weaving cloth, men beating gongs and drums or dancing or village chiefs drinking wine, with pictures of dragons, iguanas, birds, boars, snakes, fish, crabs or spiders.
These images indicate what the deceased was good at. Cơ Tu village chief Bh’riu P’ram, 82, of Bo Hoong Village, Song Kon Commune, Dong Giang District, Quang Nam Province, said that if there was a picture of hunting and drumming, the deceased must have been an excellent hunter and loved music.
The Cơ Tu people’s tombs and sculptures are made with axes, chisels and hatchets and decorated with colours made from leaves, roots and fruits. White is latex of the rubber trees, yellow from mangosteens, red and black from brown tubers and soot.
Mr Bh’riu P’ram says, ‘The Cơ Tu people believe everything has a spirit. Humans and animals will become ghosts after death.’ There are two types of ghosts: the evil and the good. The evil ghost is of a person who has died of attack by tiger, snake or bear or been hit by a falling tree.
These people must not be buried in the village’s cemetery but far away from the community and fields. While the corpse is being carried to the burial ground, there can be no beating of gongs or drums. Children and women cannot participate in the procession and are not allowed to look at it. Only men in the dead person’s clan can carry the coffin. Those in the procession must not look back at the village, or the ghost will return to disturb it. And no one without appropriate connection to the deceased should approach the burial-place.
Those who die of disease or old age become good spirits. They are buried in the village’s cemetery, which is usually to the east of the village. After a year or two, after harvest, relatives of the dead perform a ceremony called ‘Lễ bỏ mả’. The size of the ceremony depends on how well-off the family is. A standard feast should include chickens and pigs and a larger one includes a buffalo.
People build a small pavilion. The remains are exhumed and the bones put into a coffin. The coffin can be buried or show its sculpture and decoration above ground, under the roof of the pavilion.
According to older custom, after this ceremony people no longer visit the dead. Nowadays there are families who continue to visit.
In the past, the ceremony usually lasted five or six days. Now it lasts one or two.
To prepare for the ceremony, a pillar is planted in front of the pavilion to tie the sacrificial buffalo to. That night, everyone gathers to dance around the pillar. Early next morning the coffin is brought into the pavilion, positioned north-south. Afterwards, the elders read prayers converse with the spirits and gods above, underground and in streams and rivers.
The buffalo is stabbed and the feast begins. This ceremony is a chance to show off the family’s wealth and prestige, as only the affluent can afford a buffalo for the service. If there are no buffaloes, there will be no sculpture of the animal on the coffin.
The ceremony is believed to help free the deceased’s soul and clear the living people’s fear of the dead.

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