Associate Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH
With a population of over 1.1 million, the Muong is the fourth largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam after the Viet, Tay and Thai. Muong people live mostly in Hoa Binh, Phu Tho and Thanh Hoa northern provinces and in parts of Ha Tay, Ninh Binh and Yen Bai northern provinces. Hoa Binh boasts the largest number of Muong people with five districts being the four largest muong (residential unit of the Muong) of this ethnic minority group. The districts, in size order, are namely Tan Lac, or muong Bi; Lac Son, or muong Vang; Cao Phong and Ky Son, or muong Thang; and Kim Boi, or muong Dong. In addition, there are dozens of muong with different sizes where the Muong live separately without mixing with other ethnic minority groups.
Archaeological, ethnological and cultural proofs showed that Muong people were native inhabitants who owned the Hoa Binh culture dating back about 17,000-7,000 years ago. Their ancient ancestors were the pre Viet-Muong who originally lived in caves on hunting, fruit picking and upland rice growing. They later moved to valleys and midland areas and shifted to wet rice cultivation. Around 4,000 years ago, a sea recess formed the Hong river delta where a part of Hoa Binh culture inhabitants moved to and were later influenced by the Han Chinese culture. They formed the Viet group while those staying behind in valleys were present Muong people.
The Muong live on intensive cultivation of wet rice in mountain valleys in combination with upland cultivation and exploitation of forest products. They also do some handicrafts such as weaving, knitting and making ruou can (rice wine drunk out of a jar through stems). Muong people’s trade does not develop with few localities forming markets. They depend mostly on commodities transported from the plain by the Viet.
Over thousands of years, the Muong had developed an original culture. A tangible cultural heritage of the Muong is their stilt house which bears many similarities with that of the white Thai.
When entering a Muong stilt house, visitors should pay attention to a couple of rules which have been observed for long. A Muong house is divided into two sides: the outer side from the middle of the house toward the main stairway is for men; the inner side toward the kitchen is for women. Family members and visitors are supposed to observe this rule while moving, sitting, having meal and sleeping in the house.
A house is also divided into two parts along its length. The higher part in the direction of the main window, which looks toward a field or stream, is for elderly people and holders of high social positions in the community. The lower part (toward the stairways) is for young people and those with lower social positions. While in his/her seat, a person is supposed to offer this seat to a newcomer who is older or in a higher social position. The seat rule applies to a reception meal.
A guest, especially a woman, should also remember not to sit close to a low window in the outer side of the house (which Muong people call voong toong, or eastern window) because this is where the ancestor altar is placed. This place is believed where the family’s ancestors return and stay in the house. It is a taboo for a guest to cross his/her legs over this window or leave a knife on it since according to Muong customs, only when a parent dies that the family’s oldest son would cut across this window with a knife, a symbol that the family is in mourning. Family members are also not allowed to sit with their backs toward the altar close to the main window. Instead, they should sit facing that direction. When lying, guests should lie with their heads toward the altar (or the main window) and absolutely should not lie with their legs toward the altar. Women guests are not supposed to brush their hair on the top landing of the stairways or in the house, especially in the outer side. Combings should be rolled into balls and placed at the hedge or underneath the floor and must not be left on the floor or the stairs.
Another original cultural trait of Muong people is the woman costume with a black kilt, a short white shirt and a white scarf on the head, which set off the beauty of woman figure. The hem, on which patterns are carefully and skillfully embroidered, is the most beautiful part of a Muong kilt. Culturist Tran Tu had convincingly proved that patterns on Muong kilts’ hem are identical with patterns on Dong Son bronze drums in terms of both design and arrangement. It can be said that the Dong Son bronze drum was indigenous and its owners were the Muong or the previous Viet-Muong.
Muong intangible culture is reflected firstly in its folklore literature with numerous sources of stories and poems on love and the muong’s development (a typical work is de dat de nuoc (giving birth to soil and water) and sources of folk verses and proverbs. Muong people are also known for their folksongs and forms of antiphonal singing associated with musical instruments and dances, particularly forms of singing which use gongs and dam duong (beating a wooden bucket with a pestle to create music).
Muong people attach importance to worshiping ancestors, Muong ghost and village tutelary god (who is usually a person who had formed the village or Tan Vien mountain deity). Some family lines have the totem custom (recognizing an animal or plant species as their totem). A Muong funeral always includes doc mo ritual in which verses are recited to bring the soul of the dead to different muongs, reflecting the concept of a space with “three layers and four worlds.”
The Muong live in a patriarchal family where the father/husband’s role is promoted. Most Muong people are of the common class, bearing family name Bui. The aristocratic class includes four big families, namely Dinh, Quach, Bach and Hoang (or Ha in Phu Tho province).
Muong traditional society includes muongs, each of which is located in an entire mountain valley, comprises villages and is governed by a lang cun (leader) who has full power over his muong. A lang cun has the rights to keep muong’s bronze drum and caldron and pillar which symbolizes his power. A lang cun may pass his power to his son, but can be replaced by muong members if hunger, epidemic or any serious problem occurs in his muong. Lang cun is assisted by an au apparatus with different posts. Land is public property and is divided to all families having son in a muong (those without sons have to return farm land to muong and have to do upland cultivation). Families receiving farm land each year have to spend certain workdays on doing work for lang cun, including transplanting rice, plowing land, repairing house, or helping him when his family has an affair (wedding, funeral). Every year, land users also have to spend time on improving the irrigation system of the entire muong. All specialty products in a muong are considered belonging to lang cun. Therefore, whoever catches anything rare or precious must share a part to him. Each lang cun issues a rule in Chinese script detailing his benefits and obligations of muong inhabitants.-