To Dong Hai
With a population of 114,012 (according to the 1989 statistical figures), the Cao Lan-San Chi ethnic minority group resides scatteredly in hilly and mountainous areas of the northern midland provinces including Yen Bai, Vinh Yen, Phu Tho, Ha Bac, Lang Son, Quang Ninh, but largely in Tuyen Quang and Bac Thai.
According to many ethnologists, the Cao Lan-San Chi people used to live in the Chinese provinces of Qangtung, Qangnan and Human and through large-scale migrations some 400 to 500 years ago, they have finally settled down in Vietnam’s northern midland regions. And it was through such process of migration, Cao Lan-San Chi was disintegrated into two subgroups: Cao Lan speaking a language similar to that of Thai and Tay groups and San Chi using the language similar to Chinese dialect in Qangtung. However, people of these two subgroups can speak both.
It can be said that the Cao Lan-San Chi are agricultural people, who have practiced wet rice farming with fairly good techniques. However, in hilly and mountainous areas, people of this ethnic group still work the terraced fields with rudimentary mode of production such as slash and burn farming, seed sowing.
Like people of many other ethnic minorities, the Cao Lan-San Chi used to lives in houses on stilts, which are not architecturally different from other stilted houses in northern Vietnam. Most of them now live in earthern houses. Yet, what can help us tell Cao Lan-San Chi people from others is that inside their houses (houses on stilts or earthern houses), a bucket of bran is placed at the foot of the main house pillar next to the door. This is considered their most sacred place to worship the husbandry deity of the family. In one of the two corners of the outer compartment of the house, a small room is erected to worship the divinities, called “Huong hoa” by Cao Lan-San Chi people. This room is always close. Strangers and women are not allowed to enter, and even the family master can only enter on certain days.
The Cao Lan-San Chi people live in hamlets each of which accommodates several dozen houses. In some areas, they live mixedly with people of other ethnic minority groups. The size of a traditional Cao Lan-San Chi hamlet depends largely on the natural material conditions such as land, forests, rivers and streams as well as other natural resources. The borderlines between hamlets are formulated naturally by river sections, streams, forests. Each hamlet, small or big, is headed by a person called “Khan thu” who is elected by people. He must be prestigious, knowledgeable about the ethnos’s customs and practices, experienced in production activities. He is tasked to urge and supervise the productive labour and common life and to care for the material and spiritual life of the entire community. “Khan thu” also represents the hamlet people in the hamlet’s rituals, worshippings. However, he does not enjoy any material privileges. Besides “khan thu”, the hamlet’s notables are highly respected in the common activities of the entire community.
The form of private ownership has long existed in the economic life of the Cao Lan-San Chi people. Land reclaimed by people as well as sold and purchased property are considered things with their owners, which cannot be infringed upon by others. Mean-while other natural resources in forests, in rivers and streams… are regarded as the common property of the entire hamlet, which can be tapped by anyone.
The Cao Lan-San Chi’s traditional marital customs and ceremonies are very complicated, which must be strictly observed by people. The people of this ethnos have many descents, each having different lines and each line has its own customs and practices and its own taboos. People of the same descent can marry each other, but the marriage between people of the same line is strictly forbidden, regardless of how far their blood relations are. Formerly, marriage used to occur within but rarely outside the group. Monogamy is advocated by Cao Lan-San Chi customary laws. Young people are free to choose their own companions for life and reject the ones chosen by the parents, who are not to their likings. Divorce is also permitted by the customary law of this ethnic group, though rarely seen.
After their weddings, the newly weds stay in the bridegrooms’ houses. But before her first childbirth, a bride can stay in her parents’ home and seldom visits her in-laws. Formerly matrilocality was common. After marriage, the bridegrooms had to stay in their wives’ homes for a certain period of time, which might be long or short, depending on circumstance of their in-laws. In cases where his parents-in-law do not have any son, a bridegroom has to stay matrilocally for life and his children shall bear the family name of his wife. In return, the bride’s family, seeming to make up for this, shall bear all the costs of the wedding. In all cases, the girls can worship their parents in their in-laws’ houses.
It can be clearly seen that the feudal religious tenets have exerted strong influence on the traditional customs and practices of the Cao Lan-San Chi ethnos, particularly in the discrimi-nation against women and daughters-in-law in the family. In the family, the daughters-in-law have to strictly observe strict rules such as they are not allowed to meet their husbands’ uncles, fathers and elder brothers. While in childbirth, they shall have to stay in separate places, absolutely not being allow to enter the worshipping places, men’s domiciles… Nowadays, such rules have been relaxed, though still being seen here and there among the Cao Lan-San Chi community.
Married sons are allowed to live independently and given property equally. Adopted sons are also entitled to inherit property but often in smaller proportion. Sometimes, daughters are also given some property, though small.
However, after several hundred years’ living in areas inhabited by people of various ethnic groups, the Cao Lan-San Chi people’s original customs and practices have more or less changed due to the process of their cultural exchanges with people of other ethnicities. Moreover, the new life in northern Vietnam over the past half century has also contributed no little part to such change with positive elements being maintained, new elements introduced and negative ones done away with. This has helped Cao Lan-San Chi people preserve their own cultural identity while integrating themselves into the common life of the entire nation.-