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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Conventions and practices of "Muong" ethnic minority

Updated: 14:53’ - 23/02/2011

>>Cultural traits of the Muong


Folk Culture Institute

Muong is one of the largest ethnic groups in Vietnam, ranking sixth in population among 54 ethnicities. It is considered having originated from the same stock with the Viet majority group and sharing the same language of Viet-Muong.

From time immemorial, the “Muong” people have settled down in a vast area stretching from the northwestern region of Northern Vietnam to the western region of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. Yet, the province of Hoa Binh is the place where the largest part of the Muong population have resided in various “muong” (hamlet) with such known ones as “muong Bi”, “muong Vang”, “muong Thang”, “muong Dong”, of which “muong Bi” is, according to a popular conception, understood as the “original muong” or the “central muong”. Having lived itermingledly in mountain-foot valleys with the Thai ethnic minority, the people of Muong group have enjoyed broad cultural exchanges with people of other ethnic groups, especially the Thai.

On the foundation of the wet rice economy in such narrow valleys, the regime of “tu truong” (tribal chiefs) came into being and took shaped at an early date, creating two distinctive social strata: the ruler and the ruled. The ruler constituted a clan-type system of “lang” (headman) including “lang Cun”, “lang Tao”, which controlled a vast area. The ruled comprised all people living in one “muong”, who were collectively called “mol muong” by the Muong. During the French colonial time, each “muong” was considered a separate unit ruled by a “lang Tao” or “lang Cun”. All the land in “muong” were categorized into two: the good-quality land which belonged to the “lang” clan; and the poor-quality land distributed to people, which was, therefore, also called people’s land or public land.

Together with the emergence of the clan-type system of “lang”, a form of Muong laws appeared, conforming to the then social caste system which, though harsh, was still left with the legacies of equality and democracy of primitive communism.

Marriage was conceived as an important phenomenon in the life of Muong people. That was why many strict conventions and practices on marriage were set forth. The “Muong” people have excepted the extra-lineage marriage, which was, however, applicable only “lang” class because only people in this group have had clear family names. For the commoner, the marriage between people of the same parternal or maternal side was strictly forbidden. Under  the Muong rule, a man of the upper social class of clan-type “lang” system was entitled to marry a common girl of the lower social class, but a woman of the “lang” class was not allowed to marry a man of the lower class. Moreover, a man of the upper class of “lang Tao” was allowed to marry more than one women; and in a “lang” family, the head lives together with wives, maids and daughters though the first legitimate wife always played an important role in the family life until she died; by then the second wife would be chosen as the substitute.

The marital customs practiced by the Muong are very complicated, which, however, can be classified into two types: “the bride buying” and “the bridegroom buying”. In the past, the “bride-buying” custom was very popular; and the “money” for buying the bride was in fact the presents offered to the bride’s family by the bridegroom’s. The presents as for the upper class of “lang”, included 4-5 bunches of areca; 20-30 bottles of whisky... The “bridegroom buying” custom was seen in almost all areas inhabited by the Muong people. There were no presents but only a promise on the to-be-inherited estates as dowry, made by the bride’s family to the representatives of the bridegroom’s.

The “Muong” convention on the ownership regime was also formulated. It affirmed the right to the prior possession of things which were assets of the nature, such as a plot of land, a hill, a forest..., of which the owners would be persons who had invested their labor in reclaiming them first. Moreover, the right to prior possession was also applied to hunting so as to confirm the ownership right of the persons who shot dead the animal first... To claim a newly reclaimed land plot, the reclaimer had only to fix a bamboo or reed stick on the ground with a rosette design thereon so as to confirm that such piece of land which is as large as he/she wished had already belonged to him/her. The prior possessor was entitled not only to own that piece of land but also to leave it to his/her children or grandchildren for inheritance, and that estates became inalienable. So, since time immemorial, the private ownership regime became popular among the Muong and accepted by the people of this ethnic group.

In the Muong society, the convention on mutual support and assistance has long been established. If anyone refused to help other(s), he/she would be condemned by the entire community. The convention on mutual support and mutual assistance was formulated on the perception of absolute equality: even “lang Tao” or “lang Cun” could receive the assistance from the poorest peasant or the richest person. And in turn, in lean months between harvests, poor people could surely receive help from better-off people if they so requested. The help or assistance has been given with full voluntariness as a habit or a customary practices handed down from generation to generation.

Various central feudal administration in Vietnam tried to influence the administrative management system and the social structure of the Muong community which had, however, built for itself a judicial system. Formerly, the rules and conventions were fairly strictly and widely applied in areas inhabited by Muong people under the control of local headmen. Usually, in minor cases, the judge often planned to reconcile between the plaintiff and the defendant, concluding with an agreement acceptable to both sides. In a lawsuit, both the plaintiff and the defendant shall have to answer the trial council controlled by “lang Tao”. The party at fault shall have to organize a big feast with a big jar of alcohol to ask for the forgiveness of the local people. Depending on the seriousness of his/her fault, he/she shall be subject to a fine of a piglet, a big pig or a buffalo. If the people at fault still refuse to subdue to the decision, “lang Tao” shall be entitled to demand for his/her expulsion from the locality as the punishment, that is a sentence of permanent exile. The chiefs of nearby hamlets shall be informed of the exiled person who would be kept an eye on and meet with numerous difficulties and obstacles in daily life.

Sometimes, the “lang Tao” was brought to trial before the trial council if he had infringed upon the traditional customs and practices or failed to fulfill his obligations. If he committed a serious crime he would be stripped off his position and title, and the local people would invite one of his brothers, sons, wife or even mother to assume it. In cases where the local people no longer trust the family of such “lang Tao”, they shall invite a person of another lineage to assume it. Yet, the typical punitive form of the Muong rules and convention was a fine of a worship meal and offerings to the land diety, performed with prays by the village trancer. For a leading member of the locality, the punishment was much more severe than that for an ordinary people. For instance, for the same crime, a commoner can be fined one buffalo while a headman can be fined from 2 to 3 buffaloes.

Thievery and burglary shall be severely punished with 50 cane beatings for the first commission of such crime, 100 cane beatings for the repeated commission of such crime and death sentence if it he/she committed the same crime for the third time. However, the death sentence shall not be enforced if the offender’s parents do not agree thereupon. There were cases where the criminals were detained in far-flung areas or islands, being left to starvation. Usually, the criminal’s family requests the enforcement of the sentence; and all members of the family of the thief or the burglar shall have to contribute to the conpensations to victims.

A women who leaves her husband shall have to return to the husband’s family all dowry and to repay the wedding cost. If a women leaves jut because she committed adultery or had an out-of-wedlock baby, she will be subject to an additional fine of 12 buffaloes which must be paid by her family. If her family cannot afford, her parents’ family must pay the fine. If the adulterer is a son of the local headman, he or his family shall be subject to a fine of 27 buffaloes...

The Muong rule and conventions bear the stamp of the distinct social stratification within the community. For a sentence, the family of the offender bears a great responsibility.

As mentioned above, the activities within the Muong community, which were governed by its rules and conventions, were destroyed due to the intervention of the central feudal administration. These rules and conventions almost disappeared during the French colonial time.

Like customs, practices and conventions of other ethnic groups, those of Muong saw its pluses and minuses as well. If their negative aspects are overcome and the positive aspects brought into play, such rules and conventions can contribute to building a new law-governed life within the Muong society, which, on the one hand, conforms to the Muong’s customs and practices and, on the other hand, shall not run counter to the State laws. This will surely constitute a correct and effective way that will help make the present social relations in areas inhabited by Muong people healthier.-


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