To Dong Hai
With a population of nearly 38,000 (according to the 1989 census figures), the Giay ethnic minority resides largely in the provinces of Lao Cai , Yen Bai, Ha Giang and Lai Chau as well as the Bao Lac district of Cao Bang province.
The Giay people have long practiced wet rice farming as the main source of their food supply, while milpas, often cultivated with subsidiary food crops, have been left to the care of elderlies. They have lived in hamlets, each accommodating several dozens of stilted or earthen houses built on mountain slopes, in valleys or near water sources. For them, the middle compartment of a house is the most important place where their ancestors are worshipped and guests received.
The Giay society has been characterized by different strata:
- The mandarinate called “Sray” who managed all village affairs and were given public land called “Na Sray”. Members of this social group were exempt from corvee labor, conscription, public labor as well as other duties. Apart from these and the yields they earned from the public land, “Sray” (village chiefs) and “Srui” (hamlet chiefs) also enjoyed more privileges in daily life, such as free services rendered in wedding ceremonies, funerals, cultivation, entertainment... by villagers.
- The group of persons who practiced sorcery, including mountain witch doctors, sorcerers, media, diviners, who were all regarded as the chaplains, having taken care of people’s spiritual life. These people have also practiced their “occupation” when invited and could enjoy some offerings such as pork, chickens, fruits, a sum of money. Daily, they have to take part in productive labor to earn their living and are not exempt from corvee labor and public obligations.
- The toiling people who make up the largest section of the Giay population. They have been given public land to till but had to pay part of the fruits therefrom to mandarins or to hamlet worship funds. Public land allottees gained respects from others because they were considered having fulfilled their obligations towards their hamlets. Also seen among this social group were handicraftsmen who have produced essential things for daily life such as metal working tools, textiles, bamboo baskets.
- The miserable who have worked as servants, hired laborers, milpa farmers, leading a miserable life without enough food and clothing.
Besides, there has been in a hamlet a group of people tilling the sacred land called “Na xua”. Such land tillers had to pay part of their yields to the hamlet, pay a chicken and a duck as offerings to deities. They were not subject to corvee labor and tax payment, but only for the first year.
From time immemorable, Giay customs and practices have been formulated on their own concepts of the world, the universe and the human livelihood. When being in the family way, particularly for the first time, the Giay women had to go through numerous taboos. When the parturition is nearing, a big ritual is held to pray the goddess believed to give shape to and protect babies for her support for the good health, quick growth and wisdom. When the baby is one full month old, another rite is held to pray the ancestors for their support for the newborn who is then given a name. The name is written on a piece of red cloth called “menh” (fate) writ to be used for the study of his/her horoscope for marriage and funeral in the future.
Wedding ceremony is very costly, with a large quantity of presents including pork (about 200 kg), silver coins, chicken, ducks..., which are distributed to every relative of the bride, who, in turn, gives presents to the couple when they give birth to their first child.
Matrilocat is very common among the Giay people. After their weddings, the bridegrooms had to stay at their in-laws’ for about three years, working for their wives’ families and organizing funerals for their parents in-law when they pass away. During such three-year period, if a man does something to offend his in-laws, the marriage might be canceled though this rarely happened. Matrilocat is now replaced by a practice that the bridegroom’s family has to pay to the bride’s a sum of money which is equal to the sum to be spent fostering the parents in-law and their funeral costs during such matrilocal period.
Wife “catching” or wife “snatching: used to exist among the Giay community when a man could not afford his wedding presents or was disapproved by his intended’s family.
The funeral service organized by the Giay people is very complicated, lasting for 5 to 7 days, with various rituals and with many buffaloes and horses killed as offerings to deities in order to pray for peace to the dead’s soul. The dead is mourned for in one to three years during which the mourners had to refrain from any entertainment activities, from eating too much, from sleeping on beds..., in order to show their grief.
Consanguinity is fully respected by the Giay. Intralineage marriage are strictly forbidden under the Giay customary law, which also metes out severe punishment to incest committers as well as to robbers and burglars. Under the patriarchal influence, only the eldest son in the family is entitled to inherit and to represent the father in handling family affairs and relations with neighbors. However, daughters can enjoy the wedding presents offered by the bridegrooms’ families.
Later, a ruling apparatus similar to that of the Viet majority was established in the areas inhabited by the Giay people, with many harsh rules and regulations imposed by the rulers to protect their own interests.
The building of a new life in areas of the Giay ethnic minority, based on their customs and practices, must be thoroughly studied in order to preserve and bring into full play what are good and progressive while doing away with what are bad and backward among the traditional Giay customs.-