Marriage customs of the San Chi
San Chi is a group of San Chay ethnic minority people, living mostly in Thai Nguyen and Bac Giang, and parts of the northern provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Phu Tho and Quang Ninh.

Associate Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH


San Chi is a group of San Chay ethnic minority people, living mostly in Thai Nguyen and Bac Giang, and parts of the northern provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Kan, Phu Tho and Quang Ninh. Once upland rice growers, the San Chi have now switched to wet rice cultivation. They also grow tea in Thai Nguyen and litchi in Bac Giang, helping improve their incomes.

The San Chi live in a patriarchal family where the father/husband controls the family’s production, spending and external relations. In a San Chi family, sons are not only more respected but also get more benefits than daughters. When a family does not have children or sons, it may adopt children who will enjoy all benefits like natural ones.

The San Chi group has family lines, including Ly, Hoang, Tran, La, Ninh and Lam, each of which is distinguished either by the date of worshiping ancestors, votive offerings, or taboos for a particular dish. Each family line has its rules on changing names for grown up children.

In general, the organization of San Chi family lines is not systematic. Although each line has a head, it does not follow the family line regime (for instance, cousins are ranked by age rather than by ranks in the family line). Some big lines have family annals. When a conflict occurs in a family line, prestigious, knowledgeable, and financially capable older men are invited to mediate it.

The San Chi follow the outside-family-line marriage regime which does not permit marriage of couples of the same line regardless of their generation. When a couple gets married in spite of this, the family line’s oldest man will call for all kindred to come to the girl’s house and slaughter the family’s biggest pig to prepare a meal called cai ho. After having cai ho, all the relatives will criticize the couple. If the girl’s family does not have a pig yet, the couple will still be blamed by their kindred. As soon as the girl’s family has pigs, cai ho will be served for all people of the family line. The purpose of cai ho is to convince the girl to give up her unacceptable marriage. If the couple is determined to live with each other, they are allowed to do so after cai ho, but have to leave the village. At present, cousins of the sixth generation onward can marry each other.

San Chi people used to live in stilt houses, but now this practice only exists in some regions due to the shortage of wood. When visiting a San Chi house, a visitor should see if a branch of pandanus or other trees is hung on the gate, a sign that the family has a taboo to strangers. The taboo can be a newborn baby or a sick person. If a guest accidentally visits a house which has an infant, he/she should drink a cup of wine offered by the baby’s father and give the child some money to bring good luck to the baby.

When entering a San Chi stilt house, a guest should pay attention to two important things. First, the house always has a section of wooden boards leading from the upper window to the first row of pillars, which is higher than the remaining part of the floor. This section is for old people, high social position holders and distinguished guests. Second, in the inner corner of the house is a section surrounded with bamboo wattle. This is the higher altar for worshiping the Jade Emperor, the deity protecting the whole family. This altar is more important than the one worshiping the family’s ancestors. Strangers, especially women, absolutely should not approach this place. Even a daughter-in-law must observe this rule until she becomes a grandmother. If a guest breaks this rule, he/she will be fined a pig by the host.

San Chi people live in villages located in low hills near meadows. Villages used to be surrounded with thorny bamboos. A San Chi village has oral rules on security and protection. It also has rules on fees for to-be-married couples and fines in the form of meals for pregnant single women. Each village also has a society to provide funeral services for villagers. Every village has a shrine to worship the tutelary god, the deity protecting the villagers, and has its own rules on the way of worshiping as well as the kind of offerings. During the worshiping time, green leaves are hung on all roads leading to the village, a sign of banning incoming outsiders who will be heavily fined. Villagers are also not allowed to go out, even for production purposes.

The San Chi have original marriage customs. In the old time, the duration from engagement (cau to) to marriage was required to be 3 years, implying the value of the bride and her family while giving the bridegroom’s family enough time to prepare wedding offerings. More importantly, such a long time allowed the bride to grow cotton and weave fabric to make quilts and cushions in preparation for her stay in her husband’s house and sew enough clothes for herself until she has a child. That’s why, unlike other ethnic minority groups in northwestern and northeastern regions, the family of a San Chi bride does not ask the bridegroom’s family for clothing for their daughter as wedding presents. In those three years, the bride will also have to weave and embroider handkerchiefs to give her husband’s friends. Each such gift takes 4-5 days to make, and the girl will be notified of the number of handkerchiefs to be made one year before the wedding. On the wedding day, when the bridegroom’s friends give the bride gifts, she will present them in return handkerchiefs made by herself as a way to show her gratitude. Those handkerchiefs will be carefully kept by the friends for a life time. When they are old, they will tell their children and grandchildren about those handkerchiefs to nurture good emotion in younger generations and respect for older generations.

Another unique trait of San Chi marriage customs is that one month before the wedding, all married uncles, aunts and siblings of the bride will each invite her to stay in their house for one day to have a farewell party before she gets married. In that month, the bride’s relatives will advise her on how to become a good wife and daughter-in-law. Here are a couple of rules:

- A wife should love her husband and not quarrel with him. She must work hard and be a wise housewife in spending and saving for the family.

- She must be dutiful to her parents- and brothers-in-law and is not allowed to pass in front of her father- or brother-in-law. When it is unavoidable to do so, she must bend herself.

- She is not supposed to sit in the middle of an entrance door or dress in a sexy way.

- She should sleep in her own room, even when taking a nap.

- She should not breastfeed her baby in front of her father- or brother-in-law or other men.

- When going out, she must leave her sleeping child outside her room so that her father-in-law can take care of the baby when it wakes up. This is because San Chi people have strict taboos in the relation between father- or brother-in-law and daughter- or sister-in-law: they are not supposed to have a meal together, nor is a daughter-in-law allowed to give her child or any other thing directly to her father- or brother-in-law; a father- or brother-in-law is not supposed to enter his daughter- or sister-in-law’s room.

A future wife will be carefully reminded of the above rules by her relatives. If a daughter-in-law breaks one of these rules, she, and especially her parents and relatives, will be strongly criticized by villagers.

These rules aim to educate a girl:

- To be faithful after being engaged to a man, the grounds for a happy family life later.

- To live independently without relying on her husband’s family, love her husband and nurture her family life.

- To behave in a proper manner as a daughter-in-law.

These rules may be considered the baggage of a girl on a trip to her husband’s house, an important factor helping her become a confident and independent wife.

It is regrettable that these fine customs of high educational value have somewhat faded in the past 20 years.-

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