Matriarchal society of the Co-ho
The Co-ho, one of 21 Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, is also called Sre, Nop, Co-don, Chil and Lach after the names of its subgroups.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. BUI XUAN DINH


The Co-ho, one of 21 Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, is also called Sre, Nop, Co-don, Chil and Lach after the names of its subgroups.

With a population of nearly 130,000, the Co-ho live mostly in Lam Dong Central Highlands province. They also live in some mountainous districts of Binh Thuan, Khanh Hoa and Ninh Thuan central provinces.

The Co-ho, one of 12 ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands, had close ties with the Cham and was the co-owner of Sa Huynh culture dated back around 2,500 years ago.

Except Sre group in Di Linh district (Lam Dong) who grow wet rice, other groups of the Co-ho live mainly on upland cultivation. In the past, the Co-ho’s animal raising relatively developed as the group lived in vast meadows and needed sacrifices for numerous rituals. A Co-ho family used to own as many as dozens of buffalos, let alone goats and pigs. The Co-ho also make handicrafts such as baskets, fishing tools, household articles, mats and cloth. Some other trades include pottery and forging.

The Co-ho’s trade is underdeveloped. Years ago, barter was the group’s only commercial activity. Products were simply valued by traditional ways of measurement such as span or bowl, depending on kinds of products.

The Co-ho’s resident unit is village (bon) which, in the old days, was a matriarchal clan, comprising 5-10 families of the same line. Members of each family bore the mother’s family name, except sons-in-law who came from other places. Due to wars and other socio-economic factors, these clans have been transformed into rural communes (or neighboring communes) where different family lines live together.

A Co-ho village is usually built along a river or stream or on a flat area. Each Co-ho subgroup builds their villages facing in a certain direction. The Nop build their villages in the direction of a river or stream; the Sre, facing the east; and the Chil and Lat, looking to a forbidden forest.

A Co-ho village can have its houses built in two parallel lines or in a rectangular or oval shape facing one another with a road in the middle. The higher end of a village has a river wharf and is where community rituals are held. At the lower end are situated the village cemetery and villagers’ rice storehouses.

Each village has a sacred stone, called da rua (tortoise stone), which is believed to be the shelter of the tortoise deity. Nobody is allowed to touch this stone, which is put on a big tree in the forest where villagers come to pray for rain when droughts occur.

Each Co-ho village is an independent social unit and led by a village head called quang bon or khoa bon, who is selected by villagers. A quang bon must be a rich elderly man with good communication skills, who has production experience and is conversant with customary laws. A quang bon, who is respected by all villagers, has responsibilities and powers for all village affairs, from establishing relations with other villages, settling economic and social matters, to organizing rituals. A quang bon is assisted by a council of elderly villagers who are knowledgeable and prestigious heads of family lines, soothsayers and military chiefs. All social and economic relations in a village are governed by customary laws. Land and forest are public property.

The Co-ho follow matriarchy under which members of a family line are children of a real or legendary ancestor mother. Co-ho family names are associated either with legendary ancestors or totems or with village names, which reflects the Co-ho’s old-time habit of living within family lines.

Relatives of maternal sides are not allowed to marry each other despite their generations. Those breaching this rule are believed to make deities angry, who will cause calamities to the community such as fires, epidemics or poor crops. Violators are thus subject to heavy fines, having to give the village white pigs and ruou can (rice wine drunk out of a jar through stems) for offering to deities.

Divorce and adultery rarely happen in Co-ho society where monogamy is protected and strictly governed by customary laws. Co-ho women play an active role in marriage. In the old days, after the wedding, a wife stayed at her husband’s family for a week or a month, then returned to her family which gave the couple a room in the common house. A husband lived dependently on and had to work hard for his wife’s family. When the couple had many children, they might live in a separate house built adjoining the common house. In case a groom’s family had few children or a bride’s family was too poor to afford wedding offerings, the bride had to stay in her husband’s family for three years or forever. Nowadays, a few years after the wedding, a couple is given land to build their own house and live independently.

Before the country was reunified in 1975, three or more couples of three or even four generations lived together in a long stilt house. A Co-ho stilt house is 1-1.2 m above the ground and 3.2-3.5 m wide while its length depends on the number of couples, each of which is given a room. Apart from couples’ rooms, the house has a common section in the middle, which is divided into two parts. The inner part, for worshipping the paddy deity, has an altar and a worshipping pillar at the base of which are placed two big jars of wine called che chong (jar for husband) and che vo (jar for wife). The outer part where a cooking fire is placed, is for receiving guests. It is also the sleeping place of young men. Outside the house is a corridor running along rooms. Each house has three stairways. The main stairway, which stands in the middle and has a small yard in front, is for guests who will stop here before entering the house. When a member of the family dies, guests attending his/her funeral will also stop at the main stairway to wash their feet, which is believed to prevent ghosts from entering the house. Two other stairways are built at the gables for family members.

In the past, each big family was an economic unit. Couples lived all together under the control of po hiu (house owner), who was usually an elderly woman or her husband. Couples did not have private assets other than their essential personal things. A couple was given part of the family’s property to live independently only when they had grown up children. Nowadays, such big families no longer exist as a result of social, economic and cultural development.

The Co-ho believe the world comprises three layers. The first is heaven where live deities and where natural phenomena and living creatures are created. The second is for the living and the last, for the dead. The layer for the dead is further divided into two parts. The upper part is a temporary place for newly dead persons who were given some time to part with their living family members. The lower part is the permanent place for the dead.

The Co-ho believe dead persons will become ghosts, which are classified into good and bad. Good ghosts are the souls of people dying ordinarily while bad ghosts are of those suffering sudden death like being drowned or killed by a tiger.

The Co-ho consider 3 and 7 as holy numbers, especially number 7, which are believed to help them communicate with deities. All Co-ho rituals and taboos are related to these numbers.

Co-ho people have different rituals to pray for bumper crops, which are connected with upland cultivation stages, especially the ceremony to plant ngai (a ginger-like plant symbolizing manliness) on a rice field. Before sowing paddy, a Co-ho couple bring to their field some ngais and seed paddy, which symbolizes feminity. The wife sows the paddy on a holy land patch while the husband plants ngais. Ngai is believed to transfer incorporeal spirit to paddy.

Every family has a basket of ngais, which is preserved from one generation to another. Any family whose ngai is lost or dies must ask for the plant from a relative (not a family outsider) for replanting. Ngais are grown for different periods of time corresponding to paddy’s growth periods. After harvesting, a ceremony to worship the paddy deity is held.-

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