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Official Gazette

Monday, August 15, 2022

The “Xtieng” customs and practices

Updated: 09:58’ - 25/02/2011

To Dong Hai



"Xtieng” can be considered an “aborgine” of Vietnam, which has settled down here since time immemorial in a vast area south of Cental Highlands, now in the territories of Lam Dong, Tay Ninh, Dong Nai and Binh Phuoc provinces.

According to 1989 census figures, the Xtieng ethnic minority has a population of some 50,000 people who live mixedly with people of other ethnicities such as Viet, K’hor, Mnong, Cham, Khmer. They speak the language of Mon-Khmer Nam family, which is close the Mnong-Ma language. This ethnic grouping can be subdivided into four: Bu Dip, Bu Deh, Bu Lanh and Bu Lo (“Bu” means people) or two main subgroups: Bu Lo residing on highlands and Bu Deh in low-lying areas.

To some ethnologists, the name “Xtieng” reminds them of the name “Dieng” of a legendary figure considered to the creator of this ethnic group. According to many researchers, thousands of years ago the Xtieng people inhabited in an immense region embracing the entire present border region stretching to the East, the Mekong and Dong Nai river basins, where once existed a small ancient kingdom called “Xuong Tinh” (the Chinese transcription of Xtieng).

The Xtieng people live mainly on milpa farming. In addition to rice, other food crops and vegetables such as maize, sweet potato, beans, pumpkins, manioc... are planted on terraced fields. Domestic animals such as buffaloes, pigs, chicken, ducks are free- ranched. Hunting, wild vegetable-and fruit-picking also play an important part in their daily life. Such traditional crafts as bamboo weaving, pottery, textile, smithery... are developed to produce essentials for the Xtieng’s daily work and life.

The Xtieng hamlet called “Poh” or most recently “Soc” (like the Khmer people) or “Bon” (like the Mnong people) is an administrative and social unit, which is fairly enclosed. It is usually built on a difficult-to-access location surrounded by solid fences. This reflected a formerly complicated relationship between hamlets as well as between ethnic groupings in this region. There have existed in each hamlet some 30 houses or less or even only one in some hamlets. Living in a house is one big patriarchal family comprised of various households. Each house is headed by a house-master and housemasters group into the house masters’ council to run and manage all affairs in the hamlet. Such council is headed by an old, experienced and prestigious man elected by the council. His only task is to preside over meetings but not to decide any affairs of the entire hamlet. Therefore, he is not the chief of the hamlet like in other ethnic groups. When differences appear between a number of families and the entire hamlet community, the former can separate themselves from the hamlet to set up a new hamlet. This shows that equality remains the prevailing factor in the Xtieng society, a characteristic of the primitive society which is retained in the Xtieng community till today.

Deep social gap has been seen in the Xtieng community. Rich families have owned much land, valuable gongs and jars, elephants, buffaloes while the slaves who were criminals, unable-to-pay debtors, prisoners captured during the wars between hamlets, kidnappees from other hamlets, etc. have had nothing. However, those slaves are able to enjoy some equality with other members of the family, being entitled, for instance, to work the terraced fields of their own and to get married like all other members of the family.

The ownership right in the society has been clearly confirmed. Men are masters of all assets, particularly valuable assets in the family. Assets are under the ownership of each household and no longer the common property of the big family. However, land remains to be under the common ownership of the entire hamlet. Only boys are entitled to inherit the family property. When a boy turns mature, his parents will find a wife for him. For the wedding, the boy’s family will have to pay a sum of money without which the boy shall have to stay with his wife’s family till his in-law parents die. This is also the case for a boy who finds and marries the girl at his own will and against his parents’ arrangement.

In the Xtieng society, patriarchy has been firmly rooted. A man can marry more than one wife at a time. When a husband dies, his family can sell the widow to another person in order to get a sum of money to cover the new wedding. If a newborn is a boy, he is often left with empty stomach for 2 to 3 days before being breastfed so as to test the endurability of “the man”, the future mainstay of the family. If a newborn is a girl, she is breastfed right away by the mother.

Incestion is considered a serious crime and severely punished. If a man commits adultery and is caught red handed, he will be fined 7 to 8 buffaloes. If a couple divorces, their children often live with the father. If the woman demands a divorce she will have to return to the husband family’s the sum of money spent on their wedding, organize a ritual to pray for deities and to pay a fine for the hamlet.

When in childbirth, Xtieng women had to stay in jungles on their own for some time before they can return home. Therefore, the mortality rate among Xtieng children used to be fairly high. The under-threes were not given names until they are sure to survive after going through all illnesses. When a family has an infant or a young domestic animal born, strangers are not allowed to enter the house and the hamlet for three days. If a domestic animal gives offspring in odd number, which, to the Xtieng people, is a bad omen, all baby animals will be killed. Also for fear that bad things may happen to the hamlet when there is a “sudden death”, which is called “brieng” (the sacred death) by the Xtieng, the deceased family has to organize a big funeral and abstain from many things. The funeral must be held outside the hamlet, the coffin and the dead body therein are not allowed to be carried into the hamlet. It is not customary for the Xtieng to visit the dead’s graves. Formerly, whenever there was a death in the hamlet, the people immediately abandoned it and moved to a new place, having built their new hamlet. If two or three persons in a hamlet died within a year, the hamlet dwellers also abandoned their hamlet and moved to new places twice or thrice.

Within 7 days after a new hamlet is built, strangers are not allowed to enter. Such taboo is indicated by a small fresh tree branch which is put up right at the hamlet gate. The hamlet inhabitants are not allowed to do the cooking inside their houses, to move tools, to pound rice... According to their perception, only when the hamlet is totally quiet can it be left in peace.

The Xtieng customary law also forbids the infringement upon other people’s property. Theft and burglary shall be severely punished and the culprits shall have to pay a fine which is three to four times bigger than the value of the property he/she stole.

In a circumstance where the Xtieng people’s intellectual level is limited, their customary law has become an extremely effective tool for maintaining a close and healthy relationship among members of this ethnic group, consolidate and develop this community.

However, such customary law, born in a certain period of history, has shown its limitations and inadequacies as compared to the realities of the current life of the Xtieng people. So it is imperative for sociologists, law and culture researchers as well as the administrators to study the Xtieng customary law in order to preserve what are good and promote them in the current life of the Xtieng people.-


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