By To Dong Hai
Tho is among the 54 nationalities in Vietnam, which has a population of around 52,000 people residing largely in the provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh. Together with the formulation and development history of this ethnos, its name has also gone through ups and downs. Just before the 1945 August Revolution, many local groups of "Tho" bearing different names such as Cuoi, Mon, Keo and Ho in the districts of Nhu Xuan (Thanh Hoa); Nghia Dan, Tan Quy, Quy Hop and Con Cuong (Nghe An); or Dan Lai, Ly Ha and Tay Poong in the district of Tuong Duong (Ha Tinh)... called themselves "Nha Lang" or "Muong" which were endorsed and accepted by people. After 1945, the local groups in Nghe An and Thanh Hoa provinces were named "Tho" while local groups of Dan Lai and Ly Hai kept their old ethnic names. In 1973, the Party Committee and the Administrative Committee (now the People's Committee) of Nghe An province convened a conference of representatives of all ethnic groups in the province, deciding to use the single ethnic name "Tho" for all above-mentioned local groups, which was later confirmed at the conference on ethnic names in northern Vietnam, organized in December 1973 by the then Vietnam Social Sciences Commission.
Living mainly on mountain and hilly land sandwiched between high mounts and valleys, the people of this ethnic group have farmed rice, their main source of food supply, and fibre plants which yield fibres for making nets, hammocks and other household essentials. In addition to farming, "Tho" people also live on hunting, forest fruit and vegetable gathering.
Hamlet is the basic and most important administrative unit of the traditional "Tho" society. A hamlet is headed by a chief elected annually by local people, who is tasked to urge people to pay taxes, capitation, to serve corvee and make other contributions to hamlet and commune. In addition, he also undertakes other functions such as taking care of the construction, repair or rehabilitation of temples, managing the temple guardians, sponsoring various rituals, etc. He is also the man who conducts the trial of cases violating hamlet customs, practices and folk-laws against out-of-wedlock pregnancy, incest, or regulations on inheritance, labour product distribution, code of conduct in families, lineages, hamlet community, society as well.
Land, mountains, rivers and streams are considered the common properties. The reclaimers of new lands shall be entitled to use such land until they abandon it. The abandoned land shall immediately become the common property and can be used by any member of the community without asking for permission from the reclaimers. The hamlet or commune community (represented by the hamlet or commune chief) may determine the land area for exploitation by the community within certain period of time while the rest shall be tapped by individuals. In some areas, part of the hamlet land is marked off as the public land and the yields therefrom shall be used in service of the entire community.
The relationships of mutual assistance in production and daily life have been maintained among population. People help one another with labor and money when someone are in need. Equality is promoted among people. Domestic helpers are treated like children in the family, being given wives or husbands in marriages and even dowry, by the house masters when they are mature. Those who have worked for three years or more and now wish to give up their jobs shall be given a she-buffalo by their house masters as the initial capital to start their independent and new life. Maltreatment of housemaids or domestic helpers which cause harms to their physical bodies or lives is strongly condemned by public opinion and severely punished by "Tho" customary law.
Marriage is prescribed through customs, practices and folk-laws with the particular cultural identities of this ethnic group. According to "Tho" customs, boys and girls are, on festive occasions or during festivals, allowed to stay together, one boy with several girls or vice versa one girl with several boys, till late at night to have free heart-to-hear talks in a hope to find their right companion in life without interference by anyone, including their siblings, relatives of families. Yet, during such nights they voluntarily restrain themselves to talks only, fully respecting regulations on pre-marriage relationships. Any violators shall be brought to trial according to "Tho" customary law and condemned by social opinion. If after such heart-to-heart talks, a couple agree to marry each other, the boy's family shall have to ask a match-maker, called "pin" in Tho language, to go to the girl's house and offer the marriage. If the offer is accepted by the girl's family, the two families shall maintain close ties for up to three years before the wedding is organized. The complicated marital procedures are opened with a ceremony to ritually propose with material offerings to the girl's parents. It may takes several months from such ceremony to the wedding, during which the boy's family shall monthly have to pay visits with offerings to the girl's family. If this is neglected for even only one month, the marriage shall be cancelled. The offerings brought to the girl's family include four glutinous rice cakes and one bottle of alcohol for each visit on ordinary occasions, or a large volume of alcohol, meat and baskets of sticky rice on festive occasions such as the new-rice festival, lunar New Year... The marital offering are costly, including one buffalo, 100 silver coins, 30 squares of fabrics to repay the girl's parents for giving birth to and bringing her up, six baskets of sticky rice and one pig. Big parties are organized on the eve of the wedding.
Before the wedding, the to-be bridegrooms have to stay and work in the girls' families for up to one year.
According to "Tho" customs, the dead person's body lies in state in the house at least for several weeks or even months. During that period, the deceased family has to organize parties with up to 12 buffaloes being slaughtered, as token of gratitude to mourners and sympathizers.
Any violations of the above-mentioned customs and practices of the Tho ethnos shall be brought to trial within the hamlet community by the hamlet chief for minor cases, or by dignatories in the administrative machinery formulated after the Viet majority's administrative structure, or later by French officials according to French laws. Though heavily influenced by Viet laws, then later French laws, the "Tho" customs, practices and folk laws still bear their own colors, playing important role in the community life, particularly in handling violations of community rules, customs, practices as well as code of conducts. This may be of great help to the building of a law-governed life in areas inhabited by "Tho" people.-