Totems of the Kho-mu
The Kho-mu, one of 27 Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority groups, lives in the northern mountainous provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Yen Bai and mountainous districts of the central provinces of Nghe An and Thanh Hoa.


Associate Professor of Ethnology

The Kho-mu, one of 27 Mon-Khmer language ethnic minority groups, lives in the northern mountainous provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Dien Bien and Yen Bai and mountainous districts of the central provinces of Nghe An and Thanh Hoa.

With a population of over 56,000, the Kho-mu is the largest Mon-Khmer language group in the northwestern region and ranks 22nd among 53 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam.

Compared with other groups, Kho-mu people have a smaller figure with darker complexion and curly hair. They also have a longer head and bigger nose with a more sunken bridge.

Historical, ethnological and cultural records prove that the Kho-mu, which was also called Tay Hay, Xa Cau, Mun Xen, Pu Thenh or Tenh formerly, originally lived in Laos and migrated to Vietnam in the 17th-18th centuries. Before settling in the northwestern region, Kho-mu people lived along the border with Laos, but were frequently attacked by robbers from Laos and China. They had to ally with Thai chieftains to fight robbers and were thus largely influenced by the Thai which had a much larger population and higher level of social and economic development.

The Thai’s influence together with over three hundred years of migration with historical and social upheavals had resulted in decline and loss of cultural traits of the Kho-mu, which can be seen from economic and social aspects.

Unlike other Mon-Khmer language groups in the northwestern region such as Khang, La Ha and Xinh-mun who can grow rice on wet and terraced fields, the Kho-mu has completely lost this farming method, living on milpa cultivation. This nomadic farming costs huge areas and labor but renders low and unstable productivity as it largely depends on weather conditions. Hunting and picking of forest products are thus important in the livelihood of the Kho-mu who barely cover daily meals with farm produce. Kho-mu people also do some handicrafts such as knitting and weaving, but for their own needs only. Trade is mainly barter as they mostly live by self-sufficiency.

Before the 1945 Revolution, the Kho-mu depended wholly on Thai landlords, who were regarded as representatives of the central feudal government. Forests, rivers and their products all belonged to Thai landlords to whom Kho-mu people must give a part of whichever specialty products they got. The quantity to be given was set by Thai landlords.

The Kho-mu lived in villages which, however, were under muong (residential unit of the Thai). Kho-mu villagers had to serve Thai landlords, doing farm work and housework for them and building roads and irrigation works for Thai muongs. Each Kho-mu village had a head who took charge of affairs assigned by Thai landlords. Kho-mu houses and costumes were also largely influenced by Thai culture.

Today, the Kho-mu’s ban (village) is the group’s most complete social unit. A ban, which is built along a stream or road or in a low valley near a stream, has 40-50 families. Due to their nomadic farming, the Kho-mu usually build a main village as the permanent place of residence for old people and children and all villagers during idle time. They also build another temporary village for laborers on farm work during crop and harvest.

The Kho-mu lives in small patriarchal families where husbands and wives have strong attachment as a result of milpa cultivation which requires much labor from both men and women. Divorce and adultery rarely happen in Kho-mu society, but remarriage after the death of a spouse is encouraged by the community. In Kho-mu families, sons and daughters are equally treated.

Kho-mu people treasure three relations. The first and most important is the relation between men of the paternal side. The second is between men of the maternal side and the last is between sons-in-law of a family line. While the first relation reflects the Kho-mu’s patriarchal regime, the second shows the vestige of the group’s past matriarchy, which can be seen in the role of the maternal uncle. A brother may give his opinion about the marriage of his sister’s daughter and represents the bride’s family in a marriage. He may also take care of his niece’s children (including naming) during the time the nephew-in-law lives with his wife’s family. When a niece moves to her own house, the maternal uncle is the person to put khau cut (an object placed at a house’s garble which represents the host’s ownership), leo (an object placed on a house’s pillar, symbolizing the family’s prosperity) and the cooking fire in the new house. When an uncle dies, his sons-in-law and nephews-in-law will hold the funeral.

Each Kho-mu family line has its own totem, which can be a plant, animal (usually wild animal) or an object. Members of a family line are not allowed to hunt, kill or eat the totem animal or plant or use the totem object as a tool. The names of some totems are transcribed into family names such as Quang or Hoang (tiger) or Moong (civet). Family lines have different altar styles, offerings and rituals.

The Kho-mu follows animism. They believe every thing has a soul and there are many kinds of ghosts of which deities of heaven, earth, water and forest are the most fearful super powers.

The Kho-mu attaches importance to worshiping ancestors (family spirits) who are the dead parents of the host and are believed to affect the life of their descendants. The altar of family spirits, which is usually placed inside or next to the room of the host, is a sacred place where strangers are not supposed to enter. The kitchen, which is in the inner side of the house, is believed where family spirits stay. Guests are thus not allowed to warm themselves or cook here but in the place near the main stairway.

When a family has an important event (wedding, funeral) or suffers a misfortune or accident, it must hold a solemn offering ceremony to family spirits. In this ceremony, acts of the totem animal are performed while the blood of the totem animal (or the sap of the totem plant) is applied onto the altar and the tripod of the stove before being applied to family members who, in the Kho-mu’s belief, will be then protected by family spirits.

The Kho-mu has the custom to worship the village deity at the beginning of a year to pray for peace and prosperity. They also have farming-related rituals and taboos such as sowing ceremony and rice worshiping ritual to show gratitude to the deities of heaven and earth and ancestors.

Community spirit is high among Kho-mu villagers who are willing to assist one another on such occasions as wedding and funeral. A villager who suffers a misfortune will be helped by the community. For instance, an orphan without relatives will be raised by villagers until he becomes grown-up.-

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