To Dong Hai
With a population of nearly 11,000 Xinh Mun ethnic group resides along Vietnam-Lao border in Lai Chau and Son La provinces of Vietnam as well as in Central and Upper Laos.
As implied by its former name, “Xa”, meaning “protection”, Xinh Mun used to fall under the umbrella of the Thai minority, its neighbour in the Northwestern region sharing with it many cultural and linguistic similarities. Formerly, the Xinh Mun stayed in fertile valleys before it fled to high-mountain regions in the face of expansion by the Thai group, having to abandon their wet rice cultivation and take up milpa farming which has become a main source of their living now beside hunting, forest fruit and vegetable gathering.
Having been considered an inferior social stratum, Xinh Mun people were heavily exploited by local Thai officials through the forms of tribute payment, corvee labour, high-interest loans, baffaloe leasing for payment in paddy or corvee labour... Most of the Xinh Mun people had to live in misery, particularly people of the Xinh Mun Co subgroup who lead a nomadic life with hunting and forest fruit and vegetable gathering as their main form of economic activities. The people of this subgroup used to stay in huts made of tree leaves. When such leaves turn yellow, they moved to new place. Therefore, this subgroup is also called “Xa tong tuong” (meaning Xa yellow leaves).
The Xinh Mun society was governed by officials appointed by the Thai ethnic group’s officials (called “phia”, “tao”) or elected by Xinh Mun people but approved by “phia” and “tao”. A Xinh Mun hamlet was headed by an official called “Quan Xip”, “Quan Ban”, or “Tao ban” (for big hamlets with about 10 households each), or “nai ban” (for small hamlets with 5 to 6 households each). The “Quan Xip” was assisted by a man titled “cha” in performing tasks of “phia” or “tao”. He might appoint a man working as the hamlet’s messenger called “thiep”. The hamlet chief was tasked to urge people to pay tributes to or toil for “phia” or “tao”, and to enforce the customary laws within the community, bringing to trial cases of adultery, robbery or reconciling disputes or quarrels among hamlet inhabitants. However, the Xinh Mun hamlet chiefs did not enjoy privileges like those in the upper classes. They still had to work the field and even to toil for “phia” or “tao”.
The Xinh Mun used to bear no family names, who have later, under the influence of the Thai minority people, given themselves different family names such as Vi, Lo, Luong, Cut, Me, Hoang... The nucleus of the Xinh Mun society was “ban” (hamlet), which is a residence unit accommodating from 5 to 10 households. The household family is headed by the father or the eldest son if the father dies. When the parents pass away, the family assets shall be divided among the sons, not the daughters who, under the Xinh Mun convention, were not entitled to inherit the parents’ property. There have still existed in some localities big families with more than 30 members of 3 to 4 generations of the direct family line. This has, however, tended to decline. With the death of the fathers or the eldest sons, big families split into smaller ones as independent units with their own properties though they might still live under the same roof.
Within the Xinh Mun community, the women are more equal to men than women of other ethnic groups, being able to participate in the discussion of the family affairs, particularly the weddings of their children. Monogamy and patrilocality have long been practiced by Xinh Mun people. Yet, according to their traditional customs, a man, after his wedding, had to stay matrilocally for 8 to 12 years in order to return’s favour to his parents-in-law for bringing up his wife. Indefinite matrilocality is rarely seen among the Xinh Mun unless the bride’s family has no son to carry on the lineage.
In some localities, the customary law permits the marriage between children of sisters as well as between sons of a brother and his sisters’ daughters, but prohibits the marriage between children of brothers or between the sons of a sister and her brothers’ daughters. When his wife dies, a widower can marry a younger but not elder sister of his deceased wife. When an elder brother dies, the younger brother can marry his elder sister-in-law but when the younger brother dies, the elder brother is not allowed to marry his younger sister-in-law.
It is the Xinh Mun’s traditional custom that when matrilocality is opted for, the couple have to change their names into a common one used for both. This, according to their perception, signifies the durability of the monogamical marriage. It is also customary that a baby shall be given a name when he/she is nearly one year old (so as to feel sure that the child will grow well). If the child often gets sick after being given such name, he/she shall be renamed.
Building houses is considered an important event in the Xinh Mun people’s life. When selecting land plot for house construction, the Xinh Mun people have to make a thin slat of bamboo, called “kho sinh”, which is 15 cm long and folded in sections symbolizing the number of family members. It shall be tied to a stake planted in the middle of the land plot. When a house-warming ceremony is organized, the whole family sit for their meal on the floor right over that stake. It is customary that the Xinh Mun people avoid building their houses on the old grounds. In house construction, the building of main pillar and the kitchen is considered extremely important. The house owner shall have to invite his uncle to erect the pillar and the kitchen. The uncle shall also be the one who build the kitchen fire which must keep burning throughout the ceremony. This may be one of the trace left by the matriarchy which once existed in the process of development of the Xinh Mun ethnos.
According to Xinh Mun ancient customs, when a person in a family breathes his/her last, a family member will fire gunshots in the air as the announcement to the supernatural forces and the local inhabitants of the bad news. Then, a son of the deceased take a kitchen stone throwing at the ancestral altar to show the family’s discontent with deities and ancestors who “took away” from them a family member.
The son-in-law plays an important role in his parents-in-law’s funeral service. He holds a torch walking around the house and build two fires in front of the stairs up into the house in order to prevent “evils” from troubling the family. He is also the person who run all affairs during the funeral service. He is exempt from all taboos which he has to observe on other days. He is the person who unties the blanket or bamboo lattice wrapped around the dead so that members of the family and relatives may see the deceased for the last time, then wraps the corpse again for burial. All the in-laws (sons-in-law, brothers-in-law) shall be responsible for carrying the corpse (without coffin according to Xinh Mun customs and practice) to the graveyard. Before this, the son-in-law shall have to walk around the corpse for five times, then across it once. The deceased’s son shall place an egg on the ground to seek the burial site and make a prayer before the corpse is carried away. On the way to the graveyard, the son walks by the corpse, holding a slat of burning firewood in one hand and a knife in the other waving it in the air in order to keep away all evils.
When reaching the graveyard, the son throws the egg. If it is broken, it means that the dead person has agreed to take that place as the burial site. The grave is only 0.70 to 1 metre deep. Firewood and timber are place on the bottom and the walls of the grave so as to keep the corpse from the earth. Before leaving the graveyard, family members and relatives arrange rocks around the grave. The wife (or husband) and son-in-law of the deceased cut some of their hair and place in front of the grave to show their grievance for the deceased. Returning home, the son-in-law shall have to stamp out all kitchen fires inside and outside the house and bring all cooking-pots to the water streams for cleaning. Then, he himself has to build the fire again to signal that the funeral service is over and the life returns to normal. All taboos must be observed again.
The Xinh Mun people worship their grandparents and parents. They make offerings to their ancestors during the new-rice festival, house-warming party and wedding ceremony. When a son gets married and stays separately, he will build an ancestral altar in his house; but on the new-rice festival, he still goes to his elest brother’s home to worship the ancestors.
All these customs and practices have constituted a system of Xinh Mun folk law which has long been accepted and observed by the people of this ethnic group. They have also spelled out the Xinh Mun’s identity, helping the group survive and thrive.-