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Scholar preserves disappearing ethnic writing

Update: April, 20/2014 - 16:52
Preservation: Lo Van Bien teaches the ancient Thai language.

The Thai are one of the few minority tribes with their own script, yet few remember how to write it. Dinh Nhung reports.

The culture of Thai ethnic people, in northwest Viet Nam, is unique in many respects.

This uniqueness is manifested not only in their daily activities but also in the way they celebrate traditional festivals and in their customs. However, changes that have come in the wake of socio-economic development have inevitably led to the loss of these precious traditions.

Considered a "live cultural museum" of the area, 81-year-old Lo Van Bien in Nghia Lo Town in the northern province of Yen Bai, has devoted over half of his life to study, preserve and develop the cultures of the Thai.

During a business trip to Yen Bai, I learnt about Bien through a humorous introduction: "All the cultures of the Thai people are kept in his head."

On meeting him at his house, I was deeply impressed with Bien's appearance: shoulder-length grey hair in contrast with a young smile that never seems to leave his lips. Also, in his stilt house decorated in the tradition of the Black Thai people, he told me about his predestined affinity and concerns about the Thai culture.

Bien was born in 1934 into a well-off family in the cradle of the Thai culture. Though he was introduced to French at a very young age, he was fully aware that French was not his native language. The passion of that smart, agile Thai boy at that time was the ancient Thai script.

The Thai are among the few ethnic groups in Viet Nam who have their own script. The works of high humane value that teach the coming generations how to become useful citizens, however, are mostly written in Thai that few people can read. Therefore, as a young boy, Bien wanted to get hold of his people's script as soon as possible in order to be able to read such precious treasures.

All the villagers could speak the Thai language at that time, but few knew how to write it, except the witch-doctors.

"I remember well the days I started to learn the Thai script at the house of my village's witch-doctor. He was very good at the Thai script, but he was pretty strict. He required his pupils to write one Thai word properly before learning another. While the children were learning to write, he kept working as usual. At times, he checked our work, and if anyone had not written six words well, that student would be expelled," Bien recalls.

"Learning the Thai script was very expensive at that time. Each lesson was equivalent to (the value of) 15 kilograms of rice at the present time," he continues.

When he was young, Bien only wanted to learn the script in order to pursue his personal interest. Unexpectedly, that interest turned into the responsibility of preserving his native script and culture.

Bien became a teacher in 1953, and kept worrying that the Thai script was deteriorating and might disappear one day.

"During the days of French colonial rule, Thai was taught twice a week together with French. But after 1967, the teaching of Thai stopped, and since then the Thai people only know how to speak, but not to write, their script. If the script is not translated and passed onto the next generation, I'm worried that it will soon disappear totally and the cultural features in the handwriting will be lost." It is that concern that encourages teacher Bien to nurture the dream of opening a class for teaching the Thai language to his people.

Teaching tool: Lo Van Bien puts together a Thai textbook.

Thai ethnic people account for over 62 per cent of the population within the area. However, everything was not easy for teacher Bien during the initial days of his class. His biggest problem was how to attract his students, especially the younger ones who had to manage both work and study at school.

During the years when he prepared to start the class, Bien had to travel back and forth within his village to encourage local people to attend.

His first class started in early 2007, with barely ten students, first of whom were the chairman of the commune, the deputy manager of cultural department and the party secretaries of neighbouring communes.

Bien's classroom received VND5 million (US$238) financial support, so each student was given the incentive of VND20,000 ($1) for every night of lessons and a visit to the northern province of Quang Ninh after finishing the course.

After the success of his first course, Bien's classroom continued to receive support from Ford Fund, which was sufficient for him to expand his class to 42 students. The first graduates of his class have since become the backbone of the club of the ancient Thai script.

The club, headed by teacher Bien, set up its own bookshelf, collecting documents, ancient stories, children's songs and folk songs, which would be read and performed at every gathering.

It also offers presents to the collectors of valuable ancient Thai scripts to attract the participation of more members.

Besides his passion for the Thai script, Bien also has a strong passion for national cultural values.

According to an introduction by the local cultural official, Bien knows the national culture, including historical relics and ancient Thai customs, like the back of his hand. He has also made efforts to call for the preservation of historical places of cultural values like Rung Hon Trau (The Forest of Buffalo's Soul) or Nam Toc Tat (Waterfall).

He has visited many provinces where the Thai people are residing, such as the northern provinces of Dien Bien, Lai Chau and Son La, to study and collect cultural values of his people. Bien is especially remembered as the reviver of six ancient dance performances of the Black Thai in northwestern Viet Nam.

"The ancient Thai script originated from ancient Chinese, which was introduced into Viet Nam in the 9th century. Time and changes in local customs have led to the changes in the script. Therefore, preserving the Thai script and teaching it to younger generations is not only my passion but also my responsibility to the national culture. I will keep teaching and telling beautiful stories about my people and land as long as I breathe," Bien asserts. — VNS

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