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First-hand record of the Mong way of life

Update: March, 24/2015 - 17:07

Musical tradition: Khen (bamboo flute) played a very important in the life of Mong people of the early 20th century.

by Bach Lien

I wonder what motivates a young researcher to overcome several difficulties and finish a meticulous work on the Mong people.

In his 400-page book Nhung Dinh Nui Du CaMot Loi Tim ve ca tinh H'Mong (Singing and Travelling Mountains - A Way to Look for Ethnic Mong Personalities), Nguyen Manh Tien depicts the traditional Mong people's way of life and language.

To research for the book, Tien spent four years travelling extensively in the country's northern mountainous regions, where he spent a lot of time living with the local people. Despite his modest salary at the Ha Noi Literature Institute, the researcher was willing to fund his own trips.

The book, released by The Gioi publishing house at the end of 2014, immediately attracts the reader with its poetic title.

When one begins to read the book, it comes across as a meticulously researched work about the destiny of a special ethnic group that has always lived a nomadic life. TieE1n tells their stories with the style of a writer and a historian.

It's no surprise that the book has been highly appreciated by domestic researchers and historians since it's publication. This is a rare work in the Vietnamese literary landscape that tells the life story of the Mong.

TieE1n emphasises that in his book he has written about the traditional MoE2ng people of the past. Very few of those people are still alive.

To find enough documents and information, he made several field trips to the Dong Van Plateau in the northernmost province of Ha Giang which has the largest number of Mong.

As the area was still very remote and isolated, he was sure that he could discover more traditions of the Mong there than in any other region. Moreover, it was probably the only place in Viet Nam where he could meet the chiefs of Mong villages, who could tell him several stories of their traditions.

"The theme research about Mong people attracted me because studying about this ethnic group is a real challenge. It's a special ethnic group among the ones living in the northern mountainous regions," said the 33-year-old author.

Hailing from the D1oEF mountainous area in Dong Son, Thanh Hoa, Tien is passionate about reading famous books by French ethnologists that talk about Vietnamese mountains, including Sons of the Mountains by Jacques Dournes and We Have Eaten the Forest by Georges Condominas.

A unique lifestyle

To do his research, he relied on the historical and social documents that he could collect. Moreover, he analysed the rich oral and literary Mong culture, as well as the psychology of the local people.

Hardcover: The cover of the book about Mong people authored by Nguyen Manh Tien.

From the observations he made, Tien then shortlisted key words that summed up the features of the Mong people: life in exile, being emigrants; orphaned, committing suicide, rebellious, free, dreaming, and powerful.

With these keywords, the author explains the profound reasons behind the habits and actions of the Mongs from the past to the present.

Tien explains that Mong people love living in high mountains -- above 800m -- where they can find the maximum freedom.

What impressed him most during his research was that the Mongs have a rich literary treasure, with several thousand pages of fascinating folk songs.

Surprisingly, 50 per cent of their novels talk about negative feelings of being orphans.

The Mongs have spent their lives living in different places throughout different Asian and South-east Asian countries. The nomadic life didnt improve their life, but they kept moving as a matter of habit.

Continuing his analysis, Tien reveals Mong wives have much more freedom than other people realise.

Mong wives can receive an inheritance from their families. Every month, they have a love market, where they can meet their former lovers again. They can declare love to the men they love. And the two lovers can find ways to convince their parents to let them get married.

The relationship between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law is normally very complicated. The two women try hard to win the heart of the man (son/husband), because the woman who is loved the most by the man will have more power in the family.

This ethnic group is very unique because suicide is common among them. The people commit suicide even if they are a little angry or feel deceived. And to ensure that they die, they eat laF9 ngoF9n(a poisonous leaf easily found in the forest).

The Mong people are also known to be very dreamy. Vietnamese poet Che Lan Vien once said he found their songs the most interesting among those he knew. Mong girls often find lovers through the songs the men sing at spring festivals.

TieE1n found even though the Mong first arrived to Viet Nam three centuries ago, they were still isolated.

He faced several difficulties in doing his research, not because the people lived in the high mountains, but because it was very hard for him to penetrate their lives and talk to them. They don't open up easily to outsiders.

"If we cannot become friends with a Mong person, it will be very difficult to ask them about their private life," Tien said.

"I spent a lot of time building friendships with them. And when they began to appreciate me, they were willing to share their inner feelings," he said.

Despite his efforts, he admitted he needed more time to better understand the Mong.

At the end of the book, Tien reflects on the importance of mountains in the revolutionary history of Viet Nam. The mountainous regions have a more important role than several documents had acknowledged. It's where the Vietnamese resistance army forces hid during wars, helping the nation to be victorious.

Along with an attractive storytelling style of the author, the book has precious documented photos of the local people and festivals of different periods.

It's a book worth reading for those who are curious to know more about Vietnamese culture, and particularly about the Mong, one of the four most populous and most important ethnic groups that has had a cultural and political influence on the development of Viet Nam. — VNS

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