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Tug-of-war pulls UNESCO recognition

Update: January, 31/2016 - 06:29
Take the strain: Bamboo tug of war in the northern province of Vinh Phuc's Binh Xuyen District is held from the 15th to the 17th of the second lunar month at a festival held by three local villages.

Different forms of the traditional test of strength take place across Asia-Pacific, and while they entertain the crowds, there is a deep-rooted belief that these rituals will bring a fruitful harvest. Ha Tung Long reports.

A tug-of-war ritual and game played in Viet Nam, Cambodia, the Philippines and South Korea, has been recognised as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

The decision was made at the 10th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which was held in Namibia last year.

The folk game is a unique cultural heritage that is played in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, as a form of prayer for abundant harvest and prosperity. The playing of the game marks the start of the agricultural cycle and often begins with commemorative rites for the worship of local deities.

Tug of war is an ancient game of Vietnamese ethnic minority groups that has been handed down generations throughout the country. Researcher Le Thi Minh Ly, director of the Centre for Research and Development of Cultural Heritage, who has done serious research of the game throughout Viet Nam, recently shared interesting findings from the northern plains.

Sitting tug of war

The game is held every spring, on the third day of the third lunar month, at Tran Vu Temple Festival. The temple is located in Ngoc Tri Village, in Long Bien District's Thach Ban Ward.

According to legend, once the area was hit by drought. Twelve wells in the village went dry, except one well in Dia Hamlet. Villagers flocked to the well to get water. But people living near the well prevented the others from doing so for fear that the water would soon dry up. The two sides battled, pulling buckets and shoulder poles. They sometimes sat on the ground to pull for fear that the water might spill. When the drought ended, elders thought of playing tug of war at the local temple festival to wish for a year of good weather.

The competing teams are selected before the festival. People from families that have had at least five generations living in the village are eligible to play. Ngoc Tri Village has three areas, which are Duong, Dia and Cho. Each area sends its team to compete and also presents offerings to local gods at Tran Vu Temple before entering the competition. Each team has up to 24 strong men. The two teams pull a string made of bamboo.

The interesting feature here is that while the players might be from any area in the village, all want the Duong team to win. They feel as people from the Duong area make a living by cultivating crops, if their team wins, it will mean they will have a bumper harvest and everyone will be hale and hearty. The Dia team is supposed to lose as the local people consider it to be unlucky.

Bamboo tug of war

Tug of war is one of the four folk performances held at Queen Temple Festival, Xuan Lai Village, Xuan Thu Commune, Soc Son District. The festival is organised on the fourth day of the first lunar month to pray for good harvest.

There are 24 hamlets in Xuan Lai Village and each year, only two of them can send teams to participate in the game.

The village elders take a long time in preparing for the ceremony. Two bamboo trees of up to 8m in length are selected. Only elders from happy families and those known to possess good character are given the honour of cutting the trees down. The bamboo trees then are brought to the temple to worship the Queen first before they are made into bamboo string.

The people make nine sections of the bamboo trees for the string's length and three more sections to make the connections.

The preparation takes a long time. The elders don't declare the names of the winning and losing teams at the end of the game. Both teams are given the same prize, while the audience has to figure out who has won and who has lost.

The local people believe that if the team that faces the south wins, the weather will be good throughout the year and they will get bumper crops. If the team facing the north wins, they believe they will get only a good white bean crop, while the rest will not be that good.

The bamboo tug of war has been played for several centuries, despite wars.


Pull hard: The folk game is a unique cultural heritage that takes place in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. VNS Photos Ha Tung Long

Bamboo string

Tug of war (or bamboo string tug of war) in Huong Canh Commune, in Vinh Phuc Province's Binh Xuyen District, is held on 15, 16, 17th day of the second lunar month at the festival of three local villages. Before the competition, a worship ceremony is held at Huong Canh Temple. The offerings include a pig's head, sticky rice cake, steamed sticky rice and wine, besides fruits. The competitors worship local gods before gathering at an open site for the game.

Each village sends two respected elders to conduct the tug of war ceremony. The elders hold the bamboo string, and pull it back and forth for three minutes. Then they direct their village's team to stand in their positions. Two competitors stand in holes, while the last player of each team stands in the last hole.

The first two players of each team are the strongest men of the team and are called "tru song" (pillars of the game).

Tug of war in Bac Ninh

The local tug-of-war festival takes place in Huu Chap Village, in Bac Ninh City's Hoa Long Commune. This is one of the oldest festivals of the Kinh Bac region.

The festival is held on the fourth day of the first lunar month. A worship ceremony takes place in the morning and the tug-of-war game is held in the afternoon.

Two bamboo poles are prepared by strong men over the age of 40, who are from happy families and have both sons and daughters. The players should be between 30 and 37 years old.

The straight bamboo poles have to be more than 20m long. They are then pierced and linked to each other with two shoulder poles. The connecting holes are tied with bamboo strings. The bamboos are then hung at the temple for worship.

Seventy strong men are divided into two teams that face the east and the west, respectively. The team that wins two of three rounds wins the game. In the third round, the audience can join the game as well.

People believe that if the team facing the east wins, it will bring bumper crops and good luck, and that the situation will be just the opposite if the team facing the west wins.

In the third round, many people join the team facing the east to help it win, following a typical belief of those who cultivate rice and worship the Sun God.

In the past few years, the local people having been holding the festival every two years to cut costs. — VNS

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