The Dao: repository of rich cultural treasures

April 08, 2018 - 09:00

The lifestyle and culture of the ethnic Dao have an aura of mystique, but authorities are now keen on developing and preserving them.

Marking growth: A maturity ritual festival held by the Dao people. VNA/VNS Photos Thanh Hà
Viet Nam News

by Nguyễn Văn Tý and Hà Nguyễn

They say they could treat serious ailments like liver cirrhosis and cancer with wild herbs.

They can drink wine day and night without getting drunk.

They have unique worship and rite of passage rituals, as also folk song traditions.

These aspects of their lifestyle and culture lend the ethnic Dao an aura of mystique, but authorities are now keen on developing and preserving them.

Vũ Dương Châu, a member of the Việt Nam Motherland Front Central Committee, stresses the characteristics that are particular to the Dao, saying these are reflected in their traditional architecture, attires, cuisine, crafts, festivals and folk songs as well as herbal medicine.

Châu says that the Dao Đỏ (Red Dao) people are adept at extracting herbal medicines from forests to treat liver ailments and other diseases like cancer.

Giang Trịnh Tuân, a medicinal herb researcher in Yên Bái Province’s Văn Chấn District, says almost all Dao Đỏ adults can drink wine the whole day long without getting drunk because they drink wild herb water every day instead of tea.

Herbalist Bàn Văn Quang says the Dao Đỏ people pick wild herbs in the forests, cut them into pieces, and dry and keep them on the smoking shelf over their cooking fire. “Each day they put a handful of such dried herbs into a pot and boil it for every family members to drink all day.”

“This water ensures that very few of them suffer from any liver diseases.”

Spiritual significance: A worship ceremony of the Dao.

Quang further says that many of the traditional treatments used by the Dao Đỏ are written in books maintained by their ancestors. However, every herbalist knows very well the remedy for liver ailments.

“Some herbs that grow widely in the forest can be used to treat liver cirrhosis. Several patients with ailments that hospitals had given up on have recovered because of these medicines,” he says.

Plants on high mountains and old forests or grown on high cliffs are most valuable. These herbs may although not completely kill viruses in the liver, but they create an environment to protect the liver and prevent the viruses from growing further, Quang says.

He also says that the Dao Đỏ know very well the importance of preserving the herbs they have been using for centuries. Each time they take one, they ensure that they plant several more.

Herbalist Phạm Văn Thanh, famous in the area for his stomach-ache remedy, says the herbal water that the Dao Đỏ drink is very healthy and has no side-effects.

Powerful deities

The worshipping traditions and rituals of the Dao people have been maintained through generations, showing their importance in the lives of the community, says 90-year-old herbalist Phùng Chương Chí in Tuyên Quang’s Thổ Bình Village in Lâm Bình District.

Chí says the rituals direct people to remember their origins and stay away from evil thoughts and actions; they also strengthen the spirit of the community.

The Dao use green, red, purple, yellow, black and white coloured “worship paintings” in their rituals. For instance, for Tết (Lunar New Year) festival, they use paintings of various deities, including the Deities of Earth and Hell, who they believe protect people’s live.

Artisan Phàn Văn Phú of Tuyên Quang’s Tân Thành Village says the worship paintings are of deities who know everything and will punish all evil acts. "People thinking of doing something bad will think again while looking at these paintings," he says.

Maturity ritual

Artisan Bàn Kim Sơn, of Tuyên Quang’s Nà Cọn Village in Na Hang District, where 71 per cent of the population is Dao, says the maturity ritual (Cấp sắc) is the most special tradition of the Dao. No adult male can avoid it, because it is only after this ritual that he is seen as a grown up with the right to join all community activities. They believe what if a person does not undergo this ritual, he will never be able to meet with his ancestors after his death.

Worship ceremony: Maturity rituals of Dao ethnic group.Dao traditions of worship, herbal medicine and folk singing have been practised for generations. VNA/VNS Photo Quang Đán

The maturity ritual is held in the last two months of the lunar year, most of the time. Sometimes, it is held in the first month. After some rituals are performed in the house, the ceremony moves outside, with dancing and folk game performances.

The maturity ritual was recognised as a national intangible cultural heritage in November 2013.

Special folk song

Folk singing Páo Dung is a cultural treasure of the Dao, reflecting their sentiments and aspirations. A tradition that goes many centuries, it is classified on the basis of the activity that is sung about, including lullabies, songs sung while working, songs that praise the natural landscape and even songs about premarital sex. 

This folk singing was also recognized as a national intangible heritage in 2013.

Working together: Adult Dao people join a class to learn how to protect intangible cultural heritage. VNA/VNS Photo Thu Hằng

Trần Đức Thắng, head of cultural heritage office with the Tuyên Quang provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, says Páo Dung songs reflect purity of the Dao soul, while educating and helping people understand the community and their origins.

However, Thắng adds that many of the ancient Páo Dung songs have been lost, but only herbalists know them, especially those to do with rituals and religious ceremonies.

“The department is co-ordinating with relevant agencies to develop and preserve the folk songs by encouraging locals who still keep the songs to translate them into Kinh (universal Việt language) and popularise them among the community. Contests and seminars on the traditional singing have been held every year.

The first national Dao cultural festival was held last September with officials from relevant agencies and local singing masters agreeing to promote awareness of their traditions among the ethnic communities within and outside the country. They also agreed to work together on finding solutions to preserve their traditions.

Landmark event: A performance of the Dao ethnic group at the first Dao festival held in Tuyên Quang. VNA/VNS Photo Trọng Đức

Importance will be given to broadcasting news and Dao activities via radio and TV in the Dao language, and it is planned that the tourism potential of genuine local traditions is exploited in order to preserve intangible heritages like the Páo Dung folk songs, worshipping and maturity rituals, says Thắng.

There are nine ethnic Dao branches: Dao Đỏ, Dao Tiền, Dao Coóc Mùn, Dao Quần Chẹt, Dao Ô Gang or Lồ Gang, Dao Coóc Ngáng, Dao Quần Trắng, Dao Thanh Y and Dao Áo Dài.

Dao Đỏ are the majority. The Dao live in 12 northern mountainous provinces: Quảng Ninh, Lạng Sơn, Cao Bằng, Thái Nguyên, Bắc Kạn, Bắc Giang, Phú Thọ, Yên Bái, Lào Cai and Lai Châu, but nearly half of them live in Tuyên Quang.

“Many activities will be held with the aim of encouraging young Dao people to learn, develop and preserve their valuable cultural heritage,” Thắng says.— VNS