While carrying out the project in the Guangxi Ethnic Institute, China, I was particularly interested in the following question: Are there any similarities in the cultures, especially in the religious beliefs, of the Thai language-speaking ethnic groups in a country, and in the whole Southeast Asian region? This question is meant to compare the religious beliefs of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang and the study will be part of the general comparative studies done on other Thai language-speaking ethnic groups in Southeast Asia.
I am also interested in the viewpoints of Chinese scholars regarding the common origin of the Thai language-speaking ethnic groups in Southeast Asia. Noteworthy are the arguments of Prof. Pham Hong Qui, author of the book Ethnicities of the Same Origin, which introduces almost all the Thai language-speaking groups in Southeast Asia. When presenting the origin of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang, I will consider his findings a major factor leading to the similarities in the language, customs, habits as well as religious beliefs of the three above-mentioned ethnic groups.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang belong to the Zhuang-Dong ethno-linguistic family of the Bach Viet group. According to Chinese scholars, the Bach Viet ethnic group came into existence during the Ha-Thuong period (circa 21st to16th century BC). Their main residential areas spread over the south of the Changjiang river, including Fujian, Yunnam, Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou, part of Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, Hainan island, Taiwan and north Viet Nam. The Bach Viet group consisted of 17 sub-groups; the Tay, Nung and Zhuang belonged to the Tay Au Lac Viet sub-group.
During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period (722-221 BC), the first Viet population established the countries of Ngo and Viet in the central and lower part of the Changjiang river. In 473 BC, the Viet defeated the Ngo. In 323 BC, the So conquered the Viet and unified all the six countries. Along the course of historical upheavals, the Viet ethnic group dispersed and then united, hence its name “Bach Viet,” which means many sub-groups of the Viet ethnicity, including the Dong Au, Man Viet, Nam Viet, Lac Viet, Dien Viet, to name a few. They followed the regime of unitarian pluralism of the Tan-Han dynasties (221 BC – 220 AD). Under this regime, the Dong Au and the Man Viet were incorporated into the district-commandery administrative system. Their population was sinicized and came under the domination of the Chinese dynasties. The Nam Viet became part of the Lac Viet, which was called Liao Li after the Wei-Jin dynasties (220-439 AD). From the Sui-Tang dynasties onwards (581-907), the Lac Viet became the ancestors of different ethnic groups in Guangxi, Guangdong, Yunnam, Guizhou (in China) and in northern Viet Nam. Liao itself was divided into various sections, from which the Tay Nguyen Man gave rise to the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. In brief, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang all stemmed from the Tay Nguyen Man under the Lac Viet in the group of Bach Viet which existed since the Tang dynasty (618-907).
There was no clear border between Viet Nam and China prior to the 11th century. The residential areas of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang spread over Guangxi province in China and the northeastern provinces of Viet Nam. The leader of these groups, Nung Tri Cao, advocated for the establishment of a country named Truong Sinh in the area between Viet Nam and China. In 1805, the Chinese Song dynasty defeated Nung Tri Cao and reached an agreement with the Vietnamese Ly dynasty to define the border which remains basically the same as today. Since then, the Zhuang in China and the Tay in Viet Bac, Viet Nam have pursued their separate development, under the influence of successive dynasties in China and Viet Nam.
The Nung group in Viet Nam was formed from a group of Chinese Zhuang migrants who came to Viet Nam 300 years ago. Their family records (genealogy) trace their origin back to the Nung clan of the Zhuang in Guangxi, China. The language and culture of the Nung in Viet Nam are close to those of the Nung clan of the Zhuang.
In short, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang all originated from the Lac Viet group in the Tan-Han dynasties, the Liao group in the Wei-Jin dynasties and the Tay Nguyen Man Lieu of the Tuy-Tang dynasties. After the establishment of independent feudal dynasties in Viet Nam, they were separated and lived in different countries. The Zhuang and the Tay were formed first, then the Nung. The process of ethnic separation took place as early as the 11th century (the Tay) and some 300 years ago (the Nung). The Nung in Viet Nam are characterised by the indigenous features of the Nung in China and those of the Tay in Viet Nam as a result of cultural exchange.
Residential areas and population
In Viet Nam, the Tay intermingled with the Nung. It can be said that the Nung people can be found wherever the Tay live. Their main residential areas are the northeastern mountainous region and some provinces in south Viet Nam. The most populous areas of the Tay and Nung are Viet Bac, which accounts for up to 90 percent of their total population, then Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces. According to the 1999 population census, up to 1 April 1999, the Tay had a population of 1,477,514, ranking 2nd to the Kinh. The Nung had 7,856,412 people, ranking 6th to the Tay, Thai, Muong, Hoa and Khmer ethnic groups.
The Zhuang mainly reside in the provinces of Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, Hunan, Shanxi, Sichuan. According to China’s 5th population census (1 November 1999-31 October 2000), the Zhuang had over 16 million people, the largest ethnic minority group in China. Guangxi is their main residential place, 60 percent of whose area is inhabited by 15 million of Zhuang people, including Liaozhou, Nanning, Baice, Hechi. Over one million Zhuang live in Yunnan. The rest are scattered in various provinces.
Natural conditions and characteristics of traditional production
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang’s residential areas have similar natural conditions. The Zhuang (in Yunnan) lives in Van Quy plateau, which runs to the northern mountainous area of Viet Nam and the northwestern region of Guangxi. Some rivers flow past the Viet Nam-China border such as the Ky Cung river and Hong Ha river. In general the three ethnic groups live in areas suitable for wet rice cultivation.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang live in a tropical and sub-tropical climatic zone. The temperature is around 20oC and the annual rainfall measures up to 1500mm. Its mild climate (long, mild summer and short, warm winter) facilitates crop cultivation. However, there are unfavourable factors for agriculture like cold weather, drought, or hailstorms. These natural environmental and climatic conditions facilitate agricultural production. Their traditional production includes crop cultivation, animal husbandry and cottage industry.
Wet rice constitutes the main food crop of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. They have one or two crops a year, depending on sunlight. In addition, they grow other crops of high economic value such as corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts, bananas, mandarin oranges and so on. The local residents also grow medicinal herbs and trees like cinnamon or anise.
Household animal husbandry develops chiefly draught animals like buffaloes, oxen and horses, poultry for food and sacrificial offerings during festivals. Fish cultivation is also done in some places.
Cotton weaving, carpentry, and metal-work are the main handicrafts of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. However, cotton growing has decreased, especially among the Zhuang. Carpentry and metal-work still provide domestic and production tools for the people.
Social organization and traditional culture
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang followed a similar form of feudal social organization built on three levels: big mêng, small mêng, and b¶n. Each big mêng was ruled by a lord who belonged to one of the prestigious family clans such as the Hoµng, N«ng, Vi, or BÕ. Later, the above-mentioned form of social organization was reorganised into administrative echelons: phñ (prefecture), huyÖn (district), ch©u (sub-prefecture), and x· (commune). After 1945 (in Viet Nam) and 1949 (in China), the Tay, Nung and Zhuang adopted the leadership of the Communist Party. As they are more exposed to European civilization, their social organization has undergone changes accordingly.
The following are some common cultural characteristics of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang:
1) They still retain similarities in terms of traditional culture, or southern culture, as shown in the following aspects:
+ Wet rice growing and valley irrigation systems
+ Stilt houses for residence
+ Rice is served with fish and vegetable as daily food
+ Ancestral worship, and others.
2) They are all influenced by Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
3) They are all influenced by northern cultures: ground-level houses and raglan garments for the upper part of the body. Among them, the Zhuang group is the most heavily influenced by northern cultures, followed by the Nïng and theTay.
Religious beliefs of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang in comparison
Concept of souls and divine world
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang share the same animist concept. They hold that all things in this earthly world, from human beings to animals, even inanimate things like land, stone, fire, water, and so on, have souls. The body and the soul co-exist. When the soul departs from the body, human beings or animals will fall sick, trees will be damaged by pests, and tools broken down. This concept has given rise to related rituals such as chieu hon, chuoc hon, or goi hon (calling back or invoking the soul). They also deem that the souls are immortal. When the body disappears, the soul will change into another form--deities, ghosts, spirits, for example. If a person dies naturally, his/her soul will turn into an ancestor to bestow favours on his/her family. However, an unexpected death will turn the soul into a wicked spirit that does harm to people.
Concept of the world of divinities and devils
"Phi" is a word which denotes all the spirits and devils of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. There are two kinds of phi. Good phi, including deities and family ancestors, are worshipped in temples or at home. Evil phi are wandering devils and are not worshipped.
Phi exists in the sky, on earth and in muong ma. In the sky, phi are such gods as Then, Put, fairies, deities, ancestors, patriarchs, sun god, moon god, and so on. They govern the Heaven and at the same time exert influence on earthly life. Some are worshipped in temples. Other gods like the sun god, the moon god have no fixed place of worship. In case of need, people set up altars to invite them to enjoy sacrificial offerings and to bestow favours on them. These benevolent gods are protectors of human life. However, when a person displeases them, he has to make sacrificial offerings to ask for their forgiveness.
Earthly Phi includes deities of mountains, rivers, forests and so forth, who reside in mountain peaks, big pools of water or large stones. They can use their own magic powers to bestow blessings on people upon the latter’s request. They do no harm to anybody. However, such blasphemous acts as chopping big trees, entering the forest, sitting on a stone will be punished. In such cases, the guilty person must prepare sacrificial offerings to ask for the deities' forgiveness.
Phi in muong ma comprises devils which come from unexpected deaths. These devils often do harm to people. When people suffer from illness or mishaps, they ask sorcerers to enter muong ma to ward off these evils.
Generally, the Tay, Nung, and Zhuang share the same concepts of animism, of immortal souls and of phi. Such concepts influence their spiritual life and have given rise to the numerous religious activities we will present in the next part.
There are differences in the ways of explaining souls. The concept of a three-soul people is popular among the Tay, Nung, and Zhuang. However, a section of the Tay deems that people have 7 or 12 souls. In addition, the number and the type of phi also vary considerably. The cult of sun god is popular among the Zhuang, but not among the Tay and Nung.
Traditional folk beliefs
The cult of sky and earth
In the conception of the Tay, Nung, and Zhuang, the sky god (pha) in muong troi (muong pha) is the supreme deity who governs all earthly affairs. The cult of the sky god is practised in every family. The ritual of worship takes the following form:
Setting up an outdoor altar: On the morning of the 1st day of the new year, the Zhuang have a custom of arranging sacrificial offerings in front of their doors. It is meant to send the sky god a wish for peace. In other places, whenever disputes arise between two families or two individuals, they will prepare sacrificial offerings and display them on the ground. Then they light incense and make a vow before the sky and earth.
Praying: This is common among the three ethnic groups. People pray when they face difficulties or experience mishaps; they pray for blessings from the sky and earth.
The cult of the sun god and the belief of sorcerers: Under the influence of the sorcerers’ religious dogma, the cult of the sun god has been transformed into the cult of Then, Put, Mo, or Mot. Whatever name it may take, it refers to only one category of deities in the sky. The word Then derives from the Chinese word Thien which means “sky.” These deities are worshipped at the sorcerer’s house. When the sorcerer goes to the family of a client to practice his craft, these deities will be worshipped in the latter’s house.
Ancestral worship constitutes the fundamental belief of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Here the term “ancestors” is understood in its broader sense. It includes the ancestors of the family, of the clan, of the craft, of the village, or of the ethnic group. This reflects people’s gratitude to the founders of the family, the village or the leaders who rendered merits to the whole ethnic group. This cult of ancestors can be viewed at the following levels:
The cult of the Creator of humanity
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang share the cult of Mother Hoa—the goddess of fecundity and their Creator. According to Zhuang legend and sorcerers’ religious books, Mother Hoa or Luc Giap was the first woman who came out of a flower upon the formation of the universe. As an intelligent woman, she created mountains, rivers, human beings and animals. She also sat astride to make shelter for people. Legend has it that she is in charge of reproduction. She has the power to distribute offspring to the people on earth. The Nham Son Grotto in Dong Lan district is considered her genitals; this place is supposed to have given birth to the Zhuang. On the 15th day of the 1st lunar month and on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, the local people bring votive offerings to the Grotto to celebrate the festival called the Genitals Grotto Festival. Besides its ritual part, the festival also consists of story telling about the Mother-Creator and alternate love duets by young men and women. The cult of Mother Luc Giap as the Creator of the Zhuang has been transformed into the cult of Mother Hoa--the Mother of Fecundity--in various forms among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang.
The legend of the Zhuang also narrates the story of a wise man called Poloto who helped people live on earth. He created the sun, the moon, animals, discovered fire, seeds of cereals and put all creatures in order. The Zhuang also worship him as their Father-Creator. Sometimes Mother Luc Giap is considered Poloto’s wife. They become Parents-Creators of the Zhuang. In the basin of the Hong Ha river, the Zhuang organize a big festival to express gratitude to their Parents-Creators. During the festival, people prepare flags with rainbow images representing Poloto’s genitals. According to a local legend, Poloto used his male organ to link the two banks of the Hong Ha river so that young men and women can meet to exchange love duets and to further develop the race. This accounts for the practice of singing in praise of parents’ merits and for the alternate love duets performed during the annual ritual of making sacrificial offerings to the Parents-Creators.
The cult of Parents-Creators is more remarkable among the Zhuang than among the Tay and Nung. The Zhuang have given rise to the cult of genitals or Parents-Creators. It can be said that the cult of Poloto, Father-Creator, came into existence after the cult of Luc Giap, Mother-Creator. The Tay and Nung have no legend connected with Father Poloto and Mother Luc Giap. Instead, the Tay have two legendary characters Pu Luong (Mr. Big) and Slao Cai (Mrs. Big). They are believed to have created human beings and invented agriculture. However, they are only legendary personages and are not worshipped like Father Poloto and Mother Luc Giap of the Zhuang.
Vestiges of the Tay and Nung cult of Creator are found in the cult of Mother Hoa, or Mother Luc Giap of the Zhuang. The Tay and Nung still preserve festivals associated with the cult of fecundity, and alternate love duets which are performed on market days are more or less linked to the cult of Parents-Creators of the Zhuang.
The practice of worshipping ancestors of the family clan
The practice of worshipping ancestors of the family clan makes up the most important part of the cult of ancestors of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. The following criteria can be used to discuss the similarities and differences of their practice of ancestral worship.
The concept of ancestors
This concept varies from ethnicity to ethnicity and from locality to locality. Generally, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang deem that people will continue to be the same in their afterlife. The deceased can still take care of and bestow favours upon the surviving family or even ward off evil spirits. The Tay, Nung and Zhuang hold that when a person passes away, his/her soul is divided into three parts: One will go to the sky, one to the cemetery and one comes back to the deceased’s family. The third is called phi ruon (home ghosts). Phi ruon are regarded as direct ancestors, they should be worshipped and given sacrificial offerings on festivals and fixed days. Generally speaking, phi ruon often bestow favours on the family. However, if they are displeased, they may impose punishments like mishaps or illness for people, or death for animals. The guilty person must then prepare sacrificial offerings to beg forgiveness.
An altar is the place where ancestors stay when they are invited to enjoy the votive offerings. To practice ancestral worship means setting up an altar dedicated to ancestors. Every Tay, Nung and Zhuang family has its own altar, which is placed in the middle compartment of the house. Below are fundamental similarities in the procedure of setting up an altar among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang:
- Whether simply or exquisitely decorated, the altar always contains an incense burner dedicated to the family’s ancestors; the rituals of worship are elaborate.
- There are taboos which must be observed. One cannot put impure offerings such as cattle meat or dog meat on the alter; pregnant women are not allowed to get close to the altar, and so on.
- There must be a separate altar in the corner of the house for the deceased, if the period from their death up to the moment of setting up an altar is less than three years. Only after a three year period can they be worshipped at the altar for ancestors.
- The decoration of the altar is basically the same; yet it may be simple or exquisite, depending on the local population.
The major difference in the altar of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang is that apart from worshipping tables for ancestors, other deities may be included for worship. In some areas inhabited by the Zhuang, deities of the family clan like Mac Nhat dai vuong are also venerated. This kind of worship is not popular among the Tay and the Nung.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have similar worship rituals, including regular and extraordinary ones. Regular rituals are performed on traditional celebrations prescribed in the yearly calendar. During festivals, offering incense to the family’s ancestors is a must. The three ethnic groups hold three big festivals, which are also dedicated to ancestors, namely: lunar new year, cleansing graves on the 3th day of the 3th lunar month, and the festival on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month. People slaughter domestic animals and poultry to make sacrificial offerings to ancestors.
Extraordinary rituals are diverse. Noteworthy is the ritual of paying gratitude to ancestors. When a family member falls sick or cattle die of illness, one would go to the sorcerer to seek advice. If the sorcerer says that this is due to the ancestors’ displeasure, the concerned person must prepare votive offerings and invite the sorcerer to hold a ceremony to beg for their forgiveness. Presiding over the family’s fortune, the ancestors are always involved on important occasions like weddings, funerals, or house building, therefore one must always seek their permission and blessing.
Worshipping ancestors of the family clan
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang also worship ancestors of the family clan. The places of worship are varied: at the foot of a tree, a corner of a forest, a stone or in the clan worship house. In comparison with the Tay and the Nung, the Zhuang practise this cult on a larger scale. Each family clan has its own worship house. On fixed days or on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, the clan’s members gather there for ancestral worship.
In the suburbs of Nanning, Guangxi, the Luong clan holds its ceremony of ancestral worship at the Bach Son temple on the 18th day of the 3rd lunar month. Thousands of clan descendants attend the ceremony. It is said that the ancestors of the Luong clan came to Nanning in the 11th century under the Song dynasty.
In general, the practice of worshipping ancestors of the family clan is not as popular as the cult of family ancestors among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Not every family clan or locality has this kind of ancestral worship.
Worshipping witchcraft founders
Besides ancestral worship, the sorcerers of Tay, Nung, Zhuang background also venerate their masters who handed down the craft to them. This cult reflects the indigenous characters of the ancestral worship found among the three ethnic groups. Generally speaking, the cult of witchcraft founders follows a prescribed hierarchy as presented below:
- Worshipping ancestors of the family (including past sorcerers)
- Worshipping the founders of the witchcraft of the family (father-master and mother-master who passed down the witchcraft to the first sorcerer within the family)
- Worshipping the father-master and mother-master of the sorcerer (deceased and living)
- Worshipping the witchcraft ancestry including heaven generals and troops, the Jade Emperor (Father) and Kwan Yin (Mother)
The concept of witchcraft founders is generally the same among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. The most salient difference is the diverse forms of worship conducted by varied types of sorcerers.
The cult of land gods-village founder
There is a temple dedicated to the land god in each village of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Land gods are tutelary deities of the village, who set up the village or rendered merits to the community. In many localities, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang deem that the family ancestors of the third generation upwards may become land gods. Worshipping land gods echoes the cult of family ancestral worship. In the people’s concept, the land god is like the venerable village elder. Whatever affair, big or small, must be reported to it. The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have a custom of inviting their land gods to enjoy sacrificial offerings on New Year’s Eve before their own parties.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have the same rituals for the cult of land gods, including both regular and extraordinary ceremonies. The worship ceremony in commemoration of the land gods is held on a fixed day, mainly at the beginning of the year, to pray for bumper crops and relieving the villagers’ bad luck. The local people donate to this ceremony. In case of need, a family can make votive offerings to the land god to seek the latter’s blessing.
The architecture of the temple dedicated to the land god, the time and way of conducting worship rituals are three aspects where the Tay, Nung and Zhuang differ. Very often, the temple is simply decorated, usually only with an altar and an incense burner. It sometimes includes just an incense burner put onto the hole of a big tree. Nowadays, in some areas inhabited by the Zhuang, statues are also placed in the temple. In addition, the Zhuang worship inter-hamlet deities--deities who govern several hamlets. In some areas in Ma Son district, Guangxi, large-scale temples dedicated to street deities are built with functions similar to those dedicated to village deities, i.e. a place where one can ask for blessings.
Deities of the ethnic group
Many temples dedicated to Nung Tri Cao are found along the Viet Nam–China border, in places such as the Tinh Tay, Thien Dang districts, Guangxi and the autonomous zone of the Zhuang in Van Son, Yunnan as well as some districts of Cao Bang, Lang Son provinces in Viet Nam. In mid-11th century, Nung Tri Cao, leader of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang, was defeated by the Song dynasty. He retreated to Nguyen Giang district next to Xixoangbana, Yunnan. The local people worship him as their emperor (Heaven’s son) in temples and at home, in an altar or outdoors. The time for the annual sacrificial ceremony varies considerably from the 5th to the 7th lunar month.
Temples dedicated to Nung Tri Cao exist in both Viet Nam and China. Though small in number they are influential in the locals’ spirituality, attracting quite a few pilgrims during festivals or on the 1st and the 15th day of every lunar month.
The cult of Nung Tri Cao as a deity is practised within the residential areas of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. It is not popular in the area north of the habitation of the Zhuang and places of the Tay and Nung other than Cao Bang and Lang Son. This implies that prior to the 11th century, there was no such clear border between Viet Nam and China. The local ethnic groups were not separated and they had one common leader. This also explains the close relation between customs, habits and beliefs of the local populations.
The cult of deities of nature
Agriculture constitutes the traditional livelihood of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang; they rely much on favourable weather for bumper crops. Veneration of nature can be considered the primitive belief of these ethnic groups. The deities of the natural world can be classified into the following groups:
Deities in natural environment
Such natural phenomena as clouds, sunlight, wind have close touch with human life and production activities, especially agricultural production. Like other ethnic groups, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang pay respect to natural phenomena and consider them “deities in charge of natural environment.”
The sun brings about light and life for all creatures on earth. The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have many sun-related legends. Among them are legends depicting the creation of the sun, the sun giving birth, the shooting at the sun, the rooster searching for the sun, or the marriage between the sun and the moon. The cult of the sun god is popular in the residential areas of the Zhuang in Yunnan. The ceremony dedicated to the sun god is held solemnly on a fine day of the first or second lunar month. Sacrificial offerings must comprise a rooster, which, as legend puts it, can wake up the sun.
Water is a necessity in human life in general, and in crop growing in particular. The cult of water is diverse among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. They venerate a series of deities in charge of water. The supreme ones include the sun mother and thunder god in the sky, the dragon divinity, the water god and river god on earth. The rituals vary from ethnic group to ethnic group and from locality to locality. They mainly include regular and extraordinary rituals. The latter especially are held in case of drought.
The cult of water has given rise to special rituals. In Dong Lan district, Guangxi, the local people worship the frog goddess, daughter of the thunder god. As the goddess of prosperity, she is the object of worship in annual festivals held in the second half of the 1st lunar month. The cult of water also leads to unique taboos observed by these three ethnic groups. They consider the rainbow a bad omen. The place to which the rainbow points will be deprived of water. People in such places must slaughter pigs to make offerings to the gods to ward off this bad omen.
Fire is also a necessity in the people’s daily life. There are special rituals in connection with the cult of the fire god. In some places, the Zhuang put food into a fire as an offering to the god. The cult of the fire god leads to the cult of the kitchen god, which is popular among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. On new year’s eve, they stick a worship tablet in red paper onto the cooking stove and prepare offerings for the kitchen god.
In general, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang share the cult of sun, water and fire, which are more or less linked with the different legends explaining the formation of the sun, water and fire. To put it in another way, these legendary deities have been converted into objects of worship. The rituals of worship of the Zhuang are more diverse than those of the Tay and the Nung.
In the natural environment there are also other factors such as mountains, trees, stone, and so on that directly or indirectly affect human life. Each of these objects is worshipped through a specific deity that represents it. Upon entering the forest to hunt or gather wood, people pray to the mountain god. They worship the grass deity if they wish for luxuriant grass cover. Trees and stones are considered shelters of gods or their metamorphoses. Therefore, big trees or large stones often become places of worshipping the mountain gods. There are different types of tree deities, including the tree god-protector of human beings and their villages, ancestral tree god which represents a family clan or the tree god providing shelter for land gods. Quite a few extraordinary customs relate to the cult of the tree. For instance, there is the practice of considering a tree the foster father of a sick child, or the practice of growing trees as ways of wishing the elderly or the young good health. Similarly, stone deities are diverse. There are the stone god-village local god (usually a stone by a big tree or a stone of strange shape), stone gods of the rice fields or protectors of fruit trees, or stone deities in a pass.
In a nutshell, the natural world deities of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang reflect their conception of the important role of nature in their life. This belief indirectly generates an awareness of environmental protection.
Deities in connection with agricultural production
The cult of deities in connection with agricultural production is popular among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Of the deities in close touch with production activities, agricultural gods make up the majority; they consist of the moon god, cereal god, field god, rice god and so on. These deities are worshipped in various forms and manner, but they are mainly in people’s hearts. They have no fixed places of worship. The rituals dedicated to them are carried out on certain occasions or in case of need.
Wet - rice civilization has given rise to the conception of the sun as the “great yang” and the moon as the “great yin”. Consequently, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang consider the moon the great mother, specifically in charge of agricultural production, among many other things. The cult of the moon via the incarnation of Lady Moon is popular along the Viet Nam-China border, spreading over the provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Can, Lang Son, Ha Giang in Viet Nam and the districts of Tinh Tay, Duc Bao, Dai Tan, Thien Dang in Guangxi. The rituals for this cult are much more diverse in Viet Nam than in China; in Viet Nam, the locals consider the rituals a big festival of praying for bumper crops
The animist concept finds its expression in the cult of deities in connection with agricultural production. The Zhuang, Tay and Nung consecrate many elements of production activities to their deities. Thus they venerate the field god, the rice god, and even the production tools are sanctified. Buffaloes are much loved for their important role in agriculture. People are always considerate toward their buffaloes and feed them good food during festivals and holidays. The Zhuang hold a ceremony dedicated to the buffalo god on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month—the day he is dispatched to the earth, which is also his birthday. Meanwhile, the Tay and the Nung celebrate their festival of calling the buffalo’s soul on the 6th day of the 6th lunar month. Basically, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang share the same cult of deities connected with production. The rituals are, however, different from locality to locality as the timing of crops of each ethnic group is not the same, leading to the similarities and differences as characterized in folk culture. In addition, the cult of some gods, e.g. that of the grass god or farm tool god is not so popular among the Tay and the Nung as among the Zhuang people.
Mediums and sorcerers
There are two categories of rituals, regular and special, that must be observed among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Regular rituals can be performed by ordinary people. They usually involve making votive offerings such as flowers and incense to gods to ask for their blessing. But when it comes to funerals, disease treatment, warding off evil, or granting a sorcerer a certificate of his qualification, individuals with special ability to mediate or control deities are required. These special individuals, often called sorcerers and mediums, have different names and are categorized as follows:
Then, Put, Tien, Mot and so on
Majority are women, men are rarely seen among them. Their ancestors were more or less associated with witchcraft. They all boast the ability to perform incarnations and embodiments of the soul. Before practicing the craft, they all suffer from physical illness or mental disabilities. They differ from other sorcerers in that they can act as mediators between deities and spirits on the one hand and ordinary people on the other. Thus they can help clients talk with the latter’s ancestors, with deities and devils. While practicing the craft, they simultaneously function as fortune-tellers, sorcerers and physicians. The know-how of this craft is orally handed down from generation to generation as a folk custom. Their main functions are to relieve one’s bad luck, foretell one’s future, cure diseases or conduct rituals related to child bearing and rearing.
The forms of Then, Put and Tien are popular in the Viet Nam-China border along with the rituals and instruments they use. The Tay prefer Then with the accompaniment of music and singing, which is not typical among the Nung. Having the same functions as Then, Put and Tien, Mot is popular in the northern area of the Zhuang.
They are all men; they are called su cong when practicing their craft. Mo masters of the Tay and the Nung are indigenous sorcerers. They pray in their local dialects to relieve one’s bad luck, ward off evil spirits, present offerings to one’s ancestral grave. They also assist Tao masters in funerals. The Mo masters of the Zhuang are better organized than those of the Tay and Nung. They observe the annual ceremony of nhay than dancing, wearing dozens of deity masks. Their religious books are in Nom-Zhuang script. Today, the number of Mo Masters has been depleted, and the activity of nhay than is almost extinct.
These Buddhist sorcerers reside mainly in the northern part of the Zhuang area (Long Thang district, Que Lam city). The Tay and the Nung have no such sorcerers. Buddhism came to this area around 618-907 AD under the Tang dynasty. However, this sect of Buddhism is different from Theravada or Mahayana. It has no popular character and no strict discipline. Its dogmas are complicated and mixed. Its disciples do not enter monkhood. They can eat meat, even get married and have children. Apart from ceremonial occasions, they look like ordinary people. Their main tasks are to please the souls of the deceased, soothe ancestral graves, ward off evil spirits, conduct services and ceremonies, relieve one’s bad luck or foretell one’s future. During their rituals they read Kim Cuong or Dia Tang sutras in Chinese but do not observe the rites prescribed for the Most Venerable monk.
They are imbued with Taoist characteristics. In the community of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang, Tao masters use religious books in Han script which originated from the Zhuang residential area. Generally speaking, all Tao masters of the three ethnic groups are the same, except for their different names and various outfits and rituals. Tao masters perform rituals in funerals, hold a ceremony to cure diseases by warding off evil spirits or making offerings to pray for peace and prosperity for their client’s family and village. They can function as soothsayers who advise people regarding their daily affairs.
In the perception of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang, Tao masters are the highest-ranking sorcerers given their professional way of performing rituals and their literacy. Indigenous sorcerers like Then, Put, Tien, Mot or Mo regard a Tao master their master, despite their different ways of practising the craft. These above-mentioned sorcerers can be found in every residential area of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. In some places in the northern part of the Zhuang residential area, Tao masters are replaced by hoa tang (or su cong). These sorcerers all come under the influence of Tao masters through the rite of granting qualification certificates. Each Then, Put, Tien or Mot sorcerer must learn how to practise witchcraft with a mother master. In the ceremony of qualification certificate granting, they are required to accept a Tao master as their father master so that he can act as the chief officiant, requesting the Jade Emperor to grant the required qualification certificate. In the hierarchy of Tao masters, the Tao master of a higher rank can be the father master of the Tao master of a lower rank in the ceremony of qualification certificate granting. Tao masters contribute to the dissemination and incorporation of the three religions—Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism—especially Taoism into the beliefs of Then, Put, Mot or Mo. This finds expression in the way temples are set up and in the presence of the gods and deities of the three religions in the religious books and rituals of these sorcerers.
Along the Viet Nam-China border, Tay and Nung sorcerers can practise their craft in the residential area of the Zhuang and vice versa, thanks to the similarities in language, religious dogmas and rituals. Noteworthy is the fact that a few Tao masters of the Tay and the Nung in Viet Nam consider the Tao masters from the Zhuang in China their masters. In the residential area of the Pian, a section of the Zhuang in Phong Thanh district (China) close to Viet Nam’s Quang Ninh province, the Then religious belief is said to have been brought into this area by a Then female master of Tay descent in Viet Nam some 200 years ago. This also explains the similarities and differences in religious beliefs of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang along the Viet Nam-China border.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang perform rituals of worship all the year round in different forms and manner. Some rituals bear the characteristics of the community; others are peculiar to a clan or a family. Of all the rituals, those related to the human life circle make up the majority, including child bearing, disease treatment, wishes for longevity, and funerals.
Festivals are community-based ceremonies. The festivals of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang are held at the beginning or in the middle of the year, between crop intervals. Their scale varies considerably, depending on their features and significance. Some festivals are held in one village. Others are jointly organized by several villages in a commune, even in a district or in the whole region. The festivals focus on praying for bumper crops, peace, offspring or marriage
Festivals praying for bumper crops, or going-to-the-field festivals, are held in a village in the 1st or 2nd lunar month. On this occasion every household contributes money to the sacrificial offerings to village deities whom one asks for bumper crops. Apart from the official ceremony, the “merry-making part” includes traditional games like dragon dancing, con (ball) throwing and other sports activities. In many places these festivals are connected with the custom of praying for rain. This festival is more popular among the Tay and the Nung than among the Zhuang.
Festivals praying for peace are linked with festivals in pagodas and temples, which are not so numerous in comparison with those of the Kinh and Han. Pagodas are dedicated to Buddha, and temples to national heroes and sanctified personages in the locality. People bring votive offerings to pagodas, praying for peace on fixed days annually. In some places the whole village holds a ceremony to beg for peace. The village chief takes the role of the chief officiant while sorcerers conduct the ritual part. Apart from the ritual part, fascinating entertainments include games and alternate love duets. The festival of inviting Lady Moon to come to earth and bestow blessings on villagers is popular among the Tay and the Nung in Viet Nam and the Zhuang in China.
Festivals wishing for offspring stem from the cult of Parents-Creators, Mother Luc Giap (or Mother Hoa) and Father Poloto. In close touch with this festival is the festival dedicated to the genitals of Mother Luc Giap and Father Poloto among the Zhuang in the basin of the Hoang Ha river. Noteworthy is the festival of vying for the firecracker head at the beginning of the year. This festival pays gratitude to Mother Hoa in the process of asking for an offspring. A big firecracker is exploded and then festival-goers vie for the ring in the firecracker head which is regarded as a sign that a talented boy will be born. In some places there is a special rule that on the night before the festival, young men and women can freely flirt with one another.
Festivals praying for marriage have a connection with “singing markets,” an original cultural activity of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. They are jointly held by various communes in a region. In “singing markets,” young men and women meet to do alternate love duets. According to Chinese scholars, the market is significant on two counts: first, it pleases the deities so they will bestow bumper crops and ensure people’s health, and second, it creates an opportunity for young people to find love. The manner and content of the singing are basically the same among the three ethnic groups. This kind of singing is called sli or luon (the northern Zhuang call it “huan”).
In addition, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang organize festivals which incorporate all the characters of the festivals mentioned above. For instance, there is the Lady Moon festival of the Tay in Viet Nam or the ceremony dedicated to the frog god of the Zhuang. These festivals, often lasting from 15 days to one month, are composed of ritual and rejoicing parts (praying for bumper crops, peace, relieving one’s bad luck and alternate love duets, etc.).
In general, the festivals of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang have many similarities. Yet there are also some differences. The Lady Moon festival is celebrated differently by the Tay and the Zhuang in terms of time, venue and form. This can only be explained by the fact that the Tay have been exposed to the influence of the Kinh culture. Certain festivals are peculiar to only some residential areas of the Zhuang. The festival dedicated to the frog god is found only in Dong Lan district, China. In other areas of the Tay, Nung, even the Zhuang, this festival does not exist.
Rituals according to the yearly calendar
Though the festivals of these three ethnic groups are influenced by the Han festivals, they still have their own peculiarities. All year round the Tay, Nung and Zhuang hold different festivals of various scales.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have three big annual festivals in commemoration of their ancestors. They include the lunar new year festival, the festival of visiting ancestors’ grave on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month and the festival on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month. The time and way of conducting these festivals are relatively the same among the three ethnic groups. In the lunar new year festival, pigs must be slaughtered to make sacrificial offerings. Meanwhile the offerings in the festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month include a tray of sticky rice dyes of five colours (green, red, violet, yellow and white). In the lunar new year festival and the festival on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month, customs require that married women must bring presents to their parents to show gratitude to them.
The festivals related to agricultural production also share the same goals and objects of worship. The festivals of presenting offerings to the buffalo’s soul, to the field deity or the rice deity bear indigenous characteristics and are imbued with the peculiar identity of each locality. These festivals are held differently from ethnic group to ethnic group, and from locality to locality. The Tay in Cao Bang have a new year festival on the 6th day of the 6th lunar month which they call the ceremony of calling back the buffalo’s soul, while the Nung and the Zhuang in some areas along the Viet Nam-China border have a bud picking festival. In some localities in the suburbs of Nanning, people make offerings to ancestors in the beginning of the 6th lunar month. In other localities of Long Thang in the northern part of the Zhuang residential areas, people consider the festival on the 6th day of the 6th lunar month their new rice ceremony. The Zhuang make offerings to the buffalo deity on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month. The same new rice festival is held at different times, depending on the crop time of each locality.
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang still have other interesting festivals, such as the insect-killing festival on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, the mid-autumn festival on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Trung cuu festival on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, to name a few. These festivals follow Han customs. Thus they are more popular among the Zhuang than among the Tay and the Nung. The indigenous characteristics of these ethnic groups have contributed changes to these festivals. In some areas of the Tay, for example, they consider the 5th day of the 5th lunar month the first day to go to the field. The Zhuang, however, regard this day the date for their ritual praying for water. The Zhuang’s mid-autumn festival features quite a few original habits. Among them are allowing children in masks to take cakes to other families’ altars, or encouraging children to go to different houses to do bad things. As a result, they will be scolded by the host. The more they are scolded, the luckier they become.
Rites and customs in a person’s life cycle
From his birth to his death, each person in the communities of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang is required to observe and carry out many rites, some compulsory and other optional. These are called “life-cycle rites and customs.”
Rituals in childbirth
Giving birth to descendants is always a big aspiration of every Tay, Nung and Zhuang family. The Flower Mother (Me Hoa) is considered the Goddess of Reproduction by all three ethnicities. On the base of the Zhuang’s legend about Mother Luc Giap who gave birth to humankind, the image of the Flower Mother was created. Legend has it that the Flower Mother governs a large garden of golden (boys) and silver (girls) flowers. Whoever behaves with sense and sentiment will receive good flowers (i.e. good children) and vice verse. At the same time, the Flower Mother is also the Tutelary Goddess of Young Children. Thus, the worship of the Flower Mother as the Reproductive Mother is a popular practice among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang.
The worship of the Flower Mother leads to the establishment of her altar. Most of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang families have an altar dedicated to the Flower Mother. The way to arrange an incense burner to worship the Mother varies among different ethnic groups, depending on their way of thinking. Sometimes, this incense burner is put on the same altar dedicated to family ancestors. At other times, a separate altar to the Flower Mother is arranged in the child’s room. These practices can be observed among the Zhuang and Tay-Nung communities. The altar is mainly set up when the family welcomes a new child. It is constructed by the maternal relatives in the house of the paternal relatives. However, in some Zhuang subgroups, the altar dedicated to the Flower Mother is arranged above and at the same time with the ancestral altar. The ways of removing the Flower Mother altar are also just as varied. Most of the Zhuang families will do away with the altar when the child is 15 years old. But sometimes, the altar is preserved forever. Among the Tay-Nung communities, the Flower Mother altar is often removed on the child’s wedding day.
The rituals in the cult of Flower Mother are mostly carried out by shamans at the family’s request. They include a number of rites conducted by others since the child is not brought into the world until his/her maturity. For example, the ceremony to pray for flowers when a couple have children late; the rite to entreat for safety when a woman is three to eight months pregnant; the ceremony to inform the Flower Mother when a child is 3 days old; the ritual to congratulate an one-month-old child, etc. Besides, when breeding a child, if the child seems to be feeble or diseased, a shaman will be invited to carry out a ceremony that includes praying to the Flower Mother for her help. Generally, the contents and purposes of the worship rites of the Flower Mother among the three ethnic groups are similar. The main difference is reflected in the details of the rites and in the ways by which each shaman performs the ceremony.
Obviously, the cult of Flower Mother is important to the Tay, Nung and Zhuang families. Actually, in their opinion, the Flower Mother functions as their own parents. They believe that she decides their presentation in this world while their mothers only give birth to them under her command. It is possible to say that the cult of the Reproductive (Flower) Mother is a primary belief of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. Researches on the cult will surely bring about better insight on the traditional religions and beliefs of these groups.
There are also many customs and rituals relating to childbirth and child rearing, for example, asking a tree god to be the foster-father of a weak child in the hope that the god will protect the child as he grows up. This custom is accompanied with many worship rituals which can be cancelled only when the child gets married. However, this custom is popular only in some Zhuang communities but not in the Tay and Nung groups of Vietnam.
All three ethnicities of Tay, Nung and Zhuang always pay great attention to marriage because it is related to the development and preservation of every ancestry. Thus, the rites relating to marriage are always carried out with tremendous care. Before the official wedding ceremony, the bridegroom’s family is required to give the bride’s family a substantial amount of gifts. They also need to undergo many ceremonial procedures to propose marriage, to ask for the bride’s horoscope, to make sure the couple is compatible in terms of age and to hold the betrothal ceremony. Depending on the local regulations and the nature of each rite, specific offerings will be required. However, this very important work creates a similarity among three ethnic groups: in all ceremonies, the bride’s family must present all offerings and burn incense sticks to inform their ancestors.
All the three ethnicities have the same concept that any married woman will become a member of her husband’s family. Thus, she must undergo procedures to “leave her home” and “enter her husband’s house” on the wedding day. Before leaving her parents’ home, the bride must prostrate herself in front of the ancestral altar to ask permission to bring her soul and vital spirit out. Then upon arrival at the groom’s house, she must also prostrate herself before her husband’s ancestral altar. This ritual, usually presided by a Tao (shaman), aims to report to the bridegroom’s ancestors that the family receives a new member and allows the bride’s soul and vital spirit into the house. Three days after the wedding ceremony, the couple will bring offerings back to the bride’s family to give to the ancestors.
Obviously, for the Tay, Nung and Zhuang people, their ancestors, though invisible, play a very important role in the marriage of their descendants.
Rituals relating to health and longevity
The Tay, Nung and Zhuang have the same rituals relating to medical treatment and to prayers for peace and longevity. These rituals are mostly conducted by shamans. A diseased person usually holds a rite to relieve his bad luck or disease. These ethnic groups also think that one’s longevity depends on his predestined fate. Therefore, when he reaches old age, a man’s destiny is coming to an end and his/her children will organize a ceremony to prolong his/her life. Or when grandparents reach the age of 49 or 61 or above, their children will wish them a long life. In this ceremony, the grandchildren will offer their grandparents rice. This means supply the grandparents more food thereby improving their health and providing them with longevity. In general, these rituals are the same among all three ethnic groups. Only some details are different. For example, the Zhuang ask for rice from other families only.
For the three ethnicities, the funeral is the most important ceremony among all life-cycle rites. At the same time, it reflects many elements related to their ancestral cult. A traditional funeral of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang is very expensive and complicated. The point of similarity in the funeral rites of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang is the desire to free and escort the deceased’s soul to the blissful land. The general procedure of a funeral rite is as follows: announcing the death, inviting a shaman (Tao), shrouding the dead person, establishing the altar, preparing votive offerings, going on a specified diet, carrying out ceremonies (by a Tao) and burial. Depending on local customs and the specific school of each shaman, the process and details of a funeral can be different among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. For example, the Zhuang and the Nung lay the deceased in a coffin before inviting the shaman. In contrast, for the Tay, this ceremony must be conducted by the shaman. The duration of a funeral among the Tay and the Nung is usually 2-5 days while that of the Zhuang in Long Thang (Northern Zhuang) lasts about ten days on average. When building a grave, the Zhuang always make an earth mound on the left (the male deceased) or on the right (the female) to worship the good geomantic position. But the Tay and Nung do not follow this custom.
Other post-funeral procedures are quite similar among the three groups: Ceremonial offerings are made on the 40th and 100th days. Also, at the end of mourning after three years, the deceased’s votive tablet is allowed to be arranged on the ancestral altar. The difference is that the Tay hold an annual death anniversary but the Nung and the Zhuang do not. Moreover, after three or four years, the Zhuang will exhume and reinter the dead (two-time burial). The Kinh people in Vietnam also follow this custom. This is an unexplained issue for researchers both in Vietnam and China.
Causes of the religious similarities and differences among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang
All three ethnicities share the same historical origin. The close relations in origin and language have become the foundation for cultural and custom similarities among these groups. In other words, all three ethnicities share the same cultural origin – the culture of Bach Viet (hundred Viet groups).
The three ethnicities are influenced by Han culture, mainly Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The Tay and the Nung bear the influences from Han culture via the Kinh community who is the ethnic majority in Vietnam. Vietnam experienced over 1,000 years of Chinese rule (207 BC – 938 AD). During the 1,000-year feudalism (938-1945), the successive dynasties accepted Confucianism as the lodestar for their ruling policies and the Chinese script as the nation’s official writing system. (When the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was founded in 1945, the use of Chinese script completely came to an end. Under the reign of King Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497), the Hong Duc Code was composed, based on the Chinese laws under the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The Code consisted of 24 articles based on Confucian ethics and ideology on the feudal social order. This Code laid the foundations for other laws, including the general regulations on marriage and rites for every ethnic group throughout the country, even the Tay and the Nung.
Han culture influenced Tay ethnicity through the State’s ruling policies and mainly through the assimilation of a part of the Kinh into the Tay community. Due to Confucian influence, Tay and Nung families are controlled by patriarchy with strict regulations regarding the rights and obligations of the male owners. The book “Tho mai gia le” (The manual on family customs of Mr. Tho Mai) composed by a Kinh author on the basis of Confucian ethics has also greatly influenced the ancestral cult of the Tay and the Nung. Similarly, the Zhuang have borne deep cultural effects from the Han and assimilated some Han people. Thus their culture is significantly influenced by Han culture. The Zhuang’s “Truyen duong ca” is in fact a book based on Confucian ideology used to educate people about the necessity of following social order. And the Nung have just separated from the Zhuang to settle in Vietnam for 300 years. They bear Han cultural influences both from China and the Tay in Vietnam. The similarities in ancestral worship among these three groups reflect clearly the influences from Han culture, i.e. the ideology on hierarchy in worshipping gods, the gradation of deities in the family, village and country, and male dominance. The calendar and life-cycle rituals (marriage, funeral, etc.) reflect more or less the elements of Han culture. Because of Han cultural influences, all three ethnicities accepted Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism to create a worship system headed by shamans called Tao, Then, Put, Mo, Mot, Hoa Tang, etc. These personages play an important role in performing rituals for all members of the community. Through their practices and sanctuaries, especially the contingent of Tao, it is possible to recognize the influence the imported religions have over the indigenous beliefs of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang.
Another important point of cultural similarity is the shared residential area of the three groups. Living in the same habitat with the same natural conditions and sharing the same method of growing wet rice have laid the foundation for their social similarities. The social relations among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang are divided into three levels: village/hamlet, clan and family. Many families compose a clan and several clans found a hamlet – a community with its own organization. In some cases, the clan relationship coincides with the village one. Thus, the concept of “first comers” or “predecessors” is used as a criterion to identify and worship ancestors. They are the founders of the family, the founders of the clan and the founders of the village. In many localities, these three “founders” are represented by one person only. Because of the shared origin, the worship rituals of the three ethnicities are quite popular at the levels of family, clan and village.
Since they share a residential area, cultural interaction and exchange among the different ethnic groups is inevitable. The Tay, Nung and Zhuang communities who settled along the Sino-Vietnam frontiers have more similarities in customs, habits and beliefs than those living in the mainland. It has become quite a phenomenon to see members of these communities, though living in different countries, maintain close family ties or even establish commercial ties, friendships or wedlock relations. For example, the festival to fight for firecrackers and pray for children is an important activity of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang groups in Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces which share borders with Guangxi in China. Another interesting phenomenon is to see shamans from the two countries go back and forth to practise and improve their craft. It is possible that these shamans play a crucial role in promoting cultural and belief exchange among the ethnicities along the borders. Through these men, many cultural and religious practices of a certain ethnic group may have spread to the other two groups. For example, the Then practice of the Zhuang in Fengcheng (Guangxi) originated from that of the Tay in Vietnam.
Cultural and historical events leading to the formation of similar cultural practices and beliefs can be another reason. The most prominent is the cult of Nung Tri Cao who is considered as a national hero by the communities in the border provinces of Cao Bang and Lang Son as well as many places along the route he took when he withdrew from Guangxi to go to the Zhuang Autonomous Zone in Yunshan (Yunnan).
The immigration of ethnic groups is one other cause for the similarities in the culture and beliefs among the three ethnic groups. In the past, due to wars and troubles, a great part of the Zhuang evacuated from Guangxi to Vietnam, forming the Nung ethnicity. At first, a group of families or clans settled and founded their hamlet. Over time, their descendants increased and spread to establish more villages. Most of those in Vietnam still preserve their traditional customs and beliefs. Thus, even if one goes thousands of kilometers deep into Vietnamese territory, he will see that some ethnic groups have preserved traditional customs, habits and beliefs as they were practised in China.
Firstly, though they have the same origins and cultural similarities, the fact is the Tay, Nung and Zhuang have been separated for a long time – about 1,000 years for the Tay and at least 300 years for the Nung. So it is expected that these groups have accepted cultural and political influences from the countries where they reside, leading to inevitable differences in culture, including religion and beliefs. Compared with the Nung, the Tay has more influences from the Kinh. For example, in Lang Son Province, some Tay communities built their big communal houses where many annual ceremonies are held, a practice done by the Kinh. Particularly, they still preserve many giao duyen (love exchange) songs, ritual chants and rites using both the Kinh and Tay languages. Though similar to the Nung’s Put, the Tay’s Then bears many Kinh elements, the Then songs contain many Kinh words and some Then gods originated from the plains. Thus, the Tay Then is quite different from that of the Zhuang. In the same manner, the Zhuang bear direct linguistic, political and cultural influences from the Han; the Han influence among the Zhuang is much stronger than what can be seen among the Tay and the Nung. Besides their national deities, the Zhuang also worship the Han gods (Guangong, Emperor Wu) right in their settlements. There are more Han cultural characteristics in Zhuang ceremonies and rites than in those of the Tay and Nung.
Geographic location is also a cause for the difference in customs, habits, religion and beliefs. The farther these groups settle from the Sino-Vietnam border, the less religious and belief similarities they have. The southern Zhuang share more similarities with the Tay and the Nung than with the northern Zhuang. Many religious and belief practices are very popular among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang communities in the border areas but not in the northern Zhuang communities and vice versa. For example, the incarnation ceremony in the northern Zhuang is very simple and without vivid and complex rituals like the Then and Put in the Sino-Vietnam border areas.
A common characteristic of folk culture is the co-existence of similarity and difference. Because of the way folk culture is spread, a cultural phenomenon can be presented in different ways depending on the locality. The religion and beliefs, especially rites and ceremonies, of the three ethnicities also follow this rule. For instance, the cult of buffalo god of the Zhuang is more vivid than that of the Tay. However, the life-cycle rites of the Tay and the Nung are more abundant than those of the Zhuang.
Finally, it is necessary to deal with the differences in the formation and settlement of the three ethnicities. Compared with the Tay and the Nung, the Zhuang’s population and residing area are much bigger. Guangxi is considered as the homeland of the Zhuang. Many archaeological discoveries prove that the residents in Liaojiang, a district in Guangxi, during the Paleolithic era (50,000 years ago) were the ancestors of the Zhuang. In Guangxi, fossils have been discovered in big quantities. Some historical documents in China reveal that the northern part of Guangxi and Guangdong was the residence of the Tay Au group. The Zhuang moved from Guangxi to Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangdong, etc. As the ancient land of the Zhuang, in Guangxi, there are many legends relating to the gods-founders of the ethnicity, the formation of the universe and the emergence of living creatures on earth. So, Zhuang culture in general and Zhuang religion/beliefs in particular are imbued with indigenous characteristics displayed through the abundance of worshipped objects and rituals. Similarly, the primary religious forms such as totemism, the cult of reproductive organs, and witchcraft remain popular among the Zhuang communities.
Religious development among the Tay, Nung and Zhuang
Vietnam and China are two countries which have experienced the same historical process. They experienced a long feudal period and have followed the socialist revolution. Thus, though settling in two different countries, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang still share a common characteristic: their development, including those pertaining to religion and beliefs, is much influenced by the same political system. The most important development that had the greatest impact on religion and belief occurred between the 1960s’ and the 1980s’ when the two countries were carrying out the struggle against the old backward culture which included folk religions and beliefs. In China, the great cultural revolution with its radical features caused many elements of folk culture to disappear, including the religions and beliefs of the Zhuang. Vietnam also experienced the same situation, though less intensely. In some periods, traditional shamans were strictly prohibited from practising: their prayer books and costumes were burnt, their tools were confiscated, etc. Due to the great cultural revolution which implemented ideological reorientation among the Zhuang communities, some of their religious and belief activities, for example festivals and rituals, have disappeared. However, with their potential vitality, many fundamental elements of the national culture of the three ethnicities still exist and may further develop.
After 1980, thanks to the open-door policies of the two countries and the common global tendencies, national culture has been highlighted and many cultural and belief activities of the three groups have been restored. This restoration is supported by the two States which now encourage and preserve some traditional cultural activities (for example, the festivals of the Tay and the Nung singing market or visiting ancestral graves on the 3rd day of the third lunar month among the Zhuang). Many religious and belief practices have developed by themselves without any support. For instance, though experiencing many ups and downs, shamans have gained support within their communities. It is possible to say that their existence much depends on people's beliefs and the law of supply and demand. Their presence testifies to the existence and development of the community's religious activities. On the other hand, some activities have disappeared by themselves because they are no longer practicable or relevant in a modern society. For example, due to scientific advances, the Zhuang have given up many agricultural rites such as praying for rain or good harvest.
At present, many religious beliefs still exist among the three ethnicities. However, the people's perception of them has significantly changed. Those who believe in witchcraft account only for a small percentage of the population. The majority continues to carry out religious rituals to meet their need for spirituality. Rites to relieve one’s bad luck, treat diseases, or prolong longevity, etc. are still conducted but people now choose to go to the hospital and take medicine rather than rely on magic.
The common tendency among the three ethnicities is to simplify their religious activities; votive offerings (especially votive papers) are changed to suit modern life. Formerly, most of the rituals were collective but they are now held mainly within the family. The role of shamans in these activities is greatly reduced. Some activities have been transformed. For example, in Longsheng in the Northern Zhuang area, to start a meal, a family used to invite the ancestors. Nowadays, only an old member in the family puts a bowl of rice and dishes on the ground to offer to the ancestors.
The core beliefs of the Tay, Nung and Zhuang are likely to continue into the future. However, some details will inevitably be eradicated and new elements will arise in the course of social development.
At present, in Southeast Asia, there are 20 ethnic groups of the Thai linguistic family with a total population of over 90 million. They live chiefly in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India. This is the biggest linguistic group in Asia. According to researchers, these groups have the same origin. Among them, the Tay, Nung and Zhuang make up the biggest Thai-speaking communities in China and Vietnam. By comparing the religions and beliefs of these three groups, we realize that they share some similarities with other Thai-speaking communities. For example, some fundamental concepts relating to religions and beliefs, such as phi, then, muong pha, etc. are found in most of the Thai-speaking ethnicities. Some religious practices are commonly popular among the different groups (ancestral worship, cult of natural gods, the belief in afterlife). In my opinion, it is necessary to investigate other Thai-speaking ethnic groups to obtain more information on the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. For example, the Thai groups in Vietnam and Yunnan (China) have many similarities and close linguistic and cultural relations with the Tay, Nung and Zhuang. But this is beyond the scope of this research project.
Meantime, many Thai-speaking groups (Thailand, Myanmar, India and Yunnan, China) are greatly influenced by Buddhism, which is considered the national religion in some countries. It is necessary to investigate the exchange between Buddhism and the indigenous religions of these Thai-speaking ethnicities. This could be in conjunction with a study on Han cultural influences.
At present, transnational researches on the culture and religions of the Thai-speaking groups in Southeast Asia are few and the number of scholars really interested in this topic is not big. I think that this topic deserves to be thoroughly studied by current and future scholars.
1. Conception of souls and the world of gods
- Animist concept
- Concept of phi describing spirits and gods in general
- Concept of three worlds: muong troi, muong dat and muong am phu
- Detailed explanation of souls
- Number and types of phi
2. The cult of sky and earth
All the three ethnic groups practice this cult
The Zhuang have more elaborate rituals compared with those of the Tay and the Nung
3. Ancestral worship
System and objects of worship: ancestors of family clan, craft patriarchs, village’s founders, or national heroes
- The Zhuang practice the cult of the Creator of humanity
- The cult of national heroes is not popular among the three ethnic groups
4. The cult of deities of nature
All the three ethnic groups worship such natural phenomena as rain, sunlight, wind, light, fire and so on
The Zhuang have more elaborate rituals compared with those of the Tay and Nung
5. The cult of deities in connection with production
All the three ethnic groups venerate similar deities in connection with production, especially agricultural production
Forms and time of rituals are different among the three ethnic groups
6. Mediums and sorcerers
All the three ethnic groups worship similar mediums and sorcerers with regard to names and ways of conducting rituals
- In the northern part of the Zhuang residential area there are the su cong who are Buddhist followers. There are no such sorcerers in the southern part of the Zhuang residential area and in areas populated by the Tay and the Nung
- Forms of and tools for conducting rituals of shamans in the northern part of the Zhuang residential area are different from those in the southern part of the Zhuang residential area and in areas populated by the Tay and the Nung
7. Traditional festivals
All the three ethnic groups have similar festivals with the same content and goal
Specific festivals are different from locality to locality with regard to their names, ways of conducting the festivals, as well as their venue and time of celebration
8. Rituals according to the year’s calendar (New Year Festivals)
Festivals have the same content, names, time and ways of organization
- Specific festivals are different from locality to locality
- The Zhuang are more exposed to the effect of the Han’s festivals
9. Rituals in giving birth
All the three ethnic groups have temples dedicated to Mother Hoa-the goddess of fecundity
Specific rituals are different from ethnic group to ethnic group
10. Rituals in marriage
All the three ethnic groups comply with traditional rites
Specific rites are different from ethnic group to ethnic group
11. Rituals in funeral
All the three ethnic groups have similar concept of funeral, ways of conducting and rituals of funerals
- Specific rituals are different from locality to locality, and from ethnic group to ethnic group (regarding time and order of rituals, as well as religious books)
- The Zhuang have the custom of burying twice. Meanwhile the Tay and Nung follow the ritual of one-time permanent burial
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4. Ha Van Th. 1984. Lo La, Tay and Nung Culture. Culture Publishing House, 1984.
5. Ha Van Th. 1996. Duc Tran, Brief Chronicle of Vietnamese History. Culture and Information Publishing House.
6. Hoang B, Dien Khong, Hoan Pham et al. (10 authors). 1992. Tay and Nung Ethnic Groups in Viet Nam. Viet Nam: Viet Nam Institute of Social Sciences
7. Hoang Q, Bang Ma, Phach Hoang, Luoc Cung, Toan Vuon. 1993. Tradition Culture of the Tay and Nung. National Culture Publishing House
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14. Nguyen Chi T 1996. Contributions to the Research on Culture and Ethnicity. Culture and Information Publishing House, Culture and Arts Magazine
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