Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Art of a Tày Funeral in Northern Vietnam

                                               by Jim Goodman

ornate Tày coffin for the soul of the deceased
       Đng Danh village, in Yên Nnh commune, straddles the main road north out of Thái Nguyên city, just a few km short of the provincial boundary with Bc Kan. It lies on a small but flat plain, bounded by wooded hills.  People live in rectangular wooden houses, usually stilted, with thatched or tiled roofs.  The interior is a long open room, with both the separate bedroom for the elders and the kitchen at the far end and a small ancestral altar room off to the side.  A raised plank lies along the widow side, where the guests sit when received.  Underneath the floor is the storage space for threshing machines and other farming tools, while in the back sits a shed used for roasting tea leaves.
       It is a typical settlement of the Tày people, Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority (1.7 million), who live in scattered, separate valleys and foothills throughout the provinces north and northeast of Hanoi.  They speak a language of the Tai-Kedai linguistic group and are closely related to the Nùng in Vietnam and the Zhuang in China.  They have interacted with their ethnic Vietnamese neighbors for centuries and have adopted much of their lifestyle and customs.  They retain a strong sense of ethnic identity, though, mainly manifested in their traditional religious beliefs.  Like the Vietnamese, they venerate ancestral spirits and local tutelary deities, but their general orientation is Taoist rather than Buddhist.   
Taoist paintings displayed for the funeral rites
       Compared to the ethnic minorities of their neighbors in the hills, the Tày traditional clothing is rather plain.  Most Tày women dress in dark, sedate colors and wear plain jackets over trousers or long skirts, with little or no embellishment in the form of ornaments or embroidery.  One doesn’t go to a Tày village to photograph women wearing exotic colorful clothing.  And anyway, in Đống Danh nobody, male or female, wears traditional clothing anymore. 
       Đống Danh is not a remote village.  It is on a highway to a major, modern commercial city.  Culturally speaking, assimilation accelerates on the roads well traveled.  Other than living mostly in stilted houses and not ones on the ground, the villagers’ everyday life hardly differs from that of Vietnamese villagers in Thái Nguyên.  The major exception is that this Tày village has shamans, a traditional office disappearing elsewhere in the North, not only among the Tày.  And while Đống Danh villagers may or may not call upon his services for dealing with inexplicable illnesses or divination, which are shamans’ roles elsewhere, they do use the shaman for the most important of all life rituals—the funeral, and especially the dispatch of the soul of the deceased to the afterworld.  
ritual offerings at the funeral
the shaman on a circuit of the casket
       The Tày divide funeral ceremonies into two parts.  The first is for the body, which generally follows Vietnamese burial customs.  The second is for the soul, where the shaman officiates, dressed in colorful garments, in an environment garnished with religious paintings and other artful adornments; an explosion of aesthetic splendor, as if compensating for the drabness of unembellished traditional clothing and the dearth of house decorations.
writing messages to the gods
       In addition to the coffin for the corpse, relatives of the deceased also construct a special coffin for the soul, which the Tày believe remains in the area for ten days after the burial of the body.  Kept in a separate shed used only for this purpose, the typical coffin is about three meters long, one meter wide, with three tiers, the upper one topped by three separate roofed pagodas.  Colored paper and tinfoil covers the exterior, dominated by magenta, gold, pink and blue.  Several Taoist paintings drape over the sides and a strip of white cloth lies across the top.  Other Taoist paintings are mounted on the wall behind and above a small altar to the left of the casket.
       These paintings are similar to those used by the Dao and Nùng ethnic groups, as well as Vietnamese and Chinese Taoists.  Rectangular in shape, suspended or mounted vertically, they depict an array of saints, sages, warriors, judges and guardians; part of a vast pantheon of Taoist deities and intercessors that can be called upon to guard and guide the soul in this dangerous ten-day intermediate period from the burial of the body to the dispatch of its soul to the Land of the Ancestors.
praying over the spirit pole before it goes up
       Because the tradition of Taoist paintings is quite ancient, the style has become more or less fixed over the centuries.  The original artists followed common standards in portraying the individual sages, saints and such.  But the purpose of displaying the paintings during rituals is not to add art to the environment, although that’s a kind of side effect, but because the shaman will use his powers to invoke the aid of the figures in the paintings on behalf of the soul of the deceased.
       For this purpose he will wear special clothing embellished with embroidered figures of more or less the same as those of the portraits in the paintings.  The garment used for most rituals is a golden silk coat, three quarter-length sleeves, side-fastened, split at the waist and reaching to the knees.  It is open from the waist down and the two long panels hanging in front sport large Taoist deities.  Three small deities are stitched across the chest and a large group of them adorn the back.  
praying while wearing both ceremonial coats
       For some rituals the shaman wears a second jacket on top of the first one.  The extra jacket is short-sleeved, more like a cloak, black with a red border, and completely covered with brightly colored, embroidered rows of saints and deities, dragons, phoenixes, lions, warriors on horseback, Chinese characters and a pagoda.  On some occasions he may wear a hat with a dragon and a moon embroidered on the front and phoenixes on the back.  Other times he will wear a conical hat or even a baseball cap, both unembellished.
       The average mourner at the funeral will not be able to identify the deities and personalities depicted in the paintings and on the shaman’s clothing.  They are aware of their purpose and in the first several days of the transition period will make their own private supplications to these protectors.  But they do not need to know the names or the methods required to obtain their support.  That is the role of the shamans.  And on the ninth day they go to work.
       Rituals commence from mid-morning at the shed housing the soul’s coffin.  A portrait of the deceased sits on the ground next to the casket, flanked on one side by ritual offerings of food and liquor and on the other by a seated diviner, who tosses sticks and interprets how they lay when they fall.  An assistant shaman, dressed in ordinary clothes, sits beside him and recites prayers from a Chinese text.  The officiating shaman, wearing his golden ceremonial coat, sits with his ritual paraphernalia to the right of the casket.
rites beside the soul's coffin
After some preliminary prayers the circumambulations begin.  A horn player and a percussionist provide periodic musical accompaniment.  Mourning relatives and friends of the deceased, wearing the traditional white headscarves for funerals, make several slow processions around the coffin.  The head shaman also makes numerous trips around the casket, employing different hand positions or gestures at several points every three circuits.   One time he will bend over slightly, his hands open and fingers apart.  Another time he will grasp his left index finger with his right fist.  On some circuits he will wave a ceremonial dagger in certain patterns.
       At the end of each circuit, back at the starting point, he reads from a prayer book held open by an assistant and for a few rounds also drapes the ceremonial cloak over his shoulders.  Mourners, meanwhile, bring offerings to place beside the photograph of the deceased, such as the head of a pig and a bowl of cooked rice.  Action at the casket only concludes after a couple of hours.  Then there is a break until late afternoon.
       The program continues at a small altar erected in the yard several meters from the shed.  Here a junior shaman, also dressed in ceremonial coat, carries out a series of rituals involving recitations from a book and various hand gestures, with or without the dagger.  Beside him sits a scribe writing messages to the other world.  Meanwhile people move the soul’s coffin out of the shed to a mound nearby. 
spirit figure
        The next event is the erection here of the four meters-long bamboo spirit pole. While the pole lies on the ground the lead shaman slowly paces the length of it, bent over to read from scriptures held by the assistant, the family mourners right behind him, as musicians to the side of it play cymbals, gong, horn and drum.  When he reaches the top he recites more prayers, accented with stylized hand gestures, and then the mourning party erects the pole, just in front of the casket. 
      A fringed umbrella crowns the top of the spirit pole and two long decorative banners hang down nearly to the ground.   The shaman, now wearing both of the ceremonial robes, grips the banners while he recites prayers from a text held by the assistant.  At one point the sons and daughters of the deceased prostrate themselves behind the shaman, with the eldest son grasping the shaman’s feet.     
the soul's final procession
       At the same time, relatives prepare the casket for its eventual removal, setting it upon the bamboo carrying poles.  They adorn its corners with pennants, bundles of straw and flowers.  They remove the offering tray with the pig’s head, rice and liquor from the small outdoor altar to the ground in front of the casket.  They also affix crude paper cutouts of spirits or guardians to bamboo poles on both sides of the offering tray.  After finishing the rites at the spirit pole the shaman makes a last stop at the casket to perform another ritual beside the offering tray.
       Just after sunrise the following day, the tenth since the burial of the body, the mourners and shamans assemble at the mound for the final act of the funeral—taking the soul’s coffin to the cremation ground.  As the bearers lift up the coffin and proceed along the route, the bereaved family members crouch in a file in front of it so that the coffin passes directly over their heads.  Musicians lead the way, the shaman behind them, after him the one bearing the spirit pole, followed by the coffin, its upper tiers now wrapped in black cloth, and behind it the crowd of mourners.   
final prayers on behalf of the soul
       The stately procession marches along the road for about 1.5 km north, then turns on to a trail that leads to a clearing on the slope of a wooded hill.  The bearers place the casket on the ground, remove the black cloth around it and plant the spirit pole behind it..   The shaman dons his second ritual cloak over the first and begins a last prayer session.  This one is not so long, though, and soon the bearers set fire to the casket.  As the flames lick around it, they pile on dry brush to accelerate the process.  In scarcely twenty minutes the once splendid casket is a pile of ashes.  Only the spirit pole remains.  The prayers cease.  The funeral party returns to the village, secure in the belief that everything proper has been done to insure a successful send-off of the soul.
       The atmosphere throughout these two days is quiet, reverent and respectful, free of any emotional outburst of grief or lamentations.  That may have occurred during the burial ceremonies, when the shock of the finality of death was more recent a realization.  But by the final ceremony the focus has shifted towards insuring a proper departure for the soul.  All those seemingly tedious and repetitious rituals are necessary to enlist the help of guardians and good spirits to keep the soul on the right path and not be doomed to a bad afterlife.  One may not feel in need of them while alive, but at death they are critical to success.  For the Tày, it’s important to have a good life of course, but even more important to be sure to have a good death.

Fire begins consuming the soul's coffin.
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