Visiting the homeland of the Ta Oi

The Ta Oi, one of the 53 ethnic minorities of Viet Nam, has a population of 35,000, of which 26,000 live in A Luoi District (or 66 per cent of the district’s population). A Luoi is a name that evokes sinister memories of two Indochina wars: An important area on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the district is located in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue — the scene of bloody combat and the target of continuous US bombing raids during the American War. It was also the biggest victim of Agent Orange sprayed by the US air force.
Our car stopped in the main town. We were expecting to see a small town in the middle of a former no-man’s-land, but instead we saw a brand-new urban centre traversed by a highway replacing a path through the forest.
We profit from the brief stop to meet the Ta Oi who, before the Revolution of 1945 and along with all of the ethnic minority populations of the highlands of the south were named Moi (Savages). For half a century, they had been acquiring an individuality and socio-political equality with other ethnic groups, all the while fighting side-by-side for national independence. We don’t find Moi ca rang cang tai (savages with sawed and filed teeth, and with stretched earlobes) any more. These practices formed part of the personal aesthetics and initiation rites of ancient Ta Oi tribes. They were performed when people reached the age of 13, to mark their passage into adulthood and the possibility of marriage. The operation, always performed on three candidates at a time, was done near a stream. The concerned person, whether a boy or a girl, had his/her mouth widened by passing a piece of bamboo between the two rows of teeth. Laying down, the person was immobilised by people clenching his head and sitting astride his stomach and legs. One person would cut six teeth in the upper jaw and six others in the lower jaw with a serrated sword, which caused very intense pain. The operation on the ears was less painful. A grapefruit thorn was used to pierce the earlobes, and then short pieces of silver of increasing size were placed in the holes. A married woman wore silver rings the radius of a chopstick. After 30 years, the rings increased to the size of a little finger. The bigger the rings, the more beautiful and elegant the woman. Men could also have ear piercings done, or chose not to.
As strange as this concept of beauty may appear (concerning the teeth and the ears), the Ta Oi by contrast show a refined aesthetic in other domains: popular festivals, dress, food, dance, music and storytelling.
Let’s take traditional dress as an example. The pride of the culture is zeng fabric. A piece of zeng serves to make skirts for women and loincloths for men. They serve also as a monetary unit to barter for buffaloes, cows, gongs and silver coins. The friendly Pa Ko and Ka Tu tribes get supplies of zeng from the Ta Oi.
The making of zeng is above all an art. The threads are made up of a special type of cotton obtained from the wild cotton plant called kapas, which is transplanted in mountain fields. The vegetable-based dying process is very time-consuming because it depends a lot on the humidity. Blacks and the blues are obtained from infusions of the plant tardon and special shells. Yellow is produced by the roots of the dang dang plant which grows deep in the forest. To get red, one must trade with the Lao people.
Because of the sophisticated marriage of colours and wealth of motifs, the weaving of zeng demands a lot of skill and time, especially given that the technique is still very much a cottage industry. The dominant colour is black, which forms the base of all the designs and motifs. Five colours are used: Blue, white, red, yellow and above all, black. They are set off by artificial pearls. The fringes of the woven cloth are adorned with little spherical sparkling silver and copper bells. The weaving motifs, about 60 in all, are valued as powerful cosmological symbols: They represent the universe, myths, legends and history, genies and spirits. The ngkang kating assimilates the trunk of the secular tree kating with two zigzagging parallel lines that represent the Parsee slope (Slope of love), site of an unhappy love between a poor young man and a daughter of a rich man. The “leech of the mountain” motif is an image representing a cruel sorcerer in a fairy tale. Other motifs represent animals or parts of the body: swallow’s tail, rooster’s spur and objects of everyday use like a jar of hot chili, weapons, traps, plants, flowers, leaves, Father Sky and Mother Earth and the North Star. But man doesn’t have more than a fleeting representation, as a dancer at a popular festival.
All the motifs are governed by geometric traits, which amply describe the high degree of abstraction and stylisation of the Ta Oi. The decorations on a skirt or jacket tell us a lot about their concepts of life and the lives of the mountain people in A Luoi. — VNS

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