Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/September 1887/Ethnological Sketches in Annam and Tonquin


THE curious philosophical views of life which appear to be common to the races of the Chinese stock, and the elaborate ceremonials by which they are symbolized and emphasized, give a rare interest to all that relates to the manners and customs of those peoples, whatever may be their particular nationality. Nowhere are these features more marked, or do they savor more of another world than ours, than in Annam. We are indebted to certain French writers, whom military and political events have given rare opportunities to observe, for some fresh and original accounts of the inhabitants of this country, and of their characteristic beliefs and usages. M. Henry M. d'Estrey has given, in the "Revue Scientifique," descriptions of the principal ceremonies prescribed in the rites to commemorate the most important events in life, which are six in number, viz.: 1. Gèa Ké, or the imposition of a pin in the hair-dressing of a maiden on her reaching puberty; 2. Gèa Quan, or the imposition of the virile bonnet on the head of a young man when he reaches adult age; 3. Quan, or the feast in celebration of obtaining a first employment; 4. Hón, or the marriage ceremonies; 5. Taûg, or funeral ceremonies; 6. Té, or the ceremony of ancestral worship.

The first two ceremonies are celebrated by the relatives, in the family. When a maiden has reached the age of nubility, or fifteen years, the father and mother adorn the two altars erected to the ancestors of their respective families, invite the near relatives, and select, as president of the ceremony, an aged lady, of high repute for virtue and good sense. While the lights are burning among perfumes, two masters of ceremonies, one at each end of the altar, call off the order fixed by the rites. The father and mother then come up to the altars, and say in a low tone, "It is our duty to inform our ancestors that our daughter is, according to the rites, marriageable from this day, and that the age of fifteen years, which she has reached, gives her the right to wear the pin." They then prostrate themselves four times, and the other relatives follow, imitating them. Next, the maiden is brought up to the altar, and the lady who presides over the ceremony, or sometimes the mother herself, takes the pin from off the altar and places it in the hair of the maiden, when, after having saluted the altars four times, she takes her back into the house. At any time after this the maiden may marry. The ceremony is followed by a festival, which is attended by the participants.

The ceremony of the imposition of the virile bonnet upon the young man who has reached the age of twenty years is performed with similar observances; but the father or an old man takes the place of the mother or aged lady in making the investiture.

The third ceremony takes place when a son of the family has passed the examination for the public service; for competitive examinations rule in the Annamite Government positions. The parents announce the happy event to the ancestors at their altar, and give a banquet, to which the local notables, the friends and comrades of the young man, and the acquaintances of the family, are invited.

Marriage is celebrated in different styles, according to the fortunes and conditions of the families. Mandarins, literati, and nobles, go through six distinct ceremonies, which, occupying months, and perhaps years, it would take a volume to describe in detail. The families frequently pledge their children to one another at a very early age. This is especially the case when parents advanced in years have young children; they then engage the children, not to force their inclination in advance, but to assure to them an honorable alliance while they are still able to make provision for them.

Marriage settlements and dowries are not recognized, on account of the difficulties that might arise in case the marriage is dissolved. According to Annamite custom, the woman should not bear the charges of marriage, because she takes the name of her husband and associates herself with him in order to perpetuate his family, not for the sake of her own. It is just for the husband, in his own personal interest, to furnish all that she and her children may need; yet, according to another custom frequently followed, the suitor whose character is not well known should make several visits to the family of his affianced, so as to submit himself to a kind of testing often very severe, which shall permit his value and the amount of his knowledge to be rated. This stage of the negotiations sometimes lasts for several years.

Marriage is usually contracted by inclination, without money considerations entering into the matter. The family is regarded as a moral union, and not as a business association. Hence it is common to see a wealthy family allied with a poor one. It is considered that, when a man marries a girl without fortune, but wisely brought up, she will be easily touched by the care he will take of her, and be obedient to his authority. Then, it is not right to exact a dowry from a girl whose education has already imposed on her parents large sacrifices of time and money, and who has, moreover, abandoned her family name to take that of a stranger, so there is no dowry. The parents give their daughter what they please, without the young man being allowed to claim or stipulate for anything. Sometimes they require him to make considerable presents, which will be the sole property of the wife. It must not be supposed that the condition of wives is the same in Annam as in China. The six ceremonies of marriage are, it is true, nearly the same in both countries; but while the Chinese wife has to keep to her apartments, the Annamite wife is treated as the equal of her husband.

This equality is revealed both in the division of authority and in the matter of honors and distinctions. When a man, in consideration of his having rendered great services to the Government, or done a good to the people, obtains a decoration, like insignia are conferred upon his wife. The legislator appears to have thought that a husband would not have had leisure to consecrate himself so closely to the defense of the public interests, if his wife had not been faithful and devoted; if by attending to the orderly direction of his household, she had not relieved him from the care of his personal interests, and left him in full liberty of mind. Women can also obtain official rewards, when, having become widows, they keep faithfully the name of their husbands, and distinguish themselves by the manner in which they bring up their children and administer the estate which the father has left them. The emperor then decrees them a framed diploma, which they hang in their house, and on which, by the side of their name, figures the mention of their virtues.

The duties of the married woman consist in the cares required for the well-being of her husband and children, and the becoming reception of relatives and friends. She has the preparation of the festivals for the ancestral anniversaries, taking precedence in this case of her husband's sisters, by virtue of the rights which her title of legitimate wife, member of the family right, gives her upon the administration of the domestic cult. The interior management of the house belongs to her exclusively. She has full control over the servants, and supervision of the expenditures and receipts. Although invested with such extended powers, the Annamite women have the additional merit of being submissive, patient, and little inclined to coquetry. They spend but little for dress, and the caprices of fashion are unknown to them. When they attend any ceremony or visit relatives or friends, they wear the dress and jewels which their husbands gave them as marriage presents. When jewels are bought in rich families, they are not intended to be worn by the purchasers, but to be reserved for the marriage presents of the children.

Balls are regarded by the Annamites as scandalous affairs. It is contrary to the rites for men and women to take one another's hands unless they are relatives or friends. According to the philosophers, the male element tends to seduction and the female element to levity; their contact in familiar interviews could therefore be only a temptation to innocence. It is for this reason that the affianced man is not allowed to make his court to the woman. Although the theatre is supposed by the Annamites to exhibit good manners in action, it is usually attended only by men and elderly people. Girls go occasionally, but always accompanied by a member of their family.

The education of the children begins even before they come into the world. The prospective mother is at once submitted to a kind of material and moral régime sanctioned by custom. Gross viands are removed from her table, and her slightest movements are regarded, that they may be regular and majestic. She is expected to listen to the reading of good authors, to music and moral chants, and to attend learned societies, in order that she may fortify her mind by amusements of an elevated character. And she endeavors, by such discipline, to assure to the child whom she is about to bring into the world, intelligence, sagacity, docility, and fitness for the duties imposed by social life. In confinement ladies are attended, not by the ordinary doctors, but by women especially devoted to the calling, who regard their profession as honorable and humanitary. The birth of a child is signalized, especially in the country, by setting up in front of the house a bamboo stick, in the tip of which is inserted a half-burned piece of wood. A glance at this stick is enough to tell the sex of the child. It is a boy if the burned end is turned toward the house; a girl, if the black is turned in the other direction. The arrangement is symbolical, is of an origin that is lost in the darkness of the past, and signifies that the son will some day succeed his father in the government of the family, while the daughter will leave the paternal mansion to enter, by marriage, a strange one. It is customary to give the child a year on the day of its birth, and a second year on the first day of the succeeding calendar year. Thus a child born on the 30th of December, 1886, would have been counted as of two years on the 1st of January, 1887. This way of counting ages makes the first day of the year a day of general festivity, for it marks for every one, no matter what may have been his real birthday, one year more, and thus represents a common anniversary. A month after the birth the family gives a festival, to which the relatives and friends are invited. An elderly person, man or woman, according to the sex of the child, who must also be of good repute and well instructed, is chosen to give the child its particular name and transmit to it the first notions of things. In this ceremony, called M'ach-Miêng, which accompanies the festival, the person who presides passes a ruler several times before the mouth of the child, pronouncing some consecrated words; then, with a freshly-plucked flower, he sprinkles pure water over its head and body: this symbol signifies that the child, when it has become master of its actions, will take just reason for its guide, and will guard itself against contaminations and vices. Another ceremony, of an entirely different character, takes place a little later. It is called An-Thoi-Noi, which means leaving the cradle. The parents bring the child before the altar of the ancestors and present their youthful descendant to them. They then place it among a collection of objects appertaining to various trades, and let it choose the one toward which its instincts draw it. Its choice, directed by the spontaneous aspiration of a virgin mind, will indicate the way which it is some day to follow. This ceremony, which is of ancient origin, is, however, nearly abandoned now. The child is given to the care of the nurse only when the mother is prevented by sickness or some other serious cause from nursing it herself.

If the child is a daughter she is intrusted, when she has become of suitable age, to the care of a discreet and virtuous woman, who attends to her education in the house, under the eye of the mother. The education and instruction of the daughters are considered of prime importance. It is the first condition of the prosperity of the family, who can not possess a more precious treasure than a competent woman, respected by all, orderly ruling her house, bringing her children up in virtue, and wisely directing a numerous personal establishment. The instruction of girls includes the rules of deportment and politeness, reading, writing, and arithmetic; music and literature; weaving and needle-work; the culinary art, and all the various matters which it is important to know in the management of the house. So, when we notice that the heads of the family are elegantly clothed, that the table is well served, and that order and good taste prevail in all the details of domestic life, we at once discern the presence and the judicious activity of a well-trained and accomplished daughter.

The boys are also brought up in the family; but they are taught in the public schools, where they attend during the day only. It is usually judged best to seek instructors for both sons and daughters outside of the family. The parents consider themselves disqualified for the exact discharge of the teacher's work by the strength of their affection, and too likely to err in the direction of over-indulgence, or in the opposite one of undue strictness.

A more circumstantial account of the celebration of the New Year's festival, referred to above by M. d'Estrey, is given by another French writer, M. Gouin, in the "Bulletin de la Société de la Geographic." In honor of the anniversary, the Government offices and more important business establishments and enterprises are closed or suspended from the fifth day preceding to the fifth day afterward; but the poor need take a vacation of only twenty-four hours. All is silent and still in the town, except for the firing of shooting-crackers and the going about of the people dressed in their best and carrying presents, on their visits of ceremony. On the eve of the festival a green bamboo is planted in the court-yard by way of invitation to the ancestors and deceased relatives to come and partake of the repast which has been prepared for them. A flag-staff is set up at the front door, adorned with palm-leaves, feathers, etc., to which a lantern is hung at night. Within the house the disposition of the furniture has been entirely changed, and everything is given a holiday look. Bows and arrows are chalked on the ground at the entrance to keep bad spirits away, and sometimes the door is further obstructed by abattis of thorn-plants. A little square niche on one side of the wall without is reserved as an altar in honor of the genius of the quarter, on which offerings of burning torches, incense, flowers, meats, and gilded papers are made, with the firing of crackers by the bunch. The ancestors may be attending the feasts at any time. During the last three days of the ceremonies, their tombs are cleared of weeds and given the repairs which their condition may require. A long lacquered table is set in the principal room, and above it a large red tableau, on which are represented various personages, flanked by characters and sentences enumerating the qualities that distinguished them or those which they would have liked to have. On the table are placed a variety of offerings to the spirit of commerce, who is invoked to bring prosperity. The place of honor, which usually looks upon the door, and the most generous offerings, are given to the ancestral altars. The grand repast takes place at midnight on the 30th; and as a result of what goes on then, the Annamites, usually sober, begin the year in a very drunken condition. In connection with this feast, a quantity of last year's water is compared by weight with the same quantity of the water of the new year. If the latter is the heavier, it is a bad sign, and inundations may be expected; if lighter, the air of the new year will be pleasant, and the rivers will flow placidly. At the final repast, on the 4th or 5th of the new month, the departure of the ancestors, who are supposed to have been present at all the ceremonies, is celebrated with the burning of gold and silver papers. The houses are not opened after the festival for the resumption of business if the weather is bad; for the sun must be the first to enter them, or something unpleasant might happen.

M. d'Estrey, continuing his account, observes that there are no public cemeteries in Annam. Every person seeks for a suitable place of his own in which to bury his relatives. Not rarely families keep the coffins of their relatives—very solid and tight structures of wood—in their houses even for a considerable time. Poor persons are sometimes buried in grounds given by the more wealthy for that purpose. Mourning is worn in white. Its duration is fixed according to the nearness of relationship; for father and mother, three years; for grandparents, brothers, and sisters, one year; and so on. Persons who are in mourning must not appear at public spectacles or dress elaborately, or indulge in any gayety. After the mourning has terminated, a family festival is celebrated at each anniversary, when a repast is offered upon the ancestral altar. The formal visit to the tombs, the keeping of them up, and the duty of attending to the rites of ancestral worship, appertain to the heads of the family, the other relatives only following their orders in the matter. After reaching fifty or sixty years of age, parents who have children large enough to attend to affairs leave the general direction of their houses to them, and devote their attention to giving honors to their ancestors. The cost of ancestral worship in Annamite families is lighter than the cost of church services in France. The heads of families are themselves priests, and have only to say a brief ritual on the occasion of the anniversaiy of the death of each member of the kindred. Besides the special family altars to each ancestor, there exist temples consecrated to all the members which the same kindred has counted in the past. At a designated day, all the members of the family present themselves there to make their sacrifices. The ceremonies are directed by the nearest or most aged relative. The character of the offerings depends upon the tastes the ancestors are supposed to have had while living. No pictures or statues of the ancestors are erected to preserve their features; only the name is to be seen on the altar, inclosed in a little tabernacle and written in large letters upon a tablet. The image of the ancestor is in the Annamite's heart, and is not represented materially by painting or sculpture. It is not presumed that the souls of the ancestors are present at the repast which is prepared for them; but it is understood that, in offering sacrifices to them, gratitude is expressed for the time when the worshiper was the object of their constant solicitude, and faithful recognition is given of the days when he was held upon their knees, and the painful moment is recalled when they were forever separated from their children. Filial piety is the motive of all the acts of the Annamites' life. Their feeling was thus described to M. d'Estrey by an Annamite: "We have a desire to discharge the debt that we owe to our parents; to that tender mother who carried us in her womb, who brought us forth in pain, nourished us with her milk, and caressed us on her knees for years; to that watchful father who laboriously brought us up and constituted himself our first guide in the labyrinth of the world. It is a common remark that every service rendered ought to be recompensed. The benefaction by which it is given us to enjoy life, to know what is, to raise ourselves through the spectacle of the virtue of our parents, from the simple creature to the most high—what other can be compared to it? It is for this reason before every other one, to render ourselves worthy of our parents, to make their name as illustrious as possible, that we try to obtain a rank among men that shall do honor to our house, and in which we may some day serve the great interests of humanity. We hope that in this way the spirits of our parents may enjoy a peaceful happiness in contemplating us from the celestial world."

M. Mahé de la Bourdonnais has given an account, also in the "Revue Scientifique," of tribes of people inhabiting portions of Annam, who, although considered savages by the Annamites themselves, are still possessed of a civilization which is of the greatest interest.

Some of them pay tribute to the King of Siam, others to Annam, while all are more or less under the control of certain prefects. A chief, whom they regard as a father, acts as judge, punishes the guilty, and vigilantly guards the observation of the ancient rites and ceremonies. Much respect is shown to these patriarchs, and their people aid them in building, labor in their fields, and yield implicit obedience to them. The wives of the chiefs generally marry one of their own rank, but this is not compulsory. If they marry beneath them, they lose their claims to nobility, and are fined for not having retained their rank.

When, as frequently occurs, the chief does not live in the village, of which he is the head, his place is filled by one of the nobles, who, acting under the orders of the chief, attends the deliberations of the council, furnishes the requisite number of men for the husbandry service, and communicates the wishes of his master to the people.

The religion of all of these tribes is one of fear: a constant offering up of sacrifices to propitiate evil spirits. Famine, plague, sickness, and misfortune are supposed to have their origin with them. They preside over all things, and govern at will. The waters, the forests, each tree, each mountain, is inhabited by spirits; even the villages are supposed to be governed by them. Hence, they build huts at the entrances to their towns wherein these guardian spirits may dwell, and yearly sacrifices, consisting of various animals, are offered up to them, lest the harvest fail. Sacrifices are also made when one of their number is sick, in order to drive out the evil spirit, or at least to appease it. Their house-spirit is the only one for which they have any respect, as they imagine that their ancestors from time to time re-visit them, and a small table in one corner of the room is always reserved for them. At certain solemn occasions this table is saluted by them with the greatest respect. As a general rule, however, these people care very little for their gods, excepting in time of danger and misfortune.

The huts of the principal tribes are constructed of wood and built upon piles. The walls are of braided bamboo, made in such a manner that, even when the windows and doors are closed, there is little difficulty in reading and writing within, the poor braiding allowing the entrance of light. The roof is also made of bamboo covered with palm-leaves. Not a single nail or pin is used in the construction of these houses. When a new one has been completed, the head of the family makes grand preparations to properly celebrate the event, according to his means. Oxen are killed, wine is drunk, pipes smoked, and there is general rejoicing on the part of the family and its guests. Intoxication, however, is rarely met with on these occasions.

The interior of the hut corresponds in simplicity with its exterior, In order to gain admission it is necessary to first climb the ladder suspended from the door; before entering the feet are bathed in a long bamboo tube filled with water, as shoes are but little worn. As there is no outlet for the smoke arising from the fireplace, excepting through the roof and the crevices at the sides, the room is constantly filled with it. Three large stones serve as a tripod. Shelves containing rice, salt, and other articles of food are ranged about the room. Knives, hatchets, and the indispensable bamboo tube containing fresh water, are conveniently placed. On what may be considered the ground-floor, fowls, pigs, and other domestic animals make their home.

Rice is the principal food, and they obtain a very delicate flavor by steaming it through a bamboo tube. Smoking is indulged in to a considerable extent.

These people are, generally speaking, somewhat careless, apathetic, and without fear for the morrow. Hence, they live in a sort of hand-to-mouth fashion, confining themselves to the cultivation of the narrow strips of land at the foot of the mountains. The fields are very small, and water is frequently brought to them by means of canals. The men work the fields with a light plow, but often dispense even with that, and use a harrow, the teeth of which are made of bamboo. Ordinarily there are two harvests, excepting in certain districts, where the winters are too severe.

The men rise at daybreak at all seasons of the year, smoke their pipes, lounge about the house for a time, then work in the fields until about ten or eleven o'clock, when they return for breakfast. A short sleep is then indulged in. The afternoon is spent in roaming about the mountains, fishing, hunting, or gathering bamboo. The evening is passed at home. At about eight o'clock the only other meal of the day is partaken of. Their dress resembles that of the Annamites.

The women here, like those of most other wild tribes, are the real laborers. They pound and gather in the rice, bring fire-wood from the mountains, spin cotton, make cloth, prepare the meals, and, in a word, do almost all that is to be done. Each member of the family, however, works at his or her pleasure. The result of this freedom is a lasting friendship between the members of the same family, and frequently the children, even after marriage, will remain under their parents' roof; thus, three or four families are often found living together in perfect harmony. The women are usually very poorly dressed, and make a less agreeable impression than the men.

Great affection is shown toward their children, so much so that paternal authority is apt to suffer. "When a child is born, a string is suspended near the mother and the infant to prevent the devil from carrying it away. Bits of rice are also put into the child's mouth with the words: "If thou art of the devil, let the devil slay thee; if thou art of Heaven, let Heaven protect thee."

Marriage does not take place until the men have reached the twenty-fifth year, as it is necessary to have a considerable sum of money for the bride's parents before the event can take place. The fathers and mothers manage the affair almost entirely themselves. Three visits are made between the parents of the contracting parties; on the fourth, the bridegroom accompanies his parents, carrying the money, a pot, a pig, and a jug of wine. He invites the parents of his future wife to feast; they furnish a pig and a jug of wine also, and the two families make their repast in common. A chicken and an egg are now prepared; each is cut into two equal parts, wishes for their future happiness are expressed, and the couple invited to eat. They drink wine from the same jar, and are both seated upon one mat; congratulations are renewed and another feast spread, this time at the house of the groom's parents. This concludes the ceremonies.

Cases of sickness are generally treated by the application of roots, herbs, and leaves; each family possesses certain preparations, whose composition is kept secret. There are no physicians, and they apply their own remedies.

When any one of their number dies, friends and neighbors hasten to the mountains, hew down a tree, hollow it out, and, after having washed and dressed the body, put sugar-cane into its mouth, and invoked the shades of the dead, place it in this rude coffin, open the eyes so as to look heavenward, and then carefully seal it up. On the day of burial, sacrifices are indulged in, according to the means of the relatives of the deceased. The grave is usually made in a forest, and the hewing of trees therein is superstitiously avoided. A soothsayer, or priest, plants two reeds at the borders of a stream in such a manner that the parents of the dead can pass underneath; while doing this, he sprinkles water upon them which had been used to clean rice. After washing their clothes and cutting their hair, they enter the house, and, in order to show the depth of their sorrow, throw everything about the house into confusion. The priest arriving, he reproaches them, restores order, and sprinkles a kind of holy water in order to drive out the evil spirits.

The language of these tribes is a mixture of the Annamite and Chinese. It is chanted in a manner peculiar to the former, but differs somewhat in sound. Thirty-six letters comprise the alphabet, a peculiarity of which is that there is no letter corresponding to our r.