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Social and Spatial Organization of the Tai Deng of Mai-Châu (Viêt Nam) before 1954

Organisation sociale et spatiale des Tai Deng de Mai-Châu (Viêt Nam) avant 1954
Bernard Formoso
p. 117-134


À partir d’informations recueillies en 2000, durant un séjour de quinze jours à Mai-Châu, cet article traite de l’organisation socio-politique des Tai de ce district et ancien muong de Hoà-Bình, avant les réformes administratives imposées par le régime communiste en 1954. En complément, il décrit la structuration symbolique de l’habitat (maison, village et cimetière) en lien avec les croyances et pratiques religieuses des Tai Deng.

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1In this tribute to Jean Baffie, a distinguished specialist of contemporary Thailand, I shall present some results of a survey I carried out in 2000 among the Tai Deng (“Red Tai”) of Mai-Châu, a rural district (huyện) of the province of Hoà-Bình, in the Socialist Republic of Viêt Nam. These ethnographic data pertain both to the political system of the muoŋ (chiefdom) prior to its abolition by the Democratic Republic of Viêt Nam in 1954, and to the symbolic structuring of village and domestic spaces.

Organization of the muoŋ before 1954

  • 1 Tai terms are transcribed in this article according to the International phonetic system. For thei (...)

2Mai-Châu was historically the southernmost Tai muoŋ1 of the Black River Basin. It is now the southernmost rural district of Hoà-Bình, at about 60 km from the capital of the province, and 160 km from Hà-Nội. Covering an area of 520 km2, it is contiguous with Thanh-Hóa Province to the south, and is located within a distance of 50 km as the crow flies from the Laotian border (Xam Nua Province). In 2003 the district had a population of 48,570, of which 30,000 Tai distributed between fourteen communes (). The rest of the population was divided between the Kinh, most of them living in the town of Mai-Châu, the Muong located in five eastern and southern communes of the district, and the Hmong-Yao who lived in mountainous areas of the north (three communes) (Fig. 1).

  • 2 Concerning the premodern political systems of Siam and of Sipsong Panna see respectively S.J. Tamb (...)

3According to Philippe Le Failler (2014: 45-6), Mường Mùn (Mai-Châu) was established during the 19th century as a district by the Vietnamese administration, despite its status of secondary chiefdom in the Black River political system. However, one of my informants, Mr Hà Văn Zhua, whose paternal grand-father had been a minister of the Chieng Sai palace, described the organization of this muoŋ before 1944 as relatively sophisticated. It included several administrative levels, as well as the right/left bipolarity of power which is also observed in political systems of the Western Tai (Siam and Sipsong Panna notably2).

Fig. 1. Map of Ma...Fig. 1. Map of Mai-Châu with the location of the ethnic groups

Fig. 1. Map of Mai-Châu with the location of the ethnic groups

©B. Formoso

4The Tai of Mường Mùn were divided into three social categories. At the apex were the tâo, the hereditary lords. They were members of the Hà Công lineage in the case of Mường Thượng (“muoŋ of the upstream”), which included the tributary chiefdoms of Chieng Sai and Chieng Châu. The Hà Công also ruled Mường Thứ (“muoŋ of the downstream”, or “younger muoŋ”), and its two tributaries: Chieng Pa and Mường Mai Hịch. The tâo belonged to the Hà Văn lineage in the specific case of Mường Há, an independent chiefdom located between Mường Thượng and Mường Thứ (Fig. 1). The Hà Công call Hà Công nɔ́:i (“little Hà Công”) the members of the Hà Văn lineage. Although the latter vigorously reject this qualifier, they admit common ancestors with the former. According to the Hà Công family register as it was compiled by Bề Viết Ðằng (1999: 41-45), the two lineages became rivals during the 16th century, when they took part in the conflict between the competing Lê and Mạc dynasties. The tâo of Mường Há pledged allegiance to the Lê, whereas the lord of Mường Thượng was a supporter of the Mạc. It took more than a century for the tensions between the two groups to defuse. Since then, marriages between the two lineages have multiplied.

Fig. 2 The ancien...Fig. 2 The ancient Mường Mùn (Mai-Châu) and its tributaries

Fig. 2 The ancient Mường Mùn (Mai-Châu) and its tributaries

©B. Formoso

5Below the Hà Công-Hà Văn aristocrats, the commoners were referred as phâi (“free men”). They were divided into six lineages: the Vì, the Lôc, the Lò, the Bạc, the Ngoen and the Xà. The Ngoen and the Xà were closely associated with the power of the nobles, to the extent that many of them took on the role of tâo poŋ (head of a cluster of villages) or of tâo bâ:n (village headman). Finally, the third social category consisted of khon ʔɤ:n (“domestic servants”). They were slaves employed by the tâo and by wealthy households of the Hà Công and Hà Văn lineages.

6The tâo were polygamous. One of the great grand-fathers of Mr Hà Văn Zhua had twelve wives at the end of the 19th century. Polygyny was also common among Hà Công aristocrats. The main wife was called na:ŋ muoŋ (“Lady of the chiefdom”). She was chosen from among ruling families of the Tai and Muong ethnic groups, or from “downstream” Hà Công settled in Thanh-Hóa Province. For their part, minor wives or concubines were called mɛ̂: or mia nɔ́:i (“little mothers” or “little wives”). They could come from families of commoners providing to the chiefdom a category of subaltern headmen called kwan. Minor wives could also be taken among the Hà Công hộ tɕí. Hộ is a Vietnamese term for “household”, tɕí a Tai word for “support”. The expression Hà Công hộ tɕí applied to the lord’s clients. Fell into the category the households of commoners who had got marriage with Hà Công nubile girls for at least three successive generations. Petty officials such as tâo poŋ, tâo bɑ̂:n or kwan had the status of hộ tɕí on condition to have proved to be faithful to the tâo. Tai and Muong immigrants could also be included into the category, insofar as they had previously offered a great banquet of allegiance to the lord. Clear social boundaries were drawn between the Hà Công and the hộ tɕí. For instance, the latter could not wear straw mourning turbans at the funerals of members of the ruling family. If they could take a wife in the lineage of the ruler, they were not allowed to run for the tâo muoŋ office. Finally, the status of hộ tɕí offered advantages to the tâo by symbolically aggregating in-laws and loyal subjects to his lineage, thus strengthening his influence and manpower without threatening his political prerogatives.

  • 3 The compound is constructed from the Tai terms ʔán (“an officer who examines and judges”) and ( (...)
  • 4 From the lao sě:na:bɔdi: which stood for the minister of the palace in charge of finances.
  • 5 The term khwàŋ could be borrowed from the Lao language where it designates a meeting place or a do (...)

7A man from the descent line of the Mường Thượng tâo told me that Chieng Châu was the place of residence of the lord. This small town had the status of right-wing city, as opposed to Chieng Sai (“left-wing city”). Each city had a domain of its own, under the lord’s supreme authority. Two dignitaries shared the administration of these domains. The ʔán yà3 was in charge of police and justice, while the duty of the second, the ông sě:n4, was to collect taxes and to organize the labor service within the chieŋ (“city”). The ông sě:n was usually a son of the lord, while the ʔán yà could be a Hà Công or a Hà Văn. In payment of his duty, the ông sě:n received a domain of one thousand two hundred hǔa na: (“head of rice fields”). Hǔa na: was the area of rainfed or irrigated rice fields which could be transplanted by means of a sheaf of paddy (about ten square meters). The ông sě:n had ông khwàŋ5 (“head of domain”) under his orders, khwàŋ designating a cluster of villages. The ông khwàŋ was overseeing in turn subaltern leaders, called ông chủ (from the Vietnamese chủ = “master”, “patron”), who collected taxes and organized duties at the scale of one or two villages. According to my informant, both ông khwàŋ and ông chủ were notables chosen by the villagers among commoners. Other sources suggest that just as for the tâo bâ:n (village headmen), these charges were inherited from father to son according to the principle of primogeniture.

8The whole population of the muoŋ was subjected to compulsory labor service. However, the time spent by the ông sě:n, ông khwàŋ, and ông chủ to oversee commoners was deducted, so that they were exempts from physical chores. These officers were systematically invited to weddings and funerals of their dependents. On these occasions they were entitled with a place of honor and received a substantial share of the offerings. The commoners’ chore was calculated on the basis of the land they cultivated, i.e. one day for transplanting and another day for harvesting the lord’s rice fields when the phâi owned a farm of 1,200 hǔa na: (about one hectare). In addition, each household of commoners had to send by rotation a young man or woman to the domestic service of the lord for a period of two-three months. This latter did not levy tribute on the crops because he had rice fields, orchards and grasslands of his own, which were called poŋ nước (from the Tai poŋ = “share” and from the Viet nước = “state”). On the other hand, he received the rear leg of all large game hunted on his domain, while the ông sě:n received half the breast of the animal. Furthermore, the tâo was the master of the sources. In large communal fisheries, the deepest part of the river was called ʔɤ:n tâo (“lord’s house”), and each household owed its biggest catch to the tâo. As noted by Antoine Bourlet (1907: 614), the travel expenses of the lord within his muong were also supported by his subjects.

9In addition to the labor service due to the lord of Mai-Châu, the muoŋ inhabitants owed another duty to the Viêt overlord, which was managed by both ông khwàŋ and ông chủ, and whose duration varied from year to year. Those who could not send a household member had to pay a substitute worker. Finally, village headmen, ông khwàŋ, and ông chủ also took advantage of the drudgery regime at the rate of one annual day per adult of their jurisdiction and for each hectare of rice fields that these notables put under cultivation.

10The lowlands cultivated by Tai peasants were labeled di:n nai (“land within”), as opposed to the mountains enclosing the valley of Mai-Châu, which were called di:n ti:n (“land at the foot”). These mountainous marches of the muoŋ were directly under the lord’s authority. Mainly populated by Hmong and Yao practicing slash-and-burn cultivation, they provided a pool of khâ: (“slaves”) likely to be punctured by the tâo and other dignitaries. Highlanders owed to the lord a part of the forest products they gathered, and of the game they hunted. They also supplied a large proportion of the buffaloes sacrificed during the great rituals organized by the chiefdom, and had to provide the gongs and drums that ensured their musical accompaniment. At the funeral of members of the lord’s family it was their task to dig the grave.

11To come to term with the socio-political organization of the muoŋ of Mai-Châu, it should be noted that it complies with the system of nested muoŋ described by Cầm Trọng about the Black Tai of northwestern Viêt Nam; a system whose subordinate levels are often labeled chieŋ). As Cầm Trọng notices: “a châu mường groups together at least four small mường” (1987: 199). The high degree of social openness of Hà Công and Hà Văn aristocrats should also be underlined. Far from forming a small caste folded back on itself, they associated commoners with their exercise of power. A specific concern is raised on this point. On the one hand, the lineage of the tâo had to display a clear symbolic distance with commoners, and to reserve certain political prerogatives for preserving its hegemony. On the other hand, it was partly dependent on commoners for its social reproduction and, through directed matrimonial strategies, to constitute a network of trustees enabling it to consolidate its power. If the tâo and his close kin could reduce this dependence through alliances with ruling families of Tai and Muong chiefdoms, the other Hà Công and Hà Văn enjoyed less openings in this sense to satisfy the rule of exogamy. By multiplying marriages and delegations of power in favor of the Hà Công hộ tɕí, the lineage of the tâo created an intermediary layer of non-hereditary ennobled which reduced the risks of rebellion to its authority. In such a context, the establishment and manipulation of kinship was an essential instrument of power.

Spatial organization

The village

12Mai-Châu villages are all oriented along an upstream–downstream axis referring to the nearest river. Upstream is called tha:ŋ nɯ̌a, and downstream tha:ŋ tɯ̂: or tha:ŋ koŋ (“below”). The ridge purlins of most houses align along this axis. Upstream corresponds to the “head of the village” (hǔa bâ:n), the extremity of which is marked by the shelter to the thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n, the tutelary spirit of the community. As for downstream, which is the direction where the settlement expands, it is called “tail of village” (hǎ:ŋ bâ:n). Beyond the village, the upstream–downstream axis organizes the whole cosmology. The world from above, where live the mɛ̂: baw (“mothers who cast [the body]”) and the phǐ: thɛ̌:n (“heavenly spirits”), is called bon nɯ̌a (“the top, the upstream”), as opposed to the world from below, called muoŋ tɯ̂: (“the downstream muoŋ”), which is populated by dwarfs and ŋɯɔk ophidians.

13Another component of the landscape which is essential to the symbolic structuring of Tai villages in Mai-Châu is a mountain or a hill, at the foot of which human settlement develops. As a general rule, the “head of the house”, which is called hǔa nɔ:n (“head – to sleep”) because it corresponds to the position of the sleepers’ head, should be turned towards this elevation, while the entrance of the house must be opposed to it. According to Cầm Trọng (1987: 234-235), a mountain overhanging the human settlement is necessary in the cosmology of the Tai of northwestern Viêt Nam because it is the fulcrum (minh-nén) on which rests the muoŋ and the village to a lesser extent. Just as the spiritual components of the human person rest on an existential fulcrum named minh-nén, the mountain overhanging the central muoŋ is called pom minh or pom nén muoŋ, and is believed to be the “soul” of the muoŋ. At the village level, the mountain symbolizes the soul of the “lord of the earth” (châo din), in addition with the upstream of the river which is identified to the soul of the “lord of water» (châo ná:m).

The cemetery

14The “forest–cemetery” (pà: hěw), also named muoŋ hěw (“cemetery as a muoŋ”) is another important element of the human landscape. It is always located upstream, at a sizeable distance from the village and opposite the mountain. The location of the graves respects a very precise order, which is the reverse of that of the living. Whereas the upstream of the village symbolizes its head, the downstream is on the contrary the direction of honors in the cemetery, according to a reversal principle which symbolically breaks the links between living and dead. A proverbial expression in use locally perfectly sums up the antithesis: “khon ta:i kin loŋ tha:ŋ ti:n, khon ɯ̀n kin khɯ̂n tha:ŋ hǔa “ (“the dead eat by the feet, the living by the head”). This formula also summarizes the general idea that the feet of the deceased are a source of danger, for being an opening through which he can capture the energy of others, either living or dead. Hence a number of positioning rules. Thus, tombs are never placed in the prolongation of one another. It is said that the dead whose feet overhang the head of the neighbor would eat for his own benefit what the latter might bring to his descendants, preventing their prosperity. Similarly, at funerals the members of the audience cannot point their feet towards those of the deceased.

15The downstream being at the cemetery the direction of honors, lords are buried in a specific plot near the entrance (Fig. 3). In their case the place of burial is only marked by an erected stone whose size is a function of their position in the line of succession. At Chieng Sai, the oldest Hà Công lord of the place thus enjoys the largest megalith (Fig. 4). Apart from this plot reserved for the lords, the graves of the different lineages are arranged in rows perpendicular to the upstream–downstream axis in the following order. The row of the Hà Cong is the most downstream and closest to the plot reserved to the lords. Then come in order the Lò, Lôc, Hà Văn, Bạc, Xà, Ngoen, and Vì. These rows are assimilated to long houses. At the southern entrance of the driveway that leads into each of them, there are small shelters which house guardian spirits of the gate: the khon tu:. Lastly, slaves and bad dead are buried in a “small graveyard” (hěw nɔ́:i) which is oriented along the upstream–downstream axis and is at the greatest distance from the lords’ plot (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Map of the...Fig. 3 Map of the Chieng Sai cemetery

Fig. 3 Map of the Chieng Sai cemetery

©B. Formoso

16The dead is placed in a dugout coffin with his/her belongings. This coffin, whose material and shape are identical to those described at the turn of the twentieth century by Antoine Bourlet (1913: 40), is positioned in the tomb so that the dead man or woman’s head is turned upstream. Apart from the tâo whose burial is indicated by a megalith, as well as the slaves and the bad dead whose grave is marked by two poles covered with a small roof, all the other tombs are located under a small house on stilts, the ʔɤ:n hěw (“house of the cemetery”) which reproduces in simpler forms that of the living. Furniture (table, chairs) are arranged in this house, as well as sleeping facilities (mattress, pillow, blankets and mosquito net), kitchenware, hunting and fishing instruments, not to mention agricultural and craft tools (including a weaving loom for women). The elements that make up this equipment are all miniaturized reproductions, made of wood and bamboo, without recourse to metallic components which, according to the belief, could hurt the souls of the deceased. In the same way, the house is fully assembled with wooden dowels, without recourse to nails. The materials of the ʔɤ:n hěw are even in number, unlike those of the house of the living which are in an odd number, following the general idea that the worlds of the dead and the living are the mirror inverted one from the other. For example, the access ladder of the ʔɤ:n hěw has two, four, or six bars, whereas those of the house are in an odd number. When the dead corpse is taken from the house to be conveyed to the cemetery, the carriers of the coffin avoid stepping on the first step of the house’s staircase in order to tilt the dead in the even numerology (i.e. the other world), and to prevent him from returning to his home. The Tai of Mai-Châu do not seem to know the Lao proverb for home access whereby “the even numbers [the ghosts] remain, the odd numbers they flee”, but they clearly adhere to the belief that this adage expresses.

17In addition to the aforementioned equipment, the Tai of Mai-Châu supply the cemetery house with bags of rice, of sorghum and of maize seeds, as well as with bottles of water and alcohol, tobacco, betel quid and salt. At the foot of the ʔɤ:n hěw is placed a drinking trough for the cattle that the dead man is supposed to raise. The cemetery house is bounded by small erected stones whose number is equal to that of the direct descendants of the deceased. The plot occupied by the tomb is surrounded by a bamboo fence. Inside, a small garden is arranged at the funerals, in which banana trees, sugar cane, and aromatic herbs are planted (Fig. 5). These arrangements are intended to ensure the complete autonomy of the dead in the afterlife, in accordance with the rupture process which is the guideline of funerals. At the turn of the twentieth century Antoine Bourlet noted that the trees, bamboos and bushes of the cemetery were cut only during a burial, to draw a path, and the rest of the time no cutlass would profane the place (1913: 43). In the same vein, the Tai no longer make offerings to their dead in the cemetery after the burial ceremony, except when the ancestor manifests himself by disrupting their live. In which case a shamanic ritual is performed to appease him. Due to lack of maintenance, the houses of the dead quickly degrade.

Fig. 4. Megalith ...Fig. 4. Megalith of Ðức But, Chieng Sai

Fig. 4. Megalith of Ðức But, Chieng Sai

©B. Formoso

Fig. 5. A Tai cem...Fig. 5. A Tai cemetery house, Mai-Châu

Fig. 5. A Tai cemetery house, Mai-Châu

©B. Formoso

18It must be said that the cemetery is not the exclusive destination of the departed. According to Tai beliefs, the human being is animated by vital components, which are called khwɑ̌n and whose quantity varies according to the ages of life. They are thirty for children and young people before marriage, of forty for the married adults, of sixty for those who are over sixty, and up to ninety for the very elderly. The khwɑ̌n are divided into three categories which are invoked in the rites for recalling the souls or at funerals: the khwɑ̌n tôn, les khwɑ̌n ka:ŋ et les khwɑ̌n sò:t sɛ̀:w. To describe their hierarchy and their interrelationships, an informant used the metaphor of the tree. According to him, the khwɑ̌n tôn form the “trunk” (tôn) of existence, because they are the foundation of life. This category includes the khwɑ̌n that operate the main organs (heart, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs). After death, they do not move to the cemetery but rally the domestic altar dedicated to the ancestors where they receive regular offerings. They then form a spiritual entity named phǐ: khwɑ̌n khon ta:i (“spirit of the dead’s khwɑ̌n”). The khwɑ̌n ka:ŋ (“of the middle “) are for their part comparable to tree branches. They correspond to the skeleton and settle in the grave. Lastly, the khwɑ̌n sò:t sɛ̀:w (“unattached khwɑ̌n which flutter”) are considered as “small khwɑ̌n”. In the tree’s metaphor they are assimilated to leaves. According to popular belief, they easily leave the body of the person they inhabit in case of nightmare and illness. During their movements they fly in zigzag like butterflies. Their role in the life process is the least well defined, as opinions vary on the topic. For some, they serve as an essential motor for mental activity; for others, they rather correspond to the carnal envelope. Until the 1950s they were guided after death by the shaman to a heavenly muoŋ determined according to the social status of the deceased. However, after decades of communist propaganda against the religious beliefs related to the former feudal order, the existence of celestial chiefdoms where the souls would reproduce their terrestrial existence is hardly invoked, most informants considering now that the khwɑ̌n sò:t sɛ̀:w accompany the khwɑ̌n ka:ŋ to the cemetery.

Fig. 6. A dugout ...Fig. 6. A dugout coffin in use among the Tai of Mai-Châu

Fig. 6. A dugout coffin in use among the Tai of Mai-Châu

©B. Formoso

The house

19At the beginning of the 2000s, the Mai-Châu Tai houses in rural areas were all wooden structures built on stilts, while their roof was either made of tiles or straw hay grass (Fig. 7). The poles supporting the house were not planted but posed on stone or concrete bases, this technique providing better resistance to seismic risks which are important in the region. During the building process the first pole to be erected is called sǎw tà:w (“pole–turtle”). This pole is a cosmophor, for it is conceived as the axis mundi of the domestic microcosm. A sai—a fish trap which is a phallic symbol of oblong shape—is tied to it, just as the Lao do for their sǎw ʔɛ:k (“first pole”) (Formoso 1987 : 150). In addition, the Tai of Mai-Châu tie around this pole a shirt of the household head. The fish trap and the shirt are believed to hold together the household members’ souls. They are symbols of social cohesiveness and are consequently indispensable to the performance of the ritual for recalling the lost souls, that the Tai of Mai-Châu significantly call khwɑ̌n sai (“soul – fish trap”). For its part, the sǎw tà:w is bound forever to the original owner of the house. It is also the place of residence of the phǐ: fai, the spirit of the hearth.

20Once the sǎw tà:w has been erected, the other poles supporting the house are drawn up in a clockwise direction. The second pole to be erected is called sǎw ông (“lord pole”, literally: “Excellency pole”, by reference to the honorary term ông in Vietnamese). Its symbolic function is similar to that of the sǎw khwɑ̌n (“soul pole”) of the Lao house, insofar as it is the most important pole of the house, on which is fixed the altar to the ancestors and the altar to his auxiliary spirits in the specific case of the shaman (mun). It is also in front of this pole that are performed the rituals for recalling the souls of members of the household. Both sǎw khwɑ̌n and sǎw ông are associated with the “head” frontage of the house (hǔa ʔɤ:n in Tai Deng), which is turned towards the mountain in the case of the Tai of Mai-Châu. It is in this direction that the members of the household orient their head while sleeping. The rooms or otherwise the mattresses that are unrolled at night are placed on this side. Just like the sǎw khwɑ̌n of the Lao, the sa:w ông of the Tai of Mai-Châu corresponds to the “foot” frontage of the house, the ti:n ʔɤ:n, which delimits its reception space. It is usually on this frontage that is located the access to the house (either staircase or ladder). There are, however, two differences between the “soul pole” of the Lao and the “lord pole” of the Mai-Châu Tai. First, the sa:w ông is not placed opposite the sǎw tà:w, but is always slightly offset from it in the upstream direction. Second, when the sǎw ông is erected, the household head does not attach a spinning wheel to it, as it is the custom among the Lao, but a gourd, which is another female symbol, conveying in addition the idea of fertility. Gourd is a major theme of the Tai cosmogenesis, for it is from it that emerged the various categories of mankind (Archaimbault 1973: 99). The Tai of Mai-Châu adjunct to this myth another one, which provides useful insights into the auspicious act of linking a gourd to the main pole of their house. According to a version of this myth I gathered in 2000, in ancient times, when men were hunting excessively, a delegation of wild animals went up to heaven to complain to Phǐ: thɛ̌:n lǔaŋ, the supreme god. They asked him to intervene to ensure their survival. In response, Phǐ: thɛ̌:n lǔaŋ decided to make mankind visually impaired. The primal gourd then interfered. In return for men’s promise to reduce hunting to their strict needs, she restored their visual ability by giving them two of her seeds. Since then the Tai express their everlasting gratitude by tying a gourd to the most important pole of their house. This narrative establishes a causal connection between sustainable use of natural resources and human reproduction in the long run. The act of tying a gourd to the pole expresses these ecological necessities and their beneficial effects for the future of the household, in addition to the ideas of fecundity and prosperity traditionally associated to the cucurbitaceous in the Tai world.

Fig. 7. Tai house...Fig. 7. Tai houses of Mai-Châu in the 2000s

Fig. 7. Tai houses of Mai-Châu in the 2000s

©B. Formoso

21Apart from the head/foot antinomy, Mai-Châu Tai house is also organized according to another opposition referring to the body, which applies to the gable frontages. The side wall that includes the entrance of the house is called “face” of the house (nâ: ʔɤ:n). It is opened on the outside by means of windows and clerestories. It corresponds in the domestic space to a place dedicated to the reception of visitors. The opposite gable is for its part called lɑ̌ŋ ʔɤ:n (“back of the house”). It is on its side that are located the kitchen and the washroom (Fig. 8).

22The domestic space is hierarchized along the upstream–downstream axis and by reference to the sǎw ông. Thus, the household head and his wife use to sleep in the most upstream resting space, close to the sǎw ông and the ancestors’ altar. Their children sleeps on their left, the eldest to the nearest, the youngest to the furthest. If after marriage a son still lives with his parents, he and his wife will occupy the sleeping space that adjoins the kitchen, downstream. Similarly, men take their meal while sitting upstream, in the direction of the “face” of the house, and women are placed downstream, on the side of the kitchen.

23Among the Lao, neighboring houses must respect a rule of mutual positioning which puts opposite either their “heads” or their “feet”, so that their sleepers are never in the situation where their feet are oriented towards the head of others, which would place the latter in a position of inferiority towards the former (Formoso 1987). The Tai of Mai-Châu do not know this rule, but they comply with two prescriptions which have the same effect. They avoid building their houses facing each other when they are not separated by obstacles which neutralize their direct relationship (road, hedges of trees for instance). On the other hand, they never place the ridge purlins of two neighboring houses in alignment with one another, for the same reasons as those invoked for the “cemetery houses” (to avoid in this case that a household dries the good fortune of the other).

Fig. 8. Spatial o...Fig. 8. Spatial organization of the Tai house in Mai-Châu

Fig. 8. Spatial organization of the Tai house in Mai-Châu

©B. Formoso

The ritual of village confinement

24In Southeast Asia, rituals of village confinement are widespread (MacDonald 1957). They are aimed at ensuring the periodic regeneration of the social body, or of curbing a phase of misfortune suffered collectively. In Tai Buddhist context, this type of ritual is still frequently performed by the Lao and the Thai-Lao of northeastern Thailand. Among the Mai-Châu Tai, the last occurrence of such a ritual dates back to 1941. It was called sên bâ:n (“thread [surrounding] the village”) by reference to the cotton thread which made the tour of the village from the shelter of its guardian spirit. To perform this rite it was necessary to sacrifice three buffaloes, of which one albino. This latter was offered to Phǐ: thɛ̌:n lǔaŋ, the heavenly supreme god. Another buffalo was addressed to the local spirit of earth and water, the phǐ: ŋɯɔk. The third one was sacrificed to the village guardian spirit, the thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n. The slaughter of buffaloes was taking place on the first day, after the placement of the cotton thread around the village. Intertwining bamboo splints, universally known in the Tai world as ta: lɛ̌:w (“eagle eye”), had been previously placed at the “head” and “tail” gates of the village to signify to outsiders that they were forbidden to enter it. The main celebrant of the sên bâ:n was a mɔ̌: (priest) from the Lô lineage, who was specialized in rites involving the tâo. Each household had to attend the ritual and to participate in the expenses incurred. The sên bâ:n was patronized by the tâo. In case of incapacity, he used to send one of his tunics to seat in front of the thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n. The clothing was placed on a mat, beside five trays of offerings and a buffalo shank addressed to the guardian spirit. Portions of meat were given to the priest in payment of his service. The period of three or five days of confinement ended with the sacrifice of a pig at the lord’s house. This sequence, called hɔ̂m sɯ̂a (“to surround with clothes”), consisted in moving a tunic of the tâo in front of the altars to the phǐ: thɛ̌:n lǔaŋ, phǐ: ŋɯɔk and phǐ: bâ:n, in order to regenerate the prosperity of the muoŋ through the radiating charisma of the lord. Among the five food trays offered to the spirits for the occasion, the main one contained pork slices arranged in a fan-shaped form.

25Although sên bâ:n are no longer performed today, the collective disorders they were supposed to repair still remain of supernatural origin for many Tai. Hence the fact that some of them seek to restore transactions deemed effective with the spirits, despite the disavowal of the communist authorities. Shamanic healing was common practice in Mai-Châu in the early 2000s. For health troubles that could not be cured by the ordinary mediation of mɔ̌: phǐ: (“priest for spirits”) or of mun (shaman), some household heads reproduced for themselves the sacrifices that once characterized the sên bâ:n. A shaman reported to me the case of a man who was suffering in the 1990s from transient hysteria. He consulted a diviner who told him that the disease was caused by his late father whose worship he neglected. Following the diagnosis, he made abundant offerings to his ancestor but without any result. He consulted another diviner who claimed that the illness was due to the abandonment of the thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n cult by his fellow villagers. He then begged the commune headman to authorize the construction of a shelter for the guardian spirit, but the latter refused. Bypassing this decision, he built a small aedicule at the “head” of the village and sacrificed his unique buffalo on the anniversary date of the guardian spirit. The other villagers then had no choice but to associate themselves to his offerings. According to the shaman’s narrative, after the sacrifice the man cured miraculously.

Fig. 9. A thɛ̂:n ...Fig. 9. A thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n shelter

Fig. 9. A thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n shelter

©B. Formoso


26Lucien Bernot rightly observed that the house “frequently represents one of the most dominant tangible and tenacious features of an ethnic group” (1982: 35). On closer inspection however, the observation is worth less for materials and architecture—both subjected to large spatiotemporal variations—than for the house’s symbolic structuring, that is to say the rules of placement and circulation which regulate the poles of activities and the statutory ordering of individuals within the house, according to different sets of symbolic oppositions. Tai ethnic groups display significant architectural differences due to external influences, natural resources and economic level. However, the comparison I have outlined here between the Lao Buddhists and the Tai Deng of Mai-Châu brings out a number of common features in the organization of space.

27One of them, that Sophie Charpentier and Pierre Clément (1984: 41-42) were the first to highlight, relates to the orientation system. This system rests on the upstream/downstream opposition by reference to the nearest river, and on the body metaphor through the oppositions “head”/”foot” and “face”/ “back” applied to the house’s frontages. These rules of orientation are respected by the Lao and the Tai of Mai-Châu. In both populations the upstream–downstream axis determines at the same time the direction of ridges purlins, the sleepers’ position according to the generational order, and the spatial development of the local community. Moreover, in the case of the Tai Deng this axis applies in a reversed mode to the cemetery, the downstream being then the upper part, where the lords rest, while the upstream is the place of burial for slaves and bad dead.

28The opposition between “head” and “foot” frontages, which determines the layout of bedrooms and the position of sleepers, is also effective in both cases, even if it is associated with poles whose symbolism differs. While among the Lao the sǎw ʔɛ:k and the sǎw khwɑ̌n are gendered, since the former is masculine and the second feminine in relation with the rule of uxorilocality, among the Tai Deng who are organized in patrilineal and patrilocal lineages, the gender complementarity is subsumed in the symbolism of cosmological foundations. Thus, in Mai-Châu, the “turtle pole” symbolizes the dome that supports the domestic microcosm, by borrowing from Chinese cosmology, while the “lord pole” is associated with the gourd, which is the matrix element of the Tai cosmogony, as well as a symbol of fertility and abundance. In the Lao and Tai Deng cases, however, the principle of social reproduction is put forward, that it refers to the couple or to the genesis of mankind.

29Finally, the two populations share a common pattern in the ritual performance of village confinement. They both use a cotton thread which, starting from the guardian spirit shelter, girdles and isolates the village. They both resort to ta: lɛ̌:w to signify the temporary prohibition of access of outsiders in the village. The general purpose of the ritual is also the same, namely to curb a phase of misfortune experienced collectively, to regenerate life, and to restore community order.

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ARCHAIMBAULT, Charles, 1973,“La naissance du monde selon les traditions lao. Le mythe de Khun Bulom”, in Structures religieuses lao (rites et mythes), Charles Archaimbault, Vientiane: Vithagna, pp. 97-130.

BERNOT, Lucien, 1982, “The House of the Swidden Farmers as a Special Object for Ethnological Study”, in The House in East and Southeast Asia, K.G. Izikowitz & P. Sørensen, eds, London: Curzon Press, pp. 35-40.

BỀ VIẾT ÐẮNG, 1999, “La famille Hà Công. Étude généalogique (un lignage thaï de la sous-préfecture de Mai-Châu. Province de Hoà-Bình)”, Péninsule, 39: 35-54.

BOURLET, Antoine, 1907, “Les Thay”, Anthropos, 2: 613-623.

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LEMOINE, Jacques, 1997, “Féodalité Taï chez les Lü des Sipsong Panna et les Taï Blancs, Noirs et Rouges du Nord-Ouest du Viêt-Nam”, Péninsule, 37: 171-217.

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TAMBIAH, Stanley J., 1976, World Conqueror & World Renouncer. A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Note de fin

1 Tai terms are transcribed in this article according to the International phonetic system. For their part, official toponyms and lineage names, some of which incorporate Tai words, are written in accordance with the Vietnamese script.

2 Concerning the premodern political systems of Siam and of Sipsong Panna see respectively S.J. Tambiah (1976: 145-7) and Jacques Lemoine (1997: 177).

3 The compound is constructed from the Tai terms ʔán (“an officer who examines and judges”) and (“to compel”) (Minot 1940: 11, 231). According to Cầm Trọng (1987: 209), this title could derive from ph’nha which was used in ancient times to refer to the Tai chief.

4 From the lao sě:na:bɔdi: which stood for the minister of the palace in charge of finances.

5 The term khwàŋ could be borrowed from the Lao language where it designates a meeting place or a domain, depending on the context (Reinhorn 1970: 277). It could also be derived from the Vietnamese ông quan which designates the mandarin (personal communication by Philippe Le Failler).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Map of Mai-Châu with the location of the ethnic groups
Crédits ©B. Formoso
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Titre Fig. 2 The ancient Mường Mùn (Mai-Châu) and its tributaries
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 3 Map of the Chieng Sai cemetery
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 4. Megalith of Ðức But, Chieng Sai
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 5. A Tai cemetery house, Mai-Châu
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 6. A dugout coffin in use among the Tai of Mai-Châu
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 7. Tai houses of Mai-Châu in the 2000s
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 8. Spatial organization of the Tai house in Mai-Châu
Crédits ©B. Formoso
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Titre Fig. 9. A thɛ̂:n phǐ: bâ:n shelter
Crédits ©B. Formoso
Fichier image/jpeg, 659k
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Pour citer cet article

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Bernard Formoso, « Social and Spatial Organization of the Tai Deng of Mai-Châu (Viêt Nam) before 1954 », Moussons, 31 | 2018, 117-134.

Référence électronique

Bernard Formoso, « Social and Spatial Organization of the Tai Deng of Mai-Châu (Viêt Nam) before 1954 », Moussons [En ligne], 31 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2018, consulté le 25 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.4065

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Bernard Formoso

Bernard Formoso is a professor of social anthropology at Paris Nanterre University, and is affiliated to Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, IrAsia, Marseille, France.

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