The Nung People are one of the 54 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government Vietnam. The Vietnam National Department of Statistics considers an ethnic group (dan toc) to be, “a stable or relatively stable group of people formed over a historical period with common territorial ties, economic activities, and cultural characteristics. (Other sources place the estimated number of ethnic groups in Vietnam closer to 80). Within the Nung ethnic group are 9 sub groups, comprising 900,000 people as of the year 2000. The 9 sub groups include the Nung Giang, Nung Xuong, Nung An, Nung Inh, Nung Loi, Nung Chao, Nung Phan Slinh, Nung Quy Rin, and Nung Din peoples. In addition to the primary Nung population living in Vietnam, there are also about 100,000 Nung living in Southern China and 50,000 living in Laos. In the past few years about 200 Nung have been resettled as refugees in North Carolina, USA as well. The Nung People are closely related to the Tay Ethnic Group who also live in the same region and the two peoples share a language which is from the Tai-Kadai language family. There is a written form of the Nung language which utilizes old Chinese characters for the script.
The heartland of the Nung people is the area comprised of the 5 landlocked northern provinces of Vietnam which border China.
In Vietnam, different ethnic groups can often be distinguished by the traditional clothing that they wear. In general clothing styles are similar among the 9 subgroups of the Nung. The Nung men wear a short indigo shirt with cloth sau sau fruit-shaped buttons, large-legged trousers with an overturned belt. Nung women wear a shirt with a collar and large sleeves decorated with numerous colorful cloth pieces.
Nung traditional dress is similar to that of the Tay minority as the two ethnic groups also share a common language. The differences between Nung and Tay dress are small but distinct. The Nung hem colored bands into their clothing and the Nung women often wear a neck scarf with brightly colored fringes and a shoulder bag embroidered with the sun, stars and flowers, or woven in black and white interspersed with delicately colored threads.
The Nung live in small villages. Nung houses can be built either flat on the ground or on stilts (as protection from snakes, floods, and wild animals etc.) and are made of wood with thatch or tile roofs. Nung homes are typically divided into two sections, one to serve as living quarters and the other for work and worship. Often Nung homes are situated with rice fields in the front and orchards containing tangerine and persimmon trees in the back.
Nung people make a living primarily through farming and hand made products, which they sell among their own people as well as to the rest of Vietnam.
> Farming: The Nung are known as the best horticulturalists in all of Vietnam. They grow a wide array of crops including vegetables, maize, groundnuts, tangerines, persimmons, spice, and bamboo. Nung farmers farm traditional rice paddies, as well as fruit orchards, and they quite frequently terrace the lower slopes of the mountains to provide extra land for farming. Nung farmers often use water wheels for irrigation.
> Hand Made Goods (Handicrafts): There are a number of villages that are still devoted to the production of specific hand made goods throughout the provinces where the Nung people live. The governmental authority of Cao Bang province even goes so far as to distinguish Nung goods made in urban areas from those made in rural areas.
Hand made goods typically produced in urban areas include: forged tools, knit goods, bamboo furniture, and various types of agricultural produce. Urban Nung are also noted for being skilled in making mechanical repairs and a number of other manual tasks.
Handmade goods typically produced in rural areas include: forged tools, cast tools, weavings, dyed indigo cloth, knit goods, silver works, and hand made paper. Nung blacksmiths are almost as famous for their craft as are the farmers for their horticulture skills.
Perhaps the most famous of all Nung produced goods is Indigo cloth. It is uncertain how long ago the Nung began to make this indigo cloth, but it is now widely known throughout Vietnam to identify the Nung people. To the Nung, indigo represents faithfulness. Despite this long standing tradition, with the advent of mechanical clothing production and also the importation of clothing into Vietnam, the popularity of this indigo cloth is waning. Many Nung still continue to wear their traditional clothing anyway because they see it as a symbol of their people.
The production of the indigo clothing is primarily the responsibility of Nung women. Women work hard to cultivate cotton, knit the cloth, dye the cloth, and tailor it into clothing. This process is very involved and includes: cotton cultivation, harvesting, exposing the harvested cotton to sunlight, rolling cotton cores to split them open, pulling and spinning cotton thread, “gluing” the thread, knitting cloth on a loom, and finally dyeing clothe with dye extracted from indigo fruits. Each year, one woman can knit around 8 cloth rolls. Cloth is knitted on a loom, and typically ranges in size from 40 – 43 cm. This indigo clothing is produced primarily for personal use and it is not typically produced commercially.
Ancient: The Nung people are part of a larger ethno-linguistic group known as the Tai. The Tai also include the Lao, the people of the Shan region of Northeast Burma, the Zhuang people of Guangxi province in China and the Tho or Tay people of Northern Vietnam. The Tai speaking peoples have their roots in Southern China but migrated southward primarily during the first millennium AD.
The Tai peoples were weakly organized in small communities known as Muang. Advanced cultures such as the Khmer and Hindu cultures of India had a great impact on them. Most of the Tai accepted Hinduism, which is obvious even today in some their religious worship. Buddhism was introduced to the Tai-speaking lands between 6th and 9th centuries. This was probably via Burma and is their major religion today. Even with both Hindu and Buddhist influences, the Nung continued to hold to many of their traditional beliefs.
After migrating into Vietnam from Southern China the Nung were subsequently confined to the northern mountain regions by the much larger Kinh majority ethnic group in Vietnam. There has been standing animosity of various degrees over the years between the Nung and Kinh people.
Modern: In more recent history, during the French occupation of Vietnam, the French colonial government took advantage of ancient tensions between the highland ethnic groups and the Kinh majority in Vietnam. In the northwest mountains, they set up a semi-autonomous minority federation, complete with armed militias and border guards. When war broke out in 1946, groups of Thai, H’mong and Muong in the northwest sided with the French and against the Vietnamese and even provided battalions to fight with the French troops. Nonetheless some of the highland ethnic groups including the Tay and Nung people actively supported the Viet Minh, and provided Ho Chi Minh with a safe base for his guerrilla armies. After defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Viet Minh tried to win the allegiance of all of the northern ethnic minorities by created two autonomous regions, allowing limited self-government within a “unified multi-national state”.
During the American-Vietnam war, many Nung fought alongside of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), however a small contingent of Nung people who lived in the central highlands of Vietnam at the time were trained by US Special Forces to fight against the NVA and Viet Cong. The Nung proved to be fierce warriors and quickly earned the reputation of being the most feared of all of the minority groups trained by the US Special Forces. They were considered to be extremely honest and trustworthy.
After Vietnam was reunited in 1975, things didn’t really improve much for the Nung or other ethnic minorities. What autonomy had been granted after the French defeat was revoked and the new government pursued a policy of forced assimilation of the minorities into the Vietnamese culture. All education was conducted in the Vietnamese language, traditional customs were discouraged or outlawed, and minority people were moved from their villages into permanent settlements. At the same time the government created “New Economic Zones” along the Chinese border and in the central highlands. Frequently this involved taking the best land in order to resettle thousands of people from the overcrowded lowlands. According to official government records, 250,000 settlers were moved into the New Economic Zones each year during the 1980s. The upshot of this policy was a severe food shortage among the minority groups who were unable to support themselves on the marginal lands. The over-farmed upland soil was not fertile enough to meet their basic needs.
In the 1990’s the “Doi moi” program (New Change) brought a shift in policy and a central office responsible for the ethnic minorities was established. Today, minority languages are officially recognized and can be taught in schools. There are also scholarships which enable minority people to attend institutes of higher education. Furthermore there is now a greater representation of minorities at all levels of government. Cash crops such as timber and fruit are being introduced as an alternative to illegal hunting, logging and opium cultivation in the ethnic minority lands. Other income-generating occupations are also being encouraged and there have been significant improvements for some groups of people in the area of health care. Many of these new changes have been driven in part by the realization that preserving the heritage of various ethnic groups has a great appeal to tourists which are a significant source of income for Vietnam. Nonetheless, in many areas the minorities’ traditional lifestyles are fast being eroded.
Officially, the Vietnamese government is working to help the ethnic minorities (dan toc thieu so /dan toc it nguoi) living in the mountains to catch up economically with lowland people (predominately the Kinh ethnic majority people). The government also claims to be working to preserve the traditional cultural identities of each ethnic minority group. At present, there are programs in place to provide iodized salt to remote villages, equip each village with a health care and hygiene station, fight malaria, build free schools for ethnic minority children, establish long term as opposed to semi-nomadic agriculture, and there are even projects to create new writing scripts for minority peoples. The government claims that there has been much progress in this area.
While some things have improved, progress has only been up to the point that it conflicts with certain government interests. Due to the longstanding distrust between the ethnic minorities and the Kinh people (which was especially exacerbated in modern history during the recent wars), the minority regions of Vietnam remain heavily restricted. These regions are generally off limits to foreigners (other than tourists on guided tours) and the government has been very watchful of the ethnic minority people. Religious persecution, especially with regards to Christians has been especially harsh, particularly among the H’mong people. The government has been strongly encouraging the H’mong to revive and practice their traditional animistic religious beliefs to counter the spread of Christianity. With regards to the Nung, this has not been an issue as there are few if any Christians among the Nung in Vietnam.
Most Nung combine various elements of Buddhism (worshipping Quan Am) with honoring the spirits and their ancestors. Some also worship a “goddess of mercy.” In most Nung villages medicine men still exist and are called upon to help get rid of evil spirits and cure the ill. There are few if any Nung Christians living in Vietnam, though there are a few in Southern China. The gospel of Mark has been translated into Nung and portions of other scriptures, but the translations are not recent. Much work is needed among this people group.
Cultural Insight: Music
The Nung people are very musical, which carries over into their sli songs. These songs are sung to celebrate weddings, the spring festival, and the dedication of new houses. The lyrics of sli cover every aspect of life including weather, nature, history and relationships. The sli songs are especially popular among young men and women who traditionally sing them as a way to get to know one another, win a date with someone who has caught one’s eye, or propose marriage.
The sli songs are sung both by groups of young people and by couples, and they are sung all over. Men and women take turns singing melodies that they have either learned or composed themselves. Sli songs typically have three parts: first young men and women greet each other, then share their emotions, and finally bid farewell and wish each other well.
An example of a translated sli song follows.
A young man might sing:
I heard the news early this evening
that you crossed the forest to come here
You lit a torch to find the way to my village
Have you been here for long?
Did you eat before you came?
If not, I will prepare rice and soup for you
I sincerely ask you
To raise your beautiful voice
And sing a sli song
In response to mine
Then the young woman might sing in response:
I don’t know if you are singing for me
Or singing for somebody else?
If so, there’s no use answering you!
The man then has to express his feelings:
I am singing just for you, not for anyone else
I am honest and sincere
If my songs is not for you, then who is it for?
The two may continue to sing to each other through the night. When it is time to say goodbye, they both show their disappointment. The man may take this opportunity to express his love:
We have sung sli until the morning dawns
We have given our hearts to each other
I love you so much that it hurts.
If the woman feels the same way she may respond:
Please tell your emotions to your parents
and bring betel and areca nuts to ask for my hand.
v Vietnam, A Visual Encyclopedia, Phillip Gutzman, PRC Publishing, Ltd., 2002
v Ethnic Minorities of Vietnam, an Overview — Vietnam National Department of Statistics 2000
v Dai Gia Dinh cac dan toc Viet Nam (The great family of ethnic minorities of Vietnam), Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc (Cong Ty Ban Do – Tranh Anh Giao Khoa) 2005.
v Propagandizing and Mobilizing Citizens Not to Follow Religion Illegally report, Ha Giang Province, VN November 1998
v Internet Resources:
- http://www.mofa.gov.vn (Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs)