Reprising the identity of Vietnam’s Mieu

Tribes fear loss of self and individuality as their cultures decline

by Stephen Mansfield

AMBIGUITY OF IDENTITY: The Mieu in Vietnam, by Nguyen Van Thang. Silkworm Books, 2007, 206 pp., 595 bahts (paper)

Modern states dominate the lives of minorities to an extent never experienced before. As the lines between respective ethnicities blur under pressures to change and assimilate into the mainstream, the question of how to preserve cultural distinctions arises. This may lead less to the preservation of identity than its reconstruction under the constraints of powerful central governments unschooled in the finer points of ethnology. In Vietnam, the dominant ethnic group, the Kinh, have long sought to transform and absorb cultures and peoples perceived as backward.

If self-identity among tribal peoples is linked less to national ideology than the persistence of traditions and beliefs, groups like the Mieu, the subject of this book, have much to fear. Architects of the nation’s main institutions, the Kinh, stern and implacable in matters of governance, brook little dissent. For Communist countries in particular, the freedoms and individualism possible with social and ethnic plurality within porous borders, is untenable. In the modern world we must all be accounted for. Those outside the circle of civilization must be brought in.

Indigenous minorities in Vietnam have had to endure policies promulgated not only by successive courts of the Le, Mac, Trinh and Nguyen dynasties, as well as a period of French colonial rule, but the traumas and displacement of modern warfare, and the about-turn of a counter-traditionalist Communist regime resorting to capitalist solutions for state management.

Nguyen Van Thang provides us with an excellent primer into the complex anthropology of Vietnam, deftly unraveling the connections, affinities, polarities and lines of lineage between tribes that, though springing from the same gene pool, live in countries as diverse as Laos and Burma. There are fruitful digressions into the methods used by states like Thailand and China, whose borders are contiguous with Vietnam, to reshape and manage ethnic identities.

The writer does not assume any prior knowledge, let alone erudition on the part of the reader, helpfully situating his subject historically and ethnographically before proceeding. This is just as well, as the classifications into subgroups, the subsuming of minorities into larger groups, can be immensely complex. The etymology of even the single group under examination in this work has undergone rapid mutation. When the writer is talking about the Mieu, he is referring to an ethnic group once known by the pejorative term Meo, who are now referred to, not altogether accurately, as the Hmong.

Thang steers us through the arcane nomenclature of the anthropologist, until the use of diction like “endogamous,” and “ethnonym” begins to make perfect sense. Like the thorough researcher he is, Thang examines not only the customs, rituals and blood lineages of minorities for clues to their lives and cultures, but the physical settings, the hardware of quotidian existence: kitchen cupboards, cooking hearths, stoves and bedrooms.

In the breastplates, turbans, leggings and applique work of Mieu clothing, he finds keys and codes, a “means to communicate distinct socioeconomic and cultural meanings.” In scrutinizing the death rites, linguistic systems, needlework techniques, courtship practices, clan loyalties, the role of shamans in mediating good health, their stock in trade of seals, bronze bells and divination horns, you realize the anthropologist is not merely studying a test group but an entire society.

Thang’s work traces the administrative methods of the French in the upland territories, their unflappable faith in a mission civilitrice, the purpose of whose ethnographic studies would be replicated by later regimes. In the words of one Frenchman at the time: “An officer who succeeds in drawing a sufficiently exact ethnographic map of the territory he commands, has almost reached its complete pacification.” Interestingly, the French were only partially successful in subjugating the minorities. The Communists have proved far more adept at making minority groups answerable to central government policies, and thereby hastening the erosion of their cultures, traditions and, ultimately, identity.

In referring throughout to this minority as the Mieu, rather than as a sub-group of the Hmong, Thang not only reprises their name, but their identity.

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