Ban Bouxon - a Yao village 

Pierre Evald

Introduction. The ethnic group calls itself 'Mien' and is referred to as 'Yao' by other groups and usually in the West. The Mien is unique among tribal people in South-East Asia having a tradition and culture of writing which dates back several centuries.

The following observations are based on field research in the Mien village Ban Bouxon (Ban Phouchone) to the south of Luang Prabang in December 1998. The village was reached by boat three hours down the Mekong from Luang Prabang, and after passing through Ban Hatsamkai (Lao), Ban Nalin (Lao) and Ban Hoihie (Akha). After the overnight stay in Ban Bouxon, Mekong was again reached after passing through Ban Hoemong (Camou) and Ban Pakphoi (Lao). Mr. Phoumy from Luang Prabang, speaking Lao and Frech, acted as guide on the three-day trek and was able through personal contacts to assist in the documentation of the writing culture in Ban Bouxon.

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Ban Bouxon (altitude 920 meter) is located on a gradual slope facing south in the mountains east of Mekong, the nearest town being Nan on the road heading north towards Xieng Ngeun and Luang Prabang.

The Mien village of Bouxon is housing 33 families with a total of 234 persons, 118 males and 116 females (December 1998).

At present only 3-4 men are left in the village being able to read and write their mother tongue in Chinese charakters, one of these being the priest also performing spirit rituals. A young Lao schoolteacher is running the local education where Mien children are taught to speak and write on slates Lao language, and not their mother tongue.

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The overnight stay in Ban Bouxon was in the house of the Mien village headman, who is also responsible for the welfare of the villagers and the decorum of the belief in spirits and ancestors. As all Mien houses, the house itself is a sacred structure with various doors and an ancestral altar in north-east corner of men's side. The 'Big door' is facing south opposite the altar, and much care is shown not to prevent the spirits in their free entry through the door to the altar. In this house (house no. 3 on village sketch) seven old handwritten Mien books were kept in the master's bedroom.

Schoolboy with hanging slate, learning Lao language Mien house plan.
(Credit: Lewis, 1984)

 

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Religion and literature. Two interrelated belief systems are constituting the religion of the Mien hilltribes where they are bonded together in a religion unique to the Mien:

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A Priest's robes and paraphernalia used in ceremonies
(Credit: Lewis, 1984)
* The belief in the Taoist religion and

* the belief in spirits and ancestors.

The Taoist religion among Mien today follows the practice in China from the 13th and 14th centuries, which the Mien learned prior to their migration from China in the latter part of the 14th Century. Paintings of the Taoist pantheon are on display during the most important Mien rituals.

The rituals and ceremonies require a priest being able to read the Taoist texts, and to guide the Mien in their writings and petitions to the ancestors and spirits. Blessings are written on paper banners and on the wooden walls of the houses, inside or outside.

The spirits of the Mien world are related to nature, to its streams and its trees, and fear of spirits constricts Mien activity and can be widely felt even during this short stay in the village. During the evening in Ban Bouxon three ceremonies in different houses were carried out to maintain orderly relations with the spirits and to help against sickness.

In the houses (House 4 and 5) the priest was chanting a liturgy in front of a small altar with joss sticks, candles, money and boats made of paper, waterbowls and wooden sticks. The wooden sticks were clashed and thrown on the ground to tell whether the omen is good or bad. Finally all paper is burned. In another house chanting was performed while burning coal from the fire was rotated over the body and head of a small sick child, carried on the back of it's mother.

The spirit cults have by now been forbidden by the Government, but still this worship remains the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in the country, not only in the mountains and the countryside but even in Vientiane. The Hmong and Mien hilltribes thus both practise animism, along with ancestral worship. The ancestral worship was observed in the house of the headman of Ban Bouxon, where two written booklets with blessings and records on the deceased were hung on the acestral altar and writings on the inner wall next to the altar told the story of a recent death in the family.

Pamphlets and books hand-written in Chinese charakters are still found in Mien villages. Also in Ban Bouxon where seven books were kept in the master's bedroom of the village head (House 3). These books were treated with the utmost respect by the headman, fully aware of the precious taoist and ancestral material they contained. He had inherited the books from his father, but was not able to read their content himself. He considered himself a 'custos' or guardian of the faith's written material, and told the books were several hundred years old. In that case they can be said to be very well preserved.

Language and script. The Mien speak a Mien-Yao language related to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The men use Chinese charakters to record their rituals, keep family records and for the writing of letters. The following is realaudio from the reading in house 3.

The tradition of teaching boys these skills is beginning to break down, the elders being deeply concerned about the future of their traditional culture and mother tongue. In Ban Bouxon a young school teacher was teaching the children Lao language.

The Chinese charakters are written vertically starting upper right corner of the paper (Hus 1).

Of the seven books in headman's house, one book is on sickness (mang paeng so) explaining the prober treatment for various types of illness. It had been copied in writing (Hus 2) and was in the afternoon recited to cure a family member. On the outer east endwall of the house writings in Chinese (red) as well as Lao (white) were found.

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One important book is 'The Book of Days' (thong so) to be examined before a couple can marry. It is compairing the months and years of their births to determine whether the union is auspicious. The book shown on photos is 'haw pun so', also dealing with various omens for a happy marriage.

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Another book is called the 'Ancestor Book' containing the names of the ancestors going back at least nine generations.

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Mien Passport. But the most unique Mien document is the by now very rare so-called 'Mien passport'. It includes a copy of the Imperial Edict issued by Pien Hung to the Mien living in China. In the 'passport' he permitted them to migrate and settle anywhere they wanted in the mountains of southern China.

This 'Mien Passport' was among the seven books in the house of the headman. And it was possible to document in photo and realaudio the content and legend of the book. Ever since the legend of Pien Hung, the Mien have been accorded certain rights as 'children of Emperor Pien Hung'.

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The legend tells the Emperor Pien Hung of China was attacked by the very powerfull Emperor Kao Wang and that he faced defeat. Anyway the dog, Phan Hu, was able to get through the lines, it killed the agressor and brought Kao Wang's head back to Emperor Pien Hung.

Afterwards the dog Phan Hu was rewarded with one of Pien Hung's daughters as a wife, and they went up the mountains to live there.

In due course they produced 12 children, six boys and six girls, and from these children sprung the 12 clans of the Mien.

References. Much of the information on history, religion and literature of the Mien hilltribe comes from:

* Peoples of the Golden Triangle: Six Tribes in Thailand / Raul & Elaine Lewis. Thames and Hudson, 1984. 300 pages.

The description of the wats in Luang Prabang is to some extent based on:
* Laos:
a Lonely Planet travel survival kit / Joe Cummings. 2nd edition. Lonely Planet Publications, 1996. 266 pages.


Rev. by Pierre Evald 02-12-04