The Dao Tien in Hoa Binh Province

The "Dao Tien" or "Dao with coins" are so called because they use coins to decorate their traditional clothing. Clothing of the Dao Tien is carefully embroidered working from the back side of the cloth. A woman counts threads in the weave of the fabric in order to make each neat stitch. Most woman keep a sampler of white cloth which keeps them to remember a full repertoire of traditional design, some of which represent reindeer, dogs, birds and flowers.

When a Dao Tien boy and girl are ready to marry, the boy spends three days in the girl's home. It is inauspicious if anyone in the household has the bad dream during the three nights. After the boy's family checks to make sure the girl's family hasn't changed their mind, they consult with the Mo who uses his horoscope book to choose an auspicious day for the wedding.

Parents give their daughters wedding gifts of silver jewellery and traditional clothes in a basket called a loong. For her wedding day, friends and relatives also lend her clothes. She leaves her house wearing many layers of skirts, jackets and scarves in order to show that she and her family are respected by many people. She may take off the many layers of clothing if she has a long way to travel. But when she arrives at the boy's house she again don all her clothing to show to her new relatives that she is well-liked.

Both Dao men and women wear a jacket of indigo cloth which is embroidered with large flower motifs on the lower front and back panels. Small embroidered designs trim the lower edges of the jacket, and reindeer and dog motif borders the back seam. Often two jackets are worn to show two embroidered layers at once. A cluster of coins hang from back collar.

Men and women also wear an indigo head cloth which is embroidered with red and white pinwheel motifs. Small light imitation-coins, blue beads, and red fringe finish the ends of the cloth. In some villages, a married woman must always wear the head cloth and should show her hair only to her husband.
Woman wrap around their legs lengths of cloth embroidered with bird design. They also war knee-length skirts which have an identical batik patter of zigzag and circles. Some women say that the circles symbolize the moon and sun, the zigzag represents mountains, and the straight lines along the hem are water and land. Batiking requires much care because waxed portions must be completed white after dyeing. First a woman makes the surface of the fabric smooth. She then melts wax and using special batiking tools she first draws lines along the hem, and then she makes the zigzag pattern and finally the circles. For one skirt she needs to batik three sai which are cut in half to make the six-paneled skirt. It takes 6-9 days to draw one skirt and 20 days to a month to dye the skirt.

Today traditional clothes are worn very rarely. The ethnic identity of Dao Tien is perpetuated, however, in a boy's name giving ceremony. During this complex two-day ceremony, an young man receives his Dao name from ceremonial masters who can read from a special book with Chinese characters and who know songs in ancient Dao language. Three young girls and three boys are invited to sing a traditional song which has three sections, each with seven questions and answers. Recalling the migration form China, the lyrics present a romantic picture of crossing streams and passing through forests until the Dao could find a place to settle. In the songs, boy and girls thank their parents for providing them with traditional dress. During the ceremony, the boy, the girls and boys who are invited to sing, and the ceremonial master (Mo) must wear traditional clothes. The robe the Ma has a gathered skirt and is long. A sun and moon design decorates the back shoulders.

On the first night and the next day the boy and the Mo dance together. The boy receives his name by drawing one of several papers with proposed Dao names such as "Song" (Intelligent) or "Tang" (dynamic). The Mo's rituals ensure that the ancestors accept his name. On the second night of the ceremony, the ceremonial read from a Chinese book which records the history of the world and they recount the history of the boy. A song concludes: "Will the name giving ceremony change the world?" - "No, the land is still the land, the sky is still the sky".

On particular days marked on the lunar calendar, the Dao must observe certain taboos. On these days they must not go to the field, must not hang clothes out in the wind, not take a bath (or they will become ill), or stand in the field whey they grow corn.

The continued importance of Chinese books of philosophy and auspicious days to daily life and ritual, their deep knowledge of medicinal plants, and the worship of the "god of the land" at a temple in the forest reflect the effort of the Dao to keep harmony within the community and with the environment. The embroidered and batiked natural motifs in Dao clothing also reflect the wish to preserve balance and harmony.

Many Dao Tien families have only recently settled in Mai Chau. They have little land for rice and make the living growing and selling corn, cassava, bamboo and fruit. Now under a project assisted by Oxfam Quebec, Dao women are producing traditional embroidery and batik for income. They are also learning to read through literacy class.

For more information about this project, please contact:
51 Van Mieu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: (84-24) 37336101 - Fax: (84-24) 38437926
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