Local decision to scrap ethnic minority New Year fest sparks controversy

By Sen    January 6, 2019 | 07:49 pm PT
Local decision to scrap ethnic minority New Year fest sparks controversy
H'Mong ethnic minority children wear their most beautiful clothes to welcome H'Mong New Year in January 2018. Photo by Shutterstock/Quang Nguyen Vinh
H'Mong people have been asked not to celebrate their New Year festival, but the decision's rationale has been questioned.

The Pa Co Commune People's Committee in Mai Chau District in the northern province of Hoa Binh issued an official document last month informing its H'Mong ethnic minority residents that they should relinquish their traditional New Year holiday and instead celebrate the one observed by the majority Kinh people, Tet Nguyen Dan.

The decision has been met by surprise among higher authorities and experts. "They did discuss it with us but we didn’t know about the official statement until recently," Ha Thi Hoa, Head of Mai Chau District's Information and Culture Department in Hoa Binh Province, told VnExpress International.

The local authorities said that their decision was derived from conclusions drawn at a conference of four communes in Son La and Hoa Binh provinces held December 7. They also said that the decision would be communicated to all relevant authorities who have to inform the H'Mong community and ensure its implementation.

‘No longer appropriate’

Sung A Mang, Chairman of Pa Co commune, said that in the past, the H'Mong people had their New Year celebration during the 11th lunar month to keep up with the slash-and-burn cultivation season, grow rice, harvest poppy and practice their "wife-kidnapping" tradition after the celebration. The last mentioned tradition has been criticized as an abuse of women’s rights.

"Now that men and women get married all year round, and they don’t grow opium anymore, celebrating HMong’s Tet is no longer appropriate," Mang said.

Furthermore, descendants of H'Mong families who work and study away from home can only get paid days off during the national Tet holiday celebrated by the Kinh. If they have to come back to their hometown to celebrate the traditional holiday a month earlier, it will be costly for them, Mang added.

He stressed that forfeiting the H'Mong New Year would not dilute the community’s cultural identity, because "customs and practices of the traditional H'Mong people remain the same, without any change in any detail. Only that the time to celebrate the New Year will change to facilitate children’s schooling...."

However, the document does not mention anything about shifting the time for the H'Mong New Year. It only says: "do not organize New Year celebration one month prior to Tet Nguyen Dan (the majority Kinh’s Lunar New Year celebration) like before."

Hoa, Mai Chau culture department's director, said that it was not a decision at the district and provincial level, but one taken by the communes themselves.

"From a governmental perspective, preserving traditions is essential. But if this is what the people want, we think it’s legitimate and will consider it," Hoa said.

Pa Co Commune Chairman Mang asserted that people had already been consulted before the statement was released. He claimed that almost all the commune’s residents were in agreement with it.

P.A., a resident of Pa Co commune, said: "Here, H'Mong people will celebrate Lunar New Year like Kinh people." But when asked if the commune authorities had asked for his opinion on the issue, P.A. said, as cited by Phu Nu Newspaper: "I don’t know much about it. The people simply listen to what the officials say."

HMong women toast their traditional New Year holiday. Photo by VnExpress/Quoc Tuan

H'Mong women toast their traditional New Year holiday. Photo by VnExpress/Quoc Tuan

Legal and cultural aspects

Luu Duc Quang, an expert in constitutional law and administrative law with the University of Economics and Law at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, told VnExpress International that there was no need for the authority to interfere in such issues as the H'Mong people can decide and act on their own as a community.

Quang said Vietnam does not have any law which forbids any ethnic minorities from celebrating their New Year traditions.

Associate Professor Pham Lan Oanh, Deputy Director and Head of the Graduate Department at the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts, said that the move was wrong from a cultural perspective.

"H'Mong people have a very long New Year celebration as it involves the entire family line, not just one immediate family. It can last more than a month and is likely to affect economic production. We researchers know this too well."

Oanh felt reducing the length of the celebration could be something to consider.

"But it’s difficult to change because these are customs. The authority should persuade them over the long run, not impose anything administratively. Society and culture are always changing," Oanh said.

There have been campaigns asking H'Mong people to celebrate the Tet with the majority Kinh since 2013.

However, some H'Mong people, including those in the Hoa Binh communes, still embrace their New Year traditions.

Giang A Tu, a H'Mong student living in Hanoi, said his family stopped celebrating their own Tet when he was a high school senior. "Tet is a cultural legacy. Choosing when to celebrate it is a process by which a community works together and then decides together what best suits the conditions of that community. Changes must be adjusted by the community itself," he told VnExpress International.

The H'Mong New Year festival takes place one month before Vietnam's official national Lunar New Year holiday. This is when the H'Mong renovate their ancestor's altars and their homes, make rice cakes and chicken fishes and wear their traditional beautiful dresses.

H'Mong and Kinh people share a lot of traditional similarities during this holiday. Some of the differences are that the H'Mong do not eat any vegetable soup, just pork and chicken. Additionally, on the first day of New Year, women cannot touch needles, girls do not have to do anything during the first three days of spring and have all the freedom to sing, go out and enjoy themselves.

The 2009 census conducted by General Statistics Office of Vietnam shows there were over a million Hmong people in the 95-million strong country, most of them living in the northern highlands.

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