Lạo Tử in Giao Chỉ

I was looking through the fourteenth century Brief Treatise on An Nam (An Nam chí lược) a while ago and came across a passage on “Lạo Tử” (獠子). This term refers to a type of people who at that time lived in an area stretching from what is today southwestern China through parts of northwestern Vietnam and eastern Laos.

This first character can be pronounced Liêu in Vietnamese and Liao in Chinese. However, when referring to these peoples who inhabited an area from southwestern China into the Vietnam-Laos border regions, this character is usually pronounced Lạo/Lao.

While it would be tempting to call these people “Lao,” in actuality this term probably referred to various peoples, from Lao to Black Tai to even some speakers of languages that were not part of the Tai language family.

In any case, this is what the Brief Treatise on An Nam had to say about them:

Lạo Tử is another name for savages. There are many in Huguang and Yunnan. Some serve Giao Chỉ.* There are also some who tattoo their foreheads and bore their teeth. There are quite a few different types of them. It was recorded in the past that there are Head-Shaped Lạo Tử, Red-Pants Lạo Tử and Nose-Drinking Lạo Tử.** They all live in cliff caverns or nest huts. They drink wine through reeds. They are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums. They value big ones. When a drum is first completed, they place it in a courtyard with wine and invite their fellow kind. Those who come fill [the courtyard] to the gates. The daughter of the notable takes a gold or silver hairpin and strikes the drum, after which she leaves it with the owner. Some say that the bronze drums were the gongs used by Zhuge Liang when he campaigned against the savages [in 225 A.D.].

*“Huguang” refers to the area of what is today Hunanand Guangxi Provinces. “Giao Chỉ” (Chn., Jiaozhi) is an old name for the Red River delta region. It is not clear how the Lạo Tử “served” (服役, phục dịch) Giao Chỉ as this term can refer to labor or military service.

**The name “Head-Shaped Lạo Tử” (頭形獠子, Đầu Hình Lạo Tử) is likely a mistake for the name “Flying-Head Lạo Tử” (飛頭獠子, Phi Đầu Lạo Tử). That at least is how a certain type of Lạo Tử was referred to in Chinese sources, and all of these other names are the same as names of Lạo Tử that are mentioned in Chinese sources.

This is from Lê Tắc 黎崱, An Nam chí lược 安南志略 [Brief treatise on An Nam], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., 1333) 1/20a. The Vietnamese translation below is based on a slightly different version of this text which says that “most of them know how to use crossbows and beat bronze drums” where the above text has “they are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums.”

Killing Spirits and 17 Year-Old Girls in Medieval Vietnam

Gao Pian/Cao Biền was a Tang Dynasty official who was sent to the Red River delta in the 860s to put down disturbances caused by troops from the kingdom of Nanzhao. While he was there, he also made efforts to bring under his control local spirits and the geomantic powers of the land.

The Lĩnh Nam chích quái contains some very interesting information about one of the techniques Gao Pian reportedly used to defeat spirits. This information appears to come from a text compiled by a Tang Dynasty official, Zeng Gun, who served in the region with Gao Pian, the Record of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou ji).

When Gao Pian wanted to suppress what this text calls “potent traces” (靈跡, linh tích) he would cut open a 17 year-old unwed girl and take our her innards. He would then stuff the body with angelica herb (芷草, chỉ thảo), clothe it in robes and sit it on a stool. Following this, Gao Pian would offer a sacrifice of buffalo, and wait for the body to move. Once it did, he would cut off the head of the corpse.

By using this technique, Gao Pian was able to deceive spirits. It was apparently a means to lure the spirit into the corpse of the girl and then kill it when it accepted sacrificial meat.

Were 17 year-old unwed girls really sacrificed like this? Or did Gao Pian somehow make models of people who were said to be the corpses of 17 year-old unwed girls and perform rituals in which spirits were symbolically killed?

Whatever the case may be, it’s a fascinating ethnographic detail.

Catching Ghosts and Visiting Heroes in Kiếp Bạc in 1942

In September of 1942, Nguyễn Duy Tinh and some friends journeyed from Hanoi to Kiếp Bạc in Hải Dương province to visit a “hero,” Trần Hưng Đạo, the thirteenth-century general who held off Mongol invasions. There was a temple dedicated to him there (it’s still there today), and it took Nguyễn Duy Tinh quite some effort to reach it, having to travel by train and boat.

He wrote an article about this trip and published it in the journal Tri Tân (#79, 7 January 1943, 18-20). It’s a fascinating document. Nguyễn Duy Tinh describes the difficulties of reaching the temple, and then when he arrives, he is overwhelmed by the noise made by groups of people who were engaged in “ghost catching” (bắt ma) rituals.

Nguyễn Duy Tinh then goes on to describe this ritual. A ritual master (thầy cúng) wraps a black turban around the head of a “sufferer” (khổ chủ), that is, a person who is been afflicted by a ghost.

The ritual master then whacks a rattan cane and mumbles some incantations. He then waits for the ghost to enter the sufferer’s body, which is indicated when the sufferer’s head starts to rock back and forth. Once this happens, the ritual master entices the ghost to state its name and indicate its intent.

While there are apparently men at the temple engaged in this practice, Nguyễn Duy Tinh expresses particular distain for a group of women whom he observes.

He then attempts to enter the main temple to pay his respects to Trần Hưng Đạo the hero only to find that there is no space to stand as the temple is filled with common people seeking blessings from Trần Hưng Đạo the deity.

After observing this, Nguyễn Duy Tinh states that “Southerners (i.e., ‘Vietnamese’) naturally have the psychology of worshiping heroes, but we should make arrangements so that this sentiment does not err or go astray down the path of superstition.”

Not all is lost, however, as Nguyễn Duy Tinh does succeed in reading some of the many plaques in classical Chinese about Trần Hưng Đạo which adorn the temple, and which praise him in terms which accord with Nguyễn Duy Tinh’s view of this “hero.”

At the end of the article Nguyễn Duy Tinh then makes three suggestions. He suggests first that performances should be staged at the temple at Kiếp Bạc during festivals to teach the people the actual history about Trần Hưng Đạo. He also suggests that a place should be set up away from the main temple for people who want to perform the ghost catching ritual. And finally, Nguyễn Duy Tinh also suggests that more effort needs to be made to ensure that the roads and inns that travelers use when they visit the temple remain clean and sanitary.

This is a beautiful document. While Nguyễn Duy Tinh appears to have been quite earnest and sincere in recording his feelings and thoughts, today it reads like a comedy. The serious intellectual, Nguyễn Duy Tinh, goes on a pilgrimage to honor a “national hero” only to find that his hero is all but inaccessible as the hero’s temple is overrun by common people who do not appear to know anything about national heroes, nor do they appear to care. They just want to be cured of their ailments and to obtain good fortune.

This doesn’t weaken Nguyễn Duy Tinh’s nationalist convictions. To the contrary, it leads him to call for efforts to transform the common people by teaching them about who Trần Hưng Đạo “really was.”

In fact, Trần Hưng Đạo was a potent deity who cured illnesses and brought good fortune to people long before he became a national hero. If you visit Kiếp Bạc today, it might not be as active as it was on the day Nguyễn Duy Tinh visited in 1942, but people still go there for the same reasons that they did back then, and that they did for centuries before that.

National heroes are ephemeral. The need to catch ghosts is eternal.

The Vampires of Hưng Hóa

I just came across an interesting passage in Lê Quý Đôn’s eighteenth-century Kiến Văn Tiểu Lục. It is about a kind of demon which lived in Hưng Hóa called a “ma cà rồng.” This is the term which is used today in Vietnamese to refer to a Western “vampire” like Dracula. However, this passage points to an older usage of that term.

The ma cà rồng was very similar to a kind of evil spirit which is found all over Southeast Asia, namely, a person who transforms at night into a being which can fly and which preys upon pregnant women.

In Cambodia, where it is called an aap, and in Thailand, where it is called a phi krasue, it is usually a woman whose head disconnects from her body, and she flies through the air with her inner organs and intestines hanging from her head. She can also extend her tongue very far, and this is what she uses to drink the blood of pregnant women as they sleep, or to eat their fetuses.

There are variations of this kind of ghost throughout island Southeast Asia as well. However, I’ve never heard stories about this type of evil spirit in Vietnam (although I have had some people tell me that their parents did tell them such stories).

So I was happy to find this story from Vietnam, but it looks to me like the area the story comes from was probably not inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese at that time. The place names (such as Tường Grotto, where “grotto” refers to an administrative region for people considered “different”) indicate this, as does the name of the demon, “ma cà rồng,” a name which does not sound Vietnamese.

In any case, here is what Lê Quý Đôn recorded:

In Hưng Hóa, from Tường Grotto (động) to Hạ Lộ sách (册 – this term is used to refer to a type of administrative unit, but I can’t recall exactly what type) there are demonic people who are called “ma cà rồng.”

During the daytime they work in the fields and engage in labor, and go about like everyone else. Beyond the eaves of their houses they place a wooden container where they immerse themselves in the sap from a tree (蘇木). Then at night, they stick the big toes of their feet into their noses and fly off as demons. They like to enter the homes of pregnant women and suck their blood. When people see that the light from their lanterns is different, then they know that this monster has arrived. They stretch a net around [the pregnant woman?? this part is vague] to hold it off so that it will not be able to enter, and will leave. There are those who will flail at it wildly with a stick, and it seems that they see it fall down and then fly off again. Its flying sounds just like that of a dung beetle.

At the fifth watch it flies back. It immerses itself in the tree container, pulls out its toes, and again becomes a human. If you ask it about the events of the night, it will know nothing.

A family that has been afflicted by this [demon], will invite a shaman to make incantations and pray. Seeing that the place where the ill person hurts has human teeth marks, they take the persons clothes and place them on a rice pot. The shaman then says, “You have already had your share, now let him/her be.” The clothes are then taken and put back on the person and the problem is resolved.

[Kiến Văn Tiểu Lục, A. 32, 6/15a-b]