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Dao language and culture live on

The ethnic Dao group in the northern province of Tuyen Quang are particularly proud of one local old man, who they regard as a kind-hearted teacher handing down the ancient characters of their language as well as their traditional cultural identity.

Ngan translates ancient books to teach younger people. VNA/VNS Photo Quang Dan

Now in his 70s, Chu Tuan Ngan, a native of Trung Minh Commune, Yen Son District, has spent nearly 40 years researching the Dao ethnic minority’s traditional cultural features and passing on his knowledge to younger people.

“I’m fortunate that both my father and grandfather were experienced shaman, fluent in Nôm-Dao (ancient Vietnamese and Dao ideographic scripts) and knowledgeable about the Dao ethnicity,” Ngan says.

He learned from a young age about the language’s characters and the group’s traditional culture, like Pad Dung folk singing and customs such as ceremonies celebrating maturity or wishing for a bumper harvest.

Most young Dao today learn Vietnamese at school but don’t know how to read or write the ancient Nôm-Dao characters.

Only a number of elderly can read and write the language, which is why Ngan does his best to pass it down to the young.

Ngan (standing) teaches at a class at his home. Photo

He has held free Nôm-Dao language classes at his home since 2013, and has some 30 regular students.

It initially only attracted young people from Trung Minh Commune, before others from Chiem Hoa and Ham Yen districts in Tuyen Quang and then some from neighbouring Bac Kan Province also came to study.

Ngan translated ancient books handed down by his father and grandfather to use as teaching materials.

“When I heard about this class, I knew I had to find the time to attend,” says Ban Van Huynh from Vang Nguoc Village in Trung Minh Commune.

“After learning how to read and write Nôm-Dao, I devoured a whole load of ancient books about the customs and philosophy of my people. I now understand my culture so much better.”

Huynh hopes to become a master in the language and teach others, just like Ngan is doing, to help preserve Dao culture.

“I have learned not only the language from Ngan but also his positive character,” he says.

Another cultural treasure of the Dao is Páo Dung folk singing.

“In the Dao language, Páo Dung means singing,” Ngan explains. “Folk singing is a way for our people to convey their feelings, hopes, and narratives.”

The greatest value of the singing, he says, is educating the Dao about their roots and homeland.

People practise Páo Dung singing at Ngan's house. Photo

Ngan set up the first Páo Dung Singing Club in Trung Minh Commune in 2014, with 40 members, then a year later set up two Cultural Identity Preservation Clubs, with 80 members.

He has taught members of both how to perform Páo Dung and the group’s various folk dances.

Dang Thi Thoa, a member of the Cultural Identity Preservation Club in Vang Nguoc Village, Trung Minh Commune, says she had no idea how to sing Páo Dung before joining the club.

“As well as teaching us how to sing, Ngan has also taught us many dances,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be in the club, as singing and dancing are relaxing and I now understand more about my group’s culture.”

Ngan still spares no effort to spread the Dao culture.

He was presented the title of Meritorious Researcher of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019.

To the local Dao community in Trung Minh Commune, Ngan is not only a promoter of folk culture but also an esteemed elder.

Ngan shares his knowledge widely. VNA/VNS Photo Quang Dan

He has persuaded local people to get rid of backward customs, follow the law, and focus on developing the local economy to improve their lives.

“My greatest desire is to encourage local people to preserve and develop our traditional cultural features, lead them towards healthy cultural activities, and eradicate superstitious practices from the past,” Ngan says.

According to Nguyen Van Hoa, deputy director of the Tuyen Quang Culture, Tourism and Sports Department, Ngan is one of eight people in the province to have been given the noble title.

“He is indeed an esteemed elder in the community and has made considerable contributions to passing down the Nôm-Dao language to the young,” Hoa says.

He has also been a pioneer in establishing cultural clubs to enrich local people’s spiritual lives. VNS

Quang Dan

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