On the outskirts of Hanoi, Dao people are struggling to retain an ancient script

A writing system is the asset, culture and pride of every ethnic group. But for the Dao people on the outskirts of Hanoi, there is a fear that their ancient script is fading away from their cultural, religious and daily activities.

On the outskirts of Hanoi, Dao people are struggling to retain an ancient script
Ancient books written in the Nom Dao script

In a commune called Ba Vi, nearly 70 kilometres from central Hanoi, there are more than 600 households with an estimated total population of 2000, of which 98% belong to the Dao ethnic group, who have been inhabiting the region for hundreds of years.

As economic life improves, the Dao people are looking to maintain and restore their traditional culture and religious activities. It should be noted that the rituals must be performed in a script called Nom Dao, the literary Dao language, not in the vernacular language.

But such a valuable cultural heritage, which is associated with the cultural and religious life of the Dao people, is facing the risk of vanishing.

68-year-old Trieu Duc Phu, Chairman of Ba Vi from 1999-2011, stated that, in the past, the traditional rituals of a Dao family could be performed by a family member, but now they must hire outside people who are well-versed in the Dao script and literary Dao language for such activities. Young people are not very interested in the ancient script while the older generations who can read the script are dying out.

According to the Department of Cultural Heritage, the Nom Dao script is system of traditional Chinese characters whose readings are adapted for the Dao language while their meanings remain the same as their Chinese originals. The pronunciation is completely different from the vernacular speech, that is why researchers call it the literary Dao language.

The pronunciation of the literary Dao language is also not the same as the Sino-Vietnamese reading because it has undergone a series of changes to make it closer to the vernacular Dao language.

On the outskirts of Hanoi, Dao people are struggling to retain an ancient script

Trieu Phu Duc is reading a book written in the Nom Dao script.

The script is not popular among the ordinary Dao people and only a small group of shamans have to learn it, but only enough to be able to read the ceremonial books handed down by their ancestors, without a deep understanding of the text’s content and the philosophy contained in it. Today such ancient books are still kept by most Dao families in Ba Vi where the older generations are still living.

 

In Yen Son village, only four Dao people of advanced age can read and write the Nom Dao script, and another seven can read while the rest are mostly uninterested in this unique script.

In the past, the script was retained by being passed from father to son, with further learning gained from older people, but today this method has completely disappeared. Young people are giving priority to making money with no regard for their ethnic group’s distinctive script. Therefore, if there are no prompt measures to save it, the script might soon fall into oblivion.

Learning the Nom Dao script is not too challenging and whoever with a strong passion can read and write it in a year. Two decades ago, an evening class was opened to teach the script to people in the commune, but the class did not last long because the teaching facility was poor and there were no funds to support it.

According to Ba Vi commune’s leaders and those keen to preserve the script, the task should not stop at a general call to learn it, but requires a clear conservation policy and a mechanism to encourage Dao people to learn and use the script.

The safeguarding will not be too difficult if there are funds to open Nom Dao teaching class for local residents. Once finance is provided and with the efforts of older people in the commune who can read and write as well as the authorities’ conservation plan, the question of how to preserve the script would be solved.

And the valuable cultural heritage of the Dao people in this region will be conserved and will continue to grow. Nhan Dan

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