Lights, Camera, Tradition!

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The goal of the TRI ethnographers with whom I traveled to Rom Yen waste documents a traditional wedding. It seems that while traditional practice had to be uprooted when it influenced what had come to be defined as politics, ceremonial practices that were labeled ethnic culture were tube recorded. These were some of the goals of government officials, whose task was equally to classify and document ethnically specific practices and contribute to the national integration of peoples classified as ethnic minorities. Current understandings of modernity (than-same) and development-cum-progress (Kanphatthana, khwam jaroen) in Thailand have recently produced a» national culture effect” that is expressed in the quest for manifestations of ethnically specific practices that are of the past. National engagements with modernity triggered a reactionary and nostalgic search for ways of the past and various celebratory expressions of tradition. In relation to ethnic minority rural populations in the northern highlands, this is a very recent occurrence. For decades, Thai authorities and Thai society at large had viewed» hill tribe customs” as something to be eliminated because they were not only considered an impediment to progress but also were a threat to the nation in their marked differences. In contemporary Thailand, the work of tradition appeared to have two strands, which assumed and projected a fundamental difference between Thai and their others. Thai and related peoples were in linear history, whereas the others, particularly highland ethnic minorities, were considered of the past. This was manifest in the celebration and revival of Thai traditions as a collective, national heritage, and in the mapping of the piston non-Thai ethnic minorities, as manifest in museums, television documentaries, coffee-table books such as the Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups, and the documentation of the traditional Mien wedding in Rom Yen. Images of the non-Thai other served as a vehicle for the self-fashioning of a modern, Thai subject. That is, the work of culture, tradition, and identity facilitated the establishment of particular, ethnic, and national landscapes.A DocumentaryOne example of this culture/identity work was characterized by a Thai television documentary about the Mien (Yao, as they are officially known) from early 1992. The narrator was dressed in expensive-looking, safari-style clothing when he arrived in his modern 4WD vehicle at a forest covered setting. He made a few introductory remarks about the ancient history of the Laypeople and about their ancient Daoism ritual practices, and then the rest of the roughly half-hour documentary featured a staged kwa-tang (guaax-dang) ordination ritual with an occasional voiceover explaining the meaning of the action. These rituals were said to elevate the ordained’ status in the spirit world and the afterlife. Among the benefits were that each gained number of spirit-helpers for whatever rituals they may conduct in the future. In themselves, the ordinations to ritual rank did not bring any material benefits in this life. They were expensive to hold, and in most cases people conducted them to improve the well-being of deceased parents or grandparents in the spirit world. Yet, the video’s narration made it seem that everymen family followed these customs, and gave the impression that the ritual was somehow a part of the package of being this particular kind of» traditional” people. I viewed this video at the home of Le Tsan Kwe, a spirit medium and well-known Mien man, in the village of Phale. He had been paid the equivalent of USD 400 for arranging and leading the performance, and later received copy of the televised program. Thus at least some Mien people had participated in the forging of their Thai image as of the past, for good payment in this case.A WeddingInterpreted in this context, the exemplary Mien wedding that I saw in RomYen was squarely within the realm of state control and the national currents of Thai modernity, but it was simultaneously a local event that made particular Mien statements. The household had a spirit medium perform ritual of appeasing the ancestors (orn zouv), which took place during preparations for the wedding ceremony. The ritual lasted for about four hours on the evening of October 13th, while household members and their relatives prepared for the guests. A group of men killed and cooked at least four adult pigs, and up against one wall were some fifty cases of soft drinks and bottled water that the groom’s parents had purchased for the event. During the orn zouv, which honored the male household head’s ancestors, the medium chanted from memory and from text. He drew the spirits in with the smoke from burning incense, blew into a hollowed-out buffalo horn, rattled his spirit-knife, and occasionally threw down divining sticks. Later he, along with the groom and the groom’s father, offered spirit money to the ancestors. The spirit money consists of sheets of paper that are hammered (to make coins) or printed (to make bills) at the household for the occasion. It acquires value as it is burned and thus is considered transformed into the realm of spirits. The men kneeled down and held trays over their head-on which they burned the bills of spirit-money on a bed of corn. When the spirits had partaken of the offering, and had indicated their approval via the divining sticks, the medium sent them off. These exchanges with ancestor spirits brought honor and wealth into the spirit world and urged blessings and wealth (wealth is a manifestation of blessing) for the household. The more wealth a household has, the more it can oblige ancestors and otherspirits.The orn zouv ritual was only for the groom’s household and lineage, the event’s hosts. The bride’s side would arrive the following day. On the morning of that day, a Mien band playing a double-reed oboe, drum, gong, and cymbals went out along the road to receive the guests and to bring them in the direction of the house. The host-side guests were already seated, males and females forming separate halves of a circle, and were being offered tea and cigarettes when the bride’s group arrived at about much ceremonial bowing between the sides of the groom and the bride, hosts and guests. By 5 pm, the band led the guests, almost a hundred people, to the dinner tables. The number of guests was such that the meat from four adult pigs would not suffice, and the household rushed to buy a cow from Thai villager to add to the food, which cost them about Thai Baht 7,000(USD 280). The scale of the wedding was far beyond the means of an average household. As an elaborate affair, it was more representative of ideals and aspirations than of what such events should be like in Mien villages. Impart, this was what made it appropriate for video documentation. Behind the scenes at the formal presentations of the two kin groups—the couple to the guests, the householders to the ancestor spirits, and the Mien ethnic group to the video crew from the TRI—there was an ongoing practical joke in the kitchen involving each of the four pigs. Whoever entered the kitchen was asked to wield the knife to kill the pig, while several men held it steady on a bench, ready with a bowl to catch the blood. The knife they gave out was blunt and never pierced the pig’s skin. After a few frustrated attempts, the joke’s victim was let in on the fun, everyone laughed, and the pig was killed with a better knife and then prepared for the anxious hosts and their numerous guests. I did not see such joking at other weddings, but mention it here because it shows that for Mien participants, “traditional» tribal ways are not reverent proceedings constrained by an idealized past. The bride finally entered the groom’s house at about 4 am on October15th. The hosts offered her and her kin group sticky rice to eat, a metaphoric reference to the lasting union of the couple and their families. At this point, the TRI team started video recording. Around breakfast time, the guests» washed the face” (nzaaux hmien) of the bride. She and her assistant went around the tables with a bowl of water and a washcloth, and the guests gave her some money, usually in the range of Baht 20–50 (USD .80–2.00). People did not literally wash the bride’s face, or in many cases even touch the cloth. Rather, this was a formal and public way of declaring that the bride was honorable. After the assembled guests had lunch, the bride and groom went around the tables together with two assistants, offering people cigarettes, tea, and liquor. The guests again gave money, in the range of Baht 20–100(USD .80–4.00). This exchange marked the honor of their union. The video crew set up their gear again as the band led the groom and bride inside; there, the couple bowed in front of the altar to the ancestors. The bride and groom were barefoot and decked out in elaborate, embroidered Mien clothing. Each was accompanied by one assistant. Khru (Thai, “teacher”) Khe Win, the Mien headmaster of the Pangkha School, gave speech in Thai through a microphone, and spoke about marriage customs. Each tribe has its own special customs, he said, but weddings are most elaborate among the Mien, and he described some key elements. He then gave the microphone to another Mien man, who spoke in the Mien language. I did not yet understand the language and his words were lost on me. The band played its music, and yet another Mien man addressed the couple. They, particularly the groom, bowed in a very elaborate fashion in front of the altar to the ancestors, variously kneeling and standing up. Decked out in their finery, they made a good show, for the household as much as for the Tribal Research Institute, and the visitors appeared impressed.

 

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