Among the Miao of Tran Ninh
Let us scale the slopes of Phu Khe, the mountain neighboring Xieng Khouang, to go and meet the Miao on their patch. This very important mountain tribe forms the greatest proportion of the population of Tran Ninh. Every day, women in sailor’s collars, short pleated skirts, and wide turbans come down from the summits to the town’s market. Not overly skittish if one behaves properly toward them, they quickly become fearful if some ill-advised person allows himself familiarities in their direction.
One of the principal chiefs of these scattered groups, the Lhassa, has invited us to pay him a visit.
The road is arduous in this rainy season, and the mandarin who accompanies us claims that one has to be possessed of the phi of wanderers to climb in this manner beneath torrents from heaven.
Yet we managed to reach a first village, that of the Flat Stones, after a six-hour walk to the chief’s village.
A sunny spell is granted us by the genie of showers, who no doubt wished to reward our perseverance, and we are infinitely grateful to him, for the panorama unfolding before our eyes would extract a cry of admiration from the most skeptical. On one side, the Agricultural Station, with its patchwork of crops sloping up in terraces; on the other, the Plain of Jars, with pine woods providing a somber smudge against the green of meadows, the mounds looking like molehills, and the crest of the blueish mountains encircling the plateau.
Only a signal was needed for a superb ox brought in for the festivities to be put to death; three pigs whimper under the killers’ knife, and a dozen chickens desperately beat their wings before passing on. Numerous families have come from the neighboring villages. The men look most stylish in their very short jackets, especially on the front, leaving a strip of yellow flesh bare, wide blue trousers held up by a red belt, a black turban, one end of which, elegantly embroidered and adorned with fringes, drops coquettishly over their shoulder, and a silver necklace as thick as a finger, with its two curved ends joined over the chest by a small chain of the same metal. The women wear tutus, superbly embroidered collars, long aprons reaching below the skirt, a belt holding long threads of red silk and pendants of multi-colored pearls, and especially the colossal turban wrapped around their head, which is shaved except at the very top.
Here it is the men who do the cooking, washing the meat in abundant running water before placing it in a basin in which they will leave it to simmer in fat mixed with water.
Workers are returning from their rai. Most of them, men and women, wear on their left ankle a thin ring made of three threads of copper, iron, and silver, a combination that has the effect of warding off evil spirits.
The Miao are the most superstitious of all. In the Lhassa’s house, we notice two long narrow ladders hanging from the roof. The chief explains gravely that in case of illness in one of the residents of the house, they will exorcize the sufferer in order to chase from his body the phi that obsesses him. But phi demand certain attention. They can only leave a house through a special opening, so one of the ladders is raised inside the hut at a spot where the overhanging roof leaves a free space for the phi to pass, and the second ladder is set up outside on the other side of the wooden partition that serves as a wall.
Vigorous banging on tom-toms, ardent prayers, a few gestures, and the patient is rid of the evil genie. But sometimes the phi resists, and the patient dies in its embrace.
Trusting, the children come and sit on the lap of the man with the long beard, who begins to empty his boxes of trinkets. It rains without interruption, so the crowd has gathered to celebrate in the Lhassa’s house as well as those of this son and his brother.
Many a toast is raised to the foreigner; then the women, adorned with the pearl necklaces and bracelets they have been gifted, form a gracious circle. Without having to be imposed upon much, they will sing.
One of the chief’s young women, a superb girl with long eyelashes and perpetually smiling lips, begins a melody in a gentle voice ornamented with vocalizations of admirable purity. Following custom, she improvises, and the gracious thoughts developed by this beauty are translated. Once the festivities are over, we will ask for the poem to be repeated and written down in Lao by the great Miao chief’s brother.
With complete freedom of expression, under the gaze of her old husband, the pretty girl sings of former lovers. Perhaps some of them are in the audience. We translate literally:
I was a young girl in my mother’s house;
I told you to take me.
Why didn’t you take me?
Now I am married. Don’t you regret it?
You went back home.
You looked for another girl to make her your wife.
Is she as good as me? Answer me!
We miss each other,
But in future,
When we meet in the forest,
We will resume our talk of love.
Your wife shall not know of this;
I don’t talk to my husband about it.
If your wife learned of our plans,
If my husband knew of them,
We would be caned, and it hurts!
Happiness runs away from us
Since we cannot have each other.
Go back to your wife and your hearth.
As for me, I will squat next to my husband.
Together we must start a family.
Let us consider ourselves brother and sister
Since we cannot have each other.
But when there is a feast in the village,
When a wedding is being celebrated gaily,
The two of us shall meet again
And exchange tokens of our profound love.
What you give me shall make up for your absence;
I shall believe you to be near me.
I shall caress your memento,
And happiness will come to me.
If you accept this gift my hands offer you,
Do not say it comes from me.
I remain yours,
All of me!
The old Lhassa casts a lively, sly eye at the young woman as he exhales in the direction of the joists a mouthful of thick smoke he drew from a long Chinese pipe. He is deep in thought. The pretty child replies gaily to her female companions, who tease her. They all burst out laughing.
But it is the turn of a young girl with a voice as gentle and supple as that of a nightingale. More vocalizations and short stanzas ending abruptly on very short syllables. From time to time, the singer’s female companions support her sotto voce with a sustained matching accompaniment.
Looking straight into my eyes, the young Miao begins her birdsong.
Lord, you come from a faraway land.
Now among us, you ask us to sing.
We will sing with pleasure.
Be so good as to listen to us, therefore.
Lord, we are young Miao women.
When you return to your country,
Do not say that we sang before you.
Do not say it to young women,
For we would be filled with shame.
We are not pretty;
We are ignorant young women.
Lord, if in the future there is in our village
A feast, and especially a wedding,
We will be happy to see you among us.
And since you love music,
We will sing again.
This is a Miao song,
Made for your pleasure!
Adorable child! Go on, give the fat man a kiss. And amidst madcap laughter, lord and singer in a tutu exchange great smacking kisses. The old Lhassa contorts with laughter, nearly swallowing his pipe.
Your song was too short, my beauty! You sing so well! Please accept this three-sided mirror, which will facilitate the complex scaffolding of your turban. Whereupon, and with good grace, the child returns to her vocalizations:
Hear my song, Lord,
And make no mistakes as you write it down,
For when you read it again later,
You will think of me.
If you love me a little,
When I am dead, my heart will love you deeply.
After my rebirth,
It will find your heart, and both will be as one.
You come to our village as a good man, Lord,
And we consider you our father.
When you arrive, you arrange for an ox to be killed,
Pigs, fowls, and you invite us
To drink fermented liquor.
You hand out souvenirs.
Lord, your heart is big and good!
Do all the people of your country take after you?
You give us so many things!
Do you still have enough to complete your journey?
Lord, we beg you to return to us
And not to forget the little Miao singing girl.
Assuredly, charming child, your image shall not fade from our memory.
Whereupon songs continue well into the night as, spread out on his camp bed amidst the chief’s family and his hosts from villages all around, the traveler abandons himself to sweet reverie, won over by the charm of these simple, good people.
These passages originally appeared as “Variétés : Chez les Méoes du Tran-ninh” in La Revue Indochinoise 12:09 (September 1909): 924–927.
More than two years after his death and true identity were revealed [see Introduction], the editors of La Revue Indochinoise published this brief dispatch under Raquez’s pseudonym. Remarkably, there is no explanatory note as to why they chose to print this dispatch so long after his death, and they offer no acknowledgment of his prior role at the publication, nor is any context given for when Raquez wrote it or when the editors received it. It is in fact one of the Mission Raquez dispatches originally published in L’Avenir du Tonkin (July 9 & 10, 1906) but not initially reprinted in the Revue.
See William L. Gibson, “Alfred Raquez’s Roles as Author and Editor of La Revue Indochinoise,” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 104 (2018): 343-373.
Do you like what you’re reading? Learn more about our translations of Raquez’s travel books published by NIAS Press, In the Land of Pagodas and Laotian Pages.