Then folk performance is considered as an essential ritual practice in the spiritual life of the Tay, Nung, and Thai ethnic groups in Vietnam, mainly in 11 northern provinces including Tuyen Quang, Bac Giang, Bac Kan, Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lang Son, Quang Ninh, Thai Nguyen, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, and Lao Cai.

UNESCO Representative to Vietnam Christian Manhart (left) hands over UNESCO certificate accrediting Then practices as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity to Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hoang Dao Cuong. Photo: VGP

Contributing to tourism promotion

Speaking at the ceremony to celebrate Then recognition by UNESCO in Tuyen Quang, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that inscription of Then practices in UNESCO list of heritages make this art form a “national brand” which can help spread among international friends the unique cultural heritage of the northern mountainous region of Vietnam, making this area more appealing to tourists.

He also urged relevant authorities in 11 localities home to Then practices to extensively promote this art, while raising people’s awareness of the intangible cultural heritage.

UNESCO Representative in Vietnam Christian Manhart said that the practices of Then help people overcome difficulties and obstacles in daily life, contributing to moral education, humane lifestyle, and preserving positive lifestyle of ethnic communities in the mountainous area of Vietnam. 

Unique intangible heritage of the humanity

Then artist Mo Thi Kit, 100, from Tay ethnic minority in Ninh Gia Commune, Lang Son Province. Photo: Phan Huy

According to UNESCO, Then practices reflect concepts about human beings, the natural world, and the universe.

Then ceremonies describe a journey in which the Then Master (male or female) controls ghost soldiers traveling from the earth realm to the heaven realm to offer items of worship and present their prayers for peace, for treating illnesses, good crops, on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, among others,” stated UNESCO.

The Then Master starts the journey by singing and plucking a tinh lute. Depending on the worshipping purposes, Then masters arrange worship trips to pray to different native Gods.

Then masters use various items – such as a demon-expelling sword, a yin and yang rod, a bell, among other- to perform ceremonies in the believer’s house, outdoors or at the Then alter of the Master’s house.

The Master wears ceremonial dress, sings in the language of their ethnic group, plays the tinh lute, shakes rattle-bells and waves a fan. Some ceremonies are accompanied by a female dancing group.

Then is always transmitted orally while its rituals are conducted, reflecting its succession between the generations, and Then Masters play a key role in passing on the related skills and know-how, with some conducting around 200 ceremonies a year.

Vietnam submitted dossiers asking UNESCO to recognize Then practice as a world intangible cultural heritage in 2017.

The art form is said to have first appeared in the late 15th century Mac Dynasty. Legend has it that, in Mac Dynasty, there were two kings named De Phung and De Dang who had special love for music and singing.

The two kings invented a handmade gourd lute called dan tinh and established two singing troupes to serve royal court. Ordinary people found it interesting and started learning it. Ever since, this form of singing has been practiced till today.