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Tuesday, 30 October 2018 09:19
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Protestantism’s impacts on the building of an advanced culture deeply imbued with national identity among ethnic minorities

(LLCT) - Protestantism has strongly developed in Vietnam in recent years, especially in areas of ethnic minorities. In addition to its active impacts on the building of an advanced culture and creation of a more civilized and progressive lifestyle among ethnic minorities, it is also disturbing and degrading many traditional and cultural values of ethnic minorities. Therefore, there should be solutions to promote the active aspects and limit the negative aspects of this religion. 

Protestism started spreading into Vietnam and especially in Da Nang in 1911. Currently, Protestantism is developing mainly in areas of ethnic minorities in the Northwest and Central Highlands with the number of followers representing about 74% of the total Protestants. Its followers in the Central Highlands account for 40% of the whole country’s Protestants, among which ethnic minority followers make up 94%(1). Ethnic minority Protestants are mainly E De, Gia Rai, Mnong, Co Ho and Ba Na. In the northwest, Mong and Dao ethnic minorities are the main Protestant groups. Particularly, one in five or six Mong ethnic people follows Vang Chu Protestantism. The penetration of Protestantism into ethnic minorities areas has deeply changed every aspect of their social life, especially in the cultural field.

1. Protestantism’s impact on the building of an advanced culture

An advanced culture requires the reception of new, active, progressive and modern values in line with its development, while rejecting backward traditional elements. Having originated from the West, Protestantism contains some active cultural values with the capability of “modernizing” the traditional culture of ethnic minorities.

The traditional culture of the country’s ethnic minorities also contains many backward customs and practices which are not in line with the new era and should be erased and replaced by a modern and civilized lifestyle. Protestantism has impacted and changed the backward way of living which has been handed down from generation to generation by a part of population following Protestantism. This religion focuses on practical and specific issues of daily life, advising its community to abolish depraved customs in funeral, wedding and sacrifice rituals towards a civilized way of living. As a matter of fact, there have been certain advances in social life in many communes where ethnic minorities follow Protestantism.

Funeral rituals among ethnic minority groups remain prolix and affect the way of living, especially production activities. For the E De people in DakLak, if there is a funeral in a family, the whole village stops its production to focus on it. During the days the funeral ritual is conducted, all villagers come to the family of the dead person to extend their condolences and bring rice, alcohol or chicken with them to have meals together. After burying the dead person, the family often has to kill a chicken or a pig and prepare a decanter of alcohol for a shaman to perform the ritual of expelling the soul of the dead person. If something unlucky happens to the family several days after the burial, another sacrifice is conducted to worship the soul of the dead person or excavate the newly-burried grave (as they believe that the dead person is not satisfied with the place where he/she is burried or the burial was not up to what he/she recommended before he/she died). As for the Mong, when there is a death in a family, the descendants have to perform a ceremony called “ma kho” (dry ghost) after a while. This would be considered a debt from generation to generation if it were not performed properly. The “ma kho” ritual should include the slaughter of a buffalo and the preparation of rice, alcohol and many other kinds of food. They believe that if they do not perform this ceremony, it would be a great wrongdoing towards their ancestors and they would be punished by their ancestors with illness or misfortune. Therefore, many families have to borrow a lot of money to perform the “ma kho” ritual, which increases their poverty. Such funeral customs among ethnic minorities are not conformable to the current situation and they should be abolished. These backward practices and customs have been changed in the community of Protestant ethnic minorities. The previously prolix funeral and wedding rituals have been replaced with Catholic rituals. The dead person is not put in the house over 24 hours and burried without abstaining except for Sunday. Funeral procedures have decreased with the discontinuance of giving feasts or moaning (because according to Protestantism, a deceased person is believed to be with Christ in heaven). When burying the dead person, no procedures are needed except for a cross placed on the grave.

Some ethnic minority groups still observe the custom of worshiping the ghost when there is a sick person, which results in making the patient sicker or even threatening their life because they are not cured in time. This backward custom should be completely abolished. In the community of Protestant ethnic minorities, this custom has been totally changed. 100% of the Mong Protestant followers, when asked what to do if they are sick, answer that they “pray first, and if they cannot recover, they would go to the hospital and take medicine”(2).

Protestantism contributes to building a civilized and modern lifestyle among ethnic minority families. Backward practices such as giving birth to many children, having the ideology of valuing men above women or favouring patriarchic families still exist in many regions. However, in ethnic minority families following Protestantism, these customs have gradually been abolished and replaced with the values of gender equality and monogamy in their families. Very few divorces occur in Protestant families. As for childbearing, Protestantism advises family planning and giving birth to few children in order to raise them well. No matter if one gives birth to a son or daughter because both will be with Christ after death.

Protestantism guides ethnic minorities towards organizing their lives in a more and more civilized and progressive manner. Their daily activities become more methodical and hygienic. Livestock and poultry breeding farms are separated from living space and living water resources are kept clean. Backward customs are reduced such as harmful practices, inappropriate production methods, old-fashioned village organizations and forms of nonsense and anti-scientific preaching. The custom of “ma lai” (believing that there is a formless ghost who can fly and eat organs of humans and animals) and the practice of burying a child together with his/her deceased mother are almost no more while big feasts are not conducted during ceremonies. The tenets evangelized by pastors have many similarities with the Vietnamese traditional culture in advising human beings on how to live in harmony, inclining to the good, knowing how to love, treasure and help each other. That’s why when joining Protestantism followers are willing to share and help each other, regarding this as a guideline to practicing their religion. As for the organization of social life, Protestantism encourages its followers to actively take part in social activities and consider social activities as a condition or a means of missionary work, thus limiting the closeness among the community and making the followers actively participate in social charity activities.

Therefore, with the abolishment of old customs and practices and replacement with a civilized and modern lifestyle, production and families, Protestantism actively contributes to building an advanced culture among ethnic minorities.

2. Protestantism’s impacts on preserving traditional and cultural identities

Protestantism has double impacts on the traditional culture of ethnic minorities, modernizing their culture on one hand and degrading many good values of their traditional culture on the other. Ethnic minorities’ traditional belief is polytheism. The Central Highlands people believe that a human is a creature living in the world of gods. Gods exist everywhere, disturbing humans and claiming the fulfilment of ritual and material requirements. Each ethnic group has its own gods: the Ba Na people have Rice God (Lang xori), Water God (Yang Dak), Mountain God (Iang Kong) and Tree God (Iang Long) while the Gia Rai people have House God, Village God and Wharf God. Traditional sacred subjects of the Northern ethnic groups are heaven, water and all ghost forms (house, village and forest). The traditional culture of Vietnamese ethnic minorities is closely associated with polytheism. Values of our age-old traditional culture are typical values of many ethnic groups ranging from rituals, beliefs, practices and customs to law and all forms of artistic performance. They are the reflection of polytheism. When there are changes in ethnic minorities’ religions and beliefs, there are changes in the cultural identities of these groups. Protestantism is monotheism with Christ as the only worshipped god. When ethnic minorities follow Protestantism, polytheism is eradicated and replaced with the ideology of monotheism. They don’t believe in their own gods, which means that many practices, traditional festivals and rituals associated with their gods lose the foundation for their existence.

One of the most prominent values of the Central Highlands ethnic minorities’ culture is the space of gong culture - a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Central Highlands ethnic minorities have a profound concept that human beings can connect with gods and gongs are sacred items in which gods exist. The voice of gongs can connect the actual human life with the sacred world of gods. If the people don’t believe in gods, they will no longer find spiritual value in the voice of gongs, resulting in the change of the community’s space of traditional culture. The sound of gongs within the Protestant followers’ community loses its sacredness and they therefore lose their close connection with their homeland and their community. The absolute belief in Christ has “broken” almost all the previous belief of these followers. To keep total faith in Christ, Protestant followers break off traditional rituals with cultural identities which are closely associated with the belief of worshipping gods preserved over thousands of years such as the Buffalo-stabbing festival, agricultural rituals and human life circle rituals. Religious ceremonies are performed instead such as Easter Day, Christmas Day, Child Offering and Revival. They also conduct human life circle ceremonies as the Kinh people do such as birthday, first birthday of a baby, one-month-old ceremony, etc. Traditional funeral rituals have been curtained. Many E De and Mnông people in the Central Highlands neither remember nor want to remember their communities’ original gods. They go to church to make the sign of the cross, singing Christian songs and receiving Eucharist.

Not only the decrease of traditional beliefs, rejection in worshipping gods and fading away of practices and customs can be noticed, but forms of folk and cultural activities among Protestant ethnic minorities are also disappearing. For example, in Ba Na village, traditional music instruments like gongs, drums and Klongput as well as folk melodies and folk dances are not re-performed or practiced in current social life. During community festivals, Protestant ethnic minorities do not have warm meals associated with collective activities such as drinking “ruou can” (drinking wine out of a jar through pipes), performing gongs and epics. The role of village patriarches in arbitrating or conciliating contradictions and conflicts or maintaining the villages’ laws and practices is gradually fading away.

Because Protestantism doesn’t accompany traditional beliefs, when receiving the ideology of monotheism, ethnic minorities tend to abandon their community’s traditional values to receive new practices, customs and lifestyles according to this religion’s rules and standards. Protestantism’s approach is to eradicate superstitions and abolish traditional festivals, community cultural activities and the influence of laws and epics on community life. This hugely damages the preservation of heritage and cultural identities of ethnic groups. Many studies indicate differences in the conservation and preservation of traditional values and cultural identities among Protestant ethnic minorities and non-Protestant ethnic minorities as follows: “While traditional festivals, folk songs and music among a great majority of Catholic and Protestant ethnic minorities in the Western area are fading away, activities of singing folk songs, playing folk music and having people dances are maintained and treasured. Many sets of gongs are being stored as precious assets and used as featured music instruments which are indispensible in tomb-abandonment ceremonies”(3). The fact that many ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands are losing their traditional and cultural values can be explained by many reasons due to the impact of many elements, including Protestantism. The strong evangelization and development of Protestantism in the Central Highlands occurred right at the time when community structure was broken with the great migration of the Kinh people to the land to build the new economy, causing the compulsory integration of ethnic people. The transition from traditional polytheist religions and beliefs to monotheism among Protestant ethnic minorities has changed the foundation of ethnic minorities’ age-old culture. Some scholars state: “The penetration and spread of the religion in regions where ethnic minorities live is one of the basic agents for degrading and transforming the face of ethnic minorities’ culture. The impact of other elements, which may cause some losses to the system, diversification and originality of ethnic minorities’ culture, still can be recovered by appropriate measures. However, the impact of other religions will cause ethnic minorities’ culture to change its nature”(4). It is the reverse impact of Protestantism towards the building of a culture deeply imbued with national identities in the regions of ethnic minorities.

One of the extremely good traditions of ethnic minorities is the community cohesion because they have common faith in gods and share rituals as well as cultural community activities. Traditional religions and beliefs of ethnic groups are also cultural and social activities which constitute a catalyst for connecting the community. Therefore, when there is separation in religious faith, the population community is also divided in small groups. When they don’t share the common faith, it means that unity and consensus no longer exist in an ethnic minority community. Moreover, Protestantism flatly denies traditional beliefs and customs of ethnic minorities, thus causing cultural conflicts and reactions of ongoing beliefs and culture against culture and lifestyle of Protestantism. During the initial time when Protestantism was evangelized, many ethnic people didn’t follow it and left their villages for other places to live.

One of the featured cultural values of ethnic minorities in Vietnamese community is the custom of ancestor worship. Vietnamese people worship their ancestors not only to commemorate their dead forefathers but also to pray for good health and luck in business and agriculture. They live loyally, which means they never forget their past and look forward to a promising future. “The custom of ancestor worship in a broader sense is to worship not only the deceased who were instrumental in giving birth to us and bringing us up, or blood-relations in other words, but also those who deserve well from the village community and the nation”(5). It creates a united community which closely associates families with villages and the nation. However, when following Protestantism, ethnic people only worship Christ and abandon the worship of ancestors, which has existed for thousands of years, breaking off the traditional connection with their forefathers and thus moving away from their traditional and cultural identities.

3. Some orientations which promote and associate values of Protestantism with the building of an advanced culture deeply imbued with national identities

In order to bring into full play positive aspects and limit negative aspects of Protestantism, there should be appropriate approaches and solutions.

Firstly, values and anti-values of ethnic minorities’ traditional culture should be clearly identified. As quintessential values and anti-values of cultural heritages cannot be distinguished, ethnic people may give up many good forms of traditional and cultural activities in many areas. The belief in polytheism includes good practices and customs on one hand, and backward customs that should be abolished on the other hand. Therefore, cultural researchers should clarify what are the real values and what are the anti-values of ethnic minorities’ traditional culture. At the same time, communication should be strengthened within villages and hamlets to advise ethnic people of which backward customs to abolish and which good practices and customs to maintain and promote. This would help prevent Protestant ethnic minorities from flatly denying traditional culture and dismissing it as old-fashioned superstition.

Secondly, freedom of beliefs for ethnic minorities should be ensured while defending a sense of ethnicity and protecting ethnic minorities’ traditional and cultural identities should also be raised. Protestantism spread among ethnic minorities under special conditions with certain benefits gained for ethnic people’s daily life including satisfaction of their spiritual need, economic and cultural life in the context of a new society. Therefore, freedom of religion and spiritual belief for ethnic people should be ensured. However, communication and education on the sense of ethnicity should be developed among ethnic minorities to help them understand that a sense of ethnicity is the foundation of the existence of an ethnic group. Loosing an ethnic minority’s cultural identities means loosing an ethnic group. Ethnic people are Protestant followers and part of a certain ethnic group at the same time. There should be activities designed to maintain their religious faith but the existence and development of their ethnic groups should be protected as well. When ethnic people both have religious faith and a sense of protecting their identity, they will achieve harmony between following Protestantism and maintaining their cultural identities.

Building an advanced culture deeply imbued with national identities is an important task in the process of constructing socialism in our country at present, and an especially urgent task among ethnic minorities. Therefore, it is essential to clarify elements impacting ethnic minorities’ culture to find appropriate solutions. Protestantism is a significant element which impacts the building of an advanced culture deeply imbued with national identities among Protestant ethnic minorities and there should therefore be a comprehensive research to adopt suitable attitudes and behaviours.


(1) Tran Thi Phuong Anh: The relationship between interest, living conditions and choice of religious faith: The situation of Protestantism among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands currently, Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, Issue No.1, 2016.

(2) To Thuy Hanh: Faith of the Mong people’s followers in Christ - Vang Chu, Psychological Journal, Issue No.2, 2010.

(3) Bui Minh Dao: The Ba Na ethnic people in Vietnam, Social Science Publishing House, Hanoi, 2006, p.293-294.

(4) Dao Tuan Anh: Change in belief life of the Ba Na people in Gia Lai and its impacts on the preservation of ethnic people’s cultural identities, Journal of South Asia Studies, Issue No.12-2011.

(5) Dang Nghiem Van: Some problems of culture and development in Vietnam, Social Science Publishing House, 1993, p.315.

MA. Ha Thi Thuy Duong

Academy of Politics, Area 4

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