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The 12 Lamp Initiation Ritual of the Red Yao People

lamp initiation ritual of the Red Yao

As a rite of passage, lễ cấp sắc (literally means conferring a certificate of approval) marks the initiation of a Red Yao man into his spiritual maturity and religious efficacy.

Filmed in a villageof the Red Yao people, which is located in the mountainous area of Lào Cai province, 260 km northwest of Hanoi, the documentary presents to its viewers an introduction into the most significant ritual of the concerning community. The initiation ritual has a longstanding history and is a crystallization of a diversity of cultural values of the Red Yao.
Similar to other branches constituting the entire Yao group, one of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, the Red Yao people organize their society in a patriarchal model. Accordingly, the primary power in both societal and religious domains are entitled to male members rather than female ones. However, such important status is only granted to a Red Yao man after he passes an initiation ritual called lễ cấp sắc, in which he receives his own "certificate" from a senior ritual master. With a religious title being given to the man, the certificate is a proof to show that he has been accepted as a descendant of the guardian god of the Red Yao – Bàn Vương. Only after the completion of this initiation ritual is the man considered mature enough to take the responsibility of worshipping his own family's ancestors and qualified to take part in the community's major activities. It is also believed that, with the magical power granted through the initiation ritual, the man is now protected by an army of ghost soldiers.
In its very essence, the initiation ritual is a clear manifestation of the Red Yao belief in the continuity of life after death and the interdependence between the living and the dead. The ritual, therefore, is crucial for any individual Red Yao man as well as his encompassing community. Even more specifically, how powerful a man is in the spiritual realm is believed to be dependent largely on the scale of the initiation ritual(s) he has experienced. For this reason, the Red Yao divide the cấp sắc ritual into three levels based on the number of "lamps" being granted to the man alongside the certificate in each ritual. The first level – the three-lamp ritual – is organized for one or several members of a single family; whereas, the second level – the seven-lamp ritual – is organized for members of a lineage. People who experience three-lamp rituals will be granted an army of 36 spiritual soldiers, and those who experience seven-lamp rituals will receive an army of 70 spiritual soldiers.
These two levels are considered the most basic and can be performed by everyone regardless of their marital status. In fact, almost all Red Yao men normally experience either a three-lamp or a seven-lamp ritual during their teenage years. The highest level of lễ cấp sắc, however, is way more complicated than the two previous forms. Called a twelve-lamp ritual, it is organized as a community event with the participation of members belonging to several lineages in a village or even in a commune. More importantly, the primary aim of this ritual is to mark the initiation of specially selected males into the profession of ritual masters, who then will serve the whole community rather than their own family or lineage. People who wish to pass the twelve-lamp ritual, thus, must first and foremost be married; and before such important ritual, they are required to experience a lengthy process of self-training in fundamental religious issues. While each year, there may be several three-lamp and seven-lamp rituals performed within Red Yao families and lineages, because of the involvement of intensive economic and religious complexity, it takes much longer time - several decades or even a hundred of years - for a twelve-lamp ritual to be organized.
Against this general background, the present documentary, as clearly stated in the title, set its focus on the capturing of the most fundamental elements of a specific twelve-lamp initiation ritual organized by a Red Yao community in Phìn Hồ village, Bản Khoảng commune. The ritual is very special since it was the first of its kind to be performed over the past several decades in the locale. Central to this ritual were 35 married couples from four lineages namely Lý, Chẩu, Tẩn and Phan and twelve senior masters who served as the bridge between the initiates and the realm of gods. Beside the living initiates, upon the request of their living relatives, the ritual was also performed to grant the magical power to some deceased people who had never have a chance to pass a twelve-lamp initiation before.
The ritual, as showed in the film, lasted 3 days and 3 nights with a wide range of activities taking place in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Firstly, it was commenced with the masters distributing an equal amount of rice to each initiate, signifying the action of granting spiritual soldiers to the concerning person. In the stage that followed, the masters invited the Jade Emperor, heavenly deities and lineages' ancestors to attend the event and to grant their blessings to all the participants and their families. Together with the masters, all initiates then performed an incense ritual, in which they danced while ringing small bells in their hands. The incense ritual was to express the living's gratitude toward holy spirits and their ancestors.
Once the ritual was officially started, the 35 male initiates were treated as disciples of the ritual masters. As such, following the masters' instruction, the disciples learnt the core principles of the Red Yao religious system as well as the most significant moral precepts applicable to their social life. The delivery of these teachings was combined with the instruction of how to perform several sacred dances and other acts of worshipping. One of the most important rituals defining the initiation process was the "lamp" granting. Twelve burning candles symbolizing twelve lamps were placed onto a tray which was later passed over the heads of the initiates, from one to the next, by the chief master and one of his assistants. The rite thus signified the recognition of the initiates as having passed the highest level of the initiation ritual.

After receiving their lamps, the disciples took a journey to Heaven through a possession ritual instructed by the senior masters. During this journey, they transferred what they had learned thus far into magical powers.
While most parts of the initiation rite were performed by the male initiate separately, the presence of his wife was important, for she would join her husband in certain stages. Firstly, both of them took part in the enactment of a spiritual wedding as a way to express their wish to keep their marriage bonding continue in their afterlife. Secondly, at the end of the ritual, the wife had to witness the fulfilment of her husband's initiation as he climbed up a special ladder whose steps were constructed by placing multiple blades diagonally across each other. Both of them finally received the certified stamps together from the masters. With their religious titles, names and ages being included in the stamps, the couple believed that their marriage would not end with their death but continue in their next life. Moreover, for the husband, the stamp proved that he was now a qualifed ritual master.
For its complexity entailing a wide range of activities, viewers may find it difficult to follow the whole procedure of the 12-lamp initiation ritual. Yet, what is clearly present to us in the film is a sense of community shared among the Red Yao people. Specifically, they strongly believe that the well-being and growth achieved by every single individual are of significance to the security stability and thriving of the whole family, lineage, and village. With this in mind, people are willing to support and assist each other, both in the preparation and performance of the ritual, with the hope to fulfil their community's ultimate collective goals.
Other than these fundamental elements defining the initiation ritual as indispensable to the life of the Red Yao people, one thing should be pointed out here is that such the ritual is holistic in its very essence. As showed in the documentary, acts of worshipping are woven with traditional music, dance, costume, folk painting and speech. An integration of nurturing human morality and transcending their normal existence also forms a crucial part of the ritual. All of these features make the initiation ritual of the Red Yao an excellent exemplar of folk culture. It also suggests that the ritual should be studied and documented in more detail so that its holistic essence can be better captured and represented.


Contributed by Dr. Nguyen Thi Thanh Hoa, Senior Researcher, Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies