The wise old keeper of the Co Tu ethnic soul

In Quang Nam’s mountainous Dong Giang district, a village elder of the Co Tu ethnic people is regarded as a piece of living cultural heritage thanks to his efforts in preserving and promoting the traditional values of the Co Tu. Son Phuc and Trung Hieu report.

A village elder of the Co Tu ethnic people is known as a living heritage for his efforts to preserve and promote their traditional cultural values.

Y Kong, 87, is a tall man with a grey beard and weathered face, the product of living in the Dong Giang mountainous district of Quang Nam Province.

The Ba Commune elder still feels anxious about the cultural identity of the Co Tu ethnic people which he said was being eroded over time and at risk of being lost. He works tirelessly to collect and revive their traditional cultural values, both tangible and intangible.

That’s why his community treats him like the keeper of their ethnic soul.

Wooden statues for decorating bomb houses
Carving a niche: Wooden statues which decorate tomb houses are important to traditional Co Tu culture. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan

In fact, Y Kong has turned his own house into a miniature museum, containing hundreds of unique artefacts that remind Co Tu people in the western part of Quang Nam of their cultural heritage.

His house is also a place for cultural activities and an attraction for tourists to explore and study the cultural practices of this mountainous region.

In 1985 he resigned as chairman of Hien District (later split into two districts: Dong Giang and Tay Giang) to retire.

Villagers elected him village elder in 2005 and in 2007, when his village mobilised young men to go to the forest to fell trees to make columns for their new guol (communal house), Y Kong was asked to carve the trunks.

Images of the animals popular to the local life, such as birds, snakes, monkeys, pythons, lizards and wild buffaloes, were carved by Y Kong for a half year. While working he also guided young people to learn about each carved motif.

His wooden house/museum beside Highway 14D is also a treasure trove of Co Tu musical instruments from different kinds of guitars, flutes, trumpets, gongs and drums.


There is even a wooden coffin he made for his own burial, a tradition of the Co Tu for generations.

Currently, the people in the district have only a few village elders like Y Kong who can play the instruments.

Y Kong also weaves different kinds of bamboo baskets, makes wooden sculptures and carves animals to decorate the communal house.

With just an axe and a machete, Y Kong hacks roughly around some sketches on the timber so images of the statues of Co Tu men and women begin to take shape.

These wooden statues are to be found around cemetery tombs or in communal houses.

“The statues not only reflect the society and traditional beliefs of the Co Tu about the afterworld but also show their interesting decorative art,” he says.

Beneath his talented hands, the statues become lively, with different shapes and moods.

 Village elder Y Kong is an expert at making wooden statues
Master at work: Village elder Y Kong is an expert at making wooden statues in the traditional Co Tu style. — VNA/VNS Photo

In 2007, Quang Nam Museum ordered Y Kong to make four wooden statues. Subsequently, other museums and foreign tourists bought eight wooden statues and an altar. That, along with the many of his statues now located in the communal house of his village, is what keeps him busy.

In 1969 Y Kong represented the Co Tu people in a meeting with the then president Ho Chi Minh, along with representatives of the National Liberation Front of South Viet Nam.

He has received many awards from the Party and the State.

Y Kong says after more than 60 years of participation in the revolution, when he retired he and suddenly realised that the cultural traditions of the Co Tu had been greatly eroded.

He has spent years traveling to villages of the Co Tu to collect dozens of artefacts associated with their material and spiritual lives.

They include instruments used in major holidays, tools in ceremonies to please the gods, to ensure good weather and bumper crops, and guitars that young people use to seek mates in the festive season.

For Y Kong, each instrument expresses different nuances of people in each situation. The instruments, though they may be rudimental, can be used to express human emotions at different levels.


“My greatest desire is that young people will learn in order to preserve cultural and spiritual values of my people,” he says.

Having acknowledged Y Kong’s efforts in preserving the culture of the Co Tu, the district People’s Committee chairman, Do Tai, said the district had collaborated with the travel companies to turn his “museum” into a tourist destination.

This would give Y Kong some income to carry out further collections and dissemination of cultural and intangible values of the Co Tu people.

“Dong Giang District is implementing a project to conserve, promote and develop the culture of the Co Tu, teaching chiefs and artisans about storage and dissemination of cultural values of ethnic peoples.”

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