Long Tong (going to the field) is the most typical agricultural festival of the Tay, a big ethnic minority group living in the northern mountain region with a population of over 1.6 million.
Celebrated annually between the 1st and 15th days of the lunar new year, the festival is a religious ritual dedicated to the god of agriculture to win his blessing for verdant crops and prosperity for villagers throughout the year.
Held in a large harvested field in the middle of the village, Long Tong requires major preparations before the lunar new year. Families in the village are assigned different duties, the most important of which is preparing the offering tray. The offerings include a boiled capon, a boiled pig head, some grilled fish, two plates of sticky rice dyed red and yellow, and two con s. Con is a small ball made from pieces of colourful cloths sewn together and stuffed with puffed rice and cotton seeds. Con is also decorated with gaudy cloth tassels.
Long Tong consists of three main parts: offering ritual which includes a water procession, ploughing ceremony and folk game playing.
On the lunar New Year’s Eve, representatives of families join the village head in a procession to take holy water from a stream to the village shaman’s home. Representatives of families also take the holy water in a dry gourd to their homes.
Before Long Tong, each family in the village contributes a bamboo tree to set up a worshipping altar in the selected field. The altar, which is erected in U-letter shape with the bottom of the letter U facing the east, has a roof made of leaves. It also has an arching gate made from two tree branches, on the top of which is hung a drawing of tiger skin in red and yellow.
In the field a con pole is also set up, which is a tall bamboo tree with a ring of about 40 centimeters in diameter on its top. The ring is covered with a sheet of red paper at the side facing the east, which symbolizes the sun, and a sheet of yellow paper at the other side as the moon. On the pole is tied with a tree branch, which symbolizes the pole’s life.
On the 5th of the lunar new year, which is the main day of the festival, each family in the village prepares an offering tray, which usually contains a boiled young hen or rooster, a plate of boiled pork, a bowl of red sticky rice and a bowl of yellow sticky rice stuck with some flowers and a swift bird (symbolising spring). Village dignitaries prepare two trays with offerings double in quantity which additionally have a pair of banhchung (square sticky rice cake with pork and green bean filling) and two bowls of banh troi (round sticky rice cake with brown sugar filling). These special offering trays are placed near the shaman’s offering tray which is placed on a square rattan tray in the centre of the altar. The shaman’s offering tray contains a bowl of holy water taken on the New Year’s Eve with a silver coin at the bottom, a boiled chicken, some grilled fish, a bowl of chicken blood, a sharp knife, a roll of newly weaved cloth and two red-paper carps. In the middle of the tray are placed two bunches of flowers made of puffed sticky rice attached to a banana stem.
Villagers prepare their offering trays at home and then carry them on their heads to the worshipping altar. Particularly, the shaman’s offering tray is brought by a person assigned by villagers. Four young men in traditional black costumes and cloth hats are also sent by the village head to the shaman’s home to escort him to the ritual site. Before going to the shaman’s home, the men prepare two betel leaves daubed with edible lime and two areca nuts, which are all wrapped in a banana leave in square shape.
For the ritual, the shaman prepares four yellow or red scarves of one meter long, which will be given to four dancers, and four sets of bells, each of which has four small gongs and a drum. The four young men carry these things when escorting the shaman in a black coat and a black turban to the ritual site.
When the offerings are ready, the village head rings a bell to start the worshipping ceremony. Standing facing the east in front of his offering tray placed in the middle of the U-letter shaped altar, the shaman deferentially recites prayers in Tay dialect, inviting gods and goddesses to the rite and asking for their blessing for the village to have bumper crops and growing herds of cattle and be freed from diseases and misfortune.
After praying, the shaman takes the bowl of holy water from the offering tray, and with the sharp knife in his right hand, makes symbolic movements to cut the bowl in four directions. He then uses the silver coin in the bowl to sprinkle water to four directions in the wish for favourable weather all the year round.
The shaman then continues reciting prayers in front of the offering tray placed under the con pole to the roll of drum and gong beats made by villagers. After that, he chooses four strong young men to kowtow before the con pole and then gives them four chicken legs from the offering tray to thank them for passing their strength to the pole.
The offering ritual is followed by a ploughing ceremony in which the festival host leads a carefully selected male buffalo to make the first furrows of the year. In Tay belief, villagers will get good luck and yield bumper crops throughout the year if this buffalo makes straight furrows.
After the ploughing ceremony, villagers share the offerings together. The offering tray prepared by the village is offered to village dignitaries and elderly people. The shaman takes home half of his offering tray. Villagers also invite their friends from other villages to join the party. Those who can invite many guests are believed to enjoy a prosperous year.
Then comes the most exciting part of the festival, folk games, central to which is nem con (throwing con through the ring on the top of the con pole). Kicking off nem con , the shaman prays in front of the con pole and then throws the con on the offering tray to young people surrounding him. According to Tay custom, the person who first catches the con will throw it through the ring. If he succeeds, he will receive a prize of three meters of cloth. The shaman will rip the successfully thrown con to take out the puffed rice inside, mix them with a basket of dried paddies and throw them to festival goers who will use their shirt flaps to catch these paddies as many as possible since this act is believed to bring them prosperity and success throughout the year.
Other games in the festival include tug of war and yen playing (a game similar to badminton, but played between a man and a woman). The shuttlecock (yen) is made of bamboo. The rackets, made of soft and light wood, are a bit larger than the table-tennis rackets. Fencing is played by six men carrying bamboo swords and six women with shields made of areca spathe.