Thanh The Vinh

Throughout the ups and downs of history, the Great Cap sac Ceremony, also known as the Tau sai Festival, remains one of the most remarkable customs of ethnic Dao people. Join Heritage Magazine as we explore this festival with details and photos of a Twelve Lights Cap sac Ceremony held for 47 Red Dao couples from the Ban, Trieu, Dang, and Ly families who reside in the two highland communes of Nam Muoi and Nam Lanh in Van Chan district, Yen Bai province.

The Twelve Lights Cap sac Ceremony

In the first stage, when a Dao man reaches maturity, he is given three lights and 36 “ghost soldiers” to help him ward off evil spirits and protect his family. In the second stage he is granted seven lights and 72 symbolic soldiers. Finally, in the highest stage, he receives 12 lights and 120 soldiers. Despite being the most important Dao ritual, the Twelve Lights Cap Ceremony is optional, and rarely held. When it does occur, many families must work together for many years to plan and organize this event. Following this ceremony, participating Dao men will be held in high regard by their community and become the pride of their families and clans. The Great Cap sac Ceremony is reserved for adult men who have a harmonious family and are well respected by their community. As such, the wives of participating Dao men are also present during the rituals.

The Twelve Lights Cap sac Ceremony

The festival lasts for four days and nights, during which the shamans, participating men, and all guests must abstain from eating meat and couples must eat and live separately. The Twelve Lights Cap sac Ceremony consists of many steps, including a ceremony to welcome the shamans; a ceremony to thank the ancestors; and a ceremony for hanging ceremonial paintings. After that, the shamans perform a Teaching Ceremony for all of the participants, instructing them to lead a good and righteous life after undergoing this top-level ceremony. The most solemn ritual – the Lighting Ceremony – takes place on the third night. The shamans perform a blessing ritual to bestow 120 “ghost soldiers” by repeatedly passing a tray bearing seven candles and another tray bearing 12 candles over the heads of the participants. Afterward, the participants lay down neatly on mats. A mask and a set of downward-facing chopsticks is placed onto each man’s face as the shamans perform other rituals. Next, the shamans walk in a circle three times while chanting a mantra before approaching each participant and patting his chest in a symbolic gesture to bring him back to reality.  On the last day comes the Coronation Ceremony, which is held at an outdoor altar. During this ceremony, the shamans lead the participants to the altar to receive the Jade Emperor’s seal (a symbolic image) and the highest degree of the yin-yang grant. The participants and their wives in turn kneel to receive another seal from the shamans. This is the most sacred moment in a Red Dao man’s life.

After the Lighting Ceremony, the participants lay down neatly on mats

After the Coronation Ceremony, the participants change into the traditional black cham robe of the Dao people and sit around a table arranged in two rows, with the husband in front and his wife behind, for a reunion meal. The chief shaman then takes a white ribbon that represents unity and wraps it around every participant before granting them a handful of rice to represent the “ghost soldiers”. After this ritual, the rice is wrapped in a white ribbon, and each person cuts a piece of this ribbon to take home.

When the plowshare is removed from the flames, participants must rush in and compete to grab hold of it

Following the Meal of Unity, there is one unique feature that only occurs at the highest level of the Cap sac Ceremony. To test the participants’ bravery, stones and a plowshare are heated in a fire. When the plowshare is removed from the flames, participants must rush in and compete to grab hold of it. Anyone who can hold it is considered lucky. Twelve burning hot stones are then arranged in a vertical line. The participants must run barefoot across these stones to demonstrate their willpower. After all the rituals are complete, everyone holds a joyful celebration ceremony to congratulate those who have been granted the Cap sac. The Cap sac Ceremony is one of the most distinctive cultural practices of ethnic Dao people. It is also a form of folk performance that reenacts their history of migrating, settling, and conquering supernatural forces to ensure a happy and prosperous life.