The Space of Gong Culture
 

The cultural space of the Gongs in the central highlands of Vietnam covers several provinces and nearly seventeen minority ethnic groups belonging to the Austro-Asian and Austronesian linguistic groups. These populations live of traditional agriculture and have developed their own craft traditions, decorative styles and types of dwelling. Their most popular beliefs come from the cult of the ancestors, shamanism and animism. Closely linked to daily life and the cycle of the seasons, these beliefs form a mystical world where the gongs intervene as a privileged language between men, divinities and the supernatural world. Behind every gong hides a god or goddess who is all the more powerful as the gong is older. Every family possesses at least one gong, which indicates the family’s wealth, authority and prestige, and also ensures their protection. While a range of brass instruments is used in the various ceremonies, the gong alone is present in all the rituals of community life and is the main ceremonial instrument.  

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Gong culture is said to originate in the ancient Dong Son civilization, also known as the brass drum culture, of Southeast Asia. The gongs of Vietnam are distinguished by the way they are played. Each instrumentalist carries a different drum of between 25 and 80 cm in diameter. The groups, of men or women, are formed of between three and twelve gongs depending on the village. Different arrangements and rhythms are adapted to the context of the ceremony, for example, the ritual sacrifice of the bullocks, the blessing of the rice, mourning rites and harvest celebrations. The gongs of this region are not made locally. They are bought in neighbouring countries, and then tuned to the desired tone for their own use.

Economic and social transformations have drastically affected the traditional way of life of these communities and no longer provide the original context for the Gong culture. Transmission of these ways of life, knowledge and know-how to new generations was severely disrupted during the decades of war. This is now aggravated by the disappearance of old craftsmen and the attraction that young people have of western cultural influences. Stripped of their sacred significance, the gongs are sold for recycling or exchanged for other products.