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Tooth Blackening, the forgotten tradition

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					Tooth Blackening, the forgotten tradition
                                             The Blackened Teeth of Traditional Vietnamese
                                             Tribes
                                             Asia is a land full of weird and wonderful customs
                                             and rituals. Throughout the continent there are
                                             literally thousands of different traditions that remain
                                             alive to this day and these customs often stem from
                                             religious beliefs that have been faithfully upheld for
thousands of years.


Trekking through the gentle mountains of Northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam is a great way to
experience these traditions first hand.


A strangely interesting custom that is often misunderstood is the Vietnamese ritual of tooth
blackening or tooth lacquering. Tooth blackening is not total uncommon for those Vietnamese
people living traditional lives, nevertheless many tour guides still tell tourists the blackening is
the result of chewing betel nut.


This mild stimulant comes in the form of a tiny parcel made up of betel nut, the fruit of an Areca
tree, and lime paste wrapped in a leaf of the betel pepper vine. It is chewed in a similar way to
tobacco and this stains the teeth.


It is actually quite easy to spot the difference between blackened teeth and those stained by betel
nut – the betel nut stains the teeth a dark red/brown color and the constant chewing and spitting
is also a clear sign.


Betel nut can be found all over Asia, predominantly in areas occupied by hill tribes, but the more
abrasive procedure of tooth lacquering is a tradition that only really remains in Vietnam.


“Mrs. Nguyen Thi Pham, a 67 year old Hanoian, dressed in a loose silk over blouse, black satin
trousers, jade bracelet and necklace, described the ritual blackening of her teeth when she was
17. Pham waves her slender gold-ringed fingers as she described the party-like atmosphere of the
ceremony…


“Her grandmother blackened her teeth as the rest of her family looked on joking and making
joyful comments to her as her mouth was being “painted.” There needed to be three applications
(every other day for a week) because natural saliva washed off the original application of
chemicals. For that period of time she could not eat solids and could drink only through a
straw…


“The ritual certified that she was “grown up and ready for marriage.” Although it was not a
painful process for Pham, I have spoken to other women who recall that their mouths swelled up
or that their gums burned and stung for days. The procedure could take place sometime after the
age of ten when the child has all her permanent teeth but is usually done after menarche.”


The chemical ingredients used to blacken the teeth can take several forms.
The lacquering process can take several forms. In Vietnam it is ration to use red sticklac, a resin
obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, as a dye.


The resin is diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. It s
then applied with pressure to all the teeth. An application of iron (mainly from iron nails) or
copper from green or black alum and tannin from Chinese gall reacts with solution to give a
blue-black insoluble coating.


In other areas of Southeast Asia coconut husk is burned to form a black sticky char that is then
combined with nail filings and adhered to the tooth surface until the dye “takes.”


The traditional method once used by the Japanese was to make a mixture by soaking iron fillings
in tea or sake. This liquid then turns black upon oxidation of the iron. Spices like cinnamon,
cloves and anise were often added to the resin to reduce the harsh chemical taste of the dye.


As with most Asian traditions, there are long standing cultural reasons for tooth blackening.
It was believed that only savages wild animals and demons that long white teeth. The filing and
blackening of the teeth, filing was also a popular procedure, was assurance that one would not be
mistaken for an evil spirit.


In Japan tooth blackening was known as Ohagura. It was believed to enhance sex appeal in
addition to maintaining healthy teeth. Linking tooth blackening to a prolonged set of teeth is not
just a belief; studies have shown that those with blackened teeth maintain a full set of teeth for
longer than those without lacquered teeth.


Similar procedures of tooth blackening and filing, were also performed by tribes from Indonesia
and the Philippines. Back in 1938, a French survey found 80% of the countryside folk of
Vietnam had blackened teeth. Medieval kings of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries
also blackened their teeth.


The procedure has been quite popular throughout Asian history. But when the French came to
Vietnam, they did not appreciate the implied beauty and the procedure was discouraged. Since
then the numbers of Vietnamese dropped drastically, but in these modern times, the traditional
people of Vietnam are once again trying to revive an almost lost tradition.


This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel

For original article, please visit:

http://vietnamheritagetravel.com/news/1374-tooth-blackening-the-forgotten-tradition.html
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