Tooth Blackening in Vietnam

Tooth blackening, or tooth lacquering, is the custom of dyeing one’s teeth jet black with a special dye made from various botanical ingredients. The practice of tooth blackening constituted an integral part in Vietnamese culture as well as that of Southeast Asia and Oceanic regions. Traditionally a national beauty regime, the practice disappeared under the influence of Western ideologies during the French colonization. Not extensively documented or studied, and even inaccurately portrayed in literature, its presence throughout history eventually faded into obscurity.

At first glance, tooth blackening might seem to be an obsolete practice that could not withhold its place in our civilized society. An embodiment of beauty and an indication of dignity and courteousness in Vietnamese pre-modern society, it could be categorized as a body of social boundaries, one that made use of appearance peculiarities to ascertain one’s social standing. Yet once upon a time the blackened teeth served as a tool of resistance against foreign invasion, a symbol of national pride and identity. How did the history and persistence of colonialism affect our understanding of this beauty practice? This work will inspect the practice of tooth blackening and the ambiguity surrounding its meaning to ultimately answer how it can be socially delimiting but also culturally empowering.

Tooth blackening is a long and painful process that takes weeks to complete. Practitioners endured physical pain having their teeth’s natural cover stripped off, suffered from inflammation, and were unable to consume food that is hot or hard or require chewing. One started the procedure after losing all their baby teeth. The first stage– teeth cleaning– takes three to five days. In this time period the practitioner would clean their teeth after every meal using dried betel peel or charcoal powder, then wash their mouth with a rice wine or lime juice concoction to erode the natural enamel of their teeth, making it easier for the dye to penetrate. The second step entailed applying a mixture of shellac powder and lime juice (or vinegar, or rice alcohol) onto the teeth every night, until the shellac gave the teeth a dark red color. The teeth were then treated with a black lacquer made from shellac and black-honey shrub. It took approximately two days for the black coat to form; then, the black dye was enhanced with a sheen made of empyreumatic oil from burnt coconut shells. The finishing product was a set of jet black, shiny teeth that embodies beauty, grace, morality, and dignity. The dyeing process also strengthened the gum and protected the teeth from cavity and decay in an era when toothpaste was not prevalent.

Ambiguity existed within the origin of this bizarre beauty regime. Even though its origin could be traced back to the Hong Bang dynasty, there has been no study that yields a definite conclusion on exactly when and how it started. There exist misconceptions; for example, some believed that the practice originated from Imperial China– when the Chinese invaded Vietnam, they forced Vietnamese to dye their teeth to disassociate themselves from the “upper-class” Chinese rulers. On the contrary, folk literature and historical evidence have dated back its appearance since the Van Lang era– the very start of Vietnamese civilization. Literature noted the existence of the practice within the Dong Son culture (Bronze Age culture in ancient Vietnam from 1000 BC,) while archaeologists have found bone remnants with traces of the blackened teeth that can be dated back to 3500 years old. Chinese description from the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E) remarked on the blackened teeth of the Red River Delta inhabitants (Zumbroich 393), indicating that tooth blackening was no byproduct of foreign invasion. Another common misconception linked the teeth discoloration with betel chewing, a different habit practiced in Vietnam Northern provinces. This prevalent misconception has crept its way into social science research paper and informative articles online. Gale D. Matthews indicated that betel and areca nut (“trau-cau” in Vietnamese) chewing was the primary reason for the blackening of the teeth:

The Vietnamese have been chewing trau-cau for thousands of years, beginning in 2,879 BCE. Trau is a betel, a leaf with a bittersweet taste from the piperaceae tree, while cau is an areca nut, a seed from the areca palm. Chewed together, the leaf-nut concoction stains the teeth with prolonged use. This staining is due to the red pigment that acts like a dye found in the flavorful juice that is released when dissolved in the mouth. (Matthews 1)

Moreover, he declared that the application of the black lacquer was only to “quicken the desired effect of black teeth” (Matthews 1). In contrast, tooth blackening and betel chewing are two distinct bodies of social customs, sharing a similarity in their effects on the teeth (Dao Duy Anh 194).

In truth, tooth blackening has been a separate custom with its own societal impact since the dawn of Vietnamese civilization. A common theme across Southeast Asian cultures suggested that the custom originated from the belief that visible canine teeth were associated with savageness and/or animalistic and demonic desires; thus, dyeing the teeth distincted one from an evil spirit (Forge 1980). Tooth lacquering established an individual’s value within the society at the time: by dyeing their teeth black, ones proved their morality and solidified their social status (Ho Dac Duy, 2005). “Cái răng cái tóc là góc con người” (literal translation: “teeth and hair are the root of a human being,”) Vietnamese people believed, and a set of blackened teeth not only adhered to the traditional beauty standard but also indicated the integrity and civilization of whom that possessed it. “Teeth white as those of dogs” was a proverb criticizing those who do not lacquer their teeth. Women with blackened teeth were aristocrats or well-educated, while those with white teeth were seen as the kinds of prostitutes and low morals (Phan Khoi, 66). White teeth were considered “savage” (Phan Ke Binh, 447).

Not only an indication of virtues and courteousness, tooth lacquering played the prominent role of a national beauty regime. Folk literature praised the beauty and attractiveness of a woman with a blackened set of teeth:

“Who dye those teeth black for you

For you to look beautiful, for me to fall for you”

(Original text: “Răng đen ai nhuộm cho mình/Cho duyên mình đẹp, cho tình anh say?”)

Or as another folk song sang,  teeth “as black as custard apple seeds” was one of the four primary beauty standards:

“Third, cherish a dimpled smile

Fourth, cherish teeth blacker than the black-amber stone”

(Original text: “…Ba thương má lúm đồng tiền /Bốn thương răng láng hạt huyền kém thua.”)

The beauty of the blackened teeth left its imprint on Vietnamese literature up until the 20th century, well into the modern literature era. Hoang Cam, a famous modern poet in Vietnam, once praised the feminine beauty of the women in Kinh Bac villages:

“Those vendors with the blackened teeth

With a smile as radiant as the Autumn sun”

(Original text: “Những cô hàng xén răng đen/ Cười như mùa thu tỏa nắng”)

It is important to note that even though the practice was extensively and almost inclusively documented in women in literature, tooth dyeing was also common among men. Tooth blackening, consequently, was irreplaceable as a nation-wide beauty standard at the time.

In the pre-modern society, a blackened set of teeth firstly dictated one’s virtues. This, in turn, created a dangerous parameter to judge one’s character where external appearance can represent personality and social standing. This is just as detrimenting as the notion that a book could be judged by its cover. As it was a beauty standard, another motivation for lacquering the teeth was to assure one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex and improve their chances of finding a respectable partner. Accordingly, one might argue that completing the ritual signaled a woman’s readiness for marriage and procreation. If that were the case, this ritual would be one that marginalized women, taking away their freedom in making decisions on their own appearance and their life partners. Their beauty and sexual function were determined upon culturally forced physical attributes, not individual mentality. 

Beautification, however, did not primarily account for the widespread practice of this custom (Zumbroich 391). As alluded to its origin, dyeing the teeth black distincted a person from an “evil spirit” or uncivilized being. Examined more closely, women were neither the limited practitioners nor the primary target of gender distinction of the practice. As evidence of this, tooth blackening was also customary in men. Back in the feudal era, tooth dyeing was an honorable craft, and the royalties and the aristocrats would often invite the best practitioners to dye their teeth to indicate their social status. Likewise, it was extremely common to see the blackened teeth in high class male individuals. Evidence of dyed teeth could be found in the bone remnants of Le Du Tong– the eleventh ruler of the Le Dynasty. Up until 1938, up to 80% of the Vietnamese farmers were seen with black teeth (Huard 314). A case study of the Duong Lam village pointed out that all the men in the village dyed their teeth back in their 20s (Phan Hai Linh 215). The aforementioned historical evidence indicates that women were not the primary practitioners of this cosmetic technique.

Beyond just an ancient medical or cosmetic technique, tooth lacquering was a tool of resistance against the Chinese invasion, a weapon protecting our national identity against cultural mergence. First, it played a vital role in articulating a sense of “otherness”. “The inhabitants of Cu Lao Cham,” Chinese monk Shilian Dashan noted in his trip to the island in 1695, “speak a pigmy tongue and blacken their teeth”–both of which were understood as characteristics of no-Sinicized civilians (Zumbroich 393). In addition, when the Chinese invaders forced ancient Vietnamese to adopt Chinese appearance (half-shaved, half-braided hairstyle, and white teeth) and living habit, the continuing practice of tooth lacquering ritual had played a prominent role in defying colonization and preserving national identity. The ancient citizens refused to conform to the Chinese appearance and lifestyle, opting to preserve their traditional hairstyle, clothing, and black teeth. In response to the invasion of the Great Qing in 1789, Quang Trung emperor has called out for his soldiers:

                                                       “To fight to keep our hair long

                                                       To fight to keep our teeth black”

(original text: Đánh cho để dài tóc/ Đánh cho để đen răng)

In “Afro-Aesthetics in Brazil”, Patricia Pinho posited that adopting the Afro-aesthetic, such as dreadlock, was a way to confront the white standard of beauty, racism, and Eurocentrism. Tooth lacquering played a similar role in defying the cultural mergence crisis brought about by Chinese rulers. It distinguishes the internal from the external, protecting Vietnamese originality from Chinese cultural conformation and invasion. Tooth blackening established the ancient national identity against threats of cultural spoliation.

The resilience of tooth blackening practice has continued throughout the 1000 years Vietnam was reigned by Imperial China, withstanding the Chinese rulers’ effort to implement cultural mergence. The prominent ritual, however, cannot uphold against the influence of the French colonization and subsequently Westernization. At the beginning of the 20th century, Vietnam underwent major social and cultural reforms. Western ideology came into the spotlight– fair skin and white teeth claimed their place as the new beauty standards, and women started to refuse to blackened their teeth or even scrape off the black coating. Existing literature also noted that “under the Westernization wave in the 1930-1940s, men started to cut their hair short and stop tooth blackening.” (Phan Hai Linh 218) From 1945, the practice of tooth lacquering faded into obscurity, and can only be seen at the elderly and some minority communities nowadays.

Upon inspecting the historical timeline, one might ponder: “How can this cultural custom withstand the invasion of the Chinese but succumb to the colonization of the French?” As Thomas Zumbroich wrote, “Outside influences, in particular Christianization and the global propagation of a Western ideal of white teeth, have overtime led to the abandonment of the practice in the great majority of indigenous societies as they experienced significant outside contact” (Zumbroich 382). From one perspective, the disappearance seems forthcoming: tooth blackening ritual seemed to embody conservative and sexist Eastern cultural and societal boundaries, which does not fit into new ideologies of personal identity as well as individuality. Its eradication removed a standardized system in which a custom can diminish one’s virtue and social standing, and was consequently integral to contemporary cultural reform, women’s rights movement, and liberation movement. However, we must also take into account the difference in the manner in which the Chinese and the French introduced their ideologies into Vietnamese society. Unlike Chinese cultural conformation– which was forcefully implemented– Western lifestyles crept its way into the “Annamites” society through government treaty and economic trades. Gradually exposed to the beauty standard of the West and to the idea of a supposedly more “civilized” culture, people could have been more susceptible to adopting the Western ideologies. It has been a common scene in colonized nations and around the globe where the Western beauty standard took place, sometimes drastically changing the perception of beauty.

In the final analysis, tooth blackening is a traditional practice that held significant cultural meaning in Vietnam. It served as a powerful tool in articulating national identity and defying cultural spoliation, while also becoming a body for social boundaries and a violation of individuality. As there exists little documented evidence and studies conducted by Vietnamese themselves, it is impossible to determine whether or not the eradication of tooth blackening ritual was essential in the development of a freer, more civilized society. We only have enough evidence to conclude that this beauty regime was another cultural practice subjected to the influence of colonization. What we can do to preserve this deep and meaningful cultural heritage is to eliminate the ambiguity surrounding it with more extensive studies, and to inform a wider audience with a more accurate understanding of the custom.

References:

  1. Zumbroich, Thomas J. “’Teeth as black as a bumble bee’s wings’: the ethnobotany of teeth blackening in Southeast Asia.” View of the Ethnobotany of Teeth Blackening in Southeast Asia, Ethnobotany Research & Application, 2009.
  2. Duy, Ho Dac. “Tuc nhuom rang cua nguoi Viet.” Vietsciences, 2015.
  3. Khoi, Phan. Tạp chí Phụ nữ tân văn Sài Gòn, 1930.
  4. Duy Anh, Dao. “Việt Nam văn hóa sử cương”, Thoi Dai Publication, 2010.
  5. Ke Binh, Phan. “Việt Nam phong tục”, Van Hoc Publication, 2011.
  6. Matthews, Gale D. “The Practice of Tooth Darkening in Southeastern Asia and the Pacific.” Tooth Morphology Restorative Dentistry-New York City College of Technology, 2012.
  7. Phan, Linh Hai. “Góp Phần Nghiên Cứu Tục Nhuộm Răng Đen ở Việt Nam (Khảo Sát Trường Hợp Làng Cổ Đường Lâm).” Tạp Chí Khoa Học ĐHQGHN, Khoa Học Xã Hội Và Nhân Văn, vol. 26, 2010, pp. 213–220. 
  8. Huard, Pierre. “Connaissance du Vietnam”, EFEO, 1954.

Halley Le is a Bennington student from Vietnam. She has written a piece on tooth blackening– a cultural practice in Vietnam lost. In the essay, she inspects different texts from history and literature to ultimately answer how this lost custom can be socially delimiting but also culturally empowering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

css.php