Only a few skilled ethnic Mong men in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang are capable of forging cast iron triangular plowshares strong enough to work their people’s rocky farmland.
For the Mong people who inhabit the UNESCO-recognized Dong van Karst Plateau in Dong Van and Meo Vac Districts, as well as adjacent locales, cast iron plowshares are more than just an essential tool for alpine agriculture, they are a source of pride spanning from generations of farming the rugged landscape.
At a market session in Meo Vac District, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters spotted a group of Mong men in their dark traditional outfits sipping corn wine and smoking pipe tobacco beside 10 plowshares they were selling.
The men are well known at the Meo Vac market for the metalwork skills passed down by generations of blacksmiths from the Chu lineage, to which they belong.
Shortly after the market session ended, the reporters began their trip to visit the men in the “blacksmithing” hamlet of Sung Cang in Sung Tra Commune, less than 20 kilometers from Meo Vac Town yet still a journey made treacherous by the 10-kilometer motorbike trail through steep slopes and over bottomless chasms.
The cluster of houses forming the hamlet is perched precariously on a rocky mountain flank blanketed in dense fog.
Chu Dung Xiu, one of three Chu family members in the hamlet, gave his guests a hearty welcome and requested they film and photograph his family’s blacksmith work.
“We don’t want to conceal our craft secrets. People should learn these skills and spread the knowledge to others,” he said.
Blacksmiths from the Chu family lineage in Sung Cang Hamlet display their plowshares for sale at a Meo Vac market session. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Several years ago, Xiu turned over the management of his shop to his two sons – Chu Mi Cho, 28, and Chu Mi Sai, 26.
The two head blacksmiths still construct each of their shop’s wares entirely by hand.
As Cho forged a mould, lid, and handle, he added pinches of coal and clay to give each piece calculated detail.
Cho revealed one of the most technically demanding parts of his job is preparing the mould for the plowshare blade with perfect curvature and precision so that the plowshare is capable of cutting through the soil.
The most crucial phase is smelting cast iron manually.
“Raw materials to produce cast iron must not be too pliable or brittle. The must be very hard,” Cho noted.
To check, Mong blacksmiths simply strike the metal and listen to its sound.
The next step in the process takes years of experience to master: pouring cast iron into the mould.
Once the furnace was heated, Cho and Xiu added charcoal and ore before tending to the fire as it released billowing smoke, dust, and flying ash.
As soon as the ore melted, the father and son duo poured the glowing mush into the mould. Meanwhile, the hiss of boiling-hot metal plunged into a water cistern for cooling filled the room.
Later on, Cho’s seven-year-old son, Mi No, returned from school and made a beeline for the furnace where he helped Xiu tend the fire and watched his grandfather and father hard at work.
Mong boys typically learn the craft through close observation, allowing images of each step to be gradually imprinted in their minds and soaked into their blood.
By the time they are 14 and 15, many Mong youths are already able to forge plowshares.
“Only Mong people know how to forge plowshares, and only Chu descendants can make quality tools able to withstand the rugged terrain,” Sai shared, beaming with pride.
Unlike other crafts, young, highly skilled blacksmiths tend to have considerable advantages over their older colleagues and are typically capable of forging better plowshares.
“The job involves extreme heat and taxing conditions that can deteriorate an artisan’s eyesight quickly. Only young blacksmiths who still have good vision are able to produce equipment with perfect curvature and straight lines,” Sai explained.
Kids from the Chu family lineage observe their fathers and grandfathers making plowshares from a tender age. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Xiu, the 56-year-old father, has let his sons carry the family’s legacy for several years now.
Unlike traditional crafts practiced year round in the lowlands, Mong people’s furnaces are operated only during the first three months of the year, when rain soaks cavities on Dong Van Karst Plateau and farmers begin plowing to grow corn and other crops.
Apart from making plowshares, the Chu-family men farm, trade cattle, and sell precious herbs and food they gather on local mountain peaks.
According to Vang Mi Dinh, an official in Meo Vac District, the local industry and trade unit has sent several apprentices to Mong hamlets over the past several years to make attempts at learning the craft.
“They observed closely, took careful notes, and imitated the whole process. However, the plowshares were unusable,” Dinh said.
“The items were distributed to residents, who then traded them to Mong blacksmiths for better ones. The Mong artisans smashed the unusable plowshares and built them anew. The plan failed,” he added.
Dr. Mai Thanh Son, of the Social Sciences Institute in the Central Region, believes that there was a time when Mong people were able to extract iron ore for melting and crafting.
No one uses the ore extraction techniques these days; however, probably thanks to the ready availability of broken and discarded iron tools they can melt down and reform.
Mong people simply strike hard on an iron piece and observe how the piece breaks and the sound it produces to ensure the raw material for plowshares is neither too brittle nor pliable.