Speaking of the tooth blackening custom in Vietnamese ancient history, it is difficult to forget the familiar images of the ancient Vietnamese women with black shiny teeth. Although the custom of dyeing one’s teeth black has long been forgotten, its soul still lingers and becomes an unforgettable memory.
The origin of tooth blackening
Tooth blackening custom of Vietnamese ethnic minorities (Source: Google)
During the length of Vietnamese ancient history, tooth blackening, which originated from Hung King period, plays an indispensable part in Vietnamese traditional customs. Along with betel chewing, tooth blackening becomes an outstanding feature of Vietnamese people that differentiate themselves from other communities.
In the invaluable ancient Vietnamese document known as “Đại Việt Sử ký toàn thư”, page 133, Hung King first mentioned the tattooing custom but there was no sight of tooth blackening. Afterwards, the ambassador of Van Lang replied to the mornarch of the Chu dynasty: “We have the tooth blackening custom to erase the dirty smells and dye the teeth black”. Not only did Vietnamese people acknowledge this special custom but also other ethnic minorities such as Muong, Thai, Sila used to dye their teeth black.
However, each ethnic group is unique in their own way to carry out this custom in terms of meaning, time, dyeing process, and materials.
Why tooth blackening gained its reputation in Vietnamese ancient history
Vietnamese women with the typical blackened teeth (Source: Google)
Dyeing one’s teeth black made its first appearance because of aesthetic concepts. Betel chewing is considered the direct major cause of tooth blackening custom because the more betel is chewed, the more black are the teeth.
The typical images of ancient Vietnamese women with “black teeth and white skin”, which made a remarkable and artistic contrasting color, had succeeded in attracting Vietnamese men at that time. Moreover, tooth blackening was passed down from women to men but only with an insignificant number.
In Vietnamese ancient history, tooth blackening became widespread among citizens and was regarded as a rule that both the old and the young had to obey. Besides, if one had already had his/her teeth blackened, he/she would have dyed it again after one year in case the teeth’s color becomes faded. Especially, on special occasions such as Tet or weddings, the women’s teeth must be dyed black once again before attending any ceremonies.
Tooth blackening custom has long existed in Vietnamese ancient history but is only well-known in the North and Central region of Vietnam. Hue ancient capital was considered the flourished place of this type of art due to the great number of the noble classes dyeing their teeth black.
The complicated process of tooth blackening
Vietnamese women dye their teeth black by using special powder, lime juice, dark alum, and the resin of coconut shells
Tooth blackening process of the ancient Vietnamese requires a special recipe, including powder, lime juice, black alum and resin of coconut shells. In order to start the dyeing process, both mouth and teeth need to be cleaned from inside out until the teeth’s surface becomes shiny and smooth.
During the first 3 days, the Vietnamese have to brush and pick their teeth with dry areca shells, charcoal powder and raw salt. One day before dyeing process, they chew lemons and wash the mouth with white wine mixed with lemon juice. The effect of the juice makes the outer layer of tooth enamel softer, along with the strong acidity of lemon, eating away to create rough streaks on the tooth enamel. This is the most painful time for the people dyeing their teeth because their lips, tongue, gums, and mucous membranes become terribly swollen.
Tooth blackening materials are prepared 7 to 10 days in accordance with the formula with the right dosage of powder and lime juice depending on the person. Then the mixture is applied onto a piece of white raw cloth or silk. In the countryside, people often stretch this dyeing substance onto strips of coconut or palm leaves and apply to their teeth.
Applying dyeing teeth mixture will be carried out after the afternoon meals and replaced by a new one until midnight. In the morning, Vietnamese people carefully and lightly remove the pad and avoid the peeling of the new coating of the night before. After taking off the dyeing mixture, gargle with fish sauce or pickle to clean off completely the remaining substances.
The person dyeing his teeth nearly closes his mouth all night to avoid the dyeing materials from falling off. The process mentioned above has to be performed twice per night and 7 nights in total. During that period, people dyeing their teeth are only allowed to swallow food, not chew. Typically, they are served with noodles mixed with lard and fish sauce to make it easy for swallowing
The teeth turning into the red color of ant’s wings comes the second stage of blackening by applying the black substance to the teeth. The substance, which consists of black alum and the resin of ants’ wings, is spread on the teeth for two days.
The final stage is all about holding the mixture together by the resin of coconut shells. Take old coconut shells, sun drying and burnt them on a charcoal stove. Inside these burning coconut shells flows out a black resin which is used to apply to the teeth and becomes another layer of tooth enamel. This stage, often known as “killing teeth”, brings to the dyers glossy and shiny black teeth like custard apple.
Together with betel chewing, tooth blackening is a valuable and is a unique traditional custom in Vietnamese ancient history. Even though tooth blackening no longer exists, it is still one of the most distinctive and irreplaceable national cultural values that should be cherished and appreciated.