– Gameness til the End
It is unknown when cockfighting first appeared in Viet Nam. The earliest reference to the sport dated back over 700 years. There is no known surviving cockfighting manual or drawing from that period. All Vietnamese cockfighting manuals published today are new. Most are based on Kê Kinh which is believed to have been written by Commander Le Văn Duyệt during his life time (1763-1832).
The long cockfighting tradition of Việt Nam is known through an incident happening 700 years ago. The “infamous” Gà nòi’s spurs was mentioned in a war document called “Hịch Tướng Sĩ”. In 1283, the Royal Commander Hưng Đạo Đại Vương of the Trần dynasty wrote Hịch Tướng Sĩ to appeal to his men to fight against the Mongolian Kublai Khan invasion. According to the document, cockfighting was an epidemic then. Men were engaging in cockfighting in large number such that they were reproved by the Supreme Commander.
This reference to gà nòi’s spur is the earliest record of cockfighting activity in Viet Nam known today. An excerpt of “Hịch Tướng Sĩ” written in Chinese, which was the official administrative language used during that period, is shown below:
“If the enemy comes, will your cocks’ spurs be able to pierce his armor?
Will the ruses you use in your games of chance be of use in repulsing him?”
“Hùng kê chi cự, bất túc dĩ xuyên lỗ giáp
Đổ bác chi thuật, bất túc dĩ thi quân mưu.”
Đúng có lúc quân Mông, Thát tới,
Cựa gà không chọc nổi áo da,
Những nghề cờ bạc tinh ma,
Phải đâu kế hoạch của nhà cầm quân?
For cockfighting activity in modern time, our member was able to obtain information from older cockers who live in Ha Noi and have fought hennie cock since 1930. Other Vietnamese cockfighting manual also recorded that before the Viet Nam war started in 1945, there were many pits in the North attracting thousands.
The sport of Kings
Beast fighting were enjoyed by Vietnamese Kings hundred of years ago. The three most common type are: Hổ quyền (tiger fighting), chọi trâu (water buffaloe fighting) and đá gà (cock fighting). While Tiger fighting was restricted to the royal court, cockfighting and water buffaloe fighting were more popular to the public.
Cockfighting was by far the most popular sport enjoyed by Kings and Mandarins of the various dynasties. Among the famous cockfighters were Commander Lê Văn Duyệt of the Nguyen dynasty and Emperor Nguyễn Nhạc, founder of the “Tây Sơn” Dynasty (1778-1802). Nguyễn Nhạc was renowned for his keen observation on “Gà nòi” tactical fights. From this observation he developed a special martial art called “Kê Quyền.” Today, the martial art is still practiced in the province of Bình Định, central Viet Nam.
The government of Viet Nam issued stamp celebrating the spirit of gà nòi. The flying banner symbolizes TẾT or New Year.
To better understand cockfighting in Viet Nam, it’s important to understand the word “nòi”. The word nòi is also used to refer to the mythical origin of the Vietnamese people. “Nòi giống Tiên Rồng” means descendant of a father whose bloodline was related to dragon and a mother who was a Goddess. Thus the word nòi also has a “one of a kind” quality.
There is a parallel between the men’s mythical dragon bloodline and their gà nòi. Dragons symbolize strength, power, fearlessness, valor and indomitableness which gà nòi also has these qualities. Since dragons are mythical animals, the closest creature exhibited these traits are gà nòi. So, it’s only natural that Vietnamese men love gà nòi because gà nòi has all the dragon qualities that they worship. (Historical Note: Old Chinese history referred to the Viet, their southern neighbor as an aggressive, rebellious people)
During the bird flu epidemic of 2003 when the government of Viet Nam confiscated all fowls on a massive scale, there were angry men voicing their disapproval by saying:
“Gà nòi còn, nước Việt còn. Gà nòi mất, nước Việt mất”
“Gà nòi exists, Viet Nam exists. Gà nòi’s gone, Viêt Nam’s gone.”
The explanation to the above statement is that throughout history, Viet Nam had fought against many mighty enemies. The warriors who had defended Viet Nam included those who raised and fought cock. Gà nòi and its fearless spirit had inspired men in battle and when gà nòi and its inspiration is gone, the fighting spirit of warrior will be gone and so is the country.
Respect plays a major role in the culture of cockfighting. Each gà nòi owner can only gain respect if his gà nòi can live up to its name. The experiences, breeding skills and hard work of each owner is represented by his warrior. Men who are into gà nòi are like obsessed. They would travel great distance to find good gà nòi. Once they have them, they will spend most of their time with gà nòi. At this point, it’s hard to know whether they own gà nòi or gà nòi owns them.
Asian as a whole and Vietnamese in particular do not like to lose face. Rich and powerful families that participate in the sport take great pride. Out of this cultural, “Đạo Kê” or ‘way of gà nòi’ was born. It’s a culture based on cockfighting manual and family secrets handed down by ancestors that are known to a limited group of mostly rich and powerful people. Young men would seek out famous Sư Kê (Cockmaster) to study the art and the relationship is one of Sư Phụ and Đệ Tử (Master and Pupil). To a Sư Kê, satisfaction is obtained when his cock destroyed a famous opponent. Winning a high profile fight brought recognition and respect. The quest for fame and respect by Sư Kê is endless and the tradition live on.
Sư Kê often keep their gà nòi’s bloodlines secret and do not sell hen. They fear that revelation would help opponent finding cock that has counter style to go against them. The phrase “Biết người biết ta, trăm trận đánh trăm trận được” means “if you know yourself and your enemy, you can fight 100 battles and win them all” applies to man’s warfare but it is also used in cockfighting. It is often very difficult to purchase a hen or pullet from champion bloodline even from friends.
Today, Vietnamese organize cockfighting competition during the New Year celebration called Tết to keep the tradition alive. Farmers also organize cockfighting events among villages to maintain and improving the breed as well as to promote friendship.
Breeding and Selection
Raising gà nòi involve intricate work. A full manual on the keeping and selection of gà nòi is a long subject that will not be covered on this page. We will only cover some basic information to give readers a general understanding of the work.
- A vicious hen is selected based on visual appearance and other factors. The selected hen must be under 6 years of age.
- A brood cock with excellent pit record, aged from 1.5 to 4 years old of different bloodline is selected.
- Mating period begins at the end of December and beginning of January. Nutrition supplements are given to brood cock and hen for one full month before mating.
- Spring is selected as the hatching season.
First round of elimination
- The process of culling varies for each person. For Sư Kê who know Kê Kinh, they would cull 2 months old chicks that have bad scales. There are at least 13 bad scales to check against.
Second round of elimination
- At 7 months, all stags must go through a second round of elimination. Stags that have “vẹo lườn”, (crooked keel), “vẹo cổ,” (crooked neck), and “hở ghim”, (pubic bones with wide gap) are eliminated.
As noted, there are various bloodlines among gà đòn. Some are more naked than others. For battle preparation, cockers would trim the head, fluff, and underwing feathers. Trimming is not necessary in many cases because most gà đòn have naked neck, head, and thighs. Their head and hackle feathers are tough but brittle. Most will lose their head’s feathers after a few rounds of sparring. For the feathery type that require trimming, it is done as follows:
The head feathers are trimmed to make it easier for Sư Kê (cock master/handler) to perform surgical operation on head wound.
Neck and thighs
The hackle and thighs feathers are trimmed to make it easier to apply turmeric, a herbal mixture use to toughen the skin. The neck, chest, and thighs are conditioned with turmeric to help fowl to withstand powerful blows.
The fluff and underwing feathers are also trimmed for easy application of turmeric. The trimming helps the washer to easily wash their fowl during break. It also helps to keep the fowl cool during fights as weather in Viet Nam is hot.
The chest area is naturally naked and not suppose to be trimmed.
Đi hơi, vần, quần
Each of these word means the same thing. All selected stags must go through the rigorous training process of sparring with their beaks, shanks and spurs covered. Since their beaks are masked, they can not grab bite to deliver kick so both cock would neck-wrestling each other for hours. This training technique help gain endurance and strengthen the neck’s muscle.
A “fool” cock is placed inside a smaller round cage surrounded by another larger round cage and the cock that need training is placed outside the larger cage. The cock from outside of the larger cage can not reach in to bite his opponent so he would run around for hour to try to get to the inside stag. This method help to develop the thigh muscle of the running cock.
All cocks will go through the skin toughening process by taking turmeric bath. Turmeric mixture are applied to critical area such as the thigh, chest, and the side of the ribs.
Cock’s legs are dipped in a large bucket of herbal solution to toughen the shanks and toes. Twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. The session range from fifteen minutes to half an hour.
It is believed that the fresh air of early morning helps their lung. Sư kê would release their cocks into the yard early in the morning to allow them to flap wing, to crow, and to strut for about 30 minutes.
Stags go through the process of herbal steam bath. A small towel is dipped into herbal hot water and applied to the body, neck, chest, and underwing.
The bone structure of gà nòi is large and it requires time to fully mature. Gà nòi will normally need 12 months to mature and 6 more months for training. By 18 months, the body of battle cock will be as hard as a rock. Older, more experienced cockers would only fight their fowl when it has reached a certain stage of development. Younger cockers tend to rush the cock and usually end up losing to the elders.
Bird matching in Viet Nam is different in each region. We do not have complete data on the differences among the pits from North to South. Information collected at each particular pit may not reflect the practice of the entire region.
In South Viet Nam, prior to 1975, some pits do not use scales to match birds, other did. (1975 marks an important date when the government of South Viet Nam lost control to the North.)The pit owned by General Nguyễn Cao Kỳ for example, required all cocks to be weighed at the entrance. Those pits that did not use scales, the matching method was by visual appearance. Cockers would bring their cocks to the pit and sit in a circle to compare size, height, physical attributes, etc. Each pit has its own rules. Some pits allow touching your opponent’s fowl, other do not. At the pit that allows touching, you can put your hand on the back of your opponent’s fowl and feel the back bone. In the pit that does not allow touching, everyone must rely on visual matching skill to select an opponent. Shoulder’s height was seen as very important. There is a saying: “Một phân vai bằng hai phân xương” – 1 cm advantage in shoulder height equals to 2 cm advantage in shoulder width. In other words, if your cock’s shoulder is 1 cm taller than the other cock, and the other cock’s shoulder is 2 cm wider than your cock then the birds are considered equal and a match can be made.
“Vô tay” is the practice of lifting up the fowl to estimate its weight. Experienced Sư Kê can obtain very accurate weight by this practice. Sư Kê can also gain valuable information about the physical build and health condition of the fowl to make useful prediction of how it would fight. For example, a Sư Kê can use his hand to feel the keel of the fowl. A deep, V-shape, firm and straight keel means that the fowl has what it takes to endure a drag fight. etc.
Vô tay is allowed at some pit but not all. Cockers may not allow “vô tay” when they are suspicious of each other. There are skillful master who can injure a fowl through the art of dim mak (The art and science of deadly pressure point striking.)
Vô tay is usually allowed at a friendly pit where everyone is familiar to each other and people fight cocks just for fun. In serious, professional pit, this practice is always not allowed.
North Viet Nam
Pit rules and weight classification differ from region to region. A set of rules posted at a major pit in Hanoi, North Viet Nam:
- Võ = martial art.
- Kê = gamefowl.
- Quyền = punch
Cockfighting is an entertainment reflecting the beautiful and colorful culture of the people of Viet Nam.
- Absolutely no brawling or quarrelling
- Using cockfighting as a mean to gamble and inflicting financial damage to one another in any form, is strictly prohibited.
- Be courteous to each other
- Everyone must obey the time regulation set by the pit master.
- Absolutely no sitting on the top of the ring.
- 1 minutes to mend feather
Conditions for a draw
- Bird runs in the first five minutes results in a “no fight”
- No winner after regulation time has expired.
- After 5 minutes into the 10th round, each party has the right to stop the fight and declares it a draw.
Conditions for a lost
- Bird dies in the ring
- One full round laying on the ground without pecking or shuffling.
- Quacking and running three times.
- Owner stops the fight for any reason.
Fighting time at this particular pit is 15 minutes per round with 5 minutes break. There is no limit to the numbers of rounds. It’s up to both parties to agree upon the number of rounds for the fight. Some pit allows beak and feathers repair, some do not.
In the province of Bình Định, Central Viet Nam, Each round are set at 20 minutes long. Break times are 5 minutes.
Battle cocks are divided in three weight divisions as follow:
- Heavy weight (3.5 kg and up).
- Middle weight (Between 3.0 to 3.5 kg)
- Light weight (3.0 kg and under)
- Fighting competition are usually organized one month before Tết (Vietnamese New Year) and continue through April.
South Viet Nam
In Saigon, South Viet Nam, each rounds are 15 minutes long, with five minute breaks.
Cockers used the term “Chặng” to classify fowls into three weights division as follow:
- Chặng Nhất: First Stage ( 4.0 kg and up)
- Chặng Nhì: Second Stage (Between 3.0 to 4.0 kg)
- Chặng Ba: Third Stage (3.0 kg and under)
Unlike gà đòn, fowl matching for gà cựa is very simple. Cockers would use scales to weigh their fowl at home and talk on the phone with their rivals to reach an agreement before bringing their fowl over for a final inspection. If both parties agree to the fight, they will then depart to a makeshift pit. The pitting process ends rather quickly to avoid trouble because Vietnamese polices are active at cracking down on gaff fights.
The pit, where cock fights is held, is called “Sới gà” or “Trường gà”. All pits in the North and Central of Viet Nam are devoted to “gà đòn”. Cockfighting in Viet Nam is illegal but the government is very tolerable toward taped boxing fight for gà đòn.
Prior to 1975, most pits in the South were devoted to either gà đòn or gà cựa. Gà đòn’s pit in Saigon and near by province such as Hóc Môn was well known. Wealthy Southerners with lot of money and little patience preferred to fight gà cựa because of the quick result. Gà cựa was fought in natural sharpened heels then. There were many stories told in books about famous gà cựa fights among the super rich land lords in districts such as Cao Lãnh, Bến Tre and Bạc Liêu.
Today, the younger generation of Southerners fights gà cựa with gaff. The older generation tend to stay with gà đòn.
The interest in preserving gà nòi is on the rise as more people are aware of the uniqueness of gà nòi and its inspiration in history and culture. The Vietnamese Ganoi Association was formed to help preserving and promoting Gà Nòi and Đạo Kê. Readers are welcome to ask question in our forum. We are here to help although we may not be able to answer all questions due to our limited understanding of gà nòi.