by Jim Goodman
The most colorful are those in Nanmei district in Lincang County, the northernmost area of Lahu inhabitation in Yunnan. Females of all ages dress in the traditional style; long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket with wide strips of embroidery and appliqué along the lapel, knee-length shorts and calf-wrappers. Medium blue and yellow are the dominant colors. South of Nanmei, in Gengma and Shuangjiang Counties, and the northern districts of Lancang County, the women wear more subdued colors, mostly black and mid-blue, sometimes with some trimming on the lapels, and wear black tubular skirts, some with a few red lines above the hem. In the southern part of Lancang County and in Ximeng, Menglian and Menghai Counties they are more colorful again, featuring red and black garments with lots of embroidery and silver studs.
When G’ui-sha discovers it is missing he starts searching and asks various plants and animals if they had seen it. Most of them lie, so G’ui-sha curses them with certain consequences. Humans, when finally born, he told them, would split up the dishonest bamboo to make baskets, eat the meat of the lying goats, use the prevaricating indigo to dye their plants, etc. Trees and plants that answer honestly he rewards with the capacity to bear fruits or flowers. Eventually he finds the gourd floating in the sea, conscripts crabs to bring it ashore and takes in home.
He established a monastery at Nancha, in northwest Lancang County, taught and trained new monks to carry on the mission elsewhere. By the middle of the 18th century there were seven major Mahayana temples in Lancang County and one each in Ximeng and Shuangjiang. These were monasteries with monks, novices, regular spiritual exercises and rituals, lessons in Buddhist scriptures and meditation sessions, while also the focus of great public festivals and community services.
The Qing government policy began with rule by proxy, in which local rulers governed on its behalf and were expected to keep the peace and suppress revolts. The Naxi Mu family in Lijiang, for example, was responsible for the entire northwest, establishing military posts as far north as upper Deqin County. In 1727 the policy changed. For most of Yunnan, including Lijiang, the government appointed its own Han governors. But for the southern frontier areas they still relied on a number of Dai princes in autonomous states.
Meanwhile, by mid-19th century the Qing Dynasty was in clear decline and struggling to fend off British and French imperialist demands and encroachments. The Qing Court’s fears multiplied as they witnessed the French take over Vietnam step-by-step and the British gobble up Burma in three stages. Now imperialist forces stood on China’s own borders. And while Vietnam’s border had long had clearly defined lines, Burma’s did not. Burmese kings had never exercised direct control over any of the Dai states in southern Yunnan. They demanded recognition of Burmese suzerainty, but so did the Qing emperors and most Dai states simply paid token tribute to both.
Since then, the main disturbances to Lahu culture and identity have been the Cultural Revolution and modernization. The former was an all-out assault on Lahu tradition and identity. Not all of the proscribed customs revived after it was over. But ethnic pride did, as well as the wearing of traditional garments. Modernization enhanced integration with the outside world, introduced new cash crops like tea in Xishuangbanna and potatoes in Lancang, and an improved transportation network enabling greater participation in the regular market days. The Lahu are also more educated than past generations and less likely to believe in some of the traditional beliefs, taboos and superstitions.
Some of the old Mahayana customs still persist in contemporary Lahu culture. One of them was the observance of vegetarian ‘merit days’ on new moon and full moon with an injunction against farming, hunting and the killing or eating of domestic animals. For a people famous as hunters that was a significant, Buddhist-inspired rule to adopt. Mahayana influence is also evident in the village spirit house.
Differing from other highlands people, the Lahu accord women a high status and the birth of a daughter is considered a blessing. Originally Lahu society was matrilineal, the groom lived with his bride’s family and property passed from mothers to daughters. Over time a dual inheritance system evolved, with sons inheriting from fathers and daughters inheriting from mothers. Although parental approval was desirable, marriage partners were by choice, not arrangement. To compensate the bride’s family for the economic loss they will experience, the groom lived in the bride’s house and worked for her father for a fixed period, usually three years. Then he took her either to his family dwelling or to establish a house of their own.
The inheritance system is evolving yet again as more Lahu youths leave the villages for work in the towns. Nowadays Lahu parents tend to bestow the entire inheritance on the son or daughter who will best support them in their old age.
The status of women is still high. The elderly heads of the female lineages—groups of related families--are much respected. They chair discussions and are the ultimate authority over cultural matters like customs or disputes. Women are always more rooted in their culture and the persistence of this tradition bodes well for the future of the distinctive culture of the Lahu. It’s as important an indicator as the beautiful Lahu-style clothes they continue to wear to the markets.
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for more on the Lahu see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan