Saturday, July 24, 2021

Lahu History in Yunnan

                                                    by Jim Goodman


       Among Yunnan’s 25 recognized minority nationalities, the Lahu, with a population over 600,000, rank the eighth largest.  They speak a Tibeto-Burman language that’s part of the Yi sub-group, related to Yi, Lisu and Hani.  Despite some dialect differences among the many sub-groups, the basic Lahu language is mutually intelligible among them all.  Like many other ethnic minorities, the Lahu never developed a script for their language.  There are no Lahu books or records and what we know of their origin and early history depends on the people’s traditional myths and legends and scholars’ interpretations of them

       For a long time scholars believed the Lahu descended from an offshoot of the Qiang in northwest China.  Although it’s the name of a recognized minority nationality today, in ancient times the term ‘Qiang’ identified anyone in the far west who wasn’t Han, Mongol or Tibetan.  These proto-Lahu supposedly settled in the Yellow River plain until driven south by an expanding Han population, eventually all the way to Yunnan.  A Lahu genes study in 2015 cast doubt on this story, discovering no Lahu genes matching those of northwest China people and all of them resembling those of others in southwest China.

       On better grounds is the conjecture that the Lahu are descended from the ancient Kunming people who lived on the Dali plain.  They later migrated to the hills either during the Nanzhao Era (7th-10th centuries) or after the Mongol conquest 1253.  By the Ming Dynasty they were firmly ensconced in the range of mountains south of Dali in Lincang, Pu’er and Xishuangbanna prefectures, an area broadly identified as Loheishan in early Ming documents.  They established their settlements in remote mountain areas, far from the plains and their administrators, living in wood and bamboo stilted houses with an open balcony and thatched roof.. 

       They were basically self-sufficient, reclusive folks who lived by slash-and-burn agriculture supplemented by hunting, for which they were famous.  Legends speak of them as renowned tiger hunters and in fact their name Lahu in the Lahu language means ‘eaters of roast tiger flesh’.  Their Dai neighbors in the plains called them Museur, which means ‘hunter’ in Dai.  Several sub-groups exist, usually named after the dominant color of the women’s garments, like Yellow, Black or Red Lahu, which have sub-groups of their own and they all have their own distinct names for themselves.

       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.  

       They are most concentrated in Lancang, where they occupy over 50% of the land, thus making it Lancang Autonomous Lahu County.  In the county capital stands a huge yellow gourd, symbolizing the one from which the Lahu people originated.  Mvuh Hpa Mi Hpa, the Lahu origin myth—Creating Heaven, Creating Earth—is widely known among the Lahu both in Yunnan and in Southeast Asia.  In the past Lahu bards sang verses of the epic at festivals and other special occasions.  The Lahu language had no script until 20th century outsiders devised one based on the Latin alphabet.  The epic has been translated and published, but other versions exist, some much more embellished with details, yet all contain the same basic elements.

       Part One narrates how the all-powerful divinity G’ui-sha created the sky and the earth, making adjustments to make them the way they are now and adding the sun and the moon.  In Part Two G’ui-sha creates the elements of life on earth.  He starts with water, then plants and animals.  Next he makes a hut, burns it down and plants a gourd seed in the ashes.  It grows to a large size and when ripe topples over to the ground.  A wild ox accidentally breaks the vine and the gourd begins rolling away.

       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. 

       After it is thoroughly dried he orders rats to gnaw a hole in its hard surface.  From this hole emerge Ja Ti, the first man, and Na Ti, the first woman.  She later gives birth to six sons, who marry and become the progenitors of the six Lahu sub-groups.  The remainder of the section deals with the birth and growth of children and the creation of fire.  Part Three narrates the introduction of the characteristics of Lahu life and culture:  hunting and gathering, the use of iron, rice agriculture, establishing permanent settlements, using medicinal plants, raising cotton and celebrating New Year.

       Aside from the special veneration accorded G’ui-sha, Lahu religion was originally animist, like most mountain peoples, driven by fear of nefarious spirits and measures taken to propitiate them or prevent their misbehavior.  But a major outside influence began arriving in the 17th century at the end of the Ming Dynasty.  An ex-Ming official Yang Dayuan, a monk at Jizushan north of Dali, undertook a mission to spread Mahayana Buddhism to  the highlanders of Loheishan, primarily the Lahu and Wa.  He was also reputedly an herbal medicine specialist and his ability to cure sick people while proselytizing made his spiritual message resonate all the stronger.  Lahu have always had a propensity to follow religious leaders who were healers.

       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.

       How extensive the adoption of Buddhism was is not certain.  Much of Lahu territory was beyond the range of the monasteries.  Villages had temples, but simple ones, without much in the way of imagery and no resident monks or novices, just caretakers.  Conversion also had political implications.  Yang’s mission came when Han immigration had begun in the area and the new Qing Dynasty was establishing control over the peripheral parts of the empire.  The monks were largely Ming loyalists resentful of the Manchu foreigner regime and it is reasonable to assume they spread anti-government sentiments along with their spiritual message to a people already wary of the new authorities.

        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. 

       Most of the Lahu areas fell under the jurisdiction of the Dai sawba of Menglian.  Even if carried out by their local proxies, the new system entailed new interference in hitherto undisturbed remote areas.  The hill people rightfully assumed that this interference in their lives most likely meant taxes and forced labor conscription.  Throughout the rest of the 18th and early 19th centuries the Lahu staged periodic revolts against Menglian authorities.  While never completely successful, they did somewhat modify the burden of government requirements.

       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.

       In the 1880s Qing armies campaigned in southwest Yunnan to establish direct control in lieu of continuous British advances.  It took them years to subdue Lancang County, where the outnumbered, outgunned Lahu resisted the most and the longest, relying on guerilla tactics and their trusty crossbows.  The soldiers leveled the remaining Lahu monasteries, though these had mostly been abandoned already.  The campaign did work in halting the British advance and establishing permanent Chinese control over southern Yunnan.  It also sent lots of Lahu fleeing south to Menghai and Menglian Counties and over the border into northeast Burma.

       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.

      A minority of Lahu converted to Christianity and the first Protestant church in Yunnan was erected at Nuofu, a Lahu village in southern Lancang.  Others became Buddhist, of the Theravada branch practiced by their Dai neighbors.  Mahayana Buddhism among the Lahu and Wa died out over a century ago, though ruins of the monasteries of Nancha in Lancang and Mengka in Ximeng still attract occasional Lahu pilgrims.

       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.   

        Like temples in Buddhist villages, the Lahu spirit house stands apart, and usually above, the residential area, its compound surrounded by stakes.  In some cases tall poles with banners, like Dai village temples, may also stand along the compound.  The building honors the Creator God G’ui-sha and the interior layout resembles that of a Mahayana temple, though without any image.  The altar features banners of the sun and moon, both venerated in Lahu thought.  The village ritual specialist carries out ceremonies here, such as the New Year in December, on behalf of the community.  New Year is also the occasion when the younger generation honors their elders by drawing fresh water and bathing them.

       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 

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