(China and Myanmar)

rightThe Wa are a mountain people that live in southwest Yunnan along the border with Myanmar. They live in a well defined homeland called A Wa Shan, in the southern part of the rugged, wet Nu Shan Mountains between the Lancang Liang River and the Salween River. The Wa call themselves the Va, Pa rauk, and A va’all of which mean “a people who reside in the mountain.” Wa “means “people of the cave,” a reference to their legendary place of origin.

The Wa are also known as the Avo, Benren, Da ka va, Ka va, La, Le va, Pa rauk, Xiao ka va. The 1990 census counted 351,000 Va in China. Most live in the two Wa Autonomous counties of Ximen and Cangyuan in the Ava Mountains in western Yunnan Province. There are around 1 million Wa living in Myanmar, residing mostly in the Wa Hills in northeast Myanmar across the border from China's Yunnan province.

The Wa are known for their animal sacrifice ceremonies, their handwoven clothes and unique cooking methods. They hunted heads until a few decades ago and sometimes placed the heads of their victims in their rice fields as offerings to their rice god. They speak a Southeast Asian Mon-Khmer language that is similar to the language spoken by the De’angs and Bulang but different from the Tibetan-Burman languages spoken by most of the southern Chinese ethnic groups.

The Wa had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. The still do not have a script for their own language. Some Wa keep records by cutting notches in sticks and convey messages by showing different objects. A chicken feather for example expresses urgency. Bananas, sugarcane and salt are offered to visitors as an expression of friendliness.

Good Websites and Sources: Performance danwei.org ; Song and Dance YouTube ; Wa Headhunting Reuters

Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights

Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map nytimes.com ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site) chinaethnicgroups.com

Links in this Website: MINORITIES IN CHINA--- Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA--- HISTORY, RELIGION Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---LIFE AND CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---AGRICULTURE, GOVERNMENT Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---ACHANG TO HAKKA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA--JING TO PUMI Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---SHE TO ZUANG Factsanddetails.com/China ; DAI MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; HANI MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; JINGPO MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAHU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LISU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; YAO MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; MOSOU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China

Wa History and Religion

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Much of what is known about Wa history has been determined from Wa oral histories and Chinese historical records. Based on Wa legends, scholars think that the Wa originated in the mountains where they now reside. Chinese historical records from 109 B.C. refer to tribes believed to be the ancestors of the Wa. Records from the Tang dynasty (618-907) refer to the Wa themselves. From the 11th century onward the Wa were ruled successively by the Dali Kingdom, Nazhhao Kingdom. and the Chinese Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Wa established their homeland in the Wa Shan region and unified in part due to encroachment from the Han Chinese and other groups

Feared as ferocious fighters, the Wa intimidated the British colonials, the Shan, the Chinese, other ethnic groups in Myanmar, drug lords and even Myanmar generals. The Wa were hired as mercenaries and fighters by the Koumingtan in the early 1950s and later by the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma.

The Wa are animists who believe that things like weather and disease are caused by natural spirits of the water, trees, mountains. Ancestor worship is practiced. Wa believe that the deceased become spirits that can bring bad fortune or good fortune depending on how they are treated. Villages usually have a religious expert called a moba who presides over rituals and takes care of healing. Traditionally festivals and events like weddings, births and funerals have been marked with animal sacrifices and chicken bone divinations.

Some Wa have been converted Christianity or have adopted Buddhism. Their dead are buried in coffins made from a hollowed tree split down the middle. They are buried with a piece of silver or coins and tools and other objects which the Wa believe can be taken to the afterlife.

Wa Festivals and Headhunting

right The Wa have traditionally used their own calendar with a new year that begins in December and four main annual celebrations: 1) the service to the water spirit in New Years Day, in which many animals are sacrificed and new bamboo water piper are built for drinking water; 2) the “dragging the wooden drum,” in which a big tree is cut in the first and dragged to the village to make a drum; 3) the hunting of a human head to appease the grain god; and 4) the sacrifice of four oxen to transport the spirit of the head to the forest. The Wa are famous for their wooden drum dance Wa girls do a “hair-swaying dance.

Heads were taken from members of rival villages or outsiders and kept in the “Wooden Drum House” before being placed on a stake with other heads captured in previous years. Villages hung human head every year to ensure a good harvest.

left During the oxen sacrifices villages slice of pieces of meat from dozens of living oxen. These customs were banned in the 1950s by the Chinese government. Some have been revived in recent years but due to the loss of many moba in the Cultural Revolution the revival has been spotty.

The Wa celebrate a torch festival in which participants light torches in front of their houses and set large fires in their village squares. The festival honors a woman who leaped into a fire rather make love with a king. Before the village torch is lit people gather around it and drink rice wine.

Wa Marriage and Family

Most marriages are monogamous. There has traditionally been some polygamy. Wa marry outside their clan or village. There are strict taboos about marrying someone with same clan name. The most preferable match of for a man to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter. Traditionally, after a marriage occurs, the wife lives alone with groom or with his family.

right Young people are quite free to flirt and date but are discouraged from having premarital sex. At around the age of 14 to 15 teenagers engage in a group activity called “visiting girls” in which groups get together and young men and women pair off until everyone gets a partner. Any girl that get pregnant is seriously punished. After marriage, young men can still participate in “visiting the girls” but young women can not.

Marriages are usually not arranged. The groom’s family is required to pay a bride price, usually in the form of buffalo or cattle and pay for the wedding feast. At a traditional Wa post-wedding celebration newlywed songs are sung, formal speeches are given and the couple bow and give brightly wrapped presents to their parents and grandparents. Poor families can often only afford to serve rice gruel and surgery teas to their guests. Often groups will form a circle and hold hands, and sing songs, sometimes for days.

Divorce is allowed but uncommon. Either the oldest son or the youngest son is expected to live with the parents and take care of them in old age. In return they inherit the family’s property.

Wa Society

left Men tend to do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, hunting and watering the paddy fields. Women, with some help from the children, do weeding, harvesting, carrying and processing crops, gathering wild fruits and vegetables, cooking and household chores.

Descent is patrilineal. Most villages are made up of members of a clan or a group of clans that can trace their relationship back to a common ancestor. Villages have been traditionally been competitive with one another and violent conflicts between them are not uncommon.

Villages are headed by a heredity chief (usually the head of the oldest clan), a council of chiefs (made up chiefs of the other clans) and the moba (religious expert). Decisions are usually made by one or all three of these groups. Sometimes major decisions are made with input from all the male members of the village.

The Wa have been described as a “rough bunch of people.” In the early 1900s Scott called them “loyal unabashed, unhaberdashed, unheeding.”

Guests are Wa banquets are treated to shot of local liquor and deep fried worms which are said to taste like deep fried fat.

Wa Life

right The Wa have traditionally lived in villages with at least 100 household in ganlan-style bamboo structures with a straw roof and floor elevated off the ground, with animals kept under the house.

The Wa are primarily subsistence farmers who employ three main kinds of mountain agriculture: 1) slash and burn;; 2) plow and slash and burn mixed agriculture; and 3) and wet and rice agriculture. Opium has traditionally been a major cash crop and is still grown in Wa areas in Burma.

Prior to Communist rule, landlords and wealthy peasants owned most of the land. Under the Communists, land was taken over by the state, agriculture was collectivized and light industries in paper, textiles, vegetable-oil processing and other sectors were generated. After 1979, there was a movement away from collectivization to a contract system in which farmers cultivated land owned by the state in return for turning over part of their harvest as a kind tax payments.

Grains are stored in thick bamboo tubes to keep them dry and away from ice and insects. Rice is husked using large wooden pestles.

Wa men and women wear short sarongs and skirts that make work easy in paddy fields. Women also wear long tight-fitting skirts.

Many Wa are suffering in poverty.

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Joho maps

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2010

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