The Chin is a group that lives in the mountains along the Myanmar-India borders and neighboring areas. The name “Chin” comes from the English version of the Burmese name and is used mostly in Myanmar. The Chin call themselves the Zo or Zomi, names used for them in India. Regional and dialect groups include the Chinbok, Chinbon, Dai, Lai, Laizo, Mara and Ngala. They are related to the Mizo, Kuki and Hmar in Mirozam and Manipur state in eastern India.
There are believed to be around 300,000 Chin in Burma and roughly 600,000 in Mizoram State in eastern India. They have traditionally lived in an area of high mountains in villages that ranged between 1,000 and 2,000 meters. These areas were traditionally seen as so inhospitable few other groups wanted to lived there. The northern Chins have different customs and beliefs from the southern Chins. Groups like the Purum, Lakher, Mizo and Thadou also live in the hill country of northeastern India and northwestern Burma and have customs and lifestyles similar to that of the Chins.
The Chin are a predominately-Christian ethnic group that lives in the remote mountains of northwestern Myanmar in an area that borders Assam, India to the west, Bangladesh to the southwest, Myanmar ‘s Arakan state to the south and Burmese-dominated Myanmar to the east. It is estimated that the Chin, in a general sense including outside and inside of Chinland, number as many as two million, with the largest and noticeable number concentrated in the Chin State. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]
According to the Myanmar government: Because Chin State is hilly and access is difficult, there is a slight difference in languages spoken in one region and another. It had a population of about 412,700 in 1983 and 465,361 in 1996 respectively.
Chin State borders India in the north and west, Rakhine State to its south and Sagaing and Magwe divisions in the east. Chin State can be reached in an arduous seven hour overland journey from Pagan to Mindat , with very poor accommodation options. An easier way to see the Chin by using the ancient kingdom of Mrauk U in Rakhine State as a base. It is about 3½ hours up river from Mrauk U and its eerie, endless and spectacular temples. Here the population are primarily Chin as it is near the border with Southern Chin State. To get to Mrauk U you can fly from Yangon to Sittwe — an area that is 40 percent Muslim — then take a four hour boat up the Kaladan River.
The Chin tend to have darker skin than the Burmese.The Chin languages belong to the Kuki-Chin Subgroup of the Kuki-Naga Group of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. They are all tonal and monosyllabic and had no written form until missionaries gave them Roman alphabets in the 1800s.
History of the Chin
The earliest reference to the Chin is from A.D. 12th century stone inscriptions in China, which refer to them as living around the middle Chindwin River in northwestern Burma. Around this time Shan invaders began moving into the area and the Chin were pushed into the mountains. The Kuki are the remains of a Chin group pushed out of their homeland that were given protection by the maharajas of Manipur.
The Chin and Mizo were largely independent from other peoples until the arrival of the British. With independence after World War II, the Mizo were given their own areas in India and Burma: the Union Territory of Mizoram in India and the Chin Special Division of Burma. Later these became the Mizoram state and the Chin State.
The Chin and Mizo have traditionally been dependent on the plains people to supply them with tools, weapons, silver, gold, certain textiles and brassware and other goods. To obtain these goods the Chin traded a variety of forest products. Occasionally the Chin staged raids into plains area for slaves, goods and human heads. Raids on tea plantations in the late 19th century forced the British to occupy Chin territory.
The Chins were living as independent nation till the British invaded their land in the late 19th century and annexed all their territory into British Empire in the early 20th century. Northern Chin State was colonized by the British in 1895, and was then annexed into Burma, which was also a British colony. Missionaries arrived in Chin State in 1899 and converted the first Chin couple to the religion in 1904.
After the second World Wars, as Burma’s independence movement grew, the Chin decided to participate with Burmese and other ethnic groups in a constitutional process towards the development of a federal union. Thus, the Chins are co-founder of today Union of Burma by participating in a multi-ethnic conference concluded on February 12, 1947.
The independent federal Union of Burma was created on January 4, 1948, at which point the Chin attempted to modernize and create a state with a democratically elected parliament, which was soon taken over by a military, socialist government. However, a military coup led by General Ne Win in 1962 effectively ended the Chin’s special political status within the Union of Burma as one of its primary constituent member. Today Chin people in Burma are not represented in any form of political decision-making in the national, state or local administration. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]
The Chin are made up of many different ethnic groups, who speak 20 to 25 languages that are not mutually intelligible, but can be divided into four groups based on linguistic similarity. According to the Myanmar government the Chin are comprised of 53 different ethnic groups (the numbers relate to where the group stands in terms of Myanmar government’s list of 135 ethnic groups): (33) Chin, (34) Meithei (Kathe), (35) Saline, (36) Ka-Lin-Kaw (Lushay), (37) Khami, (38) Awa Khami, (39) Khawno, (40) Kaungso, (41) Kaung Saing Chin, (42) Kwelshin, (43) Kwangli (Sim), (44) Gunte (Lyente), (45) Gwete, (46) Ngorn, (47) Zizan, (48) Sentang, (49) Saing Zan, (50) Za-How, (51) Zotung, (52) Zo-Pe, (53) Zo, (54) Zahnyet (Zanniet), (55) Tapong, (56) Tiddim (Hai-Dim), (57) Tay-Zan, (58) Taishon, (59) Thado, (60) Torr, (61) Dim, (62) Dai (Yindu), (63) Naga, (64) Tanghkul, (65) Malin, (66) Panun, (67) Magun, (68) Matu, (69) Miram (Mara), (70) Mi-er, (71) Mgan, (72) Lushei (Lushay), (73) Laymyo, (74) Lyente, (75) Lawhtu, (76) Lai, (77) Laizao, (78) Wakim (Mro), (79) Haulngo, (80) Anu, (81) Anun, (82) Oo-Pu, (83) Lhinbu, (84) Asho (Plain), (85) Rongtu. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]
Chins reside in north and north west in Myanmar. The principal Chin clans of the Tiddim area are the Thado, Kanhow, Sokte and Siyin. The Thado, more numerous across the Assam border where they are known as Kukis. The Falam Chins are the Tashon, Lomban, Laizo, Kwagli, Whelugo and Yahow. The southern Chins are the Hsemtang, Zhotung, Lawhtu, Vamtu, Kaka, Yokwa, Klang Klang, Bwal and Kwalringtlang. A wide variety of languages and dialects spoken. and the language of one village may be intelligible to a village a few miles away. =
Kamhow is understood in the north. Laizo in the center and Lai in the south.In the hills behind Pakokku are the Chin Boks, who fall into four clans: the Nedu, Men, Hnenyun and Ra. The Chin Bok women have tattooed faces. A large majority of the people are Chins. Mros (Mago), Khamis and Bamars form significant parts in southern and western part of Chin State. The majority of the people are Christians. There are Buddhists too. =
Some 90 percent of the Chin are Christians, most of them adherents to the American Baptist Church. Protestant missionaries arrived in Chin State in 1899, which accounts for the large number of protestant Chin Burmese. Although some are Roman Catholic most are Baptists. Some non-Christian Chin Burmese practice animism.
The Chin pantheon of deities includes a vaguely defined creator god and his female consort. Christians have linked beliefs about this god with that of the Christian God. There is a wide variety of spirits. Some are associated with with natural objects. Other are associated with ghosts and dead people. Among the most feared spirits are those of people who died violent deaths and those of women who died at childbirth.
The Chin universe is divided into two parts: 1) the sky world which includes the land of the dead; and 2) the earth. The Southern Chin bury their dead and hold a second burial in which the bones are placed in a jar. This who died violent deaths are buried away from others in and put in a jar lined with granite to keep the souls from causing misfortune. Spirit houses are set up on posts. It is believed that the spirts of the dead occasionally visit these. Memorial stones are also set up. In the past the stones of a man were accompanied by small stones representing the heads taken by the deceased or wives of other men he seduced. These days the stones list possessions often down to individual cups and socks.
Possession of the evil eye is trait that can be passed down from generation to generation. Evil is often associated with with envy, even something as minor as looking covetously at someone’s meal.
Most spirit mediums are women because it is believed they are better at attracting male spirits. Most priests are men who have memorized the chants and formulas that are required for various rituals. Various rites are held in association with the agricultural cycle. Divining is done by examining cracks in heated eggshells, bile ducts of pig livers or dying chickens held by their legs. Mediums are consulted for healing.
At present an estimated 90 percent of Chins in Chin state are Christians. Chin State has the largest concentration of Christians in the whole of Burma in terms percentage. Salai Bawi Lian , Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said: “In 1899, American Baptist Missionary Rev. Arthur Carson and his wife from American Baptist Mission come to Chinland, present Chin state in Burma, and founded mission station at Haka present capital town of Chin state. They brought the gospel and Christianity to the Chin people. As we, the Chins had our own cultural heritage and religion, our fore-fathers did not accept Christianity easily when the American Baptist missionary come to our land. Only after 5 years of the arrival of the American missionaries that the first two Chin couples converted to Christianity in 1904. And following over a century, about 90 percent of Chins in Chin state have converted to Christianity and Christianity become part of Chin identity and culture. In 1953 Baptist Chins organized themselves as Zomi (Chin) Baptist Convention. The majority of Chin Christians are Baptist and there are around 1,000 local small churches in all over Chin state and several associations. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005 ><]
“Since the first Chin conversion to Christianity in the early 1900s following the arrival of American missionaries, Christianity has been deeply entrenched in Chin society and has become part of the Chin cultural identity. Today, the impact of Christianity was not only confined within the spiritual and cultural contexts of the Chin people, it manifested itself as a uniting force for different Chin communities. With their conversion to Christianity, the Chins embraced one another as members of a community of faith in Christ. At the same time, there developed a new self-consciousness and political awareness of Chin cultural homogeneity, thus providing a new framework for Chin nationalism. ><
“Christian pastors and ministers secure high reverence and respect among the Chin people. They are highly respected as intermediaries between God and the congregations. Even outside of the Church, they play significant leadership role on occasions such as death, birth or marriage in the community. Also, because there are no Chin people represented in the local or state administration under the Burmese military regime, even in a secular setting, they receive high degrees of respect as leaders of the community. Today, their dignitary position has attracted the attention and jealousy of the ruling military regime, making them the first targets in the regime’s campaign against Christianity and Chin people. ><
Chin Village Life
Most Chin live in villages or small towns. Because there is little flat land where they live, villages tend be established on slopes near streams, ideally in places that can be defended in raids. Houses have traditionally been built from wood on pilings with thatched roofs. Poor houses have split bamboo walls. Those belonging to the relatively well off have metal roofs. The houses generally have a veranda and a central hearth.
Men smoke tobacco in clay pipes and women smoke in bongs with clay bowls. The Chin have traditionally raised their own tobacco. Bong water is stored in gourd containers and is consumed and sloshed around in the mouth as a stimulant and spit out.
The Chin have varying levels of education; Chin living in rural areas having typically have the least amount. There is little opportunity of education for youth at the refugee camps in Malaysia. Most Chin are familiar with the Roman alphabet, which will aid them in learning English. In urban areas, traditional medicine is virtually nonexistent, although home-remedies are often used in more rural areas.
Most Chin work in the agricultural sector. Corn and rice cultivation and farming are a large part of life for the Chin, and corn and rice are the main staples of their diet. Every Chin household has a garden for growing vegetables. Only those in high government positions need not grow their own.
In the Chin traditional house, there is a blacksmith's forge at the entrance of the house. The living room has no partitions or a window. In front of the living room there is a private room for bachelors. You can get there by climbing a wooden ladder. In the kitchen you can see these shelf made of rocks. On the lowest shelf are dried fish and meat. Other important household items include brass pots, water pots, rice- wine pots, cotton spinned machines, cradles and musical instruments. Gongs are the most valued possessions. Back strap loom are used to weave traditional clothes and blankets. You can also see Chin traditional dance which is very enjoyable.
Some forms of body language that differ from American body language. Eye contact can be seen as an act of challenge by the Chin. Crossing the arms in front of the body is thought to be polite behavior, and should not be read as a sign of hostility.
Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Chins as well as in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Kachins, Chins, Shans, Talaings and others.
Chin Men and Women
Men have traditionally cleared the land for agriculture and engaged in warfare while women did domestic chores. Both sexes engage in agricultural chores and other activities. In the old days there were some women chiefs. Inheritance has traditionally been from father to son. Some property of a woman can be passed onto their daughters. Older children often help take care of younger children, Mothers are not adverse to slapping their kids around. Boys are sometimes known to throw tantrums so they can get their way.
The husband is the head of the household. Sons and daughters are equally valued, but only sons may inherit property. Support of/from clan members is expected. Preferred marriages are ones that help build alliances between clans, with a series of wife exchanges taking place over several generations between clans Polygamy is allowed but not widely practiced. On polygamous men, the Chin say: if his wives don’t like each other their arguing and bickering will make life miserable and if they get along theu will unite against him.
Children are often united in marriages arranged after birth. Marriages are sealed with the payment of a bride price. In divorce cases the men often try to prove the woman was at fault so their family can get back the bride price. Divorce of a woman for no reason is regarded as an insult against the clan alliance.
These marriage are often preceded by love matches. Girls often make the first move. It is not unusual for Chin girls to sleep on the verandas of the houses of boys they like but are too shy to make the first move. There used to be boy’s and girl’s houses where young unmarried couples could sleep together but are these no longer around.
Many Chin villages are divided into sections for commoners and aristocrats. In the old days some communities kept slaves. These slaves were often war captives, or dept payments or protection from revenge feuds. Hereditary slavery occurred among females who were considered part of an aristocrats household.
Some Chin groups have hereditary headmen that belong to chiefly clans; others have headmen selected by village councils made up of aristocratic leaders, who usually have their own support bases. In the old days headmen and coucals often demanded services such as farming and house building from villagers but that is no longer the case.
Wealth has traditionally been measured in terms of possessions of certain valued goods (see below) and ability to sponsor merit feasts, which have traditionally been held to celebrate a head hunt or the killing of a large game animal but now are held to honor the construction of a new house or whenever someone has enough cash to throw a party. Possessions are displayed at funerals as expressions of the status and wealth one has achieved in life. Some men hold a series of great feats and pay inflated bride prices in hopes that they will be accepted among the aristocracy.
The northen Chin used to hunt heads. The taking of a human trophy head was celebrated with a big feast. Headhunting and warfare were triggered by disputes over women, land or property. Head hunting was often carried out as part of raids on rival villages. The taking of heads was also done to ensure a place in the afterlife. It was believed that prosperity in the afterlife was dependent on a regular supply of slaves and this was achieved by taking heads, and celebrating the acts which appeased dangerous spirits and made it possible to take them as slaves to the Land of the Dead.
Chin men usually wear shirts and trousers but wrap themselves with colorful blankets on special occasions. They wear headdresses with vertical black stripes. The Chin “longyi is like the Bamar “longyi” except it has bold stripes. Chin women wear longyis long enough to cover their ankles, and decorated with horizontal stripes, diamonds or flower designs. Their open-front blouses buttoned in the center, with short sleeves with checkered designs along the edge. They also wear a broad band of silver and bronze wires around their waists. On festival days, they wear beautifully woven with silk blankets.
Burman, Kayin, Chin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan women’s “longyis” are nearly the same, made by cotton. A black waistband is stitched along the waist end. This waistband is folded in front to form a wide pleat, and then tucked behind the waistband to one side. Kayin and Chin men wear a long dress instead of a traditional “tiek-pon”jacket. They put the “gaung-baung” turban on their head and for footwear wear simple rubber or velvet slippers.
Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, and Shan women’s” eingyis” are nearly the same, comprised of a form-fitting waist length blouse. Kayah women tie this traditional shawl on their “eingyi”. It is embroiled of male and female royal birds of them called “Keinayee & Keinayah”. Burman, Rakhine and Mon women put the shawl on their shoulders. Kayah, Kayin, Shan , Kachin, Chin women tie a lovely band on their head Bamar, Mon and Radhine women wear beautiful flowers in their hair.
Chin Facial Tattoos
Chin women have traditionally worn facial tattoos. On his experience seeking out Chin with facial tattoos from Mrauk U, near Sittwe, Jay Tindall wrote in his blog: “I woke up early and drove to the Lay Myo River where I took a small local boat upriver heading for my destination. Along the way we saw villages of fisherman and farmers and many traditional sail boats, most of them Muslim people living in Myanmar since British colonial days. We eventually reached the first Chin tribal village, and my guide was well known there as he had sponsored the son of one family though school and he is now a teacher. Because of this bond we were readily welcomed into the family home where there were no less than four women with tattooed faces. [Source: Jay Tindall, remotelands.com December 21, 2012 ^^]
They four women with tattooed faced “told me how they were tattooed when they were nine years old, and how it was the ancient custom to do so to prevent invaders from taking away the local women. The tattooing took over a day to complete and was extremely painful, especially when tattooing their eyelids. It should be noted that each area of Chin state has a distinct tattoo pattern that is different from the others, so it is actually possible to know where a woman comes from by the pattern on her face. The practice is now not allowed by the Burmese authorities, and the younger generation is not interested in this custom as well. Therefore this part of Chin culture is dying out fast.” ^^
Different tribes in northwestern Myanmar have used tattoos to distinguish one hill tribe from another or indicate their martial status and social rank. Christian Develter, the Bangkok-based Belgian artist who studied Chin facial tattors, told the China Daily: “For Chin people, they feel like they are somebody having these tattoos on their faces, as they indicate their social status. More than social status, the facial tattoos are also indicative of the women's origins. People can tell where a Chin woman is from the design of the facial tattoos.” Some women in China from the Derung ethnic group in Yunnan also have facial tattoos from the same origin as the Chin in Myanmar, but there are only around 40 who still retain the tattoos.
Chin Tattoos, Modern Art and Fashion
Gao Zhuyuan wrote in the China Daily: “The facial tattoos of Myanmar's Chin women have been transformed into forward thinking fashion. Christian Develter, the Bangkok-based Belgian artist did a show called “Chin: Unmasked collection” at Tube Gallery in Bangkok—with the Thai fashion designers and founders of Tube Gallery, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs— with paintings inspired by Chin tribeswomen with facial tattoos. The three-in-one collection was unveiled among a heady mix of cocktails, music and neon signs, silk, sequins, vibrant-colored dresses and models with facial tattoos inspired by tribal women from the north of Myanmar. [Source: Gao Zhuyuan, China Daily, February 17, 2013::]
"It is about the tattooed faces of the Chin women, it is about my paintings and it is about fashion, so it is three stories in one collection," says Develter, who spent weeks traveling among the Chin tribes last year. Unlike Develter who has met the tattooed women, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs, only saw Develter's pictures. The facial tattoos get an urban look after Develter modernizes them in his paintings. The two designers extracted the tattoo from one of the artist's early Chin paintings and produced what they call an "avant-garde mask". ::
Develter's paintings are integrated into the design through these graphic patterns. Some of the dresses show the woman's tattooed faces, while in others the faces have been inverted against an ocean-blue background that produces an ocean-mirror effect. "He (Christian) also showed us the colors Chin people use on their garments, and the materials they weave like cotton. So we used those colors to create our collection," Sakxit says. ::
Kupluthai Pungkanon wrote in The Nation, “Develter reveals that he aims to be a mixture between the contemporary and the past featuring the perfect symmetric urban contemporary faces of Asian females painstakingly painted with tribal Chin tattoo designs from Myanmar. "I spent about three weeks there," he says. "When you look at the tattoo lines, it seems like they've been done by computer, but they're not. The original is very old generation, and when we translate it to art and then fashion, it is very interesting." The Chin and their tattoos are relatively unknown to the outside world. These paintings are an open invitation to learn more about these remarkable women living in Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar. "I don't want the look to be too ethnic, so I paint on modern women's faces," Develter points out. [Source: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation. December 13, 2012 <>]
“However, instead of simply applying the Chin paintings directly on their designs, the duo of designers add their own vision of beauty and art in stunning looks, in particular when unmasking the spider webs in the face tattoos. "You will see a strong graphic that creates an immediate impact due to its beautiful structure," Phisit says. "We played a lot with the paintings. We started from taking the tattoo off the lady's face in the painting. The result was a very interesting, avant-garde mask, which not many people could have guessed that it came from a face of a woman in Myanmar. Then, we multiplied the mask on a computer program to create a modern graphic pattern. The outcome was a modern yet beautiful graphic that we were not expecting," says Phisit. In term of colors and fabric, Pisith points out that the color stripes are inspired by Chin woven fabrics. <>
Chin Agriculture and Economic Life
The China have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing a parcel land and using it for one to five years before letting it return to the jungle. The longer is was used the longer it needed to lie fallow. In some cases the fields are 10 kilometers away from the village. In the old days, the Chin occasionally changed their villages sites but since the British era have been required to be more settled and thus have overused the land near their villages and have problems with deforestation, erosion and depleted fertility.
The Chin have traditionally grown dry hill rice at lower elevations and millet, maize and sorghum at higher elevations. Sorghum is use mostly for making beer called zu. They also grow vegetables, beans, peas, melons and pumpkins. Cultivation is done mostly by hand without animals, using hoes in place of plows. The Chin also grow cotton and flax for clothes but do so less than they used to now that they can afford commercially produced clothes.
Pigs, gayal and fowl are the most common domesticated animals. Cows, water buffalo, horses and even goats are rare.The gayal is a semi-domesticated bovid forest browser bred for meat and ritual sacrifice. Dogs are kept for hunting The Chin still hunt but many of the animals they used to hunt---bears, barking deer, mountain goats, gaur, jungle cars, elephants and rhinos---are largely gone. Tigers were never hunted because there are believed to have human souls.
The Chin produce some iron tools and weapons using open-hearths fired by double-bamboo pistol bellows. They also make things like baskets, pottery, mats and textiles. They have traditionally produced some fine silk-thread embroidery known as vaai and jewelry made with beans, brass, silver and gold. Valued objects include gongs from Burma and brass vessels from China. These items were obtained through trade networks. They and gayals were traditionally used to pay marriage prices, blood money payments and compensation for loss of face.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020