(Burma, Thailand and China)

The Shan are a relatively large and prosperous minority related to the Dai in China. Their language is similar to Thai and Lao. They have traditionally been rice cultivators and lived in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests along river valleys and in pockets of level land in the hill country of northeast Burma and to a lesser extent in northwest Thailand and southern China. Some other groups regard the Shan as “a standoffish people.”

The Shan are related to the people in Thailand, Laos and Yunnan Province in China. They tend to have taller and fairer than the Burmese. Shans reside mostly in eastern Myanmar in the Shan State, which lies on the Eastern Plateau of Myanmar, east of the Irrawaddy and Sittaung valleys, south of the Bhamo district and north of Kayah State. The Shan have traditionally settled in valleys and river basins rather than in the mountains. Mostly Danu, Taungyoe, Intha (Ansa) and Bamar are living in the western part of the Shan State.A lot of Palaung (Taahn) are found in the northern part of Shan State, especially at Namsam Town, and also in Pindaya. Yatsauk and Maingkaing Townships. Many Paos have settled in the southern part of Shan State, whereas Kachin and Lisu (Lishaw) live in the north. Kokant Tayok occupy the Kokant region. Wa (Lweila) live in Hopan Township which is situated to the the east of Thanlwin river. E-Kaw (Akha) and Lahu reside in Kyaingtong region.

Most Shans are Theravada Buddhists. Until recently they lived within a distinctive structure of feudal states ruled by hereditary princes. There are maybe two or three million Shan in Myanmar, where most of them live. There is no good information on Shan numbers in Myanmar in part because of hostilities there between the Shan and the Myanmar government. There is small number of Shan in Thailand. According to the 1990 census, there were 1,025,000 Dai (also pronounced Tai) in China. (See Dai, Minorities, China).

The Shan are also known as the Burmese Shan, Chinese Shan, Dai, Hkamti Shan, Ngiaw, Ngio, Pai-I, Tai Khe, Tai Khun, Tai Long, Tai Lu, Tai Mao, Tai Nu and Thai Yai. Shan is a Burmese term that Westerners use. The Pa-O, Paluang, Danu, Taungyo are all members of the Shan tribe. The Shan refer to themselves as “Tai,” often with a second name attached to identify their subgroup, and call their homeland Ta-Land. The Shan and Thai often view themselves as brothers. The Thai call the Shan the Thai Yai.

There are 33 Shan ethnic groups (or subgroups) recognized by the Myanmar government (in parentheses, where they stand among Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups): (103) Shan, (104) Yun (Lao), (105) Kwi, (106) Pyin, (107) Yao, (108) Danaw, (109) Pale, (110) Eng, (111) Son, (112) Khamu, (113) Kaw (Akha-E-Kaw), (114) Kokant, (115) Khamti Shan, (116) Hkun, (117) Taungyo, (118) Danu, (119) Palaung, (120) Man Zi, (121) Yin Kya, (122) Yin Net, (123) Shan Gale, (124) Shan Gyi, (125) Lahu, (126) Intha, (127) Eik-swair, (128) Pa-O, (129) Tai-Loi, (130) Tai-Lem, (131) Tai-Lon, (132) Tai-Lay, (133) Maingtha, (134) Maw Shan, (135) Wa

Early Shan History

The origin of the Dai, Shan and Dai-related people is matter of some debate. They have been in southwest China and Southeast Asia for some time. The Dai established powerful local kingdoms such as Mong Mao and Kocambi in Dehong the 10th and 11th centuries, the Oinaga (or Xienrun) in Xishuangbanna in the 12th century and the Lanna (or Babai Xifu) in the northern Thailand in 13th to 18th century.

The Shan migrated from southern China to Burma around A.D. 1000. Over time they established a number of small states in the mountainous regions of northern Burma. They paid tribute to China, Burma and Chiang Mai and became powerful landlords, dominating other ethnic groups and in some cases making them into their serfs. The Shan-controlled areas were on the fringes of the Chinese, Burmese empires and separated from the main population centers by rugged mountains and rain forests.

The Shan were once united but their empire split into small kingdoms in the 16th century ruled by hereditary princes called saophas. They usually fought among themselves and only offered minimal tribute to the Burmese kings.

Later Shan History

At the time the British took over Burma, there were 18 Shan major states ruled by princes and 25 lesser states ruled by officials. Most Shan states paid tribute to Burma. The most easterly states, however, had stronger relations with Chiang Mai and Central Thailand.

Under British rule, the states were administered indirectly by the Shan princes. When the borders for Thailand and Burma were drawn up the line was drawn through Shan territory. When Burma became independent, the Shan principalities were united into the Shan State.

Since the 1950s, the Shan have engaged in a military struggle against the Burmese-Myanmar government. Their goals have raged from full independence to more autonomy. The Shan in Thailand are not involved in this struggle.

Some of the Shan militias and Shan groups have been involved in the opium trade.

The Shan State Army signed a peace agreement with the Myanmar government. By 1996, the government had signed peace treaties with 11 of the countries 12 ethnic groups. Even the country's largest drug kingpin and warlord, Khun Sa, had made a deal with the government by then. The only remaining major guerilla group was the Karen National Union.

The Shan State Army, the United Wa State Army, and the Kachin Independence Union all signed peace agreements with the government. The agreement promised the ethnic groups more autonomy and allowed some to grow opium unmolested.

The treaties were far from final resolutions to the insurgency problems. Even though the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) signed a peace treaty with the Myanmar government in 1994 the group refused to give up its arms and retained bases in the jungles. An agreement with Karenni broke down in 1996 in a disagreement over resources. After Khun Sa made a deal with the government some of his fighters continued fighting.

The White Umbrella: A Shan Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Burma

“The White Umbrella: A Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Burma” by Patricia W. Elliott is a true tale of modern Burma told through the life story of Sao Hearn Hkam. Sao (Princess) Hearn Hkam was the wife of Sao Shwe Thaike of Yawnghwea, who became the first president of Burma. He died under mysteriosu circumstances after the coup by Gen. New Win in 1962. After her husbands death she joined the resistance and was elected president of the Shan State War Council, a position she held until 1969 when she went into exile in Canada. She died in Canada in 2003 at the age of 86.

According to promotional material for the book: “Born into royalty, sold in marriage like a slave, Sao Hearn Hkam fought against tradition, foreign invaders and the brute power of a crazed general to gain freedom for her people. She has been called Princess, Mahadevi, First Lady, Member of Parliament, rebel leader, refuge. From the quiet Shan hills of her childhood to the Presidential Palace in Rangoon; to the halls of power in Asia and Europe; and finally to the violent, drug-laden netherworld of the Golden Triangle, her journey is an inspiration and a revelation -- about Burma, about Southeast Asia, and about what happens when the games of super-powers are played out in real life.

Book: “The White Umbrella: A Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Burma” by Patricia W. Elliott (2006).

Shan Language and Religion

The Burmese language is spoken widely and local nationalities dialect are also spoken. The Shan speak Thai, which is very similar to Lao and the Thai spoken by Thais. The Shan use four written languages: Tai Long, Tai Mao, Tai Khun and Tai Lu. Tai Long and Tai Mao resemble Burmese. Tai Khun and Tai Lu are similar to Northern Thai. In the old days, the scripts were used primarily for religious and court purposes. Most of those who learned to read and write did so when they were monks.

Most Shan are Buddhists or Christians. Some Muslims and Hindus live in Shan State. The Shan are mostly Theravada Buddhists which bonds them more closely to the lowland Burmese and Thais than it does to many of the highland minorities. Families have traditionally sent their sons to become monks under the belief that doing so would earn their family’s merit. Most villages have temples.

The Shan were animist before they embraced Buddhism and beliefs in natural spirits have remained alive. Religious practitioners draw from both Buddhism and animism when they perform rites and conduct healing ceremonies. The latter are often basically shamanist rituals with Buddhist verses often blown over the patient or recited over water the patient drinks.

The idea of “power protection” is central to the Shan belief system. The Shan believe that one gains power protection from making friends among capricious spirits and keeping them happy and that this power protects people from the consequences of their action and is unequally distributed..

There are a number of different kinds of spirts---those linked with natural phenomena, those linked with the heavens, and those linked with ancestors, household gods, and ghosts---are they are hierarchically ranked. Buddhism is also incorporated into this schema. Monks are regarded as possessing great power and deities associated with Buddhism are regarded as being more reliable than others.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Shan peoples in northeast Burma created religious books from a paper made from the cambium of the mulberry shrub. Although made of paper that is concertina folded, the form of these books conforms to that of a stout palm leaf manuscript. Each accordion folded page is read in succession on one side of the single sheet and then the book is inverted in order to read the succession of folds on the opposite side. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Keeping the Shan Language Alive

Reporting from Taunggyi in Shan State, Kelly Macnamara of AFP wrote: “For half a century a single precious copy of a textbook kept the language of Myanmar's Shan people alive for students, forced to learn in the shadows under a repressive junta. Now with a reformist government reaching out to armed rebel groups after decades of civil war, calls are growing to reinstate ethnic language teaching in minority area state schools as part of reconciliation efforts. "Shan is the lifeblood of the Shan people. If the language disappears, the whole race could disappear too," said Sai Kham Sint, chairman of the Shan Literature and Cultural Association (SLCA) in the state capital Taunggyi. [Source: Kelly Macnamara, AFP, October 21, 2012]

Photocopies of the cherished Shan book have been used in private lessons for years in the eastern Myanmar state, after the original was banished from the curriculum by a regime intent on stamping out cultural diversity. Shan activists this year finally felt able to print a new edition as the country formerly known as Burma emerges from decades of military rule. The SLCA runs its own summer schools, giving students basic training in written and spoken Shan and familiarising them with such classics of local literature as "Khun San Law and Nan Oo Pyin" -- a tale of lovers who turn into stars after their deaths.But Sai Kham Sint said allowing teachers to hold Shan classes in state schools "without fear" would help sustain the language. The Shan language is akin to Thai spoken just across the border.

In Taunggyi, the author of the original Shan text book Tang Kel is still respected for his linguistic efforts. The frail nonagenarian, who also enjoys a modicum of national fame for a sideline in traditional medicines that come in packs emblazoned with a virile-looking tiger, cracked a smile when reminded that his book is still used. Asked whether he was glad about efforts to revive Shan language teaching for today's students, he said: "It is good!"

The original book's beautiful illustrations of snakes, elephants and monks carrying alms bowls evoke the pastoral lifestyle of the lush, mountainous region when it was first printed and used in schools in 1961, a year before the start of almost half a century of military rule. Photographs have replaced drawings in the new edition, but no one has yet taken up the challenge of updating the text. "In this age we have computers but there are no such Shan words for them in the textbook. Even radio -- we do not have the word for radio," said SLCA member Sai Saw Hlaing. "We need to invent words for email and the Internet."

Shan Funeral

The Shan embrace Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife and reincarnation but also believe that people became spirits after they die and these spirits are everywhere and some are good and some are malevolent.

Funerals occur three to seven days after death. Most people are buried. Sometimes people who die “bad deaths” are cremated. Buddhist monks perform rites. Commoners have traditionally been buried while monks and aristocrats were cremated. Commoners that died natural deaths are buried in cemeteries in the woods near a village. People who died in accidents or as a result of violence are buried far away from everyone else because it is believed that these dead people become evil spirits.

When a person is near death, two pieces of yellow cloth and a small bamboo tablets from a temple are placed on him to assist in the admission to paradise. All work comes to a stop for it is believed that spirits dislike the sound of work. Monks perform rites at the house of the deceased. When the coffin is carried from the house the spouse of the deceased cuts a candle in half, symbolizing her separation from the dead. When the funeral is over people purify themselves by washing their hair with water and expose their skin to smoke of a burned nut.

Shan Festivals

The Shan celebrate a number of Buddhist holiday and conduct a number of Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, which often involve making offerings of food and flowers to Buddha at both temples and family altars in people’s homes.

The Shan follow the Buddhist lunar calendar. There are four holy days each month, falling on full, new and half moons. There are festivals celebrating events in Buddha’s life and important dates relating to agriculture and the beginning and end of the rainy season. Households conduct a number of ceremonies. Most villages invite monks in for an annual cleansing ceremony.

Many festivals feature sand pagoda building and rockets. One of the biggest events on the Shan calendar is the Water Splashing New Year's festival in mid-April in which demons are washed out with old year and rockets are launched and swimming races are held to usher in the new year.

Shan Marriage and Family

There are few marriage restrictions other than not marrying close relatives. Marriages need parental approval and are often organized by a matchmaker Bride-prices are paid by the groom’s family. The bride’s family contributes to wedding and setting-up-home costs. These matters are often negotiated with the help of the matchmaker. Bride snatching and elopement is sometimes done to get out of paying the bride price and thwart disapproving parents. .

Couples usually live with or near the bride’s family---and sometimes the groom’s family---until they have children and set up a household of their own. Divorces are easy for childless couples to arrange. In most cases, the couple simply separate and divide their property. If children are involved, divorces are discouraged.

Households are comprise dof people who live, work and eat together They are usually nuclear families but can be extended families or families with divorced relatives and their children. Children are generally indulged and allowed to do what they want when they are young but are expected to pitch in on chores and do what they are told beginning when they are six or seven. Older boy sometimes become monks.

Shan Society

Village life revolves more around community and home village than family or kin. The hierarchal social organization of the Shan is based on age, wealth, gender and family background. Society was traditionally divided into aristocrats and commoners with various levels within aristocrat and commoner groups. Among the commoners the lowest of the low were kachao (slaves).

Men have traditionally done the heavy work like plowing, irrigating the fields, hunting. Women have traditionally done much of the agriculture work, domestic chores men, and sold stuff in the markets. Old married women in the Shan tribe have no identity of their own. When they meet someone they don’t know they are introduced not by their own name but as their husband’s wife.

The Shan have traditionally settled disputes among themselves with the guidance of village elders rather through the local judicial system. Gossip and maintaining a god reputation help keep people in line. Judgments and punishments are often made based on Buddhist beliefs and scriptures.

Shan Villages and Homes

The Shan live in villages ranging from 10 households to more than 500 households. The villages are usually established along rivers or streams and often built around huge banyan trees and a delicate Buddhist temple or pagoda.

The Shan often live in large stilted bamboo houses built above the damp ground in tropical rain forest regions. Chicken and pigs are kept below the house, and a fenced garden surrounds the house. A typical house is 10-by-10 meters and two to three meters above the ground and has wooden and bamboo supports, walls and floors made of woven bamboo and a steep-pitched thatched roof supported by bamboo rafters. The house is usually divided into an inner bedroom and outer living room with a fireplace that serves as a kitchen. Those that can afford it have planked floors and tile roofs. Shan houses have been influenced by the Burmese and Chinese.

At the base the ladder of a Shan traditional house is a water pot for foot washing. There are two kinds of living room. The inner one is for invited guests and the outer one for unexpected guests. At a lower step of the outer living room there is a balcony where Shan traditional dances take place. In the inner living room you can see the shrine shelf and traditional utensils. The kitchen is at a lower step of the dining room.

Shan Clothes, Culture and Life

Shan like chewing betel nut, smoking truncated cigars, and drinking rice liquor. Their decorative arts include decorated fruit offered to Buddha, money trees, pagodas, and carved coffin carriers. They also make rattan and bamboo crafts and furniture, traditional Shan shoulder bags, and carve objects from jade and marble. They used to famous for silver crafts. Shan shoulder bags are popular with tourists. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition.

Shan men usually wear cotton turbans that is in white, plaid, or decorated with colored stripes and squares. They are also often heavily tattooed. Women wear a folded head scarf or turban. For foot wear most people wear sandals held on the feet by two straps.

Women wear short colorful, blouses, a long tight-fitting skirts or printed sarongs with a silver belt and towel turban or straw hat.

Shan men dress in shirts and traditional khaki jackets. Their baggy trousers are usually made of khaki. Every Shan man wears a headdress. Bamar, Kachin, Mon, Shan, Kayah and Rakhine men wear a traditional jacket called a “teik -pon “on their “eingyi”. It is white, grey, black or terracotta in color.

Shan and Kayah men’s traditional costumes are quite different from other groups because they wear loose trousers. Shan trousers are light brown, brown, terracotta or grey color while Kayah trousers are only black. Shan men tie their trousers like “longyi” Kayah men tie them pink band at the waist on their trousers. Shan “longyi” have horizontal or vertical stripes at the middle part. The upper and lower parts are in plain color.

Shan women wear longyis and blouses. Traditional “longyis” are about two meters in length. They are generally made of cotton from the cloth of an unfinished garment. Shan gather the front of the “longyi” and tie it to create two short lengths of material, then twist them into a half knot, tucking one end in at the waist, while allowing the other to protrude from the knot. Their white “eingyi” looks likea mandarin-collar shirt.

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.

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.

Shan Dishes

In Shan State, ngapi is made from fermented beans rather than fish or shrimp, and is used as both a flavoring and also condiment in Shan cuisine. Fermented beans, called pè ngapi, from the Shan State plays a major role in Shan cuisine. Dried bean ngapi chips are used as condiments for various Shan dishes.

Shan-inspired dishes include: 1) Htamin jin, a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chinese chives or roots (ju myit), fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented bean cakes (pè bouk} and fried dried topu (topu jauk kyaw) on the side; 2) Lahpet thohk, a salad of pickled tea leaves with fried peas, peanuts and garlic, toasted sesame, fresh garlic, tomato, green chili, crushed dried shrimps, preserved ginger and dressed with peanut oil, fish sauce and lime; 3) Meeshay, rice noodles with pork and/or chicken, bean sprouts, rice flour gel, rice flour fritters, dressed with soy sauce, salted soybean, rice vinegar, fried peanut oil, chilli oil, and garnished with crisp fried onions, crushed garlic, coriander, and pickled daikon/mustard greens; 4) Papaya salad; 5) Shan tohu, a type of tofu made from chickpea flour or yellow split pea eaten as fritters (tohpu jaw) or in a salad (tohpu thohk), also eaten hot before it sets as tohu byawk aka tohu nway and as fried dried tohpu (tohu jauk kyaw); 6) Shan khao swè, rice noodles with chicken or minced pork, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili, crushed roasted peanuts, young vine of mangetout, served with tohu jaw or tohu nway and pickled mustard greens (monnyinjin); 7) Wet tha chin, preserved minced pork in rice; 8) Wet tha hmyit chin, pork with sour bamboo shoots. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Shan soaked noodle come either in the wet type or dried. The Shan noodle base is the common wetland rice or the more glutinous Shan variety. The rice is steamed and kneaded when cooked. The dough is then passed through rollers. The flattened dough then goes through a cutting machine to create noodle strands. The strands are gathered in skeins. The skeins are sold in the wet stage or are air-dried. The dried version is convenient for the home. A skein of Shan noodles serves four persons. If the noodles are made of hard rice they should be soaked in water for about four hours. They should then be dipped in hot water and retrieved with a sieve before serving. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Shan soaked noodle may be eaten with meatless Shan style garnish, Myanmar style curry or Chinese style steamed duck. Ingredients: tomatoes 1 kg; ground dried shrimp 4 teaspoon; vegetable oil 2 teaspoon; Shrimp paste 1 teaspoon; ginger root 1 .5 cm; garlic 2 cloves; shauk-kaw Shan spice 1/2 teaspoon; pauk-kaw(-do-) 1/2 teaspoon; water 6 cups. How to cook: Heat the water to boil. Put in tomatoes and continue boiling for 5 minutes and let cool. Remove skin and seeds and mash the tomatoes. Set aside the liquid. Heat oil and fry pounded ginger root and garlic. Add shrimp paste and the spices on the fire. Add the tomatoes and the set aside liquid. Bring to boil. Serve the Shan soaked noodles in the soup. Fried bean curd, pickled pork, "nampong" (fried calfhide) and Shan pickles may be served as side dishes. =

A lot of Burmese tea is produced in Shan State. It has become customary for everyone in the Shan State to give tea as gifts to visitors either in dried leaves or in pickled state.

Shan Fish-Tomato Rice Snack

Shan Fish-tomato Rice Snack: Ingredients: Rice (preferably Shan variety); fresh-water fish (Ophiocephalus striatus) preferably those fished from the Inlay Lake; some tomato. onion. garlic; some tamarind pulp; some coriandar leaves; some dried red chilli; some dried soybean cake; some salt and oil. How to cook: Preparation which goes in the making of the rice entails a long process. First cook rice to required texture. Then put in a bowl and allow it to cool. Boil the fish. Scoop from pot with sieve and let it cool. Then separate flesh from bones and mash. Boil the tomatoes. Grate them into fine pulp. Roast soybean cake and pound into fine powder. Pound garlic and onion. Deep-fry in oil adding a pinch of red coloring powder. Then add the mashed boiled fish into the heated oil mix and stir. Fry the dried red chilli until crisp. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Mixing the tomato rice: First place the cooked rice in a large bowl. Then pour the fried fish-onion-garlic mix on the rice. Add tomato pulp and a dash of salt. Then stir briskly with a ladle. Then make the fish-tomato-rice into sizeable balls. Sprinkle with roasted soybean powder. Arrange the balls neatly on a flat platter. Place them on the table. You will notice there is quite an array of ingredients that go with the rice ball to heighten the taste and accentuate the presentation. The side dishes include: a small bowl of roasted soybean powder; a small bowl of prawn, fish or Chinese table sauce; a small bowl of thick tamarind pulp paste; a half-plate of finely cut coriander leaves; a half-plate of fried dry chilli; a half-plate of Shan white vegetable root; The main item—the platter of fish-tomato-rice balls—are placed in the center. =

To eat place one rice ball on your dinner plate. Mix with the array of ingredients to taste. Repeat if your appetite is good. Relish the distinctly unique Shan flavor. This snack also goes well with local fries such as fried tofu, fried pork rind or thin sesame rice wafer. Local gourmets also serve a hot sour vegetable pickle made from pickled turnips, garlic, onions, ginger and mustard green leaves. Enjoy this delicious fare at source in the Shan State. Accompany it with a delicious fish soup, and feel the cool breeze teasing your cheeks. Then top it off with aromatic Shan green tea. =

Shan Insect Food

Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Chins, Kachins, Shans, Talaings and others. Delphin states:"In the northern and southern Shan states, the cicada (Hemiptera:Cicadidae) is highly esteemed.I have tried them, and must say they are tasty, but to all Burmese, the tastiest insect is the large brown cricket." A wasp, Vespa auraria, is collected by the Shans by smoking the nests at night. The larvae and pupae are eaten. Wasps nesting underground are also caught and eaten (Ghosh 1924). [Source: >>]

According to Ghosh, the pupa of the large dung beetle, Helicopris bucephalus, known as shwe-po, is in "great demand among the Shans," each pupa costing 1 to 1½ annas.It is "widely exported."It is common from March to May in the Shan hills, where men, women and children dig over large areas in search of the pupae which are found inside round balls of earth one to two feet deep in the soil. As summarized by Bodenheimer (p. 269), "They seem to know as if by instinct where to dig for these balls by finding the opening hole of the gallery."They are dug out during the "season when the cuckoo begins to sing." >>

Shan Economics

In the old days the Shan were involved with oxen caravans that moved goods between Burma, Thailand, China and India. With the construction of good roads this trade has disappeared. These days the Shan are involved in the smuggling and trade of gems, cattle, traditional Shan goods, opium and heroin.

In some cases the Shan act as wholesalers, buying the products from producers and selling them mostly to Chinese and Thai traders and merchants. Their presence along the borders between Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China makes it easy for them to smuggle goods between these countries.

Landlords and wealthy peasants have traditionally owned much of the land. A largely feudal system remained in place until the 1950s, and still exist in some form in some places. In Thailand, many farmers have title to the land. In Myanmar, many have right to work the land and but don’t actually own it.

Shan Agriculture

The Shan grow irrigated rice in the lowlands and some highland areas. They also practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the highlands. The Dai-Shan were one of the earliest peoples to produce rice in Yunnan. As early as the A.D. 7th century., they used elephants as plow animals. In Thailand, agriculture is getting more and more mechanized, small tractors have replaced water buffalo and threshing machines are used for both rice and soybeans. In Myanmar, the agricultural work is largely done with water buffalo or by hand.

The lives of the Shan are ruled by the rhythm of the agricultural seasons. The harvest is the most important time of the year. Transplanting rice is usually in May or June. In the summer the dikes are repaired and water flow into the paddies is regulated. The harvest is usually in November of December.

The Shan grow crops to eat and to sell. What they grow largely depends on the local ecology and nearness to towns. In the highlands they have traditionally grow cabbage, sweet potatoes and dry land rice to eat and raised opium as a cash crop. Other crops, produced by Shan and grown mainly by lowlanders, include soybeans, peanuts, chili peppers, pumpkins, garlic, pineapples, bananas, onions, sunflowers, coconuts and betel

Small Ethnic Groups That Live in Shan Areas

The Khamu ethnic tribes are mainly found in northern Laos, Myanmar, southwestern China and Thailand. In China, they live primarily in Guizhou Province. In Myanmar, the Khamu are categorized under the Shan ethnic group since most of them live in Shan areas of the country. Some countries do not recognize the Khamu as a separate ethnic group and are placed under the broad category of undistinguished nationalities. But they are recognized as the Khamu in Myanmar. Their native language is called Khamu. They do not use money in their villages; rather they rely on a barter system. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Kokant ethnic group is found in Panlon and Laukkai in northern Shan State. They have traditionally raised opium poppies. In 1997, the Myanmar government began encouraging them to grow sugar cane, buckwheat and durians instead of opium. The durians planted in the area are now exported to China. Kokant villagers earn surplus income mainly from shoes and traditional rain coat manufacturing. The cultivation of buckwheat in sugarcane and the establishment of factories has eased the problems of unemployment and reliance on opium for income. Kokants have traditionally worshiped their ancestors. Soothsayers associated with Nat Saya tell the future by using the bones of chickens. See Opium and the Golden Triangle [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]


The Maingtha ethnic group is also known as the Achang or the Nga Ang. They live in Myanmar and China. About 27,000 live Yunnan Province, China. They live in the northern Shan State of Myanmar. Their native language is known as Achang. It can be written with Chinese characters.

There are legends about the origins of the Maingtha people in China. The ancestors of the Maingtha are regarded as among the first inhabitants of Yunnan. They lived near the Lancang river. During the 12th century they began to emigrate to the west of the river. By the 13th century some of them settled down in the area of Longchuan around Lianghe. During the Ming and Qing dynasties they were governed by local village heads.

Music is one of the mainstays of their culture, with songs and dances providing a climax to all their celebrations. Unmarried young people usually comb their hair with two braids that gather on their head. Achang clothing varies according to village. Married women typically dress in long skirts whereas unmarried ones wear trousers. The men favor blue or black shirts with buttons running down the sides. Unmarried men wear a white headband whereas married ones wear blue headbands.

Their religion is Hinayana Buddhism, Taoism and a mixture of animism and ancestor worship. In Buddhist funerals of the Maingtha a long fabric tape of about 20 meters is tied to the coffin. During the ceremony the monk in charge of the ritual it walks in front of the coffin holding the tape. By doing this the monk helps directs the soul of the decreased to its final destiny. The deceased is buried without any metal or jewels, since it is believed that these elements contaminate the soul for future reincarnation.


The Pao people live mostly in Shan State. There are about 60,000 of them. They are deeply rooted in Buddhism and have a close affiliation with the Burmans (Bamar). According to the Myanmar government less than 1 percent of them are Christians. They have the New Testament in their own language translated by the missionary in 1961. Ths book is used not only by Pao Christians but by Pao non-Christians to learn to read and write in their own language. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The typical Pa-O village of Nant Bay forms a long stretch of dwellings in Southern Shan State and lies between two mountain ranges running from south to north. There are over 100 houses built with cherry and pinewood. Some have giant bamboos. Every house is fenced. Thatch is used mostly for roofing but some use zinc sheets. As the houses stand on long legs, buffalos and cows can be bred under them. Nant Bay villagers rely on mountain streams, which continuously flow in the region.

Water from the stream is saved in small reservoirs. When the water is released the force of the water turns a the water wheel and 25 KVA hydroelectric power can be generated on self-reliant basis. Some villagers collect water at their houses and grind rice and grain using water wheels. As Nant Bay Village is situated in a wide valley where agriculture is favourable, not only the main staple rice is grown but also garlic and pigeon pea are grown well. For agriculture. rainwater is also essential. Therefore. every July. Nant Bay villagers use to wish for rains in their traditional way. In Myanmar. such kind of occasion is called Moe Kyoe Pwe. the rain welcoming ceremony.


Thirteen miles north of Kyaung Tong in a hilly region of Eastern Shan State there is village called Nant Lin Taung where the Eng live. The village has 20 households living in thatch roofed huts built on tamped reddish earthen stopped. The meaning of the name of the national tribe “Eng” is “Running in Shan dialect.

Some Eng are Buddhist and some are animist who believe in traditional spirits. They offer their spirits and a traditional liquor called Kaungyay during their new harvest festival. Their costume are is black for both males and females. Women usually wear flowers or earings.

The Eng are possibly related to the Wa tribe. They live only in the foothills of the Kyaing Tong basin. Eng women often marry at the age of 14 or 15. They wear colorful ornaments. Their villages are built along mountain ridges and they use bamboo pipes to pipe in water. The Eng hold their harvest festival at the full moon in November.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.