WA PEOPLE LIFE AND SOCIETY

WA LIFE AND SOCIETY

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

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.

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. 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. 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 Marriage and Family

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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. 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.

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.

Most Wa find their marriage partners through free courtship. They usually get married around the age of 20, with the husband usually being older than the wife. The monogamous family is the basic unit of the Wa society. Family property generally is inherited by the youngest son, while daughters are denied the right to inherit. A man was allowed to have more than one wife. Men and women have traditionally had sexual freedom before marriage. After giving their chosen partners betel nuts or tobacco leaves as a token of love, they could go to sleep together. Such freedom ended upon marriage. Marriages have traditionally been arranged by parents, and the bridegroom had to pay several cattle as a betrothal gift. Eloping sometimes took placed when a couple wanted to escape from a forced marriage. [Source: china.org.cn]

Wa Courting Activities: Visiting Girls and Combing Hair

Boys and girls usually begin taking part in courting activities called "visiting girls" when they are 15 or 16. "Visiting girls" is usually carried out in groups. Independent activity is rare before the young people pair off. The visiting is mainly done at night. It has no fixed site and is usually held at a girl's home. When night falls, fellows and girls gather in groups of three to five. Traditionally, young fellows went to girl's home and played a three-stringed instrument and flute while girls watched and listened. Then they sing, dance, give tobacco and betel nut, comb the hair of one another, laugh and frolic, cast amorous glances and express their feelings with songs. If a fellow takes a fancy to a girl, and gets a positive response after visiting her many times, he gives her some presents such as a bracelet, necklace, comb or scarf. If the girl doesn't return the presents back in several days or a period of time, he can rest assure that the girl fancies him and is willing to be his girlfriend. lover. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Some girls accept all presents without caring who is the giver. They believe that lots of presents are proof of her beauty and charm so the more the merrier. Parents will also feel happy and proud if their daughter has a lot of suitors. Presents are supposed returned back to a guy soon if the a girl doesn't want to develop a deeper relationship with him. If a fellow grabs away the girl's adornments or scarf it indicates he is proposing marriage to her. At that moment, no matter if the girl agrees or not, she will shout loudly and protest the theft. If the girl doesn't go to ask for her adornments back, it means that she has accepted his proposal. During the group activities, if a guy and a girl want to have a more intimate relationship they separate from the groups and hang out with each other alone. If they want to get married in a proper way the fellow ask matchmakers to propose marriage formally, and they get engaged and married. ~

In most of Wa communities, young people can pursue sexual relations freedom before marriage. Traditionally when girls came of age, they left their parents' home and moved to a "girls' house" where they spent several years before they got married. In the courting season, when the sun goes down, young men gather in groups and go to the girls' house for singing and dancing. The Wa people generally have few gender division for labor so young people usually get each other quite well working and the fields, collecting firewood and doing other chores. When a guy and girl fancy each other they often like to express their feelings by combing each other’s hair of his lover. The Wa think that combing their lover's hair will help them retain the power of love forever. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

Wa Houses and Bamboo

right Most Wa are farmers who usually live in villages, which vary in size from a few dozen to hundreds of households. The Wa people live in bamboo houses similar to those of the Dai people. Most of the Wa villages were built on hilltops or slopes. The styles of their houses vary depending on their locations. Most houses are constructed with bamboo and straw and are usually two storied. The upper floor is for family accommodation while the ground floor is reserved for their livestock. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]

Some villages in the Ximeng area have a history of several hundred years and embrace 300 to 400 households. When a family built a new house, others came to help and presented timber and straw as gifts. Generally the house was completed in one day by collective effort. The "big house" of a big chieftain or a rich person was marked by a special woodcut on top. The walls were decorated with many cattle skulls still carrying horns. The other sections were the same as commoners' houses, built on stilts, and the space below was used for breeding domestic livestock. [Source: china.org.cn]

Before iron cauldrons were introduced into the area, the Vas used big bamboo tubes to cook rice, and the cooked rice was divided into equal shares by the hostess at the meal. Bamboo is very important to the Wa. They have lived in the Awa mountain region in southwestern Yunnan since ancient times. The weather there is warm and bamboo grows well there. They live in bamboo buildings, eat bamboo shoots, use bamboo chopsticks and spoons, sit on bamboo stools and sleep in bamboo beds. Their clothes and adornments often feature various sizes of bamboo hoops and bamboo strips.

Wa Taboos and Customs

The Wa people are warm and hospitable to their guests. When guests enter their houses, the Wa people entertain them with wine in bamboo cups as a token of welcome and respect. The Wa etiquette of welcoming guests with wine is different from place to place. In some areas, when presenting a cup of wine to his guest, the host drinks a mouthful first to show his sincerity, while the guest downs his in one swallow to show his politeness. In other areas, both the host and the guest squat down, and the host presents a cup of wine with his right hand to the guest, who reaches for it also with his right hand, and then pours or flips a little wine to the ground, showing his respect for the host's ancestors. The conclusion of the two customs is the same. When the guest is leaving, the host holds a full gourd of wine, drinking a mouthful first, and then presenting it to the guests, who should drinks the rest to show that he will never forget the host's hospitality and friendliness. +++

The Wa people regard the following actions as taboos: 1) riding a horse into the village; 2) touching their heads or ears; 3) giving chilies and eggs as gifts; 4) entering the wooden drum house without permission; 5) giving girls ornaments; and 6) counting money or sitting on the hostess's wooden stool in the host's home. 7) If a wooden pole is put in front of the door of a house, that means someone in the house is sick and no one but his family members may enter it.

Wa Food: Rice, Honey and Insects

The staple food of the Wa is rice, which are supplemented with kaoliang, buckwheat, maize, beans and vegetables grow in their gardens and other foods obtained through gathering, fishing and hunting. Large portions of meat were traditionally only eaten after domestic animals— mainly hens, goats, pigs, oxen and cows—were sacrificed.

The Wa people have two or three meals a day. Chicken congee and camellia congee are regarded as their delicacies. Chilies are a great favorite with all the Wa people, young or old, and a meal is not considered complete without chilies. The Wa people mainly eat pork, beef and chicken. They also eat rats and over ten kinds of insects such as bamboo pupas, red caterpillars, besom caterpillars, and wax gourd caterpillars. Usually the edible insects are mixed with rice and cooked to be congee, which tastes hot and delicious when combined with vegetables, salt and chilies. The typical Wa dishes are: camellia congee, grilled snake meat, peas fried with ant eggs, fried firewood worms. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]

The Wa people like keeping bees, chewing betel nuts and drinking wine and bitter tea. The wine they drink is home-brewed. The tea, boiled in a pottery pot and brewed into a thick paste, is dark brown in color and bitter in taste. Bitter as it is, the tea is remarkably refreshing and is a great thirst- quencher. The Wa people, young or old, have the habit of chewing betel nuts. While working, resting or chatting, they are often seen chewing betel nuts. +++

In the high mountains the Wa inhabit, there are not many sources of animal proteins. The Wa capture and eat different kinds of insects and crustaceans that some other ethnic groups find repugnant. They are especially fond of catching river crabs which they boil in water and grind with a mixture of garlic, ginger, chili and salt, forming a paste. They make similar pastes with shrimps, grasshoppers, termites and other insects.[Source: Zhao Yanshe, “Wa zu shenhuo fangshi” (“Lifestyle of the Wa Nationality”), Kunming, 2000; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

Traditionally the Wa’s most treasured food was honey and they use an ingenious method to get it. When spring arrives they look for flowers they know that bees like. Then they prepare a small trap with small insects that the bees like very much. When the bees go to the flowers, they smell these small insects. When the bees come to eat them a Wa hunter ties small thread with some fine feathers around the bee’s thorax while the bee is eating. When the bee returns to its honeycomb nest the hunter follows the feathers hanging from the bee and easily locates the nest.
Once they locate the source of honey, the Wa wait until night, when they will make a fire under the honeycomb. While the smoke subdues the bees, the Wa take the honey being risk. *\

Reporting a Wa village in Lincang in Yunnan Province, PBS reported: “Tonight, for the first time, I ate dog. It was served in a rich, dark-colored stew. I had just gotten my palate prepared to deal when I saw someone root around in the broth for the snout. Finding the orifice, the man chewed it with the delight of finding a rare delicacy. Dessert wasn’t a whole lot better. We ate fried pregnant wasps that were about four inches long. The food in these parts was proving a little rich for this Ohio boy.” [Source: Frontline, pbs.org, February 10, 2006]

Wa Water Pipes

In the past every Wa village had an interesting system of water pipes that provided water for the villagers. Built from bamboo tubes, the pipes were as long as several hundred meters or even a few kilometers, depending on how far the source of water was the village. There was generally one water pipes for a cluster of families living around a "house of the drum". One person was in charge of the maintenance of the water pipes, and sometimes also, the nearby "house of the drum". [Source: Han Junxue, “Wa zu cunzhai yu wa zu chuantong wenhua” (“Wa nationality village and Wa traditional culture”). Sichuan University Press, Chengdu, 2007; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

The Wa believed that every water-pipe had a deity, and every year a ceremony was performed in its honor. This ceremony, called Afu in the Wa language, was held in the last month of the Wa year, with one person from every family attending. During the time when the ceremony was held no outsiders were allowed to enter the village. The ceremony lasted for two days. The first day the people worked along the water pipe, towards the source of their water, repairing and replacing worn out or damaged bamboo pieces. The second day, a ceremony presided over by a moba (a shaman-type ritual specialist) was held at the source of water. A rat was offered to Dana, the deity of the water, asking him for good rain and favorable winds for the next year. When ceremony was over a new wooden structure was built to support the bamboo pipes. *\

Back in the village the moba carried the new water to the house of the person in charge of the pipes, where rice was cooked with the new water and shared between them. There they asked the gods for good water and sacrificed six rats as an offering. Later in every house a small ceremony was held also asking for good luck for the family in the coming year. Today few bamboo pipes remain and long-distance bamboo pipe systems are largely a thing of the past. Today most Wa villages in China have water provided by metal pipes funded by the local government. With water now relatively easy to get ceremonies honoring the sacredness of the water and the bamboo tube deities have mostly disappeared.

Wa Clothes and Hair Hoops

Wa men and women wear short sarongs and skirts that make work easy in paddy fields. Women also wear long tight-fitting skirts. The main color of Wa traditional clothes is black. Men often wrap head with black cloth, and wear a short black jacket and trousers with wide bottoms. Wa men generally keep their hair short. Some wear circular earrings, silver bracelets, and bamboo or silver necklaces as well. When going out, they like to carry homespun bags on their. In the old days they liked to wear a sword at their waist. Tattooing remains a common practice among men. Women's clothes vary in different places. The most characteristic style of women’s dress is a pullover without collar and a tube-shaped skirt decorated with silver or bamboo strips, a head hoop, neckband, necklace, waist hoop, and bracelets. In the days, old women liked to wear big umbrella-like, 10-centimeter-long ear tubes, in which they cold put fragrant flowers, grass and even money for easy access when they went shopping. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]

In the Ximeng region most men wear a black or blue vest and trousers with wide bottom. Women often wear a short, sleeveless close-fitting pullovers with a "v"-shaped neck with a red or black tube-shaped skirt with horizontal stripes. They usually wear their hair down, using silver hoops or bamboo or rattan headbands to keep their in place along with silver earrings, silver neckbands or a necklace strung with plastic beads. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The hair hoop is the most characteristic head adornment of Wa women. Its shaped like a half moon, wide in the middle part and narrow on both ends, with a length of over 30 centimeters. The width of the middle part is about 10 centimeters. It is usually made of silver or aluminum. Wa women generally have long hair which let hang down without braiding it. Their hair spreads over the two sides of their cheeks, and extends past the shoulders, and down the back. Their hair is held together by the hair hoop from the forehead to the back of the head. Wa hair hoops not only keep hair out of the eyes they have become one of the simplest and plainest symbols to Wa identify, as no other ethnic group wears them. ~

Another distinctive feature of traditional clothes of Wa women is that they wear bamboo or rattan hoops round their neck, arms, waist and legs. Young girls add a new leg hoop when they become a year older, so there is a saying "count her leg hoops if you want to know one's age". The headmen of the Wa villages or tribes have their own dressing style. They wrap their heads with red cloth. Sacred figures such as the sun, moon, stars, dragons and bulls' heads are embroidered on their clothes. Two doors are also embroidered to show that their ancestors were once the entrance guards of "Sigang Li". The pattern of two dragons holding the sun in their mouths is embroidered on their underclothes, which can be worn by no one but the village headmen. ~ +++

Wa Culture

right Wa literature and art are rich and colorful, and their bamboo culture has special characters. The Cangyuan cliff paintings are famous all over the world. Drums have a a sacred meaning to the Wa. They think that the drum is the place where the spirits of the grain live. The have several ceremonies related to the drum: 1) searching for a new drum, 2) cut the tree to make the drum, 3) carrying the drum to the village, and 4) sanctify the drum. All are related with the agricultural cycle of the Wa.

Wa literature includes myths, poems and legends. Famous myths include "Sigang Li", "ancestors of the human being", "the big snake is vomiting" and "the origin of all things". "Sigang Li" is essentially the Wa creation myth. "The old man and the crocodile" is a popular fable. Singing and dancing are popular with Wa. At festivals, Wa dress up their best clothes and sing and dance for several days. There are many forms of Wa folk dances including the drum dance, pole dance, sword dance, plume dance, lusheng dance, hand towel dance, string instrument dance, gong dance, and bamboo flute dance. The subdivisions of drum dance are wooden drum dance, tom-tom dance, elephant-foot drum dance, bronze drum dance, and bamboo drum dance. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]

The sculptures and paintings of the Wa people has unique characteristics. Ancient cliff paintings of the Wa people have been discovered in Yunnan Province in recent years. The cliff paintings in Cangyuan County, depict hunting, dancing and working scenes of the ancient Wa people with simple, basic lines and patterns. +++

Cangyuan Cliff Painting

The Cangyuan cliff paintings, said to have been produced by the ancestors of the Wa, are located mainly in the valleys of the Mengdonghe River among Ruliang Mountain, Bamboo Mountain and Gongnong Mountain in Congyuan county of Yunnan Province. Since 1962, eleven painting spots have been discovered in Menglai, Dinglai, Mankan, Heping, Mangyang, Mengxing in the mid-northern Cangyuan County. Most of them were painted on pieces of vertical cliffs tens of meters above the ground. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The main subjects of the cliff paintings are: human images, animal images, pictures of village, and pictures of hunting, offering sacrifice and dancing. The style is simple and unsophisticated and the images provide clues to the lifestyle of people that created them. The human body is expressed by triangles without facial features, but the limbs were painted with different postures, often expressing movement and action. Activities such as dancing can be figured out from the different postures of the limbs. Animals have vague body and head features but their identify can be determined by things like the shape and size of horns, tails, feet and ears. Most of the paintings are reddish brown in color. The pigments of the painting are a mix of red iron ore, shellac and blood of animals. According to preliminary study and analysis of experts, oldest works date back to Neolithic Stone Age, and are more than 3000 years old. ~

According to China Pictorial: “Most of the primordial cliff paintings were imprinted on the vertical mountain cliffs. At the foot of the mountains are the Wa villages. The thatched cottages of times past have been replaced by tile-roofed houses. Spinulose tree ferns dating back to prehistoric times can still be seen here. The path leading to the cliff paintings have been laid with stones. Along the path, on a vertical cliff, I saw a young Wa hunter with long hair and body tattoos, holding a crossbow in hand. [Source: China Pictorial /=]

“It was in 1965 that for the first time Wang Ningsheng, a scholar studying ethnic groups, discovered the existence of the cliff paintings. Painted with red iron ore mixed with animal blood and tree gum, formed of simple lines the cliff paintings mainly depict human figures and animals. The condition of the limestone on the cliff paintings revealed to Wang and other experts that the cliff paintings date back 3,000 to 3,500 years. According to Wang, those people who drew the cliff paintings are culturally related to Wa people, perhaps sharing customs, ideology and way of expression. Of course, the Wa have a more accurate understanding of the cliff paintings than outsiders. They can quickly realize the content of the paintings, like figures holding shields, persons with feathered on headdresses, and different types of animals.” /=\

Wooden Drums: Symbols of the Wa Village

The Wooden drum, called "Keluoke" in Wa language, is a traditional sacrifice offering tool, musical instrument and alarm reporting tool. Unlike leather drums, a wooden drum is made from a whole piece of tree-trunk and its surface is not covered with any leather. Wa wooden drums are made from the trunk of the Schima wallichii, peach tree or Mali tree, which which is hollowed out according to specified shapes. The sizes of different drums are varied, but a typical one is usually two meters long with a diameter of between half a meter and one meter. There are two kinds of drums: male drums and female drums. The tone of male drum is low and the timber is loud and jarring. The tone of female drum is a little bit higher, and the timber is clear and melodious. These drums are generally kept together in the wooden drum house in the village. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The wooden drum house is an important and symbolic structure in the Wa village. It is a small shed constructed with six poles, three crossbeams and bamboo strips or cogon grass and no walls. The area of the drum house is not big, and the structure is simple, but because it is the place for leaving wooden drum, it is very holy and it possesses the function and status of temples of other ethnic groups. There are one or several wooden houses in every village. ~

The wooden drum is a symbol of the Wa, and is a holy object worshiped by them. They think that the wooden drum is "a tool for reaching gods" and "a drum reaching heaven", and "life relies on water, and proper relies on wooden drum". Therefore the wooden drum can't be touched in normal times. People can beat it only when offering sacrifice, reporting an alarm or during in great community activities such as festivals or happy occasions. Because of the sacred status and function of the wooden drum, "pulling wooden drum" becomes a very grand and magnificent religious sacrifice offering activity. ~

The Wa people regard the wooden drum as a divine tool that has exceptional power and is the symbol of existence and prosperity. They believe in many gods, of whom Muyiji is a powerful god that creates all things in the world and has the right to decide their life and death. Legend has it that, long ago, at the beginning of history, a disastrous flood devoured almost all the creatures that lived on land. Muyiji saved the Wa people with a wooden trough, which later enabled them to survive and develop. The wooden drum symbolizes this drum. Therefore, in most of the traditional sacrificial rites, the Wa people pay a high tribute to the wooden drum and worship Muyiji, praying for his blessings by singing and dancing. ~

Pulling the Drum

The so-called "pulling the wooden drum" is an activity in which Wa villagers go the forest and cut a tree trunk for a drum, pull it into the village and make a drum with it to replace the old drum. It is usually held in the eleventh Chinese lunar month (the first month in Wa calendar), which is equivalent to December of the solar calendar. The time of the pulling wooden drum is decided in the meeting of leaders of the village and the main sacrifice offerer (the person who bears the cost of the activity and the cattle sacrificed). Often several water buffalo, oxen or cattle are sacrificed and butchered. Sometimes a shaman looks through the liver for omens and to divine the future while watery wine and food are prepared. On the day of the drum pulling, a cow is sacrifice to the gods during daytime, and adult men go up mountain to cut tree at night. The tree was chosen beforehand in preparation for the event. Under the tree, they first make offerings and chant incantations to expel evils spirits. Then the "moba" brandishes an ax, making a few cuts on the trunk of the tree. Other villagers then chop it down. After that, they put three stones on the tree stump as a token payment to the tree ghost for buying the tree. Then they cut the trunk into the size suitable for the drum they need. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn , chinatravel.com +++]

Early in the morning of the next day, all the villages—men and women, young and old (although some women are not allowed to join in the activity)— put on their best costumes and go to the mountain to join in pulling the log (semi-finished wooden drum) down to the village. The "moba" guides the procession with twigs held in his right hand, leading some male villagers to pull the log and sing the song "pulling the wooden drum". Other villagers either shout loudly to boost their morale or scatter rice and splash wine on the ground as the log is pulled along. But the drum can't enter the village at the same day. It is left outside of village until a lucky day is chosen after the offering of a chicken as sacrifice. ~ +++

The log is left at the entrance to the village for two or three days. After the sacrificial rite with cocks as offerings, the log is pulled from the village gate to the place beside the wooden drum house where the carpenters will fashion it into a drum. The day when the new drum enters the village is a time of great rejoicing. People from nearby villages beat gongs and drums as a form of congratulations. People sing, dance, butcher cattle and pigs, and drink wine for entertainment. Some young people take the event as opportunity to find their future husbands or wives. The whole program lasts for many hours. After the drum is made and tested, people put it into the wooden drum house, where they dance heartily again to the drum beats. ~ +++

It takes a little over 20 days to make a new drum. At the day when the wood is completely hollowed out, they drum is beaten loudly to announce the good news to people of the village that the drum is finished, and another rite is held. At that night, all people of the village gather around the drum house and dance and sing happily again to celebrate the success of making a new drum. After another sacrifice the "pulling wooden drum" is declared finished. The whole event is dedicated to Wa god "Mowei". The Wa believe that "Mowei" is an incarnation of human ancestors who lives in Heaven in normal times, and shows no interest in events of the human world. Only if he hears sound of a wooden drum does he come to the human world to help humans solve their problems and bring happiness to them. ~

Wooden Drum Dance

Wooden drum dance is a traditional dance that is performed to worship Muyiji in the "Gerui" month of the Wa calendar (the 12th month of the lunar calendar). It consists of four main parts: "pulling wooden drum", "dancing in the house of wooden drum", "beating wooden drum", and "offering sacrifices to Muyiji". The content and the performing techniques of today's wooden drum dance have reached a higher level. It has adopted some movements of the Wa women such as "swinging hair", which thus adds to the charm of Wa's art. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]

The most common wooden drum dance is "beating wooden drum". The Wa people use wood drums and cymbals as major instruments, which are blended with songs and chanting, to create the main melody with strong and harmonious rhythm full of encouragement and impulsion. Men wear red ribbons on their heads and wide pants; women, with white ribbons on their heads, wear bracelets and skirts, and their long hair swings loose and wild. The dance is grand: At dusk, a long haired female dancer stands on the wooden drum, raising hands to the sky. Two men stand at each end of the drum with drum sticks in hand; other actors are around the drum, dancing slowly to the singers' call, the drum and cymbals. It's a mixture of slow and fast beat, anger and sadness, anxiety and happiness. As the highlight comes, the dancing steps become orderly and powerful, straightforward and uninhibited, grand and magnificent, which, seeming to shake the sky and the land, fully describes the Wa people's vigorous vitality and their spirit of fighting against nature. +++

Development of the Wa Under the Communists in China

According to the Chinese government: “In December 1949, the Wa, together with other ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, were liberated. In 1951, the central government sent a delegation to the Ava mountainous areas to help the Va people solve urgent problems in production and daily life, and to settle disputes among tribes. The Menglian Dai-Lahu-Va Autonomous County was set up in 1954 and the Cangyuan Va Autonomous County in 1955. They were followed by the founding of Ximeng Va Autonomous County in 1964 and the Cangyuan Va Autonomous County in 1965. In the course of practicing regional autonomy, many Va cadres were trained, paving the way for implementing the Communist Party's united front policy, for further winning over and uniting with the patriots from the upper strata of the Vas, and for carrying out social reform in Va areas. [Source: china.org.cn]

“Different steps and methods were adopted by the government in social reform, taking the unbalanced socio-economic development in various areas into consideration. In Zhenkang and Yongde the Vas, together with local Hans, carried out land reform and abolished the system of feudal exploitation and oppression. Then they carried out socialist reform in agriculture. In most of the areas in Ximeng, Cangyuan, Shuangjiang, Gengma and Menglian, exploiting and primitive backward elements were reformed in gradual steps through mutual aid and cooperation, with government support, so as to pass into socialism.

“Two important economic measures were taken in the Va areas to improve production and people's life. One was to provide the poor Va peasants with food and seeds, draught cattle and farm tools, while helping them build irrigation projects to extend rice paddy fields. The other was to set up more state trading organizations to expand state trade. These measures brought changes to local production and daily life, enabling the people to do away with usury and exploitation by landlords. Through transforming mountains, harnessing rivers and extending paddy fields, the Va people in the Ximeng area changed their primitive cultivation methods.

“In pre-liberation days, eight out of 10 Va people were half-starved. For several months in a year they had to eat wild vegetables and wild starchy tubers. Their ordinary meal was thick gruel cooked with vegetables. However, by 1981 they owned 1,600 hectares of paddy fields, achieving good yields. In some fields the output per hectare came to 7.5 tons. Industry was unheard of in the Ava mountainous areas in the past. Now there are hydro-power stations, tractor stations and locally-run workshops producing and repairing farm tools, smelting iron and processing food. The first generation of workers has come into being.

“Industrial and agricultural development brought marked changes to the commerce, transport and communications, culture and education and health of the Va people. A case in point is Yanshi Village in Cangyuan County. There wasn't a presentable house except those owned by the village head. Now it has grown into a rising township, with a bank, a health center, primary and middle schools, a farm tool plant and tailors' shops as well as many stores. The village has become an economic and cultural center.

“Many new schools have been set up in the Va areas. Nine out of 10 Va children are at school. Cultural centers, film projection teams and bookstores broaden the knowledge of the Va people and enrich their life. Every county in the Ava mountainous area has hospitals. Over the past 30 years and more a new atmosphere of unity has prevailed in the Va areas. The old enmities, resulting from abduction of oxen and headhunting, have been replaced by mutual help in production and construction through mediation. Clan warfare which was common in pre-liberation days, seldom takes place.”

Visiting a Wa Country on the China-Myanmar Border

Reporting from Lincang in Yunnan Province, PBS reported: :We rolled into a small Wa village. Wa men have long jet-black hair and the women exotic Burmese faces and beautiful almond shaped eyes. The straw thatched huts of their villages remind you more of Africa than of China. Tribal members communicate by cutting small, but precise slits into these sticks, which they always carry with them. The carvings and the way the sticks are arranged provide a wide, but exact range of meanings, from “I love you” to “I detest you and want to kill you.” Many Wa villages are teaming with water buffalo, a sacred animal in their culture. Buffalo reliefs are embroidered into men’s jackets, and the skulls of sacrificed animals hang in the houses of the village chiefs and shamans. [Source: Frontline, pbs.org, February 10, 2006]

Along the China-Myanmar Border, “Police checkpoints were everywhere, searching vehicles for drugs. Even though security was tight, we found numerous spots along the border fence where wide holes had been cut, and like many border crossings, there were plenty of brothels and cheap hotels to choose from...The region’s tourism director, Yunjiang He, informs us that Wa women are famous across China for their “great beauty and loose sexuality.” Some of this reputation comes from a ritual they perform, where two women sit on a man’s lap and force-feed him gasoline-strength rice wine. Our driver, Zhongyue Cao, offered to take part as long as we promised not to tell his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

“He confided later that the ritual had changed. In the past, the women would feel under your shirt and you were allowed to do the same in return. These women, he said, do not wear bras. Not surprisingly, this activity has been exploited into a lurid tourist attraction. The ritual we were invited to was still rowdy, with much drinking but little else. Those looking for more are pointed to the nearest city of Nansan, where there are sex parlors and hotels, lit in neon red, catering to the sex trade. Our driver also told us that in the nearby “Golden Triangle,” where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, he was once attacked by a group of prostitutes. They carried him down a back alley and proceeded to molest him.”

Visiting a Wa Tourist Village for “Pulling of the Drum”

Describing a visit to the small Wa village of Wengding near the Cangyuan cliff paintings, in Congyuan county of Yunnan Province, China Pictorial reported: “Wengding Village is one of the few to retain their primitive habits. The villagers choose to preserve their thatched cottages because of government subsidies. The primitive villages attract visitors and thus the local economy is promoted. Located in mountainous terrain, Wengding Village is surrounded by green trees, bamboo, and terraced fields of rice paddies. The thatched cottages in the village are usually comprise two levels. The upper floor is for family accommodations while the ground floor is reserved for livestock. [Source: China Pictorial /=]

“Facing visitors"cameras, villagers are not nervous. After allowing photos, they hospitably invite visitors to have a rest at their home. Xiao Ega, 40, led us to his home. We walked up 10 wooden steps and entered. The single window of the cottage allowed in just a wisp of sunlight. Hearing someone arrive home, small birds chattered at the side of the window. Xiao Ega put food out for them, and the little birds rivaled with their fellows as they opened their red mouths. Xiao has two children who are both students. Turning on the light in the room, we could see a big roll of bedclothes. They unfold these at night, and then the sitting-room becomes a big bed. Wood was already burning in the fire pit, for the temperature is low at night in the mountains. /=\

“The ceremony of "pulling wooden drums"was about to begin. We parted from the villagers and walked to the entrance of the village. Many people had already gathered at the meeting place under the big tree. The sacrificial offering ceremony of wooden drums of the Wa people includes activities such as pulling wooden drums and butchering oxen. Only elders of more than 70 years of age can still recount the connotations of the sacrificial offering. In recent times, it has gradually evolved into a sort of performance. In the old days, after autumn harvest the wooden drums sacrifice offering would be held. All the villagers put on their splendid attire. They cut wood in the forest and carry it into the village. Holding a leaf in hand, the main sacrifice officiator leads in singing the song of pulling wooden drums. The oxen butcher stood on the trunk with an iron lance in hand. He danced and waved the lance to the rhythm of the song. With the song and battle cries of the surrounding villagers, the butcher stabbed the ox to death with the lance. Then he cut off the head and tied it to the trunk as a sacrifice to gods. These days the sacrificial offering ceremony is less ardent and the village appears more serene. /=\

“Our last activity in Cangyuan was the monihei."Monihei"in Wa dialect has different meanings, such as "Okay"and That's it."According to legend, if the Wa sacred medicine niangbuluo"is rubbed onto girls"faces, they become increasingly beautiful; onto elders"faces, they will be healthy and long-lived; onto children's faces, they will be safe and lucky. The Wa carnival of monihei"is derived from legend. In this sunny afternoon, lightly dressed people poured into the Wenti Square from all quarters. The delighted crowd sang and danced joyously on the square, where a cheerful atmosphere prevailed. At the beginning, they only rubbed the biangbuluo"in their hands onto friends"faces. But as the gaiety spread, strangers began to daub each other's faces. People laughed and played happily. The sacred medicine biangbuluo"was everywhere: on everyone's face, clothes, cars and even shop windows, but nobody haggled. Although the carnival has a long history, the cheerfulness it brings is vivid and long-lasting. Cangyuan is a charming place. The radiant smiles of the villagers are sincere and can leave visitors with deep memories. Today, with modernization, it is rare and commendable that such rich and abundant local ethnic cultures are still well preserved. The word nolorful"is far from sufficient to describe the wonderfulness of Cangyuan.” /=\

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

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, 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, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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