LAHU PEOPLE LIFE AND CULTURE

LAHU SOCIETY AND LIFE

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Lahu villages are very egalitarian. When there is rank it is based more on age than wealth or ancestry. Although some patrilineage organization is found, Lahu society seems to be rooted more in village bonds and friendship Villages are led and disputes are settled by villages elders, a headman and the village priest. Gossip and threats of supernatural punishment are used to maintain social control.

Men tend to hunt and do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, hunting and watering the paddy fields. Women — with the help of their children — do weeding, harvesting, carrying and processing crops, gathering wild fruits, collecting water, feeding the pigs, growing vegetables, cooking and performing household chores.

The youngest child usually lives with the parents permanently and takes care of them in their old age. Both nuclear and extended families are common. Young children are rarely disciplined. By the time girls are 5 they begin doing household chores. When boys and girls are 8 or 9 they begin working in the field and taking care of younger siblings.

The Lahu like to add chilies to almost every dish they eat and smoke, using a bong-style water pipes. Illnesses are treated with herbal medicines and treatments from spiritual healers.

Lahu Marriage and Wedding Customs

Most marriages are monogamous. Traditionally, boys marry when they are 16 or 17 and girls marry when they are 13 or 14. These days they are often older. Young people are given a fair amount of freedom in choosing their partners as long as they are not close relatives. Go betweens are used to make arrangements and negotiate a bride price. Courting involves singing love songs, playing flutes and reed pipes, giving small gifts and overnight visits. Grooms whose family’s can not come up with a bride price often do a bride service.

Weddings are relatively simple: usually a large feast in the bride’s village. Afterward the couple often lives with the bride’s family until the groom finishes his bride service. Divorces are common and easy to get . In most cases the couple pays a fine, with the spouse who initiated the process paying double what the other person pays.

Among the Lahu, monogamy is the norm and young men and women generally have freedom in love and marriage. According to the Chinese government: “ In some areas such as Bakanai Township in Lancang County and Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, young people were free to choose their marriage partners, and only a few marriages were arranged by parents. Women played the dominant part in marital relations. After the wedding, the husband stayed permanently in the wife's home, and kinship was traced through the mother's side. In other areas, men played the dominant part in marriage. Betrothal gifts were sent through a matchmaker before the wedding. On the evening of the wedding day the husband was required to stay in the bride's home with his production tools. After 1949, with the implementation of the marriage law, the old custom of sending betrothal gifts had been less strictly observed.” [Source: China.org china.org |]

On the engagement and marriage process, Chinatravel.com reports: “The two parties are very polite to each other at the meeting of different clans. When the male and female go steady, the male party will ask the matchmaker to bring 2 to 4 pairs of dried squirrels and 1 kilogram of wine to the female’s home in order to propose marriage. If the parents of the female approve, the male party will send betrothal presents again and discuss about the wedding date and the marriage way (living in the male’s home or the female’s home) with the female party. If they decide to live in the male’s home, the male party will hold banquets and send people (including the groom) to escort the bride to come to the groom’s home on the wedding day, meanwhile, the female party will send people to escort the bride to the groom’s home. On contrary, if they decide to live in the female’s home, the female party will prepare banquets, and the groom will go to the female’s home under the escort of the matchmaker. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

“After the wedding, the groom will stay and live at the bride’s home, staying for 1 year, 3 years or 5 years, or even longer. The male lives and participates in production work at his wife’s home, and receives equal treatment as a son. There is no discrimination. Until the day when the male needs to leave his wife’s home, relatives and family members will hold banquets, and the husband can either take the wife to his home, or live on their own with his wife at another place at the village of where his wife lives. Whatever marriage way is, at the first spring festival after the wedding, a pig leg must be cut out and it will be given to the bride’s brother if they kill pigs. While the bride’s brother will send, the neck of the pig or the prey and four glutinous rice cakes to his sister for three years in a row. After receiving the gifts, his sister must present 6 kilograms of wine in return. Divorces are rare in this minority.” \=/

Lahu Villages

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The Lahu generally live in hilly areas that were once and still are covered by tropical rain forests, and often live in villages interspersed with Yi, Akha, and Wa villages. They often live in the foot hills above valleys occupied by lowland people such as the Tai and Han Chinese. Houses are generally built on stilts, with villages consisting of 15-30 households. Households consist of families with unmarried children and maybe a married daughter and family. The Lahu believe in the soul, a house spirit, nature spirits and a supreme being who is administered to by a priest.

The Lahu that live in Chinese and Yi areas in Yunnan tend to practice wetland rice agriculture and live in mud-brick Chinese-style homes while those that live in hill regions of Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand practice slash and burn agriculture and lived in houses that are raised off the ground on stilts or piles and comprised of a wood frame, bamboo walls and a roofs thatched with leaves or cogon grass. In the old days some extended families of 40 to 100 people lived in 15 meter-long longhouses. In Thailand Lahu live in egalitarian communities with landscaped bamboo or cements residences.

Most Lahu live in bamboo houses or wooden houses with railings. Most of Lahu villages are located on ridges or slopes near to a water source in mountain areas. It is not unusual to see their village nears bamboo groves or forests. There are two main types of traditional Lahu buildings: thatched houses based on the ground and storied bamboo houses in the Ganlan (split-level) style.

Lahu Houses

Lahu houses tend to be low, narrow, dark and damp. According to Chinatravel.com: “They build walls with earth and the roof with couch grass, using only 4 to 6 logs to build a house. The eaves of the two sides of the house is facing respectively the earth slope and the slope toe. There are several small rooms in a house. Parents live in one room, and every married couple live in one room. The room on the left is for the parents, and the room on the right is for children or guests. Besides the public hearth in the living room, there is also one hearth in every room. At the hearth, there is usually a thin slabstone (sometimes iron plate) hanging above for roasting food. In every household, there is a Zhoudu (cooking stove) for cooking food for the whole family. In the house, there are specific positions for placing farming tools or other utensils, and these stuff should not be placed at random. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Thatched houses are simple in structure, and therefore easy to build. First, several fork-shaped pillars are established on the ground; then the beams, rafters and the thatched roof are laid on them; lastly, bamboos or wood boards are laid around as the wall. This type of building has an antique flavor of "building nests (ancient human houses) with woods." [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Storied bamboo houses in the Ganlan style are bamboo houses built on wood pillars, and include the larger type and smaller type. A large bamboo house is usually used by a large matriarchal family, while the smaller one by a smaller family. Even though their size can be quite different the two types have almost the same structure, except that the larger one is usually longer, and thus, is often called "long house."

A "long house" is about six or seven meters tall. Rectangular in shape, it occupies from 80 to 300 square meters. Inside the house, there is a corridor on the side that faces the sun, and on the other there are many small rooms divided by wooden dividers. Every small family within the matriarchal family has one or two small rooms. The corridor is shared by all families, and they often set their fireplaces and cooking tools there. 'Long Houses" are a remnant of ancient Lahu a matriarchal society and are great importance to anthropologist but if any remain.

Lahu Customs, Etiquette and Taboos

The Lahus hold virtues such as honesty, rectitude and modesty in high esteem. An Lahu saying goes: "When one family is in trouble, all the villagers will help." This is a traditional custom that shows the spirit of the Lahus. In their daily work or everyday life, or larger businesses like building a new house, wedding, or funeral, their warm-heartedness and community-mindedness are on full display. [Source: 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 ~]

A principle they have always kept is to "put wine on the table and put words aboveboard." When there are misunderstandings between neighbors or friends, they will resolve them and be friends again by giving a cigarette or proposing a toast to each other. If it is hard to decide who is right and who is wrong, a wrestling match is held between the two former friends, and the loser is the one who should apologize. In the Lahu society, the petty and the mean are not welcome. ~

The Lahus often say, "The old saw the sun and the moon first; the old sowed the grain first; the old found mountain flowers and wild fruits first; and the old know the most about the world." It is a basic moral principle for the Lahus to respect and love the old people. In every family, the beds of the old are set by the fireplace, which is the warmest place in the house. When dining, the old sit in the center. The younger are not supposed to walk to and fro where the old sit or lie. When an old person speaks he or she is not to be interrupted. The old are the first to taste the new grain. On the first day of the year, the Lahu bring back Xinshui (new water): after some is offered to ancestors the elderly are served first; they are given water for washing their face and feet. Even a headman of a village must show some respect to the old, or he willl not be trusted and supported. ~

According to Chinatravel.com: “The taboos in daily life include: The daughter-in-law is not allowed to eat together with her father-in-law. The sister-in-law is not allowed to eat together with her brother-in-law. They are not allowed to enter the rooms of father-in-law or brother-in-law at random. When passing stuff, they should not touch hands. Women, no matter married or unmarried, should not take off their kerchiefs in front of the senior people, nor can they be unkempt. A piebald horse is considered as a sacred horse, a cuckoo is considered as a sacred chick, while a snake with bold tail is considered as a dragon. Nobody dare to hurt or kill these animals. Lahu people do some fortune telling when they kill pigs or chicken. It is considered auspicious if the chick has bright eyes, or the pig has lots of bile; otherwise it is inauspicious and people should be cautious in everything.” [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Lahu Food

In terms of food, Lahu like bamboo rice, chicken porridge, corn rice, and roast meat. According to Chinatravel.com: Their diet includes two kinds, raw food and cooked food. They cook food by boiling or roasting. They have kept the habit of eating roasted meat from ancient times till present. They will stick the meat and spray it with salt and condiments on two bamboo sticks, and then roast it at the fire till the meat becomes brown and crispy. Corns and dry rice are pounded by wooden pestles. Before 1949, only a few households owned pots and Zengzi (a kind of small bucket-shaped boiler). They cooked food by using thick bamboo tubes, putting corn flour or rice and some water into the bamboo tube, stuffing up the nozzle with tree leaves and putting the bamboo tube on the fire. When the bamboo tubes cracked and the food is ready, they will rift cut the bamboo tube and begin to eat. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

“Nowadays, only people in remote mountainous areas still use bamboo tubes. They use iron pans, aluminium pots or wooden Zengzi for cooking. Their staple food is corn, and there is a special way to consume corns. Firstly, they pound the corn to peel off the peel, and immerse the corn in water, lasting for half a day. Then fish out the corn and dry it in the air. At last, pound the corn into flour and steam it into a kind of pastry. Lahu don't have the habit of growing vegetables. They will pick up the wild plants in the mountains or fields if they think the plants are not poisonous or smelly.” \=/

Lahu Wine and Tea

The Lahu are fond of drinking wine and household uses corn and wild fruits to make their own wine. Wine is always an indispensable part of festivals or events like weddings or funerals,. Almost everyone drinks— old and young, make and female. When guests come to visit, Lahu often go on a drinking binge. When they drink, Lahus also like to sing and dance. Food is secondary. A Lahu saying goes: "Wherever there is wine, there is dancing and singing." [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Lahu region is famous for tea. The Lahus are adept at growing tea and they enjoy very much drinking the stuff, too. They regard tea as one of the necessities of life. Every day when they come back from work, they enjoy tea which was prepared before they were out. For the Lahus, it is easier to go through a day without meal than without tea. They usually say, "Without tea, there will be headaches."

The Lahu have a special way of making tea. They first roast the tea in a tea pot on a fire until it turns brown or gives off a burnt fragrance, and then pour in boiling water. The tea leaves are mixed in the pot, and then the tea is served. The tea is called "roast tea" or "boiled tea." When there are guests, the host must serve them several cups of "roast tea" in order to show respect and hospitality. And according to their custom, the host drinks the first cup of tea to show his sincerity and that the tea is not poisoned. The second course—made after more water is added into the pot— is served to the guest. This course is most aromatic and sweet.

Lahu Clothes

Traditional clothing of the Lahu is black with bold embroidered patterns and bands of cloth for decoration. The trims of sleeves, pockets and lapels are often decorated, with each subgroup using different colors. In Thailand the five main groups are the Red Lahu, Black Lahu, White Lahu, Yellow Lahu and Lahu Sheleh. Lahu tend to wear ordinary clothes for everyday life, reserving their costumes for ceremonial occasions. Lahu women wear large silver medallions. In Myanmar, Lahu women wear black vests, jackets and skirts trimmed with colorful embroidery. In Yunnan they sometimes shave their heads. Young girls have traditionally hidden their shaven heads under caps. In Thailand, the Lahu wear less colorful clothes and are more modernized. Lahu men and women wear straight sarongs. Lahu women in Yunnan sometimes shave their heads. many young girls hid their shaven heads with caps.

The Lahu people admire black. They regard it as a beautiful color. Men wear black headbands, collarless short jackets and trousers, while women wear long robes with slits along the legs, and short coats or straight skirts. Black color is widely used as the ground color of most dresses, which are often decorated with different patterns made of colorful threads or strips. Lahus that are in frequent contact with Hans and Dais often wear the clothing of those two ethnic groups. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Lahu descended from a branch of "the ancient Qiang people” who originated in northern China and migrated southward into Lancang River region. Their clothing shows the changes of their history and culture and includes characteristics of northern hunting culture and the southern farming culture. In ancient times, both men and women wore robes. In modern Lahu society, men wear collarless jackets that button on the right side, white or light color shirts, long baggy trousers, and a black turban, headband or a cap. In some regions, women like wearing colorful belts on the waist, which preserves many features of the robes of the northern ethnic groups. In other regions, Lahu wear clothing more typical of southern ethnic groups: tight-sleeve short coats and tight skirts. They wrap their legs with black cloths, and tie kerchieves of various colors on the heads. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/, ~ ]

The Lahu Women's costumes vary from one place to another. Lahu women often wear long robes with slits along the legs. They sew bright bands of colored cloth, sometimes with silver balls or pieces as ornaments, around the slits and collar. Women in some areas are also fond of colorful waistbands. Robes are regarded as a clothing style of northern groups. Typical southern clothes including jackets with narrow sleeves, straight skirts, black leg wrappings, and headbands of various colors. Women's headdress are sometimes very long, hanging down the back and reaching the waist. ~

Lahu Culture

Lahu arts include cloth making, basketry, embroidery and applique work. They make music with gourd flutes, Jew’s harps and three-string guitars. Singing, dancing and music are featured at festivals. There are at least 40 traditional dances.

The Lahu people are regarded as good dancers and singers. They have many songs. During festivals they like to dress up in their best clothes and dance to the music of gongs and elephant-feet-shaped drums. Traditional musical instruments include the lusheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) and three-stringed guitar. Their dances, numbering about 40, are characterized by foot tapping and swinging to the left. The Lahus have a rich stock of oral literature, most of which is related to physical labor. The most popular form of poetry is called "Tuopuke" or puzzle. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

During the Spring Festival, every village holds a big lusheng dance, in which everyone, old and young, man and or woman, take part, in their best festival clothes. They gather in a clearing with several or even dozens of men in the center playing the lusheng (a reed pipe) or leading the dance. Women, then, join their hands and form a circle around, dancing and singing to the rhythm of the music. As a group dance, the Lahus' Lusheng Dance is very colorful. Some dances represents their working chores; others imitates the movements and gestures of animals. Because of its delicacy and passion, it is the most favored dance of the Lahu people.

Lahu Agriculture and Economics

20111102-Wiki com Lahu hilltribe-dorp.jpg

The Lahu are primarily subsistence farmers. They are not known as being traders or craftsmen. Women make cloth garments and shoulder bags. Most goods are bought from peddlers or in markets. In Thailand some earn income from the trekking and tourism industries. Some have relocated to places that are accessible to tourists. In China they are known for producing tea. Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes over land are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land is often privately owned and is inheritable.

The Lahu that live in Chinese and Yi areas in Yunnan tend to practice wetland rice agriculture and raise fruit trees while those that live hill regions of Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand practice slash and burn agriculture and grow dry rice and buckwheat, and raise corn for pigs. Both groups raise tea, tobacco, sisal, cotton and opium as a cash crops and grow root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, gourds, cucumber and beans for food. Pig are the primary source of meat and protein. Sometimes they are sold to lowlands. Chickens are also common. They are kept for sacrifices and food.

The Lahu have traditionally used hoes as important farming tools. They live mainly on growing paddy paddy, dry rice, and maize. They have established some local industries like farming machines, sugar, tea and minerals. Some Lahu collect medical herbs and foods and in the forest and hunt deer, wild pigs, pangolins, bear, and porcupines. There were some groups that were hunter gatherers, subsisting mostly on wild taro, until relatively recently. Some men still hunt with crossbows and poisoned arrows.

Kucong

The Kucong is a group with 15,000 to 20,000 members that lives in Zhengyuan and Jinping counties in Yunnan Province. Some consider then a branch of the Lahu; others consider them a distinct ethnic group. For a long time they lived in such isolation that they were considered "invisible people". Even when they traded for necessities such as salt, clothes and metals, they didn't let the traders see them. [Source:Lin Zhenyu, “Dramatic changes for the Kucong”. In “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

The Kucong are one of the poorest groups in China. Until the 1950s they lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the forests of the Ailaoshan Mountains. Lin Zhenyu wrote in his article “Dramatic changes for the Kucongs” in the book “China's Minority Nationalities”: "They moved from one place to another in the forest, hunting, collecting wild fruits and raising some food by the slash-and-burn method...Their main weapon was the bow and arrow. When a boy was four or five, his parents would make a bow for him. He carried one the rest of his life. Even after his death, it was buried with him...Their shelters were merely three branches set in the ground and covered with plantain leaves … cooking vessels were the hollow sections of bamboo...The economic life of the Kucong was based on primitive equalitarianism. They shared the fruits of their labor equally." *\

When the Kucong traded they usually placed some medicinal grasses or mushrooms from the forest, things wanted by their neighbors, on the edge of the road. When somebody happened by and noticed them, he knew that the Kucong wanted to trade. If he wanted the items or knew someone who did, they could take the products from the forest, and leave a knife, a shirt or a small packet of salt. The Kucong, hidden in the forest, watched to see of something was traded. *\

The staple food of the Kucong is corn. They usually cook it with some vegetables and meat, if possible. Sometimes they roast it directly on the fire, cook cooking inside bamboo tubes or wrapped in banana leaves. Sometimes they place the corn and some water on a leaf, and cover it with more leaves before they put it on the fire. Vegetables or meat are cooked the same way, without adding water. They have traditionally added little salt because it was very scarce and difficult to get. Once the food is cooked, they place it on banana leaves and use chopsticks to eat it. *\

The houses of the Kucong are small and narrow, usually are only one meter high. The structure is made of wood or bamboo, with a roof formed with banana leaves or bamboo leaves. As these leaves wither very quickly, they need to be changed every one or two months. Their houses consist of a single room without divisions. There is a fire is in the center, around which the whole family sleeps, as well as its dogs, hens and pigs. That only room is usually very dark because there are no windows. The Kucong traditionally haven’t had blankets. At night they cover themselves with some grasses or banana leaves. *\

After 1949, some teams were sent to find the Kucong and settle them outside the forest. For some time these teams were unable to track down the 2,500 or so Kucong that existed at that time. Finally they were found and captured and forced to live in villages; but they never adapted to the farmers life. Today, they still keep a semi-nomadic existence, living mainly from hunting and gathering; and government subsidies.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China “, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 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 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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