Many minorities in Southeast Asia and southern China speak Sino-Tibetan languages. Sino-Tibetan languages predominate in China and mainland Southeast Asia. They are broken into three main subfamilies: 1) Tibeto-Burman, 2) Tai and 3) Sinitic, including many of the language spoken in China. Among the languages from Southeast Asia that are an the verge of extinction are: 1) Arem (with 20 speakers); Buxinhua (with 200 speakers); and Red Gelao (with 20 speakers).

Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone of pitch in which it is spoken. As is true with Vietnamese and Thai, Chinese words with the same basic sound can have different meanings depending on the way the tones of the sound change. One unique feature of all Sino-Tibetan languages is that most words consist of a single syllable. Multi-syllable words are as unthinkable to Tibetans and Chinese as words with only consonants are to English speakers. Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone of pitch in which it is spoken.

Some speak Mon-Khmer languages, another separate family. Speakers of these languages are found along the southwestern border of Yunnan among such peoples as the Benglong, Blang, and the Wa (Va), who are a segment of a much larger population in Myanmar (Burma). These languages are less influenced by Chinese than other languages in the region.

Many ethnic minorities had no written language when they came in long-term contact with literate outsiders, thus their language is written today in the written language of the country they are living in or of the outsiders they came in contact with. Many hill tribes believe they once had written languages but lost them under trying circumstances. The Miao believe that books with their written language were eaten by horses while they slept exhausted from fleeing China. The Yao say their reliance on oral tradition was the result of a great famine which forced their ancestors to boil and eat all of their books to survive. The Lisus say their ancient language was written on skins which were lost after they were eaten by a dog. Lahus say their ancient language was written on rice cakes by a group of ancient scholars who were once so hungry they ate the cakes. Every new year Lahus eat rice-sesame cakes to remind them that their traditions.

Tai Languages in South China and Southeast Asia

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The minority languages of the south and southwest were formerly grouped with Chinese in the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. Linguists are no longer in agreement that this is correct. Many of the spoken languages of the region derive from proto-Tai, and these are now placed separately in their own family. In the mainland China, this family is known as Zhuang-Dong, which is divided into three branches. Elsewhere they are known as Tai or Thai languages. All are tone languages. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

The largest branch is Zhuang-Dai. Zhuang is spoken in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which covers the western two-thirds of Guangxi Province, and by related populations in adjacent areas of Guizhou and Yunnan. Potentially, it has over” 20 “million speakers. However, as was the case with the Manchu, the Zhuang have assimilated to Chinese culture over the centuries. Almost all can speak the local Chinese dialect of their region, and many ethnic Zhuang could speak only that until recently. Since the early 1950s, Zhuang ethnicity has strengthened, with encouragement from the state. The language has been revived and is in more common usage in daily life, a process facilitated by the introduction of a standardized pinyin writing system for the main dialect of northern Zhuang, and use of the language in publications, radio broadcasts, and the dubbing of films. It is recognized as one of China's major official languages. The neighboring Bouyei, who are even more Sinicized than the Zhuang, are similarly encouraged to use what the state recognizes as their own language, though some linguists feel it should be classed as a dialect variant of northern Zhuang.

Old picture of Miao

Dai is the language of the Dai of southwestern Yunnan. They are culturally and linguistically similar to the Thai of northern Thailand, though divided by dialect variation internally and across national borders. Their writing system uses variants of Thai script, and until recently literacy was limited to males, all of whom were expected to spend some years studying at the local Buddhist monasteries. There are at least a million speakers of Dai.

The second branch, called Kam-Sui, is less well known and is the most northern and eastern extension of the Tai languages, found in the area where Hunan, Guizhou, and Guangxi intersect. Kam (also called Dong, in Chinese) has about 2.5 million speakers. It is distinguished in having the most elaborated tone system of any language in China, with fifteen tones: other Tai languages and some of the southern Chinese languages, such as Hokkien and Cantonese, have eight, whereas Mandarin has only four. The Sui languages are associated with smaller groups in the area, such as Mulam and Maonan, and most of these peoples are bilingual in Chinese or Zhuang. The third branch is Li, spoken by groups in Hainan. Although treated as one language by the state, it is actually a grouping of at least five different Tai languages, divergent by reason of long separation.

Miao-Yao Languages

The majority of the speakers of Miao-Yao languages belong to hill tribes and ethnic groups that live in isolated areas scattered across southern China, Laos and Thailand. This family of languages consists of five languages associated the speakers clothing: Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao) and Yao.

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Miao-Yao languages were formerly classed with Chinese, perhaps because they are tone languages and show both ancient and modem word borrowings from Chinese, but linguists now view them as more typically Southeast Asian, closer to the Tai languages. Yao, used as an ethnic category, includes some speakers of Miao or even Kam (Dong) . It is estimated that no more than 44 percent of China's 2 million ethnic Yao speak Mien, as the indigenous language is called in China and Southeast Asia. Mien shares features with Miao and both Cantonese and Hakka. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

The Miao languages are found among the 11 million Miao in China, as well as among the Hmong of Southeast Asia. Miao languages are classed into three major groupings, each containing many 'dialects" that coincide roughly with marked cultural differences and geographical distribution across Guizhou and Yunnan and northward into Sichuan. Across and within the three major groups they are not usually mutually intelligible. In syntax, Miao too is more similarto Tai than to Chinesebut contains many ancientand recent borrowings of words from Chinese and loan translations of Chinese idioms.

Tibeto-Burman Languages

The majority of Tibeto-Burman languages are tone languages. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: China “recognizes sixteen languages within this family, divided among four branches. The best-known to foreign scholars is the Tibetan Branch (also known as Bodish), which includes Moinba and the Jiarong speakers of the Qiang minority nationality as well as some 4.5 million ethnic Tibetans. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Shan Chief

The largest branch, overall, is the Yi Branch (also known as Loloish), which shows more affinities with Burmese than with Tibetan. It includes a number of dialects or languages spoken by the 6.5 million ethnic Yi, who are distributed through the mountain areas of Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and western Guizhou. Additionally, it includes the closely related languages of several other minority nationalities. These are Lisu, Lahu, Jino, Hani, and Naxi, all of them located in Yunnan. Lisu, Lahu, and Hani (Akha) are also found in Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. With the exception of the Naxi, they are hill and mountain peoples. Both Tibetan proper and the Yi Branch produced indigenous writing systems that are still in use. The Tibetan script, based on Indic models, emerged some time in the seventh century.

The Yi syllabary script, which may be a thousand years old, was closely associated with religion and divination, but itwas flexible enough to be used for other writings. The Naxi devised a pictographic script, quite different from Chinese ideographs, as well as a syllabic script influenced by Tibetan and Yi writing. However, literacy was limited to a relatively small group. Within Chinese territory, there are two smaller branches of Tibeto-Burman. The Jingpo Branch is more commonly found in Myanmar, among the people known as Kachin, and is of interest to linguists because of its ties to Burmese, Tibetan, and Loloish. Dulong (Drung) is included in this branch. Finally, there is Qiang, a category holding two “dialects" that are not mutually intelligible. Some of the spoken languages within China have yet to be definitively classified: Gelao, which seems to be distantly related to Tai; Tujia, Nu and Achang, which are sometimes placed in Tibeto-Burman; and Bai, which remains problematic. Chinese linguists group it with Loloish, while some others argue that it is an ancient branch of Sinitic.

Religion and Beliefs About Death Among Minorities in Southern China and Southeast Asia

Most groups have traditionally honored a pantheon of spirits and gods — including ones representing animals, plants, the sun, the moon and the stars. Some incorporate elements of Buddhism and Taoism, and, more recently, Christianity into their spiritual belief system.Many villages have a sacred place of some sort where certain gods or spirits are enshrined and/or sacrificial rites are held. Some households have altars used for making offerings and sacrifices. Folk beliefs (which some might call superstitions) affect many aspects of an individual’s life and are closely tied with animist beliefs about spirits. Many involve measures taken to keep evil spirits at bay. Although some hill people have are Christians and Buddhists, the majority are animists or at least have retained many animist beliefs. Many traditional hill tribe societies have a shaman.

Missionaries have introduced Christianity to many minority areas. Some places have been receptive some have not. Protestant and Catholic missionaries, who introduced their religions, have also brought modern medicines and schools. The Christianity practiced by hill tribes in Southeast Asia is often not Christianity as we know it in the West. Symbols like the cross are present; people read the Bible. But in many cases Christianity merely provides a structure for existing animist beliefs. During Sunday religious services for some groups, for example, the sick are sprinkled with the blood of a cow, not holy water.

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Naxi offerrings at a sacred place
The dead have traditionally been both cremated and buried. Generally, corpses are buried with some favorite possessions while mournful songs are sung. Some groups practice double burial in which the dead is buried and then dug several years later and the bones are placed in a jar. Many groups embrace Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife and reincarnation but also believe that people became spirits after they die. The dead are believed to travel to another world where they can continue their lives. Special care is taken to make sure that they reach this other world because if they don’t they may become malevolent ghosts.

Some groups believe that dying a natural death at home is considered good while dying in accident away from home is regarded as bad, and likely influenced caused by evil spirits that are stronger away from home. Many hill tribes believe that a violent death causes a soul to wander and inflict harm on people nearby. In many cases people that died natural deaths are buried in cemeteries in the woods near a village while people who died in accidents or as a result of violence are buried somewhere further away because it is believed that these dead people become evil spirits and need to be kept away at a safe distance. Sometimes accident victims are cremated to prevent the release of potential malevolent spirits. Unmarried people who have died are often given “spirit marriages.”

Spirits and Unhappy Ancestors

Many animists believe that every living thing, even trees and insects, have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Animists also believe many non-living things such as rocks and water possess spirits. Among the important supernatural forces are aloof spirits that dwell in the mountains, rivers and the sky; and the evil spirits, often the forest-roaming souls of the dead ancestors who for one reason or another are not at peace.

Animists believe that things like weather and disease are caused by spirits. They also believe that the deceased become spirits that can bring bad fortune or good fortune depending on how they are treated when they were alive and when they are dead. Almost every aspect of hill tribe life revolves around making sure that spirits are happy and placated. A lot of time is taken up making sure the hundreds of different spirits that occupy the hills and the forest are fed and cared for.

Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the hereafter. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of what they might do when they die. Unhappy ancestors blamed for causing bad things are appeased and honored with prayers and special ceremonies. Sometimes property and possessions are still believed to belong to the dead. Before a piece of property or a family possession is sold, the dead are consulted often with the help of a shaman.

Many ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia give their children names like "Drunkard," "Snake" or "Bitter Shit" in the belief that these names will trick the evil spirits into believing that the children are not worth bothering and inflicting with disease.

Rituals and Sacrifices Among Ethnic Groups in Southern China and Southeast Asia

Ritual life takes many forms. Pigs, chickens and buffalo are sacrificed to appease ancestors and ghosts; trees are not cut down because it might offend the forest spirits; and spirits are consulted with shaman and divining methods to determine harvest times and control animals and the weather. During times of trouble special attention is devoted to spirits’ needs and making sure spiritual forces are in balance.

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Naxi shaman
Animal sacrifices are held by hill tribes to help sick relatives, assure that good spirits watch over their children, and appease the spirits at healing ceremonies, weddings, house christening and births. In ascending order of importance, chickens, dogs, pigs and water buffalo are all sacrificed. A small ceremony to cure a cold may require only one chicken while the wedding of the son of a chief might result in the sacrifice of many water buffalos. Occasionally, a pig is sacrificed for no other reason than because people are hungry for meat.

In a sacrifice, the spirits only take the spirit of the dead animal, which means that animal itself, including the meat, the ears, nose and tail, eyelashes and hoof slivers, are divided among the villagers. The Thai government used to have a tax on sacrificed animals which some tribes skirted by claiming an animal accidentally hung itself, and they had no other choice but to slaughter it.

During shamanist rituals shaman do things like sip powerful rice wine mixed with the feathers of a sacrificed chicken through a long straw and, after becoming intoxicated, chant rhythmically to accompaniment of a brass gong. After each series of chants more wine is consumed and the shaman goes into a trance. While in a trance a shaman attempts to communicate with the dead, the gods, demons and natural spirits and make out the form and destiny of a person's soul and heal illnesses with this knowledge. Illnesses, many hill tribe people believe, are caused by straying souls who became influenced by demons. The shaman's objective is to bring the soul back.

Yi shaman are known as bimo. Held in the highest respect, they carry out sacrifices and perform healing rituals with incense and bowls of chicken blood while headmen are responsible for controlling ghosts with magic. Often bimo were the only people in a village who could read the sacred texts that included clan histories, myths and literature.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China website; San Francisco Museum

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

Last updated October 2022

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