WA ETHNIC GROUP
The Wa are a mountain people that live in southwest Yunnan along the border with Myanmar. They live in a well defined homeland called A Wa Shan, in the southern part of the rugged, wet Nu Shan Mountains between the Lancang Liang River and the Salween River. The Wa call themselves the Va, Pa rauk, and A va’all of which mean “a people who reside in the mountain.” Wa “means “people of the cave,” a reference to their legendary place of origin.
The Wa are also known as the Va, Avo, Benren, Da ka va, Ka va, La, Le va, Pa rauk, Xiao ka va, Awa, Kawa, Lawa and Lua. They call themselves "Wa", "Baraoke", "Buraoke", "Awa", "Awo", "Awalai", "Lewa". Others call them "La", "Ben people", "Awa", "Kawa". They were called "Hala", "Hawa", and "Kawa" in history, which means "people living in mountains". The name "Wa" was fixed by the Chinese government in 1962. Most Wa in China live in the two Wa Autonomous counties of Ximen and Cangyuan in the Ava Mountains in western Yunnan Province. There are around 1 million Wa living in Myanmar, residing mostly in the Wa Hills in northeast Myanmar across the border from China's Yunnan province.
The Wa are known for their animal sacrifice ceremonies, their handwoven clothes and unique cooking methods. They hunted heads until a few decades ago and sometimes placed the heads of their victims in their rice fields as offerings to their rice god. They speak a Southeast Asian Mon-Khmer language that is similar to the language spoken by the De’angs and Bulang but different from the Tibetan-Burman languages spoken by most of the southern Chinese ethnic groups.
The Wa had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. The still do not have a script for their own language. Some Wa keep records by cutting notches in sticks and convey messages by showing different objects. A chicken feather for example expresses urgency. Bananas, sugarcane and salt are offered to visitors as an expression of friendliness.
Wa Region and Population
The Wa have traditionally lived in the isolated mountain ranges in the border region between China and Myanmar. Most of their lands are poor. Capricious climatic conditions can produce floods and droughts.
In China, the Wa mainly live in the mountain and hills areas of Cangyuan, Ximeng, Lancang, Menglian, Shuangjiang, Genma, Yongde, Zhenkang counties in southwestern Yunnan in the "Awa mountain area" between the Lancangjiang (Mekong River) and the Sa'erwenjiang (Salween River) in the south of the Nushan mountain chain. Cangyuan and Ximeng have the largest concentrations of Wa. About 50 percent of the total Wa population in China lives there. The Wa generally live together with the Hans, Dais, Blangs, De'angs, Lisus, and Lahus. [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 ~]
Ximeng, Cangyuan, Menglian and Langcang are situated in undulating mountain ridges some 2,000 meters above sea level. Traditionally this area was called the Ava hilly region. With a subtropical climate, the fertile Ava region has plentiful rainfall and only 40 frost-free days a year. It is suitable for the growth of dry rice, paddy, maize, millet, buckwheat, potatoes, cotton, hemp, tobacco and sugarcane, as well as such subtropical fruits as bananas, pineapples, mangoes, papayas and oranges. [Source: china.org.cn]
Wa population in China: 0.0322 percent of the total population; 429,709 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 396,709 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 351,974 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]
Much of what is known about Wa history has been determined from Wa oral histories and Chinese historical records. Based on Wa legends, scholars think that the Wa originated in the mountains where they now reside. Chinese historical records from 109 B.C. refer to tribes believed to be the ancestors of the Wa. Records from the Tang dynasty (618-907) refer to the Wa themselves. From the 11th century onward the Wa were ruled successively by the Dali Kingdom, Nazhhao Kingdom. and the Chinese Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Wa established their homeland in the Wa Shan region and unified in part due to encroachment from the Han Chinese and other groups Feared as ferocious fighters, the Wa intimidated the British colonials, the Shan, the Chinese, other ethnic groups in Myanmar, drug lords and even Myanmar generals. The Wa were hired as mercenaries and fighters by the Koumingtan in the early 1950s and later by the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma.
There are several different legends about the origin of the Wa. According to the most common one the ancestors of the Wa came out from "Sigang Li", meaning they came out of a gourd or a cave in the mountain ( "Sigang" means a gourd or a cave in the mountain and "Li" means "to come out"). It is said that the gourd and the cave are in north Myanmar, not far from Simeng and Cangyuan Counties. God created Daguya and Yeli, who were the first ancestors of the Wa people; Daneng smeared his saliva on Yenumu, who later gave birth to the first Wa generation. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]
The Wa people are believed to be descendants of the "Baipu" people who according to Chinese historical records lived before the Qin period (221 BC- 26 BC). They were called "Wangman", "Guci" and "Kawa" in the Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties respectively. Wa people in different places in Yunnan Province call themselves by different names. For example, those living in Ximeng, Menglian and Lancang Counties call themselves "Ah Wa" or "Le Wa"; those in Cangyuan, Shuangjiang and Gengma Counties call themselves "Ba Raoke" or "Bu Rao"; and those living in Yongde and Zhenkang Counties call themselves "Wa". Interestingly, these names all mean "the people living on the mountain." +++
According to the Chinese government: Between the Tang and Ming dynasties, the Wa mainly engaged in hunting, fruit collecting and livestock breeding. After the Ming Dynasty, agriculture became their main occupation, and they passed out of the primitive clan communes into village communes. However, development in various areas was not balanced. Over a long time in the past, the Vas living with the Hans, Dais and Lahus had had their culture and economy develop faster through interchanges. As a whole, however, development of the Va society was rather slow before liberation. This was due mainly to long-term oppression by reactionary ruling classes and imperialist aggression. There were three areas in terms of social development: The Ava mountainous area with Ximeng as the center and including part of Lancang and Menglian counties, inhabited by one-third of the total Va population. There, private ownership had been established, but with the remnant of a primitive communal system still existing. The area on the edges of Ava Moutnain, covering Cangyuan, Gengma and Shuangjiang counties and part of Lancang and Menglian counties, and the Va area in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, where two-thirds of the Va people live. There, the economy already bore feudal manorial characteristics. In some areas in Yongde, Zhenkang and Fengqing, where a few Vas live with other ethnic peoples, the Va economy had developed into the stage of feudal landlord economy. [Source: china.org.cn]
Wa Language and Names
The Wa language belongs to the Wa-Deang branch of the Mon-Khmer group of the Austro-Asiatic language family. This is different from most other southern Chinese ethnic groups, which speak language that belong to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The Wa language is divided into three or four dialects, which include "Baraoke", "Awa" and "Wa". The Wa language is closely related to the language of the Dai ethnic group, from which 10 percent of the Wa words are borrowed.
The Wa people previously had no written language. They kept records and accounts by woodcutting, bean counting, rope knotting, and engraving bamboo strips. Each strip ranged from half an inch to an inch in width. They passed messages by using material objects. For example, sugarcane, bananas and salt signified friendship, chilies meant anger, cock feathers denoted urgency and gunpowder and bullets indicated the intention of clan warfare. [Source: china.org.cn]
The first written language created for the Wa was developed by British missionaries for the purpose of propagating Christianity and was not widely used. In the 1950s, after the People’s Republic of China was founded, the Chinese government a created new written language for the Wa that was not utilized much either. Many in China Wa speak Chinese and use the written Chinese language. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]
The Wa have employed a naming system in which father's and son's names are linked. This system has traditionally appeared at the transition period from matrilineal clan system to patrilineal clan system.
Many Wa still embrace their traditional animist religion. In China, the Wa used to have a reputation for being deeply religious feeling. Research in the 1950s found that 30 percent of Wa wealth was spent on for religious activities and 60 days a year was devoted to the worship of their gods. Even stomach aches and skin itching were believed to be caused by gods. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]
Animist Wa believe that things like weather and disease are caused by natural spirits of the water, trees, mountains. Ancestor worship is practiced. Wa believe that the deceased become spirits that can bring bad fortune or good fortune depending on how they are treated. Villages usually have a religious expert called a moba who presides over rituals and takes care of healing. Traditionally festivals and events like weddings, births and funerals have been marked with animal sacrifices and chicken bone divinations.
A few Wa are Buddhists or Christians. In Cangyuan and Shuangjiang counties, Wa influenced by the Dais, have embraced Theravada Buddhism. Christianity spread into some areas mainly as the result of the efforts of European missionaries. Wa dead have traditionally been buried in coffins made from a hollowed tree split down the middle. They are buried with a piece of silver or coins and tools and other objects which the Wa believe can be taken to the afterlife.
Wa Traditional Religion
The Wa have traditionally believed that each object or natural phenomena has its own spirit and that people, through rituals and ceremonies, can summon these spirits for their own benefit. They also believe that the different illnesses are caused by different gods, spirits and demons that can be appeased with different ceremonies. When they buy horses or cows, they conduct special ceremonies;. If they don’t do this, the Wa believe, the soul of the animal will not come with them, but will remain with the previous owner. *\
The supreme Wa god is Mujij, whose five children created the heaven, the earth, lightning, earthquakes and the Wa. Other important Wa gods are: Agu, the God of the Water; Dawu, God of the Wind; and Dawa, God of the Trees. Sacrifices have traditionally been a big part of Wa religious life. It has been argued that one reason for this has been that agricultural productivity and natural disasters were common and sacrifices were done in hopes of securing good luck to boost harvest and ward off disasters. *\
The Wa believe that all mountains, rivers and other natural phenomena have own their deities. They associate ghosts, gods and spirits with their ancestors. They call the sun god "Li", the moon god "Lun", plant god "Pen", animal god "Neng", air god "Nu" and water god "Ah-yong". The Wa people think that ghosts, gods and spirits, big or small, should have their own duties and responsibilities and can't manage others' business. If something unfortunate happens to a person, he has to give offerings to a particular ghost or god in charge of it for blessings. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]
The Wa believe that people die because their ancestors call their soul. After death, a shaman is summoned to teach to the soul the route to their ancestors land. The soul, the Wa believe, needs a few days to slowly abandon the body. Dor that reason they fed the corpse with a straw placed in the mouth for a few days. A place is left for the dead in the family house in case the dead wants to come back to visit. *\
Wa Sacred Forest and Baptism Myth
Many ethnic groups in southwest China and Southeast Asia maintain sacred forests near their villages. These forests are usually have a deep meaning to the life of the village and its inhabitants. These forests have traditionally been protected by taboos, such as not cutting the trees, not allowing domestic animals inside, forbidding pollution from human or animal urine or excrements and prohibiting jokes and outsiders. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]
Among the Wa sacred forests are treated in different ways depending on the place they inhabit. In places where the head hunting activities were once practiced, they were considered place were the deities of the village resided. Among the Wa of Ximeng, in the past, village often had several sacred forests: some for different clans, some for different functions, such as expelling the devils or disposing of hunted heads.
One part of the Wa creation myth has similarities with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. story in the Bible. According to a Wa myth, as related by Wei Deming, many, many years ago, when the human beings took their first steps on the earth, the were like fetuses that never grew up even when they got old. These fetus-people could not talk, could not see, and could not hear. One day, Yenamu, one of the female ancestors of the Wa, lead the people to a river, where they bathed and washed their heads. After that the people opened their eyes to see, and their ears to hear and their souls awoke. This myth also shows the importance of heads to the Wa and explains why they hunted heads and expressed affection to lovers by combing their hair. [Source: Wei Deming. “Wa zu wenhua shi” (“History of the Culture of the Wa”). Yunnan minzu chubanshi. Yunnan Nationalities Press, *]
Wa Head Hunting
Lafou was the god of head hunting. There are several myths that offer different explanations and stories behind the origin of headhunting but all of them consider the activity as an offering to the gods. Although headhunting has ceased completely in the Chinese part of the Wa region, it is said that there are some groups that still practice it in Myanmar, where news of head hunting raids was in the newspapers until the 1960s. Now only chickens, pigs and cows are sacrificed. The human sacrifices have been replaced by the cow sacrifice. The most important Wa ceremonies are those that involve the worship of sacred drums. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]
Heads were taken from members of rival villages or outsiders and kept in the “Wooden Drum House” before being placed on a stake with other heads captured in previous years. Villages hung human head every year to ensure a good harvest. The head of a bearded man was considered the ultimate sacrificial offering. Wa shamans believed the growth of a beard would greatly increase crop yields.
Among the Wa of Ximeng, in the past, some sacred forests were reserved for the disposal of hunted heads. These sacred forests were considered the home of the great god Muyiji and was regarded as highly sacred. In the past, the Wa performed special ceremonies after a head was taken. Before the ceremony the head was kept for a year in the House of the Drum. Afterwards the head was disposed of in a sacred forest, usually inside a bamboo basket, a hollow trunk or in a stone.
During the headhunting ceremony the head was placed on a bamboo stake was about two meters high and 30-40 centimeters of diameter. When it was disposed of in the sacred forest ot was often placed in a hollowed wooden trunk and covered with a stone. Sometimes a face was carved on the outer surface of the trunk, signaling there was a head inside. Near these trunks were usually stones carried there for the sacrifice a female pig, conducted when the head was moved to the forest. The heads sometimes were placed on a round stone with the skull placed in a concave part of the upper surface of the stone
The Wa have traditionally used their own calendar with a new year that begins in December and four main annual celebrations: 1) the service to the water spirit in New Years Day, in which many animals are sacrificed and new bamboo water piper are built for drinking water; 2) the “dragging the wooden drum,” in which a big tree is cut in the first and dragged to the village to make a drum; 3) the hunting of a human head to appease the grain god; and 4) the sacrifice of four oxen to transport the spirit of the head to the forest. The Wa are famous for their wooden drum dance Wa girls do a “hair-swaying dance. During the oxen sacrifices villages slice of pieces of meat from dozens of living oxen. These customs were banned in the 1950s by the Chinese government. Some have been revived in recent years but due to the loss of many moba in the Cultural Revolution the revival has been spotty.
The Sowing Seeds Festival is held in the "Qiai" month of the Wa calendar, that is, March of the solar calendar. In this festival, the Wa people gather to sacrifice an ox. The event is usually hosted by the owner of the ox. After the owner butchers the ox by thrusting an iron sword into its heart, its flesh is divided evenly into many parts, which are used by the villagers as offerings to worship their ancestors. The bones of the ox, symbolizing wealth, belong to its owner. After worshipping their ancestors and having lunch, the Wa people begin to sow rice seeds. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]
The "Bengnanni" Festival, the equivalent of Wa New Year, is held on the last day in the last month of the Wa calendar. It is a time to bid farewell to the past and welcome new arrivals. Before dawn, all the young and middle-aged men gather in the house of the village headman, with a pig and a cock killed as sacrificial offerings. Each family, holding a basin of glutinous rice and a piece of baba (rice cake) on a bamboo table, pays a New Year call to the headman and worship ghosts, gods and their ancestors. After that, all the Wa people give babas to one another, greeting with words of blessings. At dawn, after presenting offerings to their sacred tree, the Wa people go hunting and fishing, praying for good luck in the new year. +++
See Pulling the Drum, See Culture
New Rice Festival
The New Rice Festival is the Wa’s grandest festival. Celebrating the harvest and the taste new rice, it is held at different times in different places because the rice if ready for harvesting at different times due to different climate. Different villages or even households often hold it at different times however it is usually celebrated in the seventh or eighth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (the ninth or tenth month in Wa calendar). The date is determined according to the maturity situation of grain or the day corresponding to one of the 12 symbolic animals of an elder who has recently died. The purpose of the festival is to invite ghosts of ancestors to return home, taste the new rice with family members, and enjoy good times together. Families ask their ancestors' souls in heaven to protect their descendants, bring the family happiness and deliver good weather for the crops. So that the Wa in different places could celebrate the "New Rice Festival" together, in 1991, Cangyuan Wa Autonomous County and Ximeng Wa Autonomous County decided together to fix the date of the "New Rice Festival" to the 14th day of the Wa’s eighth lunar month. [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 ~]
The New Rice Festival usually lasts three days. In the middle of the eighth month of the lunar calendar when paddies are just ripe, all the Wa families go to the paddy fields to pick some fresh paddies at the time announced by the village headman. When returning home, they put some paddies in the prepared barn or bamboo basket, and pound the rest to be husked rice grains, which are soon cooked. After that, they place seven bowls of rice with meat and seven bowls of wine as offerings on the table, inviting the spirits of their ancestors and the gods in charge of the heaven, earth, mountains, and grains to enjoy their harvests. Then they burn seven pieces of incense. At the end of the rite, all the family members eat the seven bowls of rice. In the evening, Most of the people gather to enjoy the festival, singing and dancing until dawn. On the second day, all the young people go out to repair the old roads and bridges or build new ones, making ready for carrying bags of fresh paddies into the village. On the third day, the Wa people, continue to enjoy the festival with more singing and dancing. The young men and women often take this opportunity to seek out a mate. [Source: chinatravel.com +++]
Often Wa families celebrates the New Rice Festival independently. They make their own wine and prepare meat and delicacies are prepared. A branch of grain is hung on the door welcome the spirit of the dead back home. A shaman chants special words while the rice is offered to gods and ancestors. After the ceremony is finished, members of the family taste the new rice starting with the shaman and the old. Then the host opens the door to tell neighbors the news that they are celebrating the festival, and people come to congratulate him with all kinds of presents. The host butcher a chicken, pig or even cattle to entertain guests. Everyone celebrates the happiness of good harvest with joyous songs. ~
The Wa celebrate a torch festival in which participants light torches in front of their houses and set large fires in their village squares. The festival honors a woman who leaped into a fire rather make love with a king. Before the village torch is lit people gather around it and drink rice wine.
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, 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