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The Lisus, along with the Hmong, have traditionally been one of the Golden Triangle's largest opium-producing tribes. They are a fairly large ethnic minority that lives in southwest China, northern Thailand, northern Laos, eastern Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. Traditionally slash and burn farmers, they reside in villages widely scattered among other groups and are regarded as one of the most colorful hill tribes in Southeast Asia.

The Lisu are also known the Aung, Che-nung, Khae, Lisaw, Khae Liso, Lasaw, Lashi, Lasi, Le Shu O-op’a, Lesuo, Leur Seur, Li, Li-hsaw, Lip’a, Lipo, Lisaw, Li-shaw, Lishu, Liso, Loisu, Lusu, Lu-tzu, Shisham, Yaoyen, Yawyen, Yawyen, Yawyin and Yeh-jen. They are known by so many names because the live among so many groups, many of which have their own names for the Lisu. In Myanmar, they are also known as Yawyin or, in a few places, Yobin—a derogatory term meaning 'savage' used by the Kachin and Chinese.

The Lisu are believed to originate from eastern Tibet. Others think they originated somewhere else and moved to eastern Tibet-northwestern Yunnan in the 18th century. In the early 19th century they began moving southwards down the Salween River Valley into northern Myanmar and northern Thailand. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to the Myanmar government Lisu are regarded as one the better-looking hill tribes and they, it is said, they think of themselves a little bit above their other hill tribe neighbors. They are among the least bashful of these ethnic groups and have adjusted well to the changes taking place in their society and the modern world.

About two thirds of the Lisu live in western Yunnan Province in China in the mountains between the Salween and Mekong River. Most are in the Fujian Lisu Autonomous Prefecture. Others are scattered across a dozen or so counties in Yunnan and Sichuan. According to censuses taken around1990 census, there were 574,000 Lisu in China and 30,000 in Thailand. There are an estimated 250,000 Lisu in Myanmar; and several hundred in India.

Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) ; China Travel ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide ; (government source) ; OMF international (a Christian group) ; People’s Daily (government source) ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source) ; Paul Noll site: ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights

Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities ; Minority Rights ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site)


Early Lisu History

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The Lahu are believed to be related to the Qiang and are one of the first ethnic groups to be chronicled in Chinese historical record. They were referred to in the 12th century B.C. and originated from the western plains near the mountains in Gansu where the Qiang lived.

The Qiang gave birth to the Lo-Los, a tribe which once had a number of independent kingdoms in the eastern Tibet and the Sichuan region of China. Some anthropologists believe the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu and Lahu descended from the Tibetan highlands in the second century B.C. after some of them lost their ability to deal with the harsh cold.

The Lisu were mentioned in Chinese historical records, dated to A.D. 685 as one of the “Southern Barbarians” of Yunnan and Sichuan. They were associated with the area around the Jinsha River in northwestern Yunnan. Beginning in the 16th century they undertook three major migration, finally settling in the valleys of the Lancang and Nujiang River and mixing with communities of Han, Bai, Nu, Li and Naxi people. The migration of the Lisu into Burma, Thailand and India began in the late 19th century and appears to have been connected with the opium trade and deteriorating relations with the Chinese. The Lisu that came to Thailand arrived from the Shan states in Burma in the early 20th century.

Lisu and Chinese History

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Much of Lisu history is defined by their interrelation with the Chinese. This relationship involved raids, banditry, warfare, suppression and enslavement as well as intermarriage and trade of medicinal herbs, bear gall bladder, stag horns, beeswax and forest food by the Lisu for salt, iron and foodstuffs from the Chinese.

Mostly the imperial Chinese dominated the Lisu through the tusi (native chief) system. According to a Lisu legend this relationship began after the Great Flood many thousands of years ago when the Lisus found themselves living next to the Chinese. To determine who would rule the land the Lisu and Chinese leaders devised a test---each leader would plant a rod in the jungle and whoever's rod bloomed first would rule. After the planting ceremony everyone went to sleep. The unscrupulous Chinese leader awoke first and upon seeing that the Lisu rod had already blossomed he exchanged it with his own.

The Communist Chinese established the Muchiang Lisu Autonomous region, abolished slavery and the debts the Lisu owed and banned opium growing. The Communist also built schools and clinics and imposed Chinese-stye agriculture. The commune system of agriculture was not well received by the Lisu and was quickly abandoned.

Lisu Language and Religion

The Lisu language is Tibeto-Burman of the Loloish family and is closely related to Lahu, Akha and Yi. They often incorporate vocabulary from the language of their dominant neighbors. The Lahu and Lisu speak a language in the Central Loloish (or Yi) branch of the Lolo-Burmese subgroup of the Tibetan-Burmese branch of Sino-Tibetan languages. The Akha speak a Southern Loloish language.

The Lisu have no written language. A script for the Lisu language, based on Latin letters, was only developed in 1975 by the Chinese government. Some Lisu are literate in Thai and Chinese The Lisus say they had an ancient language written on skins but it lost after the skins were eaten by a dog.

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Lisu in Chinese characters
Many Lahu men can speak several languages, especially Chinese, Lahu, Shan, Yuan (northern Thai-Lao) and Akha. There are numerous Lisu titles. The Chinese and missionaries have developed Roman-based, and Chinese-based scripts for the Lisu language.

The Lisu religion is part animist and part ancestor worship. They believe strongly in the spirit world. Their shamans are used to divine the causes and make cures of all kinds of problems and sicknesses. The Lisu have traditionally believed in a spirts associated with natural phenomena and deceased human beings. Great care was taken not to offend the spirits thought to have the power to cause illness and bring misfortune. Each village has its own primary spirit. Divinations with pig livers, chicken femurs and bamboo dice were traditionally performed before important activities such building a house or embarking on a hunting trip.

Most traditional villages have a priest who is chosen through divinations. He keeps track of events scheduled by the lunar calendar and presides over rituals. Some villages have a shaman. His primary responsibility is contacting deceased ancestors and spirits to seek their help to cure the sick. In a typical healing ceremony a shaman goes into a trance, invokes the spirt associated with the disease the person is suffering from and calls on the family of the sick to sacrifice a pig or chicken.

At funerals, prayers are recited and ritual offerings are made with the aim of speeding the soul on its journey to the next world. Those who died in violent deaths or accidents are given exorcisms. The Lisu believe the spirit of dead person is potentially dangerous for three years. Ancestor spirits are honored with regular offerings of rice liquor, joss sticks and ragweed.

A few Lisu people have been converted to Christianity by western missionaries. Some were converted to Protestant Christians starting in the early 20th century. The first Lisu to be reached by Christian missionaries were the Salween branch of the Lisu in Yunnan Province, China. Some Lisu have resisted the influence of missionary and mourn the loss of their original religion and gradual decay of their culture.

Lisu Festivals

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Sword pole
Festivals and holidays are set to lunar calendars on schedules that often differ from village to village. Lunar New Year is the is the biggest celebration of the year. It last several days and includes feasting, courtship rituals, displays of fine clothes and jewelry. Tree-renewal ceremonies are held to purge malevolent spirits and create a comfortable environment for protector spirits. .

The Sword-Pole Festival is held on the eighth day of the second lunar month. Participants climb a ladder made of swords in their barefeet.

The Lisu 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.

Lisu Marriage and Family

left Most marriages are monogamous and require a bride price or bride service if the groom’s family can not come up with bride price. Young people are given some freedom in choosing their partners as long as they are not close relatives. Cross cousin marriages are preferred, with families exchanging mates over time.

Wedding ceremonies are relatively simple: usually a large feast. Afterward the couple often lives with the bride’s family until the groom finishes his bride service, then they move in with the husband’s family and remain there until they have a child and start their own household. Divorces are rare.

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 ate rarely disciplined. By the time girls are 5 they are doing household chores. When boys and girls are 8 or 9 they begin working in the fields and taking care of younger siblings.

Lisu Society

right Society is organized into clans based on surname group, patrilineal lineage, and religious beliefs Households form alliances based on kinship and social, political and economic self interest. Villages are generally independent from one another

Men tend to hunt and do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, hunting and collecting and chopping up firewood. 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 household chores.

Village leadership is provided by and disputes are settled by elder males. Headmen are often figurehead leaders. Gossip and threats of supernatural punishment are used to maintain social control. Vendettas and blood fields sometimes occur between different Lisu households and between Lisu and other tribes.

Lisu men are renowned for their bravery and fighting skills. The Lisus are proud of their history of turning back numerous Chinese incursions into their territory. The Lisu were often recruited as soldiers by Chinese warlords and the Chinese emperor himself. In World War I, a Lisu battalion distinguished itself in fighting Mesopotamia.

Lisu Villages and Homes

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Lisu village

Lisu villages are found in the foothills, mountain valleys and mountains. They are usually built close to water to provide easy access for washing and drinking. Their homes are usually built on the ground and have dirt floors and bamboo walls, although an increasing number of the more affluent Lisu are now building houses from wood or even concrete. The Lisu have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet, an altitude perfect for growing opium poppies, their major cash crop. They often live in the foot hills above valleys occupied by lowland people such as the Karen and Han Chinese in villages often interspersed with villages of Karen, Yi, Akha, Lahu and other minorities. The areas where the Lisu live were once and still are covered by tropical rain forests.

Lisu villages typically have 10 to 50 households and are often set up just below the ridge of a mountain, sheltered by forests and near a water source. Water is often piped in a series of troughs made from split bamboo or collected from a well or tap system. Nearby slopes are used to raise herbs and vegetables. Rice and other grains are stored in granaries raised off the ground for protection against animals. Animals are kept in pens under the house. Pigs are generally allowed ro run free.

Lisu houses are built on the ground and have a wood frame, split bamboo walls and a roof thatched with leaves or cogon grass. A box filled with earth serves as a hearth for cooking fires. A house for the village spirit is built on the highest land in the village. The house below it faces the nearest stream. Some Lisu live in stilted houses.

Lisu Life

The Lisu make, consume and sell large amounts of liquor made from rice, maize, sorghum and millet. Many chew betel nut or fermented tea leaves. Some smoke opium Lisu arts include cloth making, basketry, embroidery and applique work. They make music with gourd flutes and pipes and three-string guitars. Their singing includes call-and-response love songs between groups of young men and women. Singing, dancing and music are features of festivals.

Lisu make their clothing from gaily-colored cloth stitched into outfits trimmed with row upon row of varied-colored strips of cloth. The women wear brightly colored costumes consisting of blue- or green-colored, knee-length tunics with a wide black belt and blue, black or green pants. Sleeves, shoulders and cuffs are heavily embroidered with narrow. horizontal bands of blue, red and yellow. The more affluent wear massive amounts of hand-crafted silver ornaments during festive occasions. Men wear baggy pants, often in brightly colored but normally wear a more western type of shirt or top.

The Lisu are famous for the multicolored turbans, colorful clothes and opulent jewelry. Men and women wear long sarongs Women make shoulder bags and clothes embroidered with abstract designs. Jewelry is a sign of wealth and is worn by men and women on their wrists, neck, ears, breast and back

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Lisu Dermographism

Lisu women in traditional clothes wear unusually large and broad tassel-decorated discs with dangling strings of beads of yarn, hooplike silver bangles, and multicolored long-sleeve blouses worn over their trousers. Unlike the men in other tribe, Lisu men are not to be outdone by the women. They often sport a single earing and their colorful clothing includes baggy blue trousers and silver-decorated jackets.

Black Lisu wear a tight-fitting cap made from strings of red beads and white buttons with tiny brass bells across the forehead.

Lisu Economics

Lisu have traditionally subsisted on mountain rice, fruit and vegetables, typically living in ecologically fragile regions that do not easily support subsistence and prone to physical and natural disasters. Lisu men produce crossbows, musical instruments, bird and animal traps and other items made of wood, bamboo and rattan. In Myanmar, the Lisu make hand-knitted string crafts.

The Lisu have traditionally raised opium as a cash crop. The men still smoked it in dank bamboo huts . Women sell embroidery and sometimes dance for tourists to bring in money to feed their families. In Thailand, the Lisu have successfully been persuaded to switch from growing opium to raising tea, fruit and vegetables.

The Lisu are primarily subsistence farmers. They are not known as being traders or craftsmen. Women make cloth garments and shoulder bags. They uses to make them from cotton and hemp they grew themselves but now they usually buy the cloth and decorate it. Some men and women make baskets, barrels, fans, sleeping mats and other products from wood and bamboo. Material they use for housing---wood, grasses and bamboo---they collect themselves

Most trade is with Chinese merchants or opium traders. 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.

Lisu Agriculture and Hunting

right Some Lahu practice wetland rice agriculture and raise fruit trees but most practice slash and burn agriculture and grow dry rice, millet, barley, buckwheat, vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, gourds, beans, yams, sweet potatoes, sesame, chilies to eat, corn to feed to pigs, and tea, tobacco, cotton and opium as a cash crops. Pig are the primary source of meat and protein. Some times they are sold to lowland groups. Chickens are also common. They are kept for sacrifices and food.

Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land is often privately owned and is inheritable.

The Lisu collect medical herbs, honey, wild mangoes, wild ginger, wild yams, bird’s eggs, bamboo shoots, pine nuts, grasshoppers and flying ants and foods and in the forest and hunt deer, wild pigs, pangolins, bear, and porcupines with crossbows, slingshots, guns, traps and snares. Some collect orchids, parakeets and parrots and sell them to lowlanders.

Lisu hunters have great respect for the animals they hunt. In northern Myanmar they decorate their homes with skulls of monkeys and deer and other animals they have killed. The Lisu believe that by saving the skulls of their kills they will improve their luck killing that particularly species. These days many hunters are killing animals to sell rather than just eat and this putting pressure in the animal population in places that are with in the their reach

The Lisu have traditionally hunted with crossbows but increasingly have switched to guns where the can get a hold of them. They are known for hunting in the mountains and the lowlands, wherever the hunting is good.

Image Sources: Nolls China website , Joho maps

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 April 2014

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