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Hill tribe is a term long used by British and American travelers and colonial authorities in South Asia and Southeast Asia to describe indigenous groups that inhabit highland areas. The term is not liked by anthropologists because it has racial overtones (Why for example are the Swiss and Scotts not referred to as hill tribes?), plus it catalogues a variety of diverse groups into a single category and minimizes their differences and downplays the things that make them unique or even extraordinary. The preferred term is ethnic minority, or simply minority.

In most cases hill tribes are defined as indigenous communities that live at an elevation above 1,000 meters. Tribes tend to be groups that occupy a certain geographical area and marry within the group. They often have their own language and their own distinct material culture.

Hill tribe members have traditionally been regarded as animists but there are many examples of hill tribe members who are Buddhist and Christian. And while most have traditionally been agriculturists there are also examples of ones who are pastoralists and artisans.

Rather than mingling with the lowland people, the hill tribes have preferred to keep to themselves by living in small villages nestled in mountains that were once covered with dense forests. In many cases, the hills tribes consider themselves to be politically independent from the government of the country they reside in, and the land they live on to be separate states.

Websites and Sources: Book Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Paul Noll site: paulnoll.com ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984

Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian Hill Tribes

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Yi women and children

The ethnic minorities referred to here as hill tribes reside primarily in the remote mountains and hills of northern Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), southern China, Laos, western Vietnam, and Cambodia. There are several dozen different tribes and sub-tribes. The ones that have traditionally grown opium in the "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Laos and northern Thailand are perhaps the most well-known.

No one is exactly sure where most of the hill tribes came from: many had no written language until recently; and their languages, religion, customs and style of dress are often quite different from other groups near them. For the most part they are regarded as being ethnically different from the people in the lowlands and have lived for centuries beyond the reach of any centralized government.

Hill tribes are popular with tourists because of their fascinating and unique customs, styles of dress, architecture and crafts. Some tribes wear their traditional costumes all the time. Others only wear them during important festivals or events such as weddings and funerals. Yet others throw them on when tourists show up. Their festivals are often colorful and aspects of their daily life and religion are quite alien and interesting to Westerners and Chinese

Hill Tribe Regions

The mountainous region occupied by the hill tribes extends for 1500 miles between the Himalayas to the South China Sea. It is region of mountains, forests and areas cleared for agriculture. The climate is tropical with distinct wet and dry seasons. The lowlands are occupied by tropical rain forests and land used mainly for growing wet rice. At about 1,000 meters, where many tribes live, deciduous forest give way to pine forests. Transportation in the lowlands has traditionally been along river valleys, which run mostly north to south between north-and-south-running mountain ranges. In the highlands people get around on foot paths.

In Myanmar, ethnic minorities account for a 20 percent of the population and live on 50 percent the land. In Laos, they make up 50 percent of the population and occupy 80 percent of the land. In Vietnam where they are known as "Montagnards" (French for "Mountaineers") they account for 15 percent of the population and occupy more than two thirds of the land.

Some tribes in China and Myanmar live in recognized semi-autonomous states and others, especially in Laos and Myanmar, have members who have taken up arms and formed pro-independence rebel groups. The governments in Thailand and Myanmar and other Asian nations have also tried to convince the opium-growing tribes that it is more advantageous for them to live in semi-permanent settlements, growing cash crops like coffee and strawberries, than it is to move from place to place, raising opium.

Minorities in Southern China

Southeast China is home to numerous minorities, many of them hill tribes similar to those found in nearby Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the minorities live in Yunnan, a province along the border of Burma and Laos, and Guangxi Province, which has two autonomous regions within it for minorities.

The largest minorities in this part of China are the Yi, who number in the millions and live primarily in Yunnan province, and the Miao, who number more than 5 million and live mainly in Guangxi Province. Among the smallest minorities are the Drung (5,000 members), the Jinuos (12,000), and the Pumis (24,000). These minorities, which live in Yunnan, are treated like "exotic pets" by the Han Chinese who find their customs and habits amusing and gawk at them as if they were animals in a zoo.

The Chinese government has criticized hill tribes in southern China for providing their own with "poor education quality" and said that "the temptations of modern life have failed to lure these Miao out of their dark, unhealthy cave."

Books: “An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China” by James S. Olson, Greenwood Press, 1998; “Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China” by Stevan Harrell, University of Washington Press, 2002; The Exploration of Yunnan by Jim Goodman.

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Ethnic Groups in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou

Yunnan province is home to a third of all the ethnic minorities in China. Some groups originated from the region; others are believed to have come from the outside. The Bai people are believed to have lived in their homeland for 3,000 years. Archeological excavation in Kunming have unearthed 2000-year old weapons, drums, paintings and silver, jade and turquoise jewelry

The 26 registered minorities in the Yunnan Province include the Achang, Bai, Benglong, Bonan, Bulang, Dai, De'ang, Drung, Dulong. Hani (Akha), Hui, Jinuo, Jingpo (Kachin in Burma), Lahu, Lisu, Miao (Hmong), Mongols, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, She, Tibetans, Wa, Yao, Yi, and Zhuang,

Minorities that live in Guangxi Province include Dong, Jing (also found in Vietnam), Yi, Maonan, Miao, Miaai, Mulam, Mulao, Tujia, Yao (mein), and Zhuang,

Minorities that live in Guizhou province include the Miao, Bouyei, Dong, Yi, Shui, Hui, Zhuang, Bai, Tujiao and Gelao. These tribes celebrate over a 1,000 festivals a year.

History of Minorities in Southern China

Some ethnic minorities have been where they are for a considerable length of time. Most migrated from somewhere else. Some originated in China. Others came from Tibet. Much of what is known about their past has been ascertained through studies of their languages, oral history, myths and Chinese records.

Some groups were primarily hunters and gathers in the early stages of their development and adapted to agriculture relatively late and then practiced relatively primitive slash and burn agriculture rather than more sophisticated, irrigated, wet-land, rice agriculture.

A late Zhou dynasty historian wrote: "the people of those five regions — the Middle states and the Jung, Yi, and other wild tribes around them — all had their severe natures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without it being cooked." The same historian also described tribes to the south, west and north that tattooed their foreheads, turned their feet inward, wore skins, and lived in caves.

The discovery of a huge new 3,000-year-old neolithic site in Yunnan Province was announced in July 2008. Covering an area of four square kilometers, it is one of the largest Neolithic sites ever found. Thousands of artifacts and wooden poles have been unearthed. The poles, found 4.6 meters underground, were supports for buildings.

In the A.D. 7th and 8th century, the Bai established a powerful kingdom south of Dali in Nanzhou after driving out the imperial Chinese army of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Extending across southern China and reaching into northern China, the Bai kingdom grew rich by controlling the important trade routes between China, Burma and India and helped the Chinese fight against the Tibetans. The Thais and a handful of Chinese and Southeast Asian ethnic groups descended from the members of the Bai kingdom.

In the 10th century, the Nanzhou kingdom collapsed and was replaced by the Kingdom of Dali, which embraced 37 tribes and had good relations with China. It lasted until Kublai Khan's Mongol invasion in the 13th century.

Agriculture was made easier with the introduction of Irish potatoes and maize in the 16th century and the adoption of high-altitude-cool-weather crops like buckwheat, barley, and oats

Marco Polo in Yunnan

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Marco Polo

Of his travels in Yunnan, Marco Polo wrote about local religious customs, shamanistic healing practices and the use of cowrie shells and salt as money, all of which have been verified by scholars. He also wrote about a giant snake with legs and a mouth "so large that it could well swallow a man." Some believe he was referring to crocodiles that lived in the region or to a local legend of a giant man-eating snake.

Marco Polo described people in Yunnanwith tattoos and gold-sheathed teeth. The tattoos were applied, he wrote, using "five needles joined together...they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff." The Dai that live in the area he visited have gold teeth and tattoos like those he described. Marco Polo also wrote "people are accustomed to eat the raw flesh of fowls, sheep, oxen and buffalo...the poorer sorts only dip it in a sauce of garlic mixed with good spice...they eat it as well as we do the cooked. The Bai people around Dali eat the same way today.

Describing the Yunnan city of Kunming in the 13th century, when it was under the rule of the Kingdom of Dali, Marco Polo wrote: "In it are found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population, consisting of idolaters, Nestorian Christians and Saracens or Mohametans...The land is fertile in rice and wheat...For money they employ the white porcelain shell, found in the sea, and which they also wear as ornaments around their necks.” He also said, “The natives do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connection with their wives, providing the act is voluntary on the woman's part "

Minorities Under the Chinese

In imperial times many of the larger, more powerful ethnic groups such as the Dai operated under the tusi system in which local leaders (called “tusis”) were given charters and tacit approval by the Chinese government to govern in return for nominal recognition of imperial authority. The tusi system was a sort of state authorized feudal system in which peasants came under control of tusi landlords and were required to pay them half their harvest as taxes. The system survived for centuries and in some cases was used as an excuse by the powerful groups to subjugate less powerful ones.

Starting in Ming dynasty China began replacing many of the native chiefs in the tusi system with Han Chinese officials, a policy that was continued under the Qing dynasty. Many minorities came under direct Chinese control. Some were under the control of a Chinese magistrate and a native leader.

After the Ming armies drove out the Mongols in the 14th century, many Chinese moved into the Dali area and intermarried with the Bai. In 1874, a Hui Muslim named Du Wenxiu united the Bai, Naxi, Yi and Dai in a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was brutally put down in 1892. Missionaries arrived when the Burma Road was constructed nearby in 1937-38. In 1956, the Dali Baizu Autonomous Region was created under the Communists.

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Jinuo goddess

Religion of Minorities in Southern China

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.

Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima, the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.

Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive dies its spirit has to go somewhere.

Spirits and Unhappy Ancestors

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Naxi offerrings at a sacred place

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.

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.


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Naxi shaman

Many traditional hill tribe societies have a shaman. Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors.

Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets they will die.

Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.


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.

Spirit Rituals of Southern Chinese Minorities

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Dulong sacrifice

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.

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.

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.

Sacrifices of Southern Chinese Minorities

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Wa sacrifice

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 accidently hung itself, and they had no other choice but to slaughter it.

Shaman Rituals of Southern Chinese Minorities

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 can read the sacred texts that included clan histories, myths and literature.

See Health Care

Funerals and Death of Southern Chinese Minorities

The dead have traditionally been both cremated and buried. Generally, corpses are buried with some favorite possessions while mournful songs are sung.

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.”

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.

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html; Johomaps, trip.org, 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 April 2010

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