Elderly Chin woman with facial tattoos

The Chin is a group that lives in the mountains along the Myanmar-India borders and neighboring areas. The name “Chin” comes from the English version of the Burmese name and is used mostly in Myanmar. The Chin call themselves the Zo or Zomi, names used for them in India. Regional and dialect groups include the Chinbok, Chinbon, Dai, Lai, Laizo, Mara and Ngala. They are related to the Mizo, Kuki and Hmar in Mirozam and Manipur state in eastern India. The Chin tend to have darker skin than the Burmese.The Chin languages belong to the Kuki-Chin Subgroup of the Kuki-Naga Group of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. They are all tonal and monosyllabic and had no written form until missionaries gave them Roman alphabets in the 1800s.

There are believed to be around 300,000 Chin in Burma and roughly 600,000 in Mizoram State in eastern India. They have traditionally lived in an area of high mountains in villages that ranged between 1,000 and 2,000 meters. These areas were traditionally seen as so inhospitable few other groups wanted to lived there. The northern Chins have different customs and beliefs from the southern Chins. Groups like the Purum, Lakher, Mizo and Thadou also live in the hill country of northeastern India and northwestern Burma and have customs and lifestyles similar to that of the Chins.

The Chin are predominately Christian. They mainly live in the remote mountains of northwestern Myanmar in an area that borders Assam, India to the west, Bangladesh to the southwest, Myanmar ‘s Arakan state to the south and Burmese-dominated Myanmar to the east. It is estimated that the Chin, in a general sense including outside and inside of Chinland, number as many as two million, with the largest and noticeable number concentrated in the Chin State. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]

Peter Popham wrote in The Independent: “A century ago, the people of Chin State, in the Burmese mountains, were fearsome hunters, known to decorate their huts with the heads of their enemies, sacrificed animals to evil spirits, worshipped a Supreme Being called Khawzing, and raided lowland Burman villages to steal babies to be raised as slaves. Then, Baptist missionaries turned them into Christians – and they've lived, ever since, in towns straight out of the US frontier, marooned in a largely Buddhist land [Source: Peter Popham, The Independent, May 3, 2014]

Thanks to Christian missionaries, they are also literate. But in the process, they have been deposited in a kind of ethnic limbo: Christians in an overwhelmingly Buddhist land, Burmese citizens who feel neither Burmese nor anything else. Hunters with locally-made guns still march out into what remains of the woods, but the odd wild pig is the best they can hope to bring home. And the plight of the Chin is that of those hunters writ large: locked in a land which is as much their prison as their paradise.

Chin Groups

The Chin are made up of many different ethnic groups, who speak 20 to 25 languages that are not mutually intelligible, but can be divided into four groups based on linguistic similarity. According to the Myanmar government the Chin are comprised of 53 different ethnic groups (the numbers relate to where the group stands in terms of Myanmar government’s list of 135 ethnic groups): (33) Chin, (34) Meithei (Kathe), (35) Saline, (36) Ka-Lin-Kaw (Lushay), (37) Khami, (38) Awa Khami, (39) Khawno, (40) Kaungso, (41) Kaung Saing Chin, (42) Kwelshin, (43) Kwangli (Sim), (44) Gunte (Lyente), (45) Gwete, (46) Ngorn, (47) Zizan, (48) Sentang, (49) Saing Zan, (50) Za-How, (51) Zotung, (52) Zo-Pe, (53) Zo, (54) Zahnyet (Zanniet), (55) Tapong, (56) Tiddim (Hai-Dim), (57) Tay-Zan, (58) Taishon, (59) Thado, (60) Torr, (61) Dim, (62) Dai (Yindu), (63) Naga, (64) Tanghkul, (65) Malin, (66) Panun, (67) Magun, (68) Matu, (69) Miram (Mara), (70) Mi-er, (71) Mgan, (72) Lushei (Lushay), (73) Laymyo, (74) Lyente, (75) Lawhtu, (76) Lai, (77) Laizao, (78) Wakim (Mro), (79) Haulngo, (80) Anu, (81) Anun, (82) Oo-Pu, (83) Lhinbu, (84) Asho (Plain), (85) Rongtu. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Chins reside in north and north west in Myanmar. The principal Chin clans of the Tiddim area are the Thado, Kanhow, Sokte and Siyin. The Thado, more numerous across the Assam border where they are known as Kukis. The Falam Chins are the Tashon, Lomban, Laizo, Kwagli, Whelugo and Yahow. The southern Chins are the Hsemtang, Zhotung, Lawhtu, Vamtu, Kaka, Yokwa, Klang Klang, Bwal and Kwalringtlang. A wide variety of languages and dialects spoken. and the language of one village may be intelligible to a village a few miles away. =

Kamhow is understood in the north. Laizo in the center and Lai in the south.In the hills behind Pakokku are the Chin Boks, who fall into four clans: the Nedu, Men, Hnenyun and Ra. The Chin Bok women have tattooed faces. A large majority of the people are Chins. Mros (Mago), Khamis and Bamars form significant parts in southern and western part of Chin State. The majority of the people are Christians. There are Buddhists too. =

Chin Christians

At present an estimated 90 percent of Chins in Chin state are Christians. Chin State has the largest concentration of Christians in the whole of Burma in terms percentage. Salai Bawi Lian , Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said: “In 1899, American Baptist Missionary Rev. Arthur Carson and his wife from American Baptist Mission come to Chinland, present Chin state in Burma, and founded mission station at Haka present capital town of Chin state. They brought the gospel and Christianity to the Chin people. As we, the Chins had our own cultural heritage and religion, our fore-fathers did not accept Christianity easily when the American Baptist missionary come to our land. Only after 5 years of the arrival of the American missionaries that the first two Chin couples converted to Christianity in 1904. And following over a century, about 90 percent of Chins in Chin state have converted to Christianity and Christianity become part of Chin identity and culture. In 1953 Baptist Chins organized themselves as Zomi (Chin) Baptist Convention. The majority of Chin Christians are Baptist and there are around 1,000 local small churches in all over Chin state and several associations. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005 ]

“Since the first Chin conversion to Christianity in the early 1900s following the arrival of American missionaries, Christianity has been deeply entrenched in Chin society and has become part of the Chin cultural identity. Today, the impact of Christianity was not only confined within the spiritual and cultural contexts of the Chin people, it manifested itself as a uniting force for different Chin communities. With their conversion to Christianity, the Chins embraced one another as members of a community of faith in Christ. At the same time, there developed a new self-consciousness and political awareness of Chin cultural homogeneity, thus providing a new framework for Chin nationalism.

“Christian pastors and ministers secure high reverence and respect among the Chin people. They are highly respected as intermediaries between God and the congregations. Even outside of the Church, they play significant leadership role on occasions such as death, birth or marriage in the community. Also, because there are no Chin people represented in the local or state administration under the Burmese military regime, even in a secular setting, they receive high degrees of respect as leaders of the community. Today, their dignitary position has attracted the attention and jealousy of the ruling military regime, making them the first targets in the regime’s campaign against Christianity and Chin people.

Early History of the Chin

The earliest reference to the Chin is from A.D. 12th century stone inscriptions in China, which refer to them as living around the middle Chindwin River in northwestern Burma. Around this time Shan invaders began moving into the area and the Chin were pushed into the mountains. The Kuki are the remains of a Chin group pushed out of their homeland that were given protection by the maharajas of Manipur.

The Chin and Mizo were largely independent from other peoples until the arrival of the British. With independence after World War II, the Mizo were given their own areas in India and Burma: the Union Territory of Mizoram in India and the Chin Special Division of Burma. Later these became the Mizoram state and the Chin State. The Chin and Mizo have traditionally been dependent on the plains people to supply them with tools, weapons, silver, gold, certain textiles and brassware and other goods. To obtain these goods the Chin traded a variety of forest products. Occasionally the Chin staged raids into plains area for slaves, goods and human heads. Raids on tea plantations in the late 19th century forced the British to occupy Chin territory.

The Chins' legends describe how they were screwed by lowlanders. Peter Popham wrote in The Independent:“All the world's races, goes their creation story, were born from 101 eggs; the Chin were born from the last egg of all, and as a result were the most beloved of their parents. But by the time they emerged, all the desirable parts of the world had already been apportioned out; all that was left for them was the mountains. Additionally, the Burmese man who was supposed to be their guardian cheated them out of the possession of elephants – a Burmese symbol of royalty; and when the time came for lessons in reading and writing, he cheated them again by showing them only the blank side of the slate, so they never learnt a single letter. [Source: Peter Popham, The Independent, May 3, 2014]

The Chins were living as independent nation till the British invaded their land in the late 19th century and annexed all their territory into British Empire in the early 20th century. Northern Chin State was colonized by the British in 1895, and was then annexed into Burma, which was also a British colony.

Arrival of Missionaries in Chin Territory

Missionaries arrived in Chin State in 1899 and converted the first Chin couple to the religion in 1904. Peter Popham wrote in The Independent: “The founding parents of modern Hakha were Arthur and Laura Carson, American Baptist missionaries from the Midwest who had already evangelised for years down in Burmese lowlands. Then, in 1899, they were ready for a more serious challenge, among the Chins of the hills who had never encountered the Bible. They began their journey up the Irrawaddy River in a steamer, the Karanee, which "towed two flats, one on either side, each of which was loaded with ngapi (putrid fish) which is largely used as food by the people of this country," Mrs Carson wrote in her memoirs. "The night was hot and the fumes from the fish made me very sick all night so that I could not sleep." [Source: Peter Popham, The Independent, May 3, 2014]

“After a six-week journey through jungles full of tiger and wildcat and up steep, narrow paths where trains of pack cattle almost shouldered them over the edge into the abyss, they finally arrived in Hakha, "a military post where are stationed 60 Sepoys with three English officers". “Why here? "Chin villages abound on the neighbouring hillsides," Laura Carson recorded. "Many thousands of people are accessible from this place, not one of whom is a Christian and not one can read or write in any language. Their only religion is the sacrificing of animals to evil spirits; it is also their only system of medicine. To these poor people we hope to introduce the everlasting, uplifting influence of the Gospel of Christ and teach them the Way of Salvation."

“But on that first day and night, Laura Carson quailed at the scale of the challenge. They had arrived, as she wrote, "beyond the pale of civilisation". After a succession of small wars, the British forced them to give up these barbaric customs, but they remained who they were – a people whose story had, from its murky beginnings, been lived a very long way from anything that resembled civilisation. "On the evening of our arrival," she wrote, "I looked about in vain for the cleaner, less repulsive, higher-class people. My heart sank, for I could not tell the chiefs from the coolies. All were dirty and filthy beyond description." The British Assistant Superintendent – the ranking colonial official in the town – was out of station but invited them to stay in his home. It was not what Laura had hoped: it was a "little two-roomed stone and mud hut, with no floor and the ground under our feet worn into hills and valleys ... I began spreading quilts on the bumpy dirty floor for our bed. Finally, sitting there Turk fashion on the hard ground, I broke out with, 'Arthur, I can't do it! I simply can't do it! ... I can't stay on and live out my life in this awful place, among these loathsome people.' And I wept bitterly."

“But the next day something occurred which made her change her mind. She was paying off the Chin who had brought them up into the hills when it happened. "One girl about 18 was unusually attractive. I had tried ... to make friends with her on the way up … Her perfect figure was clad in a skirt not more than 18 inches long – that was all. With a beaming face she came to me to say goodbye, patting my face with a very grimy hand and smiling into my eyes ... I realised that Drummond was right when he said, Love is the greatest thing in the world. It is. I saw beyond the grime and filth on that perfectly formed and almost nude body. I saw the need of the soul ... What could not a consecrated Christian woman > do for her and those of her kind if she would? What a matchless opportunity had been given me!"

Conversion of the Chin

Peter Popham wrote in The Independent: “Seven years later, in 1906, the Carsons made their first convert. Two years after that – shortly before expiring from appendicitis – Arthur Carson baptised number one hundred. This pioneering, inexhaustible couple had learnt the language, written it down in the Roman alphabet, taught their converts to read and write, and had translated several books of the Bible, including the Gospel according to Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, into Chin and had them published.

They had brought influential young chiefs over to their side, proved native fears about evil spirits and cursed fields to be bunkum, and with the discreet assistance of officers of the British Raj, had shown the most promising young Chin that this alien faith could work wonders: could raise them in the eyes of the people who now commanded their land, and allow them to hold their heads high in the presence of the lowland Burmans who had always despised them. Today, because of the seeds planted a century ago by Arthur and Laura Carson, Chin State is overwhelmingly Christian.

“And as a result of all that, the earlier reality – the head-hunting, the slave-raids, the animal sacrifices – is completely inaccessible. It's as if it had never existed. Perhaps in the process of becoming 'civilised', the Chin have lost something far more precious. They have lost the sense of who they are. “By turning them into wannabe whites, with their clapboard homes and homely churches, their sweaters and jackets and trousers, they have alienated them from everything that made them what they once were.

“The last American missionary in Chin State left in 1966. That was four years after the coup d'état that brought General Ne Win to power. Everything in Burma that was tainted, in Ne Win's view, by a 'foreign' connection, had to go, from the Ford Foundation to the American Baptists who ministered to the Chin. Burma was locked up inside its borders.

Later History of the Chin

After the second World Wars, as Burma’s independence movement grew, the Chin decided to participate with Burmese and other ethnic groups in a constitutional process towards the development of a federal union. Thus, the Chins are co-founder of today Union of Burma by participating in a multi-ethnic conference concluded on February 12, 1947. The independent federal Union of Burma was created on January 4, 1948, at which point the Chin attempted to modernize and create a state with a democratically elected parliament, which was soon taken over by a military, socialist government. However, a military coup led by General Ne Win in 1962 effectively ended the Chin’s special political status within the Union of Burma as one of its primary constituent member. Today Chin people in Burma are not represented in any form of political decision-making in the national, state or local administration. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]

Chin villagers

Peter Popham wrote in The Independent: “We are introduced to the old ladies of the village, Dawt Pen, aged 76, and Ni Kil, aged 78. They are tiny even by the diminutive standards of the Chin. I ask them if they remember the Second World War. They certainly do. "The Japanese came to the village, they shot and cooked and ate our pigs and cows," Dawt Pen says. "There were airplanes, too – it was terrifying. We ran into the country with our parents to hide from them. We got so hungry."

“That was in 1943. Two years later, the pendulum swung back the other way, and the British who had first rampaged through in the 1890s were back again. Peace returned. Independence brought few changes. General Aung San was assassinated, and his promise of federalism came to nothing. Unexploded Japanese bombs were dug up, defused and beaten into bells for the churches. Chin State slipped back into the obscurity that seems its natural state: "...the world forgetting, by the world forgot...".[Source: Peter Popham, The Independent, May 3, 2014]

“The Ne Win years had not been too bad for Chin State: like the rest of the country it had stagnated, but unlike Karen State on the east of the country, it had not been regarded as dangerously disloyal. There were rebellions, there was a Chin Liberation Front, but it was all low-key stuff compared to much of the rest of Burma, which was in a state of more or less continuous civil war. But with the expulsion of the foreign missionaries, the Chin lost touch with the wellspring of their new faith. Now they were doubly estranged from all that surrounded them, from everything that they were.

“Then came 1988. The uprisings of that year, sparked by the regime's reckless decision to demonetise much of the currency, racked these hills too, and were followed by the same harsh retribution as elsewhere: the heavy hand of SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council – descended. Decades of isolation and decline were now compounded by a flood of the able-bodied and ambitious into exile. "About 40 per cent of the people left after 1988," our fixer, Sang Hnin Lian, told me. "They went to Malaysia, the US, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, they found work and sent remittances back. Now," – since the reforms started two years ago – "people have started to come back. But not many. And none to this village yet."

Chin Religion

Some 90 percent of the Chin are Christians, most of them adherents to the American Baptist Church. Protestant missionaries arrived in Chin State in 1899, which accounts for the large number of protestant Chin Burmese. Although some are Roman Catholic most are Baptists. Some non-Christian Chin Burmese practice animism.

Chin Traditional Marriage

The Chin pantheon of deities includes a vaguely defined creator god and his female consort. Christians have linked beliefs about this god with that of the Christian God. There is a wide variety of spirits. Some are associated with with natural objects. Other are associated with ghosts and dead people. Among the most feared spirits are those of people who died violent deaths and those of women who died at childbirth.The Chin universe is divided into two parts: 1) the sky world which includes the land of the dead; and 2) the earth. The Southern Chin bury their dead and hold a second burial in which the bones are placed in a jar. This who died violent deaths are buried away from others in and put in a jar lined with granite to keep the souls from causing misfortune. Spirit houses are set up on posts. It is believed that the spirts of the dead occasionally visit these. Memorial stones are also set up. In the past the stones of a man were accompanied by small stones representing the heads taken by the deceased or wives of other men he seduced. These days the stones list possessions often down to individual cups and socks.

Possession of the evil eye is trait that can be passed down from generation to generation. Evil is often associated with with envy, even something as minor as looking covetously at someone’s meal.

Most spirit mediums are women because it is believed they are better at attracting male spirits. Most priests are men who have memorized the chants and formulas that are required for various rituals. Various rites are held in association with the agricultural cycle. Divining is done by examining cracks in heated eggshells, bile ducts of pig livers or dying chickens held by their legs. Mediums are consulted for healing.

At present an estimated 90 percent of Chins in Chin state are Christians. Chin State has the largest concentration of Christians in the whole of Burma in terms percentage.

Chin Village Life

Most Chin live in villages or small towns. Because there is little flat land where they live, villages tend be established on slopes near streams, ideally in places that can be defended in raids. Houses have traditionally been built from wood on pilings with thatched roofs. Poor houses have split bamboo walls. Those belonging to the relatively well off have metal roofs. The houses generally have a veranda and a central hearth.Men smoke tobacco in clay pipes and women smoke in bongs with clay bowls. The Chin have traditionally raised their own tobacco. Bong water is stored in gourd containers and is consumed and sloshed around in the mouth as a stimulant and spit out.

Little Chin girl

The Chin have varying levels of education; Chin living in rural areas having typically have the least amount. There is little opportunity of education for youth at the refugee camps in Malaysia. Most Chin are familiar with the Roman alphabet, which will aid them in learning English. In urban areas, traditional medicine is virtually nonexistent, although home-remedies are often used in more rural areas.

Most Chin work in the agricultural sector. Corn and rice cultivation and farming are a large part of life for the Chin, and corn and rice are the main staples of their diet. Every Chin household has a garden for growing vegetables. Only those in high government positions need not grow their own.

In the Chin traditional house, there is a blacksmith's forge at the entrance of the house. The living room has no partitions or a window. In front of the living room there is a private room for bachelors. You can get there by climbing a wooden ladder. In the kitchen you can see these shelf made of rocks. On the lowest shelf are dried fish and meat. Other important household items include brass pots, water pots, rice- wine pots, cotton spinned machines, cradles and musical instruments. Gongs are the most valued possessions. Back strap loom are used to weave traditional clothes and blankets. You can also see Chin traditional dance which is very enjoyable.

Some forms of body language that differ from American body language. Eye contact can be seen as an act of challenge by the Chin. Crossing the arms in front of the body is thought to be polite behavior, and should not be read as a sign of hostility.

Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Chins as well as in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Kachins, Chins, Shans, Talaings and others.

Chin Men and Women

Men have traditionally cleared the land for agriculture and engaged in warfare while women did domestic chores. Both sexes engage in agricultural chores and other activities. In the old days there were some women chiefs. Inheritance has traditionally been from father to son. Some property of a woman can be passed onto their daughters. Older children often help take care of younger children, Mothers are not adverse to slapping their kids around. Boys are sometimes known to throw tantrums so they can get their way.

Chin children

The husband is the head of the household. Sons and daughters are equally valued, but only sons may inherit property. Support of/from clan members is expected. Preferred marriages are ones that help build alliances between clans, with a series of wife exchanges taking place over several generations between clans Polygamy is allowed but not widely practiced. On polygamous men, the Chin say: if his wives don’t like each other their arguing and bickering will make life miserable and if they get along theu will unite against him.

Children are often united in marriages arranged after birth. Marriages are sealed with the payment of a bride price. In divorce cases the men often try to prove the woman was at fault so their family can get back the bride price. Divorce of a woman for no reason is regarded as an insult against the clan alliance.

These marriage are often preceded by love matches. Girls often make the first move. It is not unusual for Chin girls to sleep on the verandas of the houses of boys they like but are too shy to make the first move. There used to be boy’s and girl’s houses where young unmarried couples could sleep together but are these no longer around.

Chin Society

Many Chin villages are divided into sections for commoners and aristocrats. In the old days some communities kept slaves. These slaves were often war captives, or dept payments or protection from revenge feuds. Hereditary slavery occurred among females who were considered part of an aristocrats household.

Some Chin groups have hereditary headmen that belong to chiefly clans; others have headmen selected by village councils made up of aristocratic leaders, who usually have their own support bases. In the old days headmen and coucals often demanded services such as farming and house building from villagers but that is no longer the case.

Wealth has traditionally been measured in terms of possessions of certain valued goods (see below) and ability to sponsor merit feasts, which have traditionally been held to celebrate a head hunt or the killing of a large game animal but now are held to honor the construction of a new house or whenever someone has enough cash to throw a party. Possessions are displayed at funerals as expressions of the status and wealth one has achieved in life. Some men hold a series of great feats and pay inflated bride prices in hopes that they will be accepted among the aristocracy.

The northern Chin used to hunt heads. The taking of a human trophy head was celebrated with a big feast. Headhunting and warfare were triggered by disputes over women, land or property. Head hunting was often carried out as part of raids on rival villages. The taking of heads was also done to ensure a place in the afterlife. It was believed that prosperity in the afterlife was dependent on a regular supply of slaves and this was achieved by taking heads, and celebrating the acts which appeased dangerous spirits and made it possible to take them as slaves to the Land of the Dead.

Chin Clothes

Chin men usually wear shirts and trousers but wrap themselves with colorful blankets on special occasions. They wear headdresses with vertical black stripes. The Chin “longyi is like the Bamar “longyi” except it has bold stripes. Chin women wear longyis long enough to cover their ankles, and decorated with horizontal stripes, diamonds or flower designs. Their open-front blouses buttoned in the center, with short sleeves with checkered designs along the edge. They also wear a broad band of silver and bronze wires around their waists. On festival days, they wear beautifully woven with silk blankets.

Chin women in traditional clothes

Burman, Kayin, Chin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan women’s “longyis” are nearly the same, made by cotton. A black waistband is stitched along the waist end. This waistband is folded in front to form a wide pleat, and then tucked behind the waistband to one side. Kayin and Chin men wear a long dress instead of a traditional “tiek-pon”jacket. They put the “gaung-baung” turban on their head and for footwear wear simple rubber or velvet slippers.

Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, and Shan women’s” eingyis” are nearly the same, comprised of a form-fitting waist length blouse. Kayah women tie this traditional shawl on their “eingyi”. It is embroiled of male and female royal birds of them called “Keinayee & Keinayah”. Burman, Rakhine and Mon women put the shawl on their shoulders. Kayah, Kayin, Shan , Kachin, Chin women tie a lovely band on their head Bamar, Mon and Radhine women wear beautiful flowers in their hair.

Chin Facial Tattoos

Facial tattooing is still practiced by the China even thought the Myanmar government doesn't allow it and the younger generation is not interested in it. Dave Stamboulis of the BBC wrote: Chin legend has it that when a Burmese king travelled to the region, he was so impressed by the women’s beauty that he kidnapped one to take as a bride. Because of this, Chin families began to tattoo their daughters to ensure they would not be taken away. Other Chin tales say that the tattooing was done for beauty, and perhaps more plausibly, to differentiate the different tribes in case one was kidnapped by another. Another explanation may have to do with religion. Since the time of British colonisation, many Chin minorities have converted to Christianity or else accepted it alongside the animist beliefs. Some Chin remember being taught by their local pastors that only those who had tattoos would be deemed fit to go to heaven. [Source: Dave Stamboulis, BBC, December 22, 2016]

The Burmese socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing during the 1960s as part of their programme of getting rid of the old and ushering in modernisations, with missionaries in the Chin also criticizing it as barbaric. These women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to the textbooks. With increasing access to the outside world, most young Chin don’t see face tattooing as fashionable or beautiful. In fact, many of them are embarrassed by their grandmothers’ seemingly out-of-date markings. But as photographers, journalists and historians make their way to the Chin State to document the disappearing tradition, some families are starting to take pride in their decorated grandmothers, their homes proudly displaying portraits of the tattooed women posing in full regalia.

In Kampetlet, Daw Nay Ngui, an elderly Dai woman, cackles that she has no idea of when she was born (although her daughter told us she is more than 90). She says she cannot remember when she got her tattoos, and thinks they have been with her all her life. “All the girls here now know about the outside. They see the computer, they read books and they like the fashion from Yangon, not our old-fashioned style, so they don’t think tattoos are beautiful. But all my friends had them, it made us close, we all shared something. I guess we are the last ones left.”

Different Chin Facial Tattoos

Different Chin areas and groups have distinct tattoo patterns. They used them to distinguish one group from another or indicate their martial status and social rank. It is possible to know where a woman comes from by the pattern on her face. Christian Develter, a Bangkok-based Belgian artist who studied Chin facial tattors, told the China Daily: “For Chin people, they feel like they are somebody having these tattoos on their faces, as they indicate their social status. More than social status, the facial tattoos are also indicative of the women's origins. People can tell where a Chin woman is from the design of the facial tattoos.” Some women in China from the Derung ethnic group in Yunnan also have facial tattoos from the same origin as the Chin in Myanmar, but there are only around 40 who still retain the tattoos.

Chin women with facial tattoos

Dave Stamboulis of the BBC wrote: The six Chin tribes wear an array of different tattoos. The M’uun women are the most easily recognisable, with large looping “P” or “D” shapes on their faces and “Y” symbols on their foreheads. The M’kaan women have line tattoos on both their foreheads and chins. The Yin Du and Dai tribes feature long vertical-line tattoos across the entire face, including the eyelids; similar to the Nga Yah who have dots as well as lines. The Uppriu tribe, one of the hardest to spot, have their entire faces covered in dots, with either blackened or ashen-looking faces because they are so full of tattoos. [Source: Dave Stamboulis, BBC, December 22, 2016]

While travelling from Mindat to Kampetlet, we met 28-year-old Pam Hung, whom my guide said was of the Uppriu tribe. She was wearing Western clothing and bright lipstick, yet her entire face was covered in a ghostly tattoo. She’s one of the few younger Chin women to have followed this ancient practice: having lost her parents at a young age, local elders recommended she get tattooed for spiritual protection. Despite the government ban, the Chin State is a long way from the capital and many mountain villages receive little outside interaction. “I got my tattoos after my parents died. Since I was young and on my own, I needed protection, and the tattoos have spiritual power to keep you safe. I was so scared when I did it, but my friends respected me afterwards for being so strong.”

Getting Chin Tattoos

Dave Stamboulis of the BBC wrote: The tattoos are made using leaves, grass shoots and soot. The leaves give colour, the soot acts as a disinfectant and the grass shoots are added at the end, acting as a bandage and natural healing cover. The concoction is applied to the face using sharp cane thorns (pictured), which prick the skin to create the pattern. “I got my tattoos when I was about 12. It was so painful, my face hurt for five days. I didn’t think about why I did it, it is just our custom and what all girls my age did then. My daughter doesn’t have the tattoos, and I think the young people don’t find it beautiful like we did”, Daw Ngai Pai, 72 of the M’uun tribe said. [Source: Dave Stamboulis, BBC, December 22, 2016]

Yaw Shen, a 86-year-old M’kaan woman and her neighbour, 88-year-old Hung Shen, are well known in Mindat. They’ve become stars on the emerging tourist circuit as access to the Chin State improves and visitors start to trickle in. Yaw Shen, who got her tattoos at the age of 15, entertains visitors by playing the nose flute, also a vanishing art. “My face was swollen for one week, but I didn’t mind. My mother told me I would find a good husband with such tattoos.”

Jay Tindall wrote in his blog: Four women with tattooed faced “told me how they were tattooed when they were nine years old, and how it was the ancient custom to do so to prevent invaders from taking away the local women. The tattooing took over a day to complete and was extremely painful, especially when tattooing their eyelids. [Source: Jay Tindall, December 21, 2012]

Chin Tattoos, Modern Art and Fashion

Gao Zhuyuan wrote in the China Daily: “The facial tattoos of Myanmar's Chin women have been transformed into forward thinking fashion. Christian Develter, the Bangkok-based Belgian artist did a show called “Chin: Unmasked collection” at Tube Gallery in Bangkok—with the Thai fashion designers and founders of Tube Gallery, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs— with paintings inspired by Chin tribeswomen with facial tattoos. The three-in-one collection was unveiled among a heady mix of cocktails, music and neon signs, silk, sequins, vibrant-colored dresses and models with facial tattoos inspired by tribal women from the north of Myanmar. [Source: Gao Zhuyuan, China Daily, February 17, 2013::]

"It is about the tattooed faces of the Chin women, it is about my paintings and it is about fashion, so it is three stories in one collection," says Develter, who spent weeks traveling among the Chin tribes last year. Unlike Develter who has met the tattooed women, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs, only saw Develter's pictures. The facial tattoos get an urban look after Develter modernizes them in his paintings. The two designers extracted the tattoo from one of the artist's early Chin paintings and produced what they call an "avant-garde mask". ::

Develter's paintings are integrated into the design through these graphic patterns. Some of the dresses show the woman's tattooed faces, while in others the faces have been inverted against an ocean-blue background that produces an ocean-mirror effect. "He (Christian) also showed us the colors Chin people use on their garments, and the materials they weave like cotton. So we used those colors to create our collection," Sakxit says. ::

Chin Agriculture and Economic Life

The Chin have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing a parcel land and using it for one to five years before letting it return to the jungle. The longer is was used the longer it needed to lie fallow. In some cases the fields are 10 kilometers away from the village. In the old days, the Chin occasionally changed their villages sites but since the British era have been required to be more settled and thus have overused the land near their villages and have problems with deforestation, erosion and depleted fertility.

The Chin have traditionally grown dry hill rice at lower elevations and millet, maize and sorghum at higher elevations. Sorghum is use mostly for making beer called “zu”. They also grow vegetables, beans, peas, melons and pumpkins. Cultivation is done mostly by hand without animals, using hoes in place of plows. The Chin also grow cotton and flax for clothes but do so less than they used to now that they can afford commercially produced clothes.

Pigs, gayal and fowl are the most common domesticated animals. Cows, water buffalo, horses and even goats are rare.The gayal is a semi-domesticated bovid forest browser bred for meat and ritual sacrifice. Dogs are kept for hunting The Chin still hunt but many of the animals they used to hunt — bears, barking deer, mountain goats, gaur, jungle cars, elephants and rhinos — are largely gone. Tigers were never hunted because there are believed to have human souls.

The Chin produce some iron tools and weapons using open-hearths fired by double-bamboo pistol bellows. They also make things like baskets, pottery, mats and textiles. They have traditionally produced some fine silk-thread embroidery known as “vaai” and jewelry made with beans, brass, silver and gold. Valued objects include gongs from Burma and brass vessels from China. These items were obtained through trade networks. They and gayals were traditionally used to pay marriage prices, blood money payments and compensation for loss of face.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine,,, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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