The Palaung are an ethnic group that resides mostly in the Shan States in east central Myanmar, with the majority of them living in narrow valleys or along the slopes and ridges of 2000-meter-high mountains around Kalaw in Taungpeng State near the border with Thailand. This area consists of cultivated lands, some open grassland and temperate forests in the upper elevations. The climate is typical continental Southeast Asian monsoon, with rainy summers and dry winters. The Palaung are also known as the Dang, Humai, Kunloi, La-eng, Palong, Ra-ang, Rumai, De’ang, Deang, Tang and Ta-ang. It is believed that there are around 560,000 of them although no accurate census data on them exists. In 1931 the total Palaung population in Burma was estimated at 140,000. [Source: Joel M. Maring, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993|~|; Wikipedia]
Palaung speak an Austroasiatic language in the Mon-Khmer group and have traditionally practiced animism and Buddhism. Palaungs call themselves "Ta-ang," along with several dialectal variants of that name.“ The the name "Palaung" is of Burmese origin. They are known as "Palong" as well as "Kunloi" (mountaineer) by the Shans. The name "Rumai" or "Humai" is occasionally applied to all Palaungs but actually refers specifically to one of their subgroups. A lot of Palaung (Taahn) are found in the northern part of Shan State, especially at Namsam Town, and also in Pindaya. Yatsauk and Maingkaing Townships. There are many in the Kalaw area in Shan State.
Palaung mainly live in the mountains,Treks from Kalaw visit Paluang villages. It can require a two to four hour trek through jungle and hills to reach a typical Palaung village. At first a steep track leads down into a narrow valley where the Palaung cultivate cheroot, tea, damsons and mangoes on the hillsides. The track crosses the valley floor and then climbs very steeply again to the Palaung village of Pinnabin. which sits on top of a hill. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
Palaung and Other Ethnic Groups
Palaung probably preceded the Shan and Kachin in east central and northeast Burma and established themselves in the Taungpeng area, where they traded mostly with the Shan. Joel M. Maring wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “During the nineteenth century Taungpeng, the political focus of the Palaungs, was marginal to the neighboring Shan principalities and its relationship to the Burmese state was even more marginal. Although there were tributary relations and trade with the Burmese, the greatest cultural influence on the Palaungs appears to have been that of the Shans. [Source: Joel M. Maring, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]
The Palaung are of Mon-Khmer stock. Their relationship with the Shan was so strong that the Paluang used the Shan language in commerce and even wrote down their myths with the Shan written language. Some consider them a subgroup of the Shan. The few existing legendary chronicles of the Palaung are written in Shan and most Palaung adult males speak some Shan. They are sometimes linked with the Wa although both the Wa and the Palaung deny they have any relation.
Palaungs are also reported in the southern part of Kachin State and in southwestern Yunnan, China. Many regard the Palaung as being the same ethnic group as the De’ang who live in China, mainly in Yunnan Province, and in Myanmar near the China border. Most De'ang in China inhabit Santai Township in Luxi County of the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture and in Junnong Township in Zhenkang County of the Lincang Prefecture in Yunnan Province.
Palaung Religion and Funerals
The Palaung regard Theravada Buddhists and their traditional belief in spirits to be complementary rather contradictory. There are two kinds of spirits: “kar-bu” — those found in people and animals, which tend to survive death for about a week — and “kar-nam” — those which are found in plants and inanimate objects. There are also garden deities for individuals, houses, villages and gardensand some Burmese ogres. Buddha is regarded as a beneficent spirit. The Paluang practice two forms of Theravada Buddhism: 1) he Burmese school, practiced by the northern Palaungs, and the Yuan or Shan school, practiced by all others. The latter is differentiated from the Burmese school by the existence of a series of grades among monks, each marked by ceremonies of increasing cost.
Traditional religious practitioners include: the “hsa-ra”, a combination medical specialist and diviner, who is often also a tattooer; the “bre”, a witch or wizard that is able to take possession of the body and take the form of a tiger; and the “ta pleng”, a shaman-like figure that acts as an intermediary between people and spirits. Charms and massages are employed to cure illnesses The advise of diviners is sought before choosing a house location and naming a child. Monks generally play no role in dealings with the numerous spirits or supernatural practices that pervade Palaung life.
The Palaung believe a person has two souls: the kar-bu and a the “vin-yin”, and the mind can become immortal. After death the kar-bu wanders for seven days looking for a new body to inhabit through reincarnation. Violent deaths, accidents and childbirth deaths are considered the sources of malevolent spirits. In these cases the dead are buried as quickly as possible in an isolated place. Regular funerals are conducted with Buddhist rites. The body is washed and buried in a coffin under an unmarked grave no later than a day after death. For a week offerings are made to an image of Buddha. On the seventh day a particularly large offering is made to as a send off for the spirit.
Palaung Marriage and Family
Marriages tend to be monogamous. Polygyny is practiced but rare. Marriages between young men and their mother’s brother’s daughter have traditionally been preferred. A man can not marry his father’s sister’s daughter. A man who fathers a child and refuses to marry the mother must pay a fine. If she refuses to reveal his identity, her father must pay a fine to the elders to appease the local tiger spirit. [Source: Joel M. Maring, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
Palaung houses traditionally have had a place where girls could welcome male visitors, who arrived late in the night after the parents went to sleep. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In the central Palaung area this takes place in the entrance room where one or more men may visit a woman to engage in conversation, which follows a stylized convention. In other areas the men must stand under the house and converse with the woman through cracks in the floor of her sleeping room.Sex appears to be uncommon. In some cases the couple talked through a crack in the floor boards of the house.
Marriages tend not to be arranged. In some cases couples get engaged without informing their parents or asking for their permission. In one Palaung area, elopement is the main form of marriage. In other places marriages occurred even when parents disapproved of the match. A marriage is sanctified with a blessing of elders. There is a transfer of money from the groom’s family to the bride’s family but this is generally perceived as helping towards the wedding costs rather a bride price.
After a couple gets married they tend to live with the groom’s parents. Children are usually taken care exclusively by the mother. When a child is born the mother and child sleep for 30 days beside a fire while the mother observes dietary taboos. The socialization process for children includes teaching courteousness, Buddhist morality, knowledge of spirits, and leaning song, poetry and myths. Children undergo a coming of age ceremony when they are teenagers. Boys are expected to spend some time being a monk as is the case with Burmese.
Palaung society is centered around households and villages rather than clans and lineages. There are aristocrats and commoners. Most villages have a chief, who settle disputes and take care of other matters. In the old days there was some organization along the lines of Shan chiefdoms and principalities and some contentious matters were worked out using trials by ordeal.
Men tend to do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, transplanting tea, building houses, packing and loading tea laves, cutting timber and watering the paddy fields. Women do weaving, weeding, tea picking, carrying water, processing crops, collecting fruits and vegetables, and doing household chores. Both men and women cut and carry firewood, fish, cook, thresh and winnow grain and make baskets and mats.
Joel M. Maring wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Spirit worship and Buddhism are strong forces for socialization. In recent times, judicial cases were tried by headmen of villages or, if serious, by the chief and the elders. Traditionally, however, the guilt or innocence of a person was determined by a variety of trials by ordeal. The strongest forces for social control are the requirements of proper behavior to gain Buddhist merit or to avoid reprisals by spirits. [Source: “Joel M. Maring, Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
The Palaungs of Taungpeng have a state system with a prince (saohpa ) and a petty court patterned after that of the Shans. Most other Palaungs live in traditional Shan chieftaincy domains. In both cases, at least in the early part of this century, the village community appears to have been the primary unit of political organization. In Taungpeng local administration was carried out by village officials who functioned somewhat independently of the capital at Namhsan. In the state of Möngmit, the clans had chiefs who were chosen by the elders, but who were usually the oldest surviving male relatives. The choice had to be reported to the saohpa of Möngmit. Chiefs were in charge of heads of village groups, who were in turn responsible for the village headmen in their respective areas. Except where personal influence had made them hereditary, other positions were filled by men chosen by villagers and confirmed by the clan chief. |~|
Palaung Villages and Homes
Palaung villages typically have two to 50 households and are often located on hilltops or ridges between hills. In the center of the village is a market area, a rest house for visitors, a monastery, spirit shrines and a small Buddhist temple. In the old days many villages were surrounded by stockades with a gate that was closed at night and inscribed or painted with Buddhist scriptures intended to ward off evil spirits.
Palaung living traditional village life live in the long houses unique to their tribe. Six Palaung families live together without separation in this 30-meter-or-so long house, in which all daily activities take place — weaving. cooking and child caring. Tiny chambers are set up for some degree of privacy. In the old days longhouses were built that held up to eight families. Today, Paluang long houses are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses.
Traditional Palaung houses found today are built above the ground on wooden posts and has a roof that nearly touches the ground as is thatched with grass. Walls, floor and internal partitions are generally made from bamboo. Those who can afford it use wood. Below the house is a fenced area where animals are kept and some domestic chores such as rice pounding are done. Most houses hold one or two nuclear families. Most houses have a verandas at each end of the house that serve as an entrance and a place for doing kitchen tasks. Most room have no furniture.
Palaung Life and Culture
The Palaung were never big opium users but many chew betel nut. They can't live without tea. Palaung women wear a blue jacket with a red collar and crinoline-like skirt, sometimes decorated with embroidery. Some men have had their entire body tattooed except for their head. Palaung costumes feature bright and saturated colors, with married women wearing cane rings around their waists to indicate marital status.
The festival calendar includes Buddhist holidays and spirit festivals. Circle dancing is performed at some events. A state spirit festival is conducted every September by the ta-pleng. The people assemble and have a big feast, following by scripture reading elders and monks Palaung like music and poetry, both recited and sung, is the most important Palaung art. Palaung have courting songs, tea-picking songs, wedding songs and dirges. Songs have traditionally been sung without the accompaniment of any instruments. Groups with drums and gongs perform at ceremonies. [Source: Joel M. Maring, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: While most people know and use many simple remedies, illness is believed to be caused by spirits whose influence, in Buddhist belief, cannot be warded off without the accumulation of merit. Some illnesses, such as insanity, are regarded as spirit possession by another person. The affected person makes offerings to the responsible spirit and, if necessary, seeks the help of a hsa-ra, who delivers incantations and remedies of plant and animal derivation. There are also women who employ massage and charms as cures. In childbirth, the woman is attended by one or more married friends who have had normal deliveries. For about thirty days after birth, the mother and child remain in the sleeping room by the fire, which is tended by her husband. She observes dietary rules and is periodically caused to sweat, after which she is massaged by her friends. |~|
Palaung Agriculture and Economics
The Palaung are primarily subsistence farmers and tea cultivators. They are not known as being craftsmen but they do engage in trading and women make cloth garments and shoulder bags that they sometimes sell for money. For the most part the Palaung earn enough money from tea to buy or trade for most of the things they want or need. Most goods are bought from peddlers or in markets. Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes over land are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land and tea farms are usually privately owned and inheritable.
The Palaung that live near lowlands practice some wetland rice agriculture while those that live hill regions practice slash and burn agriculture and grow dry rice for food and tea and tobacco as a cash crops. They also grow a large variety of fruits and vegetable in agricultural fields and household gardens for consumption and sale Food crops include root vegetables, melons, pumpkins, gourds, cucumber, beans, sesame, maize, tomatoes, eggplants, mustard, onions, peas, jackfruit, bananas and mangoes. Some dry cheroots in specially designed oven.
The Palaung are mostly vegetarians. They don’t hunt but do some fishing and catch eels. The animals they raise, particularly horses, are kept for work or trade. Tea is a popular drink as well as cash crop. Many villages have tea gardens and buildings used for processing tea. Tea was first cultivated around 1910. Some of the Palaung tea operations are so big they hire outside workers. Two forms of tea are produced: dried leave tea for drinking and pickled or fermented tea which is eaten in Myanmar.
Palaung Pickled Tea
The chief crop of cultivation among the Palaung is tea. The tea shrub is indigenous to areas where they live and grows wild all over the hills while tea cultivation is closely associated with Tawngpang. Tea is abundant in places like Mong Long, Mong Mit, Mong Khe, Panglong and in the Petkang areas of Keng Tung State. Tea likes a high latitude, shade and dampness. Tawngpang is the most suitable place with such conditions. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]
The tea is made in two forms: 1) Neng Yam, or wet or pickled tea; and 2) dry tea. One needs skills and experience for picking, drying and curing of tea leaves. The leaves are steamed in a wooden strainer with a perforated bamboo bottom, which is placed over a large cauldron of boiling water. It is steamed for a few minutes just to moisten and soften the leaves so that they can be easily and quickly rolled with the fingers on matswhile another lot is being steamed. These steamed and rolled leaves are spread out on the screen resulting in dry tea. The picking seasons for the tea are: May to June, July to August, September to October and November, each of which has its name. The first picking is always the best and it is called Shwepyi (Golden Land). =
The making of the pickled variety is more complicated. The steamed leaves are heaped together in a pulp mass and thrown into basket and left until the next day. The baskets are then put into pits in the ground and covered with heavy weights placed on top of each. Inspection is often made to see how fermentation is progressing and sometimes there is re-steaming . Palaung are the only tea growers who produce the "pickled tea, " which some of them call "salad tea." Palaung tea plantations are on steep hill-sides. It takes three years to get a crop, and after ten years or more the plants weaken and the output is poor. =
Much of the dry tea goes to different parts of Myanmar and some to Yunnan across the border in China. Pickled tea is transported down to Mandalay and Yangon for general distribution. Myanmar people like pickled tea more than anyone else and it has become a delicacy for them and is eaten mixed with a little oil, salt, garlic and topped off with sesame seeds. =
Abuses Against the Palaung
Myanmar’s government army has committed numerous rights abuses against the Palaung, many of them targeting women, during its offensive in northern Shan State in 2013, according to a new report. The report, focusing on ethnic Palaung areas and released by the Palaung Women’s Organization and Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization, accuses the army of raping female villagers and forcing young girls and other civilians at gunpoint to guide and porter for Burmese troops. It also says that villagers have been killed by landmines while tied up. [Source: The Irrawaddy, May 17, 2013]
One Burmese living in Japan, Mai Kyaw Oo, 46, Mai Kyaw Oo, from Shan State in eastern Myanmar, was a soldier of Palaung tribe. He fled to Japan in 1999, fearing for his physical safety. In 2003, he Oo established the Japan Council for Ethnic Minorities Burma, an organization comprising 11 Myanmar ethnic minorities, and continued to call for the democratization of his country.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, Wikipedia, BBC, and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022