SHAN LIFE AND CULTURE

SHAN SOCIETY


elderly Shan woman

Village life revolves more around community and home village than family or kin. The hierarchal social organization of the Shan is based on age, wealth, gender and family background. Society was traditionally divided into aristocrats and commoners with various levels within aristocrat and commoner groups. Among the commoners the lowest of the low were “kachao” (slaves). The Shan have traditionally settled disputes among themselves with the guidance of village elders rather through the local judicial system. Gossip and maintaining a god reputation help keep people in line. Judgments and punishments are often made based on Buddhist beliefs and scriptures.

Descent is bilateral — along both the male and female lines. Kinship is not an organizing principle in Shan society. Ppeople recognize a wide range of others, including are their kin and non-kin treated like kin. Kin terms distinguish relative age and sex with different terms for older/younger siblings and older/younger siblings of one's mother or father. Kin terms are used primarily as terms of address because Shan do not refer to people by their name without an address term or title. Even when using titles such as "teacher" or "ex-monk," a kin term precedes it. [Source: Nicola Tannenbaum, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993|]

Nicola Tannenbaum wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Traditionally Shan were members of numerous small states ruled by princes having relationships with China, Burma, and northern Thailand. Other lower-ranking officials dealt with clusters of villages and individual villages. Government officials were viewed as one of the five natural disasters. Shan villages in Thailand are administered as is the rest of Thailand, with elected village headmen and village-cluster headmen responsible to an appointed district officer. Shan in China are administered as a minority group in an autonomous region. In the precolonial period Shan fought with Burmese, other Shan, Chinese, Northern Thai, and other neighboring groups in succession disputes and assorted alliances.

Shan Life

Men have traditionally done the heavy work like plowing, irrigating the fields, hunting. Women have traditionally done much of the agriculture work, domestic chores men, and sold stuff in the markets. Old married women in the Shan tribe have no identity of their own. When they meet someone they don’t know they are introduced not by their own name but as their husband’s wife.

Shan like chewing betel nut, smoking truncated cigars, and drinking rice liquor. Shan use Western medicine where available and use traditional medicine similar to traditional Chinese medicine that involves using the four elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—together with hot and cold to diagnose and treat illness. Buddhist verses are important in curing, either being blown over the patient or recited over water for the patient to drink.

Shan Marriage and Family


young Shan woman

There are few marriage restrictions other than not marrying close relatives. Marriages need parental approval and are often organized by a matchmaker Bride-prices are paid by the groom’s family. The bride’s family contributes to wedding and setting-up-home costs. These matters are often negotiated with the help of the matchmaker. Bride snatching and elopement is sometimes done to get out of paying the bride price and thwart disapproving parents. [Source: Nicola Tannenbaum, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Couples usually live with or near the bride’s family — and sometimes the groom’s family — until they have children and set up a household of their own. Divorces are easy for childless couples to arrange. In most cases, the couple simply separate and divide their property. If children are involved, divorces are discouraged. Inheritance is bilateral.

Households are comprise dof people who live, work and eat together They are usually nuclear families but can be extended families or families with divorced relatives and their children. Children are generally indulged and allowed to do what they want when they are young but are expected to pitch in on chores and do what they are told beginning when they are six or seven. Older boy sometimes become monks.

Shan Villages and Homes

The Shan live in villages ranging from 10 households to more than 500 households. The villages are usually established along rivers or streams and often built around huge banyan trees and a delicate Buddhist temple or pagoda.

The Shan often live in large stilted bamboo houses built above the damp ground in tropical rain forest regions. Chicken and pigs are kept below the house, and a fenced garden surrounds the house. A typical house is 10-by-10 meters and two to three meters above the ground and has wooden and bamboo supports, walls and floors made of woven bamboo and a steep-pitched thatched roof supported by bamboo rafters. The house is usually divided into an inner bedroom and outer living room with a fireplace that serves as a kitchen. Those that can afford it have planked floors and tile roofs. Shan houses have been influenced by the Burmese and Chinese.

At the base the ladder of a Shan traditional house is a water pot for foot washing. There are two kinds of living room. The inner one is for invited guests and the outer one for unexpected guests. At a lower step of the outer living room there is a balcony where Shan traditional dances take place. In the inner living room you can see the shrine shelf and traditional utensils. The kitchen is at a lower step of the dining room.

Shan Clothes

Shan men usually wear cotton turbans that is in white, plaid, or decorated with colored stripes and squares. They are also often heavily tattooed. Women wear a folded head scarf or turban. For foot wear most people wear sandals held on the feet by two straps.Women wear short colorful, blouses, a long tight-fitting skirts or printed sarongs with a silver belt and towel turban or straw hat.



Shan men dress in shirts and traditional khaki jackets. Their baggy trousers are usually made of khaki. Every Shan man wears a headdress. Bamar, Kachin, Mon, Shan, Kayah and Rakhine men wear a traditional jacket called a “teik -pon “on their “eingyi”. It is white, grey, black or terracotta in colorr. Shan and Kayah men’s traditional costumes are quite different from other groups because they wear loose trousers. Shan trousers are light brown, brown, terracotta or grey color while Kayah trousers are only black. Shan men tie their trousers like “longyi” Kayah men tie them pink band at the waist on their trousers. Shan “longyi” have horizontal or vertical stripes at the middle part. The upper and lower parts are in plain color.

Shan women wear longyis and blouses. Traditional “longyis” are about two meters in length. They are generally made of cotton from the cloth of an unfinished garment. Shan gather the front of the “longyi” and tie it to create two short lengths of material, then twist them into a half knot, tucking one end in at the waist, while allowing the other to protrude from the knot. Their white “eingyi” looks likea mandarin-collar shirt. 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.

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.

Shan Food

In Shan State, ngapi is made from fermented beans rather than fish or shrimp, and is used as both a flavoring and also condiment in Shan cuisine. Fermented beans, called pè ngapi, from the Shan State plays a major role in Shan cuisine. Dried bean ngapi chips are used as condiments for various Shan dishes.

Shan-inspired dishes include: 1) Htamin jin, a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chinese chives or roots (ju myit), fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented bean cakes (pè bouk} and fried dried topu (topu jauk kyaw) on the side; 2) Lahpet thohk, a salad of pickled tea leaves with fried peas, peanuts and garlic, toasted sesame, fresh garlic, tomato, green chili, crushed dried shrimps, preserved ginger and dressed with peanut oil, fish sauce and lime; 3) Meeshay, rice noodles with pork and/or chicken, bean sprouts, rice flour gel, rice flour fritters, dressed with soy sauce, salted soybean, rice vinegar, fried peanut oil, chilli oil, and garnished with crisp fried onions, crushed garlic, coriander, and pickled daikon/mustard greens; 4) Papaya salad; 5) Shan tohu, a type of tofu made from chickpea flour or yellow split pea eaten as fritters (tohpu jaw) or in a salad (tohpu thohk), also eaten hot before it sets as tohu byawk aka tohu nway and as fried dried tohpu (tohu jauk kyaw); 6) Shan khao swè, rice noodles with chicken or minced pork, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili, crushed roasted peanuts, young vine of mangetout, served with tohu jaw or tohu nway and pickled mustard greens (monnyinjin); 7) Wet tha chin, preserved minced pork in rice; 8) Wet tha hmyit chin, pork with sour bamboo shoots. [Source: Wikipedia +]


Shan kitchen Tabu


Shan soaked noodle come either in the wet type or dried. The Shan noodle base is the common wetland rice or the more glutinous Shan variety. The rice is steamed and kneaded when cooked. The dough is then passed through rollers. The flattened dough then goes through a cutting machine to create noodle strands. The strands are gathered in skeins. The skeins are sold in the wet stage or are air-dried. The dried version is convenient for the home. A skein of Shan noodles serves four persons. If the noodles are made of hard rice they should be soaked in water for about four hours. They should then be dipped in hot water and retrieved with a sieve before serving. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Shan soaked noodle may be eaten with meatless Shan style garnish, Myanmar style curry or Chinese style steamed duck. Ingredients: tomatoes 1 kg; ground dried shrimp 4 teaspoon; vegetable oil 2 teaspoon; Shrimp paste 1 teaspoon; ginger root 1 .5 cm; garlic 2 cloves; shauk-kaw Shan spice 1/2 teaspoon; pauk-kaw(-do-) 1/2 teaspoon; water 6 cups. How to cook: Heat the water to boil. Put in tomatoes and continue boiling for 5 minutes and let cool. Remove skin and seeds and mash the tomatoes. Set aside the liquid. Heat oil and fry pounded ginger root and garlic. Add shrimp paste and the spices on the fire. Add the tomatoes and the set aside liquid. Bring to boil. Serve the Shan soaked noodles in the soup. Fried bean curd, pickled pork, "nampong" (fried calfhide) and Shan pickles may be served as side dishes. =

A lot of Burmese tea is produced in Shan State. It has become customary for everyone in the Shan State to give tea as gifts to visitors either in dried leaves or in pickled state.

Shan Fish-Tomato Rice Snack and Insects

Shan Fish-tomato Rice Snack: Ingredients: Rice (preferably Shan variety); fresh-water fish (Ophiocephalus striatus) preferably those fished from the Inlay Lake; some tomato. onion. garlic; some tamarind pulp; some coriandar leaves; some dried red chilli; some dried soybean cake; some salt and oil. How to cook: Preparation which goes in the making of the rice entails a long process. First cook rice to required texture. Then put in a bowl and allow it to cool. Boil the fish. Scoop from pot with sieve and let it cool. Then separate flesh from bones and mash. Boil the tomatoes. Grate them into fine pulp. Roast soybean cake and pound into fine powder. Pound garlic and onion. Deep-fry in oil adding a pinch of red coloring powder. Then add the mashed boiled fish into the heated oil mix and stir. Fry the dried red chilli until crisp. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Mixing the tomato rice: First place the cooked rice in a large bowl. Then pour the fried fish-onion-garlic mix on the rice. Add tomato pulp and a dash of salt. Then stir briskly with a ladle. Then make the fish-tomato-rice into sizeable balls. Sprinkle with roasted soybean powder. Arrange the balls neatly on a flat platter. Place them on the table. You will notice there is quite an array of ingredients that go with the rice ball to heighten the taste and accentuate the presentation. The side dishes include: a small bowl of roasted soybean powder; a small bowl of prawn, fish or Chinese table sauce; a small bowl of thick tamarind pulp paste; a half-plate of finely cut coriander leaves; a half-plate of fried dry chilli; a half-plate of Shan white vegetable root; The main item—the platter of fish-tomato-rice balls—are placed in the center. =


women in the northern Shan Hills


To eat place one rice ball on your dinner plate. Mix with the array of ingredients to taste. Repeat if your appetite is good. Relish the distinctly unique Shan flavor. This snack also goes well with local fries such as fried tofu, fried pork rind or thin sesame rice wafer. Local gourmets also serve a hot sour vegetable pickle made from pickled turnips, garlic, onions, ginger and mustard green leaves. Enjoy this delicious fare at source in the Shan State. Accompany it with a delicious fish soup, and feel the cool breeze teasing your cheeks. Then top it off with aromatic Shan green tea. =

Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Chins, Kachins, Shans, Talaings and others. Delphin states:"In the northern and southern Shan states, the cicada (Hemiptera:Cicadidae) is highly esteemed.I have tried them, and must say they are tasty, but to all Burmese, the tastiest insect is the large brown cricket." A wasp, Vespa auraria, is collected by the Shans by smoking the nests at night. The larvae and pupae are eaten. Wasps nesting underground are also caught and eaten (Ghosh 1924). [Source: www.food-insects.com]

According to Ghosh, the pupa of the large dung beetle, Helicopris bucephalus, known as shwe-po, is in "great demand among the Shans," each pupa costing 1 to 1½ annas.It is "widely exported."It is common from March to May in the Shan hills, where men, women and children dig over large areas in search of the pupae which are found inside round balls of earth one to two feet deep in the soil. As summarized by Bodenheimer (p. 269), "They seem to know as if by instinct where to dig for these balls by finding the opening hole of the gallery."They are dug out during the "season when the cuckoo begins to sing."

Shan Culture

Their decorative arts include decorated offering to Buddha, money trees, pagodas, and carved coffin carriers. They also make rattan and bamboo crafts and furniture, traditional Shan shoulder bags, and carve objects from jade and marble. They used to famous for silver crafts. Shan shoulder bags are popular with tourists. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition. [Source: Nicola Tannenbaum,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Mostly Shan art form are impermanent decorations such as carved and decorated fruit offered to the Buddha image and monks or at pagodas celebrating the end of the rains' retreat. In Myanmar, Shan still carve small objects such as Buddha images from marble and jade. Shan in Chiang Mai were known for their silverwork. Like the Dai in China, the Shan do a peacock dance. This also called the kinnari dance. A kinnara is a celestial musician, part human and part bird, who are musically lovers.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Shan peoples created religious books from a paper made from the cambium of the mulberry shrub. Although made of paper that is concertina folded, the form of these books conforms to that of a stout palm leaf manuscript. Each accordion folded page is read in succession on one side of the single sheet and then the book is inverted in order to read the succession of folds on the opposite side. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Shan Economy

The majority of Shan are farmers growing rice to eat and a variety of crops to sell. Landlords and wealthy peasants have traditionally owned much of the land. A largely feudal system remained in place until the 1950s, and still exist in some form in some places. In Thailand, many farmers have title to the land. In Myanmar, many have right to work the land and but don’t actually own it.

In the old days the Shan were involved with oxen caravans that moved goods between Burma, Thailand, China and India. With the construction of good roads this trade has disappeared. These days the Shan are involved in the smuggling and trade of gems, cattle, traditional Shan goods, opium and heroin. In recent years, especially after Khun Sa's retirement in 1996, they appear to have been out-muscled and outmaneuvered in the drug business by the Wa.

Shan have traditionally use dbamboo to make a variety of baskets, mats, and handles for knives and other implements. Metal parts such as knife blades have often been purchased. In some cases the Shan act as wholesalers, buying the products from producers and selling them mostly to Chinese and Thai traders and merchants. Their presence along the borders between Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China makes it easy for them to smuggle goods between these countries.

Shan Agriculture

The Shan grow irrigated rice in the lowlands and some highland areas. They also practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the highlands. The Dai-Shan were one of the earliest peoples to produce rice in Yunnan. As early as the A.D. 7th century., they used elephants as plow animals. In Thailand, agriculture is getting more and more mechanized, small tractors have replaced water buffalo and threshing machines are used for both rice and soybeans. In Myanmar, the agricultural work is largely done with water buffalo or by hand. [Source: Nicola Tannenbaum,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]



The lives of the Shan are ruled by the rhythm of the agricultural seasons. The harvest is the most important time of the year. Transplanting rice is usually in May or June. In the summer the dikes are repaired and water flow into the paddies is regulated. The harvest is usually in November of December.

The Shan grow crops to eat and to sell. What they grow largely depends on the local ecology and nearness to towns. In the highlands they have traditionally grow cabbage, sweet potatoes and dry land rice to eat and raised opium as a cash crop. Other crops, produced by Shan and grown mainly by lowlanders, include soybeans, peanuts, chili peppers, pumpkins, garlic, pineapples, bananas, onions, sunflowers, coconuts and betel nut.

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, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022


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