This sign, pictured left, is to be found at the entrance to a Lahu village in northern Thailand. It points out to visitors the changes being endured by the Lahu in modern times. However, in reality, the past thousand years have been changing times for the Lahu! They are today one of the most culturally diverse of any ethnic minority group in the world.
In fact, one Lahu can often recognize another as belonging to their ethnolinguistic group only by the fact that they both speak the same language. Their religious practices range from Animism to Christianity, their dress from traditional, hand-woven cloaks to modern jeans and T-shirts, and their lifestyle from semi-nomadic to sedentary.
Some speak no language other than their indigenous Lahu, while in China many speak the local Yannanese fluently, yet no longer speak their own language at all. This will likely be the case eventually for the Lahu living in the United States with regards to speaking English.
The "traditional forest home" mentioned in the sign is still standard accommodation for most Lahu. Usually built on stilts using split bamboo for walls and grass for roof thatch, these small houses have no running water or electricity. Underneath the house are kept the family livestock — including chickens and pigs. Inside one finds a supply of bare-bones essentials: partitioned sleeping quarters with a mat for a bed and a kitchen of sorts with a wood-burning hearth on the floor. The kitchen doubles as a social gathering place for its inhabitants.
The inhabitants themselves normally comprise the nuclear family of parents and unmarried children, and will often include one or more sons-in-law and perhaps grandchildren. It is a Lahu tradition that a man will live with his wife's parents, at least for a few years, and provide labor. The labor may be provided for a longer time if it is given in lieu of a dowry payment for his bride. Since it is not uncommon to have ten or more children, the house can get very full! Usually, though, as soon as the next daughter gets married, the previously married couple will build a new house for themselves in the wife's village.
You are unlikely to find evil spirits in one of these new houses for a couple of reasons. First, when the building is finished evil spirits are driven out of the building materials in a ritual ceremony which is the Lahu equivalent of a house warming party. This, they believe, is important before the new family begins living there — otherwise ill fortune (lack of blessing) will likely befall that family. Second, every house in the village is protected from evil spirits by the yellow and white streamers one sees towering above the roof of the village's head house or temple.
Originating in China in the area around the Tibetan plateau, the Lahu have migrated in the past two hundred years to bordering Southeast Asian countries and also, in 1975 as refugees, to the United States. The current world Lahu population is around 600,000. Most of these still live in Southwest China, in Yunnan province. A few thousand live in each of Vietnam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic, with just a few hundred in the United States. The rest have settled in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand.
The Chinese refer to the Lahu as tiger hunters. No-one is certain how this designation originated, but the La in their name means tiger in their own language and, to this day, much of the meat they eat comes from hunting wild animals — including tiger. The Thai name for the Lahu, mussur, means hunter. The technology may have changed from crossbows to guns, but they hunt with the same enthusiasm. Most of us have never experienced hunting in the part of the world where the Lahu live. Dense, semi-tropical, monsoon rain forest, this land is home not only to wild tiger but also boar, deer, lethally poisonous snake and dozens of other species which make a fine meal. One Western man who has experienced hunting alongside the Lahu is Gordon Young. His fascinating book, Tracks of An Intruder, documents the years he spent living and hunting with them. (The full reference for this book is given at the bottom of this page.) The tiger also features in a somewhat bizarre part of Lahu mythology, which recounts the first solar eclipse when a tiger ate the sun!
Whatever others call them, the Lahu call themselves "children of blessing." References to blessing are to be found everywhere in their prayers, rituals, ceremonies, mythology and folklore. These blessings take the forms of successful hunting, bountiful crop harvests, large families and long, peaceful, healthy lives. The Lahu look to many sources for these blessings, the main two of which are their ancestors and their God of creation, G'ui sha, who controls all other spirits. Offerings and animal sacrifices are made regularly to these and other spirit sources of blessing, both in annual ceremonies and ad-hoc ones such as when a person becomes sick.
Not surprisingly for a people who are mainly subsistence farmers, daily life and ritual revolves around the agricultural seasons. None of these is more important than the New Year, which usually takes place right after the rice harvest. This is a time of celebration and thanksgiving offerings to the God of rice (or perhaps animal sacrifice to appease the God if the harvest has been a poor one). Rice is important to the Lahu not only as a staple dietary crop, but in their spiritual and mythological worlds also. Even among those Lahu who consider themselves Christian or Buddhist, one still finds an ancestral altar in the village headman's house. It is here that, among other things, rice cakes will be placed as offerings to the ancestors in hopes for the blessings the living will receive.
The Lahu have their own historical account of the creation of the Universe. This story has been passed down through generations by orators who can provide an entire evening's entertainment if it is told in full. (This story has been published in English only as recently as 1995. The full reference for the book is given at the bottom of this page.) One particularly interesting part of the story addresses why some peoples have a writing system for their language while others, such as the Lahu, don't. The explanation turns out to be that when G'ui sha handed down His Word to the different peoples, He used rice cakes to write them down on for the Lahu. Since rice cakes are such a delicacy, they were eaten and this is why the Lahu no longer have a written form of their language!
These days many Lahu have adopted the festive calendar of whatever country they live in. In Thailand I saw these Lahu children (left) throwing just as much water during the Thai New Year Songkran festival as their Thai neighbors! However, New Year is also a time when the Lahu celebrate their own heritage. In village after village men and women, young and old wear traditional Lahu clothes, made anew for the occasion, and sing, dance and drink all day and night. Children walk from house to house with offerings of uncooked rice for the head of the household, which are later cooked together, symbolizing village unity. Traditional music is played on wind instruments made from gourds and bamboo stalk. This is also the time when young men begin seeking a wife.
The average age for marriage has become higher in recent times, but it is still quite common for a boy in his mid or late teens to marry a girl in her early or mid teens. While divorce is not uncommon these days, it is certainly not the norm. The Lahu are said to have one of the most egalitarian social systems, in which a woman is viewed as having equal social standing to a man, who is expected to share in both child rearing and daily household work. While most societies are classified as matrilineal or patrilineal, meaning that children are given the family name of either their mother or father, the Lahu have neither system. Traditionally children bear no family name, just a first name having two parts. The first indicates whether the child is male (Ca) or female (Na), the second indicating sibling birth order or the animal of the 12-day cycle on which they were born. Thus, Lahu names can sound very repetitive! If a very young child falls sick or cries more than usual, the Lahu believe this to be because the wrong name was chosen — they will then often hold a ceremony just to re-name that child!
Besides growing and cooking rice (I can't think of a meal I ever had in a Lahu village that didn't include rice), hunting and animal husbandry, other skills highly developed among the Lahu include weaving fabric and baskets, embroidery, blacksmithing and jewelry making. And, of course, the gift of blessing.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2020, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.