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ETHNONYMS: Burmese Shan, Chinese Shan, Dai, Hkamti Shan, Ngiaw, Ngio, Pai-I, Tai Khe, Tai Khun, Tai Long, Tai Lu, Tai Mao, Tai Nu, Thai Yai


Identification. The people refer to themselves as "Tai," often with a second term identifying their particular Tai group. "Shan" is a Burmese term that Europeans use. The word "Shan," used by colonial writers, refers to any non-Siamese Tai group. Burmese refer to these people as "Shan" and many of these people also use "Shan" as a broad label to refer to themselves and other lowland Tai peoples in Myanmar (Burma), southern China, and northern Thailand. Siamese refer to Shan living in Thailand and in the northern area of the Shan State as "Thai Yai" (big Thai) ; the people in this area refer to themselves as "Tai Long" (great Tai). Northern Thai refer to Shan as "Ngio" or "Ngiaw," a term Shan find pejorative. Chinese refer to Shan living in southern China as "Dai" or "Pai-I." There are a number of different Tai groups living in this area, including the Tai Lu, similar to the Northern Thai; Tai Mao, similar to the Tai Long, who refer to them as "Tai Nu" (northern Tai) or "Tai Khe" (Chinese Tai). Those in Kengtung, Myanmar, refer to themselves as "Tai Khun."

Location. Shan are widespread in mountain valleys in southern China, eastern Myanmar (the Shan State), and northern Thailand. As in the rest of monsoon Asia, there is a hot dry season from February until June, when the rains begin. These last until October or November, followed by a colder season until February. In the higher elevations of Myanmar and southern China there are frosts.

Demography. Population estimates are practically meaningless. Reports from Myanmar systematically underreport minority populations; a 1931 British census reported 1.3 million Shan in Burma. Thai census figures do not include a separate Shan figure since most are Thai citizens. The third Chinese national census, in 1982, lists the number of Dai as 839,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Shan speak Thai, linguistically related to Siamese and Lao. Tai Long, Tai Mao, Tai Khun, and Tai Lu all have separate scripts: Tai Long resembles Burmese; Tai Mao, an angular Tai Long; and Tai Khun and Tai Lu, Northern Thai. The scripts were primarily used for religious texts and court chronicles. Most men learned to read and write when they were ordained as novices or monks; some women also learned to read and write.

History and Cultural Relations

Shan migrated from southern China around a.d. 1000, eventually establishing numerous small states in the mountainous region of northern Burma. Shan princes have been involved in the politics of the region, paying tribute to Burma, China, and Chiang Mai at various times. After the British conquest of Burma, most Shan states paid tribute to Burma, although the more easterly states were establishing relationships with Chiang Mai and Central Thailand. At this time there were eighteen major states ruled by princes and twenty-five states ruled by lesser officials. During the British period the Shan states were administered indirectly, through their ruling princes. During this period, borders were drawn administratively separating the Shan in Thailand from those in Burma. At Burmese independence the Shan states were consolidated into the Shan State. Since the 1950s Shan in Burma (now Myanmar) have been engaged in a military struggle to regain control of their area. Their goals range from forming an independent state to being federally associated with a changed Burmese state. Shan in Thai areas are not engaged in this struggle.


Shan villages are nucleated settlements ranging from 10 to 500 or more households.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The majority of Shan are farmers growing rice to eat and a variety of crops to sell. Ideally Shan grow rice in irrigated fields; however, in areas where there is limited irrigable land, they also slashand-burn fields to grow hill rice. In Thailand farming is becoming mechanized as people buy small tractors to replace water buffalo and as they use threshing machines for both rice and soybeans. Farming in Myanmar is not mechanized. What cash crops people grow depend on local ecology and the village's location; near towns and larger villages people grow vegetables to sell in the market. Elsewhere, they grow soybeans, peanuts, garlic, onions, sunflowers, pumpkins, sesame, chili peppers, pineapples, bananas, coconuts, and betel nuts.

Industrial Arts. People use bamboo to make a variety of baskets, mats, and handles for knives and other implements. Metal parts such as knife blades are purchased. In Myanmar, Shan make traditional carrying bags, clothes, carvings, and paintings.

Trade. In the past, Shan men participated in the oxen caravan trade moving industrial goods from India and Burma into northern Thailand. With the development of roads, this caravan trade has disappeared. Now industrial goods move through Thailand into Myanmar in exchange for gems, cattle, and traditional Shan goods. Shan act as wholesalers, moving these goods through northwestern Thailand and eastern Myanmar. In the past, Shan women engaged in more local trade in food and domestic goods. With better transportation, most of this trade has been replaced by markets where women are the retailers.

Division of Labor. Men plow and harrow the irrigated fields and women transplant irrigated rice, although occasionally men may help transplant. Men hunt. Women do most of the domestic work such as laundry, cooking, and carrying water. These tasks are often delegated to a competent girl or occasionally to a boy.

Land Tenure. Hill fields are held in usufruct and not sold. Traditionally irrigated fields were held in usufruct but could be used as security for loans or mortgaged. In Thailand people are now acquiring legal title to their irrigated fields, gardens, and house sites.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral. Kinship is not an organizing principle in Shan society; people recognize a wide range of others who are their kin and those who behave toward them as if they were kin.

Kinship Terminology. 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.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are no preferred marriage partners. With the restriction that children of siblings are considered too closely related to marry, choice of marriage partner is left to the individual. Once a marriage partner is chosen and meets with parental approval, the parents negotiate the gifts from the groom's side to the bride and the contributions from the bride's side. If the match does not meet with parental approval the couple may elope, although this usually entails smaller exchanges. Postmarital residence is usually initially with the wife's household, although this arrangement is negotiable; after a period of time, the couple establishes an independent household. Divorce is easy; the couple separates and divides any common property. If there are children, older relatives may encourage the couple to settle their disputes. Children may choose to live with either parent or some other relative.

Domestic Unit. A household consists of the people who live, work, and eat together, minimally a couple and their children. Occasionally one person or a divorced or widowed spouse and his or her children will maintain an independent household. Households may also contain grandparents, married children, and distant relatives. Unlike among Northern Thai, there is no restriction on more than one married couple living in the same household.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral; half siblings have shares in their parent's property and in property their parent helped develop.

Socialization. Children are taken care of by their parents and other relatives. Small children are indulged and humored but are taught early to share with younger children. Once they reach age 6 or 7 they are expected to understand and do what they are told. Children are allowed to play together without adult supervision, although if there is fighting adults quickly break it up. Both boys and girls take early responsibility for washing their own clothes, but girls are likely to have more domestic chores.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Shan social organization is inherently hierarchical, based on age, gender, and wealth.

Political Organization. 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.

Social Control. Within communities, gossip and the desire to maintain a good reputation are important means of maintaining order. If there are fights or thefts people may appeal to the police.

Conflict. In the precolonial period Shan fought with Burmese, other Shan, Chinese, Northern Thai, and other neighboring groups in succession disputes and assorted alliances. Now Shan in Myanmar are actively in conflict with the Burmese, the national Communist party, and, occasionally, other Shan groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In some characterizations of Theravada Buddhism, Shan beliefs and practices may be considered unorthodox. Nevertheless, Shan identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists. By so doing, they classify themselves with other lowland groups and distinguish themselves from upland "tribal" peoples. Although they are Buddhist, the worldview of the Shan centers on the idea of "power protection" and its unequal distribution. Power protects people from the consequences of their actions, allowing them to behave as they choose. Because more powerful beings exist and may behave capriciously, people need to enter into a relationship with more powerful others for their own protection. One gains power protection through the practice of restraint or relying on the protection of more powerful others. Buddhas and Buddhist monks are the most powerful beings. Powerful beings associated with Buddhism are more reliably benevolent while others, such as government officials or spirits, are less likely to be benevolent. The world is populated with beings ranked on a continuum of power, with human beings falling somewhere near the middle. Beings with more power than humans include Buddhas, cadastral spirits of the village, and spirits associated with fields, households, and the forest. Beings less powerful than humans, although still dangerous, include spirits that arose from violent deaths or from women dying in childbirth and disease spirits. People, rice, and water buffalo have spirits whose loss causes illness or death.

Religious Practitioners. There are Buddhist monks, novices, and nuns; temple lay readers; traditional curers; and caretakers of the cadastral-spirit altar. All except the caretaker of the cadastral-spirit altar draw on the power associated with Buddhism. The traditional curer's ability to cure comes from his keeping of precepts, his practice of restraint, and his reliance on his teachers and on the Buddhas.

Ceremonies. The Buddhist lunar calendar structures the ceremonial cycle with four holy days each month falling on the days of full, dark, and half-moons. There are temple festivals celebrating events in the Buddha's life, such as the anniversaries of his birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon, and his death; other festivals entail the construction of sand pagodas, and the firing of rockets before or after the rainy season and to honor the end of the retreat during the three months of rain. Wealthy villages and temples celebrate more of these events than do poorer ones. However, all villages at least hold a festival after the end of the rains' retreat. Once a year villages as a whole invite monks to chant to remove misfortune and to renew the village and its constituent households' barriers against misfortune. The village cadastral spirit is also feasted at least once a year. Households may sponsor a range of ceremonies including Buddhist ordinations, funerals, merit making for the dead, marriages, first bathing ceremonies for infants, and invitations for monks to chant in the house.

Arts. Mostly these are impermanent decorations such as carved and decorated fruit offered to the Buddha image or monks and elaborately decorated coffin carriers, money trees, and pagodas celebrating the end of the rains' retreat. In Myanmar, Shan still weave traditional shoulder bags and carve small objects such as Buddha images from marble and jade. Shan in Chiang Mai were known for their silverwork.

Medicine. Shan accept and use Western medicine where available and when the ailment responds to such treatment. They also use the four elementsearth, water, wind, and firetogether 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.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals occur three to seven days after death. In Thailand everyone is cremated, although in the recent past people dying "bad deaths" were buried. Shan in Myanmar and China still bury people who die a "bad death." Buddhist monks officiate at funerals; Shan believe that only monks can transfer merit from the living to the dead. After a short period, during which the spirit may remain waiting for people to make merit for it, it is reborn.


Durrenberger, E. Paul (1981). "The Southeast Asian Context of Theravada Buddhism." Anthropology 5:45-62.

Durrenberger, E. Paul, and Nicola Tannenbaum (1989). Analytical Perspectives on Shan Agriculture and Village Economics. Yale University Southeast Asian Studies Monograph Series, no. 37. New Haven.

Mangrai, Sao Saimong (1965). The Shan States and the British Annexation. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Data Paper no. 57. Ithaca, N.Y.

Tannenbaum, Nicola (1989). "Power and Its Shan Transformation." In Ritual, Power, and Economy: Upland-Lowland Contrasts in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Susan D. Russell, 67-88. Occasional Paper no. 14. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Tannenbaum, Nicola (1987). "Tattoos: Invulnerability and Power in Shan Cosmology." American Ethnologist 14:693-711.

Yangwhe, Chao Tzang {Eugene Thaike} (1987). The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile, Local History and Memoirs. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


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