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ETHNONYMS: Ahka/Aka/Ak'a/Akka, Aini/Hani/Houni/Woni, Edaw/Ikaw/Ikho/Kaw, Kha Kho/Kha Ko/Kho/Ko


Identification. Akha refer to themselves as "Avkavzav," meaning "Akha people." In Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, speakers of Tai languages call them "Ekaw" (Ikaw/Ikho) or simply "Kaw," terms viewed as derogatory by Akha. These terms are akin to "Kho" (Ko) used by Tai speakers in Laos, often prefaced by the word kha, which means "slave." In China, Akha are classified by the Chinese either as Aini or, together with related peoples, as "Hani" (an official minority nationality). Documents from the Western colonial period use a variety of these ethnic labels, but modern scholarly writing adopts the self-referential ethnonym.

Location. Akha live in villages interspersed with those of other ethnic groups in the mountains of southwest China, eastern Myanmar, western Laos, northwestern Vietnam, and northern Thailand. This region, a part of monsoon Asia, has a wet season from April through August, followed by a dry season.

Demography. Census data are inadequate and unreliable, but experts estimate a total of more than 430,000: some 150,000 in China, 180,000 in Myanmar, 59,000 in Laos, 10,000 in Vietnam, and 34,541 in Thailand (1988). In all these countries, Akha are an ethnic minority, living near Tai-speaking valley-dwellers (e.g., Lue, Shan, Lao, Thai). During the last few decades, some Akha have moved to lowland urban centers.

Linguistic Affiliation. Called "Avkavdawv," meaning "Akha language," by native speakers, Akha is a tonal language belonging to the Sino-Tibetan Family. Linguists generally assign it to the Southern Loloish Group within the Lolo-Burmese Branch of this language family. Various dialects exist; the best documented is Jeuvg'oev, spoken in eastern Myanmar and northern Thailand. The speech of one subgroup, Avkuiv (Akhui/Akö/Akhö/Ak'ë) Akha, is not readily intelligible to other Akha. Loanwords, frequently from Tai languages, are often political or technological terms for such things as village headman and truck. Akha have no indigenous writing system, but foreign Christian missionaries have developed several Roman-based and Thai-based scripts. Literacy in Akha is largely restricted to Christians.

History and Cultural Relations

The indigenous oral tradition recounts their southward migration across numerous rivers. Scholars concur with the Akha view that they originated in China; they disagree, however, about whether the original homeland was the Tibetan borderlands or farther south and east in Yunnan Province, the northernmost residence of present-day Akha. The existence of established relations with the Shan prince of Kengtung indicates that Akha were ensconced in eastern Burma by the 1860s and perhaps earlier. They first entered Thailand from Burma at the turn of this century.


Villages ranging in size from over two hundred to less than ten houses have been reported. A decline in village size in Thailand since the 1930s has been noted and attributed to the deteriorating ecological and economic situation in the mountains. A traditional community is characterized by two wooden gateways, one upslope and one downslope, flanked by carved female and male figures. These gates mark the division between the "inside," the domain of human beings and domesticated animals, and the "outside," the domain of spirits and wild animals. Also distinctive is a tall four-posted village swing, used in an annual ancestor offering related to the fertility of rice. Houses are sometimes scattered on a slope, but are often built on either side of a ridge with an open avenue in the middle. Smaller paths connect fenced family compounds, which contain a house and rice granary, and, in the case of an extended family, may also include one or more huts for younger couples. Traditionally constructed of logs, bamboo, and thatch, dwellings are of two types: "low house," built on the ground, and "high house," built on stilts. Akha are known for the internal division of their houses into a female side and a male side, paralleling that between the village and the surrounding forest; this division is not retained in the houses of Christians.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The staple of the Akha diet is rice, cultivated mainly by the slash-and-burn (shifting or swidden) method. Known as dry rice, such rice depends solely on rainfall for moisture. Vegetables, including pumpkins, beans, and greens, are planted in rice fields; maize, chilies, soybeans, and cotton are grown in other fields. Where sufficient water is available, irrigated rice fields are built. Although primarily subsistence rice cultivators, Akha have long been involved in cash cropping and trade. In the last century, cotton and opium poppies were the principal cash crops; more recent cash crops are chilies, soybeans, cabbages, and tomatoes. Texts of the oral tradition mention traveling to the lowlands to buy salt and iron, items still obtained in valley markets along with other consumer goods. Gathering of wild fruits, mushrooms, and other edible plants contributes to the food supply. Guns have superseded crossbows in hunting; traps of numerous kinds are set. Game, such as wild boar, deer, bamboo gopher, and jungle fowl, is not as plentiful as in the past, in part because of deforestation. Fishing is done with traps and nets. Pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, cattle, and water buffalo are raised.

Industrial Arts. Villagers make chopsticks and other utensils out of bamboo. Baskets of many types are woven from bamboo or rattan. Until recently, most clothing was made from home-spun cotton, dyed with indigo. Patterns of embroidery and appliqué adorning men's and women's jackets are distinctive of Akha subgroups, as are the stunning women's hatsembellished with silver ornaments, beads, and monkey furfor which Akha are famous. Each traditional village must have at least one blacksmith to forge iron knives, hoes, and other tools. Silversmiths are rare. Increasingly, Akha engage in wage labor in the highlands and lowlands.

Trade. One or more families in a village may operate a small shop in their home, stocking such items as cigarettes and kerosene. Itinerant traders, either lowlanders or hill-dwelling Yunnan Chinese, come to buy livestock or cash crops, or to sell blankets and other goods. As more roads are built into the highlands, traders are arriving by truck rather than on foot.

Division of Labor. Hunting is symbolically and in practice a male endeavor; rice cultivation is done by both sexes, though symbolically it is a female activity. Weaving, dyeing, and sewing are also female activities; in certain ritual contexts this domain contrasts with the male domain of hunting. Preparing rice is women's work, but men often cook, especially meat for feasts. This sexual division of labor is enshrined in the Akha religion.

Land Tenure. Slash-and-burn fields are held in usufruct, that is, while in use; a family's claim to a plot ceases when it is left fallow to allow the forest to regenerate. Irrigated rice fields, on the other hand, are the property of their preparer and can be sold. As Akha are incorporated into the states in which they reside, national land lawsfrequently at odds with customary practicecome into effect.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. Each child is given a genealogical name, in which the last syllable of the father's name is typically taken as the first syllable and a second syllable is added. Called the Tibeto-Burman genealogical patronymic linkage system, this pattern is a mnemonic device that both memorializes the father and conjoins father and child. It is said that a man should know his patrilineal genealogy back some sixty generations to the named spirits who preceded the first man. Every Akha belongs to a named patrilineage (avjeuv; gu ). The exogamous unit is not the named lineage but the unnamed sublineage (pav ). The minimal lineage or patrilineal family (pehvzav ) consists of all those who participate in ancestor offerings together.

Kinship Terminology. Fundamental to the terminological system are distinctions between patrikin, wife givers, and wife takers. In everyday usage kin terms are used for address, sometimes followed by the name.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Akha traditionally marry in their teens or early twenties. Polygyny is permitted. Marriages may be village endogamous or exogamous. Each non-Christian village has a courting ground, where young people gather in the evening to sing and dance. Nowadays radios playing songs in the national language replace Akha love songs. A teenaged girl progresses through graded changes of clothing and ornamentation, culminating in the donning of the high hat which proclaims her marriageability. In general, young people are free to choose their own spouse, although parental approval should be obtained. The wedding ceremony takes place at the groom's family's house. At marriage a woman leaves her father's patrilineal kinship units to join those of her husband. Initial postmarital residence is patrivirilocal; that is, the wife joins her husband, who lives with his father or elder brother. Since only one married couple is permitted to live in a single house, a newly married couple often live in an adjacent hut, taking meals in the main house. After he has children, a married man may move out of his father's house. This household becomes an independent patrilineal family only when it installs its own ancestor altar. Either spouse can initiate divorce. Before children are born this is common; afterwards, women are constrained by the fact that children remain with the ex-husband. Marriage involves not simply the couple but also their natal patrilineal kin. Wife giving and wife taking relationships are central to Akha society, with wife givers superior to wife takers. Scholars disagree about whether the system can be classified as one of asymmetric alliance, the prototypical mainland Southeast Asian example of which is the Kachin.

Domestic Unit. Although many patrilineal families (minimal lineage) live in a single compound, it is not, strictly speaking, a residential unit because not all members need reside together; rather, it is a ritually defined unit. Given the developmental cycle of the patrilineal family, membership can range from a nuclear family to an extended family of four generations living in one or more houses.

Inheritance. At marriage a daughter is given a yoked carrying basket, a hoe, and a knife. Additional gifts are optional; however, a woman leaves with her high hat, which may be laden with silver coins and ornaments. A married son who builds a house of his own may receive livestock, tools, seeds, cash, and household items. The son (often the youngest) who stays with the parents in their old age inherits their house.

Socialization. Both parents care for children, who are also tended by their older sisters and brothers as well as other kin. Girls, who fetch water and firewood, take on household responsibilities earlier than boys. The mother's brother, believed to have power over the welfare of his nephews and nieces, can perform various ceremonies to ensure that a child grows up healthy and strong.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lacking stratified social classes, Akha society is egalitarian. Ties of patrilineal kinship and marriage alliance form the fabric of society, binding Akha within and between communities. Relative age is important in social organization; older persons are accorded respect. The village is a fundamental social unit whose members enact agricultural and other rituals in consort.

Political Organization. Although the Akha oral tradition speaks of princes and city-states, indigenous supralocal political organization is absent. A settlement cannot be founded without a village leader (dzoevma ), whose house is the first built. Ascension to this office, which is often hereditary, must be ratified by male elders. During the last century and the early part of this century, Akha communities were sometimes included within the spheres of influence of lowland princes. Village headmen, in charge of a single village or a circle of villages, were appointed by these princes. Whereas the traditional village leader is responsible for internal affairs, the village headman is responsible for external relations. Contemporary village headmen are part of the modern national administrative system.

Social Control. Social order is established and maintained by a system of behavioral rules (zahv ) crosscutting kinship, religion, and etiquette. Customary fines for transgressions of zahv are levied by the village leader in conjunction with male elders. Akha are also subject to the national legal system.

Conflict. The oral tradition mentions warriors and warfare, but nonviolence is the norm of everyday life.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Akha religion (zahv) can be characterized as animism with an ancestor cult. "Blessing" (gui vlaha v), evidenced by fertility and health in people, rice, and domesticated animals, is sought from ancestors. The being who began everything, including first the sky and then the earth, also gave Akha their zahv, the rules they live by. Although crucial to the cosmic order, this supernatural is not directly invoked in ceremonies. Rice rituals are addressed to the Rice Mother. Spirits and people are said to have been born of the same mother and to have lived together until a quarrel led to their separation, when the spirits went to the forest and people remained in the village. Since then, spirits have caused illness and other disruptions of human social life. The Akha year is divided into the people's season (dry) and the spirits' season (wet). During the latter, spirits wander into the village, so they must be driven out as part of a yearly ancestor offering. Game have spirit-owners, honored in hunting rites. People and rice have souls, whose flight causes disease. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries have been active among Akha and have won converts, who typically live apart from traditionalists in Christian villages.

Practitioners. First among these is the village leader, whose ritual responsibilities include initiating the annual rebuilding of the village gates and the swing. Ranked below him is the blacksmith, who plays a yearly ritual role. And below him in ranking is the ritual specialist (pi ma; boemaw ), who apprentices to learn by rote the vast corpus of chants for various ceremonies, the three-day funeral being the most important. Offerings to patrilineal ancestors are made by a male family member unless the senior woman has undergone a special initiation, which makes her responsible for annual rice rituals as well. Shamans are held to have been chosen by the spirits.

Ceremonies. The annual ritual cycle consists of nine or twelve ancestor offerings, rice rituals, and other rites such as the building of the village gates. Family ancestor offerings are made in the women's side of the house, whereas hunting ceremonies are held on the men's side. Life-cycle rites include birth rituals, weddings, and funerals. There are also curing and corrective ceremonies of numerous sorts, such as soul calling.

Arts. Jackets, shoulder bags, and women's hats are works of art. Blacksmithing is the only craft with specialists. Many Akha are accomplished singers; indigenous musical instruments include drums, cymbals, and Jew's harps.

Medicine. Numerous botanical medicines are known, such as effective coagulants for wounds. Illness is also treated ritually by specialists in chants and by shamans. Western medical treatment is eagerly sought, though not to the exclusion of traditional cures.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral ceremonies are different for adults survived by at least one son than for adults without male issue or children. Only the former become ancestors and receive offerings after their deaths. Husband and wife become ancestors together in his patriline. Unlike their Buddhist lowland neighbors, Akha bury rather than cremate their dead.


Alting von Geusau, Leo (1983). "Dialectics of Akhazarn: The Interiorizations of a Perennial Minority Group." In Highlanders of Thailand, edited by John McKinnon and Wanat Bhruksasri, 241-277. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Kammerer, Cornelia Ann (1988). "Shifting Gender Asymmetries among Akha of Northern Thailand." In Gender, Power, and the Construction of the Moral Order: Studies from the Thai Periphery, edited by Nancy Eberhardt, 33-51. Monograph 4. Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin.

Lewis, Paul (1968). Akha-English Dictionary. Data Paper no. 70. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, Department of Asian Studies, Southeast Asia Program.

Lewis, Paul (1969-1970). Ethnographic Notes on the Akhas of Burma. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Lewis, Paul, and Elaine Lewis (1984). "Akha (Kaw)." In Peopies of the Golden Triangle: Six Tribes of Thailand. London: Thames & Hudson.


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