ETHNONYMS: Dang, Humai, Kunloi, La-eng, Palong, Ra-ang, Rumai, Ta-ang
Identification. While the name "Palaung" is Burmese in origin, the Palaungs call themselves "Ta-ang," along with several dialectal variants of that name. 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.
Location. The Palaungs are found in the Shan States of east central Myanmar (Burma) with the majority found in Taungpeng State (approximately 23° N and 97° E). They are also in the adjacent states of Hsipaw, North and South Hsenwi, Möngmit, and as far south as the Shan State of Kengtung. Palaungs are also reported in the southern part of Kachin State and in southwestern Yunnan, China. They occupy a region of ridges up to 2,000 meters, separated by narrow valleys. In addition to cultivated lands, there is some open grassland, but the upper elevations are mostly temperate forest. The climate is typical continental Southeast Asian monsoon, with rainy summers and dry winters.
Demography. While there is no available population estimate for Palaungs in Myanmar today, in 1931 the total Palaung population was estimated at 140,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. The precise linguistic classification of Palaung has not yet been determined; it is however agreed that the various dialects of the Palaung language belong to the Mon-Khmer Group in the Austroasiatic Family. In the literature the Palaung are often associated with the Wa, another northern upland Mon-Khmer group, and they may appear cited as a single group, the Palaung-Wa. There appears to be no close affiliation between them, however, and it is reported that the two groups do not recognize any affiliation.
History and Cultural Relations
The Palaungs probably preceded Shan and Kachin settlement of the east central and northeast region of Myanmar. 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. Although there are Burmese loanwords in Palaung, the Shan language is both the written language of the Palaung and the lingua franca not only between Palaungs and Shans, Kachins, and other neighbors, but also between Palaung dialect groups. The few existing legendary chronicles of the Palaung are written in Shan and most Palaung adult males speak some Shan. Because the most recent ethnographic descriptions based on field research among the Palaungs are now more than sixty years old, it is possible that there is currently an even greater degree of acculturation between the Palaungs and their more dominant neighbors. Given the lack of recent data, descriptions of their cultural patterns in this article should be regarded as referring to their traditional way of life; it would be conjecture to attempt to describe how their culture may have changed in the context of the modern Burmese state. However, since many small tribal groups in the world are conservative and make an overt effort to maintain their cultural distinctiveness, it may be that the Palaungs have changed relatively little in the past sixty years.
The Palaungs live in compact villages located on hilltops or ridges between hills. The villages range in size from two to fifty houses, with an average of about ten. Houses cluster along both sides of a main road; in larger villages, there are additional houses flanking these down the slopes. The center of the village contains a market area, a rest house for visitors, a monastery, and a structure to house images of the Buddha. Additional structures include granaries and spirit shrines. Villages were formerly surrounded by protective stockades whose gates were closed at night, and some still have gates on which incantations or Buddhist scriptures are written for the purpose of warding off disease. There are also auxiliary houses in the tea gardens; they are used at plucking time, when most villagers work for extended periods picking and processing tea leaves. Houses are raised on wooden posts that vary from 3 to 12 feet in height, depending on the slope of the ground. The frames, floors, external walls, and internal partitions are usually of bamboo, although those who can afford it may have wooden-plank walls. The roofs, which extend to within a few feet of the ground, are of grass thatch. Beneath the house is a fenced area for keeping livestock and doing household tasks such as rice pounding. Houses vary in length from 9 to 24 meters, depending on the number of families in a dwelling. In Palaung villages just south of the Chinese border, as many as three to six families may occupy a single dwelling. In the central Palaung area in Taungpeng, one or at the most two families per house is normal. In single-family houses, verandas at each end are used for entrances and for kitchen tasks. In two-family houses in the central Palaung area, each veranda opens into a separate entrance room for each family. Additional smaller rooms are used for sleeping and storage. Entrance and sleeping rooms have fireplaces but are otherwise largely bare of furnishings.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Palaungs are agriculturalists whose hunting and gathering activities are minimal or reported only for some northern groups. Since they are predominantly vegetarians, virtually no hunting activities have been reported, although some freshwater fish and eels are caught for food. Likewise, no livestock is kept for food. Agricultural activities center on garden produce for food and trade, tea production for cash, and livestock raising for trade. Most areas practice swidden agriculture with rice as the main crop, although wet rice is also grown in areas where suitable lowland is available. Swidden and kitchen gardens also produce tobacco, hemp, beans, peas, sesame, maize, chilies, tomatoes, eggplants, onions, mustard, and sugarcane. Many wild fruits are used, but domestication is limited to bananas, jackfruit, and mangoes. Whereas both opium and betel nut are grown in the Shan States, the Palaungs do not raise either, even though both men and women use betel extensively. Tea production, which appears to have begun around 1910, is the chief economic pursuit of the central Palaungs, particularly those in Taungpeng state. All aspects of growing, processing, and transportation of tea for export are handled directly by the Palaungs, who have some large-scale enterprises with paid labor. Tea is exported in two forms: fermented or pickled (the latter eaten in Myanmar) and as dried leaves.
Since the Palaungs are predominantly vegetarians, few animals are raised for food. Pig raising is reported for some marginal areas and only the Rumai subgroup, north of the central area, is reported to slaughter animals. Since women neither eat nor cook meat, men prepare it when it is used. This may include either beef or pork obtained from Chinese butchers or neighboring Lisu and Kachins, or animals killed by predators. Palaungs also obtain salted, smoked, and fermented fish from the Burmese. Cocks are raised for crowing and fighting, but poultry are not eaten and eggs are rarely consumed. Cattle and buffalo, along with horses, which are sold in lowland Myanmar, are raised as beasts of burden; though cattle are raised, milk is not used.
Industrial Arts. The production of material goods by the Palaungs is fairly limited. It can be assumed that tea production takes up much of their productive labor time, and they buy or trade extensively for material goods. They make baskets but also buy them. Cloth to make bags for plucking tea is acquired from the Shans, as well as the white homespun cotton upon which the Palaung women weave distinctive patterns, although some women were reported to be still weaving cloth. Men's clothing is also made from cloth imported into the area. While some villages have silversmiths, most jewelry is acquired from Shans. Likewise there are Palaung blacksmiths, but cast-metal tools such as plowshares are acquired from the Chinese. Much carpentry, masonry, and decorative work, such as in monastery and pagoda construction, is done by lowland Burmese. Virtually no Palaung crafts are produced for trade.
Trade. Palaung trade is based on tea, both dry and pickled, and livestock, especially horses. The Palaungs carry on trade directly or through intermediary itinerant Chinese, Burmese, Indians, or Shans. Trade is conducted in Palaung villages as well as in towns such as Möngmit, Hsenwi, Hsipaw, and Namkham, and even as far away as Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay. Import trade from outside the area is shared with other cultural groups, although there is some area specialization such as that among the Shans and Kachin, who supply the Palaungs with salt and preserved fish. At the time of the most detailed ethnographic accounts of the Palaungs, most of the tea trade was in the pickled form, which moved south to the Burmese and north and east to the Shans of Burma and China.
Division of Labor. Men plow, tend livestock, build and repair houses, transplant tea, pack and load tealeaf, cook meat dishes, and prepare the slash-and-burn garden plots. Women fetch water, clean the houses, cook, spin, weave, make clothing, prepare the nurseries for the tea plants, and plant the gardens. Both men and women cut and gather firewood, cut and carry timber for houses, and gather grass for horses.
Kin Groups and Descent. Published accounts mention "clans" for the Palaung, but it is unclear exactly what this term means. They are apparently named groups comprised of most of the population of a contiguous area, although it is reported both that villages of different clans occur side by side and that members of clans may be widely distributed among villages. The clans are said to differ in respect to dialect and a variety of practices such as marriage rules, courtship, wedding procedures, naming, and women's clothing. Information on descent rules is not available.
Kinship Terminology. There is no complete description or analysis of Palaung kin terms; however, Milne provides some terminology in her 1931 dictionary.
Marriage. Villages are normally endogamous units in which polygyny is permitted, though rare. A man may not marry his father's sister's daughter nor the daughter of his own sister or brother. There is some indication that the preferred marriage is with a mother's brother's daughter. Courtship takes place at the woman's house, late at night, after her parents have gone to sleep. 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 relations are apparently uncommon. 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. Parents usually learn the identity of a woman's suitors and may praise or criticize them, but more direct interference is not the norm. Engagements are entered into without explicitly informing parents or obtaining their permission. In the central Palaung area marriage is traditionally by elopement, whereas elsewhere elopement may occur only because of parental disapproval. The eloping couple may go to the house of an older male relative of the man's father while several days of marriage negotiations are carried out by two part-time specialists skilled in traditional rhetoric. The woman's family expects a sum of money from the man's family, but this is regarded as help toward the wedding meal provided by the bride's family rather than as bride-price. The wedding is formalized by a blessing of the elders, after which the woman is surrendered and her parents send with her a dowry of household goods. Residence is initially patrilocal and a widow may either remain in her husband's home or return to her father's.
Domestic Unit. Information is not precise, but the domestic unit is probably the nuclear family along with some semi-detached individuals such as an unmarried brother or widowed parent.
Socialization. Spirit worship and Buddhism are strong forces for socialization. Young children are cared for almost exclusively by their mothers. Older children enjoy considerable freedom while learning work tasks and are taught to regard work as a source of enjoyment. Specially chosen young adults teach children poetry and customs of courtship, and prepare them for the prüh ceremony, a preadult initiation occurring around 10 years of age. Childhood training emphasizes courteousness, Buddhist merit, knowledge of spirit forces, and the learning of a vast corpus of poetry, songs, and metaphorical phrases necessary for social interaction. Almost every Palaung village has a monastery compound that serves as the traditional school in which boys receive their few years of formal education.
Social Organization. Little information is available on social organization among the Palaung. Status differentiation according to wealth is reported for the central tea-growing area. Those who are well off may have Palaung servants whose status is regarded as inferior. Witches are reported, whose power is believed to be hereditary and who live apart and marry among themselves.
Political Organization. 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.
Social Control. In more 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.
Conflict. Nondivisiveness is taught as a moral precept. There are reports of in-fighting over succession to the office of clan chief. Otherwise, being under pressure from the more dominant Shans and Kachins, the Palaungs are described as a peaceful, timid people.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The basis of Palaung religion is belief in spirits, and their aid is constantly invoked. Buddhism has been incorporated into spirit worship with the Buddha regarded as a beneficent spirit. Orthodox Buddhism, with the training and functioning of monks and nuns, parallels but seldom overlaps the functions of spirit worship. Two forms of Theravada Buddhism are followed: the 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, which are born by the monk's relatives and godparents. There are two classes of spirit: the kar-bu, in people and animals, which survive death for about a week; and kar-nam, in plants and inanimate objects. The kar-bu of persons who have suffered violent deaths or who do not proceed along the road of death become malevolent kar-nam spirits. Some kar-bu become the pe-aet, which are reminiscent of European ghosts. Other supernaturals include two guardian spirits for each human; guardian spirits of the house, village, roads, gardens, etc.; and numerous ogres and others of Burmese derivation.
Religious Practitioners. Although Buddhism guides Palaung religious belief, monks have no dealings with the host of supernaturals or supernatural practices that pervade Palaung belief. Offerings to supernaturals are usually made by ordinary people, even in cases of illness. Identification of the spirit causing an illness or misfortune is made by a specialist, the hsa-ra, a combination of diviner and medical practitioner. The diviner's advice is also sought in matters such as naming a child or choosing a house site, and for his knowledge of amulets and incantations, which he sells to those seeking success in love or against enemies. He is likely also to be the local tattooer. The bre, a witch or wizard, is said to be able to possess the body of another or to assume the shape of a tiger. Attached to the court of Taungpeng is also an older man, known as the ta pleng (old man of the sky) who acts as intermediary in dealing with spirits.
Ceremonies. Major ceremonies are calendrical ones associated with Buddhism. In the central area there is a state spirit festival conducted every September by the ta-pleng. The people assemble and, following a meal for the elders and monks and scripture reading by the monks, the ta-pleng and his assistants summon all spirits, great and small, to receive offerings.
Arts. Poetry, both recited and used as song texts, is the most important Palaung art. Nearly any context is suitable for the use of poetry or poetic phrases, but courting poetry, love songs, wedding songs, tea-picking songs, and dirges are especially important. All songs are sung, apparently unaccompanied, to a single tune. Ensembles of drums, gongs, and cymbals perform at all ceremonial occasions. Circle dancing is also prominent. Decorative art includes embroidery, tattooing of the entire body except the head, decorative roof gables, and carved and decorated entrance-door frames.
Medicine. 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.
Death and Afterlife. The soul has two parts: the kar-bu, or general animal spirit, composed of parts, some of which may leave the body during sleep, and the vin-yin, the intellect, which is the immortal part of a person. At death the kar-bu is thought to wander for about seven days seeking a new mother through whom it may be reincarnated. The idea of the karbu's wandering causes Palaungs to fear death. In cases of abnormal death, such as by violence, by lightning-strike, or in childbirth, burial takes place as soon as possible, without a coffin, in an isolated place. Occasionally monks, nuns, clan chiefs, headmen and their wives, or other notables who died normal deaths are cremated. Ordinary people are washed, dressed, and buried in a coffin in an unmarked grave no later than a day after death. Buddhist scriptures are read in the entrance room of the house for a week, food offerings are made to the Buddhist images of the monastery, and monks are presented uncooked rice. On the seventh day, a larger than usual amount of food is taken to the images and the spirit of the dead person is called upon to depart for the road of the dead and the afterlife.
Cameron, A. A. (1912). "A Note on the Palaungs of the Kodaung Hill Tracts of Momeik State." Appendix A in Census of India, 1911, 9, Pt. 1: i-xiii. Rangoon: Superintendent of Government Printing and Stationery.
Maring, Joel M., and Ester G. Maring (1973). Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Burma. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
Milne, Mary Lewis (Harper) (1924). The Home of the Eastern Clan: A Study of the Palaungs of the Shan States. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Milne, Mary Lewis (Harper) (1931). A Dictionary of English-Palaung and Palaung-English. 1st and 2nd pagination. Rangoon: Superintendent of Government Printing.
JOEL M. MARING