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ETHNONYMS: Chao Dol, Htin, Katin, Kha Che, Kha Pai, Kha Tin, Lawa, Lua?, Lwa?, Maí, Pai, P'ai, Pral, P'u Pai, Thin, Tie, Tin


Identification. The T'in are hill horticulturalists of northern Laos and northern Thailand. Some, especially in Pua District, call themselves "Mai," as in phuam maí (Mai people) or ngang maí (Mai language), meaning "life force" or "life essence." Those to the north and east of the Mai call themselves "Prai" (in Thailand) or "P'ai" (in Laos), a Yuan (Northern Thai) or Lao word meaning "commoner, lawless, or vulgar person." The Yuan terms "Ka," "Kha," "Lawa," "Lua?," "Lwa?, "P'u," and various other combinations and transliterations are derogatory terms used indiscriminately for Mon-Khmer and Palaung-Wa groups. The Thai refer to them as "Htin," "Tin," "T'in," or "Thin" (all transliterations signifying an aspirated t), related to the Thai word for "place" or "locality," hence "the locals," "the native inhabitants of a place." Only those heavily influenced by the Thai, as in relocation centers, use this term as a self-designation. The T'in appear physically similar to Kmhmu, Lamet, and other Mon-Khmer hill peoples in Thailand and Laos: short and stocky with black hair and a darker complexion than their valley neighbors. Physical anthropologists classify them as Paleo-Mongoloids.

Location. The T'in live in Nan Province, Thailand, and Xagnabouri (Sayaboury) Province, Laos, to the southwest of Luang Prabang. Except where they have been resettled by lowland authorities, they prefer the mountain ranges between the Mekong and the Mae Nam Nan rivers.

Demography. William Dessaint estimated 14,548 T'in in Thailand in 1964 and George Tubbs estimated 5,000-6,000 in Laos in 1960. Assuming an annual population growth rate of 2 percent, the total number of T'in in Thailand and Laos in 1989 would be about 34,100.

Linguistic Affiliation. T'in is in the Mon-Khmer Family, closely related to Kmhmu. There has been extensive borrowing of vocabulary from Yuan (Northern Thai) and Lao. Filbeck differentiates two major branches in Thailand: Mal (three dialects spoken, mainly in Pua District) and Prai (at least five dialects). Most T'in (men more than women) are fluent in the Nan dialect of Yuan or in Lao. In some acculturated villages, Yuan has become the primary language. A small number of T'in, those who purchase opium or hire themselves out as laborers, speak Hmong. There is no written language.

History and Cultural Relations

The T'in have probably lived in the same general area for centuries. Large numbers probably moved from Laos to Thailand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of internecine warfare between highlanders and lowlanders in Laos, as in Muang Ngol in 1876. Other migrations occurred before and since, both from Laos to Thailand and from Thailand to Laos, spurred by political conditions and availability of good land. There is regular trading between T'in and lowlanders. In Thailand, they have been exposed to strong acculturative pressures by the presence of Thai Border Patrol Police and Thai and Lao military forces. Several thousands were moved into resettlement centers beginning in 1967. A small number of T'in have become nominal Buddhists. American Protestant missionaries have had little success among them.


Most T'in live at mid-level elevations near the headwaters of the Mae Nam Nan, between Tai groups (Yuan, Lue, Lao) in the river valleys, and between Hmong and Mien in the higher mountains. T'in villages are located between 300 and 1,300 meters, close to a reliable source of drinking water. Villages vary in size from 4 or 5 households to over 100, and they often include scattered hamlets or individual houses with varying degrees of autonomy. T'in villages are sometimes interspersed with those of their Tai, Hmong, or Mien neighbors. The largest and most stable villages are those with a sound economic basis: salt wells, miang (fermented tea leaves chewed as a mild stimulant), or access to favorable agricultural land at lower elevations. Village gates with carved wooden spirit posts may still be found, though more and more they fall into disrepair through neglect. Several households, who may or may not be related, cooperate in house building. A house should face west, with an entrance porch reached by a wooden ladder or notched log. Houses are built on wooden piles, usually windowless, with walls and floors of bamboo or wood and thatched roofs. The roof may overhang to cover the family's rice pounder. Flimsy bamboo walls partition off bedrooms in the corners. Rattan mats are used for sitting and sleeping. Rice is stored in a granary set on piles or in large rattan containers inside the house. Villagers move whenever they believe the soil to be exhausted, or when sickness, accidents, or bad omens occur too frequently. Village stability among Tin is greater than among highlanders such as Lisu or Hmong.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Glutinous rice is the main crop. Maize, millet, and vegetables and condiments (including gourds, squash, capsicum, cucumbers, eggplants, Chinese mustard, and chili peppers) are also grown. Swiddens are cleared in January and February using axes and machetelike knives. Old swiddens that have lain fallow several years require less work to clear and are therefore favored. In April or May, the cut brush is burned. T'in plant crops in May or June before the monsoon, using digging sticks; they weed with hand hoes. The fields must be guarded against birds and other predators. The rice harvest begins in August, though most rice is harvested in October and November, using sickles. It is threshed by beating it against a bamboo frame or trampling it underfoot, and it is transported to the village in baskets using head tumplines. Rice swiddens are used for one or two years: a few are irrigated, though none is terraced. Households cooperate in agricultural labor: usually a couple, their married daughters, and their sons-in-law will exchange labor. In larger villages, miang is a major commercial product. T'in cultivate only small amounts of betel and tobacco for their own use. Opium has been grown by a few households (usually on fields abandoned by Hmong), but most of it is bought from highlanders. Domesticated pigs and chickens usually fend for themselves, though they may also be given rice bran, banana stems, vegetable leftovers, and maize. Only a few households own cattle (water buffalo and zebu). Pigs and cattle may be sold to outsiders or for village sacrifices. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and occasionally cattle are used as sacrifices to the spirits, though the meat is eaten later. Men and boys hunt with crossbows or rifles for wild fowl, rabbits, wild pigs, barking deer, bears, tigers, and rhinoceroses (the last two are now almost extinct). Fishing is less important; both nets and poison are used. Collecting of wild fruit, honey, medicinal herbs, benzoin, stick-lac, and firewood is done mostly by women and children. Until recent disturbances in the area, salt was collected from salt wells in two communes near the headwaters of the Mae Nam Nan, Bo Klüa Nüa, and Bo Klüa Tai rivers. (The water was boiled in large kettles until only the salt remained.) As a last resort, the T'in occasionally hire themselves out as agricultural laborers to the Hmong or Mien.

Industrial Arts. Most containers, rattan mats, rattan baskets, utensils, and everyday articles are made by hand in each household.

Trade. Miang is peddled door-to-door in Yuan or Lao communities. Yuan or Lao caravanners buy salt. Pigs, cattle, and hides (deer, bear, and tiger) are also sold to lowlanders. T'in buy rice, medicine, blankets, clothes, towels, pots, pans, axes, sickles, flashlights, matches, beads, earrings, and other manufactured goods.

Division of Labor. Both men and women perform agricultural chores, but men do the heavier clearing. Men hunt, trade, deal with lowlanders, hold the offices of headman and village priest, brew liquor, and are responsible for religious observances. Women are primarily responsible for child rearing, food preparation, hulling rice, fetching water and firewood, and cleaning clothes. Children fetch firewood and water, tend younger siblings, and collect wild foods. Elders take care of grandchildren, prepare food, weave baskets, make fishnets, and tend livestock.

Land Tenure. Whoever clears a piece of land enjoys its usufruct until it is abandoned. No claim on a piece of land can be maintained by someone who does not work it. These usufruct rights are sometimes rented or sold for a small sum. While the rice crop belongs to the sower, anything elsevegetables, condiments, trees, animalsfound in a swidden can be taken by anyone. Villages do not have an exclusive territory: people from different villages (and ethnic groups) may be working adjacent fields. The headman may confirm field boundaries and inform villagers of areas that the government does not wish disturbed.


Kin Groups and Descent. The descent system is bilateral. There are no lineages, clans, or other social institutions based on kinship apart from the family and household. The spirits of the last two generations are honored.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms stress relative age, reflecting its importance in determining status relations. Differences between patrilateral and matrilateral, lineal and collateral, and consanguineous and affinal relatives are expressed. Distant relatives of a person's own generation are often called elder or younger brother or sister; thus one's kinship group may include most members of a village community. The T'in have adopted Thai personal names and surnames; often a whole village shares the same surname.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Premarital sex is a serious insult to the village guardian spirit and calls for an expensive sacrifice, usually a calf. It is rare. Courtship is carried out in groups, and the boy indicates his interest in a girl to his parents, who in turn contact the girl's parents. Women marry in their mid-teens, men in their late teens. The ideal is village endogamy (resulting in first-cousin marriages) and monogamy, and these are usually practiced. The marriage ceremony, which may take place after a man and a woman have begun living together, involves a feast for the groom with the men of the village at which the khawcam (village priest) invokes the blessing of the village spirit and notifies the groom's ancestor spirits that the groom will be leaving his house. Another feast is held at the bride's house to introduce the groom to the bride's ancestor spirits. Divorce is common, especially during the period of bride-service, which in some communities is a trial marriage. Requests are made to the headman who with the elder men of the village, attempts a reconciliation. If this is not possible, they discuss with the families of husband and wife the division of property and children.

Domestic Unit. The basic social unit is the matrifocal nuclear or extended family. After marriage, there is matrilocal residence with bride-service (which averages one or two years). An older married daughter and her husband and children will move out and build a house nearby. The youngest daughter will remain in her parents' house, take care of her old parents, and eventually inherit the house. Patrilocal resi' dence occurs only when a family has no daughters.

Socialization. Parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives share child-care duties. As soon as they are able, boys take part in male activities and girls begin helping their female relatives. Many villages in Thailand now have government schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is no tribal consciousness. The village is the largest sociopolitical entity. There are no clan ties, and few marriage ties crosscut village boundaries; there are no leaders with power in more than one village. Even religious beliefs and rituals differ somewhat from village to village. There is strong pressure for harmonious social relations within a village. Only minor differences in status, wealth, or personal influence exist, based largely on age and secondarily on sex.

Political Organization. Anyone in the village may attend meetings of the informal village council and participate in discussions, but in practice it is the male household heads who have a real say. Men enjoy prestige according to their age, experience, and reputation for sound reasoning. The khawcam also has influence. The office of headman seems a more recent innovation in response to pressures from lowland authorities. The headman is often recommended by an outgoing headman, selected by the village council, and appointed by the Thai or Lao district officer. He forms the link between lowland administration and villagers, carries out government directives, assigns numbers to each house, keeps count of the members of each household, assesses taxes, coordinates unpaid village labor, and reports crimes to lowland police. He receives a small monthly stipend, and he may appoint assistant headmen.

Conflict. The riit is an unwritten code of T'in tradition. Any infraction of riit, such as quarrels or fights, is offensive to the village spirit, who may turn his anger on anyone in the village or the village as a whole, causing illness, epidemics, crop failure, or other calamities. Disputes between houses are mediated by elder men. Serious infractions of riit are dealt with by the khawcam who, in consultation with village elders, may impose fines, require the sacrifice of a chicken or pig to the village spirit, or expel the wrongdoer from the village. Witchcraft accusations occur between people of different villages.

Religious and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Following religious tradition is essential to good health and agricultural success. The T'in strive to attain and maintain harmony between themselves, the natural world, and the supernatural world through ceremonies and taboos. There are many types of spirit: ancestor spirits, village guardian spirits, field spirits, jungle spirits, and spirits associated with mountains, water, or other natural features or phenomena. Spirits may become harmful if offended, whether the offense is intended or not, resulting in disharmony that must be corrected through offerings and sacrifices. One propitiates spirits before undertaking any major activity, including any major phase of the agricultural cycle. Offerings and sacrifices, preventive or curative, are made by the khawcam or by any household head. All spirits can be appeased, though none can be controlled.

Religious Practitioners. There are no full-time specialists. A khawcam is selected by divination by his predecessor or influential elders. He acts as the villagers' representative to the village spirits, sees to it that villagers observe ceremonies and respect taboos, settles disputes, judges infractions of religious customs, makes offerings and performs sacrifices on behalf of the village, and presides at weddings, funerals, house blessings, and annual rituals. Other adult males have specialized knowledge to carry out specific rituals; they may know formulas with curative powers or incantations against witchcraft, or they may have power to deal with certain spirits. Each of these specialists may work for other villagers with little or no remuneration.

Ceremonies. The T'in observe a ten-day week, of which one day (differing from village to village) is a holy day; no physical labor may be done in the rice fields on that day. The new year usually falls in mid-April and lasts three days, during which spirits of the old year are driven out and spirits of the new year are welcomed. Villagers drink specially prepared rice liquor through long reeds, and the khawcam is possessed by the village spirit, who makes his wishes known. The religious calendar is intertwined with the agricultural cycle: the major ceremonies are related to rice, the staff of life. Before villagers plant rice, the khawcam sacrifices a pig (paid for by all households), and before the rice shows its head, he sacrifices a chicken to preserve the crop from insects. The head of each household should also sacrifice a dog to the spirit of the household's field. After the rice begins to grow, a major festival lasting several days is held to reintegrate the mai (life force or life essence) of rice. Rice is the only item for which there is such a ceremony. At harvest, taieo (a Yuan loanword for star-shaped markers made of bamboo strips) are placed around the village as protection against evil spirits intent on destroying the crop. When a field is abandoned, a simple ceremony with food offerings is made to return the land to the spirits.

Medicine. Human beings are believed to have more or less mai. Like the Thai or Laotians, some T'in say they have thirty-two mai. Loss of mai is caused by an offended or angry spirit and results in sickness. Loss of all mai results in death. If only part of it is lost, that part can be regained through a ceremony involving the recital of incantations and the sacrifice of a chicken or pig, for blood is believed to be indispensable to appease an offended spirit and to retrieve lost mai.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the men of the village hold a loud wake, singing and drinking to keep the dying company. After death, the body is wrapped in a blanket and bamboo mat, and men bury it in the jungle. If the deceased was a woman, betel, tobacco, and rice are buried with her. The grave diggers and the house of the dead must be cleansed ritually to get rid of evil spirits; the family of the dead performs a ceremony to increase their mai. On the tenth day after death, ashes are placed in a winnowing tray and the deceased is asked to walk across: the type of imprint made will show whether the deceased has become a pig, a dog, a chicken, orif no imprint is visiblean ancestral spirit. Those who die in violent or unusual circumstances become ghosts or evil spirits that are much feared.


Dessaint, William Y. (1973). "The Mai of Thailand and Laos." Bulletin of the International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research 15:9-25.

Filbeck, David (1971). "Tin: A Historical Study." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Filbeck, David (1971). "The Tin of Northern Thailand: An Ethnolinguistic Survey." Behavior Science Notes 6:19-31.