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ETHNONYMS: Co Sung, Co Xung, Guozhou, Kha Quy, Khu Xung, Kucong, Kwi, Laho, Lohei, Mussur


Identification. The Lahu are one among many linguistically and culturally distinct ethnic minority peoples of the mountainous region that extends from the far southwestern part of China's Yunnan Province into Myanmar's (Burma) Shan State, northwestern Laos, northern Thailand, and northwest Vietnam. The people's own ethnonym, "Lahu" ("Laho" in some dialects), is of uncertain meaning. The old Chinese name for them was "Lohei," now dropped because of its derogatory connotations. The Tai call them "Mussur," derived from the Burmese moksa, "hunter." "Kucong" and "Co Sung" (also "Co Xung," "Khu Xung," and "Kha Quy") are names used in Yunnan and North Vietnam respectively for a highly divergent branch of the Lahu, traditionally forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers but in Yunnan simple swiddeners as well. Only recently have they been identified (by Chinese researchers) as belonging within the wider Lahu ethnic group. The Lahu have numerous linguistically and culturally specific subdivisions, the two most important being the Lahu Na (Black Lahu) and Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu; called "Mussur Kwi" or just "Kwi" by the Shan). Lahu Hpu (White) is another important subdivision, especially in Yunnan, as is Lahu Nyi (Red) in Myanmar's Shan State and in north Thailand. Yunnan's Kucong also have Black and Yellow divisions; the Black Kucong reportedly call themselves "Guozhou" but are termed "Lahu Na" by their Lahu Shi neighbors, and the Yellow Kucong call themselves "Lahu Shi." Ethnic identification by color labels is widespread in Southeast Asia.

Location. About 67 percent of all Lahu live in the far southwestern tip of China's Yunnan Province, mostly near the Myanmar border in the mountains on both sides of the Lancang (Mekong) River. Outside China, Lahu communities are scattered through the federated Shan State, north Thailand, Laos's Nam Tha Province (whence some have gone as refugees to California), and far northwestern Vietnam. Their widespread settlement areas have common natural characteristics: rugged hill country cut by narrow alluvial valleys, a subtropical monsoonal climate, luxuriant natural vegetation, and mostly fertile soils. It is good country for growing rice (irrigated and dry), maize, and buckwheat, as well as cash crops like tea, tobacco, and opium. There is a wide variety of fauna, including tiger and other wild cats, bears, gaur, sambar and barking deer, gibbons, and several species of monkeys.

Demography. Lahu probably number some 600,000 people. In China (1990 census) there were 411,174 Lahu; in Myanmar, perhaps 150,000; in Laos perhaps 10,000; and in Thailand, 63,821 scattered through about 290 villages (1988 count). Vietnam's Co Sung, according to a 1984 report, numbered more than 4,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Lahu language (together with Lisu) belongs to the Central Loloish (or Yi) Branch of the Lolo-Burmese Subgroup of the Tibeto-Burman Family. It has close lexical affinities with the Southern Loloish Akha language. Lahu has no traditional script; the people once used notched sticks, with or without chicken feathers attached, to communicate simple messages. Three romanizations have been introduced during this century, by Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries and by Chinese government linguists.

History and Cultural Relations

Chinese scholars count the Lahu among the ancient Qiang people of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Migrating slowly southward, ancestral Lahu, along with other Qiang peoples, are said to have settled around Dali during the third to fifth centuries a.d., where they were known as the Kun or Kunming. Sometime during the next five centuries, during which they were dominated by various ruling dynasties in central Yunnan, the Lahu appear to have become consolidated as a distinct ethnolinguistic group. From the tenth century, according to Chinese sources, the Lahu began a large-scale southerly migration, during which they bifurcated. The ancestors of the Lahu Na took a westerly route, while those of the Lahu Shi, along with the Lahu Hpu, preferred an easterly one. Eventually most Lahu came under the jurisdiction of Tai feudal overlords, recognized by the Chinese government as tusi, "native chiefs," holding imperial seals legitimizing their rule in the name of the Son of Heaven. During the Ming dynasty, the imperial authorities began a process of replacing native leaders by Han officials, a policy continued under the Qing dynasty, when it first affected the Lahu areas. Some Lahu areas were brought under direct Chinese control; others were administered jointly by a Chinese magistrate and a native ruler. Between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries various sections of Lahu people (some led by warriorpriests) rebelled against these imperial authorities, Lahu fighters facing far better-armed Chinese troops with nothing but their crossbows and poison-tipped arrows. One by one, the rebellions were put down; the majority of Lahu accepted the inevitability of Chinese rule, but some fled southward into Burmese and Lao territory. Lahu were well established in the Burmese Shan States by the 1830s and in Laos by midcentury. They probably began moving into north Thailand in the 1870s or 1880s.

In recent centuries Lahu have mostly lived in mountainous areas, their villages interspersed with those of other ethnic groups, notably Wa and Hani (Akha) in the south and Yi in the north, but also many others. The rich alluvial valleys below their mountain homes have been controlled mostly by Tai peoples. Han Chinese settlers in southern Yunnan have tended to occupy lands in the foothills, above the valley bottoms but below the elevations favored by the true hill peoples. Lahu culture has been greatly influenced by its neighbors, particularly the Tai and Han Chinese.


In the northeastern areas of Lahu settlement in Yunnan, Lahu villages resemble those of their Han and Yi neighbors. Based on irrigated-rice production, such villages are permanent settlements, some numbering over 200 households and more than 1,000 people. Houses are substantial earthen structures in the Chinese style, with roofs of tiatch or wooden boards. Further southwest in Yunnan, and hrough Myanmar's Shan State, north Thailand, and northwestern Laos, Lahu villages tend to be much smaller and thus better suited to a predominantly swidden-farming economy. They are also less permanent, being relocated every eight to ten years. Thirty houses and 120 people are about normal, but the range is considerable. Houses are usually of bamboo, raised on wooden or thick bamboo piles and thatched with leaves or cogon grass. Averaging about 3 by 3.5 meters, they vary in size according to the number of occupants rather than family wealth. In some of the southwestern settlement areas in Yunnan, at least until the 1950s, longhouses (up to 15 meters in length) were not uncommon for extended families of 40 to 100 people, each nuclear family unit having its own apartment and cooking hearth. The settlements of the Kucong (Co Sung) reflect their hunting-and-gathering economy. These people make temporary huts, or even simpler wind shelters, by covering a bamboo or wooden frame with wild banana or bamboo leaves. They sleep on leaves next to their house fires. Such huts have to be rebuilt about once a month.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Probably most Lahu are still predominantly swidden farmers, cultivating dry rice as a staple, corn for their pigs, and chilies, without which no Lahu meal is considered edible. They interplant leafy and root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, and gourds with the major crops. Principal cash crops include chilies, cotton, tea, and opium poppy. Several traditionally swidden-based communities, especially in Yunnan, also have irrigated-rice lands in the foothills. Among the Sinicized northeastern Lahu, irrigated-rice farming is the mainstay, supplemented by fruit-tree silviculture, vegetable gardening, and tea cultivation. Yunnan's Kosung combine the gathering of forest products (roots, stems, leaves, and fruits) and hunting (deer, wild pigs, bears, wild cats, pangolins, and porcupines) with a rough form of swidden farming, mostly of maize but also a little dry rice. Vietnam's Co Sung have only recently taken up dry-rice swidden farming, in imitation of their Phunoi and Hani neighbors; before this they were exclusively hunter-gatherers of the forests, subsisting primarily on wild taro. Trade and barter of hill produce, both cultigens and natural, with neighboring upland and valley peoples, has long been an integral part of Lahu village life. Most Lahu farmers are familiar with the use of money, with lowland markets, and with itinerant peddlers. Some Lahu villages boast their own multipurpose provision stores, often operated by a resident Han Chinese merchant who has taken a Lahu wife.

Pigs are the most important domesticated animals, since no major festival is complete without pork. Lahu communities with irrigated-rice fields keep cattle and buffalo as draft animals. Swiddening communities sometimes keep them as capital investment, offering these animals for seasonal hire to irrigated-rice-farming lowlanders, or for sale as meat. Lahu rarely eat beef and generally abhor animals' milk. Ponies and mules are valuable pack animals, but seldom ridden. Chickens are a ubiquitous feature of Lahu villages and are frequently sacrificed. Ducks and geese also may be reared. Dogs are kept principally as guard animals; cats are less common.

Industrial Arts. Most Lahu villages boast at least one blacksmith, who forges knives, hoes, sickles, ax heads, dibble blades, opium-tapping knives, etc., from scrap iron obtained in the lowlands. Blacksmiths are usually part-time specialists, receiving payment in kind or in labor in their fields. Women spin cotton and weave cloth for clothing and shoulder bags.

Division of Labor. Division of labor is limited and based on gender and age. Men alone are the hunters and undertake the heaviest agricultural tasks. Apart from this, men, women, and children from quite tender ages cooperate in all agricultural activities. Women take major responsibility for domestic chores, collecting water and caring for the pigs and fowl. Men mostly take care of the larger animals. Men and women share gathering activities as well as cutting and collecting firewood.

Land Tenure. Among swidden communities, individual households have usufruct rights over their swiddens, and the village headman has final say in land disputes. Rights over irrigated rice fields, by contrast, are individual, permanent, and inheritable.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although many of the Lahu in Yunnan have taken Chinese surnames (Li seems to be the most common) and patrilineage organization (for ritual purposes) is found among some Lahu groups (e.g., Lahu Sheh Leh), the traditional kinship pattern seems to be essentially bilateral, with exogamous but noncorporate cognatic kindreds. Among Lahu Nyi these include second but not third cousins. Outside the immediate family and village community, ties of kinship do not necessarily cement stronger bonds between individuals than does simple friendship. This notwithstanding, there is a pervasive notion that members of the village community should behave as "relatives" (aw-vi aw-nyi ).

Kinship Terminology. There are some differences in terminology according to divisional affiliation and the dominant lingua franca (a Tai language or Chinese), but the underlying pattern seems fairly consistent. The Lahu Shi and Lahu Sheh Leh systems, however, have termsabsent among other Lahu divisionsto identify particular parental siblings; this usage may reflect these peoples' preference for matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. Typically, Lahu Nyi have a composite term for kin, "aw-vi aw-nyi," literally meaning "elder sibling, younger sibling." The specific (i.e., nondescriptive) kinship terminology is very simple, both in reference and address. Grandfathers on both sides are aw-pu (nga [my] pu in address) and grandmothers aw-pi (nga pi ). Father is aw-pa (nga pa ), mother aw-e (nga e ). There are only descriptive terms for parents' siblings and these relatives are addressed by the terms for elder male/female sibling. There are no special terms for cousins, although these can be specified descriptively. Siblings and cousins are addressed by personal name. There are specific terms also for the next four generations. All are addressed by personal name.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marital unions, invariably monogamous, result from a period of courtship with minimal parental interference. Once a couple decides to marry, a go-between formally initiates negotiations between the two families. Prospective mates should not be too close; Lahu Nyi say "people related within three generations must not marry." The preference for cross-cousin marriage, common among Yi-speaking peoples, seems limited to Lahu Shi and Sheh Leh. First marriages tend to be contracted when boys are about 16 or 17 and girls 13 or 14. Wedding rites vary from one Lahu division to the next but are comparatively simple, usually involving a communal feast and the ritual participation of the village headman, priest, and elders. Christian weddings are probably the most elaborate in ritual terms. Postmarital residence is generally uxorilocal, at least initially. The groom offers bride-service to his father-in-law's household before returning with his spouse and offspring for a shorter service period in his own parental home. There is much flexibility in these arrangements, money sometimes being paid in lieu of service. Setting up an independent household, frequently in the wife's parental village, is the ultimate aim of most Lahu couples. A youngest or only child, especially if a daughter, is likely to remain permanently at home to care for the parents in their old age. Divorce (except among some Christians) is frequent and easily obtained, particularly before the birth of children. The village headman levies fines on both parties, with the side that has initiated the proceedings paying double. A short ritual publicly severs the marital bond.

Domestic Unit. The household, either nuclear and sharing one hearth, or extended with married children having their own apartments and hearths, is the basic unit of Lahu village society. Rice swiddens, livestock, food supplies, and jewelry are held by the household head on behalf of his whole household. Economic and ritual responsibilities as well as benefits are distributed among households, not individuals. The household head and his wife are jointly in charge of the domestic unit.

Inheritance. Rules for the inheritance of property can be quite complex. Among Lahu Nyi indivisible property is proportioned equally between the household and the deceased spouse's immediate nonresident relatives: parents, siblings, and children.

Socialization. The household is the principal socializing unit, with parents and siblings intimately involved. Infants and young children are treated with indulgence, seldom receiving more than a verbal reprimand. By the age of 5 or 6, girls begin to take on simple domestic chores; by 8 or 9, both boys and girls help in the fields and care for younger siblings. By their early teens, Lahu children are more or less fully socialized into adult life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lahu village society is extraordinarily egalitarian. Age, not gender, fertility, or wealth, is normally the basis for what little hierarchy there is. The principal unit of village social organization is the highly autonomous household. Although ritually important patrilineages serve among Lahu Sheh Leh to link otherwise independent households, there are among most Lahu no other corporate groups between individual household and village community. Household heads agree to the leadership of one among them, who holds the title of hk'a sheh hpa, "master of the village." This headman, responsible for law and order within the community, consults the village elders on major decisions. The village priest (pastor among Protestant Christians) usually has an importance in community affairs that transcends the ritual domain. Households may at any time leave and attach themselves to another community; Lahu villages are notorious for their propensity to segment. Sometimes several households move off together to set up a new village under a more acceptable leader. Beyond the individual village, it is not uncommon to find small conglomerations of villages whose leaders recognize one among them, usually the head of the pioneer community, as senior area headman. The conglomeration is frequently multiethnic, and its leader may or may not be Lahu.

Political Organization. Beyond this loose and locally based multivillage polity, one enters the domain of political relations with dominant lowland peoples. For most Lahu these traditionally have been Tai peoples. Lahu leaders often received formal recognition from their local Tai prince, to whom they pledged allegiance, supplied corvée, and paid taxes in cash and kind. As Chinese concern for political control over border areas has grown, Lahu leaders have increasingly come under Han Chinese control instead of, or in addition to, that of their local Tai lords. In modern times, Lahu have various political associationssome intense, others largely nominalwith the administrators of the nation-states in which they live.

Social Control. Village gossip and perceived supernatural sanctions are powerful constraints on deviant behavior. Within the household, the master and mistress are responsible for the good behavior of all who live under their roof. Disputes between members of different households may be brought to the village headman for judgment. Cases involving members of different villages may be taken first to the senior area headman and subsequently to the lowland authorities for settlement. Wrongdoers are usually fined, after which they may receive ritual purification. To determine unadmitted guilt, Lahu headmen traditionally have administered ritual tests of innocence.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Differing relationships with neighboring upland and lowland peoples and degrees of exposure to evangelizing worldviews have resulted in great diversity of religious expression. Probably the majority (including some self-professed Christians and Marxists) accept the existence of a great number of spirits (ne) associated with natural phenomena or deceased human beings. Most spirits are thought to be essentially capricious. Even potent guardians of people, crops, and livestock (such as ancestral and locality spirits) are seen as easily offended and quick to punish. Some spirits (e.g., those of persons who have died unnaturally and those of demoniac possession) are perceived as invariably malicious. Malicious spirits are said to "bite" those who offend them, bringing sickness (often of a specific kind) to their victims. Besides such spirits, most Lahu seem to recognize, and frequently give considerable ritual importance to, a supreme and creating divinity called "G'ui-sha" (etymology obscure; Chinese scholars translate the word as "Sky Ghost"). Among Lahu Nyi, G'ui-sha is both personal deity, appropriately addressed as "Father G'ui-sha," and diffused divinity incorporating, among other supernatural beings, a female counterpart, "Mother Ai-ma." Not surprisingly, the Christian Lahu interpret G'ui-sha as the personal deity of their Judeo-Christian tradition. Lahu distinguish between physical body and metaphysical body-counterpart, the latter conceived of as comprising several distinct "souls." Nonindigenous worldviews that have profoundly affected the supernatural ideas of different groups of Lahu include a variant of Han Chinese Mahayana Buddhism first brought to them during the early eighteenth century, the Theravada Buddhism of their Tai neighbors, and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity introduced, in that order, by Western missionaries beginning in the 1890s. The degree to which Yunnan's Lahu have accepted a Marxist materialist worldview is difficult to determine; that many still cling to supernatural interpretations of reality is clear enough from recent Chinese publications.

Religious Practitioners. Most traditionalist Lahu communities boast spirit specialists, called maw-pa. These men perform propitiatory and exorcistic rites and sometimes possess shamanistic characteristics. Some Lahu communities make a sharp distinction between such spirit specialists and priests (paw-hku ; keh-lu-pa among Lahu Sheh Leh, to-bo-pa among Lahu Nyi), whose primary function is to mediate between the people and their high divinity, G'ui-sha. In Protestant Christian communities, the pastor (sa-la-pa or bon-rnapa ) is the ritual leader; in Roman Catholic communities, it is the priest (cao-bu, ca-bu ). There is a long tradition of Messianic "warrior-priests" among the Lahu peoples. Beginning as revivalist leaders, such men characteristically extend their interests into the political realm, often claiming supernatural powers and divine affiliations.

Ceremonies. All Lahu mark the major rites of passage and principal phases of the agricultural year with ritual. Much ritual also surrounds soul-recall and the propitiation and exorcism of malicious spirits. The major communal festival marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, while the Festival of Eating the New Rice is also important. Christmas is an important festival among Christians. Several Lahu divisions have a tradition of village temples (bon yeh or haw yeh ). Historical investigations suggest, if not prove, that these have evolved from the "Buddha houses" or "Buddha halls" (fo-fang or fo-tang ), introduced with Mahayana Buddhism in the eighteenth century. Other significant ceremonial centers are churches and chapels in Christian villages, shrines and bamboo poles with streamers atop in honor of the village guardian spirit, and ritual dancing circles.

Arts. Cloth and basketry, embroidery and appliqué work, musical instruments (particularly gourd flutes, Jew's harps, and banjos), and domestic, agricultural, and hunting appurtenances constitute the major expressions of Lahu plastic arts; singing, dancing, and music are their principal performing arts.

Medicine. Sickness is frequently attributed to supernatural causes, and remedies are sought through propitiation, exorcism, and soul-recall. Herbal medicines are may also be administered.

Death and Afterlife. At death, prayers and ritual offerings are designed to speed the deceased's soul to the land of the dead or to the Christian heaven; after a "bad death" (by accident, violence, or in childbed) among non-Christian traditionalists, the spirit must be exorcised lest it visit a similar fate on its living kinsmen. Some Lahu groups bury their dead, others cremate. Specially appointed graveyards and cremation places are not uncommon among the more settled Lahu communities.


Song Enchang, et al. (1981-1982). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu shehui lishi diaocha ziliao congkan: Lahu zu shehui lishi diaocha (Series of survey materials relating to the social history of the minority peoples of China: A social history of the Lahu nationality). 2 vols. Kunming: Yunnan People's Publishing House.

Walker, Anthony R. (1974). "The Divisions of the Lahu People." Journal of the Siam Society 62:253-268.

Walker, Anthony R. (1974). "Messianic Movements among the Lahu of the Yunnan-Indochina Borderlands." Southeast Asia: An International Quarterly 3:699-711.

Walker, Anthony R. (1976). "The Swidden Economy of a Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu) Village Community in North Thailand." Folk 18:145-188.

Walker, Anthony R. (1983). "The Lahu People: An Introduction." In Highlanders of Thailand, edited by John McKinnon and Wanat Bhruksasri, 227-237. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Walker, Anthony R. (1986). "Transformations of Buddhism in the Religious Ideas and Practices of a Non-Buddhist Hill People: The Lahu Nyi of the Northern Thai Uplands." Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography 5:65-91.


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ETHNONYMS: Lahuna, Lahupu, Lahuxi


Identification. The Lahu are swidden farmers and hunters of the upland regions of southwestern Yunnan. There are two main branches: the Lahuna or "Black Lahu," and the Lahuxi or "Yellow Lahu." Lahu populations are also found in Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and the Chiang Mai region of Thailand.

Location. Most of the Lahu within China proper are residents of the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County in Simao Prefecture. The remainder live in the southern parts of neighboring Lincang Prefecture and in Menghai County in Xishuangbanna. The main concentrations are in the subtropical hilly areas along the Lancang River, also known as the upper Mekong. Annual rainfall is 140 centimeters and the average temperature is 20° C. Eighty percent of the rainfall is concentrated in the rainy season between May and October.

Demography. The Lahu population within China is approximately 411,476, according to the census of 1990. About 80 percent are distributed along the west bank of the Lancang River. Less than 7 percent are classified as urban. Another 200,000 Lahu live in Southeast Asia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Lahu languages belong to the Yi Branch of Tibeto-Burmese and are closely related to Lisu. Lahuna is the most widespread and serves as a lingua franca. In the past, carvings on wood were one way of transmitting messages. In the early twentieth century, an alphabetic script developed by Western missionaries was in use in parts of the Lahu area. After 1957, government authorities reformed this script and made it the officially recognized writing form for the Lahu language.

History and Cultural Relations

According to Chinese historical tradition, the origin of the Lahu can be traced to the ancient Qiang or Di-Qiang mentioned in early historical accounts. It is thought that some 2,000 years ago, some of the Qiang migrated southward into Yunnan, the ancestors of the Lahu among them. The Lahu once were known for their skill at hunting tigers. As hunters and farmers they exploited the lush slopes of the towering Ailao and Wuliang mountains in western Yunnan. In the eighth century a.d., during the rule of the Nanzhao Kingdom in western Yunnan, the Lahu people were pushed to move farther southward and eastward. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, they were already settled in their present areas. Here they came under the political and economic influence of the more complex and sophisticated Dai culture, as well as that of the Han. Intensive agriculture replaced slash-and-burn methods of farming in some areas. At the same time, Dai rulers and Han landlords economically dominated some of the Lahu areas. From the eighteenth century on, there were a number of uprisings in which Lahu joined with Hani, Wa, and, in some instances, Han or Dai. During this period the revival of Mahayana Buddhism, spread by Bai monks and priests from Dali, also influenced the Lahu and the new religion played a part in the content and organization of the uprisings. Culturally, the Lahu remained more closely related to Yi, Naxi, Hani, and Lisu, who trace their origins to the original Di-Qiang peoples. Since 1949, the Lahu have borrowed more cultural traits from the Dai and the Han, particularly in housing, clothing, and general economic activities.


Lahu villages vary in size, depending on locale. They range from 3 to 50 households or from around 50 to as many as 800 people. The main village, whose homesteads include a number that hold complex extended families, is often surrounded by smaller temporary hamlets that lie closer to the fields under cultivation. Most Lahu settlements are on the higher slopes of the hills and mountainsides, at the head of creeks and streams. Dai and Han lands and villages are at lower elevations where wet-rice cultivation is more feasible. Large houses are raised on stilts, with space underneath the houses reserved for domestic animals. Every house is divided into small rooms, each holding a nuclear family unit from within the larger extended family. Wood and bamboo are the most common building materials. In recent years, zinc roofing has been gradually replacing the thatched roofs, especially in the lowland areas close to Dai settlement.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Maize, buckwheat, and dry upland rice are the staples. More recently paddy rice has been adopted in some areas. Generally, the Lahu practice slash-and-burn farming and harvest one crop a year on each field. In addition to staple grains, the Lahu grow beans, garlic, cucumbers, squash, and various greens. Tea, tobacco, and sisal are cash crops. Gathering of wild foods and medicinal plants continues, as does hunting with the crossbow or firelock for deer and other woodland game. Pigs and chickens are the most common domestic animals. The Lahu also practice apiculture. Few families have horses or oxen, and until the 1950s, Lahu agricultural technology lagged behind that of the Dai or Han.

Industrial Arts. Handicrafts include blacksmithing, weaving, appliqué design, and bamboo work. Few of these products are for market sale. Barter was the preferred form of trade until recent decades.

Division of Labor. Hunting, clearing the bush and preparing fields, smithing, and bamboo work are male activities. Women do most of the agricultural work, and women also are responsible for gathering activities, weaving cloth, tailoring, and decorating clothing for the household.

Land Tenure. Lahu class land in three categories. Paddy fields are the most precious, and utilization rights are closely tied to ownership. Dry fields come second in value, and there is much flexibility in transfer of use rights. Waste lands are free to all members of the village community who are willing to clear and cultivate them. In some areas, prior to 1949, landownership and control of usage of the paddy fields and dry fields belonged to Han landlords or the local Dai rulers. Households or village communities had to pay as much as 50 percent of the crop and various kinds of tribute as rental. Land reform took place in most of the Lahu areas in 1952, ending the feudal system and/or restoring the village communal system or household control over land use.


Kin Groups and Descent. Some Lahu follow the Han system of patrilineal descent and inheritance. However, many Lahu continue with a matrilineal emphasis and recognize bilateral descent. The localized, matrilineal extended family is the dominant kin group, though some large households incorporate both married sons and daughters.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology in use varies considerably because of the influence of the Han, Dai, and other groups. In Lincang Prefecture, for instance, Ego's siblings, parallel cousins, and cross cousins are distinguished only by relative age and sex. In Ego's parent's generation, father is accorded a separate term, while father's older and younger brothers share the same term as father's sister's husbands. In the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, "uncles" are not lumped together: there are separate terms for mother's brother, father's brother, father's sister's husband, and mother's sister's husband, a system which suggests Han influence in its stress on lineality. But Han influence is not consistent throughout the system: maternal and paternal grandparents are distinguished only by sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy is the usual practice. In most areas the young people are free to choose their marriage partners on the basis of love and have frequent opportunity to meet in work situations or at festivals and holidays. Courting begins around the age of 15 or 16. Love songs, the playing of flutes and reed organs, overnight visits, and the exchange of small gifts play an important part in courtship. Elopements occasionally occur, but generally the couple desires parental permission for marriage, and in the negotiations the young man's family sends gifts to the prospective bride's household. Except in highly Sinicized areas, the wedding formalities take place in the bride's village, and all the villagers are invited to a feast. Often, the groom is expected to reside in the bride's village for several years following the marriage, providing labor service to the bride's family. Later they move to his village. During the initial years, divorce is relatively easy. The Lahu permit remarriages of divorced or widowed persons.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally the large extended family was prevalent. Such households contained several or even several dozen nuclear units, which would include married siblings and their sons and daughters with their spouses and children, totaling as many as a hundred persons. The extended family was under the authority of a male household head, but each nuclear unit had its own separate room and cooking stove. Since the 1950s, these large households have dissolved and been replaced by smaller family units in separate dwellings. In the farming season, young couples move to the small hamlets close to their fields. The extended household pools and redistributes the harvests. Both sons and daughters have inheritance rights in the household, as does a widowed daughter-in-law who remains to care for the elder generation. Under modern Han influence, independent nuclear families are gaining ground.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Household and village are the main units of social organization, though the Lahu recognize parallel descent groups. The village leadership deals with offenders of local custom through fines, punishments, or sometimes expulsion.

Political Organization. Before 1949, there were two kinds of political control superseding the village communal structures. East of the Lancang River, there was a bureaucracy of government officials similar to that found in Han areas. West of the Lancang, there existed a chieftain-dominated feudal government. In 1953, the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County was established, followed by the Menglian-Dai-Lahu-Va Autonomous County in 1954. Organization followed the pattern established in other ethnic areas of China: during the 1960s and 1970s, division into communes and brigades; in the 1980s, division into townships and villages.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Lahu worship a variety of gods and spirits. The most important god is Exia, creator of the universe and mankind, who determines the good or bad fortunes of people. Exia is located in sacred places deep in the mountain forests, unapproachable by non-Lahu. They also worship the gods of earth, storms, and other natural phenomena and make offerings to them. Upright poles carved with geometric designs play a part in the ceremonies. Buddhist monks from Dali in the early Qing dynasty introduced Mahayana Buddhism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some of the Lahu converted to Catholicism and to Protestantism introduced by Western missionaries.

Arts. The Lahu have a rich and distinctive musical tradition, which includes antiphonal songs and playing of the reed organ, flute, and three-string guitar. There are some forty traditional dances, some restricted in performance to one sex.

Medicine. The Lahu believe that evil spirits cause diseases and epidemics and that curing requires the use of ritual and magic to dispel the evil. Wild medicinal herbs are used to treat physical ailments.

Death and Afterlife. The Lahu cremate their dead. During the funeral, the mourners are led to the village cremation ground by women, who carry on their backs the articles used by the deceased during his or her lifetime. In some areas, the Lahu give the dead earth burial; they pile the grave with stones. The entire village stops work to observe mourning on the burial day.


Chen Yongling, ed. (1987). Minzu cidian (Dictionary of ethnicities). Shanghai: Dictionary Press.

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities, 282-287. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, Song Enchang, et al., eds. (1981-1982). Lahuzu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Lahu). 2 vols. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.


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