ETHNONYMS: Anung, Che-nung, Khae Lisaw, Khae Liso, Lasaw, Lashi, Lasi, Le Shu O-op'a, Lesuo, Leur Seur, Li, Lihsaw, Lip'a, Lipo, Lip'o, Lisaw, Li-shaw, Lishu, Liso, Loisu, Lusu, Lu-tzu, Shisham, Yaoyen, Yawyen, Yawyin, Yeh-jen
Identification. The Lisu are mountain swiddeners in southwest China, northeast India, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand. Because the Lisu are widely scattered among other peoples of many different ethnic groups, names tend to differ from one locality to another. The people refer to themselves as "Lisu" or by clan names.
Location. The main concentration of Lisu is in China's western Yunnan Province, between the Salween and Mekong rivers. Migration has scattered villages as far west as eastern Tirap (at the extreme northeast corner of India) and as far south as Kamphaeng Phet and Phitsunulok in Thailand.
Demography. In 1989, there were an estimated 481,000 Lisu in China, as many as 250,000 in Myanmar (there has never been a reliable census), about 18,000 in Thailand, and several hundred in India.
Linguistic Affiliation. Lisu is in the Lolo (Yi) Group of Tibeto-Burman languages, closely related to Lahu, Akha, and Yi, with many Yunnanese loanwords. Most Lisu men are fluent in several languages, especially Yunnanese, Lahu, Shan, Yuan (northern Thai-Lao), and Akha. There are scripts devised by British missionaries and by Chinese, but they are little used. Some Lisu are literate in Chinese or Thai.
History and Cultural Relations
There is a Lisu tradition that their origins lie in the eastern Tibetan plateau. The Lisu are mentioned among the "Southern Barbarians" (of mountainous Yunnan and Szechwan) in the early Chinese histories and annals such as the Man Shu (ca. a.d. 685). The Chinese regarded them as a lesser branch of the Han, to be pacified and assimilated. This explains the derogatory names applied to them and the two trends discernible in Sino-Lisu relations: peaceful coexistence, cultural exchange, trade, and intermarriage on the one hand, and constant small-scale warfare, raids, kidnappings, banditry, enslavement, suppression, and rebellion on the other. The Chinese exchanged salt, iron, silver, and foodstuffs for beeswax, bear gall, stag horn, hides, medicinal herbs, and coffin planks. In areas closer to Chinese settlements, such as Tengyueh and to the south, Lisu were taxed, corvéed, and appointed as headmen (tussu ) and government officers (tumu ), perhaps as early as the Han dynasty, and certainly by the Ming. The system seldom worked well, and there were numerous grievances. After the formation of the People's Republic of China, army units and government cadres arrived to administer Lisu areas, and the Nuchiang Lisu Autonomous Zhou and other autonomous areas were formed. The abolition of slavery, land reform, and cancellation of debts were decreed in 1956. Chinese influence on Lisu culture, already considerable before 1949, has accelerated, as evidenced by the virtual end of opium growing, the introduction or extension of double cropping, manuring, irrigation and terracing, new tools, roads, bridges, medical centers, schools, economic diversification, the organization of mutual aid teams, cooperatives and communes (and their subsequent abandonment), and the development of political consciousness evident in Lisu cadres, soldiers, and Communist Party members. These changes caused great stress, particularly during times of radical change such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when "local nationalism" was criticized and rapid movement toward socialism demanded. During the lulls in Communist fervor, a continuity with the past can still be discerned: the vast majority of Lisu are still small-scale agriculturalists in remote mountain villages with few modern amenities. The movement of Lisu peoples south and east into Burma, India, and Thailand may have been related to the development of opium growing and worsening relations with Chinese administrators in the nineteenth century. Chinese pacification measures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries caused large-scale movements of Lisu into Burma, and subsequently Thailand and India. Oral traditions of the Lisu in Thailand indicate that the first families arrived there from Burma between 1900 and 1930, motivated by the search for good high-elevation opium lands and a wish to escape unsettled conditions in China and Burma. The Lisu have been described as a "fine" people: robust, independent of spirit, and excellent warriors. They are also very adaptable and quick to learn the languages and ways of their neighbors. Some, especially in Myanmar and Thailand, have even intermarried with Chinese, Lahu, and Kachin, recognizing a fictitious equivalence of Lisu clans and lineages with those of neighboring ethnic groups. Chinese operate stores or caravan routes in Lisu villages, and the Lisu patronize local markets. Lisu have served in the British Burma army, the People's Liberation Army, and the Thai Border Patrol Police. Christian and Buddhist missionaries among the Lisu have not been very successful.
With the exception of heavily acculturated valley villages in China and Thailand, Lisu villages are located on hill slopes just below the ridge line, generally at elevations between 1,300 and 3,000 meters. Sites require adequate water, usually brought in by bamboo aqueducts, since living too close to a source may invite attack by the water spirit. Defense, separation from ethnic groups with whom Lisu do not get along, good agricultural land, and cheap sources of labor (Karen, Lahu, or Yuan) are also considerations in siting villages in Thailand. There is a circulation of population among Lisu villages: individuals, families, and groups move at frequent intervals. Some villages have remained in the same location for sixty years or more, though in Thailand the average is closer to ten. Village size varies from 5 to more than 150 houses, the average in Thailand being 26. A hut for the village spirit occupies the highest elevation, and houses below should face the nearest stream, the main door thus opening downslope. Houses are built on piles or directly on the ground, the latter said to be a Chinese influence. Walls and floors are of split bamboo, roofs of thatch. A box filled with earth serves for a cooking fire. Bedrooms are in the corners for married couples; there is one for unmarried daughters and a raised sleeping/sitting platform in the main room for the unmarried sons. Animals are quartered under the house or in separate pens.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Lisu practice swidden agriculture. In the northern areas of their settlement maize, mountain rice, barley, and millet are grown; buckwheat is also cultivated at the higher elevations, and irrigated rice on valley terraces. In Myanmar and Thailand, rice is grown at lower elevations, and maize and opium at higher elevations, either together or in separate fields. Chinese mustard, chard, beans, yams, sweet potatoes, melons, gourds, cucumbers, sunflowers, potatoes, sesame, chilies, and tobacco may be interspersed with maize. Swidden-rice fields must be shifted every two or three years; opium and maize fields are more permanent because they are intercropped and more thoroughly weeded. In former times, cotton and hemp were grown, but today most Lisu buy cloth and women sew clothing. Through government stations (nikhom ), Border Patrol Police, and extension workers, the Thai government has persuaded a few Lisu to switch from opium to irrigated-rice agriculture, tea cultivation, or fruit or vegetable crops (peaches, potatoes). Lisu men take great pride in their ponies, which are usually the only form of nonhuman transport. Pigs and chickens are the major source of protein and are important in religious ceremonies. Every household keeps a pig or scrawny guard dogs, making it prudent for visitors to arm themselves with a sturdy staff before entering a village. Some own a few cows, oxen, buffalo, goats, sheep, or ducks. The Lisu produce and consume large amounts of liquor made from rice, maize, and millet; many in Thailand chew betel leaves and areca nuts; a few chew miang (fermented tea leaves) or smoke opium; all drink tea. Men and boys hunt with crossbows, slingshots, firearms, or traps for birds, jungle fowl, barking deer, wild pigs, Himalayan bears, and rhesus macaques. Children and women catch very small fish with hooks and lines, by using commercial or plant poisons, or by diverting a stream and scooping up fish from the dry bed with small nets. They collect honey, bamboo shoots, pine nuts, berries, wild citrus, wild apples, wild mangoes, wild ginger, wild yams, mushrooms, birds' eggs, grasshoppers, and flying ants; wild orchids, parrots, and parakeets are sold to lowlanders; banana stalks, banana inflorescence, and weeds are fed to pigs. Collecting of bamboo, wood, and grasses provides raw materials for housing, fire, baskets, and making rice mortars and other tools.
Industrial Arts. All Lisu make tools from bamboo and wood (baskets, barrels for making liquor, pony saddles, winnow fans, threshing and sleeping mats). Part-time blacksmiths work iron into knives, axes, hoes, dibble blades, sickles, opium blades, opium scrapers, and horseshoes. Parttime silversmiths make jewelry from coins obtained from lowlanders. Women spin and weave cotton and hemp cloth. Even in areas exposed to great outside influence and trade, the shoulder bag is still woven using a backstrap loom, and the distinctive Lisu "tails" worn behind by women and in front by men are still laboriously hand sewn by women.
Trade. Trade is primarily with Chinese merchants, in markets, village or lowland stores, or with peddlers and caravanners. In Myanmar and Thailand, opium is the major source of income, and in recent years has allowed Lisu to buy silver coins, salt, tea, foods, cooking utensils, clothes, watches, flashlights, kerosene for lanterns, and a wide variety of other consumer goods. Trade with other Lisu or other highland ethnic groups is minimal.
Division of Labor. Every Lisu is first and foremost an agriculturalist; what little division of labor exists is the result of differences in sex, age, or special abilities. Women make clothes and share agricultural labor (except heavy clearing of forest), food preparation, and child care. Children help care for younger siblings, feed livestock, gather firewood and pine chips (for torches), wash clothes, tend fires, wash dishes, and sweep the house.
Land Tenure. Individual households have access to land based on usufruct rights. Contact with lowlanders has caused some Lisu to register land; in Thailand, land is occasionally sold. There is no recognized village territory, the fields of several villages sometimes being interspersed. Lisu in China went through the commune phase, but today most land there is once again worked by independent households.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Lisu are divided into clans or surname groups (zo ) that are patrilineal, exogamous, nonlocalized groups differing slightly in religious beliefs and rituals, associated clan spirits, observance or timing of minor ceremonies, and the arrangement of household ritual shelves to honor patrilineal ancestors. Zo are named after flora and fauna: bya (honeybee), dzuh (hemp), gwa (buckwheat), ngwa (fish), suh (wood or tree), wu (bear). Certain zo are identified as Chinese clans, distinct from true Lisu clans: cang, cu, ho, il, tao, ts'ao, wang, wu (different from the bear clan), and yang. Although a zo does not have a formal organization, never acts as a unit, and is theoretically equal in status to every other zo, the potential for clan feuds, status conflicts, and accusations of witchcraft against whole clans is always present. One seeks allies, neighbors, and hosts from fellow zo members.
Kinship Terminology. Lisu use a Hawaiian cousin terminology reflecting the importance of generational differences.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Marriage may be with anyone who is not a member of the same clan, irrespective of residence. Cross-cousin marriage (especially patrilateral, of any degree) is preferred and often practiced, with the result that two families exchange mates over time. Polygyny is rare. Bride-payments and the nature and length of service to the wife's parents and brothers are subject to negotiation both before and after marriage. In post-1949 China, these practices have been discouraged by the authorities. After bride-service, residence is patrilocal, at first in the husband's parents' house, then in a separate house nearby. Divorces are infrequent, usually taking place before children are born; divorcées usually return to their parents' houses.
Domestic Unit. The household is the basic socioeconomic unit in village ceremonies, village assessments, village labor, and economic and ritual activities. The typical household is a nuclear or stem family, although extended families also occur. The youngest married son, together with his wife and children, normally remain in his parents' house. Frequently, one or more relatives, usually of the husband, will live with the family. The male head of the household is its spokesman, though individual members may incur debts and hold property separately.
Inheritance. All sons share in the inheritance, the youngest married son usually receiving the house and taking care of a widowed mother. Daughters receive small dowries at marriage.
Socialization. Lisu want and love children and large families. Older siblings, grandparents, and other relatives help parents care for children, often carrying them in back slings. Toilet training and weaning are lenient. As soon as able, a child begins taking part in adult activities, and by 13 or 14 is making important contributions to the household economy.
Social Organization. Households form alliances based on kinship or patron-client ties for economic, social, and political purposes. When migrating, a household moves with its allies or goes to a village where fellow zo members or affines already reside. Formal request to live in a village must be made of the village headman.
Political Organization. Each village is an independent unit. Elder males provide the leadership, depending upon ability, experience, wealth, and the number of allied households that can be counted on for support. They nominate one of their own to act as headman, often only a figurehead who represents the village to the external world. Formerly, among the Black Lisu of the Upper Salween, hereditary headmen might have exerted control over several villages; class stratification (aristocrats, commoners, and slaves) existed in pre-Communist days. In Myanmar, Lisu villages are said to have owed allegiance to local Chinese or Shan saohpa, though this was probably more symbolic than real.
Social Control. The household is responsible for the actions of its members. The headman, acting in concert with prestigious elder males, may arbitrate disputes, levy fines, or even expel an individual from the village.
Conflict. Family feuds and personal vendettas occur, as do disputes with neighboring ethnic groups over theft or destruction of crops or livestock. Only after arbitration by elders has failed will quarrels be taken to lowland authorities.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Religion revolves around spirit (ne) propitiation and ancestor worship of the two most recently deceased generations. To assure good health and good crops, a Lisu must stay on good terms with his dead ancestors and the hierarchy of other spirits. The strength of belief varies from one Lisu to the next, Chinese writers claiming that religion has greatly diminished in importance in post-1949 China. Any knowledgeable Lisu may practice divination, commonly with pig livers, chicken femurs, or bamboo dice.
Religious Practitioners. Religion is generally a male concern. Any male may become a shaman (ne pha ) if he has the aptitude for contacting ancestors and other spirits useful in curing the sick, and if he passes initiation tests by other shamans. He has no inherent power and receives little remuneration. A village priest (mu meu pha ), who is chosen through divination, keeps track of the religious (lunar) calendar (which frequently differs from village to village) and coordinates ceremonies for the village spirit. The Lisu observe a twelve-year cycle, similar to that of the Chinese.
Ceremonies. Most important are New Year (extending over several days in spring, and a chance to display fine clothes and jewelry, visit other villages, and seek a spouse), and the tree-renewal ceremony (held at harvest time to purify the village of bad spirits and help the guardian spirit defend the village).
Arts. The major forms of artistic expression are: clothing (especially shoulder bags worn by both men and women, embroidered with abstract designs), jewelry (worn by both men and women on wrists, neck, ears, breast, and back—the principal form of wealth), music (three-string guitars, flutes, and gourd pipes), singing (including challenge-and-response love songs between groups of young men and women), and community dancing.
Medicine. Herbal medicines are used. Sickness is a symptom of disharmony between the patient and the spirit world, so a ne pha must be consulted. In trance, he finds the spirit responsible for the sickness and the patient's family strikes a deal for the performance of a propitiating ceremony and the offering of a chicken or pig (which is afterward eaten by the patient and kin).
Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, his or her spirit is potentially dangerous for three years, after which it is invited to the altar shelf in the house of its son. Spirits of those who died without children, or who died an unusual death (homicide, suicide, strange accident) may attack people. Ancestral spirits who are honored regularly with offerings of rice, liquor or water, joss sticks, and ragweed bring good health and large crops.
Dessaint, Alain Y. (1972). "Economic Organization of the Lisu of the Thai Highlands." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Hawaii.
Dessaint, William Y., and Alain Y. Dessaint (1975). "Strategies in Opium Production." Ethnos 17:153-168.
Durrenberger, E. Paul (1971). "The Ethnography of Lisu Curing." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Rose, Archibald, and J. Coggin Brown (1911). "Lisu (Yawyin) Tribes of the Burma-China Frontier." Memoirs of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 3:240-276.
ALAIN Y. DESSAINT
"Lisu." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lisu
"Lisu." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved April 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lisu
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
ETHNONYMS: Black Lisu, Flowery Lisu, White Lisu
The Lisu are one of the uplands groups of southwestern China; some Lisu also live in northern Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. They are agriculturalists, with continued reliance on hunting and gathering.
Location. Most of the 575,000 Lisu in China live in concentrated communities in Bijiang, Fugong, Gongshan, and Lushui counties in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. Others are scattered elsewhere in western Yunnan or in southern Sichuan Province. The main area of settlement lies in the mountainous areas and river basins of the Nu and Lancang rivers. Average annual temperature along the river basins is between 17° and 26° C, and annual rainfall averages 250 centimeters.
Linguistic Affiliation. The language belongs to the Yi Branch of Tibeto-Burmese, Sino-Tibetan Language Family, and is closely related to Lahu. In 1957, the government introduced a new alphabetic script to replace both a missionary-devised alphabetized system and one based on Chinese ideographs that had limited use prior to 1949.
History and Cultural Relations
In the sixteenth century, the Lisu migrated from the area along the Golden Sands River (Jinsha River) to their current locations. Better organized and more technically advanced, they overran the indigenous inhabitants of the Nu River area, forcing them to pay tribute and even enslaving some. Moving in a southwesterly direction they came into increasing contact with Bai, Naxi, Jingpo, and Dai peoples and, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Han. Since the 1950s, under Han influence, the Lisu have adopted more advanced production techniques, modern schooling, and medicine.
Lisu villages generally contain between 100 and 200 persons, distributed in 20 to 50 households. Two types of housing are found: one is a simple wooden structure built of 4-meter-long pieces of timber and roofed with wooden planks; the other is a more complex structure of bamboo and wood supported above the ground by twenty to thirty wooden stakes and covered with a thatched or wooden roof. The upper level is family living space, and the space below the floor shelters the family's livestock. Such houses are surrounded by bamboo fences. The central room of the house holds a fire pit.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Maize, sorghum, and buckwheat are the main staple crops. The Lisu use slash-and-burn techniques on mountain upland fields. They grow vegetables and tangerines in the warmer rivervalley settlements. They also raise oxen, sheep, poultry, and pigs. Current cash crops include ramie, tung trees (for lacquer), and sugarcane. Hunting with a crossbow and gathering of medicinal herbs (fritillaria bulbs, goldthread) continue to be important. Since the early 1950s, the state has encouraged the development of a number of processing industries, including the brewing of a traditional liquor made from sorghum and maize.
Industrial Arts. Traditionally, there were no full-time artisans. Lisu made cloth, shell and bead jewelry, and bamboo and wooden articles during the slack seasons or in their spare time, and individuals rebuilt their houses with assistance from the village community. In recent years, some Lisu have become full-time workers in the manufacture or processing of bricks and tiles, agricultural tools, paper, and foodstuffs.
Trade. Formerly, the Lisu conducted trade on a barter basis; only gradually did they adopt the use of silver coinage. They reckoned the value of land in pigs, oxen, or grain. In recent decades, the Lisu have entered the market economy, selling poultry, livestock, vegetables, and liquor at the periodic markets.
Division of Labor. Both sexes participate in agricultural work. Men are responsible for firewood gathering, hunting, house building, and repairs; women carry water, weave cloth, make clothing, perform most domestic chores, and process grains.
Land Tenure. Most land was privately owned by households—there were no clan-owned lands in recent historical times. Some high mountain areas were public wasteland, available to anyone for cultivation. The Lisu did not allow any buying or selling of land. Sons inherited land from their fathers or received land at marriage, along with some tools and livestock. Daughters did not.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kinship. The clan system seems to have lost all important functions save regulation of marriage and periodic worship of the mythic founder. Ten or more clan names still persist, such as Tiger, Bear, Monkey, Bamboo, and Fire. Kin terms follow the Iroquois system.
Marriage. Prior to marriage, young adults had access to village youth houses where they could socialize and entertain visitors from other villages. Thus, many marriages were based on courtship and love. However, parents arranged the marriages, and permission of the mother's brother was required. In most cases, brides joined their husband's household, but matrilocal residence was not uncommon. Betrothal costs were heavy, including livestock, and before 1949 some couples resorted to elopement in order to avoid the costs or the possibility of parental disapproval. No information is available about current practices.
Domestic Unit. The monogamous nuclear family was the basic unit. All but the youngest son left the parental household after marriage, setting up their own households nearby.
Inheritance. All sons received some land, livestock, and household property, but the son who remained in the household to care for the aging parents inherited a larger share, as well as the house. Daughters had no land-inheritance rights but received a dowry of jewelry. They were also allowed to accumulate private savings through the raising of pigs and poultry or other economic activities.
Social Organization. Traditionally, both kinship and the village community were important in social life. A recognized, respected elder headed every village; he settled disputes, presided over community sacrificial ceremonies, and, in earlier times, dealt with military matters. Clan members and fellow villagers were participants in funerals and weddings, but only clan members received a share of the betrothal gifts and foods.
Political Organization. Prior to 1949, under the Guomindang, the Lisu villages were reorganized under the bao-jia system, with ten households forming a basic unit for political control and ten such units grouped under the leadership of appointed headmen, who were usually heads of the clans. During wartime, the villages formed an alliance, but this ended when the war was over.
Conflict. The most frequent internal conflicts arose out of debts, marriage disputes, and accusations of use of witchcraft to spread disease.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Traditional religion centered on a pantheon of gods and nature spirits, but there is little published material about it. Some of the Lisu festivals still observed today are borrowed from the Han (Lunar New Year) or neighboring peoples (Torch Festival). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some Lisu converted to Catholicism and Protestantism brought by Western missionaries.
Arts. Ornaments of silver, shell, and pearls and bead necklaces and headdresses are a distinguishing feature of the Lisu. A rich repertoire of songs and dances are an important part of weddings, funerals, festival days, and house construction.
Death and Afterlife. The Lisu buried their dead in village or clan graveyards. Men were buried with their knives and hunting bows, women with their weaving tools, hemp bags, and a cooking pot. The Lisu thought they would use them in the afterworld. A year after death, the mourners would build a burial mound; three years later, they would hold a ceremony to conclude the offerings to the deceased.
Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities, 269-275. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1981). Lisu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Lisu). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.
Shen Che, and Lu Xiaoya (1989). Life among the Minority Nationalities of Northwest Yunnan, 121-149. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Zhongguo da baike quanshu (Encyclopedia Sinica) (1986). Vol. 20, Minzu (Nationalities). Beijing: Encyclopedia Sinica Press.
LIN YUEH-HWA (LIN YAOHUA) AND NARANBILIK
"Lisu." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lisu-0
"Lisu." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved April 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lisu-0