views updated May 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: A va, A va, Benren, Da ka va, Ka va, La, Le va, Pa rauk, Va, Xiao ka va


Identification. "Wa" (Va) refers to a mountain people who reside in southwest China, spreading across the border into Myanmar (Burma). They have a well-defined homeland called "A Wa Shan" (Mount A Wa) by the local peoples. The three names by which the Wa refer to themselves, "Va," "Pa rauk," and "A va," all mean "a people who reside in the mountain." The Wa distinguish themselves by their own languageWa. Their history has been preserved through legends passed on orally by cultural and religious specialists and the elders. The Wa are well known for their religious practices such as oxen sacrifices. Their material culture is also distinctive, including their method of mountain agriculture, their unique way of cooking, and their hand-woven costume and dress, as well as their mountain villages with bamboo houses.

Location. In China, the Wa inhabit the region between 22° and 24° N and 99° and 100° E, called A Wa Shan. It is the southern part of the Nu Shan Mountains, running between Lancang Jiang and Nu Jiang (Salween) and is formed of steep peaks that are sharply cut through by innumerable deep valleys with rivers and streams. The highest peak reaches 2,800 meters while the deepest valleys lie about 1,800 meters below that point. In the subtropical zone, this region has just two seasonsa rainy one and a dry onewith annual average rainfall of 150 to 300 centimeters falling between June and October, and with an annual average temperature of 17° C, ranging from 0° to 35° C.

Demography. According to the China censuses, the population of the Wa within China was 175,000 in 1958 and increased to 266,853 by 1978 and to 351,974 by 1990. Most of these people inhabit the southwest corner of Yunnan Province, in the counties of Ximeng, Cangyuan, Menglian, Gengma, Lancang, Shuangjiang, Yongde, and Zhenkang. In Ximeng and Cangyuan, the two counties that are the center region of A Wa Shan, the percentage of the Wa population was 88.3 in 1958 and 79 by 1978. In the latter six counties, which they inhabit together with other peoples (mostly Dai, Lahu, and Han), the percentage of the Wa population runs from 9 to 20. Besides these eight counties in the A Wa Shan region, the Wa are also spread through Baoshan, Dehong, and Xishuangbanna and some regions of Myanmar and Thailand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Wa language belongs to the Mon-Khmer Branch of the Southern-Asian Language Family and is very close to De'ang (spoken by the De'ang or Palaungs, who reside in Yunnan, China and in Myanmar) and Bulang (spoken by the Bulang or Blang, who reside in Yunnan, China).

History and Cultural Relations

There are two major sources for the history of the Wa and their cultural relations: their own oral legends and records about them in the written history of Han Chinese. The name of the Wa legendSiganglimeans "coming from the cave," referring to the cave in A Wa Shan where the Wa (followed by other peoples such as Han, Lahu, and Dai) originated. This legend records the history of their migration and the origins of their agriculture, use of fire and iron tools, and religious practices. It suggests that the Wa were the original inhabitants of this mountain region, that they went through a transition from a hunting-gathering mode of production to agriculture and from a matrilineal to a patrilineal kinship system, and that for a long time they have interacted with other peoples such as Dai and Han. In the written history of Han Chinese, the earliest records relevant to the Wa are those about the Ailao and the Pu, who were the ancestors of the Wa and other peoples who resided in this region. Beginning in 109 b.c., the Han empire established an administrative district that included the region of A Wa Shan and Wa-De'ang speakers. According to the records of the Tang dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries), the Wa had distinguished themselves from the Ailao and the Pu by their self-designation as "Vang," "Va," "Vo," or "Vu" and their mode of life as basically hunting and gathering combined with early stages of farming. Politically, the Wa were subordinate to the rule of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the Tang dynasty, and to the rule of the Dali Kingdom in the Song dynasty (mid-tenth to thirteenth centuries). From the Yuan to the early Qing dynasties (mid-thirteenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries), the Wa established many permanent villages, and agriculture became their major economic activity with hunting and gathering supplementary. This transition in their life-style was influenced by the large-scale ethnic migrations of the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries; many of the Han, Dai, and other peoples migrated to southwest Yunnan where the Wa were spreading, thus forcing the Wa to concentrate themselves in the A Wa Shan region. Those left in the outskirts of the region lived together with the newcomers, who introduced some new fanning techniques to the Wa. Since the nineteenth century, the Wa have gone through dramatic changes due to interaction with a larger cultural context. It is in this period that the Wa divided socially into three strata, became politically unified and conscious to an unprecedented degree (as shown by the famous Banhong event when seventeen Wa tribes allied into an armed force fighting the British military invaders), and took an active part in commodity production and exchange in local ethnic and international markets.


The people live in mountain villages, which are the basic units of Wa society. The population of the villages ranges from less than 100 to more than 400 families belonging to several clans. Most larger villages are composed of several smaller ones. Family houses are built in the ganlan style (a bamboo structure with a straw roof, raised off the ground, with livestock kept underneath).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Wa rely on mountain farming, which varies in technique and productive power in different regions. Basically, they have three different methods of farming, which developed in different times and now coexist as alternatives for different ecological environments. The oldest method is slash-and-burn cultivation in which they plant seeds by dibbling with a wooden stick, rely on the ash of wild plants as fertilizer, and abandon the land after a year of farming for eight to ten years before reusing. This way of farming became the main source of food for the Wa after the thirteenth century when they started to build permanent villages. The second method of farming combines slash-and-burn farming with plowing and spreading the seed by hand, using iron hoes and plows that were introduced by Han people who came for the silver mines from the mid-eighteenth century on. This method preserves fertility by crop rotation and intercroping or mixing crops together, and thus they can continue using the land for two or three years, leaving it to lie fallow for four or five years before reusing. For the remote land on steep hillsides, however, the first method is still the only choice because the second method is only good for flatter and lower hills where the soil is richer and won't be washed away as easily by the tropical rain. These two methods of farming provide the major subsistence for the Wa; each is applied to about half of the total farmland. Their third farming method is to cultivate rice-paddy fields, which were introduced by rice-producing peoples in the nineteenth century and exist mostly in the outskirts of the A Wa Shan region, where the Wa and rice-producing peoples live together and the land is level and close to water supplies. Rice paddies account for about 5 percent of the total farmland.

Trade. Interaction with a larger cultural context not only gave the Wa access to new farming techniques but also stimulated the growing need for exchange. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Wa participated in regular markets for tradinglargely with other ethnic groupsin iron tools and living necessities such as pottery, salt, cotton cloth, and thread. In the late nineteenth century, British dealers introduced opium to this region. As a result, opium became the large-scale commodity product of the Wa, which they exchanged for living and productive necessities, including rice, cows, tea, iron instruments, and weapons. Opium provided one-fourth to one-third of their total income before it was prohibited in the 1950s.

Industrial Arts. Craft is subsidiary to agriculture. In most Wa villages, one or a few farmers serve as part-time blacksmiths who make and repair iron tools and silver work using raw material bought from other peoples. The family craftshand weaving cotton cloth, pottery making, rice wine making, basket weaving, and so forthare mostly for family consumption.

Division of Labor. Labor is divided by gender. Males do the cutting, burning, and plowing, and females, with some help from children, do the seeding, weeding, harvesting, cooking, and weaving. Warfare, politics and religious activities were male dominated and used to consume much of men's time prior to 1949. Women became the major laborers in the field and household, but today men are more engaged in economic activities than in the past.

Land Tenure. By 1950 land tenure had developed into three different kinds in different regions. In the central region of A Wa Shan, where roughly one-third of the Wa population resided, more than 80 percent of the total farmland was the private property of families, with the other 20 percent of poorer quality land remaining the common property of the village community. In the area bordering A Wa Shan, where about two-thirds of the Wa population lived, all the land, including moutains and rivers as well as the animals in the forests, belonged to the "princes," the hereditary rulers of about one and one-half dozen "Dahu" communities, with each consisting of about five villages. The members of the Dahu had to pay tributes and taxes as well as unpaid labor to the princes and the heads of the Dahu in order to use the land. In Zhengkang and Yongde, where 8 to 9 percent of the Wa were living together with the Han and the Dai, the landlords owned the land and rented it to the poorer peasants and farm laborers. From 1954 to 1958, the government directed a collective movement that led to all of the Wa being organized into People's Communes by 1969. This meant that the government and the communes owned all the land and other productive property and people worked collectively, shared their products, and sold the after-taxes surplus to the government and the communes. Since 1979, the communes have gradually been abandoned and a new government policy has been practiced; each family can use a share of the land by contract and pays some taxes to the collective and the government, which actually own the land.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. A village is based on several clans, which are composed of many families that descend from the same ancestors. Each clan has its own name and a chief. Members of the same clan have common duties and rights such as paying debts for those who cannot afford to pay themselves. The descent line of a family and a clan is remembered through a patrilineal naming system that combines the name of the son with that of the father, whose name in turn is a combination of his own and the grandfather's; the family line can be traced back in this manner to twenty or thirty generations.

Marriage. Marriages are monogamous, with some exceptions of polygamy that were legitimate according to the Wa customary law and were practiced by a small number of people before the 1950s. One of their strictest rules is the prohibition of marriage or any sexual relation between people who have the same clan names; they believe that violation of this rule causes disasters for the whole village and thus should be seriously punished. For a marriage, the groom provides feasts for the engagement and the wedding and pays a bride-price to the bride's familyone or more cows plus gifts of cash, clothing and foods. After marriage, the wife lives with the husband either alone or with his parents. About 50 percent of the marriages are of the cross-cousin type, partially because a man can delay paying his bride-price and instead marry his daughter to his wife's family as compensation. Furthermore, a widow usually remarries to a brother of the former husband in order to avoid having to return the bride-price. As a norm, divorce is allowed as long as one spouse wants it, but in practice it seldom happens.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the nuclear family, which includes the husband and wife, children, and, for some, the husband's parents.

Inheritance . The sons inherit the property of the family by dividing it into shares. 1f there is more than one son, the parents will choose either the oldest or the youngest son to live in the old family house and will give him more inheritance privileges. Daughters have no right to inherit anything. 1f the family has neither son nor stepson the clan will inherit its property, unless they bring in a son-in-law to marry one of their daughters.

Socialization. Young people choose marriages freely, with little interference by parents. Teenagers start to socialize with the other sex at age 14 or 15 through a group activity called "visiting girls"; groups of young men visit groups of young women, and over time everyone finds a partner. But having sex before marriage is not allowed and will be punished seriously if it causes a pregnancy. After marriage the husband can still participate in "visiting girls," but the female must cease this activity immediately after her engagement.

Sociopolitical Organization

The villages, which are formed of several clans, are the basic territorial, economic, political, military, and religious organizations. A village clearly distinguishes its territory from that of others, and within it a small portion of farmland and all the forests and rivers remain the common property of the village. The villages that are related by kin, territory, and political and economic interests form a tribe, and some tribes used to form temporary alliances. Before the 1950s, villagers used to have common rights and duties in common affairs such as the election of leaders, military action against other villages or invaders, building houses for other villagers, and religious rituals. Each village had three kinds of administrators: wolang (the hereditary chief of the village, usually the chief of the village's oldest clan); kuat (formerly the chiefs of all the other clans, and later elected); and moba (religious experts in charge of ritual, divination, recounting legendary history, and interpreting customary law). Decisions for affairs of the village or the tribe used to be made through the "council of the chiefs," at which all three kinds of administrators have equal rights. The most important decisions required a meeting of the whole village, in which all men could speak up and which women could audit. Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has established new political structures called ethnic autonomous counties, districts, and villages; the leaders are Wa cadres trained by the Communist party and other Communist leaders of Han or other ethnicities. The Menglian Dai, Lahu, and Wa Autonomous County was organized in 1954, and the Gengma Dai and Wa Autonomous County in 1955. Two more autonomous counties were established in 1964-1965, in Ximeng and Cangyuan.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Wa believe in a kind of animism and spiritualism according to which human and natural affairs such as disease or weather are controlled by spiritsspirits of water, mountains, fire, trees, grains, and so on. Ancestral worship is a part of their religion because they believe that the soul of the deceased becomes a spirit and thus can protect or influence the lives of the descendants.

Religious Practitioners. Rituals used to be performed under the guidance of the religious expertsmobawho were selected by the villagers for their knowledge and experience. All men of the village have equal rights in performing rituals, but women are generally excluded except for watching from the outside and joining in the dancing and singing.

Ceremonies. Before the 1950s, rituals to serve the spirits ran year round. Besides the sacrificial rituals and chicken-bone divinations for family or individual affairs such as sickness, birth, building houses, weddings or funerals, there were four annual ceremonies for the whole village that came one after the other. At the beginning of a year (December in the Western calendar), they used to conduct the service to the water spirit, in which the whole village sacrificed animals and built a new bamboo water pipe for drinking water. The next ritual was "dragging the wooden drum"a more than ten-day-long ritual in which all the men of the village cut a big tree from the forest and made a huge drum out of it. This drum was used for important rituals and emergency military actions. The third ritual was headhunting for sacrifice to the grain spirit. They hunted a human head either from outsiders or enemy villages. Next came a series of oxen sacrifices for the purpose of transporting the previous year's head from the "Wooden Drum House," where it had been kept, to the "spirits forest" outside of the village, where all the previous heads were put on top of wooden stakes, which stood together as a wood. Called "cutting the tail of the oxen," this ritual lasted seventeen days, during which time the whole village raced to tear the flesh off from a dozen to dozens of live oxen, one after another, with knives. In addition to the headhunting that has been prohibited since the 1950s, all the other rituals were also prohibited as "superstitions" during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, some of the rituals and divinations were revived, but since many old moba died during the Cultural Revolution without bringing up a younger generation, much tradition was lost and revived rituals are fairly different from the old ones, having lost a lot of old practices, functions, and interpretations, and having added new ones of their own.

Arts. Wa arts are mostly related to their religious life, which is at the same time their daily life. In all important rituals and events like weddings and building houses, the people of the whole village will dress up to sing and dance in one big circle, holding hands together. Sometimes the dance can last for days and nights. Paintings are religious as well, done by males on ritual places and objects. The ritual objects are often carved with images of humans and animals in relief. There are no professional artists.

Medicine. Before the 1950s, moba treated all diseases by doing service to the spirits. They also used the bile of bears and a few kinds of plants to treat some diseases as a supplement to the service to the spirits.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried either inside the village near the family house or outside in the common cemetery of the clan or village, in a coffin made from a hollowed tree that is split down the middle. The Wa believe in the afterlife of the soul, so they used to put a piece of silver or a coin in the mouth of the deceased and buried some tools, weapons, and living utensils as furnishing for the grave.


National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1983). Wazu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Wa). Vols. 1-3. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1985). Wazu jianshi (A concise history of the Wa). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.



views updated May 11 2018

Wa / / • n. (pl. same or Was) 1. a member of a hill people living on the border between China and Myanmar (Burma). 2. the Mon-Khmer language of this people.• adj. of, relating to, or denoting this people or their language.


views updated May 18 2018

WA • abbr. ∎  Washington (State) (in official postal use). ∎  Western Australia.