The Lisu: Far from the Ruler

The Lisu: Far from the Ruler

by Michele Zack


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This book brings the ironic worldview of the Lisu to life through vivid, often amusing accounts of individuals, communities, regions, and practices. One of the smallest and last groups of stateless people, and the most egalitarian of all Southeast Asian highland minorities, the Lisu have not only survived extremes at the crossroads of civil wars, the drug trade, and state-sponsored oppression but adapted to modern politics and technology without losing their identity.

The Lisu weaves a lively narrative that condenses humanity’s transition from border-free tribal groupings into today’s nation-states and global market economy. Journalist and historian Michele Zack first encountered the Lisu in the 1980s and conducted research and fieldwork among them in the 1990s. In 2014 she again traveled extensively in tribal areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and China, when she documented the transformative changes of globalization. Some Lisu have adopted successful new urban occupations in business and politics, while most continue to live as agriculturists “far from the ruler.”

The cohesiveness of Lisu culture has always been mysterious—they reject hierarchical political organization and traditionally had no writing system—yet their culture provides a particular skillset that has helped them navigate the terrain of the different religious and political systems they have recently joined. They’ve made the transition from living in lawless, self-governing highland peripheries to becoming residents and citizens of nation-states in a single generation.

Ambitious and written with journalist’s eye for detail and storytelling, The Lisu introduces the unique and fascinating culture of this small Southeast Asian minority. Their path to national and global citizenship illustrates the trade-offs all modern people have made, and their egalitarian culture provides insight into current political choices in a world turning toward authoritarianism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607326038
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 12/01/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Michele Zack is an award-winning writer, journalist, and historian whose work has been twice recognized by the American Society for State and Local History. She also received the Pfleuger Local History Prize from the Historical Society of Southern California. She reported for AsiaWeek and Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1990s when residing in Thailand, where she also wrote economic development speeches for three prime ministers and other officials. In California, she worked with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, writing federal grants and developing contextual programs to link local to national history and improve the teaching of American history.

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Who Are the Lisu?

When you've lost your myido (repute) it's already too late, You can't pick up spilt water.

—Lisu proverb

The Nujiang gorge of Yunnan Province (ITLνITL means "angry" and jiang, "river" in Chinese) is also known as the Salween River. It is the heart of Lisu country. Thirty percent of the world's Lisu live in this dramatic environment, where mountains — increasingly treeless in areas given over to agriculture, still forested in others — spring vertically from a narrow gorge carved by the torrential river. The Biluo mountains (13,000 feet, or 4,000 meters) bank it on the east and the Gaoligong mountains (16,500 feet, or 5,000 meters) on the west. Vertical drop to the river below is 3,000 to 4,000 meters (10,000 feet to 13,000 feet). Un-tethered boats in its powerful current are rare, and it gives up few fish. The steepest part of the gorge extends 310 kilometers, with a valley floor ranging from a few hundred meters wide in most areas to a couple of kilometers in a few places. The Nujiang wasn't conventionally bridged until the 1980s and remains un-dammed — one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world. Lisu settlements perch in wooded valleys above and behind the big gorge, and trails and a single narrow road paralleling it are the main highways.

Although today there are modern bridges, until the late 1980s Lisu still often found it more convenient to cross the torrent at a height of a few hundred feet on a cable slung across the gorge at narrow points. Most cable bridges have been replaced with pedestrian suspension bridges only in the last few years. Some still exist; in 2014 remaining old cables were well-known enough that people stopped along the road at these spots in hopes of capturing an image or video of a human crossing on their Galaxies and iPhones. As recently as 2010, on market days it was not unusual to see Lisu men, women, and youth use the old cables as the regular mode of transportation across the river, carrying children, produce, and other possessions. Suspended aloft in a rope sling with a wood or metal slider, they get a big push to start and then pull themselves the rest of the way when momentum ceases. Showing fear is not Lisu custom.

Lisu are distinct from the Akha, Lahu, Haw, Hmong, and other minorities with whom they have intermingled, married, and shared villages and outsider status, as well as from Han Chinese, Burmese, and Thai majority populations. Lisu men are known as highland farmers and crossbow-wielding hunters with a flair for languages and storytelling. Lisu women in traditional dress are impossible to confuse with others. They are also distinguished by a reputation for being entrepreneurial, as hardworking equals of their men, and as family purse-string holders. Those who marry Lisu are very likely to "become Lisu" themselves. Early explorers and geographers used terms such as "fine race," "superior people," and "fair complexioned" to describe them. In 1933 Major C. M. Enriquez of the Burma Rifles noted that Lisu are "armed and independent, and ready to migrate if interfered with in the smallest degree."

However, anything more than superficial study reveals fluidity and a culture impacted by a dizzying number of influences. A relatively small and widely dispersed group, even among minority populations, Lisu today live mainly in China's Yunnan Province (700,000), Myanmar's north, east, and central areas (400,000), and Thailand's north (50,000). Numbers are only slightly more reliable today than in the past. National bureaucracies have made progress in counting Lisu and other minorities in the twenty-first century but do not always make data public. Perhaps a thousand live in Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, at the northwestern limit of the Lisu, and small Lisu settlements exist in Laos and Tibet.

Numbers and even names applied to minority groups by nations are not consistent and shouldn't be assumed to be accurate, particularly in areas of conflict. This is most true in Myanmar, where the government counts people but doesn't release ethnic identity data. Census data may be intentionally inaccurate and identities ambiguous — groups exaggerate their population to appear "bigger" as they vie for political power. Questions of what constitutes or how to define an ethnic group (or its political activities) are becoming more, not less, contested today than in the past.

In Myanmar, for example, most Lisu live in Kachin State. Lisu there are classed as Kachin by the government, along with the largest ethnic minority, the Jingpaw, and three other minorities. However, they are not particularly close linguistically or culturally to the Jingpaw, who dominate Kachin State and whose insurgent army has battled the central government for fifty years. The convenience of the state or reasons unconnected to identity often end up defining groups.

It is not my purpose or within my expertise to sort out these hugely significant issues; however, they must be acknowledged. Self-identification as Lisu is the single criterion I used to define who is a Lisu in this work.

There is much to be learned from the Lisu — a strong people with a culture that defies space and has deflected annihilation throughout its long unwritten history. In spite of being so few and scattered, they have continued to adapt their unusually egalitarian culture without losing identity. The hardships of living in the crossfire of many countries' national conflicts, politics, and wars, their land pillaged by international logging interests, the drug trade, and environmental disaster, hasn't defeated them.

What is their essential strength, and how does it renew itself? What can the Lisu teach us?

Language is the most obvious characteristic shared by Lisu across differing habitats and national settings. Despite a 25–30 percent difference in vocabularies among the dialects spoken in Thailand, Myanmar, and areas of China, all Lisu understand each other after brief contact. Beyond this, defining traits that never fail to be noted — whether by anthropologists, missionaries, development workers, or government officials — are pride, individualism, and intolerance of authority.

These traits support each Lisu's desire to accumulate and increase his or her myi-do, or repute. Myi means name but also connotes fate and productive capacity, and do means power in the sense of accomplishment, according to anthropologist Otome Klein Hutheesing who works among Thai Lisu. Missionary David Morse, who now lives in Thailand but who was born and grew up in Burma as a native Lisu speaker, translates do as news, in the sense of transmission. They agree on repute as the closest English translation and that myi-do is the most highly ranked of Lisu values. The quest for myido is an individual one; the person — not the family, village, or lineage — obtains myi-do by working hard, taking care of obligations, speaking well, and following the dictates of Lisu custom.

Such outward, action- and results-oriented values encourage the behavior of a people who do not like to be bossed around and who historically chose statelessness over belonging to a larger group or nation.

All who have observed closely or lived among the Lisu note this attitude. The label "anarchists of the highlands" has stuck but probably misstates the case. The common association of anarchism with violence and "smashing the state" doesn't apply when looking at a pre-state minority culture, according to scholar James C. Scott. The author of Two Cheers for Anarchism and The Art of Not Being Governed suggests that "seeing like an anarchist" and appreciating the potential for voluntary cooperation without hierarchy resonates more closely with Lisu political sensibility — which is rational and practical and embeds mechanisms that encourage cooperation. It is true that Lisu do not rank harmony enforced by hierarchy as highly as other groups, such as the Karen or the Akha, and have been known to resort to killing in upholding group or personal justice — especially in dispatching Lisu headmen with authoritarian impulses. Their social code is embedded in illi Lisu (Lisu custom,) the constant reference used to judge human behavior. "It is custom" or "there is no custom" are the final words in many arguments. The fact that Lisu custom varies doesn't destroy its evocative force.

Throughout their history, the Lisu have migrated frequently and far — to seek new land, as an individual or group response to internal conflict, and to avoid war and domination. Their willingness, eagerness even, to pick up and move on is another defining characteristic. It was true of all Lisu in the past and, though constrained by land pressure and political realities today, is often still true among Lisu outside of China. While there are several groups of shifting highland agriculturists, the Lisu style of migration is distinct.

They are more likely to migrate in small groups and to establish independent hamlets in isolated places than are others, asserts Eugene Morse, father of David Morse, who lived with Lisu and other groups in China, Burma, and Thailand his entire life (1921–2011). This explains how a relatively small group came to be so spread about. Eugene Morse also asserted that Lisu are not as clannish within their social organization or as inward-looking in their worldview as other migrating groups. They are risk takers. His view was seconded by an old Lisu Christian man I interviewed in Myanmar in 1997, Eligah Illia, who told me: "We're explorers and hunters and not afraid of going into the forest or to someone else's country."

Anthropologist E. Paul Durrenberger applied the model Sir Edmund Leach suggested in Political Systems of Highland Burma to take up the question, "who are the Lisu?" Leach's pioneering study made use of the Kachin terms gumsa (hierarchical) and gumlao (egalitarian) to identify contrasting political styles, as well as to note the dynamic between the two polarities. The Lisu are renowned for being on the egalitarian-most side of the scale because they essentially disclaim hereditary power, headmen, and ongoing councils of elders. Their social organization leaves room for great autonomy for the majority of individuals.

Durrenberger concluded that a chief difference between the Lisu and other mountain people is political style. Other sub-groups, such as pockets within the Karen community, could also be termed egalitarian, but not to the same degree — and the spirit of individual freedom and gender equality is common to Lisu groups scattered across thousands of miles and in every national milieu.

In 2014 I saw evidence of a pragmatic shift toward appointing leaders and officials, especially in China and Myanmar, where Lisu are developing political power within the state. That and cultural survival demand more organized social structures — which several generations of Christianity seem to have prepared them to build.

Lisu in Thailand, the smallest, least Christianized group, provide an example of adapting outwardly while maintaining egalitarian internal values. This country is extremely hierarchical, and Thais recruited headmen to create administrative links between each village and the government. While Lisu headmen use the position to make economic gains (they are paid by the Thai government) in the same way they would use any advantage, they do not develop patronage in the Thai way or extend power to their sons. In an election for village representatives to a council overseeing spending in Doi Chang in late 1997, the son of a popular Lisu headman of twenty-three years lost soundly. His son was not un-liked, Abeno Leeja explained to me, but it is individual repute, myi-do, that determines leadership. Leadership among the Lisu tends to be situation-specific; villagers judged that the son simply didn't have what it takes to be a good negotiator of village interests when dealing with Thai bureaucrats.

Few reliable historical references go back far, so it is possible the Lisu "live free or die" reputation has been over-weighted. However, the Lisu penchant for avoiding concentrations of power that dynastic setups encourage, especially compared to the Shan in Burma, has been wellobserved since the end of the nineteenth century — allowing the gumlao label to stick. A possible exception is among Myanmar-Burma's Christian Lisu, who began developing leadership (not synonymous with hierarchy but perhaps related) to survive in that war-torn and impoverished regime, as well as to accommodate their adopted religion. The sons of ministers often become ministers themselves, and so spiritual authority has become vested in certain families. It was not that surprising in 2014, as that country's political economy was undergoing dramatic reform, to see a Lisu political class, as well as cultural leaders, emerging. Most Lisu in Myanmar are evangelical Protestants — however, in true Lisu fashion, the first Lisu senator in the country emerged from a tiny group of Lisu Roman Catholics.

The Lisu way is to make important decisions individually but in consultation with others. If a group is involved, consensus is reached by discussion. This works as a pressure valve, allowing venting of individual differences. In Exodus to a Hidden Valley, Eugene Morse says: "The Lisu do not hold with the common democratic concept of majority rule. They feel that the losing minority is bound to be unhappy ... and so problems are discussed and discussed until an obvious answer emerges." To the Lisu, "It seems only logical that ... each individual should be granted as much participation as possible in the decision-making process ... There is no set prerogative, status, or authority among individuals." Minority views receive a degree of protection through this long-winded process.

While Lisu cosmological views may look hierarchical if all the spirits they propitiate are considered, in practice they aren't. Daily spiritual lives are most concerned with balancing dualistic opposites (man-woman, heaven-earth, east-west, top-bottom) and negotiating among the forces of ancestors, nature spirits, bad-talk spirits, and lost souls — not in ordering or beseeching them in a particular way. Lisu recognize two interconnected worlds, the visible and the invisible. Ritualizing and other communication with the unseen world is necessary and constant because being on good terms with spirits is required to be successful both places. Even Christian Lisu, who ignore lesser spirits in favor of Wu-sa, the creator and sky god, in formal religious practice, keep track of their former system and use it as a common reference. They do not deny the reality of the spirit world; they have simply changed their interface with it. This has economic consequences, as Christians primarily raise pigs to sell instead of to feast the village. But practically speaking, Burmese Lisu are too poor to feast the village and instead host smaller gatherings.

The extreme, remote environments Lisu inhabit, such as the Nujiang gorge and hilltops in Burma and Thailand, shape their worldview and support values of pride and independence. Whether cultivating steep mountain swiddens in Burma or Thailand or valley floors in China, each individual's effort is central to group survival. Every person who is physically fit has an equal chance to use his or her labor to reach life goals. Among Lisu, goals beyond having enough to eat are having children, sufficient pigs, and luxury items such as horses or silver. Nowadays, a motorcycle or pickup truck substitutes for horses and cash for silver. But one isn't truly successful unless, in addition, one distributes wealth back to the community in the form of feasts. Since feasts are always connected to ceremonial activities, repute and prestige are associated with taking care of one's responsibilities. Christianity has disrupted economic aspects of raising pigs for ceremonies, but the Lisu style of Christian practice has substituted other communal obligations.

The distinctness of Lisu identity came into focus for me after spending time with individuals across the ideological/religious spectrum in several countries. A dynamic core resonates across their culture, allowing them to borrow easily from other cultures, other religions, and other languages without losing "Lisuness." They are also bound by a common sense of humor and word play filled with wish reversals: something they like stinks or is called ugly; a hunchback is described as well-built.

This core is evident despite a wide range of customs, depending on clan, location, and religion. Among the Lisu, no lineage is considered superior, and none are formally organized. The main lineages in Thailand — the Bee, Wild Cat, Fish, Bear, Wood, Buckwheat, and Hemp — (see Chapter 2, Mythic Origins) are not the same as those in Burma or China. There has been much intermarriage with Yunnanese and other minorities so that clans have been added or at least assigned Chinese names by administrators who don't speak Lisu: Li, Yang, Wang, Tao, Wu, Ts'ao, Ho Cu, and Cang are some of the larger clan designations, and they exist side by side with a Lisu name. It is impossible to accurately tease out one discrete set of Lisu customs or religious practices, although most are informed by the cosmic habit of pairing opposites. Christians continue this, so one has to list a set of lineage names as well as the ethnic, country, and religious label to identify a Lisu with any specificity. However, according to virtually everyone I interviewed, those who marry Lisu are far more likely to take up Lisu habits than is the Lisu partner to surrender identity. The exception is when a Lisu physically moves away from his or her environment and joins majority populations.


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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

Note on Use of "Burma" and "Myanmar" xix

Introduction 3

Book I Meet the Lisu

Part 1 Lisu World

1 Who Are the Lisu? 13

2 Mythic Origins 23

3 History and Origin Theories 29

4 Modern Times 35

5 Migration 39

6 Identity and Cultural Flux 53

7 View from the Village 61

A Temporary Encampment 61

Social Organization and Symbolic Significance 72

Dispute Solving 78

Part 2 Being a Lisu

8 Childhood: Learning by Doing 87

Girls: To Work Earlier and Play Closer to Home 91

Boys: Running Free and Learning to Survive 94

9 Men, Women, Courtship, and Marriage 99

New Year Celebrations: Setting the Stage for Romance 99

Gender Roles, Courtship, and Sexuality 103

Negotiating Bride Wealth 112

10 The Household: The Place for Family and Work 117

Dualism in Division of Labor 119

Food, Feasts, and Liquor 119

Clothes 121

The Home/Jungle/Field Connection 124

11 Cosmic Views 127

Spiritual and Physical Worlds Converge 127

Lisu Curing and Dealing with Spirits on a Daily Basis 138

Impact of Christianity … Just One More Influence? 148

12 Economy 157

Economic Activities in the Forest 163

Sweat: The Lisu Capital 166

Lisu Women: Equal Partners 167

The Lure of Land 169

Book II The Lisu by Country: Contemporary Sketches

1 Comparing Lisu National Scenes: Full of Opportunities to Be Wrong 179

2 Thailand 187

3 Burma/Myanmar 213

4 China 265

Conclusions, and Notes on Where Lisu Might Go from Here 303

Notes 315

Bibliography 331

Index 341

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