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The Lahu Ethnic Group

Population: 453,705

Major area of distribution: Yunnan

Language: Lahu

Religion: Buddhism



The Lahus ethnic minority has a population of 453,705, mainly distributed in the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County in Simao Prefecture, Southern Lincang Prefecture and Menghai County in western Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province. Others live in counties along the Lancang River.


The subtropical hilly areas along the Lancang River where the Lahu people live in compact communities are fertile, suitable for planting rice paddy, dry rice, maize, buckwheat as well as tea, tobacco, and sisal hemp. There are China fir and pine, camphor and nanmu trees in the dense forests, which are the habitat of such animals as red deer, muntjacs, wild oxen, bears, peacocks and parrots. Found here are also valuable medicinal herbs like pseudo-ginseng and devil pepper.


Mineral resources in the area include iron, copper, lead, aluminum, coal, silver, mica and tungsten.


The Lahu language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family. Most of the Lahus also speak Chinese and the language of the Dais. In the past the custom of passing messages by wood-carving was prevalent. In some parts the alphabetic script invented by Western priests was in use. After liberation, the script was reformed and became their formal written language.




Legend says that the forbears of the Lahu people, who were hunters, began migrating southward to lush grassland which they discovered while pursuing a red deer.


Some scholars hold that during the Western Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, the "Kunmings," the nomadic tribe pasturing in the Erhai area in western Yunnan, might be the forbears of certain ethnic groups, including the Lahus. Then, the "Kunming" people still lived in a primitive society "without common rulers." They belonged to different clans engaged in hunting. The Lahu people once were known for their skill at hunting tigers. They roved over the lush slopes of the towering Ailao and Wuliang mountains.


In the 8th century, after the rise of the Nanzhao regime in Yunnan, the Lahu people were compelled to move south. By no later than the beginning of the 18th century they already had settled in their present-day places. Influenced by the feudal production methods of neighboring Han and Dai peoples, they turned to agriculture. With economic development, they gradually passed into a feudal system, and their life style and customs were more or less influenced by the Hans and Dais.


Customs and habits


Lahu men wear a collarless jacket buttoned on the right side, baggy long trousers, and a black turban. The women wear a long robe with slits along the legs. Around the collar and slits are sewn broad strips of color cloth with beautiful patterns and studded with silver ornaments. Women's headdress extends a dozen feet long, hanging down the back and reaching the waist. Where the Lahus come into frequent contact with the Hans and Dais, they also are fond of the garments of those two ethnic groups.


Their houses are built on stilts, with the space below reserved for domestic animals. The style of building is similar to the Dais'.


Monogamy was practiced. In some areas such as Bakanai Township in Lancang County and Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, young people were free to choose their marriage partners, and only a few marriages were arranged by parents. Women played the dominant part in marital relations. After the wedding, the husband stayed permanently in the wife's home, and kinship was traced through the mother's side. In other areas, men played the dominant part in marriage. Betrothal gifts were sent through a matchmaker before the wedding. On the evening of the wedding day the husband was required to stay in the bride's home with his production tools. After 1949, with the implementation of the marriage law, the old custom of sending betrothal gifts had been less strictly observed.


Traditionally, the dead were cremated. During the burial, mourners were led to the common cremation ground by women, who carried on their backs articles used by the deceased people during their life time. In some places, the dead person was buried, and the tomb piled with stones. The whole village stopped working in mourning on the burial day.




The Lahu people used to worship many gods. Their super god was "Exia," who was believed to have created the Universe and mankind, and had the power to decide the good or bad fortune of people. Exia was placed in a forbidden place in the depth of mountainous forests, unapproachable by non-Lahu peoples. They also worshipped the deities of earth and revenge


Bakanai Township in Lancang County has retained Lahu people's traditional facilities for making offerings -- erect poles carved with geometric designs.


In the early Qing Dynasty, Mahayana (a sect of Buddhism) was introduced into the Lahu areas from Dali by Buddhist monks. These Han and Bai monks obviously were opposed to the Qing regime, and in the peasants' wars that followed Buddhism played an important part in mobilizing the people. In Shuangjiang and Lancang counties, religion had come to merge with politics. Military suppression by the Qing government and defeat of the peasant uprisings led to the disintegration of local Buddhist bodies. However, as a religion Mahayana still prevailed among the people.


The music and dances of the Lahu people have their unique styles and are permeated with life. There are many melodies and songs. Traditional musical instruments include the lusheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) and three-stringed guitar. Their dances, numbering about 40, are characterized by foot tapping and swinging to the left. The Lahus have a rich stock of oral literature, most of which is related to physical labor. The most popular form of poetry is called "Tuopuke" or puzzle.


(China.org.cn June 21, 2005)


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