NORTHERN THAILAND'S TRIBAL HERITAGE: THE LISU

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Lisu

Lisu

The Lisu, called “Lisaw” by the Khon Muang, belong, like the Karen, Akha, and Lahu, to the Tibeto-Burman

language family. The Lisu are believed to have originated somewhere in Mongolia and then migrated along the

Salween River through China’s Yunnan Province to reach the Shan State in Myanmar and all the northern provinces of Thailand. In Chiang Rai province, they first appeared some 90 years ago at Doi Chang in Mae Suai district. While the Black and White Lisu still live in Yunnan, it was the sub-group of the Flowery Lisu that settled in Thailand. Lisu settlements are often located in the highlands at an average altitude of about 1,000 meters, which is the best height to produce opium. They practice the common “shifting cultivation” and grow dry rice, maize, and vegetables as cash crops. Also, they draw additional income from the sale of domesticated animals such as pigs and cattle. The Lisu tribe is made up of several patrilineal clans into which have married Chinese men who turned Lisu. The clans are important in determining kinship

relations and marriage rules. Cross-cousin marriage is most usual because monogamy and clan exogamy are

valued as the ideal patterns to follow in order to strengthen family bonds in the village. Kinship relations are centred on the nuclear family and extend to the tribe as a whole. The Lisu have adopted much that is part of the Chinese culture, such as house building on the ground, burying the dead in graves, and celebrating their New Year on the same day as in the Chinese calendar. Intriguingly, they are typical spirit worshippers and venerate a village spirit and a mountain spirit in a separate compound away from the village center. Water and other spirits are the cause of sickness and must be bribed with animal sacrifices. Chicken bone oracle and pig’s liver reading are common, as is the belief in ancestor spirits or Wusa as a creator god. How far Christian influence has reached them in Yunnan and Myanmar is a guess. In Thailand, however, even whole villages are Christian, and their reputation as individualists make them very special people.

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