Lisu hill tribe – History and Culture

Lisu hill tribe – History and Culture

Origins

The Lisu hill tribe is a Tibeto-Burman highland tribe, originally from southwest China.

Where do they live?

Lisu hill tribe people can be found in China, India, Myanmar. They drifted into North Thailand from Burma [ Kengtung]and can now be found at Fang, Mae Hong Son, Sukhothai Tak, Khampaeng Phet, Phayao, Lampang and Chiang Rai.

Language

The Lisu hill tribe speaks a language that belongs to the Lolo branch of the Tibeto-Burman family.
There are two scripts in use and the Chinese Department of Minorities publishes literature in both. The oldest and most widely used one is the Fraser script developed by missionaries in the 1920’s. The second script was developed by the Chinese government and is based on pinyin.

Lisu hill tribe women, Chiang Dao.
Lisu hill tribe women, Chiang Dao. Picture by Frans Betgem.

Religion

The religion of the Lisu hill tribe is a mixture of ancestor worship and spirit propitiation. They believe all animate things have an associated spirit as do some inanimate objects. Important spirits are those of ancestors, water, mountains and villages. They are not preoccupied with after life and see the spirit world as something for the present, to be dealt with on a daily basis and believe spirits have emotions and failings the same as humans so that they can be so dealt with.

Culture and lifestyle

The Lisu hill tribe women are distinguished by their brightly coloured tunics, worn over long pants; some of the older generation continue to wear tasselled turbans on their heads. Occupying villages above 1,000m, they keep livestock and cultivate corn and vegetables. Unlike other tribes, they don’t usually live in stilted houses. Within each Lisu house is an ancestral altar. And in each Lisu hill tribe village, there is a “village guardian spirit shrine” which is located above the village, in a roofed pavilion which women are forbidden to enter.
The Lisu hill tribe grows rice and vegetables for subsistence and opium for sale. Rice is grown at lower altitudes and the opium poppy at over 5,000 feet. Villages are located so that the inhabitants can maintain some independence from the Thai authorities. At the same time, these villages are relatively close to the market so that the Lisu can trade. Most Lisu live close to water because they believe water has a special power.
Some members of the Lisu hill tribe have been involved in the drugs trade. Most notorious is Lao Ta Saenlee, a lieu hill tribe headman from Lao Ta village naar Thaton. After having spent considerable time in jail Lao Ta has opened a coffeeshop near his village on the road from Thaton to Mae Chan. I it is a remarkable story .

Important festivals

The main Lisu Festival is the New Year festival which is on the same date as the Chinese New Year and is celebrated with music, feasting and drinking. People wear large amounts of silver jewelry and wear their best clothes at these times as a means of displaying their success in the previous agricultural year. More about the Lisu New Year here.

 

Lisu hill tribe dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center.
Lisu hill tribe dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Picture courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.