Lisu hill tribe - History and Culture

Table of Contents

The Lisu people in North Thailand

Origins of the Lisu hill tribe people

The Lisu hill tribe is a Tibeto-Burman highland tribe, originally from southwest China. The exact origin of the Lisu is unknown. All of the Lisu people currently living in Thailand came from Myanmar (Burma).

Lisu hill tribe village Chiang Dao Chiang Mai Tribal Photography Hill Tribes Thailand
Chiang Dao Lisu village

Where do the Lisu people live?

It is relatively certain that the Lisu more or less followed the Salween River Valley from Tibet through China to Burma. Their migration was often the result of Chinese pressure. Population growth and soil depletion might have been factors as well. Their entry into Thailand probably took place not earlier than 200 years ago, with most migration in the 19th century.

The Lisu hill tribe people live in Thailand, China, India, Myanmar. In former times they drifted into North Thailand from Burma and can now be found in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Sukhothai, Tak, Kamphaeng Phet, Phayao, Lampang Chiang Rai provinces. The vast majority of the Lisu hill tribe people still live in China, in their original heartland at the Mekong and Salween Rivers’ headwaters.

Chiang Dao Lisu women Lisu Hill tribe
Lisu women Chiang Dao

Lisu hill tribe language

The Lisu hill tribe speaks a language that belongs to the Lolo branch of the Tibeto-Burman language 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. Sara Ba Thaw, a Karen preacher from Myanmar, invented this script in 1915. 

A British Protestant Christian missionary James Fraser improved the script, which was then named after him. The Chinese government invented the second script, that is based on pinyin.
Lisu don’t say hello or goodbye. Here are some useful words and sentences.

Yes

No

Thank you

How much

Good

Very good

Rice

Village

House

Guest room

Food (rice)

Water

Tea

Boy

Girl

What is your name?

Sue

Nusus (nu as in gnu)

A kur bu mo

A mia

How

Aker How

Or

Jazzer

Hee

Etago

Tza

Igya

Chayeh

Zuga

Yumuleh

Nouz emir a lay bay

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Twenty

One Hundred

Ti Ngi

Su

Su

Lay

Knee ha

Cho

Shair

Heigh

Gu

Tssur

Nyissur

Tehaya

Lisu hill tribe Religion, Culture, and lifestyle

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. Vital spirits are those of ancestors, water, mountains, and villages. They are not preoccupied with the afterlife and see the spirit world as something for the present, to be dealt with daily, and believe spirits have emotions and failings the same as humans so that they can be so dealt with.

Occupying villages above 1,000m, they keep livestock and cultivate corn and vegetables. Unlike other tribes, they don’t usually live in stilted houses. Each Lisu house has an ancestral altar. There is a “village guardian spirit shrine in each village,” located above the village, in a roofed pavilion that women aren’t allowed to enter.
The Lisu hill tribe grows rice and vegetables for subsistence. 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 extraordinary power.

Exhibits at Lisu Cultural and Heritage Museum Chiang Mai
Lisu Cultural and Heritage Museum Chiang Mai

Lisu hill tribe traditional dress

Lisu traditional dress is very colorful, especially the clothing of the women. The Lisu hill tribe women are distinguished by their brightly colored tunics, worn over long pants; some of the older generations continue to wear tasseled turbans on their heads.

The Lisu man’s dress is quite sober. It consists of a black jacket, blue or green pants, and black leggings. Lisu women’s dress is a blue or green tunic, split up at the sides to the waist. It goes down to the knee in front and hangs to mid-calf at the back. It crosses over the chest and fastens under the right arm. The piece across the chest is often a different color from the rest of the dress.

Women wear knee-length black Chinese-style pants and red leggings trimmed with blue cloth, embroidered with other colors.  Young girls and women wear black turban during festivals. On New Year, they wear lots of silver jewelry. In Chiang Mai, the small Lisu Cultural Heritage Center exhibits traditional Lisu dress. It is worth visiting.

We successfully organized several textile tours for Haute Culture Tours to a Lisu village. If you are interested in such a tour, please contact us. We also offer a photography tour that features the traditional dress of the Lisu people.

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 Cultural Center.

Dutch anthropologist Otome Hutheesing

Otome Hutheesing is an anthropologist from the Netherlands. Otome was born in 1930 in Sumatra, which was the Dutch East Indies at the time. She studied sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where she also received her doctorate.

She taught there for several years. After that, she took a job in India with the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation. After a failed marriage, she moved first to Malaysia and then to Thailand.

Another Dutch anthropologist Leo Alting von Geusau, introduced her to the Lisu people. For six years, she lived in the Lisu village Doi Lan, south of Chiang Rai,  where she researched, which resulted in a book: “Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand: The Waning of Dog and Elephant Repute.”

She now lives in Chiang Mai with her adopted daughter Mimi. During her stay in Doi Lan, she took many photographs. She allowed us the publish some of them. You can find many of her pictures here.

Flower festival parade Lisu girl Lisu Hill tribe
Girl during flower festival

Important Lisu festivals

The main Lisu Festival is the New Year festival 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.

Interesting links and other sources

For more information about sources on the Hmong people and other ethnic minorities in North Thailand, please go to this page.

Meet the Lisu people on Green Trails tours

On these Green Trails tours you can meet the Lisu people: