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.

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

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 don’t say hello or goodbye. Here are some usefuls 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 dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center
Lisu hill dance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Picture courtesy of the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center.

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.

Lisu girl during flower festival
Flower Festival Lisu girls Chiang Mai

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. 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.

Lisu traditional dress

Lisu traditional dress is very colorful especially the dress of the women. The Lisu man’s dress is quite sober. It consists of a black jacket, blue or green pants and black leggings. The dress of Lisu women is a blue or green tunic, split up at the sides to the waist. It is 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 made of a different colour from the rest of the dress. Women wear knee-length black Chinese-style pants and red leggings trimmed with blue cloth, embroidered with other colours.  Young girls and women wear a black turban during festivals. At New Year they wear lots of silver jewelry. In Chiang Mai the small Lisu Cultural Heritage Center exhibits traditional Lisu dress. It is really worth visiting. 

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

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.