Journal of Burma Studies

Volume 17.1, Abstracts

Introduction to Wa Studies

Magnus Fiskesjo

The article provides an overview of the rich materials available to study multiple aspects of the Wa. The author presents the setting that has been the traditional homeland of the Wa people, a variety of forms of evidence facilitating knowledge of their past and present, including a rich oral tradition to supplement the many texts written and published in the Wa language. The available materials also include archaeological remains in the form of rock art. An extended section on Chinese, Burmese and Shan sources is supplemented with European, mainly British writings, and missionary narratives and correspondence. The article also delves into recent scholarship devoted to the Wa, by ethnographers and linguists. A bibliographical note calls attention to available web sites where further material may be found.

A Themed Selection of Wa Proverbs and Sayings

Justin Watkins

Professor Watkins provides a fascinating list of Wa proverbs and sayings, circulating in what he calls the Sinosphere, since much of the material handled has come to light through Chinese sources. The article as an outgrowth of the fruitful SOAS Wa Dictionary project that enabled in addition to much else, making available in Burmese and in English some of the information on the Wa which exists only in Chinese. The author shows the Wa’s importance in linguistic and cultural knowledge terms, explains the lexicographical source from the SOAS Wa Dictionary Project evolved, and alerts readers to the large collection of materials – a digitized corpus representing some 7000 printed book pages – used for the project. Professor Watkins thereupon explains the source from which Wa proverbs and sayings were culled and their semantic content and syntactic structure. The list is divided by subjects, covering diverse topics – such as Wa diversity and their neighbors, religious beliefs and rituals, attitude to work, hunting, poverty , wealth and good fortune, concerns with village life, family relationships and sex, among others.

Phonological Outline of the Vo Dialect

Atsushi Yamada

The author provides a long word list used in the Vo dialect. The Vo is the name of an ethnic group residing in Menglian Dai, Lahu and Wa autonomous country in Hunnan province, China. The Vo are regarded as members of the Wa nationality and according to Chinese calculations, number about 30,000 native speakers. Their language belongs to the Wa language group of the Mon-Khmer family, and uses a dialect hitherto neglected in the scholarly literature. The author thereupon presents a phonological analysis and a basic vocabulary of the Vo dialect as spoken in Fuyan.

Clustered Communities and Transportation Routes: The Wa Lands Neighboring the Lahu and the Dai on the Frontier

Jianxiong Ma

The article provides an innovative perspective on the historical changes that over the early modern period and later, impacted Wa society in transformative ways. The evidence used describes the history of frontier formation from the 17th to the early 20th century, in the context of Qing state extension towards the southwest. The society inhabiting the Wa Lands is examined as a clustered system, in which a variety of factors shaped Wa fortunes. These include the presence of a mining industry, migratory patterns, religious movements and changing market mechanisms. The importance of salt policy is particularly significant, as was the integration of the Dai chieftain into evolving socio-political arrangements, impacted by the rise and fall of religious movements among the neighboring Lahu and the growth of Han Chinese gentry power. Qing frontier policy and its aims, responsive to pressures from elsewhere, interlinked the region’s fortunes with dynastic developments in Burma and the subsequent era of British colonialism. The interaction between China and Burma changed the social landscape of local societies as well as imperial frontiers. Native groups found themselves clustered into a terrain of fragmentation whose varied players and their fortunes, such as the Dai chieftain, the Five Buddha Districts of the Lahu and the Han Chinese gentry based in Mianning were influential components. The author shows how contrary to recently fashionable but flawed readings of the evidence, the Wa lands were never a system of isolated areas, remote and outside the reach of organized state power. On the contrary, the Wa were for centuries integral elements in social systems sharing certain political structures. The article also examines the problematics of vague terms such as "autonomy," by showing how the Wa themselves were formidable negotiators among the various shifting forces impacting their habitats. The evidence is based on Chinese historical documents and long term field work. The article’s conclusions are applicable beyond the specific issue of the Wa lands, and serves as an important reminder of the complexities of political, economic and social reconstruction in seemingly marginal territories.

To be at One with Drums: Social Order and Headhunting among the Wa of China

Bernard Formoso

The article examines the practice of beating large drums, made of hollowed out tree trunks, among southeast Asian headhunting groups, the Naga of Assam, of Northeast India, and the so called "wild" Wa straddling the Burma-China frontier. The author looks as their kinship system, its political and religious prerogatives, agricultural practices, and village habitats. The Naga and Wa formed raiding groups when hunting heads, which in the case of the Wa generated group solidarity and functioning social units. Such cooperative endeavor generated supra village organizations acting as a small-scale sociocosmos. The evidence is based on ethnographic data compiled by the author in 1997 while domiciled among the Wa of the Lancang district, Yunnan province, and reports published by Chinese ethnographers who in the 1950s recorded the folklore of China’s different populations. The article examines the nature of the headhunting populations on China’s margin, the significance of the drums and the elaborate rituals and methods transforming material objects into sacred implements and the sophisticated mythology associated with head hunting practices. The latter’s relationship to animal sacrifice, community cohesion, familial status and other communal activities made head hunting an influential component of social life. Rituals of life regeneration are intimately interwoven with Wa myths of origin, for which monoxylous drum playing is crucial. The drums are associated with the figure of the snake, that in turn is linked to the social body that was said to have resulted from its dismemberment. Such rituals generate a sense of organic unity, important in the agonistic context of headhunting and lineage solidarity, stimulated by an ideology that moved such violent activities, as the author shows, outside the dialectal area. The drums’ hall was the true spiritual core of Wa villages.

The Wa Authority and Good Governance, 1989 – 2007

Ronald D. Renard

On the basis of extended field data collected between 2003 and 2007, as well as interviews with involved officials and interested parties, the author examines the motivations of Wa leaders as they administered the Wa Special Region since 1989. Their administrative practices were formulated against the background of the banning of poppy cultivation and opium, in what was then the largest poppy growing area in the Mekong region. In return for agreeing to the ban, the region experienced a massive influx of international development aid. More importantly, as the author shows, as a result of the cease fire negotiated with the then leader of Myanmar, Secretary 1, Khin Nyunt, Wa Special Region 2, the Wa authorities faced numerous challenges that were the result of under development that left the region short of roads, schools and health clinics . These authorities’ success in creating a rudimentary infra structure, establishing an administrative system, collecting revenue and sustaining a substantial armed force is attributed by the author to the early influence of the Burma Communist Party’s in the region. The author headed the evaluation of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) Wa Project, subsequently revisited the region as a short term consultant, and in 2006 – 2007 was manager of the UNDOC project, thus having extensive and long term familiarity with the challenges Wa authorities faced. The article traces some of these challenges to their historical roots, the problematic origins of Wa authority, and its relationship to the Burma Communist party active in the region since the late 1960s, whose presence, as the Wa themselves see it, brought their people into the modern world. But having expelled the Burma Communist Party in 1989, the Wa created the United Wa State Army and party, with a Central Authority, to govern the region. Currently numerous problems remain unresolved, chief among them the Wa’s stated demand to be recognized as a special Region, along the pattern of Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

Myanmar: The 2010 Elections and Political Participation

Marie Lall and Hla Hla Win

This co-authored article examines how the concept of citizenship is linked to the changing nature of the nation state in the Myanmar context. The authors examine a debate within Myanmar regarding the nature of citizenship, as the country moved from being governed by a military dictatorship to a parliamentary system still heavily dominated by the military. The authors ask how this new situation will affect the Myanmar concept of citizenship. Citizenship is defined as an individuals relationship with the state, and people’s understanding of the attendant rights and responsibilities, including political participation in elections. Data assembled in Myanmar derived from focus groups of young people of Bamar and ethnic minority origins as well as in-depth interviews with civil society leaders. The investigation employed a mixed methods approach, the distribution of a questionnaire with qualitative and quantitative sections distributed at a private higher education institution in Yangon, and in villages in the Delta. Another set of data was collected in Yangon in February 2011. The authors conclude that the concept of citizenship in Myanmar is thin, and is identified largely with passports and identity cards. The elections allowed some form of political participation that proved attractive particularly to young people who expressed a range of opinions regarding the possibilities offered by the political process, and the country’s future. The authors conclude that the elections began a debate about the rights and duties of participating in the political process, but without being linked to the concept of citizenship. This indicates how much more is needed to be done to increase the political literacy of Myanmar’s young people, moving forward.

An Ethnographic Illustration of Wa People in British Burma during the Early 20th Century; Notes on a Shan Album from the NIU Burma Collection, with Reference to Similar Illustrations from Other Sources

Catherine Raymond

The note explains the cover image of the Journal, representative of a certain type of ethnographic illustration of the Wa, within the context of hand painted " albums," at the turn of the 20th century. The volume is housed at the NIU Library, and is a rare example of what once was a more popular genre of representing the exotic and colorful populations scattered among imperial domains. The author has uncovered three additional albums in other collections, and applies a " compare- and- contrast" method to understand this genre of art work, its origins, the contributions of local artists, how they were influenced by their European clientele, and the possible connections between such productions and other traditions of ethnographic illustrations. The note also features an illuminating section on the ethnonyms for Wa people in Burmese, old Shan and Kheun, elaborating in linguistic terms on their variety and significance and how they relate to the various albums’ content.

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