The Social Customs of the Lisu HilltribeThe Lisu are one of the smallest ethnic groups in northern Thailand. They comprise about 4 percent of the total hilltribe population with more than 90 percent of the Lisu living in the provinces of Chiangmai, Chiangrai and Mae Hong Sorn. They are relatively new to Thailand with two subdivisions of the tribe crossing over from Burma as recently as the 1920's. Their fundamental outlook on life is what is referred to as 'Primacy' and this very colorful ethnic group goes to great lengths to maintain patrimonial clans within the tribes, and kinship relationships are based on family, extending in increasingly wider circles to include the tribe.
Although much different from the Mien in most respects, the Lisu and Mien appear to have a strong common trait : both tribal groups spend lavish sums on wedding ceremonies. The Lisu sense of primacy seems to be very closely related to the Mien sense of propriety in that the marriages within each group take priority over nearly all other ceremonial activities. The two tribes tend to spend so much money on making a good show, both in courtship and in the marriage ceremony itself, that most of their waking hours are spent trying to make enough to pay for not only the ceremony but also new clothing for courting and dowries. The bridal couple are blessed in verse and plain speech, often emphasizing Lisu virtues and customs. For example, the bride's father only begs a dowry because of tribal custom, not poverty. One common theme in many songs, not just associated with marriage, and which seems contrary in such outgoing people is that they have no writing of their own, no irrigation for their crops and no nation that is truly theirs. This is then countered by the assertion that the Lisu way is the best way.
New Year's Day is another major and distinctive ceremony of the Lisu. Each village has its own priest, and the celebration mainly consists of dancing around the priest's holy tree, shifting to the vicinity of the headman's house on the following day. Music is provided by traditional wind and string instruments, with the dance following both tempo and instrument played. There seems to be a clear social hierarchy displayed in the order of dance, with the headman and the adults initiating proceedings, to be followed by the children and finally the young men and women who have spent the day dressing to impress in their finery.
Throughout the celebrations, a few of the village men are appointed as clowns or jesters, who goad the others if the pace of the dancing slackens off, but this is all good-natured, as fighting or arguing are forbidden throughout the entire New Year celebration. Formerly the festival was taboo to outsiders, being confined to family, clan and friends, but these restrictions have been eased over the years. After 2 days of festivity, the priest announces the rising of the sun, ending the celebration. Each family then ties a piece of pork and a pair of rice cakes to its own New Year tree, and casts it into the forest, severing the link with the past year.
There are fewer than 25,000 Lisu in all of Thailand. About 50 percent of them live in Chiangmai Province, approximately 25 percent in Chiangrai Province, less that 20 percent in Mae Hong Sorn, and the remainder scattered from Sukhothai to Kampaeng Pet. They are farmers for the most part and grow rice, corn and vegetables. They supplement their farm income by making traditional tribal handicrafts.
The Lisu prefer to settle near the tops of mountains, as close as possible to streams or waterfalls. Their houses never have more than one door and are oriented to stand parallel to the face of the mountain on which they live.
Each village has a spirit house, and each house has a small shrine to spirits and ancestors. In addition, because the Lisu are the "engineers" among the Hilltribes, most of their villages feature a large bamboo pipe, a conduit, that carries water to the village from the nearest source.
The Lisu are a handsome people, perhaps the best-looking of all the tribes, and they like to think of themselves as a cut or two above their other Hilltribe neighbors. Consequently, they are among the least bashful of these ethnic groups, and, although patient, like to be a bit competitive as well.
This ethnic group, although small, is probably the most outgoing of all. When you enter a Lisu village, you know - - they're not in the least bit afraid of intrusion and they're a most fun - loving people. In work they are both energetic and enthusiastic, but don't mistake them for people who don't know how to do business. If you're bargaining with them, they're the ones who are most likely to come out ahead. Maybe a better definition of the word 'primacy' as it applies to the Lisu tribes is " lively and strong determination to succeed, " not just financially but also on an internal tribal level as well as an external human relations levels.
Copyright © 1995-2014 Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai magazine All rights reserved.