The 453,705 members of China's Lahu ethnic group live primarily in Yunnan's Lancang Lahu Autonomous County and neighboring counties such as Menglian, Shuangjiang, and Simao. This region is also home to Hans, Dais, Yis, Hanis, Blangs, and Was.
The Lahu trace their ancestry back to the ancient Qiang people, who immigrated to present day northern Yunnan from northwestern China early in the third century AD. Beginning in the 8th century, the emergence of the Nanzhao State forced the Lahu to move further southward. After the 10th century AD, they continued this southward migration on a larger scale. As they migrated, they divided into two groups: the 'Lahu Na' (White Lahu) who took the western route, settling down in the Lincang, Lancang, Mengbian and Menggai area, and the 'Lahu Pu' or 'Lahu Xi' (Yellow Lahu), who took the southern route, along Ailao Mountain, and made their home in the area near Jindong, Simao, Mojiang and Yuanjiang. By the end of the 18th century, they had already inhabited in the areas in southern Yunnan they live in today.
This ethnic group has named themselves the Lahu, due to their long history of hunting tigers. 'La' means the tiger, and the 'hu' means the method of roasting and eating. In their language, Lahu means 'roasting tiger-meat on a fire'.
The Lahu language belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family of the Sino-Tibetan language system and until an alphabetical script was created in 1957, had no written form. Previous to that, messages were frequently passed by wood-carving using the alphabet developed by Western priests. As a result of frequent contact with the Han and Dai people, most of them can also speak Chinese and the language of the Dais.
In ancient times, the Lahu practiced their polytheistic religion. Their most important god was named Exia. They believed Exia to be the creator of the universe and mankind and to have the power to determine the good or bad fortune of people. They had a shrine to Exia in a forbidden area deep within the forest where non-Lahu people were forbidden to approach it. Since Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into China early in the Qing period, some Lahus have been converted to it. There are also a small number of them living in Lincang and Lancang counties who practice Christianity.
The land inhabited by the Lahus is blessed with a subtropical, mild, humid climate and fertile land, making it suitable for planting cereal crops such as paddy, dry rice, corn and buckwheat and cash crops such as tea, tobacco and sisal. The forest is rich in various timbers, valuable medicinal herbs, and wild animals and birds such as red deer, mossbacks, bears, tigers, peacocks, and parrots.
The majority of Lahus are employed in agriculture of rice, corn, tea, tobacco, and hemp, or in industrial forestry.
They are fond of spicy food. They have a saying that goes 'cooking without chili is the same as cooking without oil'. Rice and corn are the staple grains of the two meals, but they also eat smaller amounts of wheat, buckwheat and potato. These starches are usually accompanied by various fruits and vegetables such as radishes, melon, and beans as well as roast meats. Their characteristic method of roasting meat involves coating it with salt and spices and cooking it over an open fire between two bamboo sticks. Lahu meat has a distinctive and pleasing flavor, aroma, and yellow color.
Another Lahu specialty is their variety of salted, preserved foods, which include meats, tofu, fermented soybeans and various pickled vegetables. Particularly interesting are their salted animal bones. The bones are hammered into small pieces and seasoned with salt, pepper, round cardamom, and anise are stored in a clay pot for several months until they are ready to be eaten.
They drink roasted tea. The tealeaves are first put into a small teapot and roasted on a fire oven until they brown. Then boiling water is poured into the pot, producing a tea with a strong, pleasant aroma. When the they have guests in their home, they are expected to serve them several cups of roast tea to show respect and hospitality. The first tea is slightly bitter. Therefore the hosts always drink the first tea themselves before filling the pot with water a second time and serving the second, better tea to their distinguished guests.
They also make wines and liquors, which they often share with their neighbors from the Dai, Hani, Blang and other ethnic groups during the New Year and other festivals.
The houses of the Lahus are quite similar in style and structure to those of the Dai. The size of the house varies according to the size of the family, from smaller houses, which accommodate four or five people, to large ones that can hold twenty to thirty people. Built from bamboo and wood, the houses are often two storied with the family living on the upper floor and the livestock stored on the ground floor. The upper floor is generally partitioned into two rooms, a living room and a bedroom, with a fire in the center of the living room playing a pivotal role in their daily lives. Each house has, on its right side, a staircase built from tree thick tree trunks leading to a balcony and the door to the family living quarters.
The Lahus living amongst Han or Yi people usually build Han style bungalows with roofs covered with straw or board. The erection of a new house is a communal affair. All the adults in the village will assist the family in its construction and once it is completed a great community-wide celebration is held.
They love the color black and regard black as the symbol of beauty. Therefore, black dress is the fashion of the Lahu people.
Men wear black headbands with black collarless short jackets buttoned on the right side, and baggy long trousers. Women often wear long robes with slits reaching the waist. The collar and splits are bordered with cloth of different colors and the front of the robe is decorated with silver balls. They also like to wear turbans that are more than three meters long, with one end hanging down the back and reaching the waist. Lahu women in some areas also wear tunics and long straight skirts.
Now young boys often wear an overcoat with black cover and white inner lining. Girls will wear the undercoat with a white sweater, which extends out from under it, and over the tops of their straight skirts. They think the matching of black with white is as beautiful as the pied magpie.
As a result of frequent contact with the Hans and Dais, some Lahus also wear the garments of those two ethnic groups, as well as their own traditional dress.
Arts and Culture
They are good at singing and dancing. Their music and dance demonstrate the unique culture and strong flavor of life of the Lahu. Their traditional musical instruments include the lusheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) and three-stringed guitar. Their dances feature distinctive Lahu foot movements. They also have rich oral literature, the dominant themes of which center around the people's unyielding spirit in the struggle against oppression.
The main festivals of the Lahu people include the Lahukuo Festival, Torch Festival, New Rice Festival, Duane Festival and others.
The Lahukuo Festival is the New Year Festival of the Lahu people. It is divided into large year (Women's Festival) and small year (Men's Festival) and is the most ceremonious and important festival of the Lahu people. The Women's Festival spans four days, from the first to the fourth day of the lunar New Year and the Men's Festival lasts three days, beginning in the ninth day of the lunar New Year.
Before the festival, they will cease their typical work and busy themselves by slaughtering pigs, brewing rice liquor, steaming New Year cake and otherwise preparing for the upcoming festival.
On the first day of the New Year, they have a custom of "Scrambling for Fresh Water". On the morning of that day, everyfamily tries to be the first one to get the fresh water of New Year with bamboo container. To the Lahu, fresh water symbolizes purity and happiness. He who gets the fresh water of the New Year is thought to have good luck throughout the year.
Central to the festival is a three-day songfest consisting of group singing and dancing to a reed-made pipe accompaniment. In a year of great harvest, this celebratory songfest can last as long as five days, from the first day to the fifth day of the lunar New Year.