Population and Distribution
The Wa people number 396,610(in 2000) and live mainly in compact communities in the Ximeng, Cangyuan, Menglian, Gengma, Lancang, Shuangjiang, Zhenkang and Yongde counties in southwestern Yunnan Province. There, they coexist with other ethnic groups such as the Hans, Yis, Dais, Hanis, Lahus, Jingpos, Blangs, De'angs and Lisus.
The Wa people have a unique spoken language, which belongs to the Austroasiatic family. They previously had no written language, but an alphabetic script was created in 1957. Prior to then, they kept records and accounts or passed messages to each other by using material objects or by engraving bamboo strips.
The Wa people call themselves Wa, Lei Wa, Ba Rao, Bu Rao, etc. According to historical records, they are the descendants of the Baipu people who lived before the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC). During the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) they were called Ha Wa, Ka Wa, etc and with the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), they were formally named the Wa by the government after unanimous approval from the people.
In the past, the Wa people worshipped nature, believing that all mountains, rivers and other natural phenomena had their deities. Now, some Wa people have become followers of Christianity and Buddhism.
Situated between the Lancang and Nu rivers, surrounded by undulating mountain ridges and some 2,000 meters above sea level, the area inhabited by the Wa people is blessed with a mild climate, abundant rainfall and fertile land. This contributes to the growth of plants such as dry rice, paddy, millet, corn, buckwheat, potato, cotton, hemp, sugarcane, etc. They also cultivate pineapples, bananas, mangoes, pawpaw and other sub-tropic fruit.
This area is also abundant in gold, silver, coal, copper, lead and other mineral resources as well as various species of plants.
The Wa people have two or three meals per day. Their main diet consists of rice, which is complemented with corn, kaoliang, buckwheat, maize and beans. Their vegetables include bamboo shoot, pumpkin, wax gourd, towel gourd, brinjaul, taro, etc. Pork, chicken, cattle and other wild animals provide the Wa people with their meat.
The Wa people also enjoy drinking and they make their own wine. In addition, they also like drinking bitter tea. Bitter as it is, the tea is remarkably refreshing and quenches one's thirst remarkably well. The Wa people also have the habit of chewing on betel nuts.
The Wa people use homespun cloth to manufacture their clothes, though styles vary depending on the area in which they live.
Men usually wear a black collarless short jacket, a shirt and loose trousers. They keep their hair short and always wrap their heads with black, white or red turbans. Young men like decorating their shins with circular ornaments woven with bamboo strips or rattan. Their ears are pierced and they thread red and black tassels through the holes. When they go out, they often equip themselves with a sword and a crossbow, making them look masculine. Tattooing is also a common practice among men.
Women usually wear a short black collarless jacket and a straight long skirt with folds. The women like to keep their hair long, which they coil against the back of the heads and hold it in place with silver clasps. The women also wear black-lacquered bamboo hoops carved with abstract patterns around their waists and several bamboo or rattan bracelets around the legs and thighs and up to several silver bracelets at the waist and elbows.
Most of the Wa villages were built on hilltops or slopes. The styles of houses vary depending on their location. Most houses are constructed with bamboo and straw and are usually two storied. The upper floor is for family accommodation while the ground floor is reserved for their livestock. It's sort of like having a traditional barn and house all in one.
The erection of a new house is a community affair. People in the same village will offer to help and present timber and straw as gifts. Generally a house will be completed in one day through a collective community effort. Following the completion of the house, all the young people in the village will be invited to the new family's abode to attend a celebration that includes dancing, singing and drinking.