Lahu - Orientation
Identification. The Lahu are one among many linguistically and culturally distinct ethnic minority peoples of the mountainous region that extends from the far southwestern part of China's Yunnan Province into Myanmar's (Burma) Shan State, northwestern Laos, northern Thailand, and northwest Vietnam. The people's own ethnonym, "Lahu" ("Laho" in some dialects), is of uncertain meaning. The old Chinese name for them was "Lohei," now dropped because of its derogatory connotations. The Tai call them "Mussur," derived from the Burmese moksa, "hunter." "Kucong" and "Co Sung" (also "Co Xung," "Khu Xung," and "Kha Quy") are names used in Yunnan and North Vietnam respectively for a highly divergent branch of the Lahu, traditionally forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers but in Yunnan simple swiddeners as well. Only recently have they been identified (by Chinese researchers) as belonging within the wider Lahu ethnic group. The Lahu have numerous linguistically and culturally specific subdivisions, the two most important being the Lahu Na (Black Lahu) and Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu; called "Mussur Kwi" or just "Kwi" by the Shan). Lahu Hpu (White) is another important subdivision, especially in Yunnan, as is Lahu Nyi (Red) in Myanmar's Shan State and in north Thailand. Yunnan's Kucong also have Black and Yellow divisions; the Black Kucong reportedly call themselves "Guozhou" but are termed "Lahu Na" by their Lahu Shi neighbors, and the Yellow Kucong call themselves "Lahu Shi." Ethnic identification by color labels is widespread in Southeast Asia.
Location. About 67 percent of all Lahu live in the far southwestern tip of China's Yunnan Province, mostly near the Myanmar border in the mountains on both sides of the Lancang (Mekong) River. Outside China, Lahu communities are scattered through the federated Shan State, north Thailand, Laos's Nam Tha Province (whence some have gone as refugees to California), and far northwestern Vietnam. Their widespread settlement areas have common natural characteristics: rugged hill country cut by narrow alluvial valleys, a subtropical monsoonal climate, luxuriant natural vegetation, and mostly fertile soils. It is good country for growing rice (irrigated and dry), maize, and buckwheat, as well as cash crops like tea, tobacco, and opium. There is a wide variety of fauna, including tiger and other wild cats, bears, gaur, sambar and barking deer, gibbons, and several species of monkeys.
Demography. Lahu probably number some 600,000 people. In China (1990 census) there were 411,174 Lahu; in Myanmar, perhaps 150,000; in Laos perhaps 10,000; and in Thailand, 63,821 scattered through about 290 villages (1988 count). Vietnam's Co Sung, according to a 1984 report, numbered more than 4,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Lahu language (together with Lisu) belongs to the Central Loloish (or Yi) Branch of the Lolo-Burmese Subgroup of the Tibeto-Burman Family. It has close lexical affinities with the Southern Loloish Akha language. Lahu has no traditional script; the people once used notched sticks, with or without chicken feathers attached, to communicate simple messages. Three romanizations have been introduced during this century, by Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries and by Chinese government linguists.