LOCATION: Myanmar (Shan Plateau); India; China; Laos; Thailand; northern Vietnam
POPULATION: 4 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Shan; Chinese; Burmese
RELIGION: Buddhism, with elements of animism
A people known as the Tai have long inhabited a vast area of Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and northeastern Myanmar. The name for the Tai ethnic group of Myanmar is "Shan." The Shans migrated into Myanmar from China, to the north, many centuries ago, and settled in the valleys. They established kingdoms and expanded their territory, often in conflict with other ethnic groups such as the Burmese (Burman). From the fifteenth century on, the Shan Plateau was their main homeland. The people were governed by hereditary princes called Sao-Phas who ruled in as many as forty different principalities.
When the British Empire annexed Burma in 1885, the Shan princes negotiated protectorate agreements that allowed them to continue to rule their domains, while acknowledging British supremacy. With time, the Sao-Phas became more educated and more willing to work together, and in the 1920s they formed the Federated Shan States. After World War II (1939–45), the British granted independence to Burma, and Shan leaders participated in the Panglong Agreement with Burma's independence hero, General Aung San (1914–47), ensuring a great deal of autonomy for the Shan aristocrats. The independent constitution of Burma created a Shan State and granted it the right to secede after ten years.
Many Shans, including pro-democracy Sao-Phas, became disillusioned with being part of the Union of Burma. They felt that their culture was being suppressed by the majority Burmese. Conflicts with central government troops resulted. A military government took over Burma in 1962, and Burma's president—a Shan—Sao Shwe Thaike, was put in prison, where he died.
Armed rebel groups promoting Shan nationalism sprung up throughout the Shan state. The Shan rebellion was characterized by many factional splits and by "warlords" who took advantage of the state's lucrative opium trade to form their own narcotic-trafficking armies. In the 1990s, most of those groups have surrendered to Burma's central government or have reached ceasefire agreements, allowing them to continue in the drug trade.
Although there are no sure census figures in Myanmar, the Shan population there has been estimated at around 4 million. There are Shan ethnic people in India's Assam region, China's Yunnan province (the Dai people), Laos, Thailand, and northern Vietnam as well. Myanmar's Shan state has a border with Yunnan in the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south. The region is often called the Golden Triangle and is associated with trade in opium, the raw material for heroin. There are thousands of Shan refugees who have fled forced labor and other human rights abuses, seeking shelter in neighboring Thailand. In addition to the Shans, numerous other ethnic groups live in the Shan state, mainly in the hills: Palaungs, Pa-Os, Was, Lahus, Akhas, and other tribal people, as well as the Kokang Chinese.
The Salween River flows from China down through the Shan state, and the Mekong River forms the border with Laos. Major cities include Taunggyi, Keng Tung, and Lashio. In the southeast of the state is Inle Lake, where the Intha people live in stilt houses above the water and grow vegetables on floating gardens. The Shan state has been green and fertile, but deforestation in the last ten years, as Myanmar's military government sells off teak wood to neighboring countries, has degraded the terrain.
The Shans speak the Shan language, classified as Sino-Tai. It is distantly related to Cantonese and other Chinese dialects, and closely related to Lao and Thai. There are considerable regional differences in the Shan spoken in various areas. Throughout northeast Myanmar, Shan is used as a common language for trade among various ethnic groups. Many Shans speak some of the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese and some Burmese, as well as Shan. The traditional Shan alphabet has eighteen consonants and twelve vowels; more letters have been added in a modernized version. The letters have a circular shape, like those of the Burmese language.
To say "Thank you very much," Shans say Yin lii nam nam . The usual greeting in a Shan village is Kin khao yao ha ? meaning, "Have you eaten?" The reply is probably yes, so the follow-up question asks what the person had for lunch or dinner. A popular expression is Am pen tsang —meaning "No problem," because the Shans value a relaxed lifestyle. Sometimes one will hear the phrase even during a crisis, as Shans try to stay calm to deal with any situation.
Many Shans believe in ghosts and demons who haunt forests, graveyards, and other lonely places. Shamans or Buddhist monks can be called on to exorcise such ill-intentioned spirits. The forest is believed to be inhabited by animals that are considered ferocious human ghosts, such as were-tigers .
Shans, like most Tai peoples, are Buddhists. They practice a religion based on compassion for all beings and the search for enlightenment within a reincarnation cycle of birth and death. Buddhist monks, revered for their learning and self-discipline, are important to Shan communities. The power that stems from keeping precepts (abstaining from violent acts, intoxication, and other negative forms of conduct) can prevent evil and bring good fortune. Shan Buddhism also incorporates many animist elements, such as belief in a fertility goddess known as "the Rice Mother," and local spirits known as "the Lord of the Village."
The Shans observe Buddhist holidays and more animist-related ones such as an annual "repairing the village" ceremony called mae waan , meant to drive away dangerous beings. On holy days, everyone is expected to keep the five main Buddhist precepts: no killing, no stealing, no improper sexual conduct, no lying, and no use of intoxicants.
Because generosity, especially to the Buddhist monasteries, is an important virtue for Shans, gifts for the monks are a feature of many special occasions. Often a "money tree" will be paraded through the village, its branches decorated with banknotes and small household items for the monks to use. Dancers and musicians accompany the tree on its way to the monastery.
Shans sometimes hold a "Rocket Festival" in hopes of bringing on the rainy season to provide water for the rice and other crops. Large homemade fireworks are launched into the sky. Buddhist Lent occurs during the monsoon season, for three months. The monks stay at their monasteries, concentrating on their prayers and studies. Marriages and other festivities do not take place during Lent.
It was the old Shan custom for a mother to spend a month indoors, near a fire, after giving birth. When that month was over, the baby would be given a special bath in water that had coins and pieces of gold dropped into it.
Young boys usually become novice monks for one to three months. A colorful ceremony called Poy Sang Long is held as Buddhist Lent begins. The boys are costumed as little Shan princes. They are carried through the village on relatives' shoulders, or on ponies (sometimes even on elephants). Golden umbrellas shade them from the sun. At the monastery, the boys' heads are shaved, and they put on plain orange robes and begin learning the Buddhist scriptures.
In their mid-teens, many Shan boys get their first tattoos, usually from a sayah who uses a brass-tipped stick to inject magical ingredients in symbolic patterns. The chest, back, arms, legs, and tongue are common places for tattoos. The ink and designs are believed to give the wearer various powers against illness, evil-doers or weapons, or for cleverness. The tattooed person should keep Buddhist precepts of self-restraint to ensure the power of the tattoos. Men may continue to be tattooed, sometimes making their entire arms and legs blue-black from the ink. Shan women also get tattooed, but usually to a lesser extent than do men. Other ethnic groups often seek out the Shan sayahs as tattooists.
Death is considered the path to another existence, perhaps a better one. The dead are usually buried in a wooden coffin. Cremation ceremonies are held for monks and those who can afford to pay for the elaborate ritual. Musicians accompany the body to cremation site or burial ground.
When visiting a Shan home, one removes the shoes before entering. Traditionally this even applies to small shops. It is also customary to remove one's shoes at Shan Buddhist temples and monasteries, and it is the usual practice to make an offering of money, flowers, or food for the resident monks. Shans treat the monks with respect, especially older monks or those known for their strict self-discipline.
Visitors to homes, or even offices or shops, are served tea. Shans are usually introduced using an honorific with their name, most often Sai for men and Nang for women, and it is polite to address them that way.
Currently there are many severe health problems among the Shans. There are few doctors or medical facilities, especially in rural areas. Malaria is prevalent, and children often die from it. Villagers suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, and from goiter (caused by iodine deficiency). Medicine is too expensive for most people, and traditional "spirit doctors" cannot keep up with the present health crisis. HIV/AIDS has spread through the Shan state because of widespread injection of heroin refined from the locally grown opium, and because of the trade in young girls and boys to neighboring Thailand and China for prostitution. Generally ignorant about the disease, these young people who are forced into the "sex industry" have a very high rate of HIV infection.
Military rule in Myanmar has caused a decline in living standards for the Shans. Many have fled their original towns and villages because of forced labor, or have had their homes burned down by government troops seeking to secure the area. To get away from the conflict, they often settle in the hill country where it is hard to grow any crop other than opium.
In peaceful times, the marketplace is a center of Shan life. The markets are held quite early in the morning, and men, women, and children go there to buy food for the day, drink tea, and exchange information. Most of the vendors are women. Another center of Shan life is the Buddhist monastery, where many occasions are celebrated. Often the monastery is located on a hillside overlooking a village or town. Larger settlements have several monasteries, with tall whitewashed pagodas.
Shan houses are traditionally raised up on stilts, with the area underneath used for storage or a cool, shady place to sit. The roofs are thatched with leaf material. Inside, the Shans sit on the floor, eat at low tables, and at night sleep on mats. Cleanliness is very important to Shans, so yards and village streets are swept often. In villages, Shans bathe in nearby streams or using buckets of rainwater.
The Shans like to travel, visiting friends and relatives or trading goods from town to town, but few have their own cars or motor-bikes. Ox-carts are used for carrying farm products, and mules or ponies carry loads and riders up the hills. There are some airline flights and railway connections into the Shan state. A more common way to cover long distances is to share a ride on a truck, which may be carrying goods from China or Thailand.
The Shans have monogamous marriages, although in the old times of the aristocracy the Sao-Phas (princes) often had more than one wife. A bride price was traditionally paid to the bride's parents. Horoscopes are still important for determining if a couple is really meant for each other, and if so, when the wedding should take place. Shan weddings are not Buddhist ceremonies, although monks may attend. Usually, village elders or other respected persons will tie blessing string around the couple's wrists. A feast is then held for their families, neighbors, and friends. Married couples live on their own with their children, but may be joined by aging relatives or others needing help. Divorce is permissible in Shan society, especially in cases of domestic violence.
Shan families in Thailand have an average of two children, with parents hoping for one boy and one girl. In Myanmar, where birth control is rare, six children or more is a typical Shan family size. Shan families keep dogs, cats, and birds as pets. The dogs are used to guard houses and for hunting. Shan Buddhist monasteries often have many cats living there.
Shan men wear baggy trousers, usually made of indigo-dyed homespun fabric. Called koon , the trousers have a huge waist-band which is gathered and knotted in front.
Women wear sarongs, called phasin , which are cotton or fancy embroidered silk sewn in a tube and wrapped tightly at the waist. There are traditional jackets and blouses to go with these, but younger people wear them with T-shirts and denim jackets for a comfortable mix of old and new.
Large conical bamboo or straw hats called kup provide shade for Shan men and women working in the fields or walking in hot sunlight. Shan men and women often wear large turbans wrapped from long lengths of cotton or bright terrycloth towels.
Shans are fond of sticky rice, called khao niw . Eating with the right hand, they make a little ball of sticky rice and use it to soak up accompanying curry. Khao niw is also featured in the special treats the Shans make for seasonal festivals. In the cold season they cook khao lam , sweetened sticky rice, in bamboo tubes. A hot season specialty is khao yak ku , brown sugar-sweetened sticky rice with peanuts and grated coconut on top. As well as their fondness for sweets, Shans are known for their taste for sour foods, such as a spicy pickled cabbage similar to Korean kim chee .
Numerous varieties of fruit are grown in the Shan state, including temperate climate fruits like apples and strawberries not found elsewhere in Myanmar. Mango ( mak muang ) is a favorite fruit, both ripe and unripe, and is combined with meat such as pork for a Shan curry. Disks of fermented soybeans, called thoo nao khep, flavor many dishes. Corn and potatoes, originally from North America, are grown by Shan farmers.
Khao soi, Shan noodles with chicken-coconut curry, has become popular throughout Myanmar and Thailand.
Being able to read and write in their native language has been a political cause for many Shans, who feel that the Burmese-dominated central government has deliberately suppressed Shan culture as a way to control Shan rebellion. Very little material is being published in Shan, as even Shan children's books and health pamphlets are considered suspect by the government. In many villages there are sayahs , men or women who can read old Shan texts on subjects such as astrology and herbal medicine, and use them to make predictions, cast spells, or treat illness. The sayah's power comes from book-learning as well as from the self-discipline needed to keep many Buddhist precepts.
Educational standards in the Shan state are low, with schools and teachers in short supply at every level. In many villages, the monastery is a source of education, at least for young boys. Children who do attend schools run by the Burmese government are likely to learn in Burmese rather than the Shan language.
Shan literature has largely consisted of texts relating to Buddhist scripture, books of astrological and herbal lore, and histories of the aristocracy. "The Padaeng Chronicle" and "The Jengtung State Chronicle" are examples of such histories from the Keng Tung area and have been translated into English.
Typical Shan dances include one in which two young men in a costume portray a lion or yak-like creature, and another in which children dance dressed as mythical birds. Solo dance is a part of ceremonies involving ghosts and other special occasions. A popular social dance is the ram wong . Couples move around in a large circle, using simple steps and graceful hand motions. Dance music can be played by musicians walking or dancing in a procession, and it features long drums, gongs, cymbals, and bamboo flutes. There is also the ensemble music of the old Sao Pha courts, which was influenced by Burmese classical music and is played by seated musicians. A framed series of gongs, which can be hit all at once with a bamboo mallet, is a particularly Shan instrument for such ensemble music.
The Shans have traditionally been an agricultural society, producing bountiful crops of rice and vegetables including soybeans, garlic, and corn. Villagers exchange labor to plant and harvest each others' rice fields. Government quotas, confiscation, and forced relocation of farmers have brought on a severe decline in agricultural productivity, however. At the same time there has been an increase in cultivation of opium poppies for the heroin refineries.
In addition to farming, the Shans have been noteworthy traders. Men and women travel from village to village, peddling cloth, medicines, forest products, tools, and a great variety of other goods. Much of the trading stock is brought into Myanmar illegally from neighboring countries. Commodities including gemstones (rubies, sapphires, and jade), gold, cattle, and heroin, are smuggled out of the Shan state.
Soccer and volleyball are popular sports in the Shan state, as is takraw , in which a lightweight woven rattan ball is kept in play with the feet. Many Shans learn kung fu or a traditional Shan martial art in which swords are held with both hands. A more sedate game is maknim , in which the large seeds of the mucuna vine are set up in rows. Players take turns trying to knock them down by shooting another seed like a marble, kicking it off the top of the foot or rolling it off their clothing.
The Shans, like other people of Myanmar, enjoy marathon theater and dance performances that often last long into the night. Sometimes a traveling movie show comes to a Shan village, projecting a film (usually from Thailand) on an outdoor screen for everyone to watch. In recent years, the larger villages and towns have set up mini-movie theaters, small shops with a VCR and television showing foreign movies or locally produced videos. Radio is very popular in the Shan state, especially short-wave broadcasts such as the BBC or Voice of America programs, which are aired in Shan or Burmese.
In some areas, Shan women weave colorful silk fabrics. Shans make embroidered cotton shoulderbags that are used all over Myanmar. Silverware, including decorated knives and swords, and basketry are other Shan crafts.
The Shans are endangered by the breakdown of their society under military rule. In 1996 alone, tens of thousands of Shan villagers were driven out of their homes by Burmese government troops, and the flow of refugees to Thailand from the Shan state has been steadily increasing for decades. Shan farmers are constantly under the threat of forced labor and caught in the crossfire of government troops, insurgent groups, and opium armies. In the towns and cities, Shan intellectuals and politicians have been imprisoned, killed, or exiled. The young people are in particular danger from the HIV/AIDS epidemic spread through the sex trade and drug use (heroin injection).
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Mirante, Edith T. Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
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Smith, Martin. Ethnic Groups in Burma. London: Anti-Slavery International, 1994.
Tannenbaum, Nicola. Who Can Compete Against the World: Power-Protection and Buddhism in Shan Worldview. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Asian Studies Institute, 1995.