Lahu - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Differing relationships with neighboring upland and lowland peoples and degrees of exposure to evangelizing worldviews have resulted in great diversity of religious expression. Probably the majority (including some self-professed Christians and Marxists) accept the existence of a great number of spirits (ne) associated with natural phenomena or deceased human beings. Most spirits are thought to be essentially capricious. Even potent guardians of people, crops, and livestock (such as ancestral and locality spirits) are seen as easily offended and quick to punish. Some spirits (e.g., those of persons who have died unnaturally and those of demoniac possession) are perceived as invariably malicious. Malicious spirits are said to "bite" those who offend them, bringing sickness (often of a specific kind) to their victims. Besides such spirits, most Lahu seem to recognize, and frequently give considerable ritual importance to, a supreme and creating divinity called "G'ui-sha" (etymology obscure; Chinese scholars translate the word as "Sky Ghost"). Among Lahu Nyi, G'ui-sha is both personal deity, appropriately addressed as "Father G'ui-sha," and diffused divinity incorporating, among other supernatural beings, a female counterpart, "Mother Ai-ma." Not surprisingly, the Christian Lahu interpret G'ui-sha as the personal deity of their Judeo-Christian tradition. Lahu distinguish between physical body and metaphysical body-counterpart, the latter conceived of as comprising several distinct "souls." Nonindigenous worldviews that have profoundly affected the supernatural ideas of different groups of Lahu include a variant of Han Chinese Mahayana Buddhism first brought to them during the early eighteenth century, the Theravada Buddhism of their Tai neighbors, and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity introduced, in that order, by Western missionaries beginning in the 1890s. The degree to which Yunnan's Lahu have accepted a Marxist materialist worldview is difficult to determine; that many still cling to supernatural interpretations of reality is clear enough from recent Chinese publications.

Religious Practitioners. Most traditionalist Lahu communities boast spirit specialists, called maw-pa. These men perform propitiatory and exorcistic rites and sometimes possess shamanistic characteristics. Some Lahu communities make a sharp distinction between such spirit specialists and priests ( paw-hku ; keh-lu-pa among Lahu Sheh Leh, to-bo-pa among Lahu Nyi), whose primary function is to mediate between the people and their high divinity, G'ui-sha. In Protestant Christian communities, the pastor ( sa-la-pa or bon-rnapa ) is the ritual leader; in Roman Catholic communities, it is the priest ( cao-bu, ca-bu ). There is a long tradition of Messianic "warrior-priests" among the Lahu peoples. Beginning as revivalist leaders, such men characteristically extend their interests into the political realm, often claiming supernatural powers and divine affiliations.

Ceremonies. All Lahu mark the major rites of passage and principal phases of the agricultural year with ritual. Much ritual also surrounds soul-recall and the propitiation and exorcism of malicious spirits. The major communal festival marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, while the Festival of Eating the New Rice is also important. Christmas is an important festival among Christians. Several Lahu divisions have a tradition of village temples ( bon yeh or haw yeh ). Historical investigations suggest, if not prove, that these have evolved from the "Buddha houses" or "Buddha halls" ( fo-fang or fo-tang ), introduced with Mahayana Buddhism in the eighteenth century. Other significant ceremonial centers are churches and chapels in Christian villages, shrines and bamboo poles with streamers atop in honor of the village guardian spirit, and ritual dancing circles.

Arts. Cloth and basketry, embroidery and appliqué work, musical instruments (particularly gourd flutes, Jew's harps, and banjos), and domestic, agricultural, and hunting appurtenances constitute the major expressions of Lahu plastic arts; singing, dancing, and music are their principal performing arts.

Medicine. Sickness is frequently attributed to supernatural causes, and remedies are sought through propitiation, exorcism, and soul-recall. Herbal medicines are may also be administered.

Death and Afterlife. At death, prayers and ritual offerings are designed to speed the deceased's soul to the land of the dead or to the Christian heaven; after a "bad death" (by accident, violence, or in childbed) among non-Christian traditionalists, the spirit must be exorcised lest it visit a similar fate on its living kinsmen. Some Lahu groups bury their dead, others cremate. Specially appointed graveyards and cremation places are not uncommon among the more settled Lahu communities.


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