Wa - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Wa believe in a kind of animism and spiritualism according to which human and natural affairs such as disease or weather are controlled by spirits—spirits of water, mountains, fire, trees, grains, and so on. Ancestral worship is a part of their religion because they believe that the soul of the deceased becomes a spirit and thus can protect or influence the lives of the descendants.

Religious Practitioners. Rituals used to be performed under the guidance of the religious experts—moba—who were selected by the villagers for their knowledge and experience. All men of the village have equal rights in performing rituals, but women are generally excluded except for watching from the outside and joining in the dancing and singing.

Ceremonies. Before the 1950s, rituals to serve the spirits ran year round. Besides the sacrificial rituals and chicken-bone divinations for family or individual affairs such as sickness, birth, building houses, weddings or funerals, there were four annual ceremonies for the whole village that came one after the other. At the beginning of a year (December in the Western calendar), they used to conduct the service to the water spirit, in which the whole village sacrificed animals and built a new bamboo water pipe for drinking water. The next ritual was "dragging the wooden drum"—a more than ten-day-long ritual in which all the men of the village cut a big tree from the forest and made a huge drum out of it. This drum was used for important rituals and emergency military actions. The third ritual was headhunting for sacrifice to the grain spirit. They hunted a human head either from outsiders or enemy villages. Next came a series of oxen sacrifices for the purpose of transporting the previous year's head from the "Wooden Drum House," where it had been kept, to the "spirits forest" outside of the village, where all the previous heads were put on top of wooden stakes, which stood together as a wood. Called "cutting the tail of the oxen," this ritual lasted seventeen days, during which time the whole village raced to tear the flesh off from a dozen to dozens of live oxen, one after another, with knives. In addition to the headhunting that has been prohibited since the 1950s, all the other rituals were also prohibited as "superstitions" during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, some of the rituals and divinations were revived, but since many old moba died during the Cultural Revolution without bringing up a younger generation, much tradition was lost and revived rituals are fairly different from the old ones, having lost a lot of old practices, functions, and interpretations, and having added new ones of their own.

Arts. Wa arts are mostly related to their religious life, which is at the same time their daily life. In all important rituals and events like weddings and building houses, the people of the whole village will dress up to sing and dance in one big circle, holding hands together. Sometimes the dance can last for days and nights. Paintings are religious as well, done by males on ritual places and objects. The ritual objects are often carved with images of humans and animals in relief. There are no professional artists.

Medicine. Before the 1950s, moba treated all diseases by doing service to the spirits. They also used the bile of bears and a few kinds of plants to treat some diseases as a supplement to the service to the spirits.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried either inside the village near the family house or outside in the common cemetery of the clan or village, in a coffin made from a hollowed tree that is split down the middle. The Wa believe in the afterlife of the soul, so they used to put a piece of silver or a coin in the mouth of the deceased and buried some tools, weapons, and living utensils as furnishing for the grave.

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