Chin - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Chin are nonpioneer shifting cultivators. Where soil and climate permit, they grow dry hill rice as their chief staple, and elsewhere, chiefly at the higher elevations in Chin State, the grain staple is one or another kind of millet, maize, or even grain sorghum, though the latter grain is mainly used only for the brewing of the coarser variety of country beer ( zu ). Cultivation is entirely by hand, and the tools involved are mainly the all-purpose bush knife, the axe, the hoe (an essentially adze-hafted implement about 45 centimeters long), and, in places where rice is grown, a small harvesting knife. Grown amidst the staple are a variety of vegetable crops, mainly melons, pumpkins, and, most important, various kinds of peas and beans, on whose nitrogen-fixing properties the longer-term shifting-cultivation cycles of central Chin State depend crucially. Cotton is also widely grown, though nowadays less so because commercial cloth has rapidly displaced the traditional blankets and clothes locally woven on the back-strap tension loom. The traditional native dyes were wild vegetable dyes such as indigo. In the southern areas a kind of flax was also grown for weaving cloth (chiefly for women's skirts). Various vegetable condiments are also commonly grown, such as chili peppers, ginger, turmeric (also used to make dye) and rozelle ( Hibiscus sabdariffa ) ; the Mizo in particular grow and eat a great deal of mustard greens, and nowadays all sorts of European vegetables are grown, especially cabbages and potatoes. Fruits, such as shaddocks, citrons, and guavas, and such sweet crops as sugarcane were traditionally unimportant. Today there is some commercial growing of apples, oranges, tea, and coffee; other commercial crops are also grown experimentally, but the chief hindrance to such developments is the fact that the plains markets in which they might be sold are still difficult of access. Tobacco has long been grown in all villages: it was traditionally smoked green (cured by being buried in hot sand), in clay pipes (later in hand-made cigarettes) by men, and in small bamboo water pipes with clay bowls by women. The nicotine-charged water produced by the latter is decanted into small gourd containers or other vessels kept about the person and is widely used as a stimulant, being held in the mouth and then spat out.

Livestock such as pigs and fowl (less commonly goats, cows, and the occasional water buffalo and horses) may be penned within or beneath the house; most notable is the gayal ( Bos frontalis ), a semidomesticated bovid forest browser bred for meat and for ritual sacrifice, which constitutes a major form of traditional wealth. Dogs are common village scavengers along with pigs, and some dogs are used in hunting. Little game remains today, but formerly all sorts of game were hunted including black and brown bears, all kinds of deer (preeminently barking deer, also known as muntjac), mountain goats, gaur ( Bos gaurus ), various jungle cats large and small, and even, from time to time, elephants and rhinoceroses, though these have long since gone from the hills. The Bengal tiger was rarely hunted because, as in many Southeast Asian societies, its spirit was (and still is) thought related to the human soul (the "wer-tiger" idea) and therefore had to be treated in much the same way as a severed human head—that is, it required expensive and ritually dangerous ceremonies.

Industrial Arts. The traditional manufactures, other than the reforged iron tools and weapons made with the open-hearth double-bamboo pistols bellows, were mainly things like bamboo and cane mats and baskets of all sorts and redfired utility pottery; and the ubiquitous weaving of blankets, loincloths, and women's skirts and blouses. Some of the weaving employed silk-thread embroidery and single-damask weave, and the most elaborate forms were traditionally called vaai (civilized), suggesting that anything that fine must have come originally from the plains. These things could have been made by anyone, but certain persons had more than ordinary skill and only some villages were endowed with potting clays, so such persons and villages became part-time specialists in this work and traded their wares (bartering for grain or other kinds of goods) in surrounding villages. There were smiths who made the traditional silver-amalgam (later aluminum) jewelry—such as the bracelets, belts, earrings, rings, and necklaces hung with imported beads and silver rupee coins—as well as brass hairpins and other items, but those artisans were even fewer in number than the ones mentioned above. Indeed, the trade in the latter items was akin to the long-distance trade in heirloom goods, such as the great gongs from Myanmar (Burma), brass vessels from India, and other sorts of items that signified at least a nominal claim upon the goods of the vaai plains country.

Trade. All of these more expensive items constituted the basis of the prestige economy of these hills and passed not only by sale but by circulation of myriad ceremonial payments and fines (especially marriage-prices, blood-money payments, and compensation payments for defamation of status). Prestige goods and gayals—especially important for their use in sacrifices associated with the "merit feasts" by which social rank was attained or validated—were the traditional wealth of these people. Furthermore, the display or announcement of the entire array of what one currently owned or had owned in life—symbolically indicated on carved memorial posts erected for prestigious dead—was the definitive sign of one's social and ceremonial rank. More specifically, the possession of a supposedly unique object from the outside world, likely to possess a unique "personal" name of its own, was especially important. The idea behind the prestige economy is that prosperity in this world depends upon the sacrificial exchange of goods with inhabitants of the Land of the Dead, and only if one had conducted feasts of merit would one and one's descendants have wealth and well-being. Thus, too, the continuity of lineage between the dead and the living was Important; it was especially important for anyone to be memorialized after his or her death. Memorial service was done not only by the display of wealth and by its figuration on memorial posts and stones but also in the composition of songs ( va hia ) commemorating a man's greatness on the occasion of one of his feasts. So greatly were wealth and possessions tied up with a person's social position that among the most heinous traditional offences in this society were theft, bastardy, and the supposed possession of "evil eye" ( hnam, the unconscious and heritable ability to cause harm by looking enviously upon another's prosperity, or even someone's consumption of a good meal). All these situations meant that property had failed to pass by means of expected formal exchanges: it had passed instead by arbitrary expropriation, or through a child born out of wedlock without benefit of marriage-price, or by misfortune caused by murderous envy of possessions to which one had no legitimate claim.

Division of Labor. The few classes of part-time craft specialist are mentioned above. Women do more of the domestic tasks and all the traditional weaving. They are also almost exclusively the spirit mediums because male spirit familiars choose them. Men alone cut down the forests and work as smiths. There appear to be no female hunters or warriors Except in legends, probably because no woman can hold in her own name a feast of celebration for the killing of a major animal, or a feast of celebration of a human trophy head or that of a tiger. (In all of these cases the point is to tame the angry spirit of the deceased animal or person and send it to serve one and one's forebears in the Land of the Dead.) A woman can, however, hold a domestic feast of merit in the name of her deceased husband, in which domestic animals are similarly sacrificed on behalf of the Land of the Dead. Nevertheless, only men can be village priests, who are mostly appointed by chiefs and headmen because they have memorized the required chants and formulas and know the ritual sequences. Priests serve as masters of ceremony at the feasts of merit and celebration and at the various kinds of rite of placation—both cyclical and sporadic—addressed to the various spirit owners of the face of the land, great and small. Almost all other tasks and activities can be undertaken by either sex; there have even been historical instances of important female chiefs, who attained office through being widowed. There are few if any exploitable natural resources in these hills and virtually no modern industry, at least nothing made for export. Aside from the salaries of teachers and government servants of all sorts and the incomes of merchants and shopkeepers, the main source of money is the wages of Chin who work on the outside—preeminently in Myanmar, in the armed forces.

Land Tenure. This aspect of Chin culture is highly variable. A village has complete ownership of its tract, and even the right to hunt in it must be requested from the village; however, it is possible to rent lands in another village's tract on an individual or a communal basis. Village tract Boundaries are precisely indicated by landmarks. Frequently a given hillside tract, or even the whole village tract, will be owned by a chief or other hereditary aristocrat. The right of a chief to the dues and services of his villagers in fact derives from his ownership of the land, while the ultimate ownership by a Village of its land as a whole derives from the heritable pact made by the ancestral founders of the village with the spirit owners of the land. The paramount right is ownership, since it is to some extent at least conveyable in marriage-prices or by sale, and yet it is far from an absolute paramount right. For instance, it is arguable whether conveyance of ownership through marriage payments or sale can ever be outright alienations rather than mere long-term mortgagings. At least in the Haka (Lai) area of central Chin State, individual Households and persons can have heritable, even conveyable rights (within village limits, perhaps) over individual cultivation plots in one or more cultivation tracts, for which the owner owes payments to the chiefly paramount owner that are in the nature of both tax and rent. Yet should these payments not be made, the field owner technically cannot be evicted—though he may be exiled, physically assaulted, or even killed, because the failure of payment is a rejection of constituted authority. Fruit trees, honeybee hives, and other exploitable items on the land may also be individually owned and conveyed. House sites are owned subject to the right of residence in the village at the pleasure of constituted village authority. Nowadays much of the land has passed into true private ownership, especially where modern commercial crops or a patch of irrigated rice are grown, more so perhaps on the Indian side of the border than in Myanmar. But in both countries there are legal restrictions on the right of nonnative inhabitants to own land in the Chin-Lushai country.




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