Chin - Sociopolitical Organization



Northern and Central Chin and Mizo have hereditary headmanship or chieftainship and the associated distinction between commoner and chiefly clans and lineages. The Southern Chin (including those of Matupi) have neither Institution. In the former groups some villages have a single paramount headman or chief, while others are ruled by a council of aristocratice chiefs, each of whom may have his own network of followers either locally or in the form of subordinate chiefs and headmen of client villages. It is a mistake to suppose that villages ruled by these councils are "democratic." What distinguishes a mere headman from a chief is that only the latter can have other village heads under his jurisdiction, and not every chief is the head of a whole village. The dues owed headmen are mentioned above in connection with land tenure and derive as a right from the exclusive heritable connection between the village founder and his successors and the ultimate spirit owners of the village lands. These dues consist mainly of tax/rent for the right to cultivate land and a hindquarter of any large-sized wild or domestic animal killed in the territory. Furthermore, a headman, chief, or major landowning aristocrat can demand various sorts of services from his client households, such as farm work, house building, and assistance at feasts, rites, and ceremonies. Headmen or chiefs also could demand public work and sentry/warrior/messenger service from the young men. Acting in council with their peer household heads in the village, these leaders also constitute a formal court for adjudicating legal cases and levying fines. All these rights and offices have been abolished in recent decades. Formerly it was usual for the young people of the village, especially the young men, to be organized as a cadre for such service purposes, and in those circumstances they tended to reside, from before their teens until marriage or beyond, in a ceremonial bachelors' house (the Lai and Lushai word zawlbuk is its best-known name). This institution had disappeared before the middle of this century. When it still existed, either the young women visited the youths in the bachelors' house at night, or the young men roamed the village and spent the night courting at the houses of young women. Today, the power of a chief, in the strict sense, derives from either the threat or exercise of force or from the fact that satellite villages may have split off from the mother village where the chief resides. The chiefs ability to demand gifts and assistance in warfare from client villages is enforced by threat of reprisal and by the fact that the chief will Commonly make himself wife giver to his client headmen who are not of his own lineage. Through marriage gifts and payments he is also likely to acquire landholdings in the satellite Villages. Rank differences are complicated. On the one hand, there is the principle that rank is hereditary by clans, but, on the other hand, it is jurally recognized that wealth can effectually raise the rank of a lineage segment. With wealth, one can give the necessary series of feasts of merit and celebration, with the object of persuading other born aristocrats to attend and acknowledge one's claims; there are always aristocrats who have fallen upon hard times, who are willing to accept inflated amounts for the ceremonial attendance payments and inflated bride-prices for their daughters in marriage to a born commoner. Such complicated marriage maneuvers, made possible by wealth, are necessary in order to elevate one's rank, for only a man whose major wife is of aristocratic lineage can give the higher feasts. All of this forms the basis of a naturally inflationary cycle of the prestige Economy. These processes and rank ambiguities are supported by the tendency for lineages to segment rapidly, so that an upwardly mobile lineage segment can readily dissociate itself from its lineage fellows. Still, to be an aristocrat by clan Membership gives one a better claim to the rank and better ritual privileges, and it is not uncommon for members of commoner clans to insist that for them the very idea of clan membership is meaningless. Chin society also used to include slaves. Some slaves were war captives, while others chose slavery as a way out of debt or as protection from revenge feuds. Slavery was strictly hereditary only through females. A female slave was considered a member of her aristocratic owner's household, with the interesting consequence that her marriage-price was often greater than that of a commoner girl, though it was never equal to that of an aristocrat's daughter even by a Commoner minor wife. The Southern Chin had only small-scale feasts of merit, which secured only nonhereditary ritual Prestige to the giver's household.

Social Control. There are five main sources of control: ( 1 ) the ideology that sees all social relations as defined by ritualized exchanges of property, which binds people to one another in the expectation of making property claims on each other; (2) the threat of force (feuding and revenge are Common) and the associated need of mutual cooperation for defense; (3) the power of hereditary headmen to monopolize Ritual access to the spirit world, directly and through appointed or hereditary village priests, without which the spirits would make life intolerable; (4) fear that one's bad reputation and actions will preclude one's going to the Land of the Dead after death; and (5) the closely related ideology of mutual assistance within the community.

Conflict. Many of the causes of feuds have already been mentioned. The most common causes of warfare between villages, however, were the following three: disputes over women; disputes over land rights (not uncommonly having to do with access to the very few and essential salt wells in the whole region and to trade routes within and to outside Regions); and disputes over property, usually property claims stemming from marriage alliances and tributary relations. It was not unusual to take human heads in raids on other Villages, and this headhunting constituted something of an independent motivation for warfare, since one's prosperity depended upon one's ability to aggrandize one's own forebears in the Land of the Dead and for that purpose one needed to ensure them a regular supply of slaves. This object was achieved by taking heads and celebrating them, which tamed the resulting dangerous spirits and made it possible to send them as servants to the Land of the Dead. The Southern Chin never practiced headhunting.


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