It’s good to live near the water,
but it is better to live far from the ruler.
— Lisu proverb
From villages clinging to sheer slopes in the Upper Salween River valley of Yunnan, China, the Lisu have roamed south and east across mountain ranges to Burma and Thailand into fingertips of India and Laos. The end of their high-altitude migration is in Northern Thailand’s section of the mountainous Golden Triangle. If vertiginous mountain passes meandered on indefinitely — instead of smoothing down to plains and deltas — the Lisu would keep moving, in search of the perfect, east-facing mountain with good soil and water, and as far away as practical from policemen, soldiers, or other government authorities.
Widely dispersed and numbering perhaps a million and a half, the lives and customs of these highland men and women vary from country to country, from mountain top to mountain top. Yet they are bound by a language and worldview that ignores distance and defies pigeonholing. Whether they wear long flowing white skirts and black velvet tunics, as in the upper Salween in Yunnan — or blue, orange, and red mini-skirts with rattan knee bracelets and embroidered leg guards, as in Tenchong 200 miles south — they are Lisu. They are Lisu though they commune with nature spirits, their own ancestors, Buddha, Christ, or some combination. The fact that they are among the most egalitarian of Southeast Asia’s hill tribes, with no political organization or written language linking them across villages or countries, makes the cohesiveness of their culture puzzling.
Christian missionaries introduced Frazer’s Romanized script of the Lisu language about a century ago, and while Lisu children began more recently attending school and learning to read and write Chinese, Burmese, and Thai it is still the oral tradition: song, myths, proverbs, and grandiloquent speechifying, that informs and animates Lisu existence. Unlike others who have recently acquired a written language, such as the Karen, the Lisu have not taken much to expressing themselves in writing. They are masters of the spoken word: Lisu men, in particular, are renowned highland linguists able to converse in several languages.
I travelled extensively in tribal areas of Thailand, Burma, and China in preparation for writing this book. It was a marvel to see Lisu living so variously (including urbanized Lisu ruby miners in Burma) and yet so clearly cut from the same cloth. Worrying about their myi do (repute), hunting small game with crossbows, or preparing a smoky meal around the fire, the Lisu in all three countries face life with a blend of practicality, fatalism, and humor.
Many have tried to define the essential quality of “Lisuness” and explain how it differs from other highland peoples in Southeast Asia. Descriptions ranging from the Chinese label of the “Merry Nationality,” to “anarchists of the highlands,” or Paul and Elaine Lewis’ “desire for primacy” all attempt to capture the ephemeral pith of Lisu culture. Lisu was translated as “the loud custom people,” by Eugene Morse, a Christian missionary who spent his entire life among them. Rice, repute, getting one’s daughters well married off, and avoiding authorities are all ingredients — yet the recipe remains a bit off hand.
For me, whether it is an old Christian woman in Burma running out to her fields to dig up roots to feed unexpected guests, a Lisu man in China inviting strangers to stay the night, or a family in Thailand gamely entertaining tourists — images of hospitality and zest for life against great odds — come to mind when thinking of the Lisu.
Michele Zack, 1998