Frances O’Morchoe delves into the stories of banishment, migration and golden ages within Lahu pasts.
The Lahu people today live in communities dispersed across the region covering Shan State, northern Thailand and southwest Yunnan. Many Lahu myths collected in Burma tell of a time before they were defeated and spread across the region, when the Lahu lived in a historic homeland in Yunnan. Studying two of these myths in detail – recorded many decades apart – shows us how the story of a homeland was developed after the Lahu migrated out of China, and how the story is utilised to form a common identity which unites the Lahu today.
In Keng Tung, Burma, in 1911 an American missionary called C.B. Antisdel – still remembered today as Pabu Pabu (‘Beardy’) – recorded that the Lahu talked about having once, before they were dispersed, lived together in ‘Mung Miehn’, or ‘Mver Mehn Mi Mehn’, in the west of Yunnan. This story is corroborated by a historian of the Lahu, Anthony Walker, who describes how the defeat of a particularly massive Lahu rebellion against the local Tai ruler in Mengmeng, Yunnan, in 1799 triggered the first major migration of Lahu out of China and into the Shan states tributary to Burma.
Historical fact blended with legend as the story passed down among the Lahu. A story collected in 1911 describes a journey to find the seeds of life, in order to try to cure a sickness which had blighted the village. A place in Yunnan called Mun Mehn is named as a point on the way to God’s house. Reverend Ba Te, a Karen Christian missionary who translated the story, noted that this story was spread across all the region where the Lahu were to be found:
‘As there is sickness in this house,
Sleep having lost its charms,
Food its taste and
Drink its flavour.
We consulted Piji (witch doctor) who resides at the head of the village,
We consulted Kuji (witch doctor) who resides at the tail of the village,
(We found that) we have to follow in the track of God’s bees;
We have to trace the way of God’s green flies.
Then shall we, you and I,
Having a common plan between us,
Having a common end
We should follow after the bees of God,
We should track the way of His green flies.
We will take the product of hand labour of the son of man,
The product of foot labour of the daughter of woman
And offer to the spirit of the rocks.
Then we two, you and I,
You and I, we two
To go and take the bees of God,
To get at his green flies.
Going up farther and farther
We pass over rocks and stones
Going up farther and farther
We come to the land where the Chinese dwell
The large empire covering half the earth,
Taking half the sky,
All covered with mist.
The track of the bee is almost lost
And the trace of the green fly.
I make my eyes those of the wild cat,
The eyes of the hawk I make mine.
The trace of the bee trends eastward,
So trends the track of the green fly.
Having passed the land of the Chinese,
Having crossed their sky,
We pass onward and forward.
We come to the land Mun Mehn,
We come to her plain.
Having passed the plain of the Mun Mehn,
We pass on further forward.
And we find that God resides in the East,
God abides in the Land of the East.
Taking the beeswax candles for offerings to God,
Bringing the beeswax candles as an offering for God,
We will have to seek the seeds of life from God,
Go after the seeds of life from God.
Taking these seeds of life we put in the white water,
The seeds of life we put in the yellow water.
The white water is the cup of life divine,
the yellow water the cup of life divine.
When the sons of man drink,
When the daughters of women drink
After this day they will enjoy food,
They will enjoy drink,
They will enjoy sleep,
They will enjoy life.
After this day let life be as long as the life of God’s heaven.
As the life of God’s earth let it be long.’
[Translated by Rev. Ba Te]
The story of the Lahu’s loss of their original home in Yunnan was for decades transmitted orally. In 1893, a Lahu chief told a visiting British officer about the Lahu’s migration from their historic valley state in Yunnan. He said the Lahu used to live in a valley kingdom called Mong Meu but a couple of centuries or more ago they were driven out by the Chinese and scattered. Stories of this defeat have been passed down to today, and are used to reinforce a sense of common Lahu identity.
Narrative tropes like these are universal, and function to help unite people in common ethnic identities. Stories of a past golden age can give consolation in times of hardship. These memories can also allow people to hope that the special origins of their ethnic group or nation have the potential one day to be recreated by its descendants. The Lahu, wrote Antisdel in 1911, ‘expect a return of lost brethren, who will not only bring back the lost writings, but will restore them to political supremacy’.
This same place – Mvuh me Mi me – is also at the centre of a story of banishment and exile collected in the 1930s near Keng Tung by Saya (later Reverend) Ai Pun, an influential Lahu Baptist convert, which was published by his daughter Reverend Angela Pun in 2002. This version uses the idea of an original homeland to emphasise the essential unity of the Lahu people, while explaining their current dispersal across the borderlands.
‘It is not known how long the Lahu people lived at Mvuh me Mi me. They had their own country and their own rulers. After they had lived there a long time the Chinese fought them and defeated them. The Lahu then scattered to many places. Because they scattered around like this, they could not defeat the Chinese.
‘But the Lahu do not like to live under anyone. So the Lahu left the country of Mvuh me Mi me and moved to Sha K’ai Shi (the land of the free). But not all of them went down to the country of Sha K’ai Shi. Some of them went and lived wherever they wanted to. Those who moved to the country of Sha K’ai Shi were very numerous. But they were still under the Chinese and wore earrings to show this.
‘Later when the English came and fought in Burma, the Chinese came and fought the Lahu. Since they defeated the Lahu, there were no more Lahu rulers. With no Lahu rulers to govern them, the Lahu people could not live together. So some of them went to the north, some to the south, some to the east, and some to the west.’
Today the meaning of this place Mvuh me Mi me is interpreted to convey an image of the past independence of the Lahu, despite their later defeat. Different people have translated the term to me variously as ‘God-given soil’ and ‘horse-cultivated soil’, but, however translated, the symbolism of an original homeland, with the Lahu living together under a Lahu ruler, gives this phrase a deeper meaning. Stories of banishment and exile from a historic homeland hold significant unifying power for the Lahu in the context of a long history of migration and change.
Frances O’Morchoe is a doctoral researcher in the History Faculty at the University of Oxford.
Antisdel, C.B., ‘Lahoo Traditions’, Journal of the Burma Research Society, 1:1 (1911)
Rev. Ba Te, ‘Lahoo Folklore: The Hunt for the Beeswax’, Journal of the Burma Research Society, 2:1 (1911)
Ma Jianxiong, ‘Local Knowledge Constructed by the State: Reinterpreting Myths and Imagining the Migration History of the Lahu in Yunnan, Southwest China’, Asian Ethnology, 68:1 (2009), 111-129
Pun, Angela, and Paul Lewis trans., 49 Lahu Stories, Bangkok: White Lotus Press (2002)
Scott, James, Superintendent of the Northern Shan States, to the Chief Commissioner of British Burma, Camp Mong Hka, 19 Feb 1893, ‘Chinese encroachment in the neighbourhood of Mong Hka’, 8931, Myanmar National Archives
Walker, Anthony R., Merit and the Millennium: Routine and Crisis in the Ritual Lives of the Lahu People, New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation (2003)