Wa are Mon-Khmer speaking peoples also known as Va, Vax, Lawa and other cognates (the prefix ‘Ka’ as in Kawa or Kala is an old and pejorative designation). They reside mostly in the mountainous hills of eastern Myanmar and southwestern China. Wa are commonly believed to be the first or original inhabitants of this region, which they regard as their ancestral homeland. Although ethnically and culturally heterogenous and diverse, as a collective Wa peoples share a common history, origin myth and other ties that draw them together. Altogether Wa probably number just over one million, of which roughly 40 per cent are settled in Yunnan province in China, and approximately 60 per cent are in Shan state in Myanmar. More than two thirds live in their own (theoretically or substantively) autonomous territory, where they now comprise about 75 per cent of the population. In Yunnan, the Wa area includes Cangyuan Wa Autonomous County and Ximeng Wa Autonomous County, established in 1964 and 1965, respectively, as well as a portion of Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, in addition to three multi-nationality counties known as Gengma, Menglian and Shuangjiang. In Myanmar, the core area is the Wa Self-Administered Division or Special Region 2 (Wa state), founded in 1989. Most of the rest of the Wa peoples (estimated at 20,000) are located in smaller, though by no means irrelevant communities in Kachin state and in Chiangrai, Chiangmai and Mae Hong Son Provinces in northern Thailand, just south of the Myanmar border. This introduction pays particular attention to Wa peoples in the highlands of southwest China.
The genesis of Wa society took place at a sort of ‘ground zero’ or starting point for an oral history regarding the ancestral origins of Wa peoples that the Wa in both Myanmar and China invoke. According to this legend, which is called Sigang Lih, all beings emerged from a common cave or calabash (gourd) in the earth at Blag Dieh, which is now located in Yin Pang township in the Wa state, 50-60 kilometres from Ximeng.
The myth is widespread throughout most of Sino-Southeast Asia, where southwestern China and northern continental Southeast Asia meet, and has an ethnohistorical theme that provides a counterpoint to Chinese nationalistic discourses today. These afford Han, the majority ethnic group, a privileged position in Chinese society. Wa mythology, on the other hand, presents a holistic view of the evolution of the natural and anthropogenic world and how human communities define themselves and their relationship with other people as well as their connection to the land and resources.
According to variants of this myth, which have been widely recorded, different groups propose having emerged from different forms in the earth in various orders and having different primeval ancestors. Throughout the Wa area, however, all of the different Wa peoples posit that they were the first to emerge in the world followed by the presence of other non-Wa groups, such as the Lahu, Dai (Tai / Shan) and Han. In this way, the narrative creates an important integration between place and identity, which is largely at variance with Chinese state ideology. The dominant discourse appropriates and contests the Wa areas of China as historically situated on Chinese territory from antiquity to the present, despite evidence to the contrary.
The genesis of Wa society contains a separate origin story concerning headhunting. According to this legend, Wa peoples are direct descendants of a tadpole couple named Ya Htawm and Ya Htai, who first lived in Nawng Hkeo (Nawnghkio) lake (longtan in Chinese). Ya Htawm and Ya Htai subsequently turn into frogs and then ogres, who subsist on a diet of wild meat and have no children. One day, they venture far outside their territory to an area with people, one of whom they kill and eat. After that they are blessed with many offspring. They place the skull of their victim high on a pole as a symbol of worship and have nine sons and ten daughters, who settle across the nine valleys and ten plains that are the original lands of Wa country. Today, the original site of Nawng Hkeo lake lies in Longtan township in the Special Region 2 in Myanmar.
Traditional Wa society
Despite sharing a myth of common ancestry and having strong kinship ties, Wa did not make up a singular and uniform group but were myriad and diverse. Until the 1950s, before the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), they were primarily swidden (also known as ‘slash-and-burn’) cultivators of dry rice, who lived in scattered hilltop villages. These settlements were spread widely across the area and were sometimes hostile to each other. Some villages were small with only ten to 30 households, while others were much larger with hundreds of households. Villages spoke a wide range of Waic dialects, some of which were somewhat mutually unintelligible. In religious terms, they were typically followers of Buddhism and animism, though a few villages had churches and were influenced by Christianity. Furthermore, they had access to differentiated resources and networks, and as such, were neither entirely unaffected, nor determined by, wider processes of change.
In the 1950s, Wa were officially categorized by modern China as an ethnic minority group with the same ethnonym. Far from displaying the perceived common attributes (language, territory, culture, economy) which produced their classification, the ethnic identification scheme carved out official nationality categories based on three cognitive practices. The first is that it actively differentiated Wa from those who were non-Wa, creating unambiguous boundaries around communities in fixed geographical space on land that could be bound and planned. The second is a contrasting yet complementary technique to the first in that it suppressed indigenous differences while also allowing for the identification and ascription of a standard and distinctive Wa identity (whether real or fictive). The third is that it produced or reproduced a hierarchical order of little complexity in which Han were defined as ‘advanced’ and superior and Wa as ‘backwards’ and inferior and, by implication, in need of ‘development’ to ‘catch up’ with the Han. As a result, today Wa are a so-called ‘cross-border minority nationality’, who live within a geographically contiguous, politically defined area in China and Myanmar.
After the 1950’s, fundamental changes took place in the countryside, making some traditional Wa cultural markers less salient than before and rendering society relatively defenseless. Projects such as large-scale water and irrigation systems and especially agricultural production replaced earlier livelihood strategies in the region such as shifting cultivation. Likewise, Wa fortifications located on the tops of mountains were disbanded and incorporated into townships and counties at lower elevations. Control shifted to the Chinese state and settlements were administered by the Chinese system of regional autonomy. In addition, many shared values and complex beliefs that seemed indelible were erased or diminished. Life cycle rituals and calendrical rites, such as slaughtering oxen or reading chicken bones and connected with protection and blessing, were frequently banned as ‘feudal superstition’ or performed secretly. Indeed, many village ‘shamans’ (ritual specialists) are said to have died during the Cultural Revolution.
In the 1980s, the emergence of a market-driven economy gradually oriented Wa communities into the global system of capitalism. Consequently, the region shifted from a political periphery to an economic frontier across which a lucrative trade, particularly in timber and other extractive products, operated. Today, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and large-scale destruction of natural resources has led to a range of environmental concerns, including a shortage of regional water resources, warming temperatures and the loss of local species of non-timber forest products (NTFP’s) such as bamboo.
At the same time, new livelihood opportunities in other parts of China and the increased infrastructural power and capacity of the state have played a crucial role in mobilizing large numbers of original Wa inhabitants out of villages while commercializing the historic trading routes through Yunnan and beyond for tourist consumption. As a result, Wa culture has experienced widespread commodification, for instance, through the appropriation of figures and symbols that are intended to evoke in the minds of tourists, authorities and inhabitants alike imperial and racist fantasies of primitiveness. These ethnic stereotypes, which are widely used in official and popular realms, pose serious challenges to many Wa today.
In the 2000s, the Chinese government enacted new large-scale programmes, like ‘Thriving Borders, Prosperous People’, ‘Western Development Strategy’, and ‘Building a New Socialist Countryside’ targeting Wa peoples and areas. The Chinese government effected rapid nationalization and developed large-scale infrastructure such as electricity, running water and sewage, as well as roads, schools and housing. The aim of these campaigns has been to eradicate poverty, reduce disparity and ‘civilize’ residents, but in practice they have tended to amplify the power of the Party state in everyday life and reinforce and reify categories of identity. This has not only enabled an erroneous effacing of Wa history and cultural differences, but also provides further opportunities for the government to promote its agenda.
‘The Awa People Sing a New Song’ is arguably one of the most striking examples of this dynamic. A ‘traditional Wa folk song’ that became standard in the 1960s, the ballad was either completely invented or invented anew (appropriated and transformed) by a PLA soldier and presented as the unitary, national voice of the Wa. In the process, it effectively flattened or canceled out the multiplicity of voices and variations which largely constitute traditional indigenous Wa melodies. Today, the ballad has enjoyed a resurgence as a staged musical called ‘The Awa People Sing a New Song Again,’ in which Wa peoples supposedly overcome the formidable challenges of poverty in realizing their own hopes for a better future. In order to achieve this goal, it insists, ‘the Awa people must do as the Communist Party says’.
Updated February 2024
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