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Lisu people


Total population
1,200,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
China(Yunnan, Sichuan),[1] Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, India
Lisu, Lipo, Laemae, and Naw
Christianity, Animism and Buddhism

The Lisu people (Burmese: လီဆူလူမျိုး, ; Chinese: 傈僳族, Lìsù zú; Thai: ลีสู่; Lisu: ꓡꓲ-ꓢꓴ or ꓡꓲꓢꓴ) are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group who inhabit mountainous regions of Burma (Myanmar), southwest China, Thailand, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

About 730,000 Lisu live in Lijiang, Baoshan, Nujiang, Diqing and Dehong prefectures in Yunnan Province and Sichuan Province, China. The Lisu form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. In Burma (Myanmar), the Lisu are recognized as one of 135 ethnic groups and an estimated population of 600,000 Lisu live in northern (Namhsan, Lashio, Hopang, and Kokang) and southern Shan State (Namsang, Loilem, Mongton) and Wa Special Region, Sagaing Division (Katha and Khamti), Mandalay Division (Mogok and Pyin Oo Lwin), and Kachin State (Putao, Mkyikyina, Waimaw). Approximately 55,000 live in Thailand, where they are one of the 6 main hill tribes. They mainly inhabit remote mountainous areas.[2] Their culture has traits shared with the Yi or Nuosu (Lolo) culture.[3]


  • History 1
    • Origins 1.1
  • The Lisu of India 2
    • Indian government discovers the Lisu 2.1
    • The Lisu who came to India via the Myanmar-Ledo Road 2.2
    • Indian Lisu issues 2.3
  • Culture 3
  • Religion 4
    • Animism, shamanism, ancestor worship 4.1
    • Christianity 4.2
  • Language 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


A Burmese depiction of the Lisu people in the early 1900s

Lisu history is passed from one generation to the next in the form of songs. Today, these songs are so long that they can take an entire night to sing.[4]


The Lisu are believed to have originated in eastern Tibet. Research done by Lisu scholars indicates that they moved to northwestern Yunnan. They inhabited a region across Baoshan and the Tengchong plain for thousands of years. Lisu, Yi, Lahu, and Akha are Tibetan–Burman languages, distantly related to Burmese and Tibetan.[5][6][7][8] After the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty, around 1140-1644 CE the eastern and southern Lisu languages and culture were greatly influenced by the Han culture of China.[9][10] Taiping village in Yinjiang, Yunnan, China, was first established by Lu Shi Lisu people about 1,000 years ago. In the mid-19th century, Lisu peoples in Yinjiang began moving into Momeik, Burma, a population of southern Lisu moved into Mogok, and southern Shan State, and then in the late 19th century, moved into northern Thailand.[10][11][12][13] Lisu are the descendants of Yi or Lolo ethnic groups. Yi and Nuosu are still much closer to the Lisu and Myanmar languages.

The Lisu of India

Lisu people in India are called "Yobin". In all government records, Lisu are Yobin, and sometimes used alternately. Lisu is one of the minority tribes of Arunachal Pradesh of India. They live mainly in Vijoynagar Circle in 11 villages. Gandhigram (or Shidi in Lisu) is the largest village. Lisus are found in Miao town and Injan village of Kharsang Circle Changlang District. The Lisu traditionally lived in the Yunnan Province of China and northern Myanmar. There are about 5,000 Lisu people in India.

Indian government discovers the Lisu

On 7 May 1961, the 7th Assam Rifles expedition team led by Major Sumer Singh entered the Moloshidi Valley and reached the largest village in the valley, Shidi (now called Gandhigram). They were accorded a warm reception by the villagers and further told by the villagers that they were the first ever to have visited Lisu land, Moloshidi Valley. The Assam Rifles team assured the villagers that from now on this virgin land will be under Indian rule and the people would be protected from enemy aggression. Till then there was no international boundary in the Moloshidi Valley. In 1972 the Demarcation of International Boundary with Burma was completed, largely due to Lisu project guides, the only ones with full knowledge of their region. During demarcation, cement pillars were erected at strategic elevations. In the process, the Moloshidi Valley fell on the Indian side of the boundary.

The Lisu who came to India via the Myanmar-Ledo Road

Some groups of Lisu took the then Ledo Road. Some of them worked as coal miners under British. (One certificate that originally belonged to one Aphu Lisu is a British coal miner's certificate from 1918, preserved by the Lisu). The certificate bears the mark of the then governor who ruled the region from Lakhimpur, Assam. Most of the Lisu who lived in Assam went back to Burma. However, Some are still found in Kharangkhu area of Assam, Kharsang Circle of Arunachal Pradesh. While most have lost their mother tongue, some have preserved the language and culture almost intact.[14][15]

Indian Lisu issues

In early 1980s, the government of India removed citizenship from Lisu people. They were branded as refugees. In 1994, citizenship was restored. But Scheduled Tribe status has not been reinstated. This is source of current agitation for immediate restoration by the government.

Except for the arrival of a fleet of jeeps in late 1970s, the area has been without roads and vehicles for 4 decades. The area is isolated, hence some describing the people as "prisoners of geography".

Lisu were evicted from their villages in 1964 under the command of A.S. Guarya, the late Governor General of Arunachal Pradesh. He settled Indian ex-servicemen in their villages. Those villages still retain their original names. The Lisu were chased out of their ancestral villages down to Gandhigram villages and other areas. These villages suffered from floods and lost much of their rice paddies and had to find new ground.

In 1980s, the Namdapha took over much of Lisu land. The authorities by force demarcated the boundary near Gandhigram village. This shrank the Lisu landholdings to a very small area. Since then those Lisu living in the Namdapha area have been branded as "encroachers".


Diorama of Lisu people in Jawaharlal Nehru Museum, Itanagar.

The Lisu tribe consists of more than 58 different clans. Each family clan has its own name or surname. The largest families among the tribal clans are Laemae pha (Shue or The Grass, who speak Bai rather than Lisu), Bya pha (The Bee), Thorne pha, Ngwa Pha (Fish), Naw pha (Thou or Bean, who are descended from Anong patriclans), Seu pha (the Woods), Khaw pha. Most of the family names came from their own work as hunters in primitive times. However, later, they adopted many Chinese family names.

After the Ming Dynasty, most Lisu tribespeople had become a people that lived in villages high in the mountains or in mountain valleys. However, those who still lived in the Paoshan plains, standing on the side of the Qing Dynasty, fought against the Kingdom of Ming. The Lisu knife ladder climbing festival was first held as a memorial event of victory over Ming in 1644 CE. The Lisu people invented their own traditional dance so called "che-ngoh-che" along with the Lisu guitar which has no bars on the fretboard. They invented another musical instrument called fulu jewlew as well. It is a kind of flute that has about six or seven small bamboo tubes tied up together to a dried-hollow-gourd.

Songs and dances differ according to the occasion. Weddings, homecomings, harvests, and other ceremonial events all have their corresponding music and dances.

Lisu villages are usually built close to water to provide easy access for washing and drinking.[9] Their homes are usually built on the ground and have dirt floors and bamboo walls, although an increasing number of the more affluent Lisu are now building houses of wood or even concrete.[4]

Lisu subsistence was based on paddy fields, mountain rice, fruit and vegetables. However, they have typically lived in ecologically fragile regions that do not easily support subsistence. They also faced constant upheaval from both physical and social disasters (earthquakes and landslides; wars and governments). Therefore, they have typically been dependent on trade for survival. This included work as porters and caravan guards. With the introduction of the opium poppy as a cash crop in the early 19th century, many Lisu populations were able to achieve economic stability. This lasted for over 100 years, but opium production has all but disappeared in Thailand and China due to interdiction of production. Very few Lisu ever used opium, or its more common derivative heroin, except for medicinal use by the elders to alleviate the pain of arthritis.[16]

The Lisu practiced swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture. In conditions of low population density where land can be fallowed for many years, swiddening is an environmentally sustainable form of horticulture. Despite decades of swiddening by hill tribes such as the Lisu, northern Thailand had a higher proportion of intact forest than any other part of Thailand. However, with road building by the state, logging (some legal, but mostly illegal) by Thai companies,[17][18] enclosure of land in national parks, and influx of immigrants from the lowlands, swidden fields can not be fallowed, can not re-grow, and swiddening results in large swathes of deforested mountainsides. Under these conditions, Lisu and other swiddeners have been forced to turn to new methods of agriculture to sustain themselves.[19]

Lisu women in traditional dress, northern Thailand

Perhaps the best-known subgroup of the Lisu is the Flowery Lisu in Thailand, due to hill tribe tourism. Lisu women are notable for their brightly colored dress. They wear a multi-colored knee-length tunics of red, blue, or green with a wide black belt and blue or black pants. Sleeve shoulders and cuffs are decorated with a dense applique of narrow horizontal bands of blue, red and yellow. Men wear baggy pants, usually in bright colors but normally wear a more Western-type of shirt or top.

Around 2002, as cellular phone signals reached deeper and deeper into the valleys of northern Thailand, the Lisu embraced the technology in unanticipated fashion: the Lisu purchased unlimited calling plans and started to sing and improvise to each other over mobile connections. Lisu people who still adhere to animistic beliefs sing the traditional chants of the story tellers, adding their own improvisations.[4]


Animism, shamanism, ancestor worship

Lisu practice a religion that is part animistic, part ancestor worship, mixed within complex local systems of place-based religion. Most important rituals are performed by shamans. The main Lisu festival corresponds to Chinese New Year and is celebrated with music, feasting and drinking, as are weddings; people wear large amounts of silver jewelry and wear their best clothes at these times as a means of displaying their success in the previous agricultural year. In each traditional village there is a sacred grove at the top of the village, where the sky spirit or, in Thailand, the Old Grandfather Spirit, are propitiated with offerings; each house has an ancestor altar at the back of the house.[20][21][22]


Beginning in the 20th century, many Lisu people in China and Burma converted to Christianity. Missionaries such as James O. Fraser, Allyn Cooke and Isobel Kuhn and her husband, John, of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International), were active with the Lisu of Yunnan.[23]

The Chinese government's Religious Affairs Bureau has proposed considering Christianity as the official religion of the Lisu.[24]

According to OMF International estimates, as of 2008, there are now more than 300,000 Christian Lisu in Yunnan, and 150,000 in Burma. Only the Lisu of Thailand have remained unchanged by Christian influences. Now, Christianity is becoming the dominant religion among the Lisu people gradually.[25][26]


Linguistically, the Lisu belong to the Yi or Ngwi branch of the Sino-Tibetan family.[27]

There are two scripts in use and the Chinese Department of Minorities publishes literature in both. The oldest and most widely used one is the Fraser alphabet developed about 1920 by James O. Fraser and the ethnic Karen evangelist Ba Thaw. The second script was developed by the Chinese government and is based on pinyin.

Fraser's script for the Lisu language was used to prepare the first published works in Lisu which were a catechism, portions of scripture, and eventually, with much help from his colleagues, a complete New Testament in 1936. In 1992, the Chinese government officially recognized the Fraser alphabet as the official script of the Lisu language.[28]

Only a small portion of Lisu are actually able to read or write the script, with most learning to read and write the local language (Chinese, Thai, Burmese) through primary education.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Hill Tribes, Lonely Planet, have a map. This map displays only remote areas.
  3. ^ Yi people
  4. ^ a b c Hutheesing 1990
  5. ^ Gros 1996
  6. ^ Gros 2001
  7. ^ Bradley 1997
  8. ^ Matisoff 1986
  9. ^ a b Dessaint 1972
  10. ^ a b Hanks & Hanks 2001
  11. ^ George 1915
  12. ^ Enriquez 1921
  13. ^ Scott & Hardiman 1900-1901
  14. ^ People
  15. ^
  16. ^ Durrenberger 1976
  17. ^ Fox 2000
  18. ^ Fox et al. 1995
  19. ^ McCaskill and Kempe 1997
  20. ^ Durrenberger 1989
  21. ^ Bradley (1999), p. 89
  22. ^ Klein-Hutheesing 1990
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ OMF International (2007), p. 1-2
  27. ^ Bradley 2008
  28. ^


  • Bradley, David, 1997. What did they eat? Grain crops of Burmic groups, Mon–Khmer Studies 27: 161-170.
  • Dessaint, Alain Y, 1972. Economic organization of the Lisu of the Thai highlands Ph.D. dissertation, Anthropology, University of Hawaii.
  • Durrenberger, E. Paul, 1989. Lisu Religion, Southeast Asia Publications Occasional Papers No. 13, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University.
  • Durrenberger, E. Paul, 1976. The economy of a Lisu village, American Ethnologist 32: 633-644.
  • Enriquez, Major C.M., 1921. The Yawyins or Lisu, Journal of the Burma Research Society 11 (Part 2), pp. 70–74.
  • Forbes, Andrew, and Henley, David, 'Chiang Mai's Hill Peoples' in: Ancient Chiang Mai Volume 3. Chiang Mai, Cognoscenti Books, 2012. ASIN: B006IN1RNW
  • Fox, Jefferson M., 2000. How blaming 'slash and burn' farmers is deforesting mainland Southeast Asia, AsiaPacific Issues No. 47.
  • Fox, Krummel, Yarnasarn, Ekasingh, and Podger, 1995. Land use and landscape dynamics in northern Thailand: assessing change in three upland watersheds, Ambio 24 (6): 328-334.
  • George, E.C.S., 1915. Ruby Mines District, Burma Gazetteer, Rangoon, Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing, Burma.
  • Gros, Stephane, 1996. Terres de confins, terres de colonisation: essay sur les marches Sino-Tibetaines due Yunnan a travers l'implantation de la Mission du Tibet, Peninsule 33(2): 147-211.
  • Gros, Stephane, 2001. Ritual and politics: missionary encounters in local culture in northwest Yunnan, In Legacies and Social Memory, panel at the Association for Asian Studies, March 22–25, 2001.
  • Hanks, Jane R. and Lucien M. Hanks, 2001. Tribes of the northern Thailand frontier, Yale Southeast Studies Monographs, Volume 51, New Haven, Hanks.
  • Hutheesing, Otome Klein, 1990. Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand: The Waning of Elephant and Dog Repute, E.J. Brill, New York and Leiden.
  • McCaskill, Don and Ken Kampe, 1997. Development or domestication? Indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
  • Scott, James George and J.P. Hardiman, 1900-1901. Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, Parts 1 & 2, reprinted by AMS Press (New York).

Further reading

  • Tribes of the northern Thailand frontier, Yale Southeast Studies Monographs, Volume 51, New Haven, Hanks, Jane R. and Lucien M. Hanks, 2001.
  • Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand: The Waning of Elephant and Dog Repute, Hutheesing, Otome Klein, E.J. Brill, 1990
  • The economy of a Lisu village, E. Paul Durrenberger, American Ethnologist 32: 633-644, 1976
  • Lisu Religion, E. Paul Durrenberger, Northern Illinois University Southeast Asia Publications No. 12, 1989.
  • Behind The Ranges: Fraser of Lisuland S.W. China by Mrs. Howard Taylor (Mary Geraldine Guinness)
  • Mountain Rain by Eileen Fraser Crossman
  • A Memoir of J. O. Fraser by Mrs. J. O. Fraser
  • James Fraser and the King of the Lisu by Phyllis Thompson
  • The Prayer of Faith by James O. Fraser & Mary Eleanor Allbutt
  • In the Arena, Kuhn, Isobel OMF Books (1995)
  • Stones of Fire, Kuhn, Isobel Shaw Books (June 1994)
  • Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in North Thailand, Kuhn, Isobel OMF Books (2000)
  • Precious Things of the Lasting Hills, Kuhn, Isobel OMF Books (1977)
  • Second Mile People, Kuhn, Isobel Shaw Books (December 1999)
  • Nests Above the Abyss, Kuhn, Isobel Moody Press (1964)
  • The Dogs May Bark, but the Caravan Moves On, Morse, Gertrude College Press, (1998)
  • Transformations of Lisu social structure under opium control and watershed conservation in northern Thailand, Gillogly, Kathleen A. PhD thesis, Anthropology, University of Michigan. 2006.
  • Fish Four and the Lisu New Testament, Leila R. Cooke (China Inland Mission, 1948)
  • Honey Two of Lisu-land, Leila R. Cooke (China Inland Mission, 1933)
  • Handbook of the Lisu Language, James O. Fraser (1922)
  • Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, E. R. Leach, (London School of Economics and Political Science, 1954)
  • Peoples of the Golden Triangle, Paul Lewis and Elaine Lewis, (Thames and Hudson, 1984)
  • J. O. Fraser and Church Growth Among the Lisu of Southwest China, Walter Leslie McConnell (M.C.S. Thesis, Regent College, 1987)

External links

  • The Virtual Hilltribe Museum
  • Yunnan Province of China government web site in English
  • Research Paper on Lisu of Northern Thailand
  • The Lisu of China, OMF International
  • Documentary about the Lisu in north Thailand
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