People of South East Asia
I initially drafted a few simple notes on the origins and culture of the various ethnic groups I was planning to visit in South East Asia before leaving Montreal so that I could understand them better. I found the subject so fascinating that I picked up all the documentation I could find on the way and endeavored to correct and complement my first notes when I got back home.
I am deeply indebted to Wang Yushan, (photo on the right), assistant librarian at the Yunnan Institute of the Minorities in Kunming for her considerable contribution to these notes. I also need to mention the documentary assistance provided me by Dr. Monkhol Chantrabumraung of the Thai Hill Tribes Research Center of Chiang Mai. Finally, I must admit that I have had to stray from my normal practice of using only my own photos by scanning postcards to illustrate these notes for it was not possible to visit all these groups in the two and a half months I spent in South West Asia. Credit is due to the Yunnan People's Publishing House and to Orion Publishing for the pictures identified by a black border.
The ethnic communities in this part of the world are best distinguished by their respective languages so I have made a point of indicating the language group each one belongs to. The various language groups are described at the bottom of this page. The nomenclature of these communities pose a bit of a problem since their neighbours often call them by names different from the one they use themselves. I have tried to reduce the confusion by using the pinyin and modern versions of their names and by indicating the more common alternate names when I could. I hope you will have as much fun reading this as I had putting it together.
The notes describe some 40 different ethnic identities but the table below, indicating populations in millions, covers only the two dozen groups that each number more than 100 000 people in the region. There are, however, many more distinct groups in South-East Asia, some of them with only a few thousand members. The table shows that a third of the population of Yunnan and Myanmar and a quarter of that of Thailand belong to minority groups, each with its own language, culture and often, religion. The Chinese provinces of Guizhou and Guanxi also comprise important minorities which are however less diverse than Yunnan's (32% in Guizhou, mainly Hmong, Buyi and Dong and 40% in Guanxi, mostly Zhang and some Dong).
The three countries have opted for completely different policies towards their minorities. China calls them "Nationalities" and encourages them to maintain their culture; Thailand calls them "Hill Tribes" and tries to integrate them into the Thai way of life while Myanmar calls them rebels and treats them as such.
A) Achang  (Yunnan_0,03)
The 30 000 or so Achang live north of Ruili on the Myanmar border. They are descendants of the Qiang people who migrated south from Qinghai lake and their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan family.
The Achang people like to wear black clothes. The women wear tight-fitting and long sleeved jackets with buttons down the front, and sarongs. They also wear head-wrappings and leg-wrappings (puttees). The girls wear trousers and plait their hair into a bun on top of the head with cloth wrapped around the plaits. The men stick chrysanthemum flowers made of red silk yarns at their breast. They usually wear an ornamental knife which is sometimes inlaid with silver. The boys wear white head-wrapping while the married men, dark blue. The women chew tobacco and consider black teeth beautiful.
B) Bai [Pai,Po, Min-Chia] (NW Yunnan_1.6M,)
The Bai trace their ancestry back to the aboriginal inhabitants of the Erhei Lake region but their idiom belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages. It also contains many words borrowed from Chinese but is itself a non-Chinese, tonal, polysyllabic language with a markedly different grammatical structure.
The Bai Nationality has a population of 1.440 million centered around the Erhai Lake region. It enjoys a long history of cultural development. The Han Dynasty set up a commercial representation in Dali as early as the 2nd century BC but the Bai remained largely independent from China and their principal city, Dali on Erhai lake, became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Nanzhao. Dali was the center of politics, economy and culture in Yunnan from the 8th to the 13th century when it fell to the Yuan dynasty.
Most of the Bai are cultivators of wet rice, along with various vegetables and fruits. Those in the hills grow barley, buckwheat, oats, and beans. The lake is heavily fished. They have their own social and kinship organization, based on the village and the extended family (parents, married sons, and their families). Their religion differs little from that of the Chinese; they venerate local deities and ancestral spirits as well as Buddhist and Taoist gods.
The Bai favour the colour white which they consider noble. Men mostly wear edge to edge white vests with black high necked undershirts while women usually wear right-buttoned blouses and black-blue vests. The Bai culture is noted for its distinctive style of architecture. Their harmonious and elegant houses generally have a courtyard with a decorative screen wall or sometimes, a major courtyard with four small ones adjoining.
The Third Month Fair and the Torch Festival are the unique and colourful festivals celebrated in the areas inhabited by the Bai Nationality. I took the picture of these two lovely Bai girls at the entrance of the Chongsheng temple near the famous three pagodas of Dali , in the heartland of the Bai culture.
B) Bulang  ()
The first picture, of two girls in white jackets, was taken at the Bulang exhibit of Jinghong's Minorities Village and the second one comes from the Menghun market in Sichuanbanna. The third photo below, is that of a young girl taken in a Palaung refugee camp in northern Thailand where the Bulang are called Palaung.
The Bulangs with a population of 87,700 mainly live in close communities at 1,500 to 2,300 meters above sea level in the mountains of Menghai County in Xishuangbanna. Their area is famous for Pu'er Tea.
The Bulang's language belongs to the Wa-De'ang branch of the Mon-Khmer group of the Austro-Asiatic family. The Bulangs call themselves "Blung". The Dais and the Lahus call them "man", meaning people who live in the mountains. The Hanis call them "A Bei". The Hans call them "Pu Man". In Myanmar, they are called "Palaung" and they call themselves "Ta-ang".
Some Chinese experts claim that the Bulang along with the Wa and De'ang are the descendants of the ancient Pu people that migrated from the lower Yangzi area 2000 kms northeast of here where Sino-Asiatic languages prevail but they provide no explanation of how they came to adopt an Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer language that comes from 1000 kms to the south.
The Was , the De'angs , the Bulangs could be closely related for their life styles and customs are very similar. Their villages are usually set amidst dense forests and bamboo groves in the mountains. Their bamboo houses are built on stilts. They all like sour and hot food and strong tea. Women wear close-fitting jackets and sarongs and like wearing rattan hoops around their waists and calves. They have similar psychology and are hospitable to guests.
B) Burmans [Bama, Myanma] (Myanmar_31.1M)
The Myanmas, also known as Bamas or Burmans, are the descendants of Tibeto-Burman speaking tribes from the highlands north of India and Yunnan that settled in the central plain in the early 9th century after the Pyu kingdom had been destroyed by the Nanzhao hegemony. They were centred on the small settlement of Pagan on the Irrawaddy River. (By the mid-9th century, Pagan had emerged as the capital of a powerful Burman kingdom that competed for supremacy with the Mon kingdom to the south and eventually unified Myanmar.)
The 32 million Burmans represent two thirds of the population. Their modern cultural identity stems from the total assimilation of their predecessors, the Pyu, from the strong influence of the Buddhist Mon from the south as well as from the influence of a considerable flow of immigrants from India and from China. More than a century of British occupation has also left its mark. Consequently their morphological type is mixed and their skin colour varies from light to dark.
The Burmans have adopted Therevada Buddhism which they learned from the Mon but they did not abandon their ancient deities which they call "Nats". The Burman's greatest contribution to the human heritage lies in the area of religious architecture and art. The temples of Bagan and several outstanding pagodas such as Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda are world-class monuments.
B) Buyi [Bouyi, Puyi, Jui, Yoi, Chung-Chia ] (Guizhou_2.7M Yunnan_0.04M)
Buyi belongs to the Tai family of Sino-Tibetan languages. They had no written script of their own until recently. Most Buyi live in Guizhou where they number 2.7 million but some 40 000 live on the Yunnan side of the provincial border. The Buyis have long history and were closely related to the ancient Liao, Baiyue and Baipu people. During the Tang Dynasty, they were called 'Xinanman' but they were known as 'Fan' or 'Zhongjiaman' people during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. They most probably came from a Dai group forced out of the more favoured agricultural lowlands into the poorer valley lands of the Guizhou plateau and hills. The related Dong people inhabit the districts east of them.
The Buyis like blue green, black and white clothes. Men's wear are vests, trousers, and scarves while women's wear are loose garments that button down on the right. In a few places, young women like to wear trimmed short sleeveless blouses with buttons in the middle and trousers as well as various silver ornaments.
Many of the Buyi have become so sinicized that they are no longer counted as tribesmen. The culture and religion of the Buyi are thus not unlike those of the Chinese around them. Their traditional beliefs involve numerous gods and spirits like those of the Chinese folk religion, although there are some Buddhists and a few Christians.
C) Cham  (Cambodia_0.3M, Vietnam_0.2M)
The Cham are the surviving inhabitants of the Champa Kingdom . Their original Cham language belongs to the Western Malayo-Polynesian family. In Cambodia the Western Cham preserve some original cultural traits (e.g., the predominance of the maternal uncle) but they are entirely integrated into Cambodian life and speak the Khmer language. From the Malay, they adopted Islam. The Eastern Cham of Vietnam have been largely assimilated by the surrounding Vietnamese.
The traditional Cham family was matrilocal and matrilineal. The cult of nature spirits was all important, because ancestor's souls were supposed to settle in the earth only after after seven years of worship. The Indian culture of ancient Champa left some influences and rites in ancient Cham temples still honour of Po Rome, Po Nagar, and Po Klaung Garai, deified heroes of the past.
C) Chin [Zomi, Laimi] ()
About 1.5 million Chin people occupy difficult terrain in the southern part of the mountain ranges separating Myanmar from India. The Chin have much in common with the Mizo tribes on the other side of the border and both speak related Tibeto-Burman languages.
Chin villages, often of several hundred houses, were traditionally self-contained units, some ruled by councils of elders, others by headmen. There were also hereditary chiefs who exercised political control over large areas and received tribute from cultivators of the soil. Agriculture is the basis of the Chin economy. The land is cultivated in rotation, consecutive cultivation for several years being followed by reversion to forest. Rice, millet, and corn are the main crops. Domestic animals, kept mainly for meat, are not milked nor used for traction. Chief among them is the mithan, a domesticated breed of the Indian wild ox.
The Chins practice polygyny and trace their descent through the paternal line; young people are expected to marry outside the paternal clan. Traditional women wear extensive facial tattoos. They believe in numerous deities and spirits which must be propitiated by offerings and sacrifices. Good hunters are believed to enjoy high rank in the afterlife. Status in life, and presumably in afterlife, is also achieved by providing feasts. Christian missions have made many converts but the tribes have retained their identity and outside influence has remained limited.
D) Dai [Tai] ()
The Dai language belongs to the Tai family of the Sino-Tibetan group. Dai people have a written language that is still in use. Dai history recorded in the Dai language, goes back to more than a thousand years. They share common ancestors with Guizhou's Zhuangs, Thailand's Thais, Laos' Laos and Myanmar's Shans . They were called 'Dianyue' in the Han Dynasty. "Dai" means peace-and-freedom-loving people.The Dai Nationality has a population of 1.1 million. Most of them live in southern Yunnan but a few are scattered over a wide area of more than 30 other counties in Yunnan.
The Dai mostly inhabit valley bottoms, with their villages set along rivers and lakes. They live in bamboo houses on stilts with courtyards enclosed by bamboo hedges and fruit trees. The Dai people believe in Therevada Buddhism (Hinayana). Temples and pagodas are seen in every village. Wearing tattoos is common among Dai men. There are three branches among the Dai people: the Water Dai, the Dry Dai and the Huayao Dai. Each group has its own traditional dress. The Dai's New Year is celebrated by the Water-splashing Festival that usually lasts three or four days in mid-April.
D) De'ang  (Yunnan_0,02)
The De'angs with a population of 17,000, used to be named the Benglong Nationality. They live scattered in western Yunnan. The De'ang language belongs to the Mon-Khmer group of the Austro-Asiatic family and has three branches, the Red, Black and Flower De'angs, each with their own dialect, namely, 'Bielie', 'Liang' and 'Rumai'. All three branches call themselves 'ang' which means 'cave on cliff'. It is said that the De'ang's ancestors lived in cliff caves.
Some Chinese experts claim that the De'ang, Wa and Bulang are the descendants of the ancient Pu people that migrated from the lower Yangzi area, 2000 kms northeast of here, where Sino-Asiatic languages prevail. However, they provide no explanation of how they came to adopt an Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer language that comes from 1000 kms to the south.
D) Dong [Tung ] (Guizhou_1.5, Guanxi_1.0M, Hunnan_0.1M)
The Dong first appeared in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279), moving southwest in a series of migrations, possibly forced by the advancing Mongols. Concentrated today in sparsely populated Guizhou, they share the area with the Buyi. Their language is closely related to the Tai languages but it is remarkable for having some 15 tone distinctions. Influenced by the Yao (Mien), the Hmong (Miao),and other Austro-Asiatic peoples, the Dong live at intermediate elevations in large houses built on pilings.
Pagoda-like wooden drum towers rising up to 30 meters are characteristic of their architecture. Their elaborate covered bridges are also notable. They grow paddy rice, use bamboo pipes for irrigation, and raise water buffalo. The Dong raise fish in some of the flooded paddy fields and hunt with falcons. They grow cotton, tobacco, soybeans, and rapeseed. Their fine woven cotton cloth is marketed in Guizhou and in Yunnan province. Weekly markets, often coinciding with festival days, are the centre of Dong social life and trade. Little is known of the Dong religion; it has been described as polytheistic.
The lady in the photo and her daughter are both proud to be of the Dong Nationality. She is the manager of the Petroleum Hotel where I stayed in Kaili and her daughter also works there.
D) Dulong [Drung] ()
The Dulongs speak a Tibeto-Burman idiom and live in the extreme northwest of Yunnan. It is one of the smallest minorities in China with a population of only 5,700.
In the past, Dulong girls traditionally had their faces tattooed. It was said that men and animals wouldn't attack girls whose faces tattooed, because they looked ugly and frightful. This ancient custom has been abandoned today. A black and white striped shawl is characteristic of the Dulong costume.
H) Han Chinese  ()
The Han, the largest group, outnumber the minority groups or Nationalities in every province or autonomous region of China except Tibet and Xinjiang. The Han, therefore, form the great homogeneous mass of the Chinese people, sharing the same culture, the same traditions, and the same written language. Some 55 minority groups are spread over approximately three-fifths of the total area of the country. These minority groups have been given a degree of autonomy and self-government in areas where they are found in large numbers.
Although unified by their tradition, the written characters of their language and many cultural traits, the Han speak several mutually unintelligible dialects and display marked regional differences. By far the most important Chinese tongue is the Mandarin, or p'u-t'ung hua, meaning "common language." There are three varieties of Mandarin. The Peking dialect is the most widespread and has been adopted as the national language. The Upper Yangtze dialect is spoken in the Szechwan Basin and in adjoining parts of southwestern China. The third is the Nanking dialect spoken in Jiangsu and Anhui. The Hsiang, Kan, and Hui-chou dialects are also related to Mandarin.
Less intelligible to Mandarin speakers are the dialects of the southeast coastal region from Shanghai to Canton. The most important of these is the Wu dialect, spoken in south Jiangsu and in Zhejiang. This is followed by the Fu-chou dialect of northern and central Fujian, by the Amoy-Swatow dialect of southern Fujian and east Guangdong and by the Hakka dialect of south Guangxi and northeast Guangdong. Another one of these southern dialects is the Yüeh, particularly Cantonese, which is spoken in central and western Guangdong, Hong Kong and in southern Guangxi.
The young Han lady is my friend Cathy Zhang photographed in Hangzhou in 1997. I met the old Han gentleman in a small Jinghong restaurant. He was curious about my age and origin and addressed me in sign language. It was an interesting experience as we managed to satisfy each other's curiosity without having a common language. He was 77!
H) Hani [Woni, Houni, Akha] (Yunnan_1.3M,Thailand_0.1M)
The Hani's ancestors were Heyi tribes related to the ancient Qiang people. They migrated to Dianchi lake area in Han times and have since moved south into Xishuangbanna. The 1.3 million Hani people live in the mountains at a level between 800 to 2,500 meters above the sea, the valleys having been infiltrated by the people Dai fleeing the Mongols. Contemporary Hani are mostly farmers who produce two excellent types of tea and are also known for their remarkable terraced rice paddies.
The Hani have many sub groups that have their own costumes, ornaments and festivals. The "Tenth Month" and "New Rice" festivals are popular occasions of joyfulness for the Hani, when old and young, men and women, all come out singing, dancing, swinging and wrestling.
The first photo was taken in Jinghong's Minorities Village, the second in a real Hani village near Mengyang, the next two in the Menghun market and the last one, in a refugee village in northern Thailand where the Hani are called Akha.
H) Hmong [Hmung, Hmu, Miao, Meo] (Guizhou_7M, Yunnan_0,9M, Vietnam_1,5M, Laos_0.3M)
The Hmong people can be traced back to the primitive "Chi You" tribes that lived in the central plains of China several thousand years ago. The Chinese call them Miao but they prefer to be called Hmong. In the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1700 to 221 BC), the ancestors of the Hmong were well established along the Yellow River but they were forced to migrate south by the Han expansion. Today, most Hmong live in Guizhou where they number around 7 million people. About a million more are dispersed in eastern Yunnan and some are found in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
The Hmong language belongs to the Miao-Yao family of the Sino-Tibetan group . Most Hmong live in single-story houses built directly on the ground. Agriculture is the chief means of subsistence for all of the groups; they grow corn and rice on burned-over forest land in the hills. Opium is an important cash crop, sold in the lowland markets.
There is little indigenous political organization above the village level. The highest position is usually that of village chief. In China the Hmong are subject to the local Chinese authorities. In Laos and northern Vietnam, where the Hmong density is relatively high in certain areas, they have sometimes obtained political positions at a level above that of the village.
Most Hmong venerate spirits, demons, and ancestral ghosts. They have shamans who exorcise malevolent spirits, and priests who perform ceremonial functions. Animal sacrifice is widespread.
Young people are permitted to select their own mates, and there is a good deal of sexual freedom among them, although many Hmong in China have adopted the Chinese custom of arranged marriages. One form of institutionalized courtship involves antiphonal singing or the tossing of a ball back and forth between groups of boys and girls from different villages. Polygyny is permitted, but in practice it is limited to the well-to-do. The household is usually made up of several generations, including married sons and their families. When the parents die, the household breaks up into smaller units which then repeat the cycle.
H) Hui [Hwei, Tonggan, Pathay, Dungan] (Yunnan_0,6M)
Chinese Muslims are intermingled with the Han Chinese throughout China but are more numerous in western China, in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Sichuan and Yunnan. Considerable numbers also live in Anhui, Shandong, Beijing and Liaoning. The Hui are also found in Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia. I took the picture of these two gentlemen in Kunming. They were flabbergasted that someone would take their picture just because they answered "yes" to the question "are you Hui".
The ancestors of the Hui were merchants, soldiers, handicraftsmen, and scholars who came to China from Islamic Persia and Central Asia during the period from the 7th to the 13th century. They intermarried with the Han Chinese, Uygur, and Mongolian Nationalities and came to speak Chinese languages while often retaining Arabic. Eventually the Hui's appearance and other cultural characteristics became thoroughly Chinese. They now engage mostly in agriculture, and most of them live in rural areas. The urban residents are generally in the trades of spices, jewelry, jade articles, tanning, fur processing, and catering.
The Huis generally use the spoken and written language of the Hans except for a few imams and religious professionals, who use Arabian or Persian languages. The Hui's major festivals are Bairan, Corban and Molid Nabawi and other festivals are closely linked with Islam.
I) Intha  ()
The name Intha means "children of the lake" is most appropriate for most Intha people live on or around Inle Lake, south of Taunggyi in the Shan State. They literally live on the water and are famous for their unique technique of rowing their boats with one hand and a leg while balancing precariously on the other. This leaves them with one hand free to handle their conical fishing net.
The Intha speak a distinctive Burman dialect and are thought to have migrated to the Lake from the South during the Mon - Burman wars of the 11th century.
J) Jinuo [Youle] (0,01)
Of the 18,300 Jinuo people, 8,000 live in the Jinuo Mountains in Jinghong County. The rest are scattered in Jinghong and Menghai Counties. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group.
The word "Jinuo" means descendant of a maternal uncle. The Jinuo people show the greatest respect to their mother's brother, who is traditionally worshipped by the family after his death. The Jinuo religion combines aboriginal animism with ancestor worship.
The Jinuo people have a long history of tea-growing. The Youle Mountain is one of the tea growing areas of the famous "Pu'er" tea.
They wear home-woven clothes in blue, red and black. The colors are harmonious, and look elegant and pleasing to the eye. Men and women all wear bracelets and big earring. I took the photo on the left in Jinghong's Minorities Village and the one on the right in a Jinuo village south of Mengyang.
K) Kachin [Jingpo] (NE Myanmar_1.1M, Yunnan_0.1M)
Most Kachin live in the Kachin state of Myanmar where they number around 1.1 million but another 125 000 live across the border, north of Ruili in Yunnan where they are called Jingpo. They all speak Jingpo, a Tibeto-Burman language and moved into Myanmar from northern Yunnan after the Shan's migration from southern Yunnan in the 13th century.
The traditional Kachin society largely subsisted on slash and burn cultivation of hill rice, supplemented by the proceeds of banditry and feud warfare. The Kachin live in mountainous country (at a low population density) in northern Myanmar, but Kachin territory also includes small areas of fertile valley land inhabited by other peoples of Myanmar. Political authority in most areas lay with petty chieftains who depend upon the support of their immediate patrilineal kinsmen and their relatives.
The traditional Kachin religion is a form of animistic ancestor cult entailing animal sacrifice to a supreme deity called Karai Kasang. "Manao" festivals are held periodically to placate angry "nats" (deities) or to ask them for good farming weather and good fortune. These ceremonies involve ritual dancing to drum, cymbal, gong and oboe music as well as considerable feasting and drinking of rice beer. The Kachin hope for the good ghosts to make their life happy and for the bad ones to stay away from them. About 10 percent of the Kachin are Christian.
The picture on the left was scanned from a postcard. The one on the right, I took of Kim Win, a Kachin lady I met in Yangon.
K) Karen  (S. Myanmar_)
The name Karen applies to a variety of tribal peoples of southern Myanmar speaking Tibeto-Burman languages modified by Thai and Austro-Asiatic influences. They are not a unitary group in any ethnic sense for they differ amongst themselves linguistically, religiously, and economically. One classification divides them into White Karen and Red Karen. The former consist of the Sgaw, the the Pa'o and the Pwo. The Red Karen include the Bre, the Padaung, the Yinbaw, and the Zayein. They occupy areas in southeastern Myanmar on both sides of the lower Salween River, in contiguous parts of Thailand, in the Pegu Yoma range in lower Myanmar, and also in the Irrawaddy delta land of southern coastal Myanmar. They are the second largest minority in Myanmar after the Shan.
After the country attained its independence in 1948, a condition of sporadic civil war developed between the government and various dissident groups calling themselves Karen. By the early 1980s the principal unifying factor among Karen was a common distrust of political domination by the Burman majority; the assimilation of this minority into the state of Myanmar remained a pressing political problem in the country.
I took the photo in a Karen refugee village located in northern Thailand.
K) Kayah  ()
The Kayah, along with the Bre, the Padaung, the Yinbaw and the Zayein, constitute the "Red" branch of the Karen people. They form the majority in the Kayah State located around Loikaw, south of Taunggyi and Inle Lake. Kayah women wear so many lacquered cotton rings around their knees that they have difficulty walking. The Kayah State is also the home of the Bre whose women wear heavy brass rings around their knees and of the Padaung women, known as "giraffe women" because of the many brass neck rings that push down their shoulders and elongate their necks.
Unfortunately, the Kayah state was out of bounds for tourists when I could have gone to visit it. Evidently the control of the central government over all of Myanmar was not as complete as it claimed.
K) Khmer [Cambodian, Kampuchean] (Cambodia_10.9M, Thailand_1.3M, Vietnam_0.4M)
The Khmer language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family , itself a part of the Austro-Asiatic group. The Khmer have a long history, of which the 12th-century temple complex of Angkor Wat is a monument. The Khmer are a predominantly agricultural people, subsisting on rice and fish and living in villages of several hundred persons. Other economic pursuits include weaving, pottery making, and metalworking. Khmer houses have gabled roofs and are constructed of wood or concrete. Households are based on the nuclear family and occasionally include other close relatives.
The Khmer follow Theravada Buddhism while retaining pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs and the use of magic to ward off malevolent influences. Historically, Khmer arts, literature, and popular scientific ideas have been much influenced by Indian culture, as has much of the vocabulary in which they express themselves.
The photo of the Khmer gentleman was taken in Siem Riep (next to Angkor Wat) in 1994.
L) Lahu  (Yunnan_0.5M)
The Lahu, numbering about 420 000, live between the Dai and the Wa near the Mekong river in western Yunnan. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group. They were originally called Lahu (good roast tiger meat) because of their reputation as hunters but they are now agriculturalists. The Yis call them "Guohe". The Naxis call them "Kucong". The Dais on the east side of Lanchang river call them "Mushi" while those on the other side call them "Mian".
These two photos were taken in the Menghun market .
L) Lisu  (Yunnan_0.5, Myanmar_0.1)
Lisu is a Tibeto-Burman language. About 600 000 Lisus live in northwest Yunnan along the Myanmar border with another 100 000 living on the other side in Myanmar. In their migrations, the Lisu have kept to the highest parts of hill ranges, where they cultivate hill rice, corn, and buckwheat on frequently shifted fields. Their houses are of wood and bamboo.
The Lisu can be divided into White Lisu, Black Lisu, Flower Lisu according to the colour of their costumes, which are simple and colorful. The White Lisu and The Black Lisu women's wear are right-buttoned garments and gunny skirts; the married women wear big brass earrings, chains of coral and beads ornaments on their heads. Some wear strings of agate, seashell and silver coin necklaces. An expensive neck and chest ornament is said to be worth an ox or two. The flower Lisu women look very graceful with their trimmed costumes and skirts of dazzling colour and brass or silver earrings. Lisu men wear gunny coats or short pants. Some wear black headdresses, others have long hair and twine it at the back of their heads. An adult male usually carries a long-bladed chopper on the left side and a quiver on the right.
The Lisu people are fond of homemade wine called "chujiu". Crossbows, poisoned arrows and dogs are used for hunting. They are divided in clans, men of one clan taking wives from other clans. They worship their ancestors and gods of the earth, wind, lightning, and forest.
The photo was taken in a Lisu refugee village in northern Thai land.
M) Malay  (Malasia_, Sumatra_, Borneo_)
The Malay speak various dialects belonging to the Western Malayo-Polynesian (Malayo-Polynesian) family of languages. The Malay's ancestors were most probably a people of coastal Borneo who expanded into Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula as a result of their trading and seafaring way of life. That this expansion occurred only in the last 1,500 years or so is indicated by the fact that the languages of the Malay group are all still very much alike, while very divergent from the languages of other peoples of Sumatra, Borneo, and other neighbouring lands. In the late 20th century the Malay constituted more than half of the population of Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia) and more than one-eighth of the population of East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah).
The Malay culture has been strongly influenced by that of other peoples, including the Thai, Javanese, and Sumatran. The influence of Hindu India was historically very great, and the Malay were largely Hinduized before they were converted to Islam in the 15th century. The population of the Malay Peninsula today includes large numbers of Indians and Chinese.
The Malay are mainly a rural people, living in villages rather than towns where Chinese, Indians, and other groups predominate. Much of the Malay Peninsula is covered by jungle, and the villages, with populations ranging between 50 to 1,000, are located along rivers and coasts or on roads. Houses are built on piling four to eight feet off the ground, with gabled roofs made of thatch. Houses of the well-to-do have plank floors and tile roofs. The principal food crop is wet rice while rubber is the main cash crop. The Malay Peninsula in the late 1970s produced more than two-fifths of the world's supply of natural rubber.
Traditionally the Malay had a somewhat feudal social organization with a sharp division between nobility and commoners. The head of the village was a commoner, but the chief of the district, to whom he reported, was a nobleman. The nobility has now been replaced by appointed and elected officials, subject to a parliament and other elected bodies, but class distinctions are still marked.
The Malay religion is Islam and Muslim religious holidays are observed. Marriages are traditionally arranged by the parents. The typical household consists of the husband and wife and their children. Marriage and inheritance are governed by Islamic law. Some Hindu rituals survive in their marriage ceremonies and in various ceremonies of state. In rural areas, the Malay have also preserved some of their old beliefs in spirits of the earth and jungle, which are partly Hindu in origin. They often have recourse to medicine men or shamans for the treatment of disease.
The picture of Malay girls was taken in Melaka in 1994.
M) Menggu [Mongolian] (0.02M)
There are about 14 000 Menggu people still living near Tonghai about 100kms south of Kunming. They are the descendants of the North Mongolian horsemen who settled in Yunnan after Kublai Khan's conquest in 1253. After 750 years of isolation, their mongolian culture, language, dress and customs have evolved considerably under the influence of the surrounding Han and Yi neighbours. However, the Nadam Fair is still their traditional festival.
M) Mon [Mun, Talaing ] (Myanmar_1.1M, Thailand_0.1M)
The Mon have lived in their present area since 800 AD and it was they who gave Myanmar its writing (Pali) and its religion (Buddhism). The Mon are believed to have spread from western China down the river lowlands into the Irrawaddy River delta in Myanmar and into the Chao Phraya River basin in Thailand. The capital of the Mon kingdom , Thaton, was conquered by Burmans migrating southward in 1057. The Mon state endured, however, until it was finally subjugated by the Burmans in 1757. Most Mon are bilingual, speaking Burmese as well as their own language, which is of the Mon-Khmer linguistic family.
The Mon homeland occupies a coastal strip of land bordering the Gulf of Martaban and includes the Bilugyun and Kalegauk islands. The physiography of the area consists of lowlands terminated by the Taungnyo Range in the east. The Sittang River is the region's northwestern boundary, and the rivers Gyaing, Ataran, Salween, and Ye drain the area westward to the Gulf of Martaban. Rice and teak are the most important agricultural products; mangoes and durians are cultivated as well. Tea, sugar, tobacco, rubber, salt, and bamboo products are exported from Moulmein. Other cities and towns in the region include Thaton, Ye, and Martaban. Thaton, the former capital of the Mon kingdom, lost its position as a port because of silting.
A Mon village typically consists of rectangular houses with thatch roofs, granaries, and cattle sheds. Most villages have a monastery that also functions as a school, a pagoda, an image house where images of the Buddha are kept, and a rest house or meeting house. The family unit is nuclear rather than extended. The Mon religion of Theravada Buddhism is combined with belief in various spirits.
N) Naxi [Na-hsi, Moso] (Yunnan_0.3M, Sichuan_0.1M)
Naxi is a Tibeto-Burman language. The 300 000 Naxis live around Lijiang in northwest Yunnan. Most embrace Tibetan Buddhism but they also believe in various spirits and demons and, in addition to their shamans, they have priest-exorcists of the Bon cult of Tibet.
The Naxi are descendants of the ancient Qiang tribes that migrated south from the Qinghai plateau, settled in Sichuan and Yunnan and gave rise to the several Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples of the region.
The first Naxis worshiped the forces of nature, water, thunder, the sun, the moon, fire, etc... but their principal cult was addressed to "woman's fertility". Sickness and disasters were caused by bad spirits that their shamans tried to placate or chase away. Le Naxi society was matrilineal and matrifocal. Family names and possessions went to the daughters. Children knew their mother but not their father who could be any of the several lovers that women were free to choose, the masculine role model being provided by the maternal uncle. A man would spend the night with a woman but would return to his mother's house in the morning where he lived normally.
In the 8th century, the Naxi invented a pictorial script that they used to describe their history, religion and customs. That script, the Naxi religion and their shamans took the name of Dongba. The Dongba religion was similar to the Bon religion that preceded Lamaism in Tibet.
After the fall of the Dali kingdom before the Yuan dynasty forces in 1253, the Naxi and other matriarchal societies were subjected to intense pressure when the Chinese set out to impose rules of social behaviour compatible with Confucian values. Naxi literature poignantly describes the waves of "suicides for love" provoked by the imposition of the Confucian ideal of arranged marriages by the Han authorities.
Today the overwhelming majority of the Naxi practice monogamous marriage but women have conserved a predominant position. They do most of the work and consequently make the decisions while the men take it easy. Women wear an under vest, a loose blouse, rough trousers, a large blue apron and on their back, a characteristic goatskin carrying pad on which woven round designs symbolize diligence.
There are, however, exceptions in some remote villages near Lugu Lake on the Sichuan border where the Mosuo people (a branch of the Naxi) have resisted and maintained parts of their traditions. The Mosuo people's Axia marriage is a peculiar kind of marriage. "Axia" means friend. So the couple are not called husband and wife, but are called "Axia". The adult lady of a family has her own special room called "Axia Room", prepared for her. Her parents will choose a mate for her and the man will visit and stay with her only at night in the Axia room. The next morning he will go back to his mother's family and work with his parents. The woman stays and works with her own family. If she is not satisfied with her mate, she only needs to shut the door to refuse her Axia's visit and the bond is broken. The couple do not establish a new family, their children stay with the mother as do whatever possessions the parents have.
N) Nu [Nusu] ()
With a population of 26,800, the Nus have been living in the northwest corner of Yunnan for almost 16 centuries. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language like their Lisu and Dulong neighbours while the nearby Zang people speak Tibetan.
The Nus admire the black colour and consequently call themselves "Nusu" ('nu' means black and 'su' means human). The Nus are very hospitable and treat guests with "xiela" which means "meat cooked in wine", a delicious specialty of the Nus.
P) Pa'o  ()
This picture of a Pa'o couple was taken in the Heho market in January 2000.
The Pa'o are the second most numerous in the Shan State after the Shan themselves. Most of them live in the mountains around Taunggyi, Heho and Kalaw. Along with the Sqaw and the Pwo, they constitute the "White" branch of the Karen people.
Pa'o men wear loose fitting trousers, jackets and turbans while women wear dark longyis and long shirts but brightly coloured turbans.
The Pa'os are proud of their identity and wear their traditional dress more than most of the other minorities oppressed by the Burman majority.
P) Pumi [Purimi, Xifan, Wozhu, Ba] (0,03)
The Pumis have a population of 30,900. They live in the mountains at an average elevation of 2,500 meters above sea level in the northwestern corner of Yunnan, between the Lisu and the Naxi.
The Pumis are the descendants of the Qiang people, ancient nomadic tribes that used to live on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. . They migrated from Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan to Yunnan around 400 B.C. They call themselves "Puyingmi", "Peimi" or "Purimi", meaning white people. The Bais call them "Xifan". The Yis call them "Wozhu". The Zang call them "Ba".
The Pumi people live in log houses and dress like the Mosuo branch of Naxi people. Their language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. Their religion combines animism with ancestor worship. A few of them believe in Taoism and Lamaism.
The Pumis are all good at singing and dancing. They hold antiphonal songfests and do the Guozhuang dance on the occasions of weddings, funerals and traditional festivals
Q) Qiang [Proto-Tibetan] (Sichuan_0.2M, Guizhou_0.1M)
The cultivable land near Qinghai Lake(Koko Nor)was settled in prehistoric times and may have been the original home of the tribes who settled in Tibet. Ancient nomadic tribes were known to be living around the lake as early as the Shang Dynasty (1700 - 1100 BC). The Han referred to the people of Qinghai Lake and beyond as Qiang and sought to keep them out of the Han Empire by establishing a military outpost near the lake in the early 1st century. The post was soon abandoned, however, and the Chinese remained ignorant of the Qinghai region for centuries.
During the period of political fragmentation following the decline of the Han power, a branch of the Hsien-pei tribe established a state based in the Qinghai region which extended east into to-day's Gansu. Called T'u-yü-hun, this state lasted more than three centuries. A Lhasa dynasty assumed control over the region in the 7th century, reaching its peak of power in the 8th century when its territory was extended far into the northeast and even reached the Tang capital of Chang'an (near modern Xi'an, Shaanxi Province) for a time.
Contact was friendly between Lhasa and Chang'an during the Tang period (618-907). Caravans of yaks and ponies carried Buddhist monks and pilgrims across the Qinghai desert and traders met near Qinghai Lake to exchange locally bred horses for Chinese tea, which was the chief Tibetan export until the 20th century.
The Qinghai region was later ruled by Tangut leaders who established a state called Hsi Hsia, based near Qinghai Lake, in 1038. Genghis Khan began his campaign against that state in 1205 and incorporated it into his expanding Mongol Empire in 1227. After the Mongol conquest of North China, Qinghai became part of the Yuan Empire (1271-1368) based in Beijing. The founder of the Gelukpa (Yellow Hat sect) of Tibetan Buddhism , Tsong Khapa, was born near Qinghai Lake in 1357. His 16th-century successor converted Mongolia to Tibetan Buddhism and was given the title Dalai Lama by the Mongolian Khan.
During the Ming period (1368-1644) the Qinghai region remained closely allied with Tibet, despite increased communication with China through trade and tribute missions. In 1642 a Mongolian dynasty was established in Tibet that lasted until 1717, when a local uprising caused the Chinese to directly interfere in the region's affairs. Qinghai was placed under separate administration in 1724. During the Qing (1644-1911) period immigrants from the east settled in Qinghai, and Chinese political and cultural influence in the region increased. Qinghai was made a province of China in 1928.
R) Rakhine  ()
The Rakhines speak a dialect of Burman and are very similar to the Burmans in culture and dress but they have been more influenced by the proximity of India with which they have traded throughout their history.
The first photo I scanned from a book and the second, I took of my friend Khin Suu at Yangon's Shwedagon Temple .
S) Shan  (Myanmar_4.9M)
The Shan are Theravada Buddhists and have their own written language and literature ( Tai family of languages) . Most live on the Shan Plateau, which is seamed by low mountains and masses of broken, forested hills. Although much of the Shan territory thus consists of uplands, the people live primarily in the valleys and stretches of plain between the uplands. The surrounding hill country is occupied by aboriginal peoples who live in economic symbiosis with the Shan. The Shan economy is based almost entirely on rice farming where irrigation is available. Otherwise, slash-and-burn cultivation is practiced and this has resulted in considerable deforestation. For centuries, the Shan have carried on a considerable trade with the Burman who live to the west in the Irrawaddy River valley and with the Chinese to the north in Yunnan. Shan society was traditionally divided into a class of commoners, essentially farmers, and a hereditary nobility who furnished both local chiefs and the ruling head of the Shan state.
The Shan are extremely conscious of their ethnic identity. They dominated much of Myanmar from the 13th to the 16th century. After their power declined, there were more than 30 small Shan states, most of which paid tribute to the Burman kings. Under the British , the Shan states of Burma were ruled by hereditary chiefs, subject to the crown. In 1922, most of the states joined the Federated Shan state, which had considerable local autonomy. After independence, however, the Shan state lost much of its autonomy under the constitution of 1974, like the other states in the country. Since then, the Shan have frequently been at odds with the national government over the issue of local autonomy. Several armed Shan separatist groups were formed in the 1960s, but their principal interest apparently switched to the illegal production and export of opium from areas near the border with Thailand, an area known as the Golden Triangle.
The photo of Dr Nang Mynt Thwe, a Shan medical doctor, was taken in the Taunggyi market .
S) Shui  (Guizhou_0.4M, Yunnan_0,01 )
The Shuis were originally from the Pearl River area in Guangxi. Most of them, about 400 000, now live around Sandu, south of Kaili in Guizhou and less than 10 000 live in Yunnan. They have an ancient Shui script of 100 pictographs but now, it is only used by their shamans. The Shui idiom belongs to the Tai linguistic family like that of their Buyi , Dong and Zhuang neighbours but most of them also speak Chinese now.
In the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, they were generally called the Liaos along with the Zhuang and Dong peoples. The name Shui appeared for the first time in the historical documents of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Shui's culture and customs are somewhat similar to those of the Buyis. The Shuis have their own calendar which resembles to the Han lunar calendar, but the Shui's year ends in the Han's eighth month. They celebrate their New Year's Day by dancing and singing.
T) Thai [Siamese] (Thailand_45.5M)
The Thai's idiom belongs to the Tai family of languages . Thais comprise three quarters of the population of Thailand. Traditionally they lived in villages along the rivers and in the alluvial plains but today, they are largely urban dwellers.
The Thai are devout practitioners of Therevada Buddhism. Most men spend some periods of their life as temporary monks. The full-time Thai Buddhist monk has an active pastoral role in the community of his home temple. They officiate at the weekly temple services and seasonal rituals and conduct individual family ceremonies for weddings, house blessings, cremations, and ordination of novices. They are also consulted to choose auspicious dates for personal activities.
The first photo was taken at a Chiang Mai festival and the second in Bangkok's Wat Rachanadda, both in 1994.
V) Vietnamese  (Vietnam_72M)
The Vietnamese people represent a fusion of many races, languages, and cultures. This stems from the fact that the Indochina Peninsula was a crossroads for many migrations of peoples, including speakers of Western Malayo-Polynesian , Mon-Khmer , and Tai languages. The Vietnamese language borrows much of its basic vocabulary from Mon-Khmer, tonality from the Tai languages, and some grammatical features from both Mon-Khmer and Tai. It also exhibits some influence from Western Malayo-Polynesian languages, as well as large infusions of Chinese literary, political, and philosophical terminology of a later period.
Archaeologists link the beginnings of Vietnamese civilization to the late Neolithic, early Bronze Age, from around 2000 to 1400 B.C. By about 1200 B.C., the development of wet rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Red River plains resulted in the Dong Son culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. By the sixth century B.C., they developed tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes which the Chinese annals attribute to the Lac people, the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people. They were conquered in 208 B.C. by the army of the Chinese military commander Trieu Da who combined the South China territories already under his control with northern Vietnam to establish the kingdom of Nam Viet. The Lac lords continued to rule in the Red River Delta, but as vassals of Nam Viet.
Ethnographic study also reveals the degree to which ancient Vietnamese culture was a composite of elements found among many other peoples within the region. Totemism, animism, tattooing, the chewing of betel nuts, teeth blackening, and many marriage rituals and seasonal festivals indicate the relationship between the Vietnamese and the neighbouring peoples in Southeast Asia. Although the Chinese civilization later became the main force in shaping Vietnamese culture, the failure of the Chinese to assimilate the Vietnamese people underscores the fact that strong elements of an authentic local culture must have emerged in the Red River valley long before China established its millennium of rule over Vietnam.
W) Wa [Lawa, Va, Pa Rauk, Loi, Hkawa, Kawa, Kala] (E Myanmar_0.3, SW Yunnan_0.4)
The Wa people number about 350 000. The so called "tame" Wa are mostly Buddhist and live in the south-west corner of Yunnan on the border of Myanmar. Some pagan or so-called "wild" Was live in isolated Wa states on the Myanmar side of the border. They were known as headhunters who believe that the skulls of the dead are an assurance of good crops and good health. The Was speak an Austro-Asiatic language related to the Mon-Khmer group.
Some Chinese experts claim that the Wa, the Bulang and the De'ang are the descendants of the ancient Pu people that migrated 2000 south-west, from the lower Yangzi area where Sino-Asiatic languages prevailed, to reach the Wa's resent habitat. They do not, however, provide any explanation of how the Was came to adopt an Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer language that comes from 1000 kms to the south.
The first two photos were taken in Kunming's Minorities Village and the third was sent to me by my Wa friend Wang Yushan who helped me gather the information contained in this page.
Y) Yao [Mien,Man] (Yunnan_0,2M, Vietnam_0.4M, Thailand_0.1, Laos_0,2M)
The widely dispersed groups of the Yao speak several closely related Sino-Tibetan dialects of the Miao-Yao family but have developed in different directions, adjusting their ways to the environments in which they live. Roughly 300 000 live in Guangzi north of Nanning, 200 000 live in eastern Yunnan, 100 000 in Guizhou and another 100 000 are dispersed between Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
The Yao's ancestors were the "Wuximan" who were forced to migrate southward from their original habitat in the Changjiang River Basin by the Han expansion during the Qin (221-207BC) and Han (207BC-220AD) dynasties. The various Yao tribes used to have different names in accordance with their tribal origins, occupations, attire and customs. There were more than 20 branches of the Yaos, such as "Pan Yao", "Baiku Yao", "Hongtou Yao" etc but they all adopted the name "Yao" after 1950.
These three photos were taken in the Vietnamese village of Sapa near the Chinese border. The plain head dress of the top two indicate that these ladies are married while the tassels in the lower photo advertise that these girls are still unmarried. The Sa Pa Yao enjoy a great deal of sexual freedom. Late in the evening, after the Saturday market, married or unmarried, they were all looking for a mate for the night.
The Yao groups are animists who revere their ancestors. They believe in spirits associated with natural elements who must be placated and they practice a form of witchcraft directed at their enemies. The Danu Festival, also known as the King Paugu Festival, held on the Yao New Year's day is most important for the Yaos. Paugu, the king and hero of the Yao, incarnated as a dog, is said to have protected the Yaos and helped them develop into peaceful and wealthy communities.
Y) Yi [Lolo, Wu-Man] (Yunnan_4,5M)
The Yi, also called Lolo and Wu-man, are an important Tibeto-Burman ethnic group of more than 7 million people living in the mountains of southwest China. Their principal concentrations are in Yunnan where they number 4.5 million and Sichuan with smaller numbers in northwestern Guizhou and in the northern part of Guangxi's Zhuang Autonomous Region. The Yi language is spoken in six major Yi dialects and the Lisu, Naxi, Hani, Lahu, and Bai languages are closely related to the Yi.
The traditional Yi culture includes a primitive hoe-using agriculture, livestock herding and hunting. A caste system formerly divided the Yi into two groups. The Black Bone Yi, the ruling group, were apparently descended from the Qiang tribes that migrated south from the Qinghai plateau. The far more numerous White Bone Yi were formerly subjugated or enslaved by the Black Bones. Slavery of the White Bones was ended by the Chinese government in the 1950s. The White Bones have spread over the highlands of Yunnan and Guizhou, while the heartland of the Black Bones lies in the great and lesser Liang Mountains southwest of the Sichuan Basin.
The Yis like the colour black but they have several dozen varieties of colorful clothing. In Honghe, girls like to wear cock's comb shaped hats adorned with silver bubbles like the moon and stars symbolizing brightness and happiness. In Dongchuan, young men loke to wear smart vests specially-made for festivals. The Torch Festival, and the Flower Festival are the Yi's major festivals.
In the old days, the Yis used their own solar calendar. They also had their own syllabic script which is still in use. Many valuable works in history, literature, medicine and folk tales were written in the Yi script.
Z) Zang  ()
The 120 000 Zang people living in northwest Yunnan are Tibetans that trace their ancestry to the Qiang people, ancient nomadic tribes that lived on the Qinghai plateau as early as the Qin and Han dynasties.
Their language, Tibetan, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group. It is also spoken in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and in parts of northern India (including Sikkim). The language is usually divided by scholars into four dialect groups: Central, Southern, Northern (in northern Tibet), and Western (in western Tibet). The widely used dialect of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, belongs to the Central group, while the Southern dialects are found primarily in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal. The Western dialects are more conservative in their sound systems, having best preserved the initial consonant clusters and the final stops of the old Tibetan language and having less development of tones than the other dialects. Tibetan is written in an ancient script of Indian origin, its present form having been in use since the 9th century. Its orthography reflects the pronunciation of the language as it was in the 7th century and therefore does not adequately represent today's pronunciation.
The Tibetans are by nature ebullient, sanguine and bold and so are their folk arts. A very popular art form in Tibet is the dance drama. Dancers move their body with sprightly rhythm singing pleasant lyrics. To present a "hada" to someone is a most highly regarded ceremony for Tibetans. The hada is a length of white gauze or silk. Presenting a hada is a mark of respect.
The Tibetan people believe in Lamaist Buddhism. Their society used to be feudal and theocratic and their festivals are still mostly associated with religion.
Z) Zhuang [Chang(Guangxi_16.5M, Yunnan_1,2M)
The Zhuangs in Guangxi and Yunnan are the descendants of the ancient "Baiyue" people who used to inhabit Southern China. The Zhuangs were variously called Buzhuang, Butu, Bunong, Buman or Buyayi. The Zhuang live mostly in the Zhuang Autonomous Region of Guangxi where they number more than 7 million people. There are also about 1.2 million of them living in the south-east corner of Yunnan.
They speak two closely related dialects classified as Northern and Central Tai . Characteristic cultural traits of the traditional Zhuang include a preference for valley lands adjacent to streams, wet-rice cultivation with the use of buffalo or oxen, and platform houses on pilings. Social customs, differing from Chinese customs, include premarital sexual freedom and free marriage without middlemen. The bride stays at home with her parents until the birth of the first child (the marriage being considered consummated only then).
Magical rites, sorcery with human figurines, and ancestor worship were other distinguishing elements of the Baiyue culture. It had its maximum geographic extension just before its contact with the Han Chinese culture about 2 000 years ago and covered parts of Sichuan and of the lower Jiangxi River valley. The advance of the Han Chinese culture and empire pushed them southward. Today, the cultural heirs of these early people include the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, and the Shan of Myanmar, as well as the Dai of Yunnan, the Buyi of Guizhou, and the Zhuang in Guangxi. Of these, the Zhuang and Buyi have now become highly sinicized.
Their closest linguistic affinities are with other Northern Tai languages, including Buyi in Guizhou just to the north. The Zhuang dialects of southern Guangxi belong to the Central branch of Tai and are officially designated the Southern dialect of the Zhuang language. Their closest linguistic relatives are the Central Tai languages of northeastern Vietnam known as Nung and Tho (the latter now called Tay in Vietnam). All Zhuang dialects are typical of the Tai languages in using tone (pitch differences) to distinguish words. Words are largely monosyllabic and include many borrowings from Chinese, both ancient and modern.
A standard Zhuang language has been formulated and a romanized script developed to write it. The standard is based mostly on the dialect of Wuming, a Northern speech. Only about three quarters of the members of the official nationality speak a Zhuang dialect.
LINGUISTIC FAMILIES AND GROUPS
A) Austro-Asiatic group
The Austro-Asiatic languages comprise some 150 languages spoken in Southeast Asia and eastern India. Vietnamese, Khmer, and Mon are culturally the most important of these languages and have the longest recorded history. The two most widely spoken languages, Vietnamese and Khmer, are the national languages of Vietnam and Cambodia respectively. Mon is spoken in Thailand and Myanmar.
M) Austronesian group
The Austronesian group (Malayo-Polynesian) includes Malayan, Polynesian, Melanesian, most languages of the Philippines and of western Indonesia (Borneo, Sumatra, Java-Bali-Lombok, Sulawesi), the Chamic languages of mainland Southeast Asia, and the languages of Madagascar. Some of the largest and best known Austronesian languages, include Ilokano, Tagalog, Cebuano, Malay, Acehnese, Toba Batak, Minangkabau, Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese, Buginese, Makasarese, and Malagasy.
M) Miao-Yao family
Some scholars classify the Miao-Yao languages as a separate branch of the Sino-Tibetan family but others place them in the Austronesian group along with the Tai.
M) Mon-Khmer family
Mon-Khmer languages constitute the indigenous language family of mainland Southeast Asia and belong to the Austro-Asiatic group. They are spoken in areas ranging north to southern China, south to Malaysia, west to Assam state in India, and east to Vietnam. The most important Mon-Khmer languages, spoken by more than 100,000, are Vietnamese, Khmer, Muong, Mon, Khasi, Khmu, and Wa. The family consists of some 130 languages, most of which are not, or very rarely, written. Several languages are spoken by only a few hundred people.
S) Sino-Tibetan group
The Sino-Tibetan languages comprise more than 300 languages and major dialects, chief among them being Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese. Sino-Tibetan languages constitute the world's second most spoken language family after Indo-European. Various Chinese languages, grouped as Sinitic languages, are spoken in China and Taiwan and by Chinese immigrants in many nations. Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Tibet, Burma, and throughout the Himalayan Mountain region.
Sino-Tibetan languages have a number of features in common. Many of these features are typological in nature: monosyllabicity, tonality, affixation, initial consonant alternation, vowel alternation, indistinct word classes, use of noun classifiers, and strict word order. Phonological correspondences in shared vocabulary have been important pieces of evidence in the argument that all Sino-Tibetan languages are related and derive from a common source.
The Chinese writing system is nonalphabetic. Each meaningful syllable, or each non meaningful syllable that is part of a polysyllabic word, is represented by a specific character. Although many of the characters depict some object, the objects cannot be recognised in most cases. Thus, it would be misleading to describe the Chinese script as pictographic or ideographic. Nor is it syllabic, since syllables that sound alike but have different meanings are written differently. The Chinese writing system is logographic; i.e., each symbol represents a word.
The Tibeto-Burman languages have evolved from a common source in very different ways largely because of the movements of the various groups of people throughout central and southern Asia. The Tibetan writing system was developed by early Buddhist missionaries from India in the 7th to 9th century. It is an alphabetic system very similar to the Indo-Aryan systems. Present-day Tibetan pronunciation differs greatly from the written language. Western Tibetan dialects have most faithfully preserved such features as initial consonant clusters and final stops, which Central dialects have lost. Central dialects have developed a system of tones, probably owing to Chinese influence. Increasing influence of the Chinese language on the Tibetan dialects is likely a result of political control.
The Burmese writing system is alphabetic and Indic in origin. Written Burmese in its present form dates back to at least the 15th century. Grammatical categories have remained fairly conservative, but great changes have occurred in Burmese phonetics.
B) Tai Languages  (Thai=55M_Thailand, Dai=20M_Yunnan, Shan=4M_Myanmar, Lao=3M_Laos, Dai=3M_Vietnam)
The Tai identity developed in the 1st century AD in the Jiangxi River valley. The former assumption that the Tai language and its relatives belong to the Sino-Tibetan family is now rejected by many. The similarity between the Tai and the Chinese phonological systems (especially tone) is no longer taken as criterial; and, although many lexical items are also shared with Chinese, many more (including much of the most basic vocabulary) are not. A competing proposal links Tai and its relatives to the Austronesian group.
Chinese pressures forced the Tai south until they were spread throughout the northern part of Southeast Asia. Their cultural descendants are the Thai in Thailand the Shan in Myanmar the Lao in Laos, the Tai in Vietnam and, in China, the Dai in Yunnan, the Buyi in Guizhou, and the Zhuang in Kwangsi's Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Most Tai are Buddhists of the Theravada school. In the villages of many Tai groups, the wat is both the social and the religious centre. Most young men spend a period as monks. Along with the Buddhist tradition there exist pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs; shrines are dedicated to spirits important in day-to-day affairs. These animistic beliefs tend to be strongest among those peoples farthest from the traditional centres of Dai Buddhism.
The major activity is the cultivation of rice, dry rice in the highlands and wet in the valleys. The usual Dai household consists of a husband, wife (or wives), and unmarried children. The status of women is high. None of the Tai people has a caste system. The basic structure of their villages is similar, with communal leadership being provided by an elected village headman, together with the Buddhist monks and elders. Dai cultural identity has remained strongest among the Shan of Myanmar, the Thai of Thailand, and the Lao.
T) Tibeto-Burman group
The Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Tibet and Myanmar; in the Himalayas, including the countries of Nepal and Bhutan and the state of Sikkim, India; in Assam, India, and in Pakistan and Bangladesh. They also are spoken by hill tribes throughout mainland Southeast Asia and central China. Tibetic qualifies a number of dialects and languages spoken in Tibet and the Himalayas. Burmic includes Yi, Hani, Lahu, Lisu, Kachin, Kuki-Chin, the obsolete Hsi-hsia (Tangut), and other languages. The Tibetan (7th century) and Burmese (11th century) writing systems are derived from the Indo-Aryan tradition; the Hsi-hsia system (11th-13th century in northwestern China) was based on the Chinese model. Pictographic writing systems, which show some influence from Chinese, were developed within the past 500 years by Yi and Naxi tribes in western China. In modern times many Tibeto-Burman languages have acquired writing systems in Roman script or in the script of the host country (Thai, Burmese, Indic, and others).