Mule caravans established a network across physical, political, and ethnic boundaries that integrated Southwest China, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Th is article is a fi rst exploration of this little-known mobile network. Based mainly on oral history, it focuses on the mule caravans based in Zhaozhou in western Yunnan from the late Qing to the 1940s, when the fi rst motor roads were constructed. Th e investigation assembles horse and mule technologies and trade organization in detail in order to reconstruct the role and standing of transporters and their networks in local society, in the regional setting, in a volatile political environment, and in the face of challenging natural conditions.
The Five Buddha Districts system prevailed from the 1790s to the 1880s on the frontier between Yunnan, in Southwest China, and the Burmese Kingdom, in the mountainous areas to the west of the Mekong River. Through more than a century of political mobilization, the Lahu communities in this area became an integrated and militarized society, and their culture was reconstructed in the historical context of ethnic conflicts, competition, and cooperation among the Wa, Dai, and Han Chinese settlers. The political elites of the Five Buddha Districts, however, were monks who had escaped the strict orthodoxy of the Qing government to become local chieftains, or rebels, depending on political changes in southern Yunnan. As a centralized polity, the Five Buddha Districts system was attached to the frontier politics of the Qing state before the coming of European colonial powers. The Qing state provided a sociopolitical space for local groups to develop their political ideals between various powerful Dai-Shan chieftains. The negotiation, competition, and cooperation between the Five Buddha leadership and the Qing, Dai chieftains, and neighboring political powers had been thoroughly integrated into the frontier politics of this interdependent society for more than two hundred years. As the history of the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation shows that no mountain space existed to allow the natives to escape from the state through their shifting agriculture, and anarchism was not practiced by the mountain people who were separated from the state, the author argues that a stateless region like James Scott’s “Zomia” did not historically exist in this region.
The Lahu, with a population of around 470,000, inhabit the mountainous country in Yunnan Province bordering on Burma, Laos and northern Thailand. Buddhists, with a long history of resistance to the Chinese Han majority, the Lahu are currently facing a serious collapse of their traditional social system, with the highest suicide rate in the world, large scale human trafficking of their women, alcoholism and poverty. This book, based on extensive original research including long-term anthropological research among the Lahu, provides an overview of the traditional way of life of the Lahu, their social system, culture and beliefs, and discusses the ways in which these are changing. It shows how the Lahu are especially vulnerable because of their lack of political representatives and a state educated elite which can engage with, and be part of, the government administrative system. The Lahu are one of many relatively small ethnic minorities in China – overall the book provides an example of how the Chinese government approaches these relatively small ethnic minorities.
This research reviews the formation of the Yunnan-Burma frontier since the 1720s, when the Qing government reformed the administrative systems from chieftainships to official counties in the middle and southern Yunnan mountains areas. One of some crucial political changes was the policy of salt revenue which directly stimulated large scale ethnic resistance in the region of salt wells. However, the social political context of continuing ethnic conflicts was not only rooted in the reshaping of the salt-consuming districts, but also rooted in social changes in the Yunnan-Burma borderland because of increasing Han Chinese immigration and their penetration into mining, long distance trade and local agriculture. In order to successfully control mountain resources as the base of revenue, the Qing government continued to gradually integrate native Dai chieftains into official counties. Local resistance continued and reached a peak from the 1790s to the 1810s. Pushed by the Qing government, and with the collaboration of different social actors, the synthesized mobilization of frontier formation had made ethnic politics a main style of social political reconstruction, even if commercial exchange, long distance trade, and demographic reshaping also continued to be mixed with ethnic politics as another layer of the YunnanBurma frontier formation.
After the 1680s, Big Vehicle Religion gradually developed on the Yunnan-Burma frontier. It was banned by the Qing government and became a sect of Chinese secret societies. The founders of this religion combined various Buddhist and Taoist elements together and claimed this to be the route to their salvation. They also trained many students to be monks. After the Sino-Burma wars these monks established a Five Buddha Districts system among the Lahu and some Wa villages in western Mekong River, until the system was destroyed by the Qing government in the 1880s. The monks became leaders of the Luohei/Lahu through millenarianism and many Han immigrants also became involved in the movements to become the Lahu or the Wa. The monks performed critical roles as social activists in Lahu cultural reconstruction. As a shaping power, their human agency was deeply integrated into secret societies and they formulated regional political centers as well as a network mechanism for the floating indigenous populations. Secret societies clearly shaped a historical framework for local politics and economic flux in the Yunnan-Burma frontier and became a cross-border mechanism for contemporary life after the border between Yunnan, Burma and Thailand was decided. However, it used to be a networking dynamic linked with silver and copper minefields, Sino-Burma wars, and anti-Qing millenarianism. Local people could also use this frontier space for their negotiations with different states before the coming of European colonialism.