The Wa people and their culture and history are attracting increasing interest around the world. This introduction is intended as a brief overview, which will suggest the rich potential of Wa studies. It is by no means complete. What I offer is, first, a brief introduction to the setting of the Wa, followed by a discussion of the various sources for Wa studies and introduce some of the recent developments in this field. My main goal is to encourage more research into Wa culture, language, and history.
The traditional homeland of the Wa people, about one million people today, is located in the uplands of Southeast Asia, between what today are the modern states of Burma (Myanmar) and China. In his still very useful overview of the Wa language (Diffloth 1980),1 the linguist Gérard Diffloth described this ancient land as the “Waic corridor” in between the Salween and Mekong rivers, which they share with speakers of other closely related Northern Mon-Khmer languages. Wa lands are located in the mountainous region east of the Burmese cities of Mandalay and Lashio, north of the former Shan realm of Kengtung, and west of the Chinese tea town of Puer. This mountainous region is crisscrossed by smaller rivers and valleys. Originally, the Wa were self-sustaining agriculturalists rotating their fields on forested mountain slopes and growing rice, millet, and many other crops. In addition, they have long been engaged in trade with others [End Page 1] in the region, and especially since the 19th century also developed trade in export items such as opium and mining products.
For centuries, the Wa lands were self-governed. Wa people maintained their own autonomy under arms (guns, cross-bows, fortifications, and so on), while engaging in trade and contact with neighboring peoples. These include the Shan (or Tai, who are known as Siam in the Wa language); the Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people arriving from the north in recent centuries; the Chinese and the Burmese. All these neighboring peoples typically recognize the Wa as the prior inhabitants of the region, which agrees with widespread Wa oral traditions about themselves as indigenous to the area and living there prior to all others.
The Wa were not directly governed by other powers until the 20th century. In the last years of the 19th century, the British and Chinese empires initiated and then abandoned attempts to delineate a border between each other’s empires. Numerous wars meant that an international border was not agreed upon or demarcated between Burma and China until the early 1960s. The new border split the formerly independent Wa areas in the middle, and divided their territories between the new modern nations of China and Burma, respectively. Since this time, approximately a third of the million or so Wa people are citizens of China and about two-thirds of Burma. Even so, today most Wa are able to travel more or less freely in their own ancient lands, across the border and beyond.
The Wa are formally recognized in both Burma and China as an ethnic minority officially entitled to limited autonomy. On the China side, Ximeng and Cangyuan counties are recognized as demographically dominated by the Wa, and according to the Chinese system, ethnic Wa hold government posts there.
On the Burma side, the main Wa areas are today recognized as Burma’s Special Region 2, frequently known in English as the Wa State, and in Chinese, correspondingly, as Wa Bang. The word “bang” is similar to one sense of the [End Page 2] English word “state,” referring to something less than a fully sovereign entity. The Wa State, headquartered in Panghsang, also has ethnic Wa leaders, as well as its own armed forces, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) created in 1989 after the demise of the China-sponsored Communist Party of Burma (on UWSA, its political wing UWSP, and on the post-1989 Wa State, see Kramer 2007; on the CPB, Lintner 1990). At the Panghsang high school, four languages are taught: Wa, Chinese, Burmese, and English; in addition, the Shan language is also used, in and around the Wa...