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To Be at One with Drums: Social Order and Headhunting among the Wa of China

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 121-139 | 10.1353/jbs.2013.0004

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The beating of large drums in the form of hollowed-out tree trunks is not specific to groups who traditionally carried out headhunting. In many parts of the world, some of these groups never punctuated their rituals of regeneration of life by such drumming. However, headhunters of Southeast Asia systematically resort to drums or gongs.

In mainland Southeast Asia, two separate clusters of head-hunting groups used to beat tree trunk drums: the Naga of Assam (Northeast of India), and the so-called “wild” Wa who live across the Burma-China border. These two groups are comparable in several ways.1 Their kinship system is based on exogamous patrilineages, some of them endowed with political and religious prerogatives. They are predominantly upland dry-field farmers, but also grow wet rice wherever suitable land is available. Their communities of headhunters used to live on higher mountain slopes, in large fortified villages of 100 to 300 households. In both cases, headhunting was carried out before the rice-growing season, and took the form of distant expeditions and ambushes. Its overt purpose was to insure protection, good health, and abundant crops to the whole community. Among the Naga and the Wa, head-hunting was the starting point of a ritual cycle aimed at seasoning the new head. The cycle concluded with the installation of the head on a pole, outside the main gate of the village. In both cases too, large drums were beaten during the rituals by rows of men distributed on both their sides. The warping and hollowing-out of the tree trunks from which these drums were made was a major event in the ritual life of both groups.

However, the Wa and Naga raiding groups were of different extent. Whereas headhunting raids among the Naga were carried out by sub-villages compounds, those of the Wa involved villages or supra-villages organizations acting as a small-scale sociocosmos.2 Consequently, headhunting contributed in the latter case to uphold a strong cooperativeness between local segments of the lineages forming the whole society. This group solidarity and the functions acknowledged to each social unit were staged at the occasion of drumming sessions that came with the hunting of new heads. Such events, on whose symbolism I shall focus in the following pages, echoed the myth of origin of the Wa lineages and reinforced its “truth.”

This article is based both on ethnographic data that I collected in 1997 among the Wa of the Lancang district (Simao prefecture, Yunnan province), and on the rich report published by Chinese ethnographers who, in the early 1950s, recorded the folklore of China’s different populations to implement the nationalities policy of the People’s Republic of China.3

Headhunters on the Margins of China

The Wa speak a Môn-Khmer language (Palaung-Wa branch) of the Austroasiatic family. They live in an upland area on both sides of the border between Burma (northeast of the Shan State) and China (southwest of the Yunnan province). In China, their population of about 400,000 is mainly located in the Lincang and Simao prefectures. I did my fieldwork in 1997, in Simao, more precisely among the Wa of the Xuelin township, in the Lancang autonomous county. These local Wa call themselves Palaukoe. At the end of the 1990s, they accounted for 84 percent of the township population and were divided among 45 compact villages.4 In lowlands and on mountain slopes, up to an altitude of 800 meters, they cultivate irrigated rice fields, whose technology they say to have learned from the Han five or six generations ago. Above an altitude of 800 meters, they cultivate crops such as paddy, maize and tubers in upland dry fields.

The Xuelin township is located along a mountain range that extends to the Wa state of Burma, and corresponds to an area that James George Scott and John Percy Hardiman identified at the end of the 19th century as the northern limit of headhunting practice. Evidence I recorded locally suggests that the Palaukoe cut their last fresh heads in the early 1940s. However, they continued their rituals of regeneration of life during the next decade, thanks to heads they...

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