1902 Encyclopedia > The Shans

The Shans




SHANS. This name is applied to a number of for the most part semi-independent communities occupying a region bounded on the W. by Burmah and Assam, N. and N.E. by the Chinese province of Yun-nan, R. by Tong--king, and S. by Siam (see Plate IX.). Ethnologically the race has a much wider extension, including the Siamese (see SIAM), and also, according to Garnier and Colquhoun, the hill tribes around the Tong-king delta and various tribes of Kwang-tung and Kwang-se, and extending across the north of Burmah into Assam. It is also widely diffused through south-western Yun-nan. Terrien de Lacouperie considers it allied to the Mon, the Mung, apd the Pa, and places its early home in the mountains north of Sze-chuen, whence, not having amal-gamated with the growing Chinese empire, it was gradually forced southwards. Although the level of civilization and the purity of their Buddhism vary considerably among the different branches of the race, there is everywhere a remarkable resemblance in appearance, manners, customs, and polity. The traditions current of their origin, too, though localized by each in its own habitat, are closely similar. This great homogeneity seems the more remark-able in that the race is found not only living under many different political systems,—i.e., either independent, or subject to Burmah, China, or Siam,—but often in com-munities isolated by mountain ranges, inhabited by tribes of different race and character. All this seems to point to a political unity in earlier times.

The Shans probably appeared on the upper Irawadi nearly two thousand years ago, but Burmese and Shan traditions agree that they were established some centuries earlier on the upper waters of the Shweli and on the Salwin and adjacent valleys on the south-west frontiers of Yun-nan. Here, at all events, in the 7th and 8th centuries, we hear of the growth of that power which, temporarily broken by Burmah in the 11th century, reached its highest development in the 13th. This Shan empire, known by the classical Indian name of Kausambi,—corrupted after the punning Chinese fashion into Ko-shan-pyi, i.e., nine Shan states,—was a confederacy of about ten states, known among themselves by the name of the most powerful member, Mau, or Muang Mau. A great leader, Sam Lung Pha, brother of the king of Mau, overran and conquered Upper Assam from the Satiyas in 1229, the dynasty lasting until the British annexation. These Ahoms still inhabit the Assam districts of Sibsagar and south and cast Lakhimpur, though pressed on from the south-west by the Bengalis, whom they despise as a black and inferior race, preferring to associate with the Chinese, whom they regard as congeners, and as the greatest race in the world.

This 13th and the following century also saw Tali to the east and Arakan to the west invaded, Burmah being then weakened by the Mongol invasion;. Chieng Mai and other southern Shan states were also annexed, and "Ayuthia" (i.e., Siam), Cambodia, and Tavoy are claimed by the Shan historians as among their conquests, the Shan influence being felt even in Java. From the 14th to the 16th century wars with both Burmah and China were frequent, and Shan dynasties ruled at times in Burmah; but in 1556-62 the Burmese conquered Mogaung, the chief province of Mau, when Buddhism is recorded to have been introduced: probably only a reform of religion is meant. In 1604 the districts now known as the Chinese Shan States, i.e., the heart of the Mau empire, lying chiefly in the Ta-peng basin, east of Bamo,—a town whose population also is mainly Shan,—were finally conquered by China, Mogaung remaining independent on sufferance till absorbed by Burmah in 1796.





Zimmé or Chieng Mai (including Kiang Hai, Kiang Sen, Lagong, and Lapong), whose capital is now an important and well-built town, and Vien Chang on the east of the Me-kong, were both great Shan centres, warring, with various fortunes, with Burmah and Cambodia and with each other, till subjected by the growing power of Siam late in the last century.

The Burmese Shan States, especially those more remote from Mandalay, have latterly become practically inde-pendent; and, the tyranny which led to extensive south-ward migration having thus ceased, the stream is partly returning northwards. Descendants, too, of the popula-tion deported by Siam from Kiang Sen about a hundred years ago are now by the king’s permission returning to people that fertile territory. The Burmese plan with the Shans was to govern by fostering internal dissensions, and they are bitterly hated, while the Chinese are in an equal degree liked and respected. The great Shan state of Kiang Hung has now accepted the dictation of China, to whom in fact, like some of its lesser neighbours, it has always paid certain taxes, while acknowledging the supre-macy of Burmah. Kiang Tung to the south, which has been Burmese for over a century, has lately made over-tures to Siam, though not forgetting the injuries inflicted by that power in 1854. The numerous ruins of great cities over the whole region from Chieng Mai to Kiang Tung testify to former wealth and prosperity, though they may not have all existed contemporaneously. In Luang Prabang in the north-east, on the other hand, tribes of a partly Chinese race are pressing southwards. It is remarkable how many of the conquering irruptions of south-east Asia were due mainly to the eviction of such conquerors by some stronger power. Incessant wars and vast deporta-tions have tended to assimilate the various populations of all this region.

Each Shan state is governed by a tsobwa (chao p’hya), or supreme chief, aided by a council, and often by a coadjutor. Where the Shans are in immediate contact with one of their great neighbours their habits and customs are necessarily modified ; otherwise, speaking generally, civilization increases southwards. Religion is nominally Buddhist, and the priests, though their lives are usually far from correct, have great influence ; temples; caves, and other localities sacred to Buddha are thronged with worshippers liberal with their offerings ; but the practical exercise of religion consists chiefly in efforts to propitiate or avert the evil influence of the nats or p’hees, demons and spirits everywhere present, to whom all accidents and illnesses are attributed. Along with the Buddha, various images, among which the horse is not uncommon, are adored (though there are temples in which these are not found) ; and fetichcs—natural objects of special form, e.g., of some part of the body—are kept in the house to avert disease. Medical treatment consists largely in magical practices, and individuals denounced by the sick as the cause of their illuess frequently have their houses burned and are themselves deported to a distance. Thus, too, ordeals have a prominent place in legal practice. The Shanshave no Buddhist prejudices against killing poultry or cattle for food, but like other Indo-Chinese and the Malays do not use milk. Slavery is general ; the supply is recruited partly by raids on neighbouring hill tribes ; the Indo-Chinese practice of slavery for debt also prevails. The slaves are not ill-treated, and are chiefly employed in field labour by the chaos, who own great numbers. In appearance the North Shans are sallow, but hardly darker than South Europeans, and are characterized by a short broad flat face, more elongated and nearer the Tartar type in the upper classes ; they have red cheeks, brown eyes hardly oblique, black hair, nose almost aquiline, and are of medium height. The Chinese Shans are much smaller, with squat figures, prominent cheek-bones, and oblique eyes.

The practice of tattooing prevails in some districts, down to the tipper waters of the Me-nam, and it occurs also among the Laos in the south-east, the tattooed being known as the black-bellied, the non-tattooed as the white-bellied. The Shans are all hardier and more manly than their congeners the Siamese, and they are also more sedate and more self-possessed than the Burmese. Most travellers speak of them as brave, friendly, social, and hospitable, but a good deal or the oppression and cruelty natural to a semi--barbarous condition prevails. They are cleanly and fond of bathing, the towns and villages being supplied with bamboo aqueducts. Drunkenness, except at festivals, is rare. Gambling is common, whole families being sold into slavery to pay debts thus contracted. Public gaming and the sale of spirits and opium are monopolies. They show much artistic taste in the beautiful colours of their textile fabrics, the needlework and embroidery of the women, and the designing and execution of the silver ornaments which are worn in profusion. They show great aptitude for trade, and are said by Mr Holt Hallett to welcome the prospect of the railway intended to connect their country with Maulmein, crossing thence to Raheng or some neighbouring point on the Me-nam, and on through the fertile valleys and plateaus on its upper tributaries to the Chinese frontier.





Tea is found, both wild and cultivated, from Zimmé to Kiang Tung. Opium is exported to Mandalay and to China. Indian corn, sugar, and tobacco are grown in the low grounds, and excellent cotton and indigo (which also grows wild in the hills). Teak has long been worked by Auglo-Burmese in the eastern affluents of the Toong-yen and neighbouring valleys, and has become comparatively scarce west of the Me-ping; but it grows freely in the hills and valleys around Kiang Sen and Lagong, and in the hill region of eastern Siam, where, however, it is of inferior quality. Silk is produced, and iron, copper, and silver-lead (galena) ores are worked.

The Shan languages are classified by Dr Cushing as follows:—-Ahom (Assam), extinct; Khamti, on the upper lrawadi and other valleys on the extreme north of Burmah ; the Chinese (Mau) Shans, east from Bamo ; Shans proper, between the mountains which bound the Burmese plains in the east and the Me-kong, and between 23º and 19º N. lat.; Laos to the south of this, from 19º north to the frontiers of Siam ; and lastly, Siarnese. The last two, as spoken, differ but little, and the three others may be grouped together. All have separate alphabets (related, however, in form), except the Siamese ; and, the spelling being phonetic, the orthography is tolerably fixed. But it is a tonal language, and the vowel signs are few, so that some have two or three values assigned them. There are a good many Palî words due to Buddhism, many Burmese words in the districts under Burmese influence, and a large foreign element in the Chinese Shan state of Ho-tha, where the race is perhaps not fundamentally Shan.

See Ney Elias, Introductory Sketch of the History of the Shans in upper Barmah and West Yun-nan, Calcutta, 1876; Yule, Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (1886), and Narrative of the Mission to Ava (1858); Anderson, From Mandalay to Momien; Colquhoun, Among the Shans; Cushing, Shan Dictionary (lntroduction); Bock. Temples and Elephants; Sir A. Phayre, History of Burmah. (C. T.)



The above article was written by: Coutts Trotter, F. R. G. S.



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