The Akha in 1905


As seen by Fred W. Carey

From the end of the plain our road led up through bamboo groves and light forest to a height of 5,150 feet. The steep hills on either side the route are peopled by Akhas, a curious tribe, belonging to the Woni division of the Lolo race. They are extremely simple and timid, and when we met them on the road would hang together like a flock of sheep. It is hard to guess from what place this tribe originally came, but about the time of the Mussulman rebellion large numbers of them migrated from Talang, in South Yunnan, and came to live in the Shan States, where in places they are merely the drudges of their Shan neighbbours.

In the British Shan States the Akhas are known as Kaws. There is an extraordinary variety of them, as they are divided into clans, and again into families. The women of each family have adopted a different head-dress, and by this distinctive mark one may know them apart. These hats form the most important part of a costume which is extremely picturesque but entirely inadequate, consisting as it does only of a short skirt, an open jacket, and the inevitable Woni gaiters. The Chinese distinguish the different tribes of Akhas by such names as Pointed Hats, Level Heads (not alluding I imagine to their mental capacity) and Short Heads. They know nothing of ethnology, and take no interest in any further classification of these inferior races. One need not be surprised at their indifference; for, to make an "odorous comparison," scarcely an Englishman of Today has any notion of the tartans proper to the various Scottish clans.

The Akhas are a hard-working race. They clear the hill-sides, and cultivate cotton, opium and a little tobacco, besides hill rice and maize. The men are bigger than most of their neighbbours, and swarthier, though much of the darkness of their complexion is due to a dislike to the use of water. They are very stolid, though not wanting in intelligence, and little can be learned from them of their origin and customs. Some of their ceremonies are beautifully simple. A young Akha wishing to marry does not consult the girl of his choice, but (cunning fellow!) offers a pig, a fowl and four eggs to her mother. After this, should the girl refuse to marry him, her people must console his disappointed parents by a small gift of money. When the actual wedding takes place, the bride crosses her wrist, holding an egg in each hand. The bridegroom takes one, and she the other; they eat the eggs, and the ceremony is complete.

The Akhas have no written language. Their religion consists principally of sacrifices to the Nats, i.e. good and malevolent spirits; but many villages now posses a temple, and Buddhism, as preached by the Shan priests, is taking the place of more primitive beliefs. In some of the Akha villages I also found unmistakable evidence of phallic worship. Theft amongst the Akhas is at first punishable with a fine: repeated theft renders the culprit liable to be buried alive -a punishment calculated to convert the most hardened kleptomaniac!

Like the Cantonese and the Annamese, the Akhas are dog-eaters. But there is this difference: the Annamese will only eat black dogs which have a black palate; the Cantonese will eat any kind of Chow dog with a black palate; the Akha will eat any kind of dog they can lay their hands on, -and when I stayed in their villages I had always to see that my own canine followers were not appropriated for the Akha's pot.

Allied to the Akha, and speaking the same language, are the Nahe, a tribe living on the outskirts of Pu Erh and Szemao. These people lead a wretched existence, acting as hewers of wood and drawers of water to the Chinese. Every day they go out, young and old, to the neighbouring hills in search of firewood, which they bring into town towards evening. They sell as much as they can carry for seventy-five cash. They never grow rich!

Fred W. Carey.- Notes of a Journey overland from Szemao to Rangoon. In Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 1905

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