The Jingpo Kachin peoples


While most publications on China and Yunnan's ethnic peoples use the name Jingpo, it is important to note that the people referred to in China as the Jingpo (Jingpaw in Burma and Singpho in India), are but one of many groups, known collectively as the Kachin in Burma (Myanmar), where the majority live. The Kachin seldom refer to themselves by this term but rather that of their own linguistic group, which are given as the Maru, the Lashi, the Atsi (Szi), the Lisu and the Rawang in Burma (1).

These subdivisions refer to differences in language rather than ethnicity and are all branches of the Tibeto-Burman language family. The Kachin are divided into subgroups, usually given as the Zaiwa, the Lange (Langsu), the Chasan (Leqi) the Bola and, of course, the Jingpo, the largest of these groups. The names vary but all are quite distinct from one another. Why has the name Jingpo become synonymous with the entire group in China? In part because, in these related Kachin cultures, there is no written script for any of the various dialects.

The Jingpo dialect was romanized in the late 1800's by Christian missionaries in Myanmar and for the Zaiwa branch in the 1950's. Therefore, both numerically and linguistically, the Jingpo have become the dominant of these many groups and the Jingpo dialect is used as a "lingua Kachinica" by those whose dialects are mutually unintelligible. Hence all Kachin in China have come to be known as the Jingpo.

These groups referred to as Jingpo number over 130,000 in China, although the border is quite porous. In China they primarily live in the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan, with some also in Lancang, Tengchong, Gengma and the Nujiang Valley. Oral histories relate that they originally arrived in Yunnan from the Tibetan Plateau. These histories describe a place where there was snow year-round and even corn and barley could barely grow. Approximately 1,500-2,000 years ago the Jingpo headed south along the Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangzi) rivers before settling in their present locations in the 16th century. Their major subsistence crops are rice, maize and beans. Located in a semi-tropical ecosystem, many types of fruit are also common.

Jingpo villages, much as in Chinese fengshui, are usually backed by mountains and face a river or stream and typically feature a main gate at the entrance. Houses are primarily made from bamboo, as were virtually all of their daily utensils in the past. Traditionally, a newly married woman and her husband will erect a new house near the wife's home, while, in a reversal of many societal norms, the youngest son will usually live with and support his parents after marriage and later become the head of the family, inheriting the family wealth.

(1) Lintner, Bertil. 1997. The Kachin:Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier, Teak House Publications: Bangkok.

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