Stories from an Ancient Land: Perspectives on Wa History and Culture

Husni Abu Bakar

This book is an advanced ethnographic guide of the Wa people of the ancient Wa lands located near the borderlands of the Chinese state of Yunnan and the Wa state in Burma. Along detailed anthropological veins, it combines fieldwork accounts of encounters with the Wa people and in-depth archival research of a wide range of Wa, Chinese, Burmese, Shan, and colonial British and European sources. Challenging the idea of the Wa as “primitive,” it provides new avenues to understand Wa culture, mythology, worldview, and history.

Finding his philosophical grounding in the works of well-known anthropologists James C. Scott and Jonathan Friedman, Fiskesjö problematizes the Wa people as one of the many tribal communities that populate the mountainous nonstate space called Zomia – a term coined by Scott in his seminal book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009) – in which the authoritative reach of the state is limited, if not completely absent. To capture the regional focus of his book, the author mentions the “Wa-ic” corridor, which refers to the ancient Wa homelands near the upper Salween and Mekong rivers in China and Burma (p.1). By reading accounts of the early explorers, the languaging of the made-up contrast between the ‘central states’ of China and the ‘peripheral’ Wa lands is studied. In seeking to define the lands and incorporate them into the colonial records, the British used vague, inferior labels for the Wa states, such as “statelets” or “circles” (p. 108). Similarly, the Chinese employs zhong guo, a mesial term for ‘central states’ denoting the definitive expanse of the civilized Chinese world (p. 177), that excludes the Wa lands. While dealing with this issue of untranslatability, the author directs a keen eye towards concepts that are uncommon to the lay reader and which could be more useful in capturing the geopolitical reality of the Wa lands.

In Chapter 1, Fiskesjö shares an intimate account of the author as a field researcher. Between the Wa people and the outsider, there lies a certain ‘indebtedness.’ This tribal predisposition is based on “the emergence (from the) primordial hole” (Sigang Lih), a sequential origin myth of the Wa people as the first human beings on earth (p. 30). The Wa people come to see all outsiders, including the Chinese and the British who ‘return,’ as being indebted to them as they have taken from the Wa lands, the homeland for all humans on earth, of which the Wa people are the guardians. Mindful of the belief of this myth as the base of Wa culture, the author comes to recognize the importance of social tact in ethnographic research. Explaining the Wa origin myth as something more real than a fairy tale, he discusses it in relation to the anarchic term ‘anti-myth’ (p. 56), which is much closer to the empirical and circumstantial realities of the civilized world. In contrast with their superimposed “peripheral situation,” he clarifies that the Wa see themselves in the supposed “ground zero” of human history – their emergence the first, and their lands the center.

In Chapter 2, the author discusses the ethnic-based naming system of the Wa as a symptom of the relations between the linguistics and the histories of Wa people specifically and China in general. In the late 1990s, there were still some Wa being called ‘benren,’ a generic Chinese term meaning “original people” or “autochthonous people” (p. 67). ‘Benren’ assumes the internalization of Chinese culture, and more importantly of a Chinese worldview. Despite the fact that there is some – or even a complete – loss of a native sense, there are members of the Wa community who seek to preserve and revive Wa names in their names, instead of adopting Chinese ones, a “retranslation” of their identity from ‘benren’ back to ‘Wa’ (p. 67). Indeed, there is a crucial discrepancy between the Wa being a mere minority or an ethnic group in their own right. In the Wa attempts to reinforce their identity by way of naming, we see the tension between the tribal volition of its members vis-à-vis the incorporating power of the state to include the Wa into its peasantry.

In Chapter 3, Fiskesjö presents narratives on the rice beer culture prevalent in and central to the Wa community. Humbly recognizing his predisposition as a foreigner, or as an “outsider-scholar” (as mentioned in Chapter 1, p. 30), he justifies the necessity of adopting “participant intoxication” as a field method (p. 73) – that is, a radical improvisation of the “participant observation” method common in anthropological research. By putting himself in the shoes of a drinking Wa person, the author fishes out interesting yet technical details of the production and consumption of the Wa rice beer or (blai), examining how it comes to shape the Wa identity, worldview, and the relations within the community as well as between the community and foreigners. As he puts it, Wa rice beer “constructs the world as it is and I would also say the world as one wishes it to be” (p. 78). Far from being simple, the Wa rice beer drinking culture is rife with traditional Wa-specific beverageware such as the glag (‘plastic bottle’), the lei (‘bamboo mug’), and the hraig (‘straw’), games, and ceremonial rules. The author then explores the issues around Wa rice beer culture such as its relation to alcoholism as compared to hard liquor, and its circumstances under the incursion of British officials and Communist Party policies.

In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, Fiskesjö ventures deeper into Wa anti-stateness. Running further along the Zomia-based analytical strand of thought, Fiskesjö explains his preference for the Friedman model of the state formation system, which recognizes the dynamism of the state-periphery relations. He elucidates this dynamism by applying the term “peripheral situation” throughout the book as theoretical signposts, to describe the geopolitical and social realities of the Wa people. He talks about the egalitarian nature of the Wa people that is prevalent in system(s) of rule and kinship, mining, slavery, war, and headhunting, emphasizing the oppositional coexistence of the centrality of Wa views of themselves and the marginalizing views of the central government(s) of China and Burma, and the British imperialists and the Shan tribe of them.

In Chapter 7, Fiskesjö close-reads, and shares excerpts from, the travelogues of historian-ethnographer-travelers, their views and writings about the Wa people, and the Wa people’s perceptions of them. By way of an amusing debunking of rumors of Wa cannibalism, in which Chinese explorers misconstrued betel juice on paths in Wa lands as human blood, and an extension of the metaphor of cannibalism to the political situation, he illustrates how the Chinese government seeks to ‘consume’ the outlying tribal lands and their inhabitants, including the Wa.

In Chapter 8, Fiskesjö again utilizes the concept of “peripheral situation” in examining the spiritual dimensions of Wa life. Drawing on the indigenous understanding of the Wa, he explains the intricate connections between human agents – the sick person, si boug (‘oracle’) – and non-human forces such as ge meang (‘ancestor spirits’) and qong taox (‘evil force’). He also explores Wa traditional practices such as hlax doh (‘plantain leaf sacrifice’), which are performed to diagnose and treat “spirit-caused” diseases.

Chapter 9 explores religious topics in the history of the Wa people, including the existence of Buddhist cults among the Wa and the Lahu, Christian exploitative proselytization by British and European missionaries, perceptions of the Lahu and the Wa of Christianity and Buddhism, and the circulation of wishful and mystical stories of prophetic figures within the tribes.

Chapter 10 expands the notion of the “primitive” as applied to and by the Wa, and how the civilized world internalizes, then packages, Wa culture for profit via the construction of exotic ethno-theme parks in Ximeng and Shenzhen. Between the foreign visitors’ fear and the “allure” of the Wa, these parks are microcosms in which the performative tension between the barbaric and the civilized are brought to life, with faux dance performances and “skull avenues” from Wa headhunting, displaying facets of Wa culture that the public might find appealing.

In the epilogue, the author contemplates the possibilities of the Wa people’s assimilation, according to the demands of the ultra-nationalist policies, and the constant reinvention of Wa identity as a method for cultural survival in the postmodern world. Comparable to the fates of the Uyghur and the Kazakh in China, members of the Wa society have been subjected to face forced conversion and relocation (p. 267), and being “cooked” (as per the cannibal metaphor in Chapter 7) to make them comply with the requirements of being civilized in accordance to the whims of the nation-states of China and Burma. In light of current and impending subjugation, the author acknowledges the optimism and the resilience of the Wa people when it comes to survival and self-preservation.