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Mining, history, and the anti-state Wa: the politics of autonomy between Burma and China

  • Magnus Fiskesjö (a1)


Historically autonomous and fiercely egalitarian, yet far from isolated and extensively implicated in regional, and global, economies of trade and exchange, the Wa people on the Burma–China frontier stand out in the history of marginal peoples refusing to be marginalized. This article addresses the place of mining in the political history of the Wa area – a key part of what has recently been called the Zomia region, but one which differs from many other cases because of its activist statelessness. The history of the Wa areas is outlined and discussed with reference to larger debates over agency, autonomy, and state formation, with particular attention to mining resources and their relation to Wa politics before the mid twentieth century.



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1 Jonathan Friedman, System, structure and contradiction in the evolution of ‘Asiatic’ social formations, Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira-Sage, 1998, pp. 269 ff.; C. E. Macquoid, Report of the intelligence officer on tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–1896, Rangoon: Government Printers, 1896, p. 24 and elsewhere.

2 G. E. Harvey, 1932 Wa précis: a précis made in the Burma Secretariat of all traceable records relating to the Wa states, Rangoon: Government Printing, 1933, p. 91.

3 On Wa history and myth, see Magnus Fiskesjö, ‘The fate of sacrifice and the making of Wa history’, PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2000; idem, ‘The autonomy of naming: kinship, power and ethnonymy in the Wa lands of the Southeast Asia–China frontiers’, in Charles Macdonald and Yangwen Zheng, eds., Personal names in Asia: history, culture and identity, Singapore: NUS Press, 2009, pp. 150–74; Luo Zhiji, Wazu shehui lishi yu wenhua (The society, history, and culture of the Wa nationality), Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue, 1995.

4 Terence Turner, ‘Ethno-ethnohistory: myth and history in native South American representations of contact with Western society’, in Jonathan Hill, ed., Rethinking history and myth: indigenous South American perspectives on the past, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 235–81.

5 In Wa retellings of these origin myths, this is often described as an encroachment, reversing ancient outward migrations.

6 Recent genetics research appears to support a much higher antiquity of Austro-Asiatic ethnolinguistic formations ancestral to the Wa; Chinese minzushi (ethnohistory) has long sought to connect the Wa with related peoples mentioned in ancient documents (see Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 26 ff.).

7 Chit Hlaing (F. K. Lehman), ‘The central position of the Shan/Tai Buddhism for the socio-political development of Wa and Kayah peoples’, Contemporary Buddhism 10, 1, 2009, p. 24.

8 Geoff Wade, ‘The polity of Yelang () and the origins of the name “China”’, Sino-Platonic Papers 188, 2009, pp. 1–26. The name ‘China’ may derive from an Indian version of ‘Yelang’: a curious last laugh, indeed, for the long-dead ghost of Yelang’s king.

9 Jonathan Friedman, ‘Civilizational cycles and the history of primitivism’, in Cultural identity and global process, London: Sage, 1994, pp. 42–66.

10 Magnus Fiskesjö, ‘On the “raw” and the “cooked” barbarians of imperial China’, Inner Asia 1, 2, 1999, pp. 139–68.

11 On cotton and opium, see Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 177 ff.; Jean Michaud, ‘Editorial: Zomia and beyond’, in this issue, pp. 187–214.

12 One good overview is William Parkinson and Michael Galaty, ‘Secondary states in perspective: an integrated approach to state formation in the prehistoric Aegean’, American Anthropologist, 109, 1, 2007, pp. 113–29; also Gary M. Feinman and Joyce Marcus, eds., Archaic States, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 1998 (leaving out China!). On north China, see Peter Turchin, ‘A theory for formation of large empires’, Journal of Global History, 4, 2009, pp. 191–217; and others.

13 For the concept of Zomia as applied to this region, see James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, and Willem van Schendel, ‘Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping scale in Southeast Asia’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20, 6, 2002, pp. 647–68, as well as all my colleagues in this issue. For discussions of secondary-state dynamics in Zomia, see, for example, Wang Ningsheng, ‘A forgotten kingdom in highland southwest China’, unpublished paper for the 6th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Leiden, 1996, which engaged the theoretical issues; John E. Herman’s Amid the clouds and mist: China’s colonization of Guizhou, 1200–1700, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007 (on the Mu’ege kingdom); Wade, ‘Polity’; Victor Lieberman, Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800–1830, vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 77 ff. (and passim). Scott, Art, pp. 113 ff., also discusses upland ‘state mimicry’ and refers briefly to secondary states (p. 19, n. 36).

14 Edmund Leach, Political systems of highland Burma: a study of Kachin social structure, London: LSE, 1954. Leach reportedly tried to prevent the publication of Friedman’s critique. François Robinne and Mandy Sadan, eds., Social dynamics in the highlands of Southeast Asia: reconsidering Political systems of highland Burma by E.R. Leach, Leiden: Brill, 2007, a recent review of Leach, has few references to these issues.

15 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940; also, the illuminating appropriation of Evans-Pritchard’s segmentary ‘grammar’ in Gerd Baumann and Andre Gingrich, eds., Grammars of identity/alterity: a structural approach, New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.

16 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, esp. pp. 19–24.

17 For an extensive discussion of these matters, see ibid., pp. 237–42 (against Friedman, System, pp. 268–71).

18 Terence Turner, ‘Production, exploitation and social consciousness in the “peripheral situation”’, Social Analysis, 19, 1986, pp. 91–119; Stephen Nugent, ‘The peripheral situation’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 17, 1988, pp. 79–98.

19 Tom Kramer, The United Wa State Party: narco-army or ethnic nationalist party?, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007; Bertil Lintner, The rise and fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1990.

20 On such primitivism, see the articles by Sarah Turner, Bernard Formoso, and others in this issue; see also note 103 below.

21 Scott, Art, pp. 113 ff.

22 Yang Bin, Between winds and clouds: the making of Yunnan (second century BCE to twentieth century CE), New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

23 J. G. Scott, ‘The pacification of West Mang Lün, with notes on the Wild Wa country … Lashio, 13th June 1893’, British Library, Oriental & India Office Collections (henceforth BL, OIOC), MS Eur F 278/78; J. G. Scott and J. P. Hardiman, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, Rangoon: Government Printing, 1900–01, vol. 2, 1, p. 305. If historical, this probably occurred when Burmese armies entered the area in the 1760s to 1770s.

24 Zhang Chengyu, ‘Lujiang xiayou yidong zhi Jiulongjiang xingji (Journal of a journey to the east of the lower Lujiang river, up to the river Jiulongjiang)’, in Li Genyuan, ed., Yongchang fu wenzheng Collected writings on Yongchang prefecture, Kunming: Tengchong chuban gongsi, 1941 (first published 1891), jizai 23, Qing 12, pp. 6a–12b.

25 James Z. Lee, ‘The legacy of immigration in southwest China, 1250–1850’, Annales de démographie historique, 1982, pp. 279–304; idem, ‘State-regulated industry in Qing China, the Yunnan mining industry: a regional economic cycle, 1700–1850’, unpublished paper for ‘Spatial and Temporal Trends and Cycles in Chinese Economic History, 980–1980’ conference, Bellagio, Italy, 1984; and idem, The political economy of a frontier: southwest China, 1250–1850 (forthcoming). On Yunnan mining, and Maolong, see also Thomas McGrath, ‘Provincial militarism and foreign relations in China: Yunnan province and the Western powers, 1910–1937’, PhD thesis, Cornell University, 2002, esp. pp. 130–58; C. Patterson Giersch, Asian borderlands: the transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan frontier, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006; Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 146–7, nn. 10–11; 148, n. 14.

26 G. E. Barton, Barton’s 1929 Wa diary, Rangoon: G.B.P.C.O., 1933, pp. 61–2. One American expert, Draper, estimated that Maolong had three times the silver of Bawdwin (Xiao Zisheng, et al., ‘Banhong shijian, yichang kangying de douzheng (The Banhong Incident, an anti-British struggle), in Cangyuan Wazu zizhixian zhengxie, ed., Cangyuan wenshi ziliao xuanji (Cangyuan history and culture, select materials), vol. 1, Cangyuan, 1986, pp. 1–40.

27 Barton, Wa diary, pp. 124–5.

28 Lieutenant H. Daly, Report on the administration of the northern Shan States for the year 1890–91, Rangoon: Government Printing, 1891, vol. 6, p. 23.

29 Sylvie Pasquet, ‘Entre Chine et Birmanie: un mineur-diplomate au royaume de Hulu, 1743–1752’, Études Chinoises, 8, 1, 1989, p. 62.

30 On Wa and Shan place names, see Barton, Wa diary, pp. 1–2, 69 ff., 113 ff.

31 Pasquet, ‘Entre Chine et Birmanie’; Duan Shilin and Zhao Mingsheng, ‘Li Dingguo dui kaifa Awashan de gongxian (The contributions of Li Dingguo towards the development of the Awa mountains)’, Sixiang zhanxian, 1991, 5, pp. 90–3.

32 Wang Jingliu, ‘Maolong yinchang dieshi (Historical notes on the Maolong silver mine)’, MS, n.d.

33 Banhong took control from Banlao in the early twentieth century. See Xiao Zisheng, et al., ‘Banhong shijian’, p. 11; Fang Guoyu, ‘Banhong fengtuji (Account of customs and conditions of Banhong)’, in Dianxi bianqu kaocha ji (Notes on investigations in western Yunnan), Kunming: Guoli Yunnan daxue, 1943, fos. 1–50; and Tian Jizhou, ‘Banhong Wazu yuanshi shehui fazhan wei fengjian lingzhu zhi (The development from primitive society to a feudal lord system among the Banhong Wa)’, Minzu yanjiu, 1983, no. 5, pp. 39–43.

34 Chit Hlaing, ‘Shan/Tai Buddhism’, pp. 18 and 26, n. 2; Scott, Art, pp. 81–2, 114–15, and elsewhere. On trade and the evolution of Shan kingship, see Richard O’Connor, ‘Cultural notes on trade and the Tai’, in Susan D. Russell, ed., Ritual, power and economy: upland–lowland contrasts in mainland Southeast Asia, DeKalb, IL: NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1989, pp. 27–65.

35 Chit Hlaing, ‘Shan/Tai Buddhism.’

36 Xiao Zisheng, et al., ‘Banhong shijian’, 8.

37 See Chit Hlaing, ‘Shan/Tai Buddhism’, pp. 20–1.

38 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 109–41. Ma Jianxiong has undertaken as yet unpublished research on the history of the same Lahu and Wa peripheries.

39 Harvey, 1932 Wa précis, p. 57 (‘Wild Wa’ = autonomous Wa); Fang Guoyu, ‘Lufang yinkuang gushilu (Accounts of the early history of the silver mine at Lufang [=Maolong])’, in Dianxi bianqu kaocha ji, fo. 18, says that those wary soldiers were provided by the Mengding tusi. See also Li Jingsen, ‘Hulu wangdi gaikuang (Overview of the land of the Bottle Gourd King)’, in Chen Yuke et al., ed., Yunnan biandi wenti yanjiu (Researches on the Yunnan border area problems), Kunming: Yunnan shengli Kunhua minzhong jiaoyuguan, 1933, vol. 2, pp. 239–70 and map.

40 Gong Yin, ‘Qingdai Dianxi bianqu de yingkuang ye’ [Qing era silver mining in western Yunnan borderlands], Sixiang zhanxian 1982.2, pp. 88–91.

41 Duan and Zhao, ‘Li Dingguo’.

42 For Wa agro-history, as well as an excellent critique of Chinese orthodox denigration of swiddening as primitive, see Yin Shaoting, People and forests: a human-ecological history of swidden agriculture in Yunnan, Kunming: Yunnan Education, 2001.

43 Magnus Fiskesjö, ‘History erased: headhunting as primitive custom and the “overwriting” of Wa history’, unpublished paper for the Society for East Asian Anthropology conference, Taipei 2009. On Wa headhunting, see Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 287–354.

44 Barton, Wa diary, pp. 61–2.

45 Ibid., pp. 49, 117–18.

46 Fang Guoyu, ‘Lufang yinkuang gushilu’; idem ‘Wu Shangxian kaiban Maolong yinchang muqi (Wooden records of Wu Shangxian launching and operating the Maolong silver mines)’, in Yunnan shiliao mulu gaishuo (Yunnan historical materials: general annotated bibliography), Beijing: Zhonghua, 1984, vol. 3, pp. 1273–76; Pasquet, ‘Entre Chine et Birmanie’.

47 Kawa is originally a Shan term grouping the ‘Ka’-Wa with non-Buddhist upland people as barbarians (Frank Proschan, ‘Who are the “Khaa”?’, Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Thai Studies, Chieng Mai, Thailand, 1996, theme 4, vol. 1, pp. 391–414; Fiskesjö, ‘Autonomy’).

48 ‘[Native-]soil ruler’ or ‘native chieftain’ (tusi) is a term for local rulers who must submit tribute and maintain order but can remain in charge and tax their own subjects: Gong Yin, Zhongguo tusi zhidu (The tusi system in China), Kunming: Yunnan minzu, 1992; John E. Herman, ‘Empire in the southwest: early Qing reforms to the native chieftain system’, Journal of Asian Studies 56, 1, 1997, pp. 47–74; Jennifer Took, A native chieftaincy in southwest China: franchising a Tai chieftaincy under the tusi system of late imperial China, Leiden: Brill, 2005. On the tusi and the regional trade in which they engaged, see also C. Patterson Giersch, ‘Across Zomia with merchants, monks, and musk: process geographies, trade networks, and the Inner-East–Southeast Asian borderlands’, in this issue, pp. 215–39.

49 An early example is Yang Shen’s Nanzhao yeshi (c.1550; reprinted Taibei: Huawen shuju, 1969), vol. 2, pp. 31a–b.

50 See Fiskesjö, ‘Raw and cooked’.

51 Governor-general Zhang Yunsui’s 1746 memorandum, in Pasquet, ‘Entre Chine et Birmanie’, p. 43.

52 This is the British version of the Shan term ‘prince’, cao fa (for lesser rulers, cao meng) (Chit Hlaing, ‘Shan/Tai Buddhism’).

53 See below, pp. 256–8.

54 From a translation cited in Barton, Wa diary, pp. 117, 124.

55 Peter Golas, Science and civilisation in China, vol. 5, Part 13, Mining, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 418 ff.

56 Émile Rocher, La province chinoise du Yün-nan, Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1880, vol. 2, pp. 29 ff.; also David Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in southwest China, 1856–1873, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

57 Dai Yingcong, ‘A disguised defeat: the Myanmar campaign of the Qing dynasty’, Modern Asian Studies, 38, 1, 2004, pp. 145–89; see also David Bello, ‘To go where no Han could go for long: malaria and the Qing construction of ethnic administrative space in frontier Yunnan’, Modern China, 31, 3, 2005, pp. 283–317.

58 Barton, Wa diary, p. 113.

59 Ibid., p. 118, citing a 1905 Chinese memorandum.

60 Ibid., p. 2.

61 Fang Guoyu, ‘Banhong fengtuji’.

62 Barton, Wa diary, pp. 1–2, 59; Andrew Forbes, ‘History of Panglong, 1875–1900: A Panthay (Chinese Muslim) settlement in the Burmese Wa states’, Muslim World, 78, 1988, pp. 38–50.

63 The Chinese name for (North) Hsenwi, an important Shan polity.

64 Barton, Wa diary, pp. 57–8.

65 Xiao Zisheng, et al., ‘Banhong shijian’, p. 9.

66 Report on the administration of the Shan and Karenni states for the year 1920, Rangoon: Government Printing, 1920, p. 3; Yuan Jianqi, et al., Yunnan kuangchan zhilüe (Brief account of Yunnan mining production), Kunming: Yunnan Daxue Congkan, vol. 1 (gen. ed. Wong Wen-hao), 1940, p. 51.

67 On the Banhong incident, see Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 157 ff. Occurring immediately after the preparation of the most extensive British sources on the Wa (Ba, Wa diary; Harvey, 1932 Wa précis), it is not covered there, and seldom discussed in later British sources.

68 Report on the administration of Burma for the year 1934, Rangoon: Government Printing, 1935, pp. 7–8.

69 Yun Yao-tsung, ‘Kang Ying yingxiong Li Xizhe (The anti-English hero Li Xizhe)’, Yunnan wenxian, 13, 1973, pp. 129–33, 147; also Luo Shipu, ‘Dianxi ershinian qian lüxingji (Report from a journey to Western Yunnan twenty years past)’, Zhanggu, 29, 1974, pp. 12–23; 30, pp. 17–21; 31, pp. 47–53; 32, pp. 48–55 [Parts I–IV].

70 Yun, ‘Kang Ying yingxiong Li Xizhe’, p. 131. Playing up his taming of the Wa, Li claimed one of their ‘wildest’ gave him his son to raise.

71 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 355 ff.; Lintner, Rise and fall.

72 Scott, Art, pp. 113 ff.

73 Fang Guoyu ‘Banhong fengtuji’.

74 Senior Commissioner, Sino-British Boundary Commission, ‘Note on Chinese activities. Secret’ (n.d. [mid 1936?]), BL, OIOC, MS Eur E 252/30.

75 See above, n. 57.

76 See above, n. 47.

77 Li Shirao [Shiyao], ‘Yun-Gui zongdu zouchen xunyue bianjing qingxi (Report of Yunnan-Guizhou Governor General Li Shiyao regarding border inspections)’ [1778], in Shiliao xunkan, Beijing: Gugong bowuyuan, 1931, no. 22, fo. 802; see also Fang Guoyu, Yunnan shiliao mulu, vol. 2, pp. 534–5.

78 Scott and Hardiman, Gazetteer, vol. 2, 2, p. 176.

79 Yunnan Province Editorial Committee, Simao Yuxi Honghe Daizu shehui lishi diaocha (Investigations of the society and history of the Dai nationality of Simao, Yuxi, and Honghe), Kunming: Yunnan renmin, 1985, p. 9. Lead-bullet production is confirmed from 1888 in Lancang xianzhi (=Yunnan sheng Lancang Lahuzu zizhixian), ed., Lancang Lahu zu zizhixian zhi (Gazetteer of Lancang Lahu Autonomous County), Kunming: Yunnan renmin, 1996, p. 5.

80 Scott and Hardiman, Gazetteer, vol. 2, 2, p. 173, citing Daly, Report.

81 Ibid., vol. 2, 1, p. 172.

82 On Mangleng, see Scott, ‘Pacification’; Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, p. 169, n. 56.

83 Fang Guoyu, ‘Luoheishan lüxingji’ [Notes on a journey in the Lahu mountains], in Dianxi bianqu kaocha ji, citing documents from 1911.

84 Chen Can, Huan Dian cun gao (Collected writings from an official stationed in Yunnan), Guiyang: Wentong shuju, n.d. (c.1908), pp. 3.14b–15a.

85 Simao Daizu, p. 21.

86 Li Genpan and Lu Xun, ‘Daogeng huozhong yu chugeng bingcun de Ximeng Wazu nongye (Ximeng Wa nationality agriculture, with coexistence of swiddening and hoeing), Nongye kaogu, 1985, 1, p. 366.

87 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 242 ff.

88 Barton, Wa diary, pp. 41–42, 95, 111.

89 Harvey, 1932 Wa précis, p. 9.

90 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, p. 175.

91 Ann Hill, ‘Captives, kin, and slaves in Xiao Liangshan’, Journal of Asian Studies 60, 4, 2001, pp. 1033–49; Fiskesjö, ‘Raw and cooked’, pp. 147–8.

92 Chit Hlaing, ‘Introduction: notes on Edmund Leach’s analysis of Kachin society and its further applications’, in Robinne and Sadan, Social dynamics, p. xxvii.

93 Scott, Art, pp. 214–17. On Kachin politics, badly misunderstood by Leach, see Friedman, System; F. K. Lehman (Chit Hlaing), ‘Internal inflationary pressures in the prestige economy of the Feast of Merit complex: the Chin and Kachin cases from Upper Burma’, in Russell, Ritual, pp. 89–101; Chit Hlaing, ‘Introduction’.

94 Chit Hlaing, ‘Introduction’, pp. xl–xli; Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, p. 183; J. H. Hutton, The Angami Nagas, London: Macmillan, 1921.

95 Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 179 ff.

96 Pierre Clastres, Society against the state, New York: Zone Books, 1987; cf. Friedman, System, pp. 277–79, also pp. 15–17 and p. 17, n. 4.

97 On Chinese states arising from salt and metals monopolies, see Li Liu and Chen Xingcan, ‘Cities and towns: the control of natural resources in early states, China’, Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 73, 2001, pp. 5–47.

98 Friedman, System, pp. 13–15, 268–73.

99 Jonathan Friedman, ‘Generalized exchange’, in System, 2nd edition, Appendix 2, pp. 341–56.

100 Ibid., pp. 352–53; Hjörleifur Jónsson, ‘Rhetorics and relations: Tai states, forests, and upland groups’, in E. Paul Durrenberger, ed., State power and culture in Thailand, New Haven, CT: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1996, pp. 166–200.

101 Lehman, ‘Internal inflationary pressures’, p. 99 (I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for making me revisit Lehman’s superb article).

102 Leach, Political systems; idem, ‘The frontiers of “Burma”’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 3, 1, 1960, pp. 49–68; cf. Scott, Art, p. 115, n. 51.

103 Compare Fiskesjö, ‘Raw and cooked’. Lieberman, Strange parallels, pp. 83–4, 124, 208, likewise neglects this aspect of the imaginary other in state integration processes, generalizing about uplands as thinly populated, impoverished, and passive.

104 Friedman, ‘Generalized exchange’, p. 353.

105 Friedman, System, p. 267.

106 Ibid., p. 271.

107 As evident in the novel forms of core headhunting rituals (Fiskesjö, ‘Fate’, pp. 287–354).

108 Scott, Art, pp. 126 ff., 172–5, and elsewhere.

109 Ibid., p. ix (and p. 23 on how the Wa are not mainly refugees).

110 Ibid., pp. 13 ff.

111 Ibid., p. 19, citing van Wendel.

112 Ibid., pp. 22, 216, 326–7.

113 Claude Meillassoux, The anthropology of slavery: the womb of iron and gold, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


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