This paper examines the highlanders’ role in local political system in Southwest Yunnan, China, in the 18–19th Century by taking the case of the Lahu into account. The development and collapse of politico-religious integration of the Lahu explains the dynamics of inter-ethnic relationship in Sino-Burmese periphery.
The expansion of the political integration of the Lahu was a product of inter-ethnic competition among the newly emerging Han Chinese immigrants, declining Shan chiefdoms, and the highlanders, which was accelerated in the 18th Century. Factors that contributed to this change were Qing dynasty’s administrative intervention, migration of the Chinese workers into the silver mines, political instability that came from dynasty changes in Burma and Siam. Such political environment in the 18-19th century provided room for the Lahu to challenge the Shan chieftaincy.
The development of such hill polities shows a common pattern in relation to higher authorities. The increase of political autonomy of the Lahu within the Shan chiefdoms was at least tolerated by the Qing court in the name of indirect administration. And the further increase of political power of the Lahu threatened indirect administration itself. The result of this development was Qing’s military expedition to the hills and introduction of direct rule. This cyclical pattern continued until Sino-Burmese borderline was officially demarcated in the late 19th Century to eliminate the niche for semi-autonomous polity in the periphery.
The political dynamics around the Lahu in the 19th Century further suggests some trends of social change among the highlanders. One plausible hypothesis is that the settlement pattern and agricultural system of the the Lahu in the 18–19th Century was changing toward more permanent settlements based on wet rice cultivation after they went under cultural influence of the Han Chinese migrants, and such trends contributed to the emergence of multi-village political organization. Another hypothesis is that the Lahu polity was heavily influenced by the religious movements of neighboring ethnic groups at that time. The influence of both the Bailien cult with Maitreya worship and Lama-like cult with the supremacy of the living Buddha are found in the basic conception of power in the politico-religious leadership among the Lahu. This suggests that supra-ethnic network of religious cults was prominent in early modern Yunnnan and the Lahu polity emerged and worked as a part of such network.