Marriage and Land Property: Bilateral Non-Lineal Kinship and Communal Authority of the Lahu on the Southwest Yunnan Frontier, China


Ma, Jianxiong. 2011. “Marriage and Land Property: Bilateral Non-Lineal Kinship and Communal Authority of the Lahu on the Southwest Yunnan Frontier, China.” South East Asia Research 19 (3): 495–536. doi: 10.5367/sear.2011.0059.

Author: Jianxiong Ma


This paper discusses how a social system based on bilateral and non-hierarchical kinship is able to establish and maintain systems of authority. The Muga Lahu in Yunnan practise a bilateral and non-lineal kinship system based on the gender equality principle, and communal life is also based on equal couples' kinship networking, bound to non-lineal ties through marriage. The Lahu here never practise matrilineal, patrilineal or cognatic kinship and descent in daily life, but an individual couple is bound to immediate ancestors through the redistribution of cropland property. In communal life, family separation and farmland reorganization are carried out dynamically through the marriages of the younger generation. The flexible kinship group establishes labour-sharing, ritual-participating and intermarriage groups in everyday life. Therefore, the kinship system is closely bound to farmland redistribution and the continuation of families. This bilateral, non-lineal kinship system constitutes a dynamic social institution, but all couples are equal to each other. Due to the lack of authority over the equality of social units such as equal couples, the Lahu communal authority historically comes from superior external powers, such as the religious power linked with religious movements involved in the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation since the 1720s. The established Lahu political system was destroyed by the coming of the Qing and the Republic states, because of its anti-Han or anti-state stance in frontier history. It is clear that the superior religious power over the kinship network worked as a means of social mobilization through religious movements, and became the authority source for social cohesion in history, but it has been replaced by state-appointed cadres in current communal life in  China. The Lahu case shows that more attention should be paid to the relationships between frontier history, dynamic kinship and social organization among ethnic minorities in Chinese and South East Asian frontier societies.

Keywords: kinship, land property, Lahu, Yunnan-Burma frontier

Topics: Clan, Gender, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Households, Rights, Land Rights Regions: Asia, East Asia Countries: China

Year: 2011

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