Lisu Hill Tribe Information
The Lisu have a legend quite similar to that of many other tribes in Southeast Asia. Long ago there was a giant flood. There were only two survivors: one man and one woman. These two were brother and sister. They survived by living off the meat inside a giant bottle gourd. Once the water had receded, the pair set out in search of other survivors, but to their dismay, they found no one. They became convinced they must be the last remaining man and woman in the world. They realized that if they did not reproduce then mankind would disappear off the face of the planet forever. Still, they couldn’t get over the fact they were brother and sister. Finally, they decided to to consult the spirits. Seeing a grinding stone and a mortar on top of a hill, the pair determined to separate the two parts and roll them down opposite sides of the hill. When the grinding stone reached the base of the hill it refused to stop rolling. Instead, it persisted in rolling all the way around to the other side of the hill and reuniting with the mortar, ending up in exactly the same position it had been when on top of the hill. It did not matter what objects the pair used to test their fate, the results were identical each time. The older brother and younger sister agreed that God must have given his blessing to the union. Soon they had produced a son and a daughter which marked the new birth of the tribe.
Clothing and Dress
Lisu women don’t hold back when it comes to dressing up. A close look at the intricacy of the weaving, embroidery, and accessories gives one the sense that each Lisu woman sees herself as competing for first place in some beauty pageant, no one willing to bend or give in to the competition. All around the collar, thin strips of fabric are sewn in overlapping layers of colors, competing for the viewer’s eye. Hanging off the bottom of the shirt are long strings of beads with fluffy tufts at their ends running down the back and spreading out like thick locks of hair. Masses of silver ornaments hung across the chest dazzle the eye. Not a patch of free space is left unadorned. The style of Lisu women’s dress has changed quite significantly through the generations. In the past, weaving was done by hand, but now a machine is used. Designs use to be more intricate and beautiful, but the new designs are smaller. Lisu clothing used to be made from hemp fibers. In northern Thailand, cotton has now taken over as the primary material. In Burma and China the Lisu likely continue to wear the pleated hemp skirts of their ancestors. The style of dress of the Lisu in Burma is quite different and varied from that of Lisu found elsewhere in the region. Lisu women in Thailand have become accustomed to using cotton or synthetic materials, which can be easily found in nearby markets. The tunic fits loosely over the wearer, with a split running up both sides. In front, the tunic falls down to the knees, and in back, down to mid-calf. The fabric crosses over itself in front and is then fastened under the right arm. In Chinese style, the collar hooks off at an angle, running from the middle of the tunic down to the right arm. The fabric covering the chest is often a different color from the color beneath it. The tunic itself is likely to be some shade of blue or green.
The fabric used across the chest is likely to be green or light blue in color. The collar is then done using a black piece of fabric cut into a circle and sewn in around the neck-line. Next, long, thin circles of different colored fabrics are sewn in around this, layered over one another in steadily larger circles, creating a rainbow-colored collar of tightly-stitched fabric. This same design pattern is then applied in the upper sleeves. “Big ladies,” or “older people” tend to not wear as brilliant colors or to have as tightly woven rings of fabric as their younger peers who are trying to attract a glance. The thinner the space between the rings, and the brighter and more varied the colors, the more gawking and gazing one is likely to get. Beneath this long shirt, women will wear black, Chineseguay-style pants with red leggings wrapped around the calves. The border of the leggings will be decorated with a light blue base and strips of other colored fabric laced all around it. Wrapped around the waist is a six meter long black sash, wide and thick. Hanging from the back of the sash will be a pair of tassels around half a meter in length. Each strand of the tassel (“horse’s tail”) is a “chicken’s intestine”–a piece of fabric rolled tightly into a slender but strong cord. Attached to the end of each cord is a colorful, fluffy little ball. In the past, each tassel was made up of between 250 – 300 “chicken intestines.” In the competitive spirit which Lisu women are accustomed to, each one trying to outdo the other, at one point it was common for there to be as many as 550 strands between the two tassels. This just became too much and was no longer attractive; thus, these days, 150 strands tends to be the going standard. Still, on the opposite end of the spectrum, anyone producing anything less than 100 strands per tassel is criticized for being lazy. When they get completely dressed up, young ladies will also wrap their hair up in a turban using a piece of long black fabric, about 3-4 cm wide. To make the turban, the women begin by measuring the size of their head, then they place the measured fabric around their knee and use it as a dummy, wrapping the fabric around and around until it has formed the shape seen below. Next, strands of yarn of various colors are tucked through folds in the turban and wrapped around the hat, criss-crossing over each other. Finally, long, beautiful strands of fabric are attached to the rim of the hat and left to dangle elegantly down the back. The portion traveling under the front of the hat is decorated with little marbles and fancy tufts of yarn. Elder ladies would just use the black turban, neatly wrapped and folded.
The New Year’s Festival is the green light for budding Lisu women to dress to the nines. Each young maiden will wear a black waistcoat made from felt. Strung across the chest will be a full array of twinkling silver jewelry. A line of silver buttons and flower shapes are sewn on at the ends, both in front and back. The shirt is stretched over the chest and fastened together by square-shaped belt buckles which run down and around the collar in rows. A strip of fabric with silver ornaments hanging off is stretched across the chest and used to hold everything together. Lisu women pierce both of their ear lobes and wear hook-shaped earrings with rows of little bobs and/or strips of silk fabric. On top of all this, slews of chains of hanging silver jewelry are strung from left to right, over the shoulders and under the chin. Large bracelets studded with precious stones are worn on both wrists, and silver rings are worn on the fingers.
The male Lisu’s outfit is much simpler. Composed of a pair of pants with a low-hanging crotch. Often light blue, these pants can also be found in a variety of other colors. The shirt is made of felt, with long-sleeves and an inside lining. Silver buttons are often sewn onto the shirt. The more buttons the better, with the ideal being 1,000 buttons. A red sash is wrapped around the waist and hanging off the shoulder is a handsomely decorated bag. Similar to a woman’s bag, long tassels hang down from the bag like horse’s hair. Unlike the women, however, the men wear their bag in front of them. In the past, Lisu men would wear black, yellow, blue and red turbans made of silk on their heads. These days these turbans are almost impossible to come by. They are made of white towel-like cloth sewn over cardboard or foam (for shape) and then wrapped around the head. A silver earring is hung from the left ear and a simple silver bracelet is worn on each wrist.
Lisu shoulder bag
Work bags are stitched together using white fabric or un-dyed threads. The white background is accentuated with stripes of colored fabric, usually red. Long strips of rattan are woven together to add strength to the strap. Normally worn hanging over the shoulder, when heavy loads are carried the strap is worn across the forehead with the bag hanging down the back. Bags used for formal occasions, such as weddings or funerals, are also woven from thread. Beautiful fruff and frills run down both sides of the bag finishing in little fluffy tassels hanging off the bottom. At the bottom of the bag, just above the tassels, is a small, square patch of fabric on either side. These patches are the chance for the bag’s maker to leave their mark. Each one has a beautiful, totally unique little pattern. Some people add flavor to their bags by attaching small silver beads around their “signature” patches and sewing a hem into the opening of the bag. Others may decorate their bags with strips of different colored fabric sewn on. Strips of red and bright blue fabric are left to hang off the bottom of the bag. The most beautiful of all bags, regardless of whether the maker is Lisu or from some other tribe, has to be bags used for courting young ladies. Young men, in the heat of youth, create gorgeous bags in the hopes of attracting the admiration of the neighborhood beauties. Their bags are of the same style as those described above, but with a little more gusto added to them. Tiny beads are sewn onto the front of the bag, covering it in a rainbow of beautiful, intricate patterns. The tassels hanging off the bottom can be up to 20 cm in length. Fresh, lively colored threads are used to embroider the whole bag. Not a space is left undecorated! Additional strips of different colored yarn are also hung off the bottom of the bag, equal in length to the tassels. Finally, a cover flap is added, decked out in silver buttons and chains all hanging down over the front of the bag in a line.
As with other hill tribes in the region, the responsibility for producing clothing and apparel is left to the women. These days factory-produced fabric and dyed thread is purchased ready-made from local stores to be used in making clothing. The Lisu method of weaving is just like that used by the Lahu. The thread is spun by hanging it down or around one’s back. This method of spinning thread does not appear anywhere in Thailand. At present, the pieces of fabric woven by hand are much smaller in size and are not very wide. They are only used in the production of shoulder bags.
The distinguishing feature of Lisu bags are the strips of fabric sewn together in overlapping stripes of mixing colors. Other major characteristics of Lisu decoration include patches of fabric and silver beads attached to the main body of the piece, with some embroidery added to the bag. At the base of either side of the bag are tassels running down as extensions from the strap. There are a number of other little ways in which the Lisu spruce up their bags to catch the eye, such as using yarn of varying colors for the tassels or stringing beads and silver balls on into little tuft shapes.
The following patterns are the staples in any good Lisu woman’s repertoire of needle-work. Most of the them focus on sewing small tabs of fabric of contrasting colors criss-crossing over one another. There’s kua-pia-kua (tail of the bow), pia-goo-ma-kua(tiger’s chest), foo-yee-chee (snake’s belly)na-hoo-mia-cheuy (hat’s eyes) ee-geu-ja-ya (criss-crossing tabs of colored fabric) and ah-na (dog’s fang). In the case of ah-na, a woman’s workmanship is rated by how small she is able to make the dog’s fangs. Generally, only two of these patterns are used to decorate the collar of a woman’s shirt: ee-geu-ja-ya (criss-crossing tabs of colored fabric) and ah-na (dog’s fang). Both of these patterns work well when sewn in a curving line around the border of the collar. Both the ee-geu-ja-ya (criss-crossing tabs of colored fabric) and ah-na (dog’s fang) patterns are used as a part of all the other patterns. As for the other patterns, however, they will not be mixed together. One of them will be chosen (such as the “tiger’s chest”) and will serve as the base pattern to which the ee-geu-ja-ya and ah-na patterns will be added. Usually these patterns appear in the decoration of sleeves, belts and children’s hats.
Sewing fabric into “chicken intestines”
Lisu are experts at intricate stitch-work. Fabric is sewn into thin strands, 8-12 meters in length, alive and bursting with color. These threads will then be bound together into a thick mass. At the end of each strand is a tufted, fabric ball. This mass of strands is used to accent the sash wrapped around the waist. Worn by both Lisu women and men, this thick mass of “chicken intestines” sways to and fro as the men and women dance. A proper mass of “chicken intestines” will contain at least 200 strands–less than this wouldn’t be attractive. To add to this, the women also have a hat, which they wear on very special occasions.
Where do they live?
Lisu hill tribe people can be found in China, India, Myanmar. They drifted into North Thailand from Burma (Kengtung) and can now be found at Fang, Mae Hong Son, Sukhothai, Tak, Khampaeng Phet, Phayao, Lampang and Chiang Rai.
any recommendations for a 1-day village visit near Chiang Mai?