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Linguistic Introduction | Ethnological Introduction


Linguistic Introduction

by Randy LaPolla

Rawang, Dulong and Anong are closely related dialects/languages spoken on both sides of the China / Myanmar (Burma) border just south and east of Tibet.  They form a group within the Rung branch of Tibeto-Burman in the Sino-Tibetan language family.  Other members of the Rung branch include rGyalrong, at least some of the Kiranti languages, Kham, Chepang, and the Western Himalayan languages (Byansi, Rongpo, etc.; see LaPolla 2003a for the reasons for this subgrouping).

The variety known as Dulong (a Chinese approximation of T'rung, also sometimes written as Drung or Tarong) is spoken in Gongshan county of Yunnan province, China.  The speakers belong to either what is known as the 'Dulong' nationality (pop.  5816 according to the 1990 census), or to one part (roughly 6,000 people) of what is known as the Nu nationality (those Nu who live along the upper reaches of the Nu River--the part of the Salween within China).  Another subgroup of the Nu people, those who live along the lower reaches of the Nu river (in China), speak the language known as 'Anung', which seems to be the same as, or closely related to, the Kwinpang dialect of Rawang spoken in Myanmar. 

Within Myanmar, the people who speak what is now known as the Rawang (Rvwang) language (possibly up to 100,000 people) live in northern Kachin State, particularly in the Mae Hka ('Nmai Hka) and Maeli Hka (Mali Hka) river valleys.  (This language is often called "Nung" in the linguistic literature, following Barnard 1934.) The actual number of dialects of Dulong and Rawang that exist and the relationships among them still need to be worked out, but it seems there are at least seven major dialects: Mvtwang, Wvdamkong, Longmi, Dvru (Ganung), Dulong, Tangsarr, and Kwinpang (Anung).  Within the Dulong dialect it is also possible to distinguish at least four subvarieties: Northern Dulongjiang (1st Township), Central Dulongjiang (3rd Township), Southern Dulongjiang (4th Township) and Nujiang Dulong.  The differences among these subvarieties are rather minor, and so all are mutually intelligible.  There is also a high degree of mutual intelligibility among all of the dialects of Dulong and Rawang.  The dialect picture is actually not neatly divided between Chinese and Myanmar dialects, as Central Dulongjiang Dulong and Dvru are both very conservative phonologically, while the Northern Dulongjiang, Southern Dulongjiang and Nujiang varieties of Dulong share phonological innovations with other dialects in Myanmar. 

The Mvtwang (Mvt River) dialect is considered the most central of those dialects in Myanmar and so has become something of a standard for writing and intergroup communication, particularly as the system of writing using the roman alphabet and a few other symbols developed by the American missionary Robert H.  Morse (see Morse 1963 for an analysis of Mvtwang phonology) based on this dialect is in common use among the Rawang people.  In this writing system, most letters represent the standard pronunciations of English, except that i = [i], v = [schwa], a = [back a], = [high back unrounded vowel], q = [glottal stop], and c = [s] or [ts] (free variation; historically [ts]).  Tones are marked as follows: high tone: acute accent, mid tone: macron, low tone: grave accent.  All syllables that end in a stop consonant (-p, -t, -glottal stop, -k) are in the high tone.  Open syllables without a tone mark are unstressed.  A colon marks non-basic long vowels.  This writing system is also being adapted for use with the Dulong dialects, but until now there is no recognized standard for writing Dulong.

A list of references (some with downloadable papers) is given under the button "Bibliography and papers".  See Sun 1988, 2000 for brief descriptions of the Anung language.  See Lo 1945, Sun 1982, Liu 1988, Dai et al.  1991, and LaPolla 1995b, 2003b for descriptions of Dulong dialects, and Morse 1965 and LaPolla 2000 for partial descriptions of the Mvtwang dialect. LaPolla 2001 and LaPolla & Poa 2001 are collections of texts from Dulong and Rawang respectively. Barnard 1934 is a description of the Wvdamkong dialect of Rawang, though does not mark tones or glottal stops, and the structures presented there seem to have been influenced by the working language (Jinghpaw) used for the elicitation. 

Last modified: March 17, 2003

Ethnological Introduction

 by Stéphane GROS

Linguistic groups are of a different nature from ethnic groups, for the principles that constitute them as coherent entities are unalike. The existence of ethnic groups as a social reality within space and time is in itself problematic, and needs to be seen as a changing reality resulting from specific cultural and historical processes. The question is to study, rather than the distribution of cultural features, how ethnic diversity is socially articulated and maintained. A collective identity is never reducible to the possession of a cultural heritage, but is constructed in a relational and dynamic process, so that the analysis must be displaced from that of the cultural contents toward the study of the emergence and affirmation of ethnic categories as they are built in inter-groups relations. Speaking of the Rawang, Dulong and Anong as a whole is, from an anthropological point of view, quite difficult. Aspects of cultural and social unity and diversity are what need to be explored at first for establishing a valid ground for the combined study of these three groups. This leads to a general approach in terms of ethnicity, taking into account migrations and social organization, as well as specific contexts. 

Ethnonyms and exonyms

First of all, the names by which we refer to these peoples are to be clarified.  Within Myanmar, we find the Rawang, this ethnonym being used by the people living mainly along the Nmai Hka.  Still in Myanmar, we find other related groups who do not use the name Rawang, but call themselves mainly by the name of the valley they inhabit, such as the Daru (Thelu), Matwang, etc.  There are also the Taron (or Tarong), so-called because they originate from the valley of the same name.  Taron is an old English spelling for T'rung.  Within China, living along the easternmost source of the Irrawaddy (Dulongjiang in Chinese), the T'rung (Trung, Drung) are known under the name of Dulong, which is the Chinese transcription of their name.  As such, Dulong is an exonym (and a political entity, a 'minority nationality'), but not a too problematic one, for it designates the same reality than the ethnonym T'rung.  The situation is different for the Nu Nationality of China, which is in fact made up of different groups, each having their own ethnonym and exhibiting important linguistic and cultural differences.  As such, the exonym Nu make no sense for us, and we must refer to the people by the names they use for themselves. Anong (or Anung) is such a name, and is equivalent to the Nung some people use further north in the Salween valley (Nujiang in Chinese) close to the Tibetan border.  Similar to the T'rung and other groups living in Myanmar we just referred to, Anong or Nung derive their name from the river on the banks of which they evolve, the Salween river, anung remai in their language.

In contemporary China, when we speak of Dulong or Nu, we refer to the official category of minzu ?a term often translated by 'ethnic group' but in fact more a political entity.  The definition of a minzu is based on Stalin's four characteristics of a nationality: common territory, language, economy, and psychological make-up.  Consequently, the 'ethnic identification' (minzu shibie) project of the fifties resulted in recognition of fifty-six minzu in whole China, the Han Chinese representing the majority of the population and the peripheral peoples the 'minority nationalities' (shaoshu minzu). It also led to the formation of administratively 'autonomous areas' (such as Tibet) where specific minority nationalities composed most of the local population.  In most cases, Stalin's criteria were not rigidly applied and appear more as a theoretical liturgy.  The identification was not always concerned with people own ethnic consciousness, and the identification campaign often neglected cultural and linguistic disparities in order to create minzu by amalgamating several groups and attributing a generic name, although some of these groups expressed their claim to be recognized separately.  The recognition of different minzu was a political project, and each minzu equal in status and supposed to actively play a role for the edification of socialism.  As such, being a minzu not only means an official recognition but also the setting of a political framework for the formulation of local identities.  It is in this context that the category of minzu, and associated names, are sometimes interiorized or at times challenged by people who don't recognize themselves in such a category.

Two other exonyms were in use concerning the Dulong and the Nu before the fifties in China.  The Chinese name Qiuzi (Kiutzi), probably deriving from a Lisu term, was the name under which were known the people now called the Dulong, and Luzi (Lutzi) was the generic name equivalent to the group nowadays designated as the Nu nationality.  In British documents of the beginning of the 20th century, several generic names were commonly used.  The Shan name Hkanung (sometimes spelt Hkunung) has long been used for the Rawang and other related groups in Myanmar.  This name means 'slave Nung', and refers to the category of Nung which was also in use, designating a linguistic group as well as an 'ethnic' category. The name Nung is what the Jinghpaw call these people as a whole, and it is likely they did so because these people came from the Salween valley. Nevertheless, all the authors agree that these people, despite cultural and linguistic diversity, were called Nung because it was impossible to find a generic name for them. And the reason for that is clear, and had been given since the beginnings of the ethnography of this area: 'Nung clans have no generic name for themselves. They consist of many clans or families, such as, Matwang, Htiselwang, Serwang, Sertha, Wahke, Agu, Hpungsi, Wadamhkong and so on' (Barnard 1934, for the references, please refer to the General Bibliography).

According to Robert and Betty Morse (1966), the Rawang should be seen as 'one of the indigenous branches of the Kachin people', an 'ethnic group' that '[h]istorically, genetically and culturally' has always been one but 'never in the past been recognized as one race'. This argument combines socio-biological and cultural criterions, to which is added a confusion of 'race' and 'ethnic group' in order to demonstrate the relevancy of a category that only exists in the minds of its authors.  As we have seen, the reference to a Rawang 'ethnic group' is an abstraction, as there exists no generic name, and people mainly refer to themselves by their clan name.  Moreover, another level of reference is the valley or the locality and most of the names that are used and that are not clan names are of this category.  Consequently, to be T'rung is to live in the T'rung valley, and this is exclusive of all other appellations of the same type, such as Rawang.  While this has to be understood, the importance of migrations, exchanges and matrimonial alliances, as well as a shared language despite dialectal differences, must not be neglected in that it sometimes produces a sense of unity and gives a basis for a 'sameness' feeling. Recently, Rawang in Myanmar have begun a movement to use the name 'Rawang' to represent all of their people, but within China, the people supposed to be included in this broad category continue to use their own names such as T'rung and Nung or Anung.  Some people, like the T'rung living in the south part of the valley near the border with Myanmar, and who are in regular contact with the Rawang having even relatives living in Myanmar, do consider that being T'rung, they are 'of the same kind' with the Rawang.  There is a strong sense of identity on the part of Rawang with the T'rung, even without having a single name, and on the part of the T'rung with the Rawang.  Still, they do not use this last name to refer at themselves, and people living in the northern part of the T'rung valley point to another type of relation. They say that Rawang are similar to the T'rung, and probably originate from the T'rung valley.  It is because they have now been living for a long time in Myanmar that they call themselves Rawang. 

Migrations, contacts and memory of the origins

Migratory dynamics are important to understand the processes of segmentation that led to the present configuration of these groups.  Most of these people share a common cosmology and mythology despite variations and diverse influences.  For example, the T'rung believe that 'from the time of the beginning', after a great flood which led to the founding of a new humanity, the nine primordial couples have been dispatched to the nine valleys.  Each was then the founder of now differentiated groups each associated with a specific area.  According to this story of the origins, people of each group believe themselves to be the original settlers of the valley they inhabit, or were inhabiting before recent migration.  However, migration movements, often at the scale of familial groups, parallel this sense of autochthony, and unlike the T'rung, the Rawang people's stories of origins all refer to their migration form an original place.  The chaos which characterizes the history of this part of the Eastern Himalayas, and the lack of ancient records, make almost impossible the task of documenting the past of these groups.  But more recent events and population movements are accessible from both historical sources and oral traditions of these groups.  On the whole, they generally evoke a westward migration, from one valley to another, and southward movements within these valleys.  This is clearly linked with their tradition of shifting cultivation, which led them to expand over new territories, but also to hunting activities which, according to oral tradition, were often at the origin of the discovery of a suitable location for a new implantation.  All these groups are also characterized by the practice of ultimogeniture, a principle of segmentation and territorial expansion which allows the first born male of a family to move to another spot while the younger brother stays with his parents.  Some attested migrations were also due to specific historical facts.  The massive arrival of the Lisu people in the Salween valley (especially at the end of the 16th century) made a lot of Nung families move westward and settle in the area of the Nmai Hka valley.  Similarly, the increasing presence of the Tibetan and the later implantation of a Buddhist Temple (begining of the 19th century) made other Nung families leave the Upper reaches of the Salween valley and move to the T'rung valley.  Of course, the disorders consecutive to the arrival of the communists and the later Cultural Revolution made a lot of people move to Myanmar during the second half of the 20th century.  When each group, the Nung, the T'rung or the Rawang, arrived in their current area of habitation is a question with no possible answer.  But what is evident is the circulation of individuals among these groups, and consequently the possibility of their assimilation by other groups.  The migration processes seem to have had different effects on each group's sense of identity.  The Rawang identity movement inscribes these people in their migratory tradition as they relate their names to the place of their supposed origin, so that Rawang is thus said to be an simplification of Ramewang (middle river), possibly the Mekong, along which they are said to have come down.  Similarly, the Tarong (T'rung) of Myanmar still keep this name because of their origin.  In these two cases, ethnonyms appear to have an existence through time and despite migrations to an area other than that designated by the name itself.  However, the common feature is still that such ethnonyms are in fact names of valleys they have inhabited.  Comparatively, the T'rung, so-called because they inhabit the T'rung valley, never refer to the place of their origin in a way that its name would be kept to refer to oneself.  T'rung people do have a good memory of past migrations, but their accounts evoke a different attitude, a permanent reconstruction of identity according to new locations.

In all these facts, from the attested absence of a generic name to the importance of the reference to locality, challenge the classificatory will of the observer.  They also reveal that the ways local people refer to themselves using more or less inclusive categories depends on the context of enunciation. 

Clanic organization and locality

 The absence of a generic name for most of these groups is paralleled by the fact they normally use their clan names to refer to themselves.  It is now recognized that the term 'clan', often debated in anthropology, is characterized neither by territoriality nor by exogamy.  Its minimal definition is a group of unifiliation in which the members are not always able to clearly establish their genealogical links to a common ancestor, often a mythical one.  The role of genealogical knowledge seems to differ amongst the groups.  The T'rung do not have a good memory of genealogies, but refer to past generations by stories of particular events and exceptional ancestors. On the other hand, the Rawang are very clear about their genealogical background for many generations back, and this is part of their sense of being a group. The ambiguity of the reference to a locality as a basis on which to construct the unity of the group in a contrastive way and in order to differentiate oneself from surrounding people, is particularly manifest when compared to the reference people make to their clan affiliation.  This fact will become clearer with an example. Some people in the north of the T'rung valley (Dulongjiang) say they originate from the Salween valley.  This migration, originally of a small familial group, took place several generations ago, but the genealogical depth is unknown.  Saying so, they say to be members of a particular clan, some members of which are still to be found in the Salween valley today, and are consequently Nung people.  There are two contradictions in such a statement.  First, being T'rung, they consider themselves as the descendants of the original mythical couple who settled in the T'rung valley and consequently have always lived in this valley, but at the same time acknowledge an origin from the Salween valley.  Secondly, originating from the Salween valley they are of a clan which members are also found there and maybe in other places.  That is to say that members of this clan are T'rung for some, and Nung for others.  What seems a contradiction for us is not ostensible for them because these facts are related to different levels of identification.  While the reference to the clan situates them beyond territorial links, the reference to the locality, in term of identity, inscribes them in a supposed relation of autochthony.

The clanic organization of the T'rung, Rawang, Nung and other related groups has the consequence that members of the same clan can be found in any of these groups.  This level of identification is the most meaningful for them, and for a first encounter they may ask each other's clan name.  Being of the same clan would involve a hospitable attitude and reciprocal aid. Nevertheless, references to a locality are not just made for outsiders, and in everyday life, one would always say at first his village name and not his clan name.  Villages, or hamlets, being often the exclusive habitat of members of a same sub-clan, do constitute a meaningful category of reference, and is a primordial component of identity.  The local group, from the lower level of the village to the higher level of the valley, refer to a locality as an expression of a filiation, because territorial links are parallel to consanguineous links.  Therefore, names of places also become the names of the groups of residence. 

Concise overview of each group

The T'rung (Trung, Drung, Dulong Nationality) 
The T'rung stand at the figure of rougthly 6000 members, making up one of the smallest official minority nationalities in China.  They are relatively isolated in a small valley where the easternmost source of the Irrawaddy meanders through (Dulongjiang in Chinese, hence the name Dulong for its inhabitants), an administrative division of the Dulong and Nu Nationalities Autonomous County of Gongshan.  The valley has an average altitude of 1500 meters above sea level, and the climate is sub-tropical highland.  The bio-diversity of the Dulong Valley is one the richest in the world.  Small communities occupy the riverbanks and the upper slopes of the river gorge.  They mainly practice slash-and-burn (shifting) cultivation, and supplement other staples by hunting and gathering in the forest they know like the backs of their hands.  Since time immemorial, the T'rung have extracted much from the natural surroundings: medicinal plants, musk and furs…  They mainly used these items in the past to barter with the Chinese and Tibetans.  Now, Chinese currency is commonly exchanged and shops have been opened in some villages.  Since the fifties, rice paddies have been introduced to the southern part of the valley, and consequently led to the diversification of the economy.  The T'rung have always been isolated from the rest of the world during the winter, when heavy snow fills up the high passes leading to the Dulong Valley.  In September 1999, the construction of a road suitable for motor vehicles ended, and its 96 km now links Gongshan County up with Kongdang village in the middle of the valley.  This achievement will bring many benefits, at the same time it will bring on rapid changes that may accelerate the lost of traditions.  In the south of the valley, their stilted houses are built from bamboo, while heavy lumber is used in the North.  Women still make hemp fabric for striped cloth, but more and more, Chinese garments are replacing these traditional outfits.  The village elders maintain the important role of keepers of their animist religion and culture.  The young generation pays more attention to the outside world.  The shaman (nam'sa) is called upon if somebody is grievously sick.  He exorcises the bad spirits or brings back the fleeing soul.  Mountains, cliffs, rivers and other physical features are believed to possess spirits (pulang ).  These spirits are neither good nor bad but could be the bringers of misfortunes.  Proper sacrifices and offerings may insure prosperity and fertility. Such occasions often end in a collective gathering ending in bacchanalia, consuming large amounts of fermented alcohol.  The tattoos on old women's faces are the relics of a lost tradition.  Mostly in the south, Drung are also rapidly converting to Christianity, especially since the last religious liberalization, but keeping some of their traditional beliefs.  After its interdiction during the fifties and the Cultural Revolution, they had few occasions to perform Bull ritual sacrifices at the initiative of journalists and photographs, another indication of changing times. 

The Anung and Nung (Nu Nationality)

The Nu, with a total population of roughtly 27 000 individuals, live in the Lisu Nationality Autonomous Prefecture of Nujiang in northwest Yunnan Province, which is administratively divided into four counties.  The Nu Nationality, dispatched in this area, is in fact made-up of four different peoples amongst which great differences are to be found concerning language as well as cultural and social features.  For convenience, they can be distinguished according to the area they inhabit, but average population for each group is very hard to estimate as to what 'branch' of the Nu nationality people are affiliated is not a criterion for population census.  The Zauzuo (or Rouruo) from Lanping County near the Mekong, are sedentary farmers (around 2 000 individuals), and live contiguously with people of the Bai and Lisu nationality.  The Nusu of the southern part of the Salween valley not only share the same land with the Lisu, but also important parts of their culture, music, costume and some religious practices.  Higher north, the Anung are found in Fugong County, whereas the Nung are living in Gongshan County (roughtly 6500 individuals), and both are customarily and linguistically closely related to the T'rung (Dulong nationality).  Many of the Nung have embraced Tibetan Buddhism and often live in mixed villages with Tibetans; few other are Catholics due to the presence over a century of French missionaries who were active until the arrival of the communists.  Anung, Nung and Nusu traditionally practice slash-and-burn cultivation, and they are pushing higher and higher up the once densely forested coverage of the deep Salween gorge.  But consecutive programs of economic development since the fifties have now popularized wet rice cultivation, while few communities actively engage in breeding.  From what were originally small villages at the time of the proclamation of the People's Republic of China (1949) real towns have grown up throughout the valley.  The traditional Nu settlements are found along paths radiating from the highway linking Liuku to Gongshan along the Salween River.  It is because of these important linguistic and cultural differences that speaking of the Nu as a whole is very delicate. No generalization about language or cultural features can be made without being inadequate for one or the other group composing the Nu Nationality.  On the grounds of diverse influences, the Nung can themselves be differentiated by their religious practices: Tibetan Buddhism, Catholicism or animism.  There is sometimes a great deal of syncretism, such as in the yearly ritual to the grottoes' female spirits.  Requiring Buddhists officiants, this ritual involves beliefs, such as the fertility power of the water trickling down the stalactites (the 'milk' of the spirit), which probably existed prior to Buddhist influence.  Accordingly, their garments differ and, for the ones who do not engage in modern fashion, they dress the Tibetan way or with a more specific costume mixing Tibetan style garments and weaved striped cloth (similar to that of the T'rung people). Architecture is also very influenced by Tibetan culture, but in a lot of places remain the traditional wooden houses often covered with slates Nung people find in quantity on surrounding cliffs. 



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