A bold but perilous project: cataloguing socio-cultural diversity in Southeast Asia's northern mountains.

Author:Walker, Anthony R.

It is a brave person who would seek to construct a dictionary, of fewer than four hundred pages, that documents the vast numbers and huge complexity of the societies and cultures of the mountainous regions of northern mainland Southeast Asia (stretching also into southwest China). But this is precisely what the French-Canadian social anthropologist Jean Michaud attempts in the work under review. As the author remarks (p. 2), "to summarize competently the [region's] staggering cultural diversity ... is a daunting task." Indeed--and, in this reviewer's mind, one that is impossible for a single person to accomplish.

It is one matter for a scholar to produce a competent introductory essay surveying the entire region, a goal Michaud achieves with finesse in the first twenty-five pages of the dictionary's main text. It is quite another to generate four hundred dictionary entries that seek to cover, in a comprehensive and accurate manner, so great a number of topics, on all of which no author can possibly hope to command the necessary empirical and linguistic skills.

We must certainly admire Michaud for his efforts--and for the undoubtedly useful (if not always entirely accurate) volume that they have generated. But this writer would have preferred a multi-authored work, a more comprehensive and updated successor to the relevant entries in the Human Relations Area Files volumes: (a) Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, (b) Encyclopedia of World Cultures, volume 5: East and Southeast Asia, and (c) volume 6: Russia and Eurasia/China. (1)

Michaud's introductory essay, on the other hand, is a masterly synopsis of socio-cultural life in the uplands (despite the disappointing lack of supportive references), which will surely provide a valuable resource for teachers ever searching for course readings to replace the dated and/or far from comprehensive surveys that appear in the more general textbooks on the region (e.g., Burling [1965], Kunstadter [1967], and Keyes [1977]). (2) But at eighty-five dollars a throw, whether Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif will ever reach the "general public," as Michaud hopes (p. 1), must be open to some doubt.

At the risk of souring the positive evaluation just expressed of this essay, it has to be noted that Michaud's generally excellent introduction is not without blemish. Surely it is a typographical error (p. 9) that substitutes Dai for Bai as the people of the area around Lake Erhai in Yunnan (self-corrected in the entry "Bai" on p. 40). More serious are such over-generalized statements as "the large highland population in southwest China is inversely proportional to the ethnological detail available to distinguish peoples there from one another" (p. 5). Anyone familiar with the vast Chinese-language literature on southwestern Yunnan will know that this is patently untrue. (3) Again, at least so far as Tibeto-Burman speakers in the far south of southwestern Yunnan are concerned, it is certainly not the case that they are "aboriginal to that region" (p. 7). Probably only the Austroasiatic Waic-speaking peoples could justify such a claim. (4) It is also over-simplistic to categorize the highlanders' indigenous belief systems as unconditionally "animistic" (p. 9), when notions of deities--including creator-gods--abound and which, pace Michaud, are not necessarily attributable to outside imposition (p. 12). (5) We shall address this issue again, later in the review.

It is hardly good anthropology, moreover, to suggest (p. 12) any necessary conflation of the terms "spirit-doctor" (one who propitiates or exorcises spirits on behalf of a sick or troubled client) either with "priest" (one who mediates between a congregation and some supernatural entity in which it believes), or with "shaman" (one who is able to cause his spiritual essence, or "soul," to leave its physical anchor so as to communicate with spirit helpers, do battle with demons, and often retrieve and restore a sick client's wandering or captured "soul" so alleviating the latter's physical or mental sickness). Among the highlanders this reviewer knows best--the Lahu Nyi or Red Lahu--spirit-doctors are seldom priests; whether or not they practice shamanistic techniques varies from specialist to specialist.

It is probably worth noting, too, that opium-poppy cultivation, contra Michaud (p. 21), is not necessarily exhaustive of soil fertility. It all depends on how many sequential crops are taken from the same plot of land before fallowing it. In this reviewer's experience, a swidden under dry rice is seldom productive for more than a couple of successive years, suggesting that it depletes soil fertility much quicker than does opium poppy, which may sometimes be cultivated on the same field for ten and even up to twenty (6) successive years. In effect, this means that dry-rice grown on the same plot of land for two years and opium poppy for, perhaps, five or six years, after which the land is left to rest for a decade or so, will not cause permanent soil infertility.

Finally, it is odd, having read Michaud's introductory remark (p. 7) that "Malaya, beyond the extreme south of the massif, falls outside our scope," to discover that he has an entry (p. 186)--albeit a rather superficial one--on the "Orang Asli" of the Malay peninsula. We will revisit some of Michaud's other introductory statements later.


If it is an impossible task for one scholar to produce a dictionary that accurately presents the complete gamut of highland societies and cultures in the chosen region, so too it is scarcely feasible for a single reviewer to comment critically on the entire data base that Michaud presents. This admitted, I will adopt--perhaps unfairly--the strategy of subjecting to intensive scrutiny only those materials in this dictionary which relate to the socio-cultural institutions of the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Lahu peoples (with whom I am most familiar), and one or two other entries whose generalizations do not always match the Lahu case, or which, I think, could bear some improvement. I shall also note some subjects that might have constituted additional dictionary entries, and finally will offer some remarks on the extensive bibliography that accompanies this work.

Commentary on so small a part of the work cannot possibly constitute the basis for a final judgment on the worth of Michaud's dictionary; but it might encourage others to subject those materials on which they have special expertise to similar critical evaluation.


The Lahu people number some three quarters of a million (a population two-and-a-half times greater than that of the sovereign nation-state in which this reviewer now lives and works). Although they are far from being the largest among the ethnic categories of the massif, they are surely of sufficient demographic weight to merit, in the first place, an accurate dictionary entry and, secondly, a reasonable fit between introductory generalizations about the peoples of the region and the specifics of the Lahu case. Unfortunately, in neither respect is this so.

We are told, in the dictionary's "Lahu" entry (p. 130), that this people originated in south China. As a matter of fact, we have no firm evidence where, or when, the Lahu--as a distinctive ethnic category--originated. All we may say is that, according to the people's oral tradition, it was far to the north of any place in which they now reside (many Chinese writers favor the Qinghai plateau of greater Tibet); (7) and that they are relative newcomers not simply to the Southeast Asian states of Burma, Laos and Thailand, but also to the areas in Yunnan where most of them now live. A total of 650,000 for the Lahu...

To continue reading