The long-tailed drums and gongs, the mythical bird and yak dances are symbolic of Shan.
Language, Literature and Religion
A common Language, Literature, Belief, Art and Way of life give a group of people its identity and constitute its culture.
Since no human society exists in complete isolation, different societies also exchange and share culture. Cultural exchange can provide many benefits for all societies. Different societies can exchange ideas, people, music, dances, clothes, manufactured goods and resources.
Cultural adaptation has made humans one of the most successful species on the planet. Through history, major developments in technology, medicine, nutrition and agriculture have allowed people to reproduce and survive in ever-increasing numbers. Such exchanges can also have drawbacks. Often the production of aspects of another society's culture can disrupt the cohesive life of a people. If we are to adopt another society's culture into our own let it be one that will be beneficial and undamaging to our own society. Culture is something we pass on from one generation to the other as children always learn from their adults.
People living in a society usually share the same culture. Members of a society also become identifiable by their shared beliefs and values which are sometimes contradictory to the values and beliefs held by people of other cultural backgrounds. They often also share some feelings that one's culture is more sensible than or superior to that of other societies. At its worst, this view has led people to commit ethnocide, the destruction of cultures, and genocide, the destruction of populations. This happened, for example, to Jews living in Nazi Germany in the 1940 and at the present time to the non-Burman ethnic nationals in the military dictatorial regime of
Our culture gives us our identities that bind members of a society together. But it should be a culture that we can be proud of, a culture that binds people together through love, understanding and compassion, and the common values we have for justice and fairness; not because we feel that our culture is better than that of other societies. Such feeling of superiority complex and chauvinism will create prejudices and bigotry, and eventually lead to conflicts between human societies.
Shan culture has been in existence for thousands of years but during the last few centuries or so the Shans had not paid much attention to their culture. The Tai lived in harmony with nature without raising questions about life conditions, being concerned solely to perform worthy deeds so as to continually improve their Karma. Europe went through the same phase during the middle ages, but unlike Europe the Tai society has not developed much since. It was not until after World War II that the Shans formed a Committee to modernise Shan script to make it easier to read and write.
Much of Shan culture, especially language and literature had during the years been influenced by those of the Burmese. After the military coup the regimes through their policy of ethnic cleansing tried to destroy everything that was Shan. They destroyed temples, monasteries and buildings which were architecturally of Shan design and also forbade the teaching of Shan language and literature. The Shans began to realise that the military regime's intention was to destroy and assimilate Shan culture into their own. This was a wake up call for the Shans and they are now researching to revive and preserve their culture.
Language and Literature
Like the Burmese the Shans adopted the Mon script. Tai language, like other members of the Tai family is monosyllabic and tonal. All the Tai peoples still have many words in common and although changes in dialect and accents over the years have contributed to their divergence, there still is some degree of mutual understanding among Thai, Khun, Muang, Tailong (Shan), Tai Luu, Tai Leang, Tai Hkamti, Tai Dam and other members of the Tai family. Even the Ahom despite their isolation from other groups, call rice khau, and the spirit of the rice field phi naa, the same as the rest of the Tai family.
The Shans are very poetic and good story tellers, and it is natural to many to describe their thoughts and feelings in a language of poems, rhymes and proverbs. It is very pleasant to hear, and they also remind us of wisdom that goes back to the dawn of civilization.
The efforts undertaken by our monks and individuals to preserve Tai culture are praise worthy. The Tai Khun, Tai Khamti Long and groups of Tai in the Shan State have managed to preserve valuable chronicles, and classical stories recorded in mulberry leaf manuscripts or stylishly engraved on palm leaves. Some, especially those of Tai Khun have been translated into French and English.
According to the "Mong Mao" chronicle Buddhism spread to Shan society nine years after the Lord Buddha attained his enlightenment. He came to the "Loi Seng" monastery and taught Buddhism to the Shan (Dai/Tai) people. The "Loi Seng monastery is still in Ruili near Mong Mao, the same place as when Buddha visited thousands of years ago.
From 6th Century AD onwards as Buddhism spread from the Indian sub-continent to South-east Asia and China, several forms of Buddhism were introduced to the Shan. Some say that Mahayana Buddhism was first to be introduced to Kengtung. But over the years Theravada Buddhism had greater impact on the Shan people. It became integrated into their everyday life and culture. It became their religion, and Pali became the "Holy Scripture" containing Buddhist teachings and ethics that became a moral force and conscience of every individual.
Temples and Pagodas which were characteristically Shan in design were built in towns and large villages, and gradually schools headed by monks came into existence. Basic education for literacy and religious knowledge for young males became one of the primary functions of Buddhist monks. They now represent an integral part of the nation and are treated with great respect and regard.
Arts and craft- The chief cottage industries are silk weaving, Shan bag weaving, pottery, lacquer ware, silver ware, Shan hats, (kupe), fine split bamboo weaving , sword and paper making.
Pagodas in Pangtara Cave
Way of Life
The true Shans live in the River valleys, basing their economy on wet rice cultivation and bamboo, holding their five-day bazaar for their food crops and their traditional wares such as iron, silver, cotton, silk and bamboo and the their universal food, Soya beans in the form of fermented paste (toe now Mawng) or dried flat cakes (toe now Kheip). The Shan do not eat a lot of meat and soya beans is the most important protein in their diet.
The Shans are reputed to be good traders. This statement seems truer of the past than of today. Caravan of bullock carts, and occasionally mules, carrying Shan traders were said to be seen all over Burma and Northern Thailand, dealing in various agricultural produce as well as precious stones. The more lucky ones obtained leases for teak and became rich. In recent times if traders are able to escape the harassment of the regime their trade is carried on motor trucks or cars, although bullock carts are still being used in areas where there are no motor roads.
In Shan society, life revolves around the family, the Buddhist festival and the rhythm of the seasons. At least twice a year people from the town and nearby villages gather together in prayers, celebrations and fun.
Like other Buddhists, the Shan celebrate the Buddhist New Year in April in the form of water festival. The significance of it is to use water to wash away the old year with bad luck and sadness and anoint the New Year. The fun part of it is when everybody, especially the young try to splash water on each other, chasing, running and full of laughter until everybody is soaking wet.
This is usually followed by a gathering of people at a monastery to pray, and feast together.
Another famous festival is, " Pwe Awk Wah" or the Light Festival which takes place in October to commemorate the return of Budddha Gautima from 'Heaven 'or 'Deva' to earth. According to legend, on his descent the whole universe was flooded with
light, and creatures big and small, human and animals came to welcome him. Among these were Kenneri and Kennara , female and male mythical beings with bodies half human and half bird wearing the most beautiful golden costumes. Humans have tried to copy the elaborate bird costume ever since. Also present were the monkeys, the horses and the yaks all dancing to the beating of the drum accompanied by cymbals and gongs. The yaks, like Kenneri and her partner are said to have originated from the foot hills of the Himalayas in Tibet.
Besides the sword dance, the Yak and Kenneri/Kennara dances became two of
the most popular symbol of Shan. These three are seen in nearly all Shan festivals.
There are many more festivals, one of the customary one is "Pwoy Sang Long", when young boys are about to become novice monks.
Kennari and Kennara Dance
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