The Five Buddha Districts on the Yunnan-Burma Frontier: A Political System Attached to the State

Jianxiong Ma, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Detail of Lahu bag. Photo by the author, 1996.
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The Five Buddha Districts system prevailed from the 1790s to the 1880s on the frontier between Yunnan, in Southwest China, and the Burmese Kingdom, in the mountainous areas to the west of the Mekong River. Through more than a century of political mobilization, the Lahu communities in this area became an integrated and militarized society, and their culture was reconstructed in the historical context of ethnic conflicts, competition, and cooperation among the Wa, Dai, and Han Chinese settlers. The political elites of the Five Buddha Districts, however, were monks who had escaped the strict orthodoxy of the Qing government to become local chieftains, or rebels, depending on political changes in southern Yunnan. As a centralized polity, the Five Buddha Districts system was attached to the frontier politics of the Qing state before the coming of European colonial powers. The Qing state provided a sociopolitical space for local groups to develop their political ideals between various powerful Dai-Shan chieftains. The negotiation, competition, and cooperation between the Five Buddha leadership and the Qing, Dai chieftains, and neighboring political powers had been thoroughly integrated into the frontier politics of this interdependent society for more than two hundred years. As the history of the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation shows that no mountain space existed to allow the natives to escape from the state through their shifting agriculture, and anarchism was not practiced by the mountain people who were separated from the state, the author argues that a stateless region like James Scott’s “Zomia” did not historically exist in this region.

Keywords: Five Buddha Districts, Yunnan-Burma frontier, Lahu, ethnic creation, Zomia