Shan are very hospitable people. They always open the doors of their home to visitors, passerby or strangers. Even though they have never met or known each other before they offer a place to rest or stay for a night or two or even for a week. They believe that taking care of the guest is good deed and can earn great merit. At least the visitors or strangers are offered a cup of cold water or hot green tea when they come into the house. Stranger who has happened to be at home at mealtime is always invited to the table. When a stranger comes after mealtime, the visitor is always asked if he has had his meal. If not yet, the host use to prepare meal for the visitor.
Leslie Milne said, “A poor Buddhist nun whom I thus treated, she was so grateful that for days she supplied me and my servants with vegetables and fruit. Her gratitude also taking embarrassing form of coming to say her prayers – presumably for me – in my bed room when I was dressing.”
A small bamboo stand on the side of the road covered with a tiny thatched roof shading water pot is a common scene in Shan village. Women and girls use to fill the water pots with water every day. The water is freely available for passerby. They have been taught that a cup of cold water given to tired and thirsty wayfarers brings much reward in the future life.
Tattooing proper had been practiced in most parts of the world though it was rare among populations with the dark skin color and absent from most of China (at least in recent centuries). Various people believed that tattooed designs could provide magical charm, protection against sickness or misfortune. Some considered tattooing could make people having power, free from evil and danger. Some might even think as a beauty. Some tattoo were useful as identity of a person’s race, rank, status, or membership in a group. Tattoos had also been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from about 2000 BC. After the advent of Christianity, tattooing was forbidden in Europe but it persisted in the middle east and in other parts of the world.
Tattooing was a culture that existed in the Shan for centuries since they were in mainland (China). Shan believed that, because of wars, they were going to be separated from one another and scattered all over the world. In order to be able to recognize one another in the future they started tattooing one another as an identification mark. That’s why tattoo can be found on the body of Shan, Tai Ahom, Thai , and Laotians. It is somehow an identification of the Shan race. Whenever people see tattoo on his body he is recognized and accepted as a person belong to Shan race. A Shan boy was considered to have reached manhood when he has been tattooed. When a boy reached the age of 11 or 12, the earliest age, a tattoo artist was invited to tattoo his body and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns or the Tai written script.
In the past all male must have tattoo. Without tattoo he was not considered a matured man or brave man but considered as immature and coward. Women did not like a man who had no tattoo. There was a saying, “Yellow leg, get back away from our fields, otherwise our spirit of the field will flee.” In those days a man with no tattoo can hardly find a wife. Some tattooed from neck to ankle covering the whole body. Some only had tattoo on arms and small tattoo on the chest and back. The tattooing instrument is a single split needle set in a heavy brass socket or a few needles tightly tied together. No ink but the bile from the gall of bear was used in tattooing the skin. Women seldom tattooed unless they were crossed in love. Tattooing is still practicing now but many young generations have abandoned it.
Sickness and Medicine
In the old days traditionally Shan believed that there were ninety-six diseases affecting the body of human. Shan used to blame Phe (spirit) for their sickness and disease. Shan used many herbs as medicines in treating diseases extensively for hundred of years since they use to live in the forest, hill and jungle without knowledge of western medicine. They used to go into the jungle, the field and find the medicinal leaves and roots for treating ailment. Sometimes they spend days in the jungle to find herbs. They had many formulas in making herbal medicine. Some of the animal parts and bones were also used as medicines. They knew how to identify between eatable food and poisonous food. They sometimes made use of poisonous food to create poison in catching wild animals.
Sometimes the barks of certain trees were boiled and given to the sick as remedy to certain disease. Sometimes bark was pounded between stones and dry powder was used to sprinkle on wounds for healing. Sores and wounds were sometimes bathed with kerosene oil and alcohol. Shan recognized the fact that some diseases might be contagious or infectious and they burned the clothes of any person who had died of such disease. If a serious epidemic occurs in a village the sick were often left to the care of by a few old people and the other inhabitants left their homes and build huts for themselves in the jungle and lived there until they thought the danger was over. If the epidemic had been very severe many died in the village, people deserted their village and rebuilt new village on new site. Epidemics were sometimes thought to be caused by certain bad spirits. Offerings were placed for those bad spirits at the road side to feed them and appease them not to strike the village. A pole with a swivel attached was also erected close to a path so that the demon might be caught as it passed by.
Massage was a general relief and cure for all complaints and it was as often done with the feet on the back and thigh and with the hands on the neck and arms. For snakebite a string was tightly tied above the wound. After some one had sucked the poison out from the wound, a paste made of pounded spiders was laid upon the bite. They believed it counteracted the poison. Opium was commonly used as local application to relieve pain. The flesh of bats was considered good for asthma but it must be thoroughly cooked. Bones of tigers grounded into powder were given as a tonic to any one recovering from a severe illness to restore strength. The claws of bear were used as charms against sickness. Scraping on the leg or arm with the tusk of a wild boar was considered a cure for stiffness or rheumatism of joints. The claws of tiger or leopard were in great demand for charms to make children brave. The powdered horn of a rhinoceros was one of the most expensive remedies for all diseases. Tiger flesh dried in the sun, powdered, and eaten by small children could prevent them from having fits or convulsions. Tiger’s bones soup was good for dropsy, beriberi and other swelling diseases. Shan also used western and Chinese medicines whenever available.
Some believed that the seat of life changing its position from day to day. It might be in the hand today and tomorrow in the head and the next day in the arm. That was very serious if someone happened to cut his foot when the seat of life was visiting the foot. He was most certain to die. Some healers used to ask the time and date of birth of the sufferer before giving treatment because some treatment depends on the day and the time of the birth of patient. Shan , in the past, had no knowledge of surgery. A favorite practice "practice" , when all other remedies failed to bring relief, was to puncture the skin of the patient with a hot needle to let out the blood and the evil spirit would leave. It is easy to win confidence of the people if one knows something about medicine and can help the people in illness.
Cultivation and Farming
Shan people like living on high plateau and places where there are plenty of water. Farming was their main occupation. Rice was the staple food. Shan used buffalos in ploughing rice field and used cows in pulling the cart. Before starting farming a stone of the spirit was place in the middle of the field until harvest time. After harvest a small portion of the crops was offered to the stone and then stone was brought back home. In the old days, rice grown by family was for family consumption only. However nowadays farmers are making money by selling rice from their field. They kept the rice enough for their family for the whole year before another harvest. Apart from growing rice Shan also grew vegetables and fruits.
Life began early in Shan village. The women rose up at cockcrow early morning before dawn to prepare the rice for the morning meal. The thud, thud, thud sound of pounding paddy in the kitchen about five o’clock in the morning was just like a sound that makes a wonderful alarm clock for the whole village. The men folks rose up a little later. They ate breakfast, took tools and departed from the house for the whole day work in the field or jungle and returned home at sunset. They paddock the buffaloes or cows they had tended the whole day in lower ground of the house, took bath, ate their evening meal, and retired to bed or puffing tobacco and drinking a cup of green tea or alcohol, talking and chatting round the flickering fire for a while before going to bed. They used to talk about the buffaloes, cows, or water in the field. Economic or politic were not common topics. They cooked late and ate late in the evening. Usually dinner time started at 9 PM and finished at 10 PM.
Method of Farming
Tai people group was the first in history to plant rice and use a furrow to plough. The seeds of rice are first of all soaked in water until it sprouts and then sown in small nurseries previously prepared by ploughing. At the end of thirty days they were pulled out from the soil with the root attached and transplanted into the field, which was previously ploughed and filled with water. The seedlings were set one foot apart in straight lines. It’s back aching work to bend down and plant the plants all day long in the field but impromptu folk songs sung by planters helped them pass the time and pain. Sometimes it became enjoyable moment.
Both men and women helped in planting. They worked all morning till sunset with a short break for meal during the day. They wore big hats usually made of bamboo cover, was tied tightly under their chin to prevent from falling off the head. The big hat acted as umbrella and protect their head and body from the sun and rain. Some covered their back with a coat made of leaves to protect them from the rain. They did not stop working even though it was raining. They wrapped their lunch from home in banana leave and brought it to the field. They ate cold meal without reheating. Planting time usually ended in July. In November the waving grains turned golden as it was ripen and ready for harvest. The most enjoyable time was harvest time. The reaping began in November or even as late as December. The grains were cut by sickle and the swathes were tied together to make sheaves. The sheaves were then heaped up to make the large stacks. After reaping was over the sheaves were left in stacks for two or three weeks before threshing. Threshing was usually done by hands but if there was a large quantity it was thrashed by buffaloes by stamping round and round through the paddy as it lied in heaps on the threshing floor covered with bamboo mat. After thrashing the oxen carried the grain from the field to the village in large baskets, two baskets on each ox. Paddy was stored in big bamboo baskets, which were seven or eight feet high, tightly plastered inside and outside with clay to prevent from insects and rats. The rice of the first ears that were threshed was cooked by steaming and carried to the monastery and offered to the monks as an offering.
Empty rice fields after harvest were used again for planting either sugarcane or paddy. Shan also cultivate various spices and seasonings such as onions, garlic, lemon grass, white and black pepper, fennel, basil, chilies, coriander, horseradish, roselle, parsley and mint. Shan also raise pigs, cattle, poultry, ducks and elephants. Hunting is another traditional activity for the Shan with crossbows, snares, bamboo traps, stone slings or gun.
Handicrafts and Foods
Shan are skillful in handy craft especially in gold, silver, metal, ivory and weaving. With migration moving southwards to their present locations in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam they added some forms of Khmer and Indian influence to their own traditional inventory. Therefore, Tai textiles fall into two groups; original and supplemental textiles. The former grouping includes clothing, decorative, religious and utilitarian textiles. Besides skill in silk weaving, Tai are also excellent basket weavers using strings of bamboo. A wide range of containers, baskets and traps of different sizes for different purposes are produced.
Knitting and weaving are the skill of Shan since 2000 years ago. They knitted and weaved their own clothes and made cloths. The original unique Tai style, its designs, patterns and technical skill were seen in the clothing originally consisting of a woman’s skirt called “sint” (odefj) and man’s loincloth, hip wrapper long trouser. Shan trousers are very wide and often they are made with the seat so near the ankles that they look like a shirt. The national dress of the Shan is a little bit different among the Shan living in different areas. They use to wear it on special occasion like Shan national day, ceremonial and festival time. The traditional woman sint is made up of three bands, a waistband (=0fodefj), body (wl0fj) and lower border ([mifodefj), joined at waistband, mostly woven separately and patterned with different motifs. The body of sint has the broadest weft dimension. Traditionally, women wear tight-sleeved short dresses and sint. Unmarried young ladies use to wear flowers in their hair and dress in colorful shiny dress. The elder women wear a dark-blue skirt and black turban. Many women wear a silk girdle around
their waists and wind their long hair into a bun at the back of their head, fixing it with a single beautiful crescent-moon-shaped comb. Men wear collarless tight-sleeved short jackets, with the opening at the front and long baggy trousers in light brown color. They wind white or yellow turban around their head. Men used to wear head-dress (turban), a bag sling on the shoulder and a sword on the other shoulder all the time. The Shan were famous for their gold and silver chased work. Beautifully designed gold and silver ornaments, bracelets, necklaces, and jewel-headed cylinders in their earlaps were worn by the wealthier classes. Nowadays many Shan become more Burmanized and wear Burmese longyi. They wear their national costume at special occasion only.
The main food of Shan is rice. Shan people like sticky rice and all kind of cakes made of sticky rice. There are many verity of sticky rice cake such as Kao Boak (c0fjykufh), Kao Kep (c0fjcFyf), Kao Bong (c0fjy.if;) Kao Lum Mok (c0fjvmrfr.uf), Kao Dum Kao (c0fjwlrfjulpfj), Kao Soi (c0fjo.B;) Kao Sian (c0fjoAefj), Kao Muong (c0fjrlifj), Kao Moon Ho (c0fjrkef;=0fb) Kao Dum (c0fjwlrfj) etc. Other favorite foods for Shan are; Toa Noa (Soya bean) (xl0fbe0fj), Toa Fu Phet (spicy Toa Fu) (xl0fbzl;zAwf), Phak Soum (Pickled leaves) (zuf;olrfj), Phak Kat Saw (stew mustard leaves) (zuf;umwfbaqM;) Lo (Bamboo shoot) (vl0fb), Phak Keng (boiled leaves) (zuf;uFif), Phak Kam (pea plant) (zuf;cmrf;) Bak (Pumkin) (uufh), Dean (Cucumber) (wFif) Pa Heng (Dry fish) (yM[Fifj), Noua Heng (Dry beaf) (eld0fh[Fifj), Mixed vegetable (oMj), Eatable tree leaves (+wfj), Nam Pit (Pounded eggplant in chilli pepper) (erfhzdwfh), Noe Sa (meat-salad) (eld0fhoMj), Pa Soum (sour-fish) (yMolrfj) kong Soum (Sour prawn) (ulifjolrfj), Noe Soum (Sour meat) (eld0fholrfj), Pa Zi (BBQ fish) (yMqDb), Noe Zi (BBQ meat) (eld0fhqDb), Pa Moke (Baked fish) (yMrluf), Bamboo-worm (rlifjrBh) and other eatable larva are also Shan favorite food. Shan do not like oily food. Shan like drinking tea (green-tea). All visitors were offered green tea at any occasion. Drinking alcohol is not a Shan culture but they use to drink during eating meal, at festival and celebration. Sour and spicy foods are also Shan favorite.
Elderly Shan, male and female alike, were found of chewing betel leave. The reason of chewing betel leaves was that they believed betel leave could make a person speak well, weightily, respectfully and effectively. Before chewing it they had to break away both ends of the betel leave because they believed that there was a spirit watching over betel leave.
Tai have a typical common methods in cooking such as;
Cook with boiling water in opened pot (uFif@? aqM;) Cook meat or vegetable in a covered big pot ( nkyfh)
Cook meat or vegetable in a covered small pot (n.yfh)
Mixed salad with any condiment by chopping up uncooked food and mixing it with meat as the main ingredient (ul0fjtvjoMj)
Cooked by baking under the hot charcoal or ashes (rluf;?n.uf;?nFyf;) Cook in a bamboo place in the fire. (vmrf)
Cooked by steam (ekdifj) Prepared dishes by pounding (wrf?e.uf;?ckdwfj)
Prepared by keeping it sour or fermented (r.if@?,Fef@) Roasted on the fire or barbecued (qDb? ydifj)
Cook without any thing added (wlrfj?[kif) Cooked by frying (cl0fj?om0f;)
Stew food, cook slowly and long on medium heat, simmer (n.ifb) Soaked in liquid and eat (tqj)
Dip in liquid and eat (qrfj) Mixed, knead together with any condiment, commonly with sour vinegar, and eat(vlj)
Keep in cold condition and allow it to become solid or coagulated and eat (wkkif)