Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/July 1882/A Curious Burmese Tribe


By Lieutenant G. KREITLER,


IN our journey from Sayang in Yunnan to Bhamo in Burmah, we became acquainted with a race of mountaineers who are called Kacheen by the Burmese, but who call themselves Chingpos. They are a small, delicate people, whose brightly-beaming eyes contrast strongly with their reserved behavior. The faces of the men as well as of the women can not be called unhandsome. The head is oval and well-shaped, the eyes are horizontal, the nose is strong and straight, the ruddy lips are finely cut, and the teeth are blackened with betel juice.

All the hard work among the Kacheen is done by the women and girls, who are up in the morning at their household duties while the men are still in bed.

The woman does not venture to raise her eyes when she speaks with her husband or her employer. She has no concern about the business or enterprises that he is engaged in, but considers everything good and unquestionable that he orders; and the subjection of the women goes to the extent that the death of one is lamented as a pecuniary loss, because the laboring force is diminished by it; and a family that has several daughters is for that reason considered rich. The women are all the time at work, cutting down trees, splitting wood and bringing it to the house, cutting roads through the thickets, driving the cattle to pasture, cleaning the house, getting the meals, and weaving cloth. The men perform no manual labor, or, at most, will once in a while go out into the field and show the women in a rough way how the tillage ought to be done. Their principal business is to visit their neighbors, to drink sheru (a sweet drink made from rice), and smoke opium. Only in case of pressing need will they take their mules and their women and go to Bhamo and get loads of goods to take to China. Marriages among the lower classes are mere business affairs, in which the dowry and physical strength of the bride are the first considerations. Among the higher classes weddings are regarded as important events, and are distinguished by particular usages and ceremonies.

When a death occurs, the relatives make the sad event known to their neighbors by firing guns. When the friends are gathered together, a part of the number go into the woods to prepare the coffin, while the others sacrifice to the household gods. The coffin is hewed out, after sacrificing a hen, at the place where the tree is cut, and the part where the head is to lie is blackened with coal. The corpse is washed, dressed in new clothes and laid in the coffin, with a piece of silver in its mouth to pay its ferriage over the river. The old clothes of the deceased are laid, with a dish of rice, upon the grave, and rice is scattered along the road on the way home. The mourners afterward assemble and celebrate the event with singing, dancing, and drinking, as long as the sheru lasts.

Persons who die by the sword are wrapped in a straw mat and buried as soon as possible, and the friends build a hut for the wandering spirit of the slain. A similar custom prevails with regard to those who die of small-pox, and to women who die in childbirth. In the latter case, the Kacheen believe that the dead are changed into evil spirits, and for that reason young women have an indescribable horror of such a death.

It is evident from these facts that the religion of the Kacheen has nothing in common with Buddhism. Their religion includes the belief in a Supreme Being who has created everything, in a heaven and a hell, and a future state of rewards and punishments; but the views of individuals do not give the slightest clew to a clear definition of their faith. The mountaineers, however, all agree in a cultus, which consists in giving honors to the so-called Nats, or tutelary genii. They also believe that the spirits of murdered persons, under the name of Munda, make the mountains unsafe, and that they take possession of those persons over whom a similar fate is pending. The Kacheen have an unwritten language, and a very primitive method of computing time. Their year begins on the day when they begin to eat the newly harvested rice, and ends on the day that a dish of fresh rice is again gathered.

Slavery has existed among them from a considerable antiquity. Boys and girls are stolen in Assam and sold to wealthy Kacheenese. A young slave is worth about twenty dollars, a full-grown man only about ten dollars. The lot of the slaves is not very hard, and their children are regarded as more or less members of the family.

The food of the people consists of rice, beans, pork, and dried fish imported from Burmah. The men eat separately from the women.

Their towns are composed of from three to ten houses, each of which is surrounded by a stone-wall about six feet high. We were always required to dismount before passing the wall, for the mountaineers have religious scruples against allowing persons to ride on horseback into their courts. The houses are light bamboo structures, without iron or stone work. A north-and-south passage leads into the interior, which strangers are allowed to enter only from the south. First we passed a stable, whose fence was adorned with the horned skulls of buffaloes, and the marshy floor of which yielded at every step. A few steps led to the dwelling-house proper, which appeared to be divided into a western and an eastern half. The western part consisted of a series of closed rooms, the eastern half of three apartments open toward the long passage, in the middle and largest of which was built the hearth, where a fire was constantly kept up.

The head of the house and his family live in the inclosed rooms, the domestics and slaves in the opposite rooms. The floors are of plank, and kept clean, and the ceiling is identical with the smoke-blackened roof. The whole house is built on piles. The few other domestic buildings are grouped around the inclosure-walls, and are commonly situated on the edge of the thick and gloomy forest.

The Kacheen call all their chiefs, who rule each over a small territory, Tsobwa. The Tsobwa receives yearly from his subjects as tithes a large basket of rice and a quarter of the meat whenever a domestic animal is slaughtered; and he exacts a small toll from every caravan that passes through his domain. His office is hereditary, as is also that of his prime minister, who is called Pomein. The chief himself administers justice; but in important cases he calls a council, which meets either around the fire in the house or in the open air. These chiefs seem to be quite independent, and only indirectly under the influence of the Chinese Government. The relations between the Kacheen and the Burmese are of constant hostility, frequently breaking out in murderous outrages. The country of this people is a broad strip of land extending from the Snowy Mountains of the north, between the valleys of the Tapeng and the Irrawaddy, to about the twenty-fourth parallel of latitude.