Lahu Ethnic Minority

Lahu ethnic minority is one of the oldest ethnic groups in China, originated from the ancient Qiang people. They lived a nomadic life in the beginning. Then, they gradually moved southward, and finally settled near Lancang River. They have the characteristics of both the northern nomads and the southern farmers. People of Lahu ethnic group mainly inhabit in Yunnan Province, Simao Prefecture, Lincang Prefecture, Xishuangbannan Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Honghe Hani Yi Autonomous Prefecture and Yuxi City. Lancang Lahu Autonomous County and Menglian Dai and Lahu Autonomous County are the major inhabited sites for Lahu people. In addition, as a cross national ethnic group, there are more than 160,000 Lahu people living in other countries, such as Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. They mainly engage in agriculture.

People of Lahu ethnic minority have their own language, which is divided into two dialects, including Lahu Na and Lahu Xi. Both belong to Tibetan-Burman group of the Sina-Tibetan phylum. In the past, there were no scripts for Luhu people. In the beginning of the 20th century, western missionaries created a script system composed of Latin letters, but it was not widely spread. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, new spelling characters were created. Lahu ethnic group has a very long history, whose ancestors were the ancient Qiang people who moved southward from areas in Qinghai and Gansu provinces, and entered Yunnan Province and Indo-China Peninsula. In April 1953, when the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County was established, the ethnic group got their name “Lahu” according to their will.


People of Lahu ethnic minority were originated from ancient Qiang people who used to live in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. They moved southward, and during the Warring States Period (475B.C.-221B.C.), they settled in Yunnan Province. The Lahu tribe was under affiliation of Yi tribes. When the taxes became too heavy, they would hold military revolts and migrated to large tribes. The Lahu leaders also launched military operations in order to expand. After the failure of the military operations, the whole tribe migrated. The migration of Lahu ethnic group had never stopped since Tang Dynansty (618A.D.-907A.D.). In the end of Song Dynasty, there were at least three large-scale migrations. It was until Qing Dynasty that the Lahu ethnic group had settled in the areas of today’s distribution areas, but there were still some minor migrations that migrated to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and some other countries. Due to the constant migrations, Lahu ethnic minority had formed two parts, including east and west of Lancang River. Meanwhile,, different historical developments of the two areas were also formed.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, great changes happened to the areas where Lahu people lived. With the help of the Chinese government and the efforts of Lahu people, their economy and culture developed quickly. 


Lahu ethnic minority adopts monogamy, and they have social freedom in love and marriage. The two parties are very polite to each other at the meeting of different clans. When the male and female go steady, the male party will ask the matchmaker to bring 2 to 4 pairs of dried squirrels and 1 kilogram of wine to the female’s home in order to propose marriage. If the parents of the female approve, the male party will send betrothal presents again and discuss about the wedding date and the marriage way (living in the male’s home or the female’s home) with the female party. If they decide to live in the male’s home, the male party will hold banquets and send people (including the groom) to escort the bride to come to the groom’s home on the wedding day, meanwhile, the female party will send people to escort the bride to the groom’s home. On contrary, if they decide to live in the female’s home, the female party will prepare banquets, and the groom will go to the female’s home under the escort of the matchmaker. After the wedding, the groom will stay and live at the bride’s home, staying for 1 year, 3 years or 5 years, or even longer. The male lives and participates in production work at his wife’s home, and receives equal treatment as a son. There is no discrimination. Until the day when the male needs to leave his wife’s home, relatives and family members will hold banquets, and the husband can either take the wife to his home, or live on their own with his wife at another place at the village of where his wife lives. Whatever marriage way is, at the first spring festival after the wedding, a pig leg must be cut out and it will be given to the bride’s brother if they kill pigs. While the bride’s brother will send, the neck of the pig or the prey and four glutinous rice cakes to his sister for three years in a row. After receiving the gifts, his sister must present 6 kilograms of wine in return. Divorces are rare in this minority.


The taboos in daily life include: The daughter-in-law is not allowed to eat together with her father-in-law. The sister-in-law is not allowed to eat together with her brother-in-law. They are not allowed to enter the rooms of father-in-law or brother-in-law at random. When passing stuff, they should not touch hands. Women, no matter married or unmarried, should not take off their kerchiefs in front of the senior people, nor can they be unkempt.

A piebald horse is considered as a sacred horse, a cuckoo is considered as a sacred chick, while a snake with bold tail is considered as a dragon. Nobody dare to hurt or kill these animals. Lahu people do some fortune telling when they kill pigs or chicken. It is considered auspicious if the chick has bright eyes, or the pig has lots of bile; otherwise it is inauspicious and people should be cautious in everything.


Their diet includes two kinds, raw food and cooked food. They cook food by boiling or roasting. They have kept the habit of eating roasted meat from ancient times till present. They will stick the meat and spray it with salt and condiments on two bamboo sticks, and then roast it at the fire till the meat becomes brown and crispy. Corns and dry rice are pounded by wooden pestles. Before 1949, only a few households owned pots and Zengzi (a kind of small bucket-shaped boiler). They cooked food by using thick bamboo tubes, putting corn flour or rice and some water into the bamboo tube, stuffing up the nozzle with tree leaves and putting the bamboo tube on the fire. When the bamboo tubes cracked and the food is ready, they will rift cut the bamboo tube and begin to eat. Nowadays, only people in remote mountainous areas still use bamboo tubes. They use iron pans, aluminium pots or wooden Zengzi for cooking. Their staple food is corn, and there is a special way to consume corns. Firstly, they pound the corn to peel off the peel, and immerse the corn in water, lasting for half a day. Then fish out the corn and dry it in the air. At last, pound the corn into flour and steam it into a kind of pastry. Every Lahu person is fond of drinking wine, and every household uses corn and wild fruits as materials to make wine every year. When guests come to visit, or during festivals, Lahu people usually go on a drinking spree. They don't have the habit of growing vegetables. They will pick up the wild plants in the mountains or fields if they think the plants are not poisonous or smelly.


The building structure of Lahu people’s houses is very simple. Houses are low, narrow, dark and damp. They build their houses on the mountain slope and then build walls with earth and the roof with couch grass, using only 4 to 6 logs to build a house. The eaves of the two sides of the house is facing respectively the earth slope and the slope toe. There are several small rooms in a house. Parents live in one room, and every married couple live in one room. The room on the left is for the parents, and the room on the right is for children or guests. Besides the public hearth in the living room, there is also one hearth in every room. At the hearth, there is usually a thin slabstone (sometimes iron plate) hanging above for roasting food. In every household, there is a Zhoudu (cooking stove) for cooking food for the whole family. In the house, there are specific positions for placing farming tools or other utensils, and these stuff should not be placed at random.

Songs and Dances

Songs and dances are the most enjoyable activities in the lives of Lahu people. They express emotions by sing and dancing in occasions of weddings, births, birthdays, religious sacrifices, farming activities or guests’ visiting. There are very old songs that were passed down from generation to generation, and there are also new songs that were improvised when they were evoked by some touching scenes. Besides Lusheng dances, there are triple steps and senary steps which imitate the scenes of farming work, daily life or movements of various animals. Every Lahu people can dance. The common musical instruments are Lusheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument), Bawu (another reed-piped wind instrument) and Kouxian (a kind of harmonica).


Lahu ethnic minority believes that the natural world is governed by some formidable and respectable mysterious power – the spirits. They call it “Nei (meaning inside)”, and they think it exists in the sky, the earth, the moon, the sun, the stars, the mountains and the water, and inside human bodies. The weather, the harvest of grain and people’s health is all related to “Nei”. With the forming of the concept of “Nei”, the fortune telling and sacrificial ceremonies were developed according to it.


In ancient times, all the Lahu people wore robes. Nowadays, men usually wear collarless black short coat, with light-colored or white shirts. They wear loose long pants, and wear skullcaps or simply tie a kerchief on the head. Women in different regions wear different costumes, including two types. One type is to tie a kerchief on the head, wear long robes with buttons in the front, and the slits on the two sides are very big. In the front, there are silver plats, and colorful geometric patterns are decorated on the brims of the front, sleeves and slits. They wear long pants. In some regions, women like wearing colorful belts on the waist, which preserves many features of the robes of the northern ethnic groups. The other type of clothing is the typical south ethnic groups. They wear tight-sleeve short coats and tight skirts. They wrap their legs with black cloths, and tie kerchieves of various colors on the heads. People of Lahu ethnic group are fond of black color and consider black color as beautiful. Therefore, their clothes mainly use black color as the base color, and then decorate with colorful threads, strips or patches. The whole color is deep but also with distinctive contrasts, which present a beautiful image.

Festivals and Customs

Spring Festival: It is called “Kuonihani” in Lahu language. It usually falls on the first to ninth day of January in Chinese Lunar calendar, almost the same with that of the Han nationality.

Lusheng Dancing Festival: It is also called “Qiangxinshui”, and is a very important and unique activity during the Spring Festival. “Qiangxinshui” means rushing to the mountain spring to snatch the “xinshui (new water)” on the first day of the New Year, being a very important New Year activity for Lahu people. They consider the new water as the cleanest, sacred and the symbol of auspiciousness and happiness. Whoever snatches the new water first, his or her family will get more blessing and a harvest year. Therefore, in every morning of January 1, when the rooster heralds the break of day, every household will send a representative to take bamboo tubes or bottle gourds and rush to the spring to snatch the new water. The snatched new water will firstly be used to worship the ancestors, and then be given to the old people to wash faces.

Kuota Festival: This is the grandest, the most joyous and bustling traditional festival of the Lahu people. It is also called “the great year” by Lahu people. It falls on the first day of January according to Chinese Lunar calendar, and lasts for nine days. Before the New Year’s Eve, every household will tidy up their houses and villages. People kill pigs, immerse rice, and put the Ciba (glutinous rice cake) on the farming tools to represent that these tools have worked for a whole year and deserve to share the festive joy. People will also mow grass for the cattle to appreciate their hard work.

Torch Festival: Torch Festival is full of ethnic fun. Pine woods are made into torches and ignited. Young people are dressed in their festival costumes, singing and dancing by the campfire. It is a very lively, happy and bustling scene.

Changxin Festival: Changxin means tasting the new, and Changxin Festival is for Lahu people to celebrate the harvest. During the festival, people of the whole village kill pigs and make wines, and every person takes a rest for two days. Before the festival, people will harvest a part of the grains and make sacrificial ceremonies to the ancestors. After that, they begin the real harvest.

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