Wa Ethnic Minority

General Information

The Wa people live mainly in Yunnan Province. According to the 2000 census, the Wa Ethnic Minority has a total population of 396,000 in China, with some 383,000 in Yunnan Province. The Wa people, inhabiting the region between the Mekong River and the Salween River, live mainly in Cangyuan, Gengma, Shuangjiang, Yongde, Zhenkang Counties of Lincang Prefecture, and Ximeng, Menglian, Lancang Counties of Simao Prefecture. Of these, Cangyuan and Ximeng are the two counties where the Wa people live in compact communities, their population accounting for over 50% of the total Wa population in China.

Wa Girls

Wa Girls


There are several different legends about the origin of the Wa Ethnic Minority : the Wa people came out from "Sigang Li"("Sigang Li" means that the ancestors of the Wa people come out of a gourd or a cave in the mountain, of which, "Sigang" means a gourd or a cave in the mountain and "Li" means "to come out". It is said that the gourd and the cave are in the north Myanmar, not far from Simeng and Cangyuan Counties.);God created Daguya and Yeli, who were the first ancestors of the Wa people; Daneng smeared his saliva on Yenumu, who later gave birth to the first Wa generation. The legend about "Sigang Li" is the most popular explanation spread among the Wa people.

According to historical records, the Wa people are the descendants of the "Baipu" people who lived before the Qin period (221 BC- 26 BC). They were called "Wangman", "Guci" and "Kawa" in the Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties respectively. With the founding of the People's Republic of China, they were formally named "Wa" by the government after unanimous approval from the people.

However, the Wa people in different places in Yunnan Province call themselves by different names. For example, those living in Ximeng, Menglian and Lancang Counties call themselves "Ah Wa" or "Le Wa", in Cangyuan, Shuangjiang and Gengma Counties "Ba Raoke" or "Bu Rao", and in Yongde and Zhenkang Counties "Wa". Interestingly, these names all mean "the people living on the mountain."


The language of the Wa Ethnic Minority , which includes four dialects, belongs to the Wa-Deang branch of the Mon-Khmer language of the Austro-Asiatic family. It has close relationships with the language of the Dai Ethnic Minority, from which 10% of the Wa words are borrowed. The Wa people previously had no written language. They kept records and accounts by woodcutting, bean counting, rope knotting, and engraving bamboo strips. They passed messages by using material objects. For example, sugarcane, bananas and salt signified friendship, chilies meant anger, and cock feathers denoted urgency. An alphabetic script was created for them in 1957.


The Wa people like to wear homespun clothes, each geographical area having its own distinctive style. Most like black clothes with red decoration. Men usually wear short black collarless coats and loose trousers. They keep their hair short and always wrap their heads with black or red turbans like horns. Some wear circular earrings, silver bracelets, and bamboo or silver necklaces as well. When going out, every man likes to carry a homespun bag on his arm and wear a sword on his waist, making him look more masculine. Tattooing is also a common practice among men.

The Wa women, most of whom are longhaired, wear short black collarless jackets that just reach the upper part of their bellies, and skirts with red and black stripes. They usually wear big earrings, colorful strings of beads and thick silver necklaces, with red bands around their waists and bamboo or rattan bangles around their bare arms and legs. The old women like to wear big umbrella-like five-inch-long ear tubes, where they can put some fragrant flowers, grass and even money for easy access when they go shopping.

In Ximeng County where the Wa people live in compact communities, every woman, rich or poor, always wears a pair of wide bracelets. According to legend, long ago, in the primeval forests of the Awa Mountain, large wild man-eating bears lived. It was known that if a bear caught a person by the hand, it would not let him go but eat him. One day, a beautiful Wa girl was picking mushrooms on the mountain when she saw a wild bear coming towards her. At this moment, the clever girl took out a bamboo pipe for drinking from her basket, put her right hand into the pipe, and let the bear hold it. Feeling so sure that its food would not be able to escape, the bear held the bamboo pipe tightly to it and grinned conceitedly. Seeing the bear pay no attention to her, the girl withdrew her hand from the pipe discreetly and escaped from the danger. From then on, all the Wa girls, when going out, put their wrists into bamboo pipes just in case. As time went by, wide bracelets replaced bamboo pipes as a token of luck. Nowadays, most of the wide silver bracelets worn by the Wa women are five inches wide and engraved with all kinds of beautiful patterns.

The headmen of the Wa villages or tribes have their own dressing style. They wrap their heads with red cloth. Sacred figures such as the sun, moon, stars, dragons and bulls' heads are embroidered on their clothes. Two doors are also embroidered to show that their ancestors were once the entrance guards of "Sigang Li". The pattern of two dragons holding the sun in their mouths is embroidered on their underclothes, which can be worn by no one but the village headmen.

Food and Drink

The Wa people have two or three meals a day. Their staple food is rice, which is complemented with kaoliang, buckwheat, maize and beans. Chicken congee and camellia congee are regarded as their delicacies. Chilies are a great favorite with all the Wa people, young or old, and a meal is not considered complete without chilies.

The Wa people mainly eat pork, beef and chicken. They also eat rats and over ten kinds of insects such as bamboo pupas, red caterpillars, besom caterpillars, and wax gourd caterpillars, etc. Usually the edible insects are mixed with rice and cooked to be congee, which tastes hot and delicious when combined with vegetables, salt and chilies. The typical Wa dishes are: camellia congee, grilled snake meat, peas fried with ant eggs, fried firewood worms, etc.

The Wa people like keeping bees, chewing betel nuts and drinking wine and bitter tea. The wine they drink is home-brewed. The tea, boiled in a pottery pot and brewed into a thick paste, is dark brown in color and bitter in taste. Bitter as it is, the tea is remarkably refreshing and is a great thirst- quencher. The Wa people, young or old, have the habit of chewing betel nuts. While working, resting or chatting, they are often seen chewing betel nuts.

Etiquette and Taboos

Etiquette:The Wa people are warm and hospitable to their guests. When guests enter their houses, the Wa people will entertain them with wine in bamboo cups as a token of welcome and respect. The Wa etiquette of welcoming guests with wine is different from place to place. In some areas, when presenting a cup of wine to his guest, the host should drink a mouthful first to show his sincerity,while the guest in one swallow to show his politeness. In other areas, both the host and the guest squat down, and the host presents a cup of wine with his right hand to the guest, who reaches for it also with his right hand and then pours or flips a little wine to the ground, showing his respect for the host's ancestors. The conclusion of the two customs is the same. When the guest is leaving, the host will hold a full gourd of wine, drink a mouthful first, and then present it the guest, who should drink it up to show that he will never forget the host's hospitality and friendliness.

Taboos: The Wa people regard the following actions as taboos: riding a horse into the village, touching their heads or ears, giving chilies and eggs as gifts, entering the wooden drum house without permission, giving girls ornaments, and counting money or sitting on the hostess's wooden stool in the host's home. If a wooden pole is put in front of the door of a house, that means someone in the house is sick and no one but his family members may enter it.


Pulling Wooden Drum Festival: The "Gerui" month of the Wa calendar, which is equivalent to December of the solar calendar, is the time for pulling the wooden drum. Unlike the popular leather drums, a wooden drum is a drum made of a whole piece of tree-trunk, its surface not enveloped with any leathers. On the eve of the festival, the headman and the "moba" (priest) of the village lead several male villagers to a tall tree that they have already chosen beforehand. Under the tree, they first make offerings and chant incantations to expel evils spirits. Then the "moba" brandishes an ax, making a few cuts on the trunk of the tree. Other villagers then chop it down. After that, they put three stones on the tree stump as a token payment to the tree ghost for buying the tree. Then they cut the trunk into the size suitable for the drum they need.

Next morning, all the villagers put on their best costumes and go to the mountain to join in pulling the log (semi-finished wooden drum) down to the village. The "moba" guides the procession with twigs held in his right hand, leading some male villagers to pull the log and sing the song "pulling the wooden drum". Other villagers either shout loudly to boost their morale or scatter rice and splash wine on the ground as the log is pulled along. The log is left at the entrance to the village for two or three days. After the sacrificial rite with cocks as offerings, the log is pulled from the village gate to the place beside the wooden drum house where the carpenters will fashion it into a drum. In pulling the wooden drum, both men and women participate, singing and dancing. Some young people often take this opportunity to find their future husbands or wives. The whole program lasts for many hours. After the drum is made and tested, people put it into the wooden drum house, where they dance heartily again to the drum beats.

Sowing Seeds Festival: Sowing Seeds Festival is held in the "Qiai" month of the Wa calendar, that is, March of the solar calendar. In this festival, the Wa people gather to sacrifice an ox. The event is usually hosted by the owner of the ox. After the owner butchers the ox by thrusting an iron sword into its heart, its flesh is divided evenly into many parts, which are used by the villagers as offerings to worship their ancestors. The bones of the ox, symbolizing wealth, belong to its owner. After worshipping their ancestors and having lunch, the Wa people begin to sow rice seeds.

Fresh Rice Festival: Fresh Rice Festival is the favorite festival of the Wa people and usually lasts three days. In the middle of the eighth month of the lunar calendar when paddies are just ripe, all the Wa families go to the paddy fields to pick some fresh paddies at the time announced by the village headman. When returning home, they put some paddies in the prepared barn or bamboo basket, and pound the rest to be husked rice grains, which are soon cooked. After that, they place 7 bowls of rice with meat and 7 bowls of wine as offerings on the table, inviting the spirits of their ancestors and the gods in charge of the heaven, earth, mountains, and grains to enjoy their harvests. Then they burn 7 pieces of incense. At the end of the rite, all the family members eat the 7 bowls of rice. In the evening, Most of the people gather to enjoy the festival, singing and dancing until dawn. On the second day, all the young people go out to repair the old roads and bridges or build new ones, making ready for carrying bags of fresh paddies into the village. On the third day, the Wa people, continue to enjoy the festival with more singing and dancing. The young men and women often take this opportunity to seek out a mate.

"Bengnanni" Festival: "Bengnanni" Festival, which is the Wa festival for bidding farewell to the past and welcoming new arrivals, is held on the last day in the last month of the Wa calendar. Before dawn, all the young and middle-aged men gather in the house of the village headman, with a pig and a cock killed as sacrificial offerings. Each family, holding a basin of glutinous rice and a piece of baba (rice cake) on a bamboo table, pays a New Year call to the headman and worship ghosts, gods and their ancestors. After that, all the Wa people give babas to one another, greeting with words of blessings. At dawn, after presenting offerings to their sacred tree, the Wa people go hunting and fishing, praying for good luck in the new year.

Culture and Art

Literature: The Wa Ethnic Minority boasts rich and colorful folklore, vivid myths, touching poems and legends. Famous myths include "Sigang Li", "ancestors of the human being", "the big snake is vomiting" and "the origin of all things", the most popular of which is "Sigang Li". The Wa people have created many oral stories to praise goodness and justice and to attack perfidiousness and hypocrisy. "The old man and the crocodile" is such a typical story.

Singing and dancing are very important to the Wa people. At festivals, the Wa people, wearing their best costumes, sing and dance day and night for several days. There are many forms of Wa folk dances including the drum dance, pole dance, sword dance, plume dance, lusheng dance, hand towel dance, string instrument dance, gong dance, and bamboo flute dance. The subdivisions of drum dance are wooden drum dance, tom-tom dance, elephant-foot drum dance, bronze drum dance, and bamboo drum dance. Of these, wooden drum dance best represents the characteristics of the Wa Ethnic Minority.

The Wa people regard the wooden drum as a divine tool that has exceptional power and is the symbol of existence and prosperity. They believe in many gods, of whom, Muyiji is a powerful god that creates all things in the world and has the right to decide their life and death. Legend has it that, long ago, at the beginning of history, a disastrous flood devoured almost all the lives on land. It was Muyiji that saved the Wa people with a wooden trough, which later enabled them to survive and develop. Therefore, in most of the traditional sacrificial rites, the Wa people pay a high tribute to the wooden drum and worship Muyiji, praying for his blessings by singing and dancing.

Wooden drum dance is a traditional dance that is performed to worship Muyiji in the "Gerui" month of the Wa calendar (the 12th month of the lunar calendar). It consists of four main parts: "pulling wooden drum", "dancing in the house of wooden drum", "beating wooden drum", and "offering sacrifices to Muyiji", faithfully reproducing the solemn scenes of the ancient Wa people's unceasing and united struggle against nature and reflecting their yearning for a happy life.

The most common wooden drum dance is "beating wooden drum". The Wa people use wood drums and cymbals as major instruments, which are blended with songs and chanting, to create the main melody with strong and harmonious rhythm full of encouragement and impulsion. Men wear red ribbons on their heads and wide pants; women, with white ribbons on their heads, wear bracelets and skirts, and their long hair swings loose and wild. The dance is grand: At dusk, a long haired female dancer stands on the wooden drum, raising hands to the sky. Two men stand at each end of the drum with drum sticks in hand; other actors are around the drum, dancing slowly to the singers' call, the drum and cymbals. It's a mixture of slow and fast beat, anger and sadness, anxiety and happiness. As the highlight comes, the dancing steps become orderly and powerful, straightforward and uninhibited, grand and magnificent, which, seeming to shake the sky and the land, fully describes the Wa people's vigorous vitality and their spirit of fighting against nature.

The content and the performing techniques of today's wooden drum dance have reached a higher level. It has adopted some movements of the Wa women such as "swinging hair", which thus adds to the charm of Wa's art. Wooden drum dance is a shining pearl in the culture of wood drum.

Sculpture and Painting The sculptures and paintings of the Wa people bear strong minority characteristics and high artistic levels. Ancient cliff paintings of the Wa people have been discovered in Yunnan Province in recent years. The cliff paintings in Cangyuan County, which describe the hunting, dancing and working scenes of the ancient Wa people with simple, straightforward and uninhibited patterns, are rare and valuable artistic treasures useful to the study of the history of the Wa Ethnic Minority .


The Wa people usually live in compact communities in the form of villages, each of which normally consists of dozens of or even hundreds of households. The Wa people live in bamboo houses that are similar in shape to those of the Dai people. Most of the Wa villages were built on hilltops or slopes. The styles of their houses vary depending on their locations. Most houses are constructed with bamboo and straw and are usually two storied. The upper floor is for family accommodation while the ground floor is reserved for their livestock. The building of a new house is a community affair. People in the same village will offer to help and present timber and straw as gifts. Generally, a house will be completed in one day through a collective community effort. After completing the house construction, all the young people in the village will be invited to the new house to attend a celebration including dancing, singing and drinking.


The Wa people worship nature, believing that all mountains, rivers and other natural phenomena have their deities. They associate ghosts, gods and spirits with their ancestors. They call the sun god "Li", the moon god "Lun", plant god "Pen", animal god "Neng", air god "Nu" and water god "Ah-yong". The Wa people think that ghosts, gods and spirits, big or small, should have their own duties and responsibilities and can't manage others' business. If something unfortunate happens to a person, he has to give offerings to a particular ghost or god in charge of it for blessings.

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