Geographical Distribution

The Shan are a people related to the Thai. In Thailand and Myanmar, the Thai people refer to the Shan as Thai Yai (great Thai). About 30,000 Shan are citizens of Thailand, mainly in the Maehongson province, west of Chiangmai and near the northwestern border. Across the border in Myanmar, there are more than 5 million Shan in the northern Shan state. Approximately 1 million are dispersed through the rest of Burma, China and Laos. Shan are known to live in the west too. Their warfare and the resulting tensions and economic hardships have caused as many as several hundred thousand Shan to slip into other countries illegally to find work.

The historical roots of the Shan are in Yunnan, China, where about 270,000 Shan are still found today. In China they are known as Dai, Shan or Bai Yi.


Current estimates are that there are 5-6 million Shan


The Shan speak a language that is related to Thai and Lao. This language has a written script that is primarily used for religious texts and court chronicles. Most of the books available in Shan are Buddhist literature. While the younger generation of educated Shan can read their national language, only a few can read the traditional Shan script.

Language Group:



The majority of Shan are farmers who grow rice to eat and a variety of crops to sell in the market. Most work on irrigated rice fields and grow garlic, peanuts and soybeans as cash crops. The Shan also act as wholesalers of industrial goods through northwestern Thailand and eastern Myanmar in exchange for gems, cattle, and traditional Shan goods.

Religion and Beliefs

Most Shan are ardent Buddhists. The life of most communities is centered around the temple and its rituals. The Buddhist lunar calendar structures the ceremonial cycle with four holy days each month. Temple festivals celebrate events in Buddha’s life. Wealthy villages celebrate more of these events than do poor villages. However, all villages hold at least on festival at the end of the rainy season. At this time, the monks chant to remove misfortune, renew the village and break down obstacles that stand in the way of everyone enjoying goodluck.

Animism lies underneath the surface of Buddhism and every Shan village has its spirit house, where offerings are left and ceremonies performed to honor the ruling spirit of the area. The Shan insist that they do not worship evil spirits, only good spirits. However, there is a very real fear of spirits evident among them.


Christian Mission

Missionaries began work among the Shan of Burma in 1861. At that time the Shan States were torn apart by internal war. These wars caused thousands of Shan to migrate to Thailand in search of food and security. Converts appeared early and Shan speaking congregations were established in Burma. When missionaries were obliged to leave Burma, the church continued on. Presently there are an estimated 15,000 Christians among 4 million or more Shan Buddhists.

In Thailand, mission work among the Shan began in 1953. The Shan are friendly but generally unresponsive. Today there are only a few hundred Shan speaking believers in Thailand.

China is home to 270,000 Shan with only 500 Christians among them.


The New Testament is available. A revised version of the the Old Testament is due in 2002.

Shan-Tai Links