Wa

Geographical Distribution
The Wa are a tribe famous for their former headhunting and involvement in the opium trade. The Wa value their independence and tend to live at high altitudes, away from other tribes. Their name means “mountaineer”, indicating that from ancient times they have dwelled in the mountain areas along the border of China and Burma (now Myanmar).

The majority of Wa live in Myanmar, where about 700,000 live in the Wa autonomous region located in the north-east. Wa State in Myanmar is made up of many different ethnic groups, of which Wa and Lahu are the major groups. In addition, there are also Bouyei and Han Chinese.

Wa State can be divided into two parts: North and South Wa. North Wa is in the north-east of Myanmar and is located near the China border. It has a population of around 700,000 people, who live in a large region of about 25,000 square kilometers. South Wa is located near the Myanmar and Thailand border. It is in a mountainous region called Doi Larng, which controls the major commercial flow of the Golden Triangle. The population of South Wa is around 60,000 people.There are 351,000 Wa in China, where they are known as Va. Most Wa are distributed in or near the villages of Ximeng, Lancang and Cangyuan counties of the south-western province of Yunnan. There are perhaps 10,000 Wa in Thailand. Some Wa also live in the West but no statistics are available.

Language
Wa is a Mon-Khmer language with 3 primary dialects. Many Wa speak Mandarin Chinese as a second language. Wa does not have its own written language. Therefore, the Wa in Myanmar and China have adopted written Chinese as their chief written language. Wa children are being educated in Chinese.

Livelihood
The Wa are an agricultural people. Even today, many practice slash-and-burn agriculture. They burn a patch in the mountain forest to plant rice, sweet potatoes and corn, then they move on when the soil’s fertility is exhausted. They supplement their diet through hunting and picking wild mountain vegetables and fruits.Opium has been and remains a major cash crop for the Wa. Until recently, the Wa were fighting the Myanmar government and neighboring groups for Wa autonomy. This political struggle diminished normal agriculture and increased the appeal of a lucrative crop like opium.

Village Culture
The Wa have traditionally been so reliant on bamboo that their culture has been called the “Bamboo Culture”. The Wa live in bamboo houses, eat bamboo-shoots from bamboo bowls while sitting on bamboo stools, and sleep on bamboo beds. When hunting, their bows and arrows are also made of bamboo.Wa houses are two storeys with humans inhabiting the upper storey while the ground floor is reserved for chickens and pigs. Each home has two hearths – one for cooking, and one for making offerings to the spirits.

Religion and Beliefs
The Wa religion is animistic. Frequent religious activities are held to obtain protection from the deities and ghosts. In the past, the Wa were worshippers of nature, believing that all mountains, rivers and natural phenomena had their deities, which will bring good or bad fortune to people. They believe that after death, a man’s spirit becomes a deity or a ghost. An enormous amount of time and money is spent on various superstitious observances, which is one reason why the Wa are still economically backward.

Until several decades ago, some Wa still practiced “Latou” or head-hunting. Whereas their neighbors the Lahu used food sacrifices to placate the evil spirit world, the Wa sacrificed humans. But this barbarous act was gradually abolished with the influence of more civilized neighboring ethnic minorities and with the conversion of some Wa to Buddhism.

About 800 years ago, some of the Wa were introduced to Hinayana Buddhism. Later, as Mahayana Buddhism swept over the area, many Wa turned to this religion. Today, the Wa of Myanmar practice a mixture of animism and Buddhism. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in Christianity due to cross-border contact with Chinese missionaries. The Wa in China either believe in Mahayana Buddhism or in Christianity.

Mission
In the early 20th century, Christianity spread among the Wa living at the Myanmar-Yunnan border area. The first Wa Christian in Lanchang was baptized in 1908 when some American Baptist missionaries came to preach the gospel along the Burmese-Yunnan border.

The Wa Bible was completed in 1938. New Testaments and hymnals in Wa have been printed inside China. Since 1985, there has been some mission work among the Wa at the Myanmar-Thai border area.

Chinese pastors in Yunnan estimate between 20,000 to 30,000 Christian Wa. But an outside source has estimated about 75,000 Wa Christians. This means that between 10 to 20% of Wa in China may be Christians.

Pray for the Wa church as it struggles to come to terms with the modern world. The lack of literacy and the lack of trained pastors and teachers are factors which have impeded its spiritual growth.