The Social Network: Lisu Use Digital Media to Find Each Other and Preserve Their Culture

Lisu (identified by patchwork bags, and man wearing blue shirt) wait in line for the bank to open on a very chilly morning in Fugong, China. Photo: Mark Goldschmidt

By Michele Zack

In the mid-1980s, I was a budget tourist on a hill tribe trek far from roads or electricity in Northern Thailand. There, I first encountered the Lisu—adaptable, egalitarian highlanders scattered in corners of China, Myanmar, and Thailand (tiny populations also live in India and Laos). I picked up with the group again in the 1990s when—by then based in Thailand—I wrote a popular ethnography of Lisu living in three nation-states with three different political systems. That book never saw print, but a new publisher 15 years later agreed to take up the project when still no book about Lisu had been published. I proposed to update the original work with a new longitudinal angle. Thirty years after first meeting members of the Lisu community, I have finally published The Lisu: Far from the Ruler (University Press of Colorado, 2017).

Sharing a spoken language but not a widely-adopted writing system (Fraser’s “missionary script”), living in remote mountainous areas, and with low literacy rates in the languages of the countries whose fringes they inhabited, back in the 1980s and ‘90s there was no way peripatetic Lisu farmers could connect with other Lisu they knew to be “out there.” The cohesiveness and dominance of their culture (whoever marries a Lisu generally becomes a Lisu) has always been mysterious, since there are only 1.5 million of them and they are so spread out.

One very old man, Eligah, dwelling in a rustic home by the bank of the Irrawaddy across from Myitkyina asserted to me with surprising passion: “We Lisu are everywhere in the world, we are not afraid to go to another man’s country.” He was vague on particulars, but other Lisu kept telling me the same thing. Those in Northern Thailand at the end of their main migration trail knew their forebears had come from China or Burma, but were not actually in touch with relatives living more than a few hilltops away, or perhaps a daughter or son in Chiang Mai.

That lack of communication with relatives was an experience I shared back in the mid-1990s, living in Thailand, where the postal system was not reliable and a decent phone chat (15 minutes) to California cost $65. With the advent of email, I knew the vast communications gulf I’d been experiencing with friends and family back home was about to radically shrink. Joy!

When I returned to this project after nearly two decades away, the technological landscape had changed completely, for both the Lisu and me. How, I wondered, could I characterize qualitative differences in the impacts of the new world economy on the Lisu, as opposed to people who were already “modern”—along with the cultural adaptations Lisu made to survive within each of their different political systems and national cultures? A metric of the psychic distance travelled by the Lisu between the 1990s and today is impossible to calculate because this group has undergone convulsive change at the same time they emerged from statelessness into the global economy—all within a generation or two. Yet, even in their new clothes, many now toting cell phones, they remain distinctly Lisu, in countries whose trajectories and minority policies are distinctly different. There are so many loose ends and angles to ponder, so I began collecting evidence, leaving theories to others.

A first hint of the Lisu’s new digital lives came to me in Chiang Mai in 2014 as I began the update. Ethnomusicologist Victoria Vorreiter mentioned that Lisu had taken to singing traditional courting songs via cell phones to circumvent the prying eyes and ears of go-betweens. Lisu are prodigious singers — she had recently listened in as a woman sang her heart out into a flip phone for 30 minutes standing on a bridge over the Mai Ping River. Vorreiter found the scene “so moving . . . and awfully interesting.” A missionary who found this adaptation troubling filled in more details: men were known to be calling girls and women (sometimes married ones) anonymously and singing to them.

The Lisu, with their strong oral traditions and until-recent stateless condition, had begun playing catch-up in the education and literacy systems of their respective new nation-states—especially in the digital realm—while remaining Lisu. Like everyone else, the Lisu are being put to new tests that require different skills from those that kept them alive in the past. Their need to catch up in order to survive is not completely unlike factory workers losing jobs to robots, tech-support operators losing to counterparts in countries with cheaper labor, or London cabbies losing out to Uber drivers (who will themselves be replaced by driverless cars). The process is relentless and cruel, but the Lisu have responded in agile and resourceful ways.

On the digital front, especially through social media, they are figuring out how to connect with each other to strengthen their culture’s odds of survival. Looking at the content of their social media posts, one is struck by how much of it is directed at affirming their “Lisuness.” Such affirmation must be essential for any tiny minority not wanting not to be swallowed up by the majority culture.

I discovered Lisu attentiveness to this matter when in December, 2017, my book, The Lisu, was released. Within the first day, from three initial Lisu “friends” on Facebook, the number jumped to 20, and six weeks later is closing in on 200. None are from China, which blocks Facebook, and most are from Myanmar, where the transnational Lisu Unity movement is strongest, and Lisu cultural committees and centers have been popping up in every Lisu population center. (The highest percentage of Lisu literate in their own language live in Myanmar because of the missionary presence there until 1965 when Christian missionaries, along with other foreign consultants and advisors, were kicked out.) Lisu living in Thailand, India, Switzerland, and the United States have contacted me — including one from Long Beach, California, only 40 miles from where I live — wanting to know about the book. Their English mastery varies and my Lisu is worse, but they are interested, especially about Lisu living in other countries.

Lisu in China have their own networks and multiple ways to connect. Chinese social media such as WeChat and QQ include the same video and audio functionalities as Facebook. Working with an international group, at least one Lisu leader in Thailand is able to get around both censors and differences in writing systems by posting videos in the Lisu language on these platforms, in various dialects, to help reach the largest national population of Lisu of all, around 700,000. Mostly New Year’s greetings, Lisu dances and other cultural content is transmitted in this way, but also important announcements advancing the cross-border Lisu Unity Movement, such as an upcoming Lisu International meeting in Thailand later this month.  

I learned about the third such meeting (the first was in 2015), scheduled for February 23-25, 2018 in Northern Thailand, following Lisu New Year Celebrations, via Facebook. The “International Conference on Lisu Cultural Inheritance and Sustainable Development” will be held at Sri Dong Yen Village, Ban Chang Sub-District, Mae Taeng District, about 40 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Thousands are expected from Thailand, Myanmar, China, India, and the United States. They’ll attend sessions on Lisu language learning and rehabilitation, Lisu academic findings, appropriate tourism, and network building, among other topics.

In the past ten years, every Lisu seems to have become at least tangentially connected to every other in the world via social networks, and they all know about “the meeting.” Older people know about it through younger ones, and rural Lisu through urban cousins—at least within my sample of Facebook friends. Most can’t afford to come, but each knows someone who knows someone who will be there.

It will be great to meet up with a few of my new Lisu Facebook friends there; one invited me back to his village on the far side of the Irrawaddy. I’d like to go and see if I can find Eligah, if he’s not dead by now, to tell him that he was right—Lisu are everywhere in the world.  

For information on the Lisu Meeting, contact Inter-Mountain People Education and Culture in Thailand Association,

For more on the uses and consequences of social media in developing countries, visit Why We Post, a research project based at University College London.