The homeland of peacocks

In the west of Yunnan Province China, there is a beautiful piece of land, which is named Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture.

On the Marriage Culture of the Jingpo Nationality


   The Jingpos live in the border areas of several countries, who are called the Kachins in Myanmar and the Xinfus in Assam of India. There are 118,000 Jingpos living in China, of whom the majority live in compact communities in Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. Because of their slow development, in the early 18th century they still stayed at the late period of a primitive society. In the mid-18th century their economy and society had entered the transitional period from a late primitive society to a feudal society but they still kept up quite a few old marriage customs. Even today in some remote Jingpo villages in China, a good few old marriage customs inherited from the primitive society have been retained. Their marriage culture is closely related to their history, religion, psychology and their Shanguan (local chieftain) system. This article discusses the main characteristics of this marriage culture from different angles.

  Part One: The Strictly-Stratified Internal Marriage System

  In the earliest legend about Jingpo's marriage customs, it was the men that in their best married into the women's families (uxorilocal). Later, having more pieces of property than ever before, the careless men often forgot to take their possessions such as their long swords, hanging bags, tobacco boxes, bows and arrows and had to return to fetch them time and again during the marriage ceremony. The women were unhappy about this and said it was convenient for them to marry their men because they only needed to take a weaving tool. Since then, it has been the Jingpo women that marry into the men's families (virilocal). This legend reveals that the virilocal practice of the Jingpos was the result of the development of private ownership and the replacement of the matriarchal society by the patriarchal society.

  Monogamy is the dominant marriage practice among the Jingpos and the core of the Jingpo family. Because the children are named after the father and the pedigree is based on the paternal side, the father of a Jingpo family enjoys some privileges, which in turn strengthens this practice. Since the Shanguan system emerged, the Jingpos began to have an internal marriage practice among the members of the same class, mainly among the family members of the Shanguans, which vividly reveals the hierarchy of the Jingpo society and its typical cultural traits. According to this system, a Shanguan could only marry the daughter of another Shanguan while the members of the common people could only marry among themselves and the slaves could only marry the daughters of the slaves. But as a matter of fact, the common people and the slaves could get related through marriage. The following are the reasons why this practice was favored by the Shanguans: A. If a Shanguan married a daughter of an ordinary family, her father would become the Shanguan's father-in-law. ("Mayu" in the Jingpo language). According to the Jingpo marriage custom, Mayu enjoys some privileges and has some power over his son-in-law. In this way, the Shanguan's social status and power would be weakened. B. If a member of an ordinary family married a daughter of a Shanguan, his social status would be quite different. The Shanguan would call him "Dugahkri" (son-in-law of a Shanguan), who would be the assistant of the Shanguan and had the power to deal with the affairs under the jurisdiction of this Shanguan, and others would respectfully call him Dugahkriwa. The Shanguans thought this practice would impair their authority and should be prohibited. But this hierarchy-based marriage system was changing with the changing society due to the emergence of the changed rich and poor groups. For example, the daughters of some Shanguans married themselves into some rich ordinary families. But they usually asked for expensive betrothal gifts to show their different social positions. Besides the usual gifts like cattle, gongs, wool, blankets and silver ornaments, other betrothal gifts included horses, ivory (articles), and imperial (dragon-patterned) robes which were symbols of a different marriage. As a matter of fact, only a few very rich and powerful common families could afford to marry the daughters of the Shanguans. Because some declining Shanguans could not afford the expensive betrothal gifts to marry the daughters of other Shanguans, they had to choose the daughters of the ordinary people. But there were some prerequisites: the girls must be beautiful, clever and have some prestige and property. If a daughter from ordinary family became the wife of a Shanguan, she would enjoy the same social position as a Shanguan's wife. This practice remained established for a long period of time in which the rich, powerful and influential Shanguans always got married among the family members of themselves.

  As time marched on, polygamy also emerged among the Jingpos because of the following reasons: One important reason was closely related to reproduction (sterility). If the wife could not give birth to any children in several years, the husband would marry a second or even a third wife. The Jingpos attach great importance to children, especially to the sons who are regarded as the carriers of the family line. If the wife could not give birth to any children or could only give birth to daughters, the husband would marry a second wife. The other reason was related to the Jingpos' remarriage custom. In the Jingpo society, there was a special remarriage custom. It was considered as the widow's responsibility to remarry one of the male family members of her late husband. Why? A. During their marriage ceremony, "Dongsha" (preacher) prayed to "Masha nat" (the spirit of their ancestors) and offered sacrifices to "Bubai nat" (the spirit of the marriage ceremony) and walked across the "Grass Bridge". B. The family of her late husband had paid expensive betrothal gifts and according to their marriage custom she became one member of the family since then and could not marry again freely: Judging from the above-mentioned reasons, this remarriage custom was related not only to their primitive religion but also to the women's position as property. The fact that they did not allow the widows to remarry others rather than the family members of her late husband was to avoid the loss of the family's or the clan's property. According to this custom, if the elder brother died, his younger brother could marry his wife or vice versa. As a result, the former relationship between the younger brother and his elder brother's wife or that between the elder brother and his younger brother's wife changed into a husband-wife relationship. However, this kind of wife was not regarded as the legal wife. According to the Jingpos' outlook on life, a Jingpo man should have a legal wife, otherwise he would be lonely after death. Therefore, even if an unmarried Jingpo man married the wife of one late member of his family, he had to marry someone else as his legal wife. The monogamy, the polygamy and the remarriage custom of the Jingpos were practices dominated by their strictly-stratified internal marriage system.  


Part Two: The Relations between "Dama nta" and "Mayu nta"

  The Jingpos marriage custom strictly prohibits the marriage between the members of the same grandfather or of the same surname, or between the maternal cousins. They have followed a "unidirectional" marriage custom, that is, the son of the aunt (the father's sister) should marry the daughter of the uncle (the mother's brother), but the daughter of the aunt (the father's sister) can not marry the son of the uncle (the mother's brother). In this marriage relationship, the Jingpos call the family of the father's sister "Dama nta" and the family of the mother's brother "Mayu nta". This relationship finds its expression in the Jingpos' kinship terminology. The mother's brother and the father-in law are called the same; the wife of the mother's brother and the mother-in-law are called the same; the husband of the father's sister and the husband's father are called the same: the father's sister and the husband's mother are called the same. According to some Jingpo historical records, this relationship was established in the Wa Hkyetwa (ancestry) Period. This marriage relationship was formed in this way: the son of Lahto wa nolon (Damn nta surnamed Xu) married the daughter of Marip wa gunja (Dama nta surnamed Li); the son of Lahpai wa Lajong (Dama nta surnamed Pai) married the daughter of Lahto wa nolon; the son of Dasan tuhkum (Dama nta surnamed Yue) married the daughter of Lahpai wa Lajong; the son of Maran a ningshang (Dama nta surnamed Yang) married the daughter of Dasan tuhkum. This was not a limited marriage relationship because there were at least three clan groups, each of which might have several families. If anyone was against the prohibition of the marriage between the members of the same family or between the maternal cousins, he would be strictly punished according to the customary law.

  In this marriage practice, there existed respect for seniority. For example, if there were several unmarried sisters in the family of a mother's brother, the eldest should be the first choice. If the man wanted to marry the second daughter, he should give the eldest daughter a buffalo (Hkung gaja in the Jingpo language) as a compensation. If the man was from a Shanguan's family, he should give the eldest daughter a horse.

  In this marriage practice, the mother's brother played a very important role, which was revealed in the following: A. When a man was choosing a wife, the first choice should be the daughter of his mother's brother. If his mother's brother had no daughter or his daughter was not at a proper age, he should take the advice of his mother's brother and get the permission from him before he made a decision. B. If a mother died, her brother would be responsible for the funeral affairs, including the building of the grave, the making of the wooden figure, chicken and board with painted patterns. If the mother's brother was too busy to take charge of all the affairs in person, some one may replace him, but he must do it in his name. C. When a Jingpo girl was going to marry someone, she must give her mother's brother a buffalo as a gift (called Yujija in the Jingpo language). If the girl was too poor to afford it, she could postpone giving it with the permission from her mother's bother. In this marriage relationship, the nephew (one's sister's son) had the following privileges and obligations. 1. He had the priority to marry the eldest daughter of his mother's brother. If his wife died, he could marry the second or the youngest daughter of his mother's brother. 2. If his mother or wife died, he should give his mother's brother a buffalo. 3. If he built a new house, his mother's brother should be invited first. 4. While holding a sacrificial rite (killing a buffalo as a sacrifice to the Spirit) or the Harvest Festival, he should give his mother's brother a pack of new rice wrapped with meat. 5. During the Spring Festival, he should make a ceremonial call and take wine, rice cakes and meat as gifts to the house of his mother's brother.

  Judging from what has been mentioned above, it is true that the Jingpo patriarchal society replaced its matriarchal society long ago; some traces of the matriarchal society have remained, which are vividly revealed in the privileges and obligations of the mother's brother. 


Part Three: The Patterns of Love

  According to the Jingpos' marriage customs, if the young men and ladies can follow the customary laws mentioned in Part Two, they can have complete freedom of love before marriage, which is mainly revealed in their "Nlapran" (dating) practice. The young men and ladies date with each other in the bamboo groves outside the village, playing their typical musical instruments, singing love songs in an antiphonal style, and enjoying complete freedom of love. If they are not related on the maternal side or have different family names, they can sleep together. When day just breaks, they will come back to their own villages. In the past each village had its public house reserved for the dating of the unmarried youth. The young men and ladies liked sitting around the fire-pit in the public house and singing "the Public-house Song" (love song). This song explains that after human beings saw different trees embracing each other and there were falling stars in the sky, they learnt dating and giving birth to children. Why should they sing love songs in. the bamboo groves outside the village? According to Jingpo's way of life, their courting and talk of love should avoid being seen or heard by their parents and therefore they should not sing love songs inside the village. There is another strict rule: the young men and ladies having the same surname or being related on the maternal side are not allowed to sing love in an antiphonal style. Therefore, the young men must first make sure by singing songs who the young ladies are before they can sing love songs.

  Apart from dating, in the past the young Jingpos had a typical way of expressing their love: tree-leaf letters. For instance, they used to send a pack of leaves wrapped with a thin bamboo strip or a red thread to express their love. They cleverly used different pronunciations of the tree leaves or other properties to express their love. For example, " fernbrake" is called "Hkung mu" in the Jingpo language and "mu" is a homonym of "meet". Therefore the extended meaning of "Hkung mu" is "I always want to meet you". The leaf of plantain is called 'Langa lap" in the Jingpo language and "Langa" is a homonym of "wait". A gift wrapped in the plantain leaf means "I am waiting for your answer day and night." The needle with a red thread in the leaf-letter means "miss you" because "needle" is pronounced "samyit", which is a homonym of "myit" (miss). The Jingpos consider the small honeybee is a propitious symbol and it means distinguished guests are coming. It also means a date with the one loved. There are other things such as different wild fruits used by the Jingpos to express their respect and sincere love.

  From what has been discussed above, we can conclude that the young Jingpos have complete freedom of love marriage. But according to their marriage customs, it is rather difficult to get married with their lovers (especially in the past) because the parents and divination of Jingpo "Dongshas" usually have the final say. 


Part Four: Engagement Procedures and Marriage Ceremony

  The following are the most popular practices of engagement in the past.

  1. "Num shapon" means "marry off one's daughter in a most formal way". If a young man fell in love with a girl in a Mayu, he would invite "Dongsha" to make a divination. Then he would invite his "Gasa" (matchmaker) to take the betrothal gifts and wine to the girl's parents. If the parents agreed he would give the girl's family some Num hpyi ja (betrothal gifts) and fix a date for the marriage ceremony in order to avoid others' involvement. On the day before the ceremony, the girl's family would invite "Janghtung"(her matchmaker), relatives and friends to accompany the bride to the bridegroom's village. The bride should stay one night at the Gasa's house and the wedding ceremony would be held next day.

  2. "Num hpron" means "a mildly forced marriage". It was done in the following way. If a man loved a girl, his family would invite "Gasa" to take the betrothal gifts and wine to the girl's parents. If the parents agreed, they would drink the engagement wine and accept the gifts before choosing the wedding date. The day before the wedding day, the bridegroom would invite several strong young men to forcibly take away the girl from her village. The girl's matchmaker would secretly help them by luring the girl out of the village. Why should they do in this way after the girl's parents had agreed to the marriage? Firstly; they were afraid that the girl was unwilling to marry the man. Secondly, it was believed that this kind of practice would help produce more children. Thirdly, this practice would help the bride get rid of the wild spirit attached to her. After the bride had been taken away from her village, she should stay at the house of the bridegroom's matchmaker for one night. Only after the girl's matchmaker, family members, relatives and friends had arrived could the wedding ceremony be held.

  3. "Num Laku" means "to steal a wife". If a man wanted to marry a lady in a Mayu, he would ask his Gasa to make known his intention. If the girl's parents did not agree, they would hide their daughter. If the man was determined to marry her, he would ask his "Gasa" and her "Janghtung" for help. They would secretly "steal the girl" and make it an accomplished fact. Later the man's family and the girl's family would have a discussion to agree upon the betrothal gifts.

  4. "Num gashun" means "a marriage by capture". It was done in the following way: If a man wanted to marry a girl in a Mayu, he would first get the betrothal gifts and the marriage expenses prepared and fix the wedding day. Then he would ask his Gasa to lead several strong men to the girl's village. Without the knowledge of anyone of the girl's family they would secretly capture the girl. Why should it be done in this way? Firstly, it was believed that a girl captured was better than the one sent and she could produce more children. Secondly several men might fall in love with the same girl and they would become suspicious of each other. To take the initiative was to gain the upper hand. After the girl had been captured, she would be hidden in the house of the man's Gasa. Then the Gasa would take the betrothal money and wine to the girl's family to make an offer of marriage. Because it had been an accomplished fact, the girl's parents had no choice but to agree. But they usually asked for very expensive betrothal gifts, which must be satisfied. It was believed that only few rich and powerful families could afford this kind of marriage.

  5."Hka ga Nu" means "a mother who has committed sins". The Jingpos think that pregnancy before marriage is a sin and both parties should bear the responsibility. In this case, the girl's family would not ask for many betrothal gifts. If the man did not want to marry her, he could give the girl some money and property as a compensation for this sin. Then the girl could marry another man.


The Wedding Ceremony

  The wedding ceremony of the Jingpos has its typical characteristics. The following is a brief introduction to it.

  No matter what kind of engagement procedure was adopted, the bride could not immediately enter the bridegroom's house. She must first stay at the house of the bridegroom's matchmaker for one night. According to the Jingpo's marriage customs, the ceremony of "Crossing the Grass Bridge" must be held to help the bride get rid of the wild spirit attached to her. Firstly, two persons who have been selected by two Dongshas through divination will propose four toasts to the bride and those accompanying them. Each time two bamboo tubes of home-made weak liquor and two tubes of strong liquor are offered and each time the two Dongshas will come back to the bride' s house according to rule. The first toast expresses a welcome; the second toast expresses that the journey must be tiring and the distinguished guests should have a good rest: the third toast indicates that dishes are ready for the bride and the distinguished guests; the last toast indicates everything is ready and the wedding ceremony is about to begin. During the last toast, the two persons in charge of the toast each carry a bamboo basket on the back. In one basket are the bride's clothes, two spears and two swords given by the bridegroom; in the other are two tubes of weak liquor and two tubes of strong liquor, which are shared by the bride and her companions and the receiving team. After the toast the old ladies begin to dress the bride up for the wedding ceremony while singing "Majan" (blessing songs), and the scene is very exciting. In the meantime, a woman puts some ears of rice and kaoliang, corn, soybeans and two swords in the bamboo basket which contains the bride's clothes. After the bride has been beautifully dressed, led by her Janghtung who is holding a spear and accompanied by two female companions and a woman carrying the bamboo basket on the back, she walks out of the Gasa's house. At this moment, the bridegroom, leading some men playing the bamboo flute and singing songs, comes to receive her. Escorted by them, the bride and the bridegroom come to the well-arranged site of the wedding ceremony. The bride and the bridegroom sit on the new wooden stool in the middle with some tobacco, areca nuts and bamboo-tubes of wine put before them. It is the Gasa that declares the beginning of the wedding ceremony. First, the bride and the bridegroom will politely offer wine and tobacco to each other and then to all present on this occasion. A bridge 2~3 meters in length and 15~20 cm in width has been put in place before the bridegroom's house. On both sides of the bridge, there are four wooden poles put in the grass. The first wooden pole, to which a sow is fastened, is used to offer sacrifices to "Masha nat" (the spirit of the ancestry). The second wooden pole, to which a sow is tied, is used to offer sacrifices to "Gumbai nat" (the spirit of the wedding ceremony). The third wooden pole, to which two chickens are tied, is used to offer sacrifices to "Maro nat" (the spirit in the open air). The fourth wooden pole, to which a boar is tied, is used to offer sacrifices to "Du nat" (the spirit worshiped by the Shanguan). In front of each wooden pole stands a Dongsha reciting the scriptures. This is an inseparable part of the wedding ceremony of the Jingpos. The Creation (Munao zhaiwa), an epic of the Jingpos, says, "Tire hero and creator; Ning Guandu, falls in love with Buren Zhasheng, daughter of Dragon King, and he wants to marry her. In the Ga'Ang Palace, / Ning Guandu and Zhasheng are going to get married, / but there are dragon's scales on her face, / and dragon-like smell on her body, / Ning dips the leaves of Zanthoxylum bungeanum in the holy spring, / and washes Zhasheng with them. / After the baptism, the scales become less conspicuous and the smell is not so strong. / Then Ning dips ginger in the holy spring and washes Zhasheng again. / After this, though the scales do not show much and the smell is not too strong, / they still exist. / Finally Ning dips the holy Gongba grass in the holy spring / and washes Zhasheng with it. / This time, all the scales and smell have disappeared. / Zhasheng looks more charming than ever before. / She walks across the Gongba Grass Bridge. / Since then, Ning has a Queen and wife." This important custom has been retained ever since. The Jingpos think that if the bride has not crossed this bridge, she should not be regarded as married

  After the Dongshas have finished reciting the scriptures, they begin to kill the animal sacrifice and deliberately let the blood splash on the bridge. At this moment, the wife of the bridegroom's elder brother will hold the right hand of the bride and lead her across the bridge. If the bride is pregnant before marriage, she is only allowed to go by the bridge rather than over the bridge. The bride should go upstairs into the principle room. On the stairway, there should be l~2 newly built steps with 2~4 nipple-shaped patterns, which symbolizes an early birth of children. The husband's mother is waiting at the threshold to put the family silver necklace on her, which indicates the acceptance of the daughter-in-law. Then the bride is ushered inside the room with a fire-pit where the husband's parents live. This is the end of the day's ceremony.

  Early in the evening, the bride and the girls accompanying her will cook some glutinous rice and wrap it with some plantain leaves for the evening's ceremony. First the bride and the bridegroom will drink a toast to all the guests. Then the young men and girls begin to enjoy themselves. First they will ask the bridegroom to put some glutinous rice dumplings in the bride's mouth and then the bride should do the same. In the merriment, the singers begin to sing the old Hkung ran majan (wedding song) and other congratulations, which will last the whole night.

  On the next day, the Janghtung and the girls accompanying the bride will return to the bride's family with the gifts given by the bridegroom's family. Usually the gifts are 3~5 buffaloes and 2~4 gongs. If the bridegroom's family is not rich enough to afford them, they can give them in several times in the future. On this day, the bride begins to brew some light liquor to show her brewing techniques. In ten days the couple will return to the bride's parental home to hold the "Hking tin sa" ceremony (the ceremony of returning to the bride's parental home). After the ceremony; all the villagers will share the liquor; glutinous rice and the cooked eggs. The large rice dumplings wrapped in plantain leaves symbolize unity, the cooked eggs symbolize purity and sincerity and the mixed dishes wrapped in pairs indicate that the wedding ceremony comes to a successful close.


  Through a cultural analysis of the marriage customs of the Jingpo nationality, we can conclude that the emergence and development of their marriage customs are closely related to the emergence and development of their society economy, politics, history and religions. Their marriage customs have their own historical arid cultural connotations and can reveal a part of the historical process of mankind from a different angle. It is true that some traditional ideas and customs of the Jingpo nationality hindered their social and economic development but they are of great value in Jingpo Studies.