- One of Burma's major ethnic groups, numbering 465,484 in the last official census taken in 1983 (1.4 percent of the total population). At the end of the 20th century, the Kachin population was estimated at around one million. Most live in Kachin State or the northern part of Shan State, although there are smaller Kachin communities in China's Yunnan Province and India's Assam and Arunachal Pradesh States. Kachin is a Burmese term, used in Western languages to refer to six groups speaking Tibeto-Burman languages: the Jinghpaw, Rawang, Lisu, Lashi, Maru, and Atsi (Azi). The Jingpaw or Jinghpaw (known as Jingpo in China and Singpho in India) are the largest and most influential group; most of the leadership of the Kachin Independence Army/Organization (KIA/KIO) are Jingpaws, and their language serves as the Kachin lingua franca. The KIO commonly refers to the Kachin people as Wunpawng ("core" or "center"), an ethnically neutral term.Although historical records are practically nonexistent, it is believed that the Kachins migrated from eastern Tibet or southwestern China, sharing a common origin with the Burmans (Bamars), Karens (Kayins), Chins, and Nagas. Their legendary homeland is referred to as Majoi Shingra Bum, "naturally flat mountain," possibly the Tibetan plateau. As mentioned, they speak languages belonging to the TibetoBurman group, although these are mutually unintelligible. Their homeland within Burma is the "triangle" formed by the two major tributaries of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, the Mali Hka, and the N'Mai Hka Rivers, north of Myitkyina, the present capital of Kachin State. Awarlike people, they spread from the triangle to the Hukawng Valley and areas to the south, displacing earlier Shan (Tai) inhabitants. They were completely independent of Burman power centers and stoutly resisted the imposition of British colonial rule. The trianglethe cradle of traditional Kachin culture and religion-was not completely "pacified" by the British until just before World War II. However, Kachins were recruited for the colonial army and fought bravely against the Japanese, preventing their advance north of Sumprabum. Putao (Fort Hertz) in northern Kachin State was one of the few areas in Burma where the British flag flew before the successful Allied offensives of 1944-1945. Major campaigns were fought in the Kachin country, especially around Myitkyina.Living among some of the highest mountains in Burma, Kachins traditionally have been practitioners of swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture, which in some cases has caused deforestation of upland areas (though worse damage has been done by commercial overexploitation of forests since the 1994 cease-fire of the Kachin Independence Army/Organization). In recent times, some Kachins have settled in lowland areas, growing wetland rice. The cultivation of opium is also widespread, though not as extensive as in the Wa and Kokang regions of Shan State. Heroin addiction has become a serious problem in some parts of Kachin State.Unlike the Burmans, the Kachins trace descent through the male line rather than bilaterally, and they are one of the few indigenous groups in Burma to use family names. Descent is carefully recorded, and the five major descent groups (sibs) are the Marip, Lahtaw, Lahpai, N'hkum, and Maran. Among chiefs is an elaborate system of exogamy that determines which descent groups will exchange brides and grooms. The manao, the traditional Kachin festival, was (and remains) an important part of public life, hosted by chiefs and involving dances, feasting, and sacrifices to the Kachin gods or spirits. Manao posts are erected at the festivals and painted in colorful designs. Kachin women are skilled weavers, and many of their patterns have enjoyed great popularity in other parts of Burma.Anthropologists, most notably Edmund Leach (in Political Systems of Highland Burma), have described in detail two contrasting social systems within Kachin society: the gumsa, a hierarchical system in which hereditary chiefs (duwa) exercised authority over village communities, possibly influenced by Shan political institutions (the sawbwa); and the gumlao, a more horizontal or egalitarian system in which authority was exercised by a local council. The British suppressed the gumlao because they were associated with rebellion against authority. The colonizers also outlawed the practice of slavery, which was widespread in Kachin society before the early 20th century.Like other upland, Tibeto-Burman groups (such as the Chins), the Kachins believed in a single creator God (Karai Kasang), and below him a host of often malevolent spirits similar to the Burmese nats. Very few Kachins became Buddhists. Christian missionaries, especially those associated with the American Baptist church, began evangelizing in the mid- and late 19th century. The Swedish-American Baptist missionary Ola Hanson, who worked among Kachins between 1890 and 1929, played a major role not only in converting the people to Christianity but also in developing the Kachin language, giving it a written script and translating the entire Bible into Jingpaw Kachin (using the term Karai Kasang for God). The written language, using Roman rather than Burmese letters, has been instrumental in promoting literacy and ethnic consciousness among the Kachins. Although exact figures on the number of Christians among the Kachins are not available, they are estimated to comprise over 90 percent of the population, with Baptists and Catholics being the largest groups. Christian churches and schools have become major institutions in Kachin life. Since all three Kachin armed groups-the KIO/KIA, the Kachin Defence Army, and the New Democratic Army-Kachin-signed cease-fires with the State Law and Order Restoration Council in the 1990s, Kachin communities have enjoyed peace for the first time since the KIO/KIA revolt broke out in the early 1960s, but the price has been environmental spoilage and social problems caused by rampant commercialization and the increased influence of the central government, including the State Peace and Development Council's efforts to promote Buddhism among Christians and animists.
Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). Donald M. Seekins . 2014.
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