top of page

 CHINA : Life after Opium 

Life After Opium

China’s Ancient Wa Tribe


Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier


High in the hills on the border land between China and Burma, the Wa people have a fearsome reputation.


George Scott, a British colonial administrator was the first Westerner to spend time with them in 1893: “They are an exceedingly well-behaved, industrious and estimable race,” wrote Scott, “were it not for one foible of cutting strangers’ heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves.”

That foible of using the heads of their enemies as ritual sacrifices to their gods only died out in the 1970s.

By then there was another ever-growing reason for the world to fear the Wa.

hey presided over the world’s second largest area of opium fields, and in Myanmar the Red Wa army still runs what the US state department calls “the world’s most heavily-armed narco-traffickers”.

The Red Wa army has pledged to destroy the poppy fields by 2005 - but is heavily involved in the production of Yaba, or crazy medicine, a methamphetamine that has flooded the Thai drugs scene.


In Yunnan, just a few kilometres from the Myanmar border, there is no opium production. The Chinese authorities have worked hard to develop other areas of income. Neither are the Wa villagers pictured here involved in drug trafficking. But Yunnan has China’s biggest populations of drug addicts. More than half of China’s HIV cases live in this province.


Yunnan is an area of new-comers, China’s melting-pot of different ethnic groups and languages, most of them drawn over the years by the region’s rich natural resources.

The Wa tribe is different.

Their ancestors lived here more than 3,000 years ago, and their daily routines and rituals are steeped in tradition.

They have never much trusted or liked the outside world, and cultivated their savage image, boasting of eating live rats and squirrels. They were feared and hated by other groups in the region.


 “To get into any Wa village you must fight or be invited,” wrote an early visitor. In an area populated by the “wild Wa” fighting was inevitable. Friendlier Wa were labelled the “tame Wa” and they gave up many of the Wa’s bloodier ways a long time ago. Human heads still featured in their rituals sometimes, bought in from the wild Wa.

But when the Wa villagers of Yunnan invite you in nowadays, they are warm and friendly, welcoming guests with a glass of wine. 

They prefer to drink tea themselves, a strong black brew with a bitter flavour which they say has all kinds of good properties for the drinker.


The tea is gathered by the women of the village, and when you watch a group of tea-gatherers walk into the forest, with their identical red and black skirts, multi-coloured necklaces and wide silver hair bands you could mistake them for a group of models heading for a photo-shoot, they are so beautiful and graceful.
But no, these women live a hard life of work and often live in abject poverty, lacking the basics that most people take for granted.

Even across the border in Myanmar the poppy farmers see little of the massive profits from their deadly crops, and scratch out a primitive existence with no electricity. Things over the border in China are a little better - at least there has been no deforestation, which has stripped away the trees on the other side of the hills. China has built a road to all the villages, and most have one telephone line and perhaps a clinic.  “Otherwise the authorities leave them alone,” says Andrew Marshall, a British journalist whose book The Trouser People (Penguin Books) follows in the footsteps of George Scott, the first outsider to study the Wa. Scott considered introducing soccer to the Wa men, but decided against it because the men: "were not only heavily armed but also profoundly intoxicated on opium and rice liquor -- conditions which were hardy conducive to explaining the offside rule."


No villagers were drunk or drugged when these pictures were taken. The old lady puffing on her pipe was smoking nothing stronger than tobacco. But little had changed in their living conditions since Scott’s day. Despite a programme by the Chinese government to re-house whole villages into more modern properties, many of the Wa people in Yunnan still wash their clothes in the river and use big sticks to grind buckwheat so they can cook it. Rice is another staple, cooked in long bamboo poles. They farm rice, tea, maize, cotton, potatoes tobacco and sugar cane - as well as fruits like bananas and papayas. They work the fields with little machinery, the women working as hard as the men. 


A Wa woman spends a great deal of time weaving and dying colourful fabrics, and making jewellery from painted maize seeds and silver. She wears necklaces, head bands and bracelets. Round her waist are looped colourful beaded belts. Some wear turbans, although this is generally a man’s garment. Men too are not without ornamentation. Their ears are pierced and tassels are threaded through. Young men decorate their shins, with circles tied on with strips of bamboo or rattan. And both sexes have shiny manes of black hair. When a couple is ready to marry then the man’s hair has an important role to play.


But, unlike many traditional cultures, the Wa do not hurry to marriage. It’s customary for a girl to leave her parents’ house and spend some time living in a girls’ house, where she is free to choose as many boyfriends as she wants. When the time comes to choose a partner she shows her love by combing the boy’s hair. This is meant to bond the two together and keep him faithful to her. It seems a very romantic act, and it is - yet often families arrange marriages, and a man is free to take more than one wife.


The cave paintings of Cangyuan are the best source of information about the early history of the Wa. The 11 frescos were discovered in 1965, 1971 and 1985, drawn onto the limestone cliff, ten metres above the ground. They show men and women living in trees, hunting animals and gathering food. They show roads, caves and boats. There are trees, the sun, even fingerprints.

They tell elaborate stories, of fighting and celebrations. Their own language - closely related to the language of the people of Myanmar - had no other written form until the 1950s when one was introduced by the Chinese government. Until then the Wa used an elaborate system of materials to convey messages – feathers signified urgency, sugar cane or banana were a message of friendship and hot pepper meant anger.  London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies is compiling the first dictionary of the Wa language.


Messages containing gunpowder or bullets signified war, and you would not want to go to war with the Wa. Fierce in battle, the Wa showed no mercy to the vanquished. So important were the heads of their enemies to their rituals that the ‘wild Wa’ only reluctantly stopped the practise in the 1970s.Top of the deities was Mujij, who had five sons in charge of the creation of heaven, the creation of earth, lightening, earthquakes and the creation of the Wa people. Everything in nature had its own spirit, and the gods controlled everything, including bodily functions and ailments.


Frequent sacrifices were held to appease the gods, and appeal for good weather and large harvests. Human heads were the preferred offering, but otherwise oxen were cut up. In the past favoured visitors would be greeted by a ceremony where the ox’s tail was cut off. To predict the future a village’s Moba or religious chief cuts open a chicken and spread out its guts to proclaim whether the harvest will be good or bad. The main festival of the Wa year comes in the month of Cerui, roughly equivalent to December.

The Moba and the head man of the village go to a tall tree, making offerings and chanting incantations to expel evil. The Moba makes some cuts on the tree, with an axe, then the men of the village cut it down. They place three stones on the tree’s root as payment to the tree spirit for its wood, and cut the trunk into the size they need for a giant drum.

The next day the villagers pull the log along the ground to the village, singing songs and scattering rice and wine. Eventually, after animal sacrifices and other rituals the wood is turned into a drum, which is then played for hours and hours. While elsewhere in China ethnic groups scatter, and lose their heritage the Wa’s rituals are still very much alive. Luckily, they no longer require a human head to carry them out.

bottom of page