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1 August 2006 Tai Valley-based Polities and the Uplands in Montane Southeast Asia
E. Walter Coward Jr.
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The domains of earlier Tai muangs—the social spaces governed by various Tai groups—in the highlands of montane Southeast Asia frequently incorporated both upland valleys and the flanking, sloping lands used by various Tai and non-Tai groups. The articulation of the land uses and livelihood activities of these two landscapes of the muangs served to reproduce these Tai polities. The ideas and actions of both the ruling Tai groups and the subaltern upland groups contributed to the construction of the highland muangs that typically incorporated status differences, ethnic diversity, and ecological variety. Muang polities achieved governance of both a diverse network of peoples and a diverse natural habitat. Since contemporary upland peoples and resources remain within administrative entities where lowland political and economic power is dominant, the shape of these regions continues to be influenced by lowland interests and actions but with consequential, and in some cases increasing, engagement by upland minorities.


The administrative village of Meng-song is located in Jinghong County in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southern Yunnan Province, China. In the summer of 1999 I visited this village with a Chinese colleague who spent many years conducting fieldwork among the Akha families, who are the predominant ethnic group in Mengsong. Mengsong farmers are actively engaged in modifying their upland land use in response to both the new constraints and unfolding opportunities arising from the previously erratic but now more stable policies of the Chinese government.

In the course of our brief stay in Mengsong, we visited a rattan forest managed by one of the hamlets and locally known as sangpabawa (Xu et al 1999). The term sang-pabawa appears to be a local corruption of the Dai terms meaning rattan forest (paa wai) and the name of a local earlier Dai official (sangpa). The experience of this rattan forest visit caused me to think further about the connections between this upland Akha community and the surrounding lowland Dai groups: why was this parcel of the uplands labeled with Dai terminology and why was it associated with a local Dai officer?

Historically, the Dai had issued orders to this upland village to preserve this rattan habitat and provide rattan items as part of the Akha tribute to the local Dai rulers, whose muang domain included this upland region (Gao 1998). The Dai rulers derived their authority in the upland habitat by virtue of their position in a regional Dai polity composed of a number of confederated muangs and known as Sipsongpanna, along with their incorporation into the bureaucracy of the Chinese court in the role of tusi—an institution that allowed the Chinese state to employ a form of indirect governance using existing local power centers.

Since Tai muangs have long existed throughout a large swath of the region referred to as Montane Mainland Southeast Asia and continue to exist in various forms in the several nation-states of which they are now a part, it became of interest to me to learn more about the muang–upland connections that are implied in Mengsong's rattan forest. The present article is the initial result. It draws on materials describing Tai muangs as they were organized in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as materials concerning contemporary state–upland relations.

Tai valley polities: muangs past and present

Thongchai (1994) defines a muang as a governed area. Across the upland and mountainous landscape reaching from the contemporary regions of northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as southwestern China and northeastern Myanmar, in the 18th and 19th centuries there were scattered Tai muangs, or “principalities,” of various sizes (Figure 1). These muangs had complicated—and unsteady—tributary relations with one another and with non-Tai entities, any given muang likely receiving tribute from various vassals while simultaneously paying tribute to one or more superior entities.


Approximate location of Tai principalities. (Map by Andreas Brodbeck)


Keyes (1999) has noted 2 important characteristics of the pre-modern muang: the rulers were all speakers of one Tai language or another and they included people who spoke diverse languages and were organized in hierarchical relationships. Thus, in addition to dealing with other muangs and kingdoms, as Wyatt (1984) pointed out, “There was also another world nearer at hand”—other ethnic groups occupying the upland areas, some of whom may have been displaced by the Tai from the valley lands. Turton (2000) recently has suggested that the second portion of the well-known Lanna Tai phrase usually translated as, “gather vegetables in baskets, gather kha in muang,” could be rendered as “put non-Tai in Tai domains.” These upland non-Tai—who differed from muang to muang but included Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Burman, Karenic, and other language speakers—typically occupied the higher, sloping, and forested lands that flanked the upland valleys in which the Tai practiced their wet-rice agriculture.

Tai muangs usually endeavored to bring these people into their economic, political, and ritual networks, and the uplanders variously acquiesced to, resisted, reshaped, or otherwise dealt with these demands and opportunities. Within these principalities there were important internal connections, exchanges, and rights and responsibilities between the valley-based polities—usually one or another Tai group—and the upland communities of Khmu, Karen, and so forth. Leach (1954) described these internal complexities in the muangs in the region of Burma the British called the Shan states: along with the Shan wet-rice villagers, there were large numbers of non-Shan living in hill villages and practicing swidden agriculture.

More recently, Turton (2000) has assembled a group of papers that specifically explore the internal composition of these early Tai polities, with special attention to the non-Tai groups within muang domains. Turton is particularly interested in the manner in which these groups “were constituted in, by and for these domains—both by their own agency and by that of dominant others.” This volume provides useful detail concerning the views and actions of specific upland groups with regard to the valley-based polities with which they were entangled.

Turton and others suggest that understanding the character of the variety of connections between the Tai and non-Tai groups starts with understanding 2 important Tai constructions: muang-pa and tai-kha. The first pair separates the domain into 2 areas—the civilized, cultivated, and governed portion, the muang, and the uncivilized, wild, and lightly controlled area, the pa, literally “forest.” What the Tai characterized as forest, most contemporary writers choose to label “upland”—an emphasis on altitude and slope over land cover. The parallel pair, tai-kha, refers to 2 broad categories of people: the civilized people of the muang center, the tai, and the others who inhabit the forested uplands, the kha. These 2 social categories then create what Renard (2000) has succinctly called the “Tai-Kha world.” As he notes, the Tai names for many of these upland groups incorporate this Kha category—Khachin, K(h)mu, K(h)ren. The implications of this construction of a Tai-Kha world for the shaping of upland communities and landscapes are the subject of the current essay.

In sum, muangs were important organizing entities in the Tai uplands—both the upland valleys and the flanking hill lands. The connections between valley and upland land use and livelihood activities served to reproduce the valley-based muang polities, including the upland regions and communities. These connections are socially constructed patterns of interdependence that take on recognizable forms and styles. The uplands were both peripheral and important, necessary to the wellbeing of the muangs.

A persistent muang: Muang Sing and its uplands

Muang Sing is significant as an early and enduring Tai Lue center in what is now Laos. Today's Muang Sing is a district in the northern province of Luang Namtha in Laos. It used to be something different.

It once was the seat of a somewhat autonomous Tai Lue polity, Chiang Khaeng, whose domain was situated on both sides of the Mekong River. The present-day district of Muang Sing is very near the border with Yunnan Province, about 14 km by road. Muang Sing is also connected by road to the provincial center at Namtha and to Chiang Kok, a market town on the Mekong. The entire district covers an area of 1650 km2 (165,000 ha) but the valley of Muang Sing itself is a mere 60–80 km2 (6000–8000 ha) with an elevation of nearly 700 m. The surrounding mountains reach 2000 m.

The total population of the district is 23,500 (Cohen 2000). In addition to 3 Tai groups in 32 villages, there are a number of upland groups including Akha (68 villages), Yao (5 villages), Hmong (3 villages), and some number of Khmu. While the Akha are numerically dominant, the Tai Lue are the politically powerful; their historical dominance continues into the present. In the past, special administrative arrangements were made to govern the upland people within the muang's domain.

The basic economy of the district is set by the distribution of the population across the landscape; the Tai Lue (and other Tai groups) almost exclusively occupy the valley lands and cultivate wet rice. The upland groups are on the surrounding hillsides and produce a number of upland crops, including cotton and opium.

The subaltern position of the upland peoples is long-standing, as is their role in the development of the Tai wet-rice fields. In prior eras, the dominant Tai Lue nobles imposed corvee labor requirements on the upland people, and much of that labor was used to develop and cultivate their wet-rice fields (Nguyen 1998). Corvee labor, to be used by the muang, was the major tax placed on the upland people—the most valuable resource they had from the point of view of the muang nobles. This ethnic hierarchy continues today with the upland peoples in subordinate positions.

In the contemporary period, upland labor, especially the labor of the Akha, continues to be mobilized for developing the wet-rice fields of the Tai. Much of this labor now comes from Akha villages that have been encouraged to resettle along the periphery of the valley. While the government promised them access to wet-rice lands, few such lands have been made available. As a consequence of their economic distress and the associated addiction to opium, they have now become a “dependent labor force for the Tai villages in the lowlands” and continue contributing significantly “to the expansion of wet-rice production and the lowland surplus rice economy” (Cohen 2000, p 180).

Another persistent exchange between the Tai and the Akha involves the cotton produced in the upland Akha villages. They exchange this cotton for woven cloth, pigs and chicken, and prepared foods such as cakes and noodles (Cohen 2000, p 191).

While the contemporary period is slightly confounded by the recent policies of Laos to resettle upland people and reduce swidden cultivation (a policy now apparently no longer strongly pursued), the basic pattern of past Tai–upland relations can be easily discerned in the present. The uplands are assigned to the production of low-yielding dry-rice production, cotton for market exchange, and opium that can be consumed or exchanged. The Tai polity also maintains the upland people as a regular labor pool for operating and expanding wet-rice cultivation to the direct benefit of the Tai cultivators. A new use of the uplands as a forest reserve is being experimented with by the central government. If followed, this policy also would likely construct an upland domain that would disadvantage the upland people and provide benefits to the Tai.

In this region, the Tai conceptualized the upland people as a part of their muang. The upland people were given a place in the administrative structure, but the system also defined these people as inferior and marginal, never as full players in the core arrangements. In this case we see clearly that the ethnic differences and hierarchy were mirrored in the different natural assets to which the groups had access— perhaps these are simply 2 sides of the same coin. Here, as elsewhere, we see the Tai constructing a muang dependent on the exploitation of both lowland and upland people and natural resources, and producing social arrangements that restrict the lowland resources to the Tai and the less productive mountain resources to the socially marginalized upland people.

Uplands and the valley-based muang

The example of Muang Sing illustrates the ways in which valley–upland connections shape the nature of land use and livelihood activities in the upland communities—corvee labor, opium and cotton production, and so on. A description of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang during the latter part of the 19th century also depicts the close relationship between this muang and its surrounding uplands. In Luang Prabang the upland area controlled by the muang both produced for and was produced by the muang's requirements. Smuckarn and Breazeale (1988) write that the labor, forest produce, and other agricultural products supplied by the uplanders significantly added to the Kingdom's wealth generated among the lowland population.

What the uplanders sold at markets or produced to exchange in multiple ways with valley-dwellers (Bowie 1992) was, of course, a function of what they could grow, what the lowlanders would buy or exchange, and what they could find to take home for their needs and not try to produce themselves. In that manner, the market exchanges that were possible in the muang helped produce, or shape, the patterns of upland land use. In short, the social organization within, and perhaps between, the muangs allowed the need for upland products on the part of the valley dwellers to produce labor and land uses in the upland communities that responded to that demand.

Tai principalities either small, like Muang Sing, or larger, such as Luang Prabang, each produced a surrounding upland zone that helped meet a variety of the economic needs of the aristocracy and the commoners. The look of the upland areas, the daily activities that occurred there, and the meaning that people gave to their lives were all shaped, in part, by their relationship with people in the core places of the governed areas called muangs.

Muangs, ethnicity, and natural resources

As the above examples illustrate, the Tai muangs almost invariably reached across diverse ethnic identities. Thus one major governing task was to construct within their realm a working pattern of social and economic relations among these multiple cultural groups. Markets and other forms of exchange were one mechanism for doing this but Tai muangs also helped produce their upland peripheries by arranging the ethnic diversity in their realm into hierarchical patterns that gave the various groups identity and purpose relative to the Tai core. This linkage was often expressed in one ritual form or another, sometimes played out with great pageantry.

Students of ethnicity have suggested that ethnic identity has much to do with the interrelations among groups of people and their competition for scarce resources. A group of people with a common relationship to some valuable resource—either having or not having access to it, for example—will develop ideas and explanations for that resource relationship that provide to them ethnic identity and distinctiveness. This suggests that the mix of ethnic groups found in the muangs of this mountainous region reflects the historical, and continuing, competition for scarce natural resources, as well as the rivalry that may have existed in regions from which people have migrated. For example, the nearly exclusive access to upland rice valleys by the various Tai groups may be “explained” and “given meaning” in the cultural ideas held by both the Tai and their upland neighbors—cultural ideas that typically are taken for granted by those who use them. Since the processes of competition are themselves subject to change and alteration—whereas in one era the emphasis may be timber extraction from the uplands, in another period it may be to conserve the same areas for tourists, both activities in competition with the agricultural uses of the local people—it follows that ethnic identity may also be altered.

The agency of the upland peoples

While this discussion has emphasized the impact of the Tai valley-based polities on the upland peoples and environments, one should not assume that the upland peoples are mere products of the lowlands. Much writing about the upland ethnic minorities has underscored the internal dynamics of these groups, the complex cosmologies and oral histories that inform their understanding and interpretations of the world around them, and the choices that they make to be both proactive and reactive in their relations with others (eg Leach 1954; Kirsch 1973; Keyes 1979; Jonsson 2000; Turton 2000; Sprenger 2004).

Many upland groups were, and are, able to balance marginality, dependence, and cultural distinctiveness. We know from the literature (eg Tapp 1989; Proschan 2001; Benjamin 2002) that upland people have devised their own ethnic maps—both identifying the others with whom they relate and providing explanations for similarities and differences—while also operating within the ethnic hierarchy created by powerful outsiders such as the tai-kha formulation of the Tai muangs. In other words, when interacting in and with highland muangs and their Tai social order, the uplanders contributed to the construction of muang polities by providing their own explanations of their place in those polities, as well as interpretations of the pattern of resource access organized by the muangs.

In sum, the Tai highland muangs were ordered not only by the imagining and acting of the dominant Tai but also by the conceptualizing and acting of the subordinate Akha and other upland groups. The upland people and environments were shaped in a tai-kha world in which both valley- and upland-based groups acted separately and jointly.


The present article has examined the proposition that highland Tai polities, muangs and muang federations, played an important role in the 18th and 19th centuries in shaping the activities of the upland peoples, usually non-Tai ethnic groups, within their domains. Choices regarding crops to be grown, animals to be raised, and natural products to be harvested from the forests were determined, in part, by the requirements of the valley-based Tai polities as expressed in local and regional markets, through informal exchanges and forced labor requirements. The upland peoples also were incorporated into ranked ethnic networks with the Tai groups at the apex, and displayed through various ritual activities. These networks, and their associated ethnic identities, gave the various groups identity and purpose relative to the Tai core. On the other hand, while being connected with these Tai polities, the upland peoples also brought their own histories, world views, and agency—the ability to make choices within the context of the tai-kha world in which they participated. Their ideas and actions contributed to the construction of highland muangs that typically incorporated both ethnic diversity and ecological differences.

Through these social, political, and economic means the highland Tai muangs were able to exploit a diverse set of natural assets found in the valleys that the Tai occupied and in the upland habitats occupied by others. Muang polities achieved governance of both a diverse network of peoples and a diverse natural habitat. The upland portion of the habitat was constructed to meet the needs not only of the upland ethnic groups but also the Tai occupants of the valley lands. Consequently, to a considerable extent, historically the shape of the uplands was the epiphenomenon of their inclusion in muang domains of governance.

The historical arrangements in which upland and non-Tai peoples were embodied in Tai-constructed muangs finds contemporary expression in the manner in which upland communities interact with the local districts, as well as the nation-states of which they are a part. Many, though not all, of the local districts in the Tai cultural area retain vestiges of the earlier muang arrangements. Since contemporary upland people and resources remain within administrative entities where lowland political and economic power is dominant, the shape of these regions and peoples continues to be effected in significant part by lowland interests and actions, but with increasing, and in some cases consequential, engagement by upland minorities.



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[1] E. Walter Coward Jr

Formerly Department of Sociology and Asian Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA; 4050 Jordan Lake Drive, Marietta, GA 30062, USA.

E. Walter Coward Jr. "Tai Valley-based Polities and the Uplands in Montane Southeast Asia," Mountain Research and Development 26(3), 284-289, (1 August 2006).[284:TVPATU]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2006
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