Sunday, October 6, 2019

Overview of the costumes of the lesser known Sino-Tibetan peoples, part 3, Akha

Hello all, 

Today I will continue to talk about some of the lesser known Sino-Tibetan peoples of the southern Lolo branch. 

Akha - Hani 

 The Akha and the Hani are two closely related peoples that speak related, but mutually unintelligible languages. In China, they are recognized as one people, but are considered to be separate elsewhere. Together they number about 1.5 million. They inhabit southwestern Yunnan and the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. They replace each other geographically, the Akha being found in the west, and the Hani in the east. In no place does the territory of one abut that of the other, except for a small area in northern Phongsali province in Laos. 

Here is a map in which I have highlighted the territory of both languages, the Akha in bright yellow, and the Hani in a darker yellow.  You can see that the Akha are found in scattered regions in extreme southwestern Yunnan, southeastern Shan State in Myanmar, and extreme northern Thailand and Laos, while the Hani are found in a contiguous region in south central Yunnan, and just over the border in Laos and Vietnam.


The Akha are known for their tenacity in holding on to their traditional culture, 'The Akha Way'. This appears to be losing ground in the face of assimilation today, however. This map shows the distribution of the Akha in Yunnan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and just the tiniest corner of Vietnam.

The image at the head of the article shows three Akha women, each from a different subgroup. What is most immediately obvious is the elaborate headdress of the women, and each group has its own different shape. People who visited them in the 20th century report that they never were seen in public without these helmet like headdresses. They are formed from bamboo frames and covered with cloth, silver baubles, coins, strings of beads, chains, dyed feathers and tufts of fur. 
There are several more groups, but these three seem to be the best documented. As often happens with indigenous peoples, each of these groups is called by various names. The woman on the left belongs to a group called U Lo Akha in one source, Gue Ba Akha in another. The one in the center belongs to a group called either Loimi Akha or Yer Tung Akha.; These two groups are found in both Thailand and Myanmar The third woman belongs to a group called either Phami Akha, Ya Khong Akha, or 'pyramid headed Hani' by the Chinese, as they are also found in Yunnan.

 The costume is basically the same in construction, but differs in details. The women wear, besides the headdress, a breastband or a sort of halter top, a short skirt which hangs low, is flat in front and richly pleated in the back so as to swing, a jacket with rich embroidery or applique on the back, and older girls and women wear a decorative panel, too small to be called an apron, that hangs down in front to prevent the skirt from blowing up. Leggings are worn, and belts are also worn over the jacket. And, of course, a profusion of jewelry is worn when appropriate. Older girls and young married women keep their breasts covered, but when a woman is regularly nursing her children, she no longer bothers. 
Here you can see an U Lo Akha woman hanging up freshly dyed indigo cloth, wearing only her headdress, top, notice that there is only one strap, pleated skirt, and leggings.

Loimi Akha

This group has possibly the most elaborate costume. It is best distinguished by the trapezoidal silver plate which extends up from the back of the woman's headpiece.

The headdress worn by unmarried girls is different, although with similarities.

Here is a full woman's outfit. You can see the richly ornamented rear of the jacket, two belts decorated with cowries, a shoulder bag, the top or breastband to the left, the pleated skirt with front panel, and the leggings.

Sometimes the back of the jacket is embroidered with cross stitch, like this example from Burma.

More commonly, however, the main component of the ornament is applique, as in this example, also from Burma.

Here is another example from Sungsak village near Kengtung, Shan State, Burma, both overview and detail.

Here is another outstanding example. In this image, you can see the hood cloth which is sometimes worn over the headdress for protection from rain or dirt, or to enhance it.

Just a couple more examples of such jackets. These are all exceptional examples, most jackets have less ornament.

 The skirt is always unadorned, and is usually black. A white skirt is worn for some ceremonial occasions, such as harvest and planting rituals. 

 The leggings may be relatively plain, or may be highly ornamented. 

For everyday, the men wear plain black or indigo shirt and pants, when not wearing modern clothing. 

 For festive dress, they wear shirts with embroidery, including a panel on the front, and traditionally a red or black turban. 

  Here are some men's shirts, front and back, showing the embroidery.

 A couple more general images of this costume.

Here is a variant of the Loimi Akha costume worn around Kengtung in Myanmar.


U Lo Akha

The main distinction between this group and the last is the shape of the headdress, but there are other differences in ornamentation.

The headdress of this group is tall and chimney shaped, and includes, besides the silver plates, tufts of dyed fur and feathers. The breastband has large silver brooches, and the embroidery is of a different style.

 Unmarried girls wear a different style headdress, which still includes similar fur tails.


Here are two full sets of woman's clothing, from the front and back, showing breastband, jacket, shoulder bag, skirt pleated in the back, front of skirt panels and leggings.

Some more jackets showing the embroidery on the backs. 

The cut of the rest of the outfit is very similar, the breastband having some ornament, as well as the leggings. Again, the skirt is unadorned, except for being pleated in back. 

Men's festive jackets are also embroidered, but less so.

Notice that this man is wearing large silver pins and dangling ornaments, similar to those of the women. 

Here is a young man's courting turban.

Some more images of this costume.


Much time and work goes into the production of this clothing.


Again, with this group a white skirt is worn for planting and harvest rituals.

Every Akha village has a swing, which is used for ceremonies and celebrations.

Village gates are a significant part of the culture, and a new set is built every year.


 Elaborately embroidered caps are worn by babies of almost every ethnic group in the region.

Phami Akha

This group is found not only in Myanmar and Thailand, but also across the border in southwestern Yunnan around Menghai, where they are called the 'pyramid headed Hani'. 

 Again, the most distinctive part of this group's costume is the headdress. These images are from Thailand.

This image is from Myanmar.


  Unmarried girls have a different headdress, of course. 

This seems to be a modern adaptation of the girls' costume in Yunnan. Compare with the image of the family above.

Here is a complete set of women's clothing. Notice also the colored fringes on the ends of the skirtfront panels. They also wear the silver plates on the breastband, which are smaller but more numerous.

A couple more images of the embroidery on the back of the jacket.

Here are some women showing off the backs of their jackets at a festival in Yunnan. Note that one of the women has turned the jacket into a vest and is wearing a modern shirt underneath.


 Here is an image of a man's jacket from front and rear. 

Here is a young father from Daluo in Menghai county, Yunnan wearing this type of jacket. 

 Here is another man in festive attire from further east, in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna county.

Here we see a glimpse of another man's festive attire.

A few more images of this costume. 



This headdress seems to be a variant of the Phami Akha.

 This group must lie on the Myanmar -Yunnan border. The first two images are from Burma. 

This image is from Yunnan.

Further east, the costumes rely on more turban type headdresses. There is a group of Akha in Yunnan which the Chinese call the 'Flat Headed Hani'

 Like other Akha, the headdress changes with age. Here is a girl child.

Here are two youths, The second one is from Jinghong area.

When a girl is ready to get married, she puts on a large turban with much ornamentation.

When married, she retains the large turban, but with less ornament. 

Here are two men in traditional garb, the first from Lancang county, and the second from further east in Nenglian in Xishuangbanna [Sipsongpanna].

 Here are a few images of a related group, also from Yunnan. 

Akha Puli

The various subgroups of the Akha Puli live mostly in the Sing District of Luang Nam Tha Province in Laos, right at the very northern point which borders both Myanmar and Yunnan, and doubtless over the border as well. Some have scattered, though. Here is an image from Thailand.

 The headdress is shaped like a cap with an extension on the rear top. Here are a couple of images possibly from Burma.

 This one is the same, but was mounted improperly at the museum. 

 This image is from Laos.

This image is from Yunnan.

     Akha Puli Hulai

This group has perhaps the most elaborate festive headdresses, especially for the men.


      Akha Puli Mu Ma

This headdress has the extension in the rear much smaller. The men have a different, if still elaborate turban.

Akha Puli Ngai

This group also has a close fitting cap type headdress. 

Akha Tchitcho

Schliesinger records this group as being from Luong [Long] district of Luang Nam Tha Province of Laos and provides one image. The headdress is similar to that of the Akha Puli, but there is a tube like extension at the rear. 

I have found a few images from Yunnan that seem to be from the same or similar group, from Menghai in Xishauangbanna, a short distance to the north.

In some of the Akha groups from eastern Laos the costume is somewhat different. 

Akha Pixor 

This group is found in the mountains of Oudamxai Province, which lies to the south of both Luang Nam Tha and Phongsali Provinces where most of the Akha of Laos live. The top has a side opening which allows access to the right breast.


 Akha Djepia

 This group lives in Boun Tai district in the north of Phongsali Province in Laos. Their costume includes a long coat, as was often found in costumes of other peoples in the region in the past and which has been retained by the Lahu.

Akha Nuqui

This group also lives in Boun Tai district of northern Phongsali Province. The headdress somewhat resembles that of the Akha Pixor. 

 Akha Pala

 This group inhabits a relatively large area in the south of Phongsali Province of Laos, and is the last group which I will cover today. This group lives the furthest east and the costume is the most divergent. The headdress consists of a small cap from which depends an embroidered streamer which is wrapped around the head. They wear a long narrow embroidered apron which resembles that of the White Hmong.


Here is a modern adaptation of this costume with the bright colors of aniline dyes and plastic beads

 In the following images these Akha Pala women are wearing patterned silk pa sin, or tube skirts. These are not part of the Akha Pala costume, but have been borrowed from the ethnic Lao. To me they look very out of place. You will notice that in the images above, the skirt is of black home woven cotton.


And that concludes this article. There are certainly other groups which I did not mention or identify. If anyone has more information, or can correct any of the statements made above, then please contact me. 

Here are some final images of Akha which I have not been able to assign to a particular group. Again, if anyone can help with identification please contact me. 

Thank you for reading. I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative. 

Roman K


Source Material:
China Travel and Tourism Press, 'Ethnic Festivals and Costumes of Yunnan', 
Deng Qiyao et al, 'The Folk Arts of Yunnan Ethnics', 
Bernard Formoso, 'Costumes du Yunnan', Nanterre, 2013
Shan Ren et al, 'The Cream of Yunling - A Photo Odyssey of Yunnan Ethnic Groups', Kunming, 1998
Paul and Elaine Lewis, 'Peoples of the Golden Triangle' New York, 1984
Richard K Diran, 'The Vanishing Tribes of Burma', New York, 1981
Margaret Campbell et al, 'From the Hands of the Hills', Hong Kong, 1978
Joachim Schliesinger, 'Ethnic Groups of Laos, v 4. Sino-Tibetan-Speaking Peoples', Bangkok, 2003
Joachim Schliesinger, 'Ethnic Groups of Thailand; Non-Tai-Speaking Peoples', Bangkok, 2000
Nidda Hongwiwat et al, 'Chiang Mai and the Hill Tribes', Bangkok, 2002
Wang Fushi et al, 'Ethnic Costumes and Clothing Decorations from China', Chengdu, 1995
David Howard, 'Asian Tribes' San Francisco, 2008