This first-ever book about the Lisu brings their ironic worldview to life through vivid, often amusing accounts of individuals, communities, regions, and practices. One of the smallest and last groups of stateless people, and the most egalitarian of all Southeast Asian highland minorities, the Lisu have not only survived extremes at the crossroads of civil wars, the drug trade, and state-sponsored oppression but adapted to modern politics and technology without losing their identity.
The Lisu weaves a lively narrative that condenses humanity’s transition from border-free tribal groupings into today’s nation-states and global market economy. Journalist and historian Michele Zack first encountered the Lisu in the 1980s and conducted research and fieldwork among them in the 1990s. In 2014 she again traveled extensively in tribal areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and China, when she documented the transformative changes of globalization. Some Lisu have adopted successful new urban occupations in business and politics, while most continue to live as agriculturists “far from the ruler.”
The cohesiveness of Lisu culture has always been mysterious—they reject hierarchical political organization and traditionally had no writing system—yet their culture provides a particular skillset that has helped them navigate the terrain of the different religious and political systems they have recently joined. They’ve made the transition from living in lawless, self-governing highland peripheries to becoming residents and citizens of nation-states in a single generation.
Ambitious and written with journalist’s eye for detail and storytelling, The Lisu introduces the unique and fascinating culture of this small Southeast Asian minority. Their path to national and global citizenship illustrates the trade-offs all modern people have made, and their egalitarian culture provides insight into current political choices in a world turning toward authoritarianism.
Michele Zack is available for interviews and speaking engagements. Email the author for more information.