The Lisu: Far from the Ruler


Lia Genovese. Bangkok Post, "In the Land of the Lisu," 2 March 2018, .

The Lisu: Far From The Ruler, by award-winning journalist and historian Michele Zack, documents 30 years of globalization for this hill-dwelling ethnic group whose name in China means "those who have come down from the roof of the world," a possible reference to the eastern Tibetan plateau.

Part I of the book traces the origins of the Lisu, their history into modern times, migration routes, identity and cultural fluidity, social organization, symbolism and dispute resolution. Part II deals with aspects of gender roles, including courtship and bride-price negotiations, the household including division of labour, feasting, cosmic views and the economy, where Lisu women act as equal partners. The book ends with an overview that sketches the group's presence in Thailand, Myanmar and China, where most of the 1.5 million Lisu live. 

Few studies have been conducted on the Lisu and the results of data collected by missionaries and anthropologists have not been optimized in part due to reluctance for mutual recognition and knowledge sharing. At a time when the group's cultural cohesion is increasingly under threat, The Lisu: Far From The Ruler is a welcome contribution to the study of this little-known ethnic group. In the words of David Morse, a native Lisu speaker born in Burma to missionary parents and long-term resident of Chiang Mai: "There is a push for cultural committees in all countries where Lisu live today - older Lisu and leaders are especially worried about preserving culture. They're doing something about it, though sometimes too late." No doubt the Lisu hope they can continue to live far from the ruler for years to come."

About the Publication

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: Far from the Ruler 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 travelled extensively in tribal areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and China, documenting 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.”

Co-publication: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute / University Press of Colorado

The ISEAS edition is for distribution in Southeast Asia.


The Lisu: Far from the Ruler [Whole Publication], by Michele Zack, author
Preliminary pages
Book I: MEET THE LISU – Part 1. Lisu World
1. Who Are the Lisu?
2. Mythic Origins
3. History and Origin Theories
4. Modern Times
5. Migration
6. Identity and Cultural Flux
7. View from the Village
Part 2. Being a Lisu
8. Childhood: Learning by Doing
9. Men, Women, Courtship, and Marriage
10. The Household: The Place for Family and Work
11. Cosmic Views
12. Economy
1. Comparing Lisu National Scenes: Full of Opportunities to Be Wrong
2. Thailand
3. Burma/Myanmar
4. China
Conclusions, and Notes on Where Lisu Might Go from Here

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