China is a united nation of different nationalities, being home to 56 officially recognised ethnic groups within her borders. These include the Han, the Zhuang, the Manchus and the Hui, who have some of the highest populations in China. However, there are several ethnicities that do not hold any official status in regards to nationality. One of these is the Kammu people.
The Kammu (also spelt Khamu or Khmu), are an ethnic group who live in the flatlands, in the jungles at the foot of the mountains and in the uplands of the southern part of Mengla County and Jinghong County of Xi Shuang Ban Na Dai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province in China.In northern Laos they are the largest ethnic group and large numbers can also be found in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam. Back in China, they are closely related to the Khbit people.
According to folklore and mythology, the Kammu and Khbit ancestors were brothers, with the Kammu being the eldest of the two. The two brothers were hunting one day when Brother Kammu caught an elephant and offered a piece of meat to Brother Khbit. The younger brother caught a porcupine and offered his brother a portion. Brother Kammu looked at the smaller piece of meat and saw that the porcupine’s hair was much thicker than that of the elephant. Because of this, he believed that the porcupine was bigger than the elephant and his brother had insulted him by offering him a small piece of meat. Finally he told his brother that they should go their separate ways.
Brother Kammu stayed in the upper reaches of the river, whereas Brother Khbit moved to the lower reaches. Over time, their languages gradually changed but to this day, there are still common words. The villages of the Kammu and the Khbit are located in close proximity of each other and the people call each other ‘tmooi’, which means brothers of the same clan or people who used to live together but now live apart.
The Kammu people in Mengla County are considered to be the original inhabitants of the area; even the Chinese ethnic groups which live in this area agree completely that the Kammu’s ancestors were there long before their own ancestors.
The Kammu were once a very strong people; their army was made up of 10,000 bowmen and 10,000 spearmen. The Kiau people from the south long ago tried attacking the Kammu but were driven off by their skilful warriors. After this, there was a steady stream of immigrants from the north who relocated to this area and married their princesses into the Kammu families. The intention was to kill the Kammu chieftains. The result was that the Kammu were forced to move south in large numbers and they deserted part of their flatland, settling in the uplands and the jungles. Sometime later some of them moved back. This is the reason the Kammu people were later called Theng/Theung or Phu Theng/Phu Theung, terms which can be translated as the “people from the uplands.”
The Kammu’s houses and villages are built round the sides of mountains which they built upon after divining which area would be suitable. “For example, they would take a bunch of thin bamboo strips, making knots at the two ends, and then spread these open and count the number of knots. Even numbers meant happiness and odd numbers meant problems, the number of knots was used to decide whether they would settle at any given location”.They follow the land, practicing slash-and-burn cultivation, which opens up a new piece of land every year for crop rotation. As a result, they have a semi-permanent way of life. Their houses are usually made of bamboo which is surrounded by fences and low shacks.
Like with many ethnicities in China, the Kammu have their own language which has no tones. Instead it has long and short vowels. It also has number of cognate words in other languages, such as the Wa language, the Balang, the Benglong, the Hu and the Mang languages of China as well as the Mon language of Burma and the Khmer language of Cambodia. All belong to the Mon-Khmer language family.
Like with many different ethnic groups, the Kammu has no written language, although it is said that they once did. Today, use objects to convey their sentiments and to substitute for letters. For example, tobacco is presented to mean friendship and an acacia nut is presented to mean love, and so forth.
The Kammu people worship nature and believe that spirits inhabit the earth. They sacrifice chicken and offer their blood for peace. “They regard the natural calamities, illnesses and deaths as the result of offending and displeasing these spirits, so there are rituals to send off domestic spirits, village spirits and Meng spirits (local spirits)”. It should be stated that the Kammu people of Jinghong County believe in Hinayana and at the same time have their own customs.
A religious custom among the Kammu is that of tattooing. A person will tattoo themselves in the belief that it will offer them the magic power in order to conquer nature. Most designs are tattooed on the chest, back, hands, feet and buttocks, and are geometric figures or animal designs.
The Kammu are a fascinating people who have a long, rich history and a vast array of interesting and beautiful customs. Continual research into their history and their traditions will offer us great insight into the history of Asia. Their many customs and institutions make them an intriguing and unique people.
Li, Daoyong (1984) The Kammu People in China and their Social Customs, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.