The Tribes of Burma/Siamese-Chinese Wave

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For those who know both the Karens and the Shans it is hard, at first sight, to understand how it can be scientifically demonstrable that the former are more closely related to the latter than to the other hill dwellers of Burma and the Shan States. The Karen has in th^ past been looked upon as so different from his neighbours that he has tended to become more or less an engiina, but philology has now assigned him, at any rate provisionally, a place in the order of peoples. Save for the language test, one might be disposed to class him with the Kaw, the Riang or the Muhso, but it is now established that his speech is more closely allied to Shan than to the vernaculars of the Tibeto-Burman branch or of the Mon Khmer family, and his language must be looked on as indicating his racial origin. This classification has the result of, so to speak, cutting the Karen off from all intimate connection with the hill tribes with whom he would naturally be held to have an affinity and to leave him still somewhat of a puzzle, but till it has been proved to be fallacious it must be accepted. We can take it in any case, however, that the Shan-Karen connection runs extremely far back, for, whether the Karens entered Burma long before the dawn of civilization or only shortly before the beginnings of history, it is clear that they and the Tais (the common ancestors of the Shans, the Laos, the Siamese and a number of communities in French Indo-China) must have wholly separated from each other long before their earliest representatives drifted into the region we are here concerned with, and it is beyond question that they have been developing for hundreds, probably for thousands, of years along different lines. What relationship there is is based not only on similarity of vocabularies, but also on the fact that Karen, like Shan and Chinese, is a highly tonal language. The degree to which tones figure in the vernaculars of the hill people of Burma is a matter that has not yet been at all exhaustively gone into. All that need be said here on a somewhat vexed question is that, even granted that tones exist elsewhere, Karen is the only hill vernacular of the Province in which, so far as has been at present ascertained, they are a feature marked enough to have attracted attention in the past, Their presence points incidentally to another inference. So far as Chinese and its sister languages are concerned, it has by now been clearly shown that tones do not mark a very primitive but a comparatively advanced stage of linguistic development, and the fact that the Karens are in possession of a vernacular that has as many tones as either Chinese or Shan affords reasonable grounds for the presumption that they did not begin to occupy their present seats at any extraordinarily remote period of the world's history—probably not till after a good many of the other hill tribes who now inhabit Burma had entered into theirs. They were however certainly pre-Shan. At whatever time they may have come, it is clear that, in coming, both Tais and Karens followed a path lying midway between that of the Tibeto-Burmans and that of the Mon Khmers and bearing generally south-westwards. Crossing the Mekong the Karens probably entered wrhat is now the Shan States somewhat north of the neighbourhood of Karenni, and from thence spread westwards and southwards along the lower reaches of the Salween and Sittang into the Irrawaddy delta and the southern portion of the Tenasserim Division. In the Shan States the descendants of these early immigrants are now for the most part known by special names, such as Taungthu; Padaung, Bre, Sawngtüng and the like. Further south the term Karen is applied to all the tribes (except the Taungthus) alike.

The Tais' point of entry into Burma was in the Shweli valley, and their course from the Shweli onwards lay partly to the north-west into the north of Upper Burma and Assam and partly to the south into the Shan States and finally into the Laos States and Siam, It is probable that they first began to arrive in Burma before the commencement of the Christian era, but it seems fairly clear that the migration swarm did not assume considerable dimensions till at least the sixth century and that the wave was moving steadily southwards and westwards for a matter of seven or eight hundred years after this. The result has been the peopling of the easternmost and northernmost portions of the Province by the Shans, who are found not only in the Shan States but throughout the whole of the northern half of Upper Burma. A branch of the Tai race has extended into Assam, and a small Shan colony that appears to have belonged to this branch is found isolated among the Kachins and Khunnongs at Khamti in the unadministered country round the headwaters of the Irrawaddy.