What Is This Lahu Thing Called Love?

How pop music videos perform a simultaneously Lahu and modern identity.

As the music video begins, we see a young man waiting anxiously, peering through a gate. A young woman appears at the top of a set of outdoor stairs, opens a gate, and joins the young man as the first lyric, Aw vi pa o naw hta ha ja (elder brother [common reference for a boyfriend or spouse] I love you very much) appears on the screen. So begins a Lahu-language pop music video with over 105,000 views on YouTube. This video, and others like it, present the audience with a genre of love story which, I argue, is very Lahu.

The circulation of Lahu-language pop music videos is part of a vibrant market of videos in a variety of languages that make up the complex language ecology of the Greater Mekong Subregion. I view these videos, which I have been exploring for several years, as arenas within which an identity that is both Lahu and modern can be communicated. In one genre of these videos, which I label “she rescues herself,” this potential to connect with ideas both modern and Lahu is especially apparent. Romantic love, a linguistic sign portrayed in these videos, is enregistered, associated in a powerful, pervasive way with particular types of people: modern people who make their own romantic choices, but also Lahu people who are engaging in traditional practices.

These music videos transmit echoes of a past, enregistering romantic love as a space of potential resistance to the patriarchal structures of liberal civilization.
The idea of romantic love as a form of resistance to traditional structures—that is, modern romantic couples contending with traditional cultural structures—is a powerful and pervasive narrative with centuries of traction in a variety of communities of practice, not least that within which I find myself as a Western linguistic anthropologist working primarily in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the 1956 Marriage Law was one of the first revolutionary acts of the newly formed Peoples Republic of China, intended to move society from an ancient system of arranged marriage to a modern love-marriage system. While I cannot claim some neutral position from which to view Lahu performance (linguistic anthropology has long acknowledged the role of our own ideological frames in our interpretation [see for example Irvine and Gal 2000; Silverstein 1998]), I do not think I am being romantic (pun intended) when I see in the “she rescues herself” videos an insistent Lahu-ness, a sort of resistance to the patriarchal “civilizing projects” (Harrell 1995) with which Lahu people must contend in southwest China and mainland Southeast Asia.

A search of YouTube will uncover hundreds of Lahu-language music videos. Two specific examples of these songs, “G’a La Yo” (“Will Follow”) and “Leun Ma G’a” (“Cannot Forget”), are part of the genre of video I refer to as “she rescues herself.” In these videos, the viewer is presented with a fairly straightforward story: a young man and a young woman become emotionally involved; some authority figure strives to separate the couple, often encouraging the woman to accept another young man; the young woman escapes from her place of confinement and travels to the boy; the couple flee together. In the first, the couple is successful, opening a village noodle shop and clearly settling into married life. In the second, the girl is apparently killed. In both cases, romantic love is associated with the right of the couple to make their own relationship decisions, juxtaposed against a denial—particularly of female agency—in such decisions. Also in both examples, the trope of romantic love can be seen to index a moral authority that supersedes parental authority.

The indexicality of the concept of romantic love is fascinating not simply because it is so popular in popular music, but because it succeeds in operating in quite different contexts, speaking to different audiences, and asserting a simultaneously Lahu and modern identity, which leaves relatively invisible the inherent challenge to dominant group norms. This situation relies on an understanding of affect and emotion that apprehends these things as contextual, only available in meaningful ways within frames, a perspective with a long history in linguistic anthropology (see in particular Irvine 1982 and 1990). My analysis must also recognize that an assertion of the universality of romantic love is a component of one or more frames through which various audiences, including the researcher, experience the Lahu music videos. It is this simultaneous occurrence of distinct indexical signs that, it seems to me, create from otherwise simple stories of troubled romance both an illustration of and a resistance to hegemonic forces, in particular forces that shape the audiences’ understanding of gender and gender roles.

For Lahu audiences and those aware of Lahu frames of reference, tropes within the videos make a dual connection with both modernity and Lahu identity. Meanwhile, a global, dominant understanding of modern romance, understood through the sort of Romeo and Juliet motif that influences my own reception of the videos, disguises a fundamentally Lahu challenge to the patriarchal gender norms of the non-Lahu who dominate the political and social landscape of the Greater Mekong Subregion.

Du Shansan describes Lahu society as one “whose dominant ideology, institutions, and social practices value its male and female members equally, regardless of the roles they play” (2000, 9). Du’s foregrounding of the Lahu aphorism “chopsticks only work in pairs” provides a useful signpost for the Lahu history within which female agency in the formation of the couple can be read. The couple is widely recognized as the fundamental unit of Lahu social structure. Du speaks to what she describes as “the extraordinary salience, congruence, and resilience of the institutionalized equality between Lahu men and women in rural Lancang” (2002, 187). This gender egalitarianism has persisted in the face of decades of contact with powerful patriarchal structures via what Harrell (1995) refers to as “civilizing projects”—in the Lahu context, the impact of Chinese bureaucrats and Christian missionaries on Lahu lives.

Both romantic love and the autonomy of young women, while they appear to have a primary connection with a liberal modernity encountered as part of a civilizing project, are also and perhaps primarily, indices of a fundamentally Lahu identity which precedes such encounters. Under the cover of commoditization of what Asif Agha (2011) refers to as the “autonomous liberal subject,” these music videos transmit echoes of a past, enregistering romantic love as a space of potential resistance to the patriarchal structures of liberal civilization. That is, romantic love as resistance—as a linguistic sign in these videos—comes “to be socially recognized (or enregistered) as indexical of speaker attributes by a population of language users” (Agha 2005, 38). That the video stories also acknowledge the cost of this resistance seems to me to further support the idea that they can be read in this fashion. As Judith Irvine (1990) points out, the enregisterment of emotion takes place in the context of systems of expectation, which constrain how and by whom emotion may be experienced or performed. In the “she rescues herself” videos, the young woman must decide between two options, either a romantic relationship that resembles traditional Lahu courtship in which the woman must actively choose her partner or a courtship associated with the patrilineal, patriarchal cultures that dominate the region. As she makes this choice, however, the fundamental Lahu-ness is visible only within a Lahu frame. From the colonizing perspective of civilizing projects, such choice must be read as either fundamentally “modern” and in accordance with “civilized” values or, alternatively, “primitive” and reflecting an absence of sufficient control over (female) sexuality. This dichotomy makes sense, where patriarchal structures form the foundation of the modern.

Although we must reconstruct pre-civilizing project Lahu practices primarily by extrapolating from recent and current practice, the courtship and marriage customs of Lahu in rural villages, and especially rural villages in the until very recently relatively inaccessible uplands (although here it is important to note that the complexity of relationships between uplanders and lowlanders may be obscured by romantic notions of remote highlanders) provide us with some sense of the fundamental values which, as part of Lahu identity, are expressed in the formation of the dyadic couple. Anthony Walker asserts confidently that the Lahu marriages he observed in Thailand were “not parentally arranged but result from a period of courtship between the boy and girl” (1970, 282), and Du reports that the majority of marriages in her research village in China (81.1 percent, or 120 “household head couples”) resulted from a choice on the part of both partners, a choice she frames as romantic. Ma Jianxiong (2013) argues that pragmatic concerns, such as access to cropland, are important for individuals as they select a marital partner, while nevertheless describing choice as taking place at the level of the couple. While parental advice is not excluded from Lahu marital decisions, the most significant form of influence takes the form of a parental veto. This may end a relationship, but may also result in what Du refers to as a love-pact suicide (2002, 2012).

Descriptions of Lahu courtship generally include something often glossed as “play,” namely interactions among young unmarried people who are eligible as potential partners. Antiphonal singing of poetic couplets and instrumental performance, the latter with men playing pipes and women playing mouth harps, was an important element of courtship into the twentieth century, and I have interviewed elders who remember courting one another in this fashion. Crucially, for my argument here, the decision to form a dyadic couple is made by both partners, in equal relationship, having engaged in courtship as independent, autonomous individuals. In the music videos, as in real life, a Lahu ideal is performed in this independent selection, and in particular the agency of the girl upon whose choice the plot turns.

Authors of “she rescues herself” music videos evoke, via these stories, the dyadic-couple and female agency central to the Lahu identity they index, even in the context of hegemonic patriarchal structures whose traditional courtship practices deny such agency, thereby positioning Lahu as fundamentally modern. They also perform an indirect sort of resistance to dominant political and social entities that continue to work to subsume Lahu identity into larger national and international identities, positioning the modern as fundamentally Lahu. I do not intend here to posit a utopian structure of meaning—the Lahu narratives are insistently cisgendered and heteronormative. I do not present this Lahu example as a model for some better way of being in the world, despite the orientalist forces that push me in that direction. Rather, I offer this as an example of the complexity with which alternate semiotic ideologies may penetrate, invest, and leak through hegemonic structures, making space in playful performance for a productive form of resistance.

Judith M. S. Pine is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Western Washington University, where she teaches linguistic anthropology and Asian ethnography and bops around her office to music videos in a variety of languages and genres. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Cite as: Pine, Judith M. S. 2019. “What Is This Lahu Thing Called Love?” Anthropology News website, January 28, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1078

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