Review of Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma

This entry is a review of Edmund Leach’s classic 1954 book Political Systems of Highland Burma. Due to its length, the review is hidden within the magical link below. The final section, “Importance“, is written such that it may be read independently from the rest of the text for those uninterested in the anthropological specifics.


Political Systems of Highland Burma by Edmund Leach is a book about the Kachin and Shan of Northeast Burma, a region of hills and valleys which the author refers to as the “Kachin Hills.” This classic of anthropology is special because rather than a history of an “ethnic group” or a “tribe” it is a history of a region. According to Leach, the people who live in the hills may speak different languages, wear different kinds of clothes, and live in different kinds of houses, but, importantly, they understand one another’s ritual. Leach explains his idiosyncratic definition of “ritual acts” as ways of ‘saying things’ about social status. He claims that since the ‘language’ in which these things are said is common to the whole Kachin Hills Area, we are justified in treating the entire region as a unit. In this sense his argument resembles Scott’s argument from The Art of Not Being Governed, and with quotations like

“the Kachin seem to value political independence more highly than economic advantage. …in [some area where 94 out of 143 villages contained less than 10 households] it would certainly have been to the economic advantage of this population if it had lived in larger communities in more accessible situations, but the preference was evidently for independence above all else” (234)

it’s easy to see why Scott cited Leach so heavily.

This book is particularly important to me for two reasons. First, it provides a lot of factual evidence against treating linguistic, ethnic, cultural or kin groups as clearly-defined, exclusive and internally consistent. Though the book is about “the Kachin and Shan”, he does not see them as different in any essential way. In fact, he sees valley and hill societies as economically inextricable and culturally symbiotic. The book begins with an account of an old man who for 70 years had been both Kachin and Shan. Secondly, I appreciate that his argument is not based on viewing social systems as stable through time, but, quite the opposite, rather is based on explicitly viewing social systems as unstable: “what can be observed now is just a momentary configuration of a totality existing in a state of flux.” (63). Appendix I provides many documented examples of groups who change their language, ethnic identity or political structures over time. However, anthropologists tend to look for “equilibrium” and treat “flux” as simply what happens between equilibriums. Indeed this is a theoretical bias, but Leach believes this is also an issue with our terminology. The social scientist requires unambiguous terminology for description and analysis, but since all the words we commonly use have various connotations and implications, she

“therefore adopts the normal scientific procedure of inventing a language of special terms which have no meaning at all other than that with which the scientist endows them. Such expressions as exogamy, patrilineage, status, role, etc., which are used by anthropologists to describe a system of structural relationships mean just what the anthropologist says they mean, neither more nor less. Consequently structural systems as described by anthropologists are always static systems.” (103)

Its broad implications notwithstanding, the book is primarily about social structures, specifically the gap between what he calls “ideal social structures” and what we today refer to as the ‘reality on the ground’. Referring to the regional commonality of a “rather limited set of ritual symbols” (103) used to negotiate ones place in a system of structural relationships, Leach describes his book as “a study of how particular structures can assume a variety of cultural interpretations and how different structures can be represented by the same set of cultural symbols” (279). One example of this is a feud he relates from a village cluster called Hpalang. Many lineage groups were involved in the feud, and they all related hugely different stories to explain the feud. Though the stories in general revolved around the same key events, different sides emphasized different sections of the story to emphasize how one lineage group or another violated the social rules. As he puts it, “all agree as to what the principles [are]… they merely disagree about the crucial [incidents] which are supposed to sanction present day status.” 273

Who the Hell

….are the Kachin and the Shan? “Kachin” was originally a classifier like “Hu” or “Man” in Chinese, i.e. vaguely referring to “barbarians” of a certain geographical area. Originally this term was a cultural and geographic referent, not a linguistic or ethnic one. However, Leach notes that From 1900 onwards the name began to be increasingly interpreted in linguistic and ethnic terms. His use of this term is in its geographic and cultural sense, rather than speaking of the Kachin language, or the Kachin ethnicity.

The Kachin region contains 4 major linguistic groups, Jinghpaw, Maru, Nung, Lisu. Tai (the language of the Shans) and Jinghpaw speakers have always held power disproportionately in the region, so the author sees using these languages as akin to using the badge of the UK “Public school accent” or RP. Thus, language here, just as in England, has political and economic implications. Leach describes the Kachin highlands as politically and socially always in flux, floating between two “ideal social models”, Gumlao and Gumsa. The greater part of this book is consumed in the articulation and analysis of these two social models. For the moment they can be encapsulated as follows:

Gumlao: essentially anarchistic, equalitarian, does not believe in social stratification by lineage, chiefdom, etc.

Gumsa: A “compromise between Gumlao (democratic) and Shan (autocratic) ideals” (9) , assimilates Shan ideals more and more until they feel they “have become Shan” 9, complicated hierarchical relations between clans/lineages, has a chief, etc. Most societies in this book are some kind of Gumsa society.

Actually, no society described in the book is purely Gumsa or purely Gumlao, but rather an ad hoc, improvised social formulation somewhere in the middle of the two. Moreover, this formulation is not fixed; it may lean one way or the other, or undergo sudden dramatic shifts in social order which alter not only the positions occupied by individuals but the ideal system of status relationships (Gumsa to Gumlao, etc.).

Shan: The Shan are Tai speakers. As Leach describes it, all Shan are Buddhist, and all Shan are wet rice cultivators. These are the necessary conditions of being Shan, so to “become Shan” one must convert both their method of subsistence and religion. The Shan are loyal to a place, not a kin group. Indeed, the commonality has no clear-cut kin groups. (213)

Leach quotes Von Eickstedt as saying: “with very few exceptions, wherever there is a stretch of country suitable for wet rice cultivation, we either find Shans or we find no one at all.” (37) This type of statement is indicative of the emphasis Leach places on environmental factors. In this line of argument it’s easy to attract criticism, and indeed Leach addresses this head on. Leach insists that the environment is a limiting factor rather than a determinant. However, given the requirements of wet rice agriculture in such a terrain “Shan settlements could hardly turn out to be other than what they are.” (40) 

Gumsa Social Structure

As mentioned above, most of Leach’s book is consumed in the articulation and description of the social structures of Gumlao and Gumsa society. The particulars are of little interest to the casual reader, but are helpful in contextualizing the theoretical arguments he presents. For convenience’s sake, I will present these details as succinctly as possible, but if it’s not your thing feel free to skip to the “Importance” section.

  • Territorial division
    • Chiefs house vs. commoner’s house
    • Village (Kahtawng/ga) vs. village cluster (mare/mareng) vs. chief’s domain (möng/muang)
  • Grouping of persons
    • family or extended family (htinggaw) vs. lineage (amyu/lakung/dap)
    • Commoners (bu ni) vs. chief (duwa)
  • Affinal relationship
    • Mayu-Dama
      • Kachins trace descent patrilineally. One or multiple surnames from father. Everyone in village with a common surname is considered close patrilineal kin, of one ‘household’ (htinggaw). Relationships between individuals are determined by the relationship between their respective lineages. Lineages are ordered hierarchically, and each lineage has long-term on-going structured relations with at least two other lineages, which are denoted by the relative terms mayu and dama. Men may not marry into their dama, women may not marry into their mayu.
      • If the Johnson family is mayu to the Roberts family, then the Roberts family is dama to the Johnson family.
      • Thus, Johnson men may not marry Roberts women, but Johnson women are expected to marry Roberts men. To not do so would be an insult unless a symbolic price is paid before hand
      • Johnson men are expected to marry Smith women, the Smith family being mayu to the Johnson family, etc.
    • Mayu are of higher rank than dama
      • The highest ranking lineage in a village will then most likely have their mayu lineage in another village so as to maintain their position of superiority. Therefore, the top ranking linage accepts women from lower lineages, and sends their women outside the village to another lineage which ranks higher than they
    • Sometimes (esp. in Gumlao society), there is a circle, where A is mayu to B, B is Mayu to C, C is Mayu to A etc.
  • Property and land tenure
    • Debt (Hka) all violations of social rules result in debts. Asking favors from someone constitutes a debt. Leach believes people use these debts to cement social relationships, especially b/t Mayu and Dama, a “kind of credit account which ensures the continuity of the relationship….the existence of a debt may signify not only a state of hostility but also a state of dependence and friendship” 153
    • “wealth items”(Hpaga), which are symbolic currency for exchanges like bride price, repayment for “violations” of the mayu-dama rules, incest taboos, or for the resolution of feuds.
      • Calves, gongs, silk, iron cooking pots, swords, necklaces, buffalo, etc.
      • Hpaga represent a barter system used in “evaluating” social transactions. No fixed currency that everything reverts back to. Its fluidity and the fact that its meaning is somewhat open to interpretation allows “structural rules which have all the appearance of rigidity to be interpreted very freely, thus opening the way for social mobility in a system which purports to be a caste-like hierarchy” 152
  • Rank and social class
    • Theory almost completely inconsistent with practice
    • Rank in family (high to low): youngest son, eldest son, 2nd eldest son, 3rd eldest son etc.
    • Despite limitless ideal of lineage, in practice a single segment is rarely larger than 6 families
      • “despite the ideal of lineage solidarity, the process of lineage fission must be going on all the time” (168) lineage fission is process of social mobility up and down the class hierarchy.
  • Belief in the supernatural
    • Spirit/supernatural being (nat),
      • Earth spirit (ga nat)
      • Sky spirit (mu nat)
      • Ancestor nats (gumgun nat/masha nat)
        • The chief’s ancestor nat is separate, called “uma nat”
    • Evil spirits (Jahtung/sawn/lasa)
    • Luck (maraw)
    • Witch spirits (hpyi)
  • Political and religious office
    • Chief (duwa) hereditary, passed to youngest son, displayed through “prestige symbols” in house architecture, the ability to call on commoners to provide labor debt-free ,
    • Saga teller (jaiwa), priest (dumsa) [both high status], ritual butcher (hkinjawng), assistant ritual butcher (hpunglum), lower status
    • Diviner (Nwawt ), medium (myihtoi).


Gumlao Social Structure

The most concise way to present this section is by using a table to compare Gumlao and Gumsa social rules.



Political Domain


Mung: a number of villages under one chief.

Number of villages of equal status, no linage or village is above others



Ranked: chief’s lineages, aristocrats, commoners, slaves

All of one rank

Debts (Hka)


Everyone outside the chief’s lineage must give the chief a thigh from every four-footed animal slain, contribute free labor to chief’s field and chief’s house

No tributary dues

Penalties for offences against persons of high rank is more expensive, uses Hpaga. Marriage payments vary according to the class of the bridegroom

No variation by rank of individual. All debts are reckoned without Hpaga.



Mayu-dama system is general. Males of chief’s lineage always married to women of other domains

Mayu-dama non-essential. Tend toward circular mayu-dama relationships and low bride prices

Succession/Lineage Fission


Youngest son is highest, then eldest to second youngest

In theory no difference



Judicial is with council of lineage heads of whom the chief is one, but not necessarily most influential. Chief is ritual rather than political role

Judicial authority with council of elders, usually representatives

Origin Myths and Land Title


Gumsa communities originated in original settlements or as conquest from another lineage. The land title is vested in one lineage only

Original settlements or product of revolution where Gumsa chiefs were driven out or reduced to lineage headmen



Commoners sacrifice to: household ancestors, the sky nat Musheng and his daughter

Commoner sacrifice to household ancestors, the sky nat Musheng and his daughter

Chiefs sacrifice to household nats, and the uma nat (möng nat), the sky nat Madai and his daughter, the earth nat Shadip.

At festivals Lineage heads sacrifice to household nats, the mung nat (connected with the founding of the community, often an ancestor of ALL the original lineages), some sky nat (NEVER Madai), an earth nat which is not Shadip

I have said that Leach views social structures as inherently unstable over time. Leach presents a basic model through which Gumsa societies can float back and forth between Shan and Gumlao:

  • In Gumsa structure, a certain agriculture and local group segmentation are implied.
  • Local group segmentation is unfavorable for the development of any large scale stable political state
  • When a Kachin chief becomes economically and politically powerful he is tempted to ignore Gumsa principles, especially with regard to ultimogeniture (where the youngest son has a status higher than his eldest brother)
  • This may influence him in the direction of Shan structure, where succession is hereditary but not necessarily by ultimogeniture.
  • Thus the Gumsa chief whose status and power begins to approach that of a Shan chief is led to repudiate principles which are fundamental to the Gumsa system
  • He also will repudiate the system by which a chief and his followers are in an affinal (mayu-dama) relationship
    • These are the most favorable conditions for a Gumlao revolt.


In this section I will attempt to draw together the reasons I feel this book is particularly important. The way I emphasize or de-emphasize certain aspects of Leach’s argument may not accurately reflect the way they are presented in the book, they are simply the issues I found most thought-provoking and my response to them.

Implications for Group Identity and Group Cohesion

Leach’s book presents very strong, objective evidence that the ways we intuitively think of the identity and cohesion of ethnic groups (and in fact social groups in general), is wrong. The intuitive way of viewing ethnic groups is as a coherent group, with clear boundaries delineated by language, culture, heredity, or some other “objectively observable characteristic”; ethnicity is somehow “primordial”. Just like with “nationalism”, authors have tried to provide a single concise definition that encapsulates the idea of ethnicity, while simultaneously distinguishing it from all other units of social organization. I think this is a fool’s errand; I don’t see any kind of social grouping (national, cultural etc.) as distinct in essence, but merely in the ways they are manifest.

By this I don’t mean to deny the existence of ethnicity, nor do I believe it is a new invention. Certain authors argue that ethnic groups simply did not exist in the past. I feel these authors are clinging too strongly to the meaning of the word. Certainly, nothing existed that was precisely like what is understood by an “ethnic group”, as spoken on march 31 2011 by a white guy living in China, however using vague notions of varying flexibility that fall along a continuum of family, kin, lineage, heredity, etc. to define an in-group and out-group has existed in our ancestral populations for millions of years.

I agree with Barth that it is the boundary that defines the group, not what it encloses. Group boundaries are maintained by endowing certain symbols or badges (accent, ritual, clothing, physical appearance, etc.) with significance. Though Stable and important social relations can be maintained across such boundaries, being part of some group inherently implies denial of membership to others, or a denial of one’s own membership in some other group. Ethnic identity (and for that matter national identity, subcultural identity, gender identity, etc.) is socially constructed, matter of self-ascription, and ascription by others in social interaction. In this way, symbols like language, accent, hair style etc. are not the essence of the group, but rather the symbols used to distinguish group membership. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, there is no such thing as an “ethnic group”, simply because I don’t think any group is ever defined on just one symbol; ideas of kinship or common descent are only one aspect of the group’s identity. Why should we privilege this one above all others, even if the members themselves believe it to be the most important or only distinguishing characteristic?

Unlike previous anthropologists, Leach does not a priori assume that Kachin and Shan society are two separate social systems. On the contrary, he argues

“in any geographical area which lacks fundamental natural frontiers, the human beings in adjacent areas of the map are likely to have relations with one another – at least to some extent – no matter what their cultural attributes may be ……. cultural attributes such as language, dress and ritual procedure are merely symbolic labels denoting the different sectors of a single extensive structural system.” (290?)

The lowlands and the hills are a single, codependent economic system. Hill agriculture consistently does not produce enough staple crops, and this shortage must be made up for with trade with the lowland paddy states. The paddy states rely on a rich variety of goods collected from the hills, especially elites, who rely on prestige goods from the hills which serve as symbols of their elite status (this seems similar to the agriculture-pastoralism relationship) . Thus, “it seems to me axiomatic that where neighboring communities have demonstrable economic, political and military relations with each other, then the field of any useful sociological analysis must override cultural boundaries” 292.

Unlike many social scientists, Leach does not see cultures as independent, bounded units, despite the fact that cultural boundaries are maintained. At least in this region, the boundaries created by ethnicity, culture, language, lineage, subsistence methods and social structure are all flexible and porous. People can and do pass between them all the time, through intermarriage, “becoming Shan”, language change for political gain, etc. This is not a novel concept; In Western society, people fluidly shift in and out of groups all the time in their daily life; it should not be surprising that some societies do not view “ethnicity” as fixed from birth.


Leach insists that language groups cannot be taken to be hereditarily established or stable through time. As I mentioned above, Leach provides several examples of specific communities whose language had changed over the course of a century (49, 293-7). Gumlao areas are especially linguistically diverse. Leach mentions a village cluster called Hpalang with no less than six different dialects spoken as “mother tongue” in a community of 130 households! (46)

Some villages seem to be very conservative and stubborn in using one language when groups all around them use another language, while others are almost “as willing to change their language as a man might change a suit of clothes” (49 ). Leach’s explanation for this is couched in terms of his view that the choice of language is an active, meaningful social choice.

In areas with relative high population density and aridity (resource poor regions), the “economy of the hill communities is essentially unbalanced” (referring to the insufficiency of staple grains), necessitating relationships with one or more valley states. However, as the historical record shows, these states are quite ephemeral in nature, popping in and out of existence, expanding and contracting, etc. Valley states maintain their territorial influence by political and military means. But in these zones, “both in Gumsa and in Gumlao areas, the only continuing unit of political structures the village; all larger scale political federations are constantly changing. In such circumstances peculiarity of language serves to uphold the continuing unity of the village community” (290)

Stated another way, in areas where resources are poor, politics are in constant flux. This seems correlated to linguistic diversity, and language in these zones is used to reinforce unity within a village. However, in areas with better resources, politics tend to be stable, and the spoken language is constant, so the natural tendency of humans to draw lines dividing themselves is expressed through kinship rather than geography/language.


In chapter 3 Leach lays out the main lineage groups in the region. Many lineages belong to multiple “ethnic groups” (Such as the Gauri lineage Dashi, which in Atsi are the Dawshi, etc.). (54) Moreover, because Leach treats all kinds of talk about the past as myth (“the truth or untruth of the tale or any particular part of it is quite irrelevant; the tale exists and is preserved in order to justify present-day attitudes and actions” (85)), he questions the validity of genealogies in general. Obviously, since people live for many years, and our beliefs are influenced by those of others around us, these genealogies must have some historical accuracy, at least in the short-term. But the main purpose of genealogies is not remembrance of the past, but justification of the present. “Kachin genealogies are maintained almost exclusively for structural reasons and have no value at all as evidence of historical fact. Commoners are only interested in genealogy as a means of establishing correct relations with their immediate neighbors.” (103) This means commoners only trace their heritage back 4-5 generations. Aristocrats trace their heritage further back than commoners, some to 40 generations or more, which Leach dismisses out of hand, saying it is “quite impossible to assert at what point such descent lines become purely fictional.” If the clan affiliation is at all vague, a number of rival versions may become current, any one of which has as much validity as any other. There is no correct version. In fact, by emphasizing some connections, de-emphasizing others, and other techniques, the same “historical fact” can be made to tell quite different tales. Leach notes that “nearly all lineages in Gumsa society can make out a case for claiming that they have aristocratic connections, but it is maintained by present day aristocrats that commoners are wholly and innately inferior.” 271

As we can see, attempting to define or delimit an “ethnic group” based on any sort of characteristic is fundamentally flawed, simply because the cultural adaptability of humans allows so much change in a single lifetime, and the fact that the past is gone and irretrievable.

Ideal Social Models Vs. Actual Social Models

Leach also clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of the models we use to mentally or verbally represent society. The discussions of social structure that appear in ideology and anthropology are “idealized” models, and they are necessarily static. There is no room for “inconsistencies”. Leach uses specific examples to show how people occupy positions in multiple systems at once. Influences from these systems present themselves as “alternatives” in the scheme by which we order our lives.

The discussion of ‘becoming Gumlao’ or ‘becoming Shan’ implies that the Kachins themselves think of the difference between Shan and Gumsa Kachin as being a difference of ideal rather than an ethnic, cultural or racial one. In fact, the “ideal model” and the “reality on the ground” in fact are often quite dissimilar. In one passage Leach waxes poetic in describing how a change in the ideal social model can have very little impact on anything:

“…a change of regime from monarchy to republic or vice versa does not necessarily produce radical changes in the social structure overnight. Cromwell, Lord Protector, had powers and functions not very different from those of Charles I, Divine King. ….in other words, the contrast between monarchy and republicanism is essentially one of theory; in their practical application these two systems may sometimes look very much alike. If we concentrate on ideal models we shall have to say that we are dealing with two contrasted social structures; if we concentrate on practical facts, the ideals of equalitarian republicanism and authoritarian monarchy merely represent polar types in a total system of flux” 197

This notion of ‘flux’ appears time and again in this book, and I think it’s worth reflecting on for a moment. I have had the feeling for quite some time now that though people recognize that the past is very long, and that the future is likely also very long, they still seem to think of the present as somehow distinct from other times in history. Leach rejects this view, treating everything as inherently unstable, in constant motion. All human society, the Yoo-naited States included, is a house of cards, and people trust a sort of ‘historical inertia’, assuming that society will not collapse tomorrow. But it easily could. I have a great deal more to say about this subject, but it is too nebulous in my head at this time for me to continue any further.

Two Small Quibbles

For all the genius of this book, I find but two points that nag at me.


Leach sees social behavior as primarily used to determine, negotiate, or affirm his position in society. “(it is) necessary and justifiable to assume that a conscious or unconscious wish to gain power is a very general motive in human affairs…Individuals faced with a choice of action will commonly use such choice so as to gain power. ” (10) Certainly this is true, but Leach seems to treat it as though all behavior can be interpreted in this single dimension. This single sentence resonated in my head for the rest of the book. How ‘commonly’ is commonly? What defines a “choice of action”? I choose to type the period at the end of this sentence really large. I choose to look to the left, to brew coffee, to not smoke a cigarette. To assume, as Leach seems to do, that all behavior is both purposeful and calculated not only precludes the possibility of altruism, it also ignores the large element of randomness in human behavior.


Leach’s use of the term ritual is somewhat idiosyncratic. He describes ritual as action which “serves to express the individual’s status as a social person in the structural system in which he finds himself for the time being.” (11) This definition is actually extremely broad, and could refer as much to a funeral or formal initiation ritual as to a slight nod and eyebrow raise when passing someone on the street. Leach does not in fact take it so far in his use of the term. However, I believe we should. Lots of simple day to day activities demonstrate and affirm the relative positions of people in a social network. These actions themselves do not inherently have this property, but rather the meaning of actions is constructed socially. In this sense activities like a raise of the eyebrows can be seen as rituals performed in everyday life. In fact, I believe Leach’s use of ‘ritual’ is problematic precisely because of its limited scope of application. Leach claims:

“The structure which is symbolized in ritual is the system of socially approved ‘proper’ relations between individuals and groups. These relations are not formally recognized at all times……..I am prepared to argue that this neglect of formal structure is essential if ordinary informal social activities are to be pursued at all” 15-6.

However, can that claim be seen as universally valid? For example in the case of China, when, to what extent and for whom you ‘neglect the formal structure’ (by 开后门, ‘opening the back door’) is actually highly formalized and structured. It often feels to me that truly the rules are made to be broken.

Anyway, in conclusion, that’s my book report. The end.


About fwbane

Fred Bane is an MA student in Ethnology at Nanjing University. His research and writing interests are culture, technology and society, language (esp. dialect and slang and language change over time), the nation-state (and other concepts of identity or social organization), (at least for now) China. In addition, he sometimes posts travel photos or his PATHETIC attempts to learn to draw.
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4 Responses to Review of Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma

  1. Joyce says:

    Thought provoking!

  2. Amber Cowburn says:

    Thank you so much for this…you just saved my essay as I totally don’t have time to schlump the whole way through Leach’s book before this afternoon… Although, having read your piece, I am now planning to read it in the holidays, so you can count yourself as influential!
    It is increasingly rare to find anything of quality written on the internet about classic texts, that is not either laboriously dull (and you might as well have just read the original) or self-indulgent on the part of some self-labelled intellect, but you absolutely nailed it.
    And well done for not being boring!

    Amber, Cambridge

  3. Mira says:

    Thanks so much for the review…I have to read many books about hierarchy …it is save my time..but after I read your review … I must to read all the text…thanks you again…


  4. Thank you for the review. It is helping me think about Scott and Leach for the seminar I am organizing!

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