This wonderful page at the Virtual Hilltribe Museum (an extremely worthy site, created by the tribes themselves) presents a matrix of names and stereotypes of the hill tribes of Thailand:

It can be confusing. In addition to the names that each tribe has for themselves, and the names of the tribes in English and Thai, each tribe also has its own name for every other tribe (these terms are called autonyms and exonyms, respectively). It can be very, very confusing. Below we have assembled a matrix of what each of the seven main ethnic groups of the area call each of the seven ethnic groups. If you are counting, that’s 49 different names. Phew!

In this website we try to use a romanization of the name that the tribe calls itself. The exception for that is the Karen, because it already has a standardized English name, and the name which is uses to refer to itself is very difficult to spell in English.

We have also included the traditional opinions or stereotypes that each tribe has towards the others and themselves. We haven’t listed these to assign any sort of value judgment or superiority/inferiority among the different ethnic groups, but, instead, to show how complicated the relationships between the various ethnic groups in Northern Thailand are.

So the Karen call the Lisu Kae Lisaw and the Lisu call the Karen Ya-geu-leu; furthermore, “Lisus have always gotten along with Karens because they have never tried to take advantage of each other.” I can’t tell you how much I love this stuff, and I wish somebody would replicate the matrix for other areas of the world. (Nigeria would be an excellent start.)

I found it at MetaFilter, by the way.


  1. That’s an interesting idea, and nicely presented… although like you say, I’m not convinced that their POV is N, as they say at Wikipedia. What we really need for ultimate fairness is a 7x7x7 supercube containing all relevant opinions from each individual group!
    The comments are a fascinating little sub-world in themselves, having already mutated into “shut the crack up” and unsubtle Christian evangelism.

  2. I notice that a number of tribes use names for the Hmong and Mien that are related to their Chinese names, i.e. Miao and Yao.
    I just wonder how widespread the use of the name Hmong is. As far as I know it’s unknown in China, where they are always known as Miao.

  3. The site appears to be dead, so I’ve substituted Wayback links; I’ll take the opportunity to add a few more paragraphs that I didn’t quote back in 2006:

    In the interest of not overwhelming the reader, we have omitted from this table several other ethnic groups which are prominent cultural and social forces in the area. Most notably among these are the Chinese and Shan.

    The opinion a tribe has about the Chinese replects a long history of dealings with them. Not surprisingly, tribes that have borrowed heavily from Chinese culture – the Mien and Lisu, for example – have a higher opinion of the Chinese than, say, the Hmong who have had a long history of brutal warfare with them. Almost universally, the tribes view the Chinese as hard-working, clever in commerce, and loud. Arrogant is another adjective that pops up often, though not universally.

    Shans figure prominently in the mythology of the tribes that migrated to Thailand via Myanmar, especially the Akha and Lahu. While there is no universal opinion of Shans as strong as that of the Chinese, one can look at the mythologies and surmise the historical opinions that Shans are a clever people. In fact, both Lahu and Akha mythology feature many legends where the Shan have gotten the better of them. It is amusing and enlightening to consider that even in legends that Akhas and Lahus have created about themeselves, they are willing to take a subservient role.

    I do wish they’d added terms for the Chinese; I suppose I could ferret out the information myself, but I’m lazy.

  4. David Marjanović says

    they are willing to take a subservient role

    Or they joke about it. I once read about a founding legend of the Yao, where the founding hero, much like in Europe, gets the princess and half the empire – but it’s the upper half, while the tricky Chinese keep the lower one.

  5. hard-working, clever in commerce, and loud

    These Chinese probably spoke Cantonese, then. Go to (Manhattan) Chinatown, and you’ll see all three points featured. I mean, of course, Old Chinatown. It has hitherto been a fixed belief of mine that NYC has six Chinatowns, but apparently there are now eight: two in Manhattan and three each in Brooklyn and Queens.

  6. I have been tempted to start sketching a similar matrix for the Volga region; e.g. two non-trivial examples are that Udmurts call Maris Por, while Maris call Udmurts Oðo. The Turkic peoples’ names, both by and of, would take a bit of digging up though (unless one of our Turkic specialists around is reading and feels like sharing).

  7. I hope you carry it through; I love that stuff!

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