Michele Zack & the Lisu

Mar 26, 2018

Chinese Lisu woman and Michele Zack, 1990s.

“You don’t need to be fascinated already by the Lisu to be fascinated by Michele Zack’s spectacular new book about the Lisu. You just need to start on page 1, travel with Zack into the Lisu world, and succumb to her remarkable evocation of this little-known but endlessly interesting people. If you cannot live years of your life with the Lisu, this is the book to read, at once a rigorous ethnography, a lively travelogue, and a beautifully written memoir. The best books are the products of love: this book is the product of a passion enduring decades.”
—Mischa Berlinski, author

From the handful of years that we’ve known Michele Zack, we’d describe her as enthusiastic, inquisitive, reflective, thorough, and persistent. Zack’s an ardent “doer”—from what we witnessed of her as we volunteered for the inaugural LitFest Pasadena book festival in 2012 to her community dedication, serving three terms on the Altadena Town Council, as well as on the Watershed Committee and on the board of Altadena Heritage. She’s worked, too, with the Pasadena Unified School District “to integrate local and California history into teaching American history.”

Prospect Park Books publisher Colleen Dunn Bates calls Zack’s Altadena: Between Wilderness and City (2004) “a local history book that stands head and shoulders above the norm.” Regarding her award-winning Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre (2009), author Dr. Kevin Starr stated that “Zack again delivers urban history at its best” ( We find Zack the definition of an insatiable life-long learner—and, thankfully, she’s willing to put her knowledge and insights between hardcovers to share with the general public.

Zack’s newest book, The Lisu: Far from the Ruler, will be featured at a discussion and book signing at Altadena Library. on Saturday, March 31.



Michele was kind enough to answer some questions…

HP: Who are the Lisu?

Michele: The Lisu are a small (1.5 million) highland minority dispersed among 5 countries in SE Asia. Among the last hold-out stateless people, most live in China (700,000-800,000), followed by Myanmar (400,000-500,000) and Thailand (50,000) with a few in India and Laos.

Of SE Asia’s many highland groups, the Lisu distinguish themselves by their egalitarian, meritocratic political style, as well as the high status of Lisu women—who wield more influence than most others. Lisu Women are not forced into marriage by parents, they control the money in the household, and they gain status with age. They share decision-making with their men, and many are entrepreneurial, especially as they age.

No one knows for sure where they come from, possibly Tibet or Mongolia, but the largest populations lived in the Upper Salween Valley Traditionally they are animists, concerned with balancing natural and spirit forces, and mainly migrating farmers. They had a spoken, but not written language, until about 100 years ago when missionaries provided a writing system called Frasers Script, which Christian Lisu adopted. Other Lisu became literate only when they began attending school in their respective countries, learning to read and write in Chinese, Burmese, and Thai, sometime around the middle of the 20th century.


Three Chinese Lisu women.


HP: How did you become involved with the Lisu?

I became involved when I was hired to write one in a series on “People and Cultures of Southeast Asia” about the Lisu when I lived in Thailand in the 1990s. I wrote a popular ethnography on them that was to be lavishly illustrated with photographs, basically a coffee table book. But it was to be the first on the Lisu in the three main countries where they live. Back then, although Thai Lisu comprised only 5% of the total Lisu population, 95% of everything written on the group was about them, not Lisu living in China, Myanmar, India, or Laos. Those other countries were not open to foreign researchers for much of the 20th century.

My original publisher went out of business, and I moved back to SoCal in 1998 and got into writing local history. But I couldn’t forget about the Lisu, even though I had a work-for-hire contract and didn’t own the copyright on my original material. Over time, I regained copyright, and found a new publisher, University Press of Colorado, and had to go through peer review. But by then it was 2013, and my research was woefully out of date. So, I returned to SE Asia, and revisited Thailand, Myanmar and China in 2014.

Things had so radically changed in these years due to globalization, that at first it didn’t seem that the new material could bridge the gap in one book. But this new longitudinal aspect turned my book into a very focused study of globalization, because I wrote the first version at the last possible moment—when Lisu were still living lives, though affected by modernization, that were still quite traditional.

HP: What intrigued, enamored you about the Lisu?

Michele: I was very attracted to them as a people because of their political style and sense of humor. They are very wry and funny. Their political style attracted me because it was so different from the predominant hierarchical style of Thailand, where I lived at the time, and also of China, and Myanmar.

I liked that their main value “Myi-do” had to be individually earned, it wasn’t passed from father to son or concentrated in families at all. This individualism resonated with my Western values, I suppose. Also, I liked that women had a lot of power in this culture compared with Thais, and with other hill tribes as well.

We all came from smaller, more intimate societies such as the Lisu. Most of human history, most of us were stateless. Looking at them as they modernize very quickly gives one a sense of the journey we have all made, we just don’t remember it because our ancestors made the trip over generations.


Signing into a Lisu conference in Mae Taeng District, north of Chiang Mai.


HP: When you first thought about a book about the Lisu what concept, objective, or theme led the way? Did these evolve as you worked on the book? Did the final product differ in direction or tone from where it began?

Michele: The original challenge was to study and compare Lisu living in 3 countries, so widely dispersed, and now following a number of religions. What was the secret of their culture’s cohesiveness? How had the national projects they had resisted joining changed their own culture, and how did they retain their Lisu identity? (which they mostly have to a remarkable degree.) How endangered was their culture; was it on the verge of extinction?  What is it about culture itself that determines how we react with the world, and why are some cultures more adaptable than others?

In the first version of the book, what surprised me was how similar Lisu in all 3 countries were, cut from the same cloth whether Christians in Myanmar, Communists in China, or animists/Buddhists in Thailand. How could that be?

With the second round of research, I was looking at all the changes due to globalization, plus all the changes in the national settings. Thailand was no longer “the land of the free,” but is now ruled by a military junta. China has become the 2nd (or 1st) largest economy in the world, but still authoritarian. Myanmar was a complete basket case country in the 1990s, but was making progress toward political reforms—Hillary Clinton had visited, and all the liberal democracies were trying to encourage reforms to act as a check on China’s influence in the region.

So, yes, the book published in December 2017 became a completely different one from what I started in the 1990s. Going through peer review by anthropologists helped me get up to speed on all the new research that hadn’t been done yet during my first round. The concept of Zomia wasn’t invented until around 2000. Zomia is an idea realm encompassing the highland areas of eight SE Asian Countries, that provides a non-state perspective to look at people who have chosen to remain stateless, or at least resisted the state-making projects of countries trying to control them.


Lisu mobile distillery, Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai, February 24, 2018.


HP: When did you present The Lisu: Far from the Ruler in SE Asia and to the Lisu people? Tell me about this adventure and the revelations.

Michele: It was very gratifying to come full circle, and to return to SE Asia in February 2018. Having the opportunity to present the book to many audiences: academic, journalists, Lisu, interested laymen, and to get feedback, was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

I gave six talks in Thailand and Myanmar, in 5 cities, towns, and villages, and talked to dozens of people who knew as much or much more than I. The level of interest and knowledge of highland minorities is just so much higher over there than it is here. In Myanmar, there are 135 registered minorities, who make up 40% of the population, so minority politics are at the center in that country.

The Lisu themselves have responded very positively. I was worried about that since it seemed kind of arrogant for an outsider to be writing about them—although an outside perspective is of course important. Not too many Lisu have the English language skills to read my book, but they are very interested, and have different questions than other audiences. And the most educated Lisu who can read the book, have been grateful that someone has written about them, and supportive of my conclusions. That was a huge “whew!” for me.


Michele Zack, historian, author, Altadenan.

Michele’s books may be purchased at Vroman’s, Barnes & Noble, as well as Amazon.










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