May 5, 2014

Highland Southeast Asia for Your Campaign

B'laan dancers at El Gawel Falls

Shan. Hmong. Naga. Igorot. Kalinga. Ifugao. Kankana-ey. Bagobo. B’laan. Manobo. Tiboli. Mandaya. What do these strange names have in common? Ask a Thai, or a Lao, and he’ll surely recognize some of these names. Ask a Filipino, and if he’s worth his balut he should recognize some of these too. We urban Southeast Asians know them as our cousins, like us but also very unlike us, for they are our highlanders. They are the residents of Zomia.

Where is Zomia?
Zomia? You’ll find no such land listed in most geographies, nor even as a label on most world maps. It exists, and it does not. Do we Southeast Asians think it exists? I’m sure a lot of us have never even heard of it – but we also know very well that it’s there. Zomia and its peoples are many things to us – they bring us tourist dollars, their names are rallying cries for environmentalists trying to save our rain forests from loggers and miners, they’ve always been our crack troops, and they’re headaches for our industry- and corporation-oriented national governments.

Map of Zomia

The term Zomia was first coined by historian Willem van Schendel, who used it to refer to the highland regions of mainland Southeast Asia that have always been outside full government control, in large part because of the cultural divide between highlander and lowlander. It comes from the word Zomi, a Tibeto-Burman term for highlander. Different scholars define the extent of Zomia differently, some including even the Afghan highlands, while I think the Cordillera of Luzon and the mountains of Mindanao should also be included because of the many parallels to mainland Zomia. In this post I’ll refer mostly to the Cordillerans and Lumads, as these are the groups I’ve been able to research most.

A Tradition of Defiance
The great hook for FRPG worldbuilders to use Zomian concepts, I think, comes from the scholars’ central hypothesis about this ‘ghost’ region: that the highland peoples are who they are, and live the way they do, as a conscious act of refusing to assimilate into the lowlander-dominated nations surrounding them.

This ‘tradition of defiance’ shapes many of our local legends from history: how the Lumads and Cordillerans resisted Spanish conquest, the bravery of Igorot troops campaigning with the Americans against Japanese troops in Northern Luzon in 1944, how Lumads in Mindanao alternately allied with the Americans against the Moros, or with the Moros to preserve their freedom. And of course many Americans, specially Vietnam veterans, will remember their Hmong allies from the conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia. The Hmong/Miao peoples have been at this independence thing for a long time, as they were steadily driven south into the highlands of Indochina by Imperial China beginning as early as the Han Dynasty. (Imperial China has inherited a tradition of being wildly imaginative in drawing their own borders.)

The Rice Terraces of Banaue

But are the Zomians really rebels, or are they refugees? The answer seems to be both. Moving to the highlands was in some cases a definite result of pressure from other peoples – for example, the Bagobos remember a tradition of seafaring, but they’re now highlanders, living deep inland. They were driven from their old coastal homes by either the Mandayas or the Muslims. The Ifugaos, on the other hand, apparently migrated to the Cordilleras as a deliberate choice, reshaping its mountains into stupendous arrays of rice terraces and tunneling into the upper slopes for gold.

Schendel and Scott, the main Zomia theorists, believe that the main draw of the highlands was freedom: once up there, the Zomians adopted cultural practices that helped keep them ‘out of the loop,’ resisting resettlement, conscription into the armies or into corvee labor gangs, and maintaining their solidarity as a political and fighting force through oral histories and distinctive tribal practices. This opinion seems to be borne out in the Manobo epic of Agyu, wherein Agyu, following conflicts with the Moros, moves his people to the land of Nalandangan, and where they have to resist several waves of invaders before they’re finally left alone.

The Zomian Warrior’s Environment
Whatever their reasons for moving into the highlands, the Zomians’ new environment made a life of freedom from lowland control possible. First, the mountains are of course formidable natural strongholds. Mountains in the tropical monsoon belt may not have snow, but they’re just as challenging to enter or cross: covered in thick jungle, cut by swift rivers prone to flash flooding, and with wetter, more violent weather than in the lowlands. When we go to the boondocks, we always plan to travel in the mornings because the heavy afternoon rains common here can cut off the river crossings.

Second, the effect these mountain environments have on their inhabitants is fearsome, militarily speaking. Living at this altitude, and with such terrain to cross on a daily basis, your typical Zomian is physically much fitter and more enduring than a lowlander of the same age, even if the lowlander is a farmer or fisherman who does hard manual labor every day too. I’ve been a ‘victim’ of highlander fitness and how it affects their sense of distance myself: during our shoots in the boondocks of South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, I learned to despair whenever our Lumad guides would tell us our destination was ‘just a short walk away!’

I’ve been to village festivals where the Lumads who danced for us would nonchalantly speak of walking three, four or five mountains, starting in the dark before dawn, just to reach the festival site. I also learned to trust our guides’ surefootedness in steep, muddy or rocky terrain, often entrusting them with my cameras to keep the equipment safe should I take a tumble. The first shot above, for example, was taken after a two-hour hike into the highlands, mostly through a rocky, slippery stream bed, to get to the waterfalls. And all through those highland marches, I was thinking how formidable these highlanders would be as a military force.  The qualities I saw in action  are the very same things that contribute to the legend of the Gurkhas serving in the British Army.

It’s not surprising then that the Zomian way of war is the guerilla way. They’re none too numerous, and too loosely organized, to form big armies; but they’re great at small unit operations. They’ve got stealth from years of experience hunting. They’ve the ability to cross terrain lowland generals would consider impassable. And their culture is a warrior culture, with weapons and weaponizable tools like bolos in every house, even now.

The Warrior Culture
Many Zomian tribes cultivate a tradition of vengeance, where wrongs – specially by lowlanders – would be immediately punished by a handful of raiders striking in the dark before dawn. An American missionary, working in Mindanao in the 1980s, recorded how the logging camp where he stayed at was thrown into panic one night because a logger had killed a Manobo in a quarrel over a woman and they were expecting a retaliatory raid. Indeed, there’s a Homeric tone to some of the tribal laws about women and women’s honor. The Manobos for instance have a rule of ‘ten for one’ – the honor of a Manobo woman is worth ten heads. 

When we visited the town of Lake Sebu, on the shores of that lake in the South Cotabato highlands, our guide Roy told us of the prevalence of Tiboli tribal law in the town. Their town jail, he noted, was always empty; offenders were encouraged to settle by arbitration and payments of weregild, rather than face the possibility of blood feud.

And some of the Zomian tribes were headhunters; might there have been an element of psychological warfare to the adoption of this practice? Spanish chroniclers of the 1700s and 1800s noted that there were vital passes in Zambales and the Ilocos region that had to be crossed at forced march, lest they be caught in headhunter territory at night. The Cordilleras were among the few parts of the Philippines never under Spanish control, despite the draw of its gold deposits. Headhunting was also a central part of the religion of the Nagas, Dyaks, Tinguians, Ifugaos, Ibalois, Wa, Sumba, and many other Southeast Asian highland peoples.

The net effect of these tribal traditions has been two-edged, though. On the one hand, they’ve fostered an air of forbidden territory to the highlands; one does not enter the highlands without permission, one does not mess with the highlanders. It’s helped preserve their unique cultures, and it’s helped preserve their environment, such that the most pristine rain forests are to be found in the ancestral domains.

But those traditions have also reinforced some negative stereotyping in the eyes of lowlanders. This stereotyping of course leads to discrimination, to the point that my other photographer friends who’ve shot the Kalingas tell me young Kalinga women now forego the traditional tattoos because they don’t want to be marked as Kalingas when they go looking for jobs in the city. They fear they will not be given jobs should their employers find out who they are.

Highlander culture however is remarkably persistent. Even in the face of ever-accelerating modernization, the highlanders consciously cling to their culture. I met a Manobo Christian pastor who sees no conflict between his religion and his continued belief in the diwatas and anitos of the wilderness; these spirits, he says, have always been their neighbors, and they’re pretty powerful so they make sure to treat them right! There are movements to preserve the traditional arts and crafts, like tattooing, and many still hold their traditional festivals using the old lunar calendars to calculate the dates for these gatherings.

Highlander Economy and Organization
The highlanders of Southeast Asia share many similarities in their ways of life and the social organization built around those ways of life. Most are simple agriculturists, practicising swidden, or slash-and-burn farming, supplemented by hunting and fishing. The Ifugaos are among the exceptions who practice wet-rice cultivation, but they do it on their own terms, up in their highland strongholds and not as tenant farmers for lowlander landlords.

This form of livelihood, which persists up to now in many highland areas here, dictates settlement patterns and population density. As I mentioned in my previous posts about Southeast Asia, wet rice cultivation encourages concentration, but swidden farming encourages dispersal. Most Cordillerans and Lumads live in small communities, spaced widely apart from each other; and the pattern seems to hold for traditional Hmong settlements as well. Small communities encourage simpler political organization. Among the Cordillerans, for example, rule is not by Datu chieftains but by informal, yet very influential, councils of elders. The Lumads of Mindanao do have Datus, but they function in looser hierarchies than the royalty of the Maranaos, and are balanced by institutions like the Tiboli council of women elders, the Kesetifun Be. Here’s a pic of the women’s council at Lake Sebu, being entertained by a satirist:

A satirist chanting at the Tiboli's Kesetifun Be Lemlunay S'bung festival

The idea of communal ownership of land also seems to be widespread among the highlanders. I know both Cordillerans and the Lumads traditionally think this way, and in fact the many legal disputes over ancestral domain and encroaching landowners comes from this. In this system, no individual or family owns land; instead all land is held in common, with the tribal elders deciding allocations in council. There’s no question of who’s supposed to do what either; everybody just pitches in when a great effort must be made.

A photographer friend of mine, Tommy Hafalla, told me of a curious example of this tradition of communal effort. At Petsya, somewhere near Bontoc, there used to be a bridge of bamboo and pine logs built by the Bontocs and the people of a neighboring community together. With limited tools, they bridged the deep ravine by dragging logs to the site, laboriously stretching them over and weaving them together with bamboos, and the young men would jump on the bamboos to bend them into the desired shape. The bridge would have to be repaired every few years, and lives were often lost during this. Yet they persisted. That bridge has now been replaced by a steel and concrete one, but Hafalla says the tribal elders still proudly show pictures of the old bridge to the young ones so they will remember.

And that brings up another great point about highlander culture: they’ve got long memories. Their tradition of passing history may be oral, but they remember a lot.

Highland-Lowland Symbiosis
The isolation of the highlanders has never been total, though. Most highlanders did have periodic contacts with lowlander society, and these relationships could take several forms. In a way the Zomians could never be fully independent of the lowlanders, because they needed many lowlander products, such as salt, fish, cloth, tools and weapons, and livestock. This dependence has only gotten worse with modernization, something you could explore in a Victorian or Steampunk setting.

A Bagobo dish made using dried fish from the coast

Above is a picture illustrating the basic highland-lowland symbiosis in Mindanao: this dish is a Bagobo recipe, but it contains bulad, dried fish, from the coast. Bulad is a staple, and a treat, in the Bagobo diet, but it’s something they can’t produce themselves. All other ingredients in this dish were grown in the mountains.

Where the highlands are more easily accessible, specially if there are river systems that can be navigated far upstream, as in parts of Mindanao and in the Pasig River-Laguna de Ba’I basin, the relationship was often tributary.  Highlander communities had to pay tribute in exchange for gifts and the right to trade in lowland towns, and of course to forestall attack by the militarily powerful lowland chiefs. Again I’ll refer to the story of Agyu in the Manobo epic as an example. The move to Nalandangan is triggered by a kinsman of Agyu slaying a Moro datu, who mistreated him when he came down to pay their tribute. In the Pasig-Laguna de Ba’I basin, highlander and lowlander were the same people; both were Tagalogs, though there were sharp social distinctions between the lowlander ‘taga-bayan’ and the highlander ‘taga-bundok.’

Where the highlanders were numerous and powerful, the relationship could become one of honored vassalage or alliance. This was what happened when a branch of the highland Tagkaolos converted to Islam and became vassals of the Maguindanao sultanate, thus forming the Kagan tribe. The Kagans under Datu Bago came to dominate the Davao River basin, apparently independent of Maguindanao, in the 1800s, pushing the Mandayas and Bagobos out. But in taking the river basin, though, they became lowlanders, with the lowlander vulnerability to attack by sea. Now the Kagans again live in the upper lands, still by the river but pushed back from the coast.

The Ilocanos and the western Cordillerans seem to have achieved an understanding that was almost like the troubled but peace-oriented relationship between two neighboring states. There are Spanish documents from the 1700s and 1800s recording peace treaties between governors and mayors in Ilocandia with the tribal elders of the Cordilleras (all Philippine official documents of the time were written in Spanish). The Spanish and Ilocanos wanted peace because military expeditions into the mountains were simply too costly, while Cordilleran religion seems to have been a driving factor to both peace and tension.

The Ilocano farmers were glad to have a ready market for their hogs and cattle, for the Cordillerans needed a lot of livestock for their periodic canao festivals, where sacrifices were required. Besides, the Cordillerans paid with something really desirable: raw gold dust and nuggets. Peace thus made acquisition of sacrifices so much easier and made farming much more profitable.  The Cordilleran religion however also required a periodic acquisition of human heads, so headhunting raids by young braves were always a sticking point of the negotiations. Here the very freedom and looseness of highlander social organization worked against them, for the elders really had limited authority to stop their braves from raiding where they wanted. Headhunting seems to have stopped only in the early 1930s, after the Americans established a strong military base in Baguio, though I suspect some trophies got taken in the 1944-45 campaigns against the Japanese.

Contact with lowlanders, specially the colonial empires of the West, also led to may sordid tales of abuse from both sides. Sometimes corrupt or just plain ignorant chieftains ended up signing away vast tracts of communal land to lowland ‘buyers.’ There was a time in Davao when 50 pesos could buy you acres of land. Now? I can’t even have a full lunch on that amount! There were even attempts by some honorable Spanish officials and clergy to prevent Spanish adventurers from acquiring tribal land by underhanded means, but they were just a few voices in the wilderness. As a rule, where highland tradition and modern law clash, modern law will win – save in the remotest heights.

Sometimes wealthy planters, loggers or miners even hire mercenaries to drive the highlanders from desirable tracts of land. This is going on right now in parts of the Philippines, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true elsewhere in the region. There’ve also been cases where mixed marriages also led to land conflicts, as lowland immigrants want title to their property, and would sometimes ask for land as dowry when marrying highlander women.

These troubled highlander-lowlander relationships can easily be adopted to your campaigns, whether your stories are set in a Southeast Asian setting or not. In a Southeast Asian setting, even a fantasy one, you can make your milieu much richer by adding the diversity and potentials for tension with highlander tribes.

Whew! This has been another very long post. Yes, it’s a bit short on the monsters and fantastic stuff, but that’s easy to research. I’m just hoping that when you make your own Southeast Asian setting it will have a truly Southeast Asian feel, and that this post helped a bit by providing a firm groundwork. Thanks!


  1. I think it is easier to design a "lost world" tepui or "Indiana Jones" shangri la than a mile-deep dungeon. No magical biology or gps is required.

  2. yup! outdoor settings are also a lot more interesting for me.


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