Zou people

The Zou people (Burmese: ဇိုလူမျိုး; also spelled Yo or Yaw or Jo or Jou ) are an indigenous community living along the frontier of India and Burma, they are a sub-group of the Zo people (Mizo-Kuki-Chin). In India, they live with and are similar in language and habits to the Paite[1] and the Simte peoples. In Burma, the Zou are counted among the Chin people.They are a hill people , "Zou" may plainly means "Hills" denoting the Zous are "people of the hills" or "of the hills", and "Zou" has also a different meaning in Zou language that is "complete" or another word for it is "finish". But, the Zou people believed that they incepted the name 'Zou' from their forefather 'Zou' or 'Zo', believed to be the progenitor of the broad Chin-Kuki-Mizo people.[2] The Zous can be found in different parts of India and also of the world.

Zou people
A Zou girl in traditional costume
Regions with significant populations
Chin Hills (Burma)ca. 111,000 estimated
Manipur (India)c. 22,000
Zou language / Zouham/Zokam
Related ethnic groups
Tedim Chin;Paite

In India, the Zou are officially recognized as one of the thirty-three indigenous peoples within the state of Manipur,[3] and are one of the Scheduled tribes.[4] According to the 2001 Census, the Zou/Jou population in Manipur is around 20,000, less than 3% of the population.[5] The community is concentrated in Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur in North-East India.[6]

Historical background

Zou cultural troupe in full traditional attire

The early history of the Zou people is lost in myths and legends; they claim an origin somewhere in the north,[1] and some claim that they are originally the same as the Paite and were only separated at the end of the British Raj.[1] Linguistic and racial evidence suggest the Indo-Chinese origin of the people. Linguists classified the Zou language as Tibeto-Burman, with only small differences between Zote and Paite.[1]

The American Baptist missionary, J.H. Cope, made an attempt to trace the pre-colonial history of the Chin Hills in a church journal, Tedim Thu Kizakna Lai.[7] The journal (edited by Cope) provides a glimpse of the Zomis in Chin Hills before the arrival of British imperialism. Under the Manlun chiefs,[8] the Zous had a bitter struggle with the Kamhau-Suktes over the control of the hill tracts between Manipur (India) and Chin Hills (Burma). Inter-village raids were frequent but they never resulted in decisive victory. The fortification of Tedim village by Kamhau finally gave him the upper hand over his Zou rivals. British records about the Zou tribe became available towards the end of the 19th century.

Zou language

Zou/Jou is similar to Paite.[1] It is classified as a northern Tibeto-Burman tribe. According to Ethnologue, there are 20,600 speakers in India (based on the 2001 Indian census) and around 31,000 speakers in Burma (no source given).[9] The Zou/Zo language is one of the prescribed major Indian languages in the high schools[10] and higher secondary schools of Manipur state. The Zou/Jou community has a script of its own known as "Zoulai". Zou youngsters learn their script as a piece of curiosity but the Roman script is the official script used by the Zous of Burma and India. Bible translations in the Zou language also adopted the Roman script and it served their purpose very well. In Manipur, the literacy rate of the Zous/Jous stand at 61.6% (census of India 2001). Unfortunately, this is below the Manipur state average of 68.8% literacy rate in 2001.

The south-east Asian connection

The Zhou in ancient China are thought to have originated from the areas west of the Shang strongholds, possibly Shanxi and Gansu provinces.[11] However, there is not enough evidence at present to establish the link between the Zhou dynasty[12] and the Indo-Burmese Zou. Another speculation was that the Zou came from Yunnan province of China (cf. "Yao" people of Yunnan)[13] before they were driven south by the Mongol invasion into Upper Burma along the Chindwin River. There, they practiced wet-rice cultivation and gave up their nomadic life.[14]

Zo Cultures and Customs

There are 12 categories of Zo cultures and customs: (1) Ton, (2) Ton and Han, (3) Ton and Taang Aih, (4) Taang Aih, (5) Kimulvu (6) Khuodo ( Khal leh Ginua Khuado ) (7) Sielkhup (8) Si vailhak (9) Si Cieng aa diel khaina (10) Mo laakna (11) Ai sanna (12) Nau aaitahna Zo Traditional Ballads There are 18 categories of Zo major traditional ballads / songs: (1) Lapi (2) Laguui (3) Si la ( gaal la, sa la, simai la ) (4) Si pusuoh la (5) Daak la (6) Lampisuh la (7) Taang la (8) Lamkiil la (9) Sawlnei la (10) Lakawi (11) Latawm’ (12) Tomun la (13) Tuivai la (14) Loma la/ Lakap (15) Tuibuong/Phaaisat la (16) Haaidawi la (17) Sim la (18) Zawl la/ Lataang Zo Dances. There are also 10 categories of Zo traditional dances: (1) Khaw Khai Dance (2) Saipi Khupsu Dance (3) Phiit lam (4) Doldeng Dance ( Daak lam ) (5) Daai lam (6) Khuongtung Dance (7) Khangtung Dance (8) Lumsui Dance (9) Lamguui Dance (10) Phiit kengpaih Dance.

Zo folktales

 All the stories or folktales such as the stories of Cing Khup & Ngam Bawi, Gal Ngam and Hangsai, and Neino le Nantal that are very widely popular throughout the North Western part of Chin state and other parts of the world where Zo people reside were originally written and spoken in pure Zo dialect.

Zous in Manipur

Crisis of pagan Sakhua religion

The Zou people resisted the British Raj and its colonial culture, including Christian conversion. The Maharajah of Manipur too did not permit Christian missionaries to work in the Imphal valley. However, a missionary called Watkin Roberts arrived at Senvawn village in the southern hills of Manipur in 1910. The Zou community did not come directly in contact with any Western missionary. While their neighbouring communities converted to Christianity, the Zous clung on to their traditional religion called Sakhua. (In the Chin hills of Burma, the Sakhua was also called Lawki religion). This indigenous form of worship is broadly and not so accurately labelled as "animism" in the ethnographic literature. The old Sakhua used to provide a satisfying explanation of the pre-colonial world; but the Zou colonial encounter exposed cracks in the old system. The experience of many young Zomis as a labour corps in World War I made them more open to Western education. The NEIG Mission Compound at Old Churachand became the centre of literate culture in southern Manipur since 1930. By the time of India's independence, many neo-literates among the Zous were convinced about the power of western education and medicine, perceiving these things as synonymous with Christianity itself.

Local church movement under the Jou Christian Association (JCA)

JCA jubilee monument at Daizang village

20th-century developments

The pagan Sakhua religion was under direct assault in Southern Manipur with the establishment of NEIG Mission at Old Churachand (Mission Compound) in 1930. The Vaiphei, Hmar, Paite and Thadou tribes were among the earliest advocates of Christian conversion. Along with the Simte, the Zou tribe was slow in responding to new ideas ushered in by the Christian mission. Perhaps due to their anti-colonial legacy, the Zous became the last bastion of pagan "Sakhua" in the area. Though cultural rootedness has its own merits, it was a setback for modernization. By the 1950s, there were a handful of Christian converts among the Zous too. But the Zou converts were disorganised and scattered. The new Zou Christian converts joined different dialectal groups, especially the Paite and Thado Christian groups. Among the intelligent sections of the Zou, there was a strong desire to stem the tide of this social crisis. Their solution was to embrace the local Church Movement by preserving the unity of the Zou community ironically through mass conversion.

Social impact of Christian conversion

Zous today preserve the best part of their traditional culture through their indigenous local church. Their customary laws related to marriage practices have been institutionalized by the church. Their tribal musical instrument (khuang made of wood and animal skin) is an integral part of church music. The Bible translations and hymnals preserved the best part of their traditional vocabulary harnessed to a different purpose. According to K.S. Singh, "The introduction of a new religion [Christianity] has not made any impact on their folk songs, the institution of indongta, and customs related to marriage, bride price and the dissolution of marriage. However, ancestor worship is being abandoned."[15]

Recent scholarship, however, pointed out that Bible translations among the tribes of North-East India have become a victim of dialectal chauvinism[16] Multiplying Bible translations in closely related but slightly different dialects have canonized and hardened ethnic divisions within the tribal groups of Manipur. For instance, the Zou language itself constitutes dialectal variants like Haidawi, Khuangnung, Thangkhal, Khodai and Tungkua.[17] All these dialects contribute to Zou language in a process of give and take. Nevertheless, Haidawi is usually promoted as the standard literary language in the vernacular Bible and hymnals.[18] Meanwhile, Khuangnung is popular among urban Zou speakers and Thangkhal heavily influences traditional Zou folk songs. Tungkua and Khodai still remain confined to remote villages. The inclusion of Zou as a Major Indian Language (till Standard XII) by the government of Manipur also contributed to the evolution of Zou as a standard literary language.[18]

The Zous in Burma constitute a distinct Zou dialect influenced primarily by Tedim Chin. Though the Zous in India and Burma had been using a common Bible for decades, the Zous in Burma recently came up with their own Bible translation. At present, it is difficult to assess the social impact of such translation projects.

Patriarchy and tribal Christianity

In early 1925, Pu Hang Za Kham of Lungtak Village, Tonzang Township, Chin State, Burma (Myanmar) was converted to Christianity by Evangelist Vial Nang, and became the first Christian convert among Zo people. Access to modern education since the 1950s and 60s empowered some Zou women in the "secular" sphere and the job market. But ironically women are still discriminated in the "sacred" sphere of the church on gender basis. The Zou society, despite Christian conversion, still staunchly maintains its old patriarchal structure. The first generation of educated Zomi women, like Khan Niang and Geneve Vung Za Mawi, championed the cause of female education as late as the 1970s.[19] A handful of Zou women (such as Dim Kho Chin, Ning Hoih Kim, and Ngai Vung) graduated in theology in the 1980s. There is limited space for women theologians within the formal church structure which is jealously guarded as a privileged male enclave. The church hierarchy still excludes women from any position of authority and "ordained" offices like that of minister or elder. Despite the advances made by women in the secular world, a recent study suggests that the status of women has been degraded (not upgraded) within the patriarchal world of the tribal church (cf. Downs 1996: 80–81).[20]

However, women are encouraged in fundraising projects where they have made excellent contributions through strategies like antang pham (handful of rice collection), thabituh (annual labour targets), and veipung (profitable micro-investment). Antang pham remains the main source of fund raising by ladies. The idea was originally imported from Mizoram where women like Chhingtei of Durtlang and Siniboni (a Khasi lady) were instrumental in introducing the practice, sometime in 1913.[21] The money collected by ladies is seldom invested in projects that benefit women as a specific group. Given the inequality of opportunities for men and women, this way of resource allocation is questionable. Recent statistics by the census of India (2001) show a significant gender gap between male and female literacy with 53.0% for female Zou and 70.2% for male Zou. Likewise, the sex ratio of the Zous in Manipur at 944 is lower than the state average of 978 (according to 2001 census). This compares poorly, for instance, with the sex ratio for Simte at 1030 and for Vaiphei at 1001 during the same period.

Economic and ecological survival skills

Like their Chin-Kuki cousins, the Zous had taken to shifting cultivation (jhum) ever since the beginning of their recorded history in the 19th century. They traversed several hill tracts between North-East India and Upper Burma in search of suitable jhum land. They used iron tools (e.g. axe, hoe and dao) to cultivate sturdy Asian rice through rather primitive method – sometimes described as "slash and burn". They obtained their iron tools through barter trade from Manipur and Burma. In the absence of a cash economy, mithun or gayal (bos frontalis) and rice served as the chief forms of wealth.

The jhum method was ecologically sustainable as long as population increase was minimal and cultivable land was plentiful. But even a favourable population-land ratio did not guarantee against periodic famines called mautam. Such famines are associated with the flowering of bamboo whose seeds lead to the multiplication of rats and other pests. In this sense, bamboo was both a curse and a blessing. In the traditional Zou economy, bamboo was a source of food (bamboo shoots), building material, household utensils, fencing and handicrafts. In fact, bamboo was the backbone of their subsistence economy.

The Zou community in Manipur was exposed to independent India's developmental state. Since the 1950s, they began to participate in the democratic process, especially electoral politics. Political pioneers, like T. Gougin and M. Thangkhanlal, emerged from this new political climate in the early decades of postcolonial India. Such developments affected the outlook and livelihood of many Zous who enjoyed upward mobility. The expansion of the so-called Licence Raj helped the growth of an administrative town, Churachandpur, in southern Manipur. More enterprising Zous saw new opportunities in this urban centre and set up their own "colonies" (e.g. Soduh, Sugnu Zouveng, Zomi Colony, Zoveng, Kamdou Veng, Hiangzou, and New Zoveng) to settle in and around Churachandpur town. Better access to education enabled these urban settlers to enter the government civil service sector that grew in the 1970s and 1980s. Within the Zou community, the Church and other NGOs are significant employers of theological graduates.

In remote Zou villages, the habit of jhuming continues despite poor productivity. According to the 2001 census of India, around 60% of the Zou population were engaged in agricultural labour. Wet rice cultivation came into vogue around the time of India's independence. Shifting cultivators typically dwell within interior ridgetop hamlets. But permanent plow peasants among the Zous prefer settlement sites near river banks like the Tuitha and the Tuivai. Availability of cultivable land for paddy is severely limited in Manipur hill areas. Increased food production through paddy fields supported a growing population in many Zou villages. Yet food production lags behind population increase. The challenge is to escape this Malthusian trap where population prevents prosperity. As an absolute figure the Zou population is not big, but its rapid rate of growth resulted in deforestation and desertification during the post-Independence era which intensifies the rural crisis. Unlike the fertile Imphal valley, the "carrying capacity" of land in the hills is very limited. The social spill-over effect of this ecological degradation was demonstrated by the ethnic conflict of 1997–98. The conflict reduced many educated and semi-skilled Zous into economic migrants to other parts of urban India. Today, socially-mobile pockets of Zou communities live across Indian cities like Imphal, Aizawl, Shillong, Guwahati, Calcutta, Delhi and Bangalore. The Indian army and paramilitary services also employ a good number of Zous, generally with a low level of skills. But the new economy could not absorb unskilled and illiterate Zou villagers.

The benefits of India's economic reform are yet to reach rural Manipur. At present, militants pose a challenging law and order problem. But the spread of modern technologies like satellite TV and mobile phones to the villages gradually expose them to changes in other parts of India since the economic reforms of 1991. Such exposure might not alter their immediate circumstances, but it provides new aspirational values needed to create an enabling environment in a democratic setup.

Political consciousness

Pu T. Gougin was the best known political leader who hailed form the Zou community. But this political entrepreneur soon transcended the narrow interests of his own 'tribe' to launch a pan-Zo or pan-Zomi solidarity movement to mobilise his co-ethnic members in Manipur, Mizoram and Myanmar.[22] A recent piece published from Mumbai by the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) made the following observation about Pu T. Gougin:

"At a time when tribal leaders were vying for state recognition of their dialectal communities as “Scheduled Tribes,” Gougin began to conceive the idea of Zomi, i.e., “Zo people” in 1955 while serving as a clerk of the Tribal Development Office, Imphal. This prompted him to resign from his clerical job in 1958, and then pursued BA (honours) at St. Edmund's College, Shillong. As a final year student, he founded the United Zomi Organisation (UZO) at Singtom village (Manipur) in 1961 to unite “all ethnic Zomi groups” (Gougin 1988: 3). When UZO was reduced to mere vote bank politics to the complete neglect of wider Zo solidarity, T. Gougin launched on 28 January 1972 a new organisation, Zomi National Congress (ZNC) at Daizang village (Manipur). He owned a printing press which helped him to propagate his nationalist vision through pamphlets, booklets and ephemeral literature. The Discovery of Zoland (1980) is perhaps Gougin's most enduring political writing" (p. 61).[23]

Journals in Zou language

Select Zou settlements in Manipur

I. Urban Area

  • Zomi Colony, Mannieng Veng, Zoveng, Hiangzou, New Zoveng, Kamdou veng (Tuibuong), Zoumunnuan, Simveng and Beulahlane within Churachandpur township
  • Zomi Villa, Langgol and Tribal Colony within Imphal district.

II. Semi-Urban Area

  • Singngat, Sugnu Zoveng and Moreh (These towns are mixed settlements with significant concentration of Zou population)

III. Rural Area

  • Villages along the Henglep block (Nungsai, Leitan, Aina)
  • Villages along the Khuga (Tuitha) river: Tuoitengphai, Muollum, Daizang, Khienglam, T. Khazang, Belpuon, Sumchinvum, Teikot, Suongkuong, Zoukhonuam, Hiengtam (K), Belbing, S. Geltui, S. Munhoi, Panglien, M. Tanglien, Hiengdung, Lummual, Kullien, Phaibem, Zoumun, Khienglam, Bohlui, Tuibul, Benazou, Buongmun, Suongnal, Zahong, Sialna'h, Suongkuong and Khuongmun
  • Villages along the Tuivai River: Behieng, Hiengtam, Tonzang, L. Kanaan, Zangnuom, Lunzang, Suongphu, Sialsi, Buolkot, Likhai, Tangpizawl (Tangko Camp), Sehngalzang and Sehken, Suohzahau
  • Villages along the Tuivel river: Mawngken, Maukot, Tuimanzang, and Muolzin
  • Villages along the Tuila river: Hiengmual, Munpi, Zabellei, Allusingtam, Sabuol, T. Hangnuom, and Buhsau
  • Villages along the Imphal river: Khuoinuoi, Paldai, Sachiktampak, Singtom, Phaisan, Singheu, Telsalzang, M. Khaukuol, Khuongkhai, Paldai, Sachih, and Kathuong
  • Villages in Tuining area: Tuining, Tuinuphai, N.Khovung, Zomi Zion, T.Vazang, Khaimunmuom, Sangaikot, Kuvan, Saiboh, Zobethel, Gangpimuol, and Khuongkhai

See also


  1. Bareh, Hamlet (2001). "Zou". Encyclopaedia of North-East India: Manipu. Mittal. pp. 260ff. ISBN 978-81-7099-790-0. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  2. Chinlunthang & Peter L (2017): Zou/Zo: A Preserver of Pu Zo Identity, in David V. Zou & S.T. Zou (eds),A History of the Zou People, UZO-India publication, pp.118-137
  3. "Manipur List of Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 February 2014.
  4. "Alphabetical List of India's Scheduled Tribes". Archived from the original on 10 February 2009.
  5. "Manipur. Data Highlights: The Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Census of India 2001. Retrieved 21 November 2010.
  6. Sen, Sipra (1992). Tribes and castes of Manipur: description and select bibliography. Mittal. p. 64. ISBN 978-81-7099-310-0.
  7. Tedim Thu Kizakna Lai (Tedim Journal), July 1937, p.4.
  8. Fowler, E.O. (1924) Letter to Howchinkhup, General Department, No. 3432/7M-11, office of the Commissioner, North West Border Division, 25 March 1924, in Acts and Achievements of Hau Chin Khup, KMS, Chief of the Kamhau clan, Chin Hills, Tiddim (Ratnadipan Pitika Press, Mandalay, 1927) p. 17.
  9. Lewis, Paul (ed.). "Zo". Ethnologue. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  10. Official List of First Languages Archived 11 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine approved by Board of Secondary Education Manipur (BSEM)
  11. Braghin, Cecilia Archived 13 November 2003 at the Wayback Machine (1998) "An Archaeological Investigation into Ancient Chinese Beads" pp. 273-293, Lidia D. Sciama & Joanne B. Eicher, (eds.) Beads and Bead Makers, Oxford & New York: Berg.
  12. Hsu Cho-yun & Linduff, K.M. (1988) Western Zhou Civilization, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  13. "Yao people of Yunnan (China)". Retrieved 10 November 2006.; also Yao – Chinese Ethnic Groups (1998)
  14. Aung-Thwin, Michael (1996). "The Myth of the 'Three Shan brothers' and the Ava period in Burmese history". Journal of Asian Studies. 55 (4): 881–901. Archived from the original on 8 December 2006.
  15. Singh, K.S. Singh (1994) People of India, National Series Volume III, The Scheduled Tribes, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 1204 - 1207
  16. Go, Khup Za (1996) A Critical Historical Study of Bible Translations among the Zou people in Northeast India, Churachandpur: Chin Baptist Literature Board
  17. Zou, David Vumlallian (2009) "The Pasts of a fringe Community: Ethno-history and fluid identity of the Zou in Manipur" Indian Historical Review, 36 (2) 209 - 235 http://ihr.sagepub.com/content/36/2/209.abstract
  18. Zou, David Vumlallian (2009) "The Pasts of a fringe Community" ibid., p. 223
  19. Lalnunmawi, E (1996) Impact of Christianity on the Zou women (Unpublised Dissertation) Banglalore: South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS)
  20. Downs, Frederick S. (1996) The Christian Impact on the Status of Women in North East Inda, Shillong: NEHU Publications
  21. Ralte, Lalrinawmi (2004) Bible Women-te Nghilhlohnan (In Memory of Bible Women), Bangalore: Shalom Publications
  22. Zou, David Vumlallian (2010) 'A Historical Study of the Zo Struggle' Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Vol. 45, No. 14, 3–9 April 2010, pp. 56- 63
  23. Zou 2010, A Historical Study, op. cit
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