We found the Shans at Nam-ka to be simple and honest people but abnormally lazy. During our three weeks’ stay not a single trap was stolen, although the natives prized them highly, and often brought to us those in which animals had been caught. Shans were continually about our camp where boxes were left unlocked, but not an article of our equipment was missed.
The Nam-ka Shans elevated their houses on six-foot poles and built an open porch in front of the door, while the dwellings at Meng-ting and farther up the valley were all placed upon the ground. The thatched roofs overhung several feet and the sides of the houses were open so that the free passage of air kept them delightfully cool. Moreover, they were surprisingly clean, for the floors were of split bamboo, and the inmates, if they wore sandals, left them at the door. In the center of the single room, on a large flat stone, a small fire always burned, but much of the cooking was done on the porch where a tiny pavilion had been erected over the hearth.
The Shans at Nam-ka had “no visible means of support.” The extensive rice paddys indicated that in the past there had been considerable cultivation but the fields were weed-grown and abandoned. The villagers purchased all their vegetables from the Mohammedan hunter and two other Chinese who lived a mile up the trail, or from passing caravans whom they sometimes entertained. In all probability they lived upon the sale of smuggled opium for they were only a few miles from the Burma border.
Virtually every Shan we saw in the south was heavily tattooed. Usually the right leg alone, but sometimes both, were completely covered from the hip to the knee with intricate designs in black or red. The ornamentations often extended entirely around the body over the abdomen and waist, but less frequently on the breast and arms.
All the natives were inordinately proud of these decorations and usually fastened their wide trousers in such a way as to display them to the best advantage. We often could persuade a man to pose before the camera by admiring his tattoo marks and it was most amusing to watch his childlike pleasure.
The Shan tribe is a large one with many subdivisions, and it is probable that at one time it inhabited a large part of China south of the Yangtze River; indeed, there is reason to believe that the Cantonese Chinamen are chiefly of Shan stock, and the facial resemblance between the two races certainly is remarkable.
Although the Shans formerly ruled a vast territory in Yuen-nan before its conquest by the Mongol emperors of China in the thirteenth century A.D., and at one time actually subdued Burma and established a dynasty of their own, at present the only independent kingdom of the race is that of Siam. By far the greatest number of Shans live in semi-independent states tributary to Burma, China, and Siam, and in Yuen-nan inhabit almost all of the southern valleys below an altitude of 4,000 feet.