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The Lisu: Far from the Ruler (Paperback)
This book brings the ironic worldview of the Lisu to life through vivid, often amusing accounts of individuals, communities, regions, and practices. One of the smallest and last groups of stateless people, and the most egalitarian of all Southeast Asian highland minorities, the Lisu have not only survived extremes at the crossroads of civil wars, the drug trade, and state-sponsored oppression but adapted to modern politics and technology without losing their identity.
The Lisu weaves a lively narrative that condenses humanity’s transition from border-free tribal groupings into today’s nation-states and global market economy. Journalist and historian Michele Zack first encountered the Lisu in the 1980s and conducted research and fieldwork among them in the 1990s. In 2014 she again traveled extensively in tribal areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and China, when she documented the transformative changes of globalization. Some Lisu have adopted successful new urban occupations in business and politics, while most continue to live as agriculturists “far from the ruler.”
The cohesiveness of Lisu culture has always been mysterious—they reject hierarchical political organization and traditionally had no writing system—yet their culture provides a particular skillset that has helped them navigate the terrain of the different religious and political systems they have recently joined. They’ve made the transition from living in lawless, self-governing highland peripheries to becoming residents and citizens of nation-states in a single generation.
Ambitious and written with journalist’s eye for detail and storytelling, The Lisu introduces the unique and fascinating culture of this small Southeast Asian minority. Their path to national and global citizenship illustrates the trade-offs all modern people have made, and their egalitarian culture provides insight into current political choices in a world turning toward authoritarianism.
About the Author
"A real triumph. The Lisu should be proud to have Michele Zack, a keen observer with an unfailing eye for the revelatory image or event, to chronicle their amazing history and culture. The Lisu reputation for independence, equality, adaptability, 'repute,' and cultural cohesion despite steep odds comes across in her vibrant prose."
—James C. Scott, Yale University
"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 of Fieldwork and Peacekeeping: A Novel
"This is a loving, inviting, and accessible portrait of the Lisu people. . . . The book is richly illustrated, well organized, and packed full of fascinating observations and insights. It is bound to reach and inspire many readers, both students of culturally diverse Asia and the general reader fascinated with the richness of our shared world."
—Magnus Fiskesjö, Cornell University
"Journalist-historian Michele Zack provides rich images of Lisu across the entire region. Her keen observations and lucid writing unify what until now have been isolated bits and pieces of a much larger picture and for the first time show us the range and variability of these remarkable highland people."
—E. Paul Durrenberger, author of Uncertain Times, Gambling Debt, and The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness
"Michele Zack’s book is packed full of insights and information. . . . Together with intimate portraits of individuals and communities, it asks important questions about opportunities and constraints facing indigenous people in a fast-changing world and concludes with interesting thoughts on possible futures for the Lisu.”
—Dr. Ashley South, author of The Politics of Peace in Myanmar
—Journal of Folklore Research
“Zack’s book should be evaluated as the third and greatest contribution in publicizing the Lisu in the wider world. . . .It’s not just a page turner—it is a valuable record of her association with the Lisu people over thirty years.”
"Well-written and engaging, the work is a timely snapshot of a diverse culture in an era of intense cultural change."