From Blood to Fruit: Crypto-nationalism and Reformations of the Ancestral Burden in the Akha World of Mainland Southeast Asia and Southwest China


Micah F. Morton

PhD defended at: 

University of Wisconsin-Madison



In this dissertation I highlight the development of a movement beginning in the 1980s to promote a pan-ethnic identity among some 730,000 Akha, a transnational minority living in the Upper Mekong Region crossing the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), China, Laos and Vietnam. Until recently Akha maintained elaborate practices of Ancestor veneration. However, faced with a growing number of conversions to Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism, some Akha elites, self-declared “Neo-Traditionalists,” have reworked their Ancestral burden into the “Akha Religion” in order to ensure their survival as a distinct people and promote a larger Akha World. These elite have produced the Akha Religion in reference and yet opposition to Christianity. The product of their efforts is a seemingly paradoxical indigenous religion with a trans-local outreach, cosmopolitan ambitions, and yet exclusive orientation to Akha and Akha alone.

I describe the Akha World as a non-state space nevertheless shaped in the likeness and image of the state. Akha elite have employed a number of state-making technologies in forging this world. These technologies have included transforming Akhaness from an oral to a literate culture, creating a unified orthography, reforming and standardizing culture, inventing transregional traditions, producing symbolic markers of translocal Akhaness, and generating a standardized historical narrative. These elite have been adamant in representing the Akha World as a “non-territorial” or “virtual” space equally molded by their common bonds of ethnic kinship and divergent experiences of nationalism. Elite have been constrained both by their lack of any state of their own and their firm positioning in different states. I introduce the term “crypto-nationalism” to describe Akha elites’ identitarian productions which, while largely mimetic of the national, have nevertheless been framed as something other than the national. I argue that contrary to conventional thought, transnational identitarian formations such as those of the Akha and other minorities are often rooted not in the failure but rather the success of nation states in crafting ethnicity as an ever salient marker of collectivities within a national framework. My work thus builds on and challenges previous understandings of ethnic formations in a national and transnational context.