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Karens Of Burma

KARENS OF BURMA, one of the chief hill races of Burma. The Karens inhabit the central Pegu Yoma range, forming the watershed between the Sittang and Irrawaddy rivers, the Paunglaung range between the Sittang and the Salween, and the eastern slopes of the Arakan Yoma mountains to the west of the Irrawaddy delta. They are supposed to be the descendants of Chinese tribes driven southwards by the pressure of the Shan races, before they were again made to retire into the hills by the expansion of the Mon power. Their own traditions ascribe their original home to the west of the sandy desert of Gobi stretching between China and Tibet. According to the census of 1901 they numbered in all 727,235 persons within India, divided into the Sgaw, 86,434, the Pwo, 174,070, and the Bghai, 4936, while 457,355 are returned as " unspecified." The Sgaw and Pwo are collectively known as the " White Karens," and chiefly inhabit British territory. They take their name from the colour of their clothes. The Bghai, or " Red Karens," who are supposed by some to be an entirely distinct race, chiefly inhabit the independent hill state of Karen-ni (q.v.). The Karen is of a squarer build than the Burman, his skin is fairer, and he has more of the Mongolian obliquity of the eyes. In character also the people differ from the Burmese. They are singularly devoid of humour, they are stolid and cautious, and lack altogether the light gaiety and fascination of the Burmese. They are noted for truthfulness and chastity, but are dirty and addicted to drink. The White Karens furnish perhaps the most notable instance of conversion to Christianity of any native race in the British empire. Prepared by prophecies current among them, and by curious traditions of a biblical flavour, in addition to their antagonism to the dominant Burmese, they embraced with fervour the new creed brought to them by the missionaries, so that out of the 147,525 Christians in Burma according to the census of 1901 upwards of a hundred thousand were Karens. The Red Karens differ considerably from the White Karens. They are the wildest and most lawless of the so-called Karen tribes. Every male belonging to the clan used to have the rising Sun tattooed in bright vermilion on his back. The men are small and wizened, but athletic, and have broad reddish-brown faces. Their dress consists of a short pair of breeches, usually of a reddish colour, with black and white stripes interwoven perpendicularly or like a tartan, and a handkerchief is tied round the head. The Karen language is tonal, and belongs to the Siamese-Chinese branch of the Indo-Chinese family.

See D. M. Smeaton, The Loyal Karens of Burma (1887) ; J. Nisbet, Burma under British Rule (1901) ; M. and B. Ferrars, Burma (1900) ; and O'Connor Scott, The Silken East (1904). (J. G. Sc.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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