April 14, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

A Gesture of Handshaking in Chin Christian Culture

28 April 2011: Undoubtedly, there are many different cultural gestures or greeting signs across the globe. Some gestures which are polite in one region can be offensive in another. Likewise, some gestural greetings which are considered friendly here can be hostile there.

For instance, a ‘fig sign’ which is locally known as ‘kut chu tuh’ in Hakha Chin dialect has an obscene expression of swearing and insult to someone in Chinland while it is acceptably seen as a good luck charm in Portugal and Brazil[1].

One of the most significant and popular as well as common gestures in modern society is handshaking. It has also grown to symbolize a friendly salutation in Chin Christian society in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

Brief History of Handshaking

During the medieval period, a king and a knight would clasp each other’s hands to show that they had no hidden weapons and that they intended no harm to each other[2], according to one theory.

Another theory suggested by a prominent English philosopher and functional sociologist, Herbert Spencer, said of two Arabs meeting in a desert where they ended up clasping their hands after an attempt by one Arab to greet the other by kissing his hands was seen as an insult[3].

Some researchers suggested the handshake may have been introduced to the western world by Sir Walter Raleigh in service to the British Court during the late 16th century [4]. The habit started in England and probably spread to the Dutch republic, then onto France and later to Russia[5].

The Bible also contains stories of handshaking on many occasions. Job 17:3 [6] said, “Who is he who will shake hands with me?” The Hebrew word ‘Taqa’ [7] which means ‘to strike hands’ can be construed as a handshake used when making agreement in today’s world.  Another word from Greek ‘dexios’ [8] has a meaning of ‘right hand’ when giving or receiving handshake.

Obviously, the practice of handshake was passed down by people in the ancient times and has become an expression of friendship, peaceful love, benevolence, salutation, reconciliation, congratulation, giving thanks, valediction and well wishing[9].

The Burmans of Burma have no gestures of salutation, except the ‘ceremony of prostration’ held before certain high ranking officials, which is hardly marked down as the head of social activities[10].

Traditionally, Burmese do not shake hands but slightly bow their head to show respect instead, although handshaking can be found mainly among Burmese Christian communities and various sectors of modern society in Burma including wedding ceremonies and business events[11].

How and When Handshaking Came into Chin Christian Society

Nowadays, the shaking of hands is practiced as a form of formal greeting and farewell as well as a sign of gratitude, respect and acknowledgement. With the handshake come words of different greetings such as ‘dam maw’ in Hakha dialect, ‘muh lo sawt ei’ in Tedim, and ‘ton lonak rei ual’ in Falam.

In the pre-colonial and pre-Christian periods, the Chin people seemed to have no culture of handshaking. Many Chin scholars and historians believed that the practice of handshaking was probably brought into the Chin society by the first American Baptist missionaries, although there is no clear evidence as to when and how it was introduced.

However, there are some indications that the Chin already had their own traditional way of showing gratitude, valediction, peaceful love, benevolence and greeting before the colony. An exiled Chin MP and veteran politician, Pu Lian Uk, agreed that the foreign missionaries introduced the culture of handshaking among the Chin people.

Recalling his experiences in 1949 when he was attending the 4th grade at a private primary school, Pu Lian Uk: “We travelled to Hakha from my village to participate in the Golden Jubilee (50thanniversary) celebration of the arrival of the first American missionary to Chin Hills. When we reached Hakha, a few Hakha Christian women who knew me came and said, ‘Aha.’”

“They patted me on my head affectionately and stroked my shoulder, giving me a very warm and loving welcome to Hakha.”

Laura H. Carson[12] also noted the way an 18-year-old Chin girl, one of the coolies who came to get paid, said farewell to her before returning to their village. “With a beaming face, she came to say good-by, patting my face with a very grimy hand and smiling into my eyes.”

On another occasion at their camp near the suspension bridge built by the English Government across the Manipur River before reaching Falam, Laura said how the Chin women showed their gratitude when she gave them a needle and safety-pins, after explaining their use .

“They were perfectly delighted. They patted my cheek and stroked my shoulder (a Chin method of showing gratitude and affection) and some of them even came up and put their arms around me.”

What Pu Lian Uk said echoes the first experience that the first American Baptist missionary couple to Chin Hills, Rev. Arthur E. Carson and wife Laura H. Carson encountered during their journey towards Hakha in March 1899.

The handshake has been especially accredited to English traders and missionaries for introducing its culture far and wide around the world[13]. Missionary zeal, converting people to new religions, has also changed cultures [14].When Christian missionaries introduced the gospel to foreign lands, it is not surprising to see that a new culture and custom attached to them was also carried. In her memoirs, Ann Judson noted of the visit with husband Adoniram Judson to the house of Britain’s first Baptist missionary, Dr. William Carey, in Calcutta, India on 18 June 1812. “He arose, shook hands with us, and gave us a cordial welcome to this country[15].”

The Chin traditional culture of patting cheeks or even stroking the shoulder of a person being greeted as a sign of affection and gratitude could be seen rather impolite in Chin society of the modern generation. And people in the younger generation would not pat or stroke their elder’s head as this would be seen ‘ill-mannered’ and even ‘patronizing’.

Formally practiced over decades as recognition of their commonality and solidarity in Christ, and endorsing a favourable partnership and cooperation, the shaking of hands has become one of the Chin Christian cultures in their modern society.

In conclusion, different nations have different customs and manners as well as cultural gestures. The coming of the gospel as brought to the uncivilised people of Chin Hills by the American missionaries is the beginning of a new spiritual revolution in our Lord and a new cultural civilization in line with the outside world.

By Cung Luai (Salai Takawh)

The author finished Master of Divinity (M. Div) in Rangoon in 2004, and worked as a lecturer at private Bible colleges in the former capital of Burma. He is currently studying social policies at Glan Hafren College in Wales, UK.

[1] A gesture made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, or rarely, the middle and ring fingers, forming the fist so that the thumb partly pokes out. Wikipedia. Lists of Gestures [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gestures  (Accessed: 25 March 2011).

[2] Cited by Kevin Andrew on his investigation of the subject of the hand shake [Online] Available at: http://soc302.tripod.com/soc_302rocks/id8.html (Access: 23 March 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4]Wikipedia. Handshake [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handshake (Accessed: 27 March 2011)

[5] Burrow, J.A (2002) Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 36.

[6] Job 17: 3 .NKJV).

[7] As stated in the Old Testament, the word ‘Yad’meaning ‘hand’ or ‘Taqa’ in Hebrew, meaning to strike hands, was used as a sign of guarantee just as handshaking on the occasion of making an agreement nowadays. It also appears in the book of Proverbs (See Proverbs 6 :1; 17:18).

[8] In New Testament, the word “dexios” in Greek, which means the right side or right hand, is used when giving or receiving a handshake. Preference is given to the right hand. “Giving the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9) was passed naturally into a salutation throughout Christendom, and spread probably from the Byzantium period to the Moslem world. The emphatic form of the original gesture in “striking hands” is still used to make the greeting more heartily.

[9]  Burrow, J.A (2002) Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 36.

[10] Forbes, Capt. C. J. F. S. (1878) British Burma and Its People: Being Sketches of Native Manners, Customs, and Religion. London: John Murray, pp. 69.

[11] Myanmar’s Net. Myanmar Traditional Wedding Ceremony [Online] Available at: http://www.myanmars.net/myanmar-culture/myanmar-wedding.htm (Accessed: 28 March 2011)

[12] Carson, L. H. (1927) Pioneer Trails, Trials and Triumphs: Personal Memoirs of Life and Work as A Pioneer Missionary Among The Chin Tribes of Burma. New York: Department of Missionary Education, The Baptist Board of Education, pp.164.

[13] Salutations [Online] Available at: http://www.libraryindex.com/encyclopedia/pages/cpxks31co6/salutations-kiss-salutation-hand.html (Accessed: 25 March 2011).

[14] Hofstede, G. and Hofstede, G. J. (2005) Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival. USA: McGraw-Hill, pp.17.

[15] James, S. (1998). My Heart in His Hands-Ann Judson of Burma: A Life with Selections from Her Memoirs and Letters. Darlington: Evangelical Press, pp. 50.

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