The Semai Culture
ANT101: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
In the central mountains of the Malay Peninsula, Malaysia, Southeast Asia lives over 40,000 horticulturalists, bearing a gift economy. The Semai, an Orang Asli Society is known for their strong non-violent way of living. This bilateral descent culture, looks at the man and woman as being “equals”. Their main economic activities include hunting and farming; as their economic organization consists of small camps on high mountain slopes, cultivating wet rice. In this research paper I should further your knowledge of this unique and proud culture as I explain how the Semai live, and raise their children. I will analyze the impact that this cultures primary mode of subsistence has on their beliefs, gender relations, and economic organization. As you continue to read, you will get a better understanding of this special culture and their unique place in the history of the world.
The Semai’s direct source of revenue has evolved into a diverse system of shifting cultivation, hunting trading forest goods, and arboriculture. The Semai main economic activities include hunting and farming. These societies live in small, isolated camps at a high altitude on mountain slopes. They live in villages that are built with wood, weaved balls, or bamboo with thatched roofs using palm leaves. Inside the Semai houses are no visible bedrooms, and the children usually sleep in the main hall. The only form of “separation” for the rooms is a wooden beaded curtain that hangs in the parent’s chambers. There are no locks to prevent unwanted entry; instead the curtains are drawn down to prevent entry.
When there's a mass shooting in America, who gets blamed? The perp? No: American culture. American gun culture. The NRA. The violence in our movies, et al. There's always plenty of blame to go around, but rarely is it mostly focused on the actual perpetrator. When it is, the talking heads on TV try to find ways to "understand" the shooter's motivations. What's more, even when the gunman is shown ...
The Semai subsist on the cultivation on mountain rice, maize, and millet. However some of the Semai people, who are relatively adapted to the Malay society, live even lower down the mountains, cultivating wet rice as well as mountain rice. When rice becomes scarce the Semai use roasted or boiled tapioca root as a substitute. This culture is in fact “shifting cultivators”, meaning they consume one area through crop cultivation for about 1-2 years, before moving on to fresh land to cultivate.
The forest are much more than just trees to the Semai culture, they provide all the necessities for their continual survival, food, medicines, clothing, and fuel. It is also the resting place of their ancestors and a place for the children to learn and go to school. The Semai have cultivated over 38 different fruit trees, and most reliable source of food at least 51 different vegetables. They also use an assortment of roots and leaves, bark extracts, and juices for their health function and to formulate medicines. The Semai has also gained much knowledge of the medicinal properties of more than 35 different plants, through clever examination from generation after generation.
Not only does the Semai have material dependency on the land, but they share a spiritual relationship with it as well. It gives their whole existence meaning, to their whole being. The land consists of the Semai history, their identity, and their likelihood of independence. When a ceremony is held “a kubug”, an essential component of their spirituality and worldview, at least 45 different types of leaves that are collected and arranged, used or burnt. The land is to be treated with utmost respect and kept in balance. Catastrophe can result for the Semai people and their environment if this balance is disrupted.
The Semai also make everyday tools such as fish and animal traps, blowpipes, and musical instruments. The two most common forest products used to create these tools were bamboo and “mengkuang”; they used bark to make clothing and formed musical instruments like “seruling hidung” or nose flutes. They also used “seruling belapis” as well as bangles, bags and combs. They also created bamboo rafts or “rakit buluh” for catching crabs, fish, birds and even mice.
Cultural values, beliefs, and traditions significantly affect family life. Cultures are more than language, dress, and food customs. Cultural groups may share race, ethnicity, or nationality, but they also arise from cleavages of generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability and disability, political and religious affiliation, language, and gender -- to name only a few. Two things ...
Hunting is done with poisonous darts, which are shot from the blowpipes that is the foundation to great pride among the Semai men. They decorate the blowpipes, and care for them by polishing them. They spend more time creating the perfect blowpipe than they do building a house. The blowpipes are symbol of virility for the Semai males.
Taking a look into the belief systems of the Semai, they do not beat on their wives, or strike their children. Many of the Semai prefer to be Christians, are very nurturing and dependent and consider aggressive behavior a contradiction of their values. They believe unreceptive forces that are both natural and supernatural surround them. In Clayton Robarchek’s journal, Conflict, Emotion, and Abreaction: Resolution of Conflict among the Semai Senoi.” Clayton from his own observations from spending fourteen months in two Semai settlements, found Semai social life remarkably free of impersonal violence or overt expressions of hostility. (Robarchek, Clayton pg. 105) Conflict does occur within the Semai culture on rare occasions, which is normal as with any human society. Neighbors slander someone, a husband cheats or vice versa, and individual’s spirits can get crushed because of what another says. Similar to our own American culture, Clayton also describes the Semai view of the world as a threatening and unpredictable place.
The Semai use a generic term, for any kind of open dispute as hal; meaning a case or a matter, and is equivalent to our English word “affair”, but the Semai at all costs try to avoid such confrontations, thus tolerating exasperation and sacrificing personal interests. This cultures main thought process is to avoid conflicts whenever possible, because doing so threatens the very foundation of personal security.
Clayton gave an example of this kind of incident that occurred during his fieldwork. (Robarchek, Clayton pg. 106) The durian trees are a major source of income for the Semai in this particular area. Everyday the owner of the trees must collect ripen fruit that has fallen on the ground to collect and sale. Occasionally fruit would be stolen in the middle of the night. When the headsman discovered his durian was being taken he built a temporary hut in the forest to keep watch. He informed everyone in the hamlet about his plans, because as you can see his intentions were not to catch the thief, but to stop the thief so that their relations were not disrupted, thus avoiding hal.
In Ed O. G's, Be a father to your child, the author is giving directions of what men who have children and are not actively participating in their children's life what steps they should take to not just have a child but be a good father that their children can depend upon. The poem, y Ed O. G. describes his frustration that he has toward men who are not taking an active role in the lives of the ...
There are incidents whereas conflicts cannot be settled or avoided, because the issues are too difficult to handle, and only a public airing of the situation will be able to determine the outcome of the hal. Much like our American culture, a situation like this is brought to “trial” for the disputants and their respective cognatic kinship witnesses, for a debate of the entire affair, and a bcaraa is arranged. The bcaraa begins mid evening at the headman’s house. The wife of the headsman places banana leaves on the ground piles them with manioc or rice. For about an hour, tobacco is exchanged between the co-villagers while in conversation amongst each other. Anyone not taking part of the bcaraa, such as women and children, sit around cooking fires listening to the discussion, or quietly talking amongst themselves.
The bcaraa is a time consuming and exhausting tribulation that disrupts the Semai’s already planned activities for the day and everyone involved. Anyone who brings a witness involving him or her in the hal, may put strains on their relations with the kinsmen as with his or her opponents. The disputants can also expect to be reprimanded by their own witness for any fault that he may be found to have in the confrontation.
The Semai, have no separate rank or ideals for men versus women. The men and women of this culture are egalitarian, and while polygny is permitted in this culture its infrequent. The descent in the Semai culture are bilateral, which means both the mother’s side and father’s side are equally important for emotional ties or for transfer of wealth and property. Socialization in this society is generous and the children relationship with both parents are warm and affectionate as both the father and mother share equal time caring for them. (Robarchek, Clayton 1979)
Comparing the Semai culture with another, for example, the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, both gender relations are very different. In the Yanomamo culture if a man returns home from hunting, no matter what his wife was doing by that time, she must drop everything and greet her husband and have a meal prepared for him.
When you are a child, who takes care of you? Now, the cost of living is so high that many people under age twenty-five are moving back in with their parents. Young people are getting married later now than they used to. The average age for a woman to get married is about twenty-four, and for a man twenty-six. Newly married couples often postpone having children while they are establishing careers. ...
If she does not do so, or if her actions are too slow, the man as the right to beat her, even cut her with a blade, or shoots her with an arrow in some nonvital area, such as the inner thigh, or legs. In a Semai culture however, as mentioned above, they are afraid of violence, and tries to prevent controversy at all costs. The Semai men would never strike a woman. Robert Denton, a cultural anthropologist, reported that when a female of this culture, refuses the requests of the male; the insulted man goes into an emotional grief and annoyance. (Denton, Robert 2008) The man’s heart becomes sad, and he loses his energy and sleep dreaming of his lost love.
A traditional wedding ceremony for the Semai is a village affair where everyone participates by hunting and collecting the food for the celebration. Invited guests start trekking the jungles 2-3 days in advance so that they make the wedding on time. The Tk Batin or the chieftain blesses the couple. Instead of a wedding gift, the Semai consider just showing up for the wedding is considered honorable, and is a gift to the couple all its own. The Semai usually marries young. (Silverberg J. 1992)
Semai women main responsibility is to care for the children and maintain the household chores. They spend their time weaving baskets, mats, gathering food from the jungle, helping on the field, and fishing. The women do most of the cooking as the men usually take the role in the healing ceremonies and village councils. Although the women main job was to take care of the household, men are known to take care of the children as well, and do housework.
The Semai compare themselves to the cultures on the outside of their world. People not within their culture are known to strike a child, if a child misbehaves or is disruptive in the home. According to Denton, The Semai culture look down upon this, asking, “How would you feel if that child died?” The word hitting translating in the Malay tongue is the same word as “kill”. Parents of this culture are not to force their will upon their children, and if a child does not want to do what the parent is asking, the parent allows the child to do what he or she feels is best. The child at an early age is taught the concept of “bood”, in other words “I don’t feel like doing that!”
It can be argued that culture provides the foundation for persuasive forms of learning for young children. For proof, one doesn’t have to look any further than down the aisle of the children’s section of their local video store. What you will find are numerous animated titles, many of them Disney films. Most people unconditionally accept that these movies are good for children, that ...
To go against the will of a child is “punan” or taboo. Trying to make someone do something that is against his or her will is unacceptable behavior in the Semai culture. Ironically, not actively teaching their children, or allowing Semai children to have their own way, does not invite aggression or unhealthy actions into the child’s lives, because there is no belligerent role model to copy such behavior. (Denton, Robert 2008)
Even as infants the Semai pampered them, and since babies cannot talk, the Semai believed there was no sense in punishing them. Everyone cuddles, carries, and plays with the child. If the child cries anyone is to comfort that child, pick that child up rock him or her until the child feels content. The child is even to sleep between both parents so that if the child becomes uncomfortable or wakes up upset in the middle of the night, one parent is there to attend to him or her.
If a child’s behavior is too difficult to manage, the Semai considers the child inherently “naught” and use fear tactics to control them. In rare cases a parent will shout to a child or even threatens to strike the child only freezing within seconds of the target and the most the child will feel is a tiny tap. Another form of scare tactic would be a parent would instill fear for the outside world or non-Semai people, shouting “Fear the pale people they are going to eat you if you do not behave.” (Denton, Robert 2008)
According to Dentan’s studies of the Semai, the children between the ages of 2 to 10 are taught a game where they use long sticks and position in dramatic postures with each other swinging the sticks. (Denton, Robert 2008) When the sticks gets to be about a couple inches away from the target, the child is to freeze, thus repeatedly rehearsing their rule to refrain from violence. The Semai culture has a low tolerance for aggression in their children although they do not punish them for it. By the time the children become adults they are expected to follow the ways of their culture, the self-image of nonviolence.
Although the Semai’s non-violent way of leaving seems like a dream come true, most anthropologists believe there way of living may have a flaw within the system. Since the Semai has no court system, no jail, no bureaucracy, no one can command another person to do something against his or her will, there is no system of authority. When the Semai do come in contact with people on the outside of their world, they lose competition. They are also considered lazy and timid by other cultures.
Carlos Alberto Montaner The author explains that Latin America can’t manage to achieve an economic and social development because of the elite who leads the countries. The author focuses his article on the politicians, the intellectuals, the left, the military, the businessmen and the clergy. They are leader groups who do not participate to the development of the country. But the author adds also ...
Taking a look into our own American culture, maybe the Semai’s way of life has more farness and justice. In my opinion if we considered adopting some of their rules, our society may not contain so much of the crime we have today. The Semai fear war, they compare striking anyone the same as killing them, and commanding anyone to do something against that persons will is immoral. As far as parents in our American culture, it is said by psychologists that it is the failure of our society to understand and acknowledge a child’s impulsive behavior or expressions of that child’s ideas or thoughts that leads to weakness and discrimination that can overflow into criminal behavior. A parent only concern is making rules to impose their way of life, or will onto their children, receiving back from that child, mirrors of their own thoughts, and attitudes.
In conclusion, we can see how the Semai have two primary moral values: avoiding violence and sharing food. Even though the Semai’s traditional methods of conflict resolution have remained strong, influences from the outside world has already had a great impact on the non-confrontational culture. Although there are tremendous difference in the behaviors, and beliefs between both the American culture and the Semai, we can see by reading throughout this research that no culture in any part of the world is completely immune to conflicts. A very familiar quote by Robert Conklin said, “It’s not the situation, it’s your reaction to the situation that matters.” This quote gives a better clearing of how the Semai’s thought process is in regards to conflicts. We can see that we may not just be so different from the Semai’s culture.
Grey, P., & Silverberg, J. (1992) Aggression and Peacefulness in Humans and Other Primates. Retrieved from pg 192-205.
Robert Knox Denton (2008).
Overwhelming terror: love, fear, peace, and violence among Semai of Malaysia. Retrieved from Chapter 7 pg. 177
Robert Knox Denton (1997).
Malaysa and the Original People. Retrieved from pg. 113
Robarchek, C. A. (1977), frustration, aggression, and the nonviolent Semai. American Ethnologist, 4: 762–779.
Robarchek, C. A. and Dentan, R. K. (1987), Blood Drunkenness and the Bloodthirsty Semai: Unmaking Another Anthropological Myth. American Anthropologist.
Fix, A. G. (1975), Fission-fusion and lineal effect: Aspects of the population structure of the Semai Senoi of Malaysia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Robarchek, C. A. (1979), Conflict, Emotion, and Abreaction: Resolution of Conflict among the Semai Senoi..