The origin of the name, “Karen”

The story of Karen people is about stories of Karen families. The beginning of Karen started with a family, increased in numbers which expanded to clans. Then, they emulated to become tribes and finally emerged as a race.

A father Saw Pa S’gaw and a mother Nan Pa Oh of a Karen family had seven children, three girls and four boys who were respectively named, Naw Pa Det, Naw Bawklaw, Naw Pa Ah, Saw Paku, Saw Maw Nay Bwa, Saw Way Wao and Saw Chien. One day, the couple quarreled and reached a stage of separation. When they decided to separate, the three daughters said that they belonged to their mother and followed her. Likewise, the four sons said that they belonged to their father and they followed him. It was said that the children loved and respected each other very much. The couple realized the importance of keeping the family close but probably had some vision that the adventurous journey ahead would not favor this kind of reservation. They must be prepared to come up against with any changes. So, before the family separated, the couple smashed an earthen pot into seven pieces and gave each to their children. They also instructed their children that even though they were to be scattered in different parts of the world, they will become increased and multiplied in numbers. Whenever they meet in any place, they must match the seven pieces and fit it to become the same pot again. If they succeed in doing so they will become a great nation and they will rule a vast empire which is very rich, prosperous, powerful and peaceful. Their kingdom will stand forever.

As years went by the name Nan Pa Oh changed gradually into Pwo and the descendants from the mother called themselves “Pwo” until this day. The same thing happened to the descendents of the father Saw Pa S’gaw who were now became known as “Sgaw”. When a descendent of Pwo married a descendent of Sgaw, they got a hybrid child and was nicknamed by both sides as “Bwe”. So, a Karen couple of seven children increased and multiplied to become the three main tribes namely Sgaw, Pwo and Bwe. Their long history of migration into different countries with varieties of landscape and their encounter with various tribes made them customized with much of the changes. Therefore, many sub-tribes branched from the three main tribes. Currently, it is known that Sgaw has four sub-tribes, Pwo has ten sub-tribes and Bwe has twelve sub-tribes.

The Chinese called this large race that co-inhabited the land with them since the beginning, “Ping Sing” and as years went by the name changed to “T’Chien” which sounded in the Burmese ear “Kayin”. When the British ruled the land, they called them “Karen”.

Tibet-Yunnan (1388-1128 B.C)

The Karens left Tibet in 1388 B.C, covered a distance of more than 2,000 Kilometers in 3 years of duration. They moved eastward to the valleys and plains of China’s Yunnan Province and settled down in many places.
Prior to this event, many hundred years earlier, the Karen families who were left behind in Mongolia and Lop Nor had already migrated into China and scattered in many parts of the Land. Before the actual founding of the first Chinese dynasty, the Karen families of much diversity were already there. There is no doubt that ancient Chinese history was a compilation of legends and legacies which belonged to different ethnics of the land. Learning the history of China will help the Karens to know more about their ancestors.

"Examining into antiquity we find that Emperor Yao was called Fang-hsun. He was reverent, intelligent, accomplished, sincere and mild. He was sincerely respectful and capable of modesty. His light covered the four extremities of the empire and extended to heaven above and the earth below. He was able to make bright his great virtue, and bring affection to the nine branches of the family. When the nine branches of the family had become harmonious, he distinguished and honored the hundred clans. When the hundred clans had become illustrious, he harmonized the myriad states. The numerous people were amply nourished and prosperous and became harmonious…. [As he grew older Yao searched for a successor from among all his subjects, and found Shun the best qualified].

The emperor said: “Come you, Shun, in the affairs on which you have been consulted, I have examined your words; your words have been accomplished and capable of yielding fine results for three years; do you ascend to the imperial throne.” Shun considered himself inferior in virtue and was not pleased. But in the first month, the first day, he accepted the abdication of Yao in the Temple of the Accomplished Ancestor."

Until the twentieth century, Chinese were taught that kings Yao and Shun were historic figures who reigned around 2200 B.C. They were revered for their sincerely, reverence, and unselfishness and for the “Golden age” that their reigns brought to China. Later rulers were exhorted to emulate them. Since there is no proof that they existed. We can regard them only as culture heroes.

The first dynasty, the Hsia began in 2200-1766 B.C and not much is known about the Hsia kings except for the last, who was a tyrant. He was overthrown by a subordinate named T’ang the Successful, who founded the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C). So, the Shang dynasty consolidated much of the inhabitants of the land into becoming the first unified Chinese historical kingdom.

The Shang dynasty had a record of 31 kings who ruled China for duration of nearly 700 years. The Shang kings fought many battles with different ethnics of the country that led to absorption of many minorities.

Therefore some Karens comprised of 99 families left Yunnan in 1128 B.C and moved south to a new land.