Profile Source: Copyright © Operation China, Paul Hattaway
Although the Ben are a distinct people group, since the 1950s they have been officially counted as part of the Wa nationality. The Ben are not happy with this classification and unsuccessfully applied to be recognized as a distinct minority. Missionary John Kuhn was the first to document the existence of the Ben in 1945, describing them as "a Burmese tribe." The Ethnologue describes the Ben as an unidentified group living near the Achang. Another scholar lists the Ben as one of many small groups in China "which need further investigation." The name Ben may simply mean "indigenous people."
The Ben are one of several fragments of the original Mon-Khmer group many centuries ago. One author notes, "The Austro- Asiatics, including the Wa and Palaung [De'ang], spread over Yunnan before the arrival of the Dai and Yi. They were driven out of their original habitat by invaders, dispersed and split into the isolated groups which they are today." Originally the forests where the Ben live were occupied by bears, deer, and wild pigs, but they have now been largely hunted to extinction. Today most Ben grow rice and vegetables.
The Ben live in a region abundant with natural resources such as coal, copper, iron, lead, and graphite. Young Ben men and women are free to choose their own partners. After the sun sets, a young man will go to the home of the young woman he desires and play musical instruments to win her favor. A few generations ago marriages were arranged by parents, which often led to misery for Ben youngsters. The Ben knew little of hygiene until recently. In 1956 bars of soap were first sold in the district. Many dissatisfied customers returned to the shop demanding a refund, complaining about the soap's awful taste!
The Ben are animists, although they also have traces of Theravada Buddhism from the influence of neighboring groups. Ben funerals are scheduled on Buddhist holy days. The funeral procession is headed by a Buddhist monk who walks at the front of the people and holds a long piece of white cloth tied to the coffin. The Ben believe the monk is leading the soul of the dead person into the next life.
There are no known Christians or churches among the Ben; however, many of the neighboring Wa have converted to Christianity. The Ben who, though numerically small, are an unreached people in desperate need of Christ.