This article outlines three historical transitions in Kachin chieftaincy in Burma and China. Picking up where the three main theoretical models in the literature leave off (the models of Leach, Nugent and Friedman), we put forward an analysis of Kachin sociopolitical organization using new China-based material. We compare this with Burma-based material in the literature, and re-analyse the interactions between the internal dynamics of Kachin chieftaincy and the politico-economic systems in Southwestern China and Northern Burma. We argue that Kachin chieftaincy in Burma and in China shared the same logic, although this logic was manifested differently in the two countries. We offer new material for understanding the lowland polities and upland chieftaincy in Southwestern China and mainland Southeast Asia.