Bai woman playing yueqin The Bai have traditionally lived villages clustered around Erlai Lake and on the Dali Plain. in two-story, mud-brink, tile-roof, U-shaped houses, surrounded by a courtyard. Typically the family lived on the top floor and the bottom floor was used for storage. Some lived in the mountains in thatch-roof homes made with wood and bamboo.
Bai villages near Dali are famous for their unique homes and pagodas. The houses have grey brick walls, tiled roof houses and beams decorated with paintings of birds, flowers and mountains. The towers in the villages have roofs with upturned eaves.
Work has traditionally been divided equally among men and women with men doing the heavy work and women selling stuff in the markets. Women were known for their ability to carry heavy loads for long distances.
The Bai people enjoy eating raw meat. Marco Polo wrote that people of Yunnan ate raw flesh of sheep, oxen, water buffalo and fowl raw "as well as they do the cooked." Often before a feast the meat is sent to a health clinic to make sure it safe. In Dali some people keep parrots as pets and use falcons for hunting.
Singing and dancing are featured in festivals and religious ceremonies. Temples have traditionally hosted dramas with Buddhist themes. In the imperial era, the Bais were famous for their lacquerware and carved furniture. At one many Chinese palace carpenters were Bai. Today, the Bai produce marble, wonderful embroidery and blue and white-dyed cloth for sale to tourists.
Village life revolves around nuclear families and families with different names are bound together by their village not a common ancestor. Before 1949, Bai society was divided into landless peasants, peasants, artisans, wealthy peasants who lived in the cities, merchants and landlords. Village elders were respected and women had fairly equal status with men. Under the Communists, the wealthy were stigmatized but since the economic reforms in 1970 socioeconomic classes have reemerged.
The Bai have traditionally settled disputes among themselves with the guidance of village elders rather through the Chinese judicial system. Punishments often varied depending on whether the victim was a relative or not. For example, the murder of relative might be punished with death while that of a stranger would not. Most disputes involved water rights and couples wishing to get out of arranged marriages.
Drug addiction has become a problem with the Bai and other ethnic groups in Yunnan. Yunnan is a stop on Golden Triangle drug smuggling routes.
Bai Marriage and Family
Arranged marriages--- with children betrothed while they were infants and wed when they were teenagers---was the norm in many Bai areas until the early 20th century. A bride price and dowry were exchanged. Cousins were allowed to marry; wives usually kept their maiden name; and marriage was mostly monogamous except among wealthy landowners. The ease in getting a divorces varied.
During weddings, houses are festooned with pine garlands, neighbors are invited, four hogs are slaughtered and a big feast of raw pork is served up. Couples that are in love and want to escape their arranged marriage can stage a face-saving elopement in which the couple would be chased by the bride’s male relatives who have no intention of catching them while a financial settlement is worked between families involved in the arranged marriage.
Sons sometimes lived with their parents but could establish households on their own. If a couple didn’t have a son they could adopt a son from a relative or a stranger or could have a son-in-law look after them in old age. Inheritance was divided among sons. Son-in-laws could become eligible if they changed their name. Bai children are given a lot of attention when they are young. Families often make toys for them. Girls are encouraged to go to school as well as boys.
According to the Chinese government’s Marxist view: “Monogamous families have been the basic social cells of the Bais, with a very few people who practiced polygamy. Parents live with their unmarried children, but only in big landlord families did four generations live together. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, matches between young men and young women of the same surname or clan were not permitted, while marriages between cousins were encouraged, and were arranged by the parents. High bride prices caused many poor families to fall into debt. Women were discriminated against, and only men had the right to inherit family property. But all such feudal practices and customs have been fading away since 1949. Young people now enjoy the freedom to choose their lovers.” [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Bai Customs and Taboos
According to Chinatravel.com: “The Bai people are very hospitable. Guests are well-received and well-treated. The well-known Sandao tea ceremony is a good example of the ritual of the Bai when they receive and entertain guests. Normally, locals offer only a half cup of tea but a full cup of wine to a guest because they believe this shows respect. They don't force guests to drink the wine, and guests may drink as much as they like. When warmly received, guests should say "thank you" to their host. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
“It is tradition for the Bai people to honor their elderly. Young people always take the initiative to greet old people, to say hello to them, to give them their seats, and to offer them tea and cigarettes. The first cup of tea for the day is given to the most senior member in a family. He always takes up the seat of honor at the dining table and is the first to eat. Young people are not allowed to speak badly in front of old people, and it is impolite for young people to cross their legs when sitting in the presence of old people. \=/
“The fireplace in a home is sacred and people are not allowed to spit at it or walk over it. It is also taboo to sit on the threshold of a house. Women should avoid walking over the tools that men use. And people in mourning are not allowed to enter other people's houses. On New Year's Day on the Chinese lunar calendar, using a knife, carrying water home, and sweeping the floor are taboo. On New Year's eve, people should return borrowed items and retrieve items they lent to others; otherwise, they will have bad luck and a poor harvest in the coming year. The seventh day of the New Year is women's day and on that day, women do not cook, carry water, or do other housework. Instead, they relax, play, and enjoy themselves. The ninth day of the New Year is men's day and on this day, men relax and rest. In Yuanlong County, on the 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, people are not allowed to visit others' homes. \=/
Bai civilian architecture varies from region to region. In flat lands, houses are generally have timber frames but are constructed with bricks. In frigid mountain areas, however, most houses are "Duomufang"-houses constructed by laying logs into walls. One feature of Bai architecture is that the buildings have a graceful and refined curving roofs with a tall and sharp peak and two upturned ends. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Adapted to the geographical features of the area, civilian buildings generally have backs oriented towards Blue Mountain and their fronts facing Erhai Lake. Winds are strong there, so eaves are covered with bluestones to prevent wind from damaging them or blowing them off. There are no windows on the front wall, which creates privacy within the building. The eaves are large because of the rainy weather. Earthquakes frequently take place in Dali; therefore the quakeproof measures are very strict. The timber frames of Bai building are integrated structures with every part solidly constructed. ~
Many civilian building walls in Dali are built by laying rectangular stones together. These walls are very solid and durable. Some others are even built with pebbles in the Eighteen Brooks of the Blue Mountain. There is a byword among the local people that "as one of the three treasures in Dali, pebbles make walls that never collapse." ~
See Dali Towers, Houses
Most Bai houses have a courtyard. The house itself is usually composed of two floors: the upper one for storing grain and other stuff, the lower one serving as the residence. Some houses have a front corridor and eaves with double layers. In most cases, the front wall is a wooden structure with an engraved door and windows. Bai houses generally have a symmetrical shape and elegant appearance, with beautiful arches, upturned eaves and angles. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
The "three houses with one front wall" building style is favored by many of the Bai people. The most common styles of overall arrangement include: "one main house with two more cottages," "three houses with one front wall," and "four houses with five patios". "One main house with two more cottages" consists of a two-storied house with a cottage on each side; the "three houses with one more wall" style is a combination of three double-storied houses with one more wall on the other side where the main door or gate is positioned; a "four houses and five patios" building has four double-storied houses in a square shape, a big patio in the center and a small patio and a pavilion in each corner. ~
The bases of Bai houses are usually constructed of square stones that give the structure a stable and solid footing. The gate or front door is often decorated with engravings and colorful paintings. The door of the main room consists of six lattices. Each lattice has an upper part and a lower part, both engraved with various lively patterns of legendary characters, birds and beasts, and flowers. The gate is often constructed with materials such as timber, clay, marble or blue bricks. ~
Walls are usually painted with slaked lime. Inside the patio, parterres are laid to plant flowers and trees. The front wall has upturned eaves, which are decorated with bricks on the brim. Covered with blue or glazed tiles, the roof is symmetrical and looks very graceful. The middle part of the front wall is painted white, on which Chinese characters like "Wan Zi Qian Hong"(thousands of red and violet flowers blooming in spring), "Cai Yun Nan Xian" (colorful clouds appearing in the South), "Nong Feng Cheng Xiang" (A dragon and a phoenix present a good omen), "Fu Shou An Kang" (fortune, longevity and good health) are written to show their wish for good blessings. Some times, single Chinese characters like "Fu (fortune)", "Shou (longevity) ," "Lu (richness)," "Xi (happiness)" are also favored on these occasions. People may paint or write their poems or prose on the front wall as well. ~
Types of Bai Houses
Bai houses fall into three categories, according to the material, decorations, and furnishings: 1) bamboo sawali house and thatched cottage, 2) wooden house, and 3) house with tiled roof. These divisions reflect different economic levels and the different geographical environments. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
1) A bamboo sawali house is usually built on the slope of a hill or mountain. It has two stories; the lower story is about 1.5 meters tall and the upper story is 2.5 meters tall. The lower one stores livestock while people live in the upper. The floor of the upper story is wooden and the walls are made of bamboo sawali. The house is about 10 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. The upper story is usually divided into two small rooms and one big room using bamboo sawali walls. One of the small rooms is a bedroom for children or the youngest son and his wife. The other small room is to store farming tools and utensils. The big room serves as the sitting room, the kitchen, and the bedroom for the elderly, or the host and hostess. \=/
People build a thatched cottage with wooden pillars and beams of about 8 to 15 centimeters in diameter. The cottage is enclosed with walls of branches, bamboo sawalis, or maize stalks. The roof is covered with thatches. The cottage measures 8 to 15 square meters in area. It has only one room. A fire pit is at the center of the room. Beside the fire pit, boards are put on the floor for a bed. People lay cabinets, back baskets, barrels, knives, and hoes at the corners of the room. Bamboo sawali houses and thatched cottages are mainly found in the areas in Nujiang Prefecture inhabited by the Bai. \=/
2) Wooden house: The Bai in Eryuan County, Yunlong County, Lanping County, and Weixi County live in wooden houses. People build the houses with pine trunks of about 10 to 15 centimeters in diameter. They make the pine trunks square in cross-section and then lay one pine trunk on another to set up the walls. However, the material for the roof is different, and uses boards or thatches. Some wooden houses have only one room. This type of house measures 4.5 meters long, 3.9 meter wide, and 2.5 meters high. It is for a couple and their children under seven years old. Children over seven years of age live in another wooden house or with their grandparents. A fire pit used for cooking is found in the center of the house. \=/
3) House with tiled roof: The typical house with a tiled roof has two stories. Each story has three rooms. The ground floor has two bedrooms and one sitting room. In front of the house is a courtyard and steps leading to the sitting room. On the second floor is one storeroom, and probably another bedroom. A memorial tablet is usually placed against a wall where the family holds memorial ceremonies for their ancestors. Houses with tiled roofs are found in Dali, Kunming, Lijiang, and Yuanjiang. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Bai Food and “Milk Fans”
Bai enjoy fresh vegetables and pickles. Women are good at making a variety of pickles. They are also experts at making sauces, such as broad bean sauce, lobster sauce, and flour sauce. The people in Jiangchuan and Heqing cook different dishes with edible seaweed picked from Erhai Lake. Pork is the main meat of the Bai diet. The Bai prepare different dishes with it and enjoy ham, sausage, banger, smoked pig liver, and smoked pig intestines. During winter, people enjoy beef soup with radishes, turnips, and shallots. People living near a river or a lake are good at cooking fish. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
"Milk fan" is a traditional solid dairy product peculiar to the Bai nationality. It is mainly produced in Dengchuan of Eyuan County and has the shape of a fan. So, it is named "milk fan" or "Dengchuan milk fan." Although unique, milk fan is not complicated to make: 1) first ferment milk into acidophilus milk (tangy, slightly thick milk that is fermented with certain bacteria) and heat to a temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Celsius; 2) then add some fresh milk and stir it with a wooden spoon. 3) The acidophilus milk and the fresh milk flocculate and then agglomerate. Take the agglomerate out, knead it and then pull it into a thin piece that is about 20 centimeters long and 8 centimeters wide. 4) Last, pull the two ends of the piece a little thinner and longer, and dry it with the two ends rolled around two slender bamboo rods. The distance between the two rods is about 16 to 17 centimeters and there can be more than 10 milks fan drying on them. 5) After drying, the two-layer milk fans can be loosened and then taken off. Milk fan is tasty and rich in fat, protein, lactose and many other nourishing ingredients. Milk fans can be stored for a long time and are portable. The Bai people often entertain their guests with a dish prepared with milk fans, and give it to people as presents. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
There are various ways to cook and prepare milk fans. One way delicious way is to cook eggs with fresh milk and put some milk fans and rock candy in it. This is called "fresh milk, egg, rock candy, milk fans." If you cook eggs with brown sugar and milk fans, you get milk fan poached eggs. Among the common milk fan dishes are "fried milk fan chips," "braised sanxian (three kinds of fresh food) milk fans," "deep-fried milk fans," and "steamed stuffed bun with milk fan inside." Milk fans are sweet when eaten raw, fragrant and spicy when fried, soft and tasteful when cooked, refreshing when steamed, and aromatic when baked with some salt. Whichever cooking method you take, milk fans always have a strong aftertaste. ~
Bai Tea Ceremony: "Three Cups of Tea"
For the Bai, tea is a popular drink. They normally drink tea twice a day, in the early morning and at noon. The tea drunk in the early morning is called "morning tea" or "wakening tea," and is consumed immediately after getting up. The tea drunk at noon is called "relaxing tea" or "thirst-satisfying tea.” People often add some popcorn and milk to their tea. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The Bai tea ceremony, known as "three cups of tea (san dao cha)," is central to the Bai's traditional etiquette for welcoming and entertaining guests. Its history can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. At that time Fan Chuo wrote in a book on ethnic minorities that “barbarians” presumed to be the Bai “gave me a drink, which was a cooked with a mixture of peppercorn, ginger and cassia.” A famous tourist and explorer from Ming dynasty said when he was in the Bai region he was served "first a cup of clear tea, then a cup of salt tea, and last a cup of honey tea." [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
The Bai people are very hospitable. When a guest or visitor comes to a Bai house, the host invites him into the ir main room and serves him "three cups of tea." There are two types of "three cups of tea." One is baked tea, which used to serve ordinary guests. To make baked tea: 1) put selected Dayezi tea (a tea with large leaves) or Xiaguantuo tea into a jar; 2) heat and shake it over a charcoal fire until the tea leaves turn yellow and a pleasant fragrance emanates from it; 3) then pour a small amount of boiled water into the jar. Snow-white tea froths then overflow the jar, producing a rush of tea fragrance that fills the nose. 4) Add a proper amount of boiled water, and then pour it into exquisite teacups to serve the guests.. Due to the noise produced when pouring water into the baked jar, the drink is sometimes called "thundering tea." Since this type of tea is served three times in most cases, people call it "three cups of tea"—"drink the first cup for its fragrance, the second for taste, and the third to quench the thirst." ~
The other sort of "three cups of tea" is served to honored guests. The first cup of tea — "thundering tea" — is made from local bitter tea. The second looks like soup. It is made from brown sugar, milk fan chips, walnuts, chayote, sesame, orange skins, and popcorn. It tastes sweet. The third cup of tea is made by mixing prickly ash, ginger, pine nuts, and Chinese cinnamon with honey and bitter tea. The tea set includes a jar, a porcelain mug, a tray, a copper kettle for making condiments, a small plane, a copper strainer, a spoon, a sugar mug and a condiment tray. The first cup of tea has the symbolic meaning of "To make great achievements, one should not fear hardships." It also shows welcome to the guest. The second cup, the sweet one, means that after all hardships, the sweet will finally come. The third cup is pungent, with a distinct aftertaste. It suggests after going through all kinds of hardships, and enjoying the joys of life, one can recall both bitter and happy experiences. This kind of traditional tea culture is unique to the Bai. This display of the wisdom of life—"bitterness, then sweetness, and last aftertaste”—reflects the beauty of Bai culture. These days tourists in Dali can enjoy the "three cups of tea" with a show of singing and dancing and other activities at a tea party or tea banquet. ~
Bai clothing styles have long history. Historical record describe the Bai weaving a kind of cloth known as "Tonghua” in the A.D. second century. During the Nanzhao Regime and the Dali Kingdom, the Bai created their own clothing styles. Today Bai people is known for its bright and well-matching in colors, delicate and fine embroideries, and plain and simple in style. Bai clothing is usually adorned with camellia flowers because the Bai view these flowers as a symbol of beauty. The Bai enjoy wearing a red scarf on their shoulders and a white outer upper garment, a combination that resembles blooming camellias. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
According to Chinatravel.com: “An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. She also likes to wear an apron with embroideries. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers. The scarf on a girl's head is special and has a special name, "the flower in the wind and the moon on a snowy night." The overall shape of the scarf on a girl’s head is that of a crescent. The upper part of the scarf is as white as snow. The embroideries on the lower part are of flowers. The tail of the scarf falls down naturally on one shoulder, waving to and fro in the wind.” \=/
However, due to different geographical environments, economical conditions and influences of neighboring nationalities, their costumes vary from area to area while retaining some similarities. Women's coats, aprons and trousers in areas like Jianchuan, Eyuan, Lijiang, Yunlong, Heqing, Lanping and Weixi are usually of light-blue, blue or black color. Unmarried girls in Jianchuan usually wear small hats, or hats with silver balls called "Drum-nail Hats" or "Fishtail Hats." Girls in Eyuan also like wearing "Phoenix Hat", but those in Heqing prefer to braid their hair into a single plait and tie it on the head, and then cover it with a kerchief with embroidered patterns of bees and butterflies. Girls in Lijiang often wear several or even more than ten pieces of folded head cloths tied to the hair with headbands of various colors. And the outside piece of cloth has patterns of different colors. In addition, most women in Jianchuan, Eyuan, Heqing have a piece of pure-white sheepskin over their shoulder, which is seen as a symbol of their industry and chastity. In Fushang county of Hunan Province, the Bai people like wearing white clothes and white headscarves, too. And there is a saying among them: "To be beautiful, first to your parents be dutiful.” [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Bai Clothes and the Color White
The Bai people hold white color in high esteem and most of them prefer to wear white clothes, or at least clothes with a lot of white on them. White color is often the grounding which serves as a foil to deep colors like red, blue and black; sometimes, colors such as blue or black also serve as the grounding, which sets off thin and thick white patterns and gives it a dazzling and gorgeous effect. The Bai think that the snow-white tassels of head wrapping represent the blue mountain covered with snow, and blue aprons represent the rippling blue Erhai Lake. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Wearing white is a symbol of filial piety in most cultures of China. The Bai believe that white represents dignity and high social status. Among the Bai people, men generally wear white front-buttoned shirt and white head wrappings and black cloth shoes; and women wear white side-buttoned shirt, blue jacket, embroidered aprons, blue trousers, white leg wrappings, and white headscarves with white embroidered or dyed patterns. This style of clothing, though seemingly simple, is beautiful and graceful, and shows the good and unique aesthetic taste of the Bai people. ~
Among the Bai people that inhabit Dali, men generally wear white front-buttoned shirt with black-collar jacket outside, white or blue trousers, white head wrappings and black cloth shoes. However, many Bai people living in mountain areas wear blue or black head wrappings, too. Women's costumes vary with their living places; the unmarried and the married wear different clothes. In terms of hairstyle, an unmarried girl often braids her hair and makes a bun, which is tied together with a white-tasseled, colored kerchief or towel, and a red headband. Married women generally wear their hair is unbraided, and put on hair clasps and head scarves, which are mostly made of Zharan (a form of beautiful dyeing) cloth, black or blue cloth, or colored towel. ~
Young girls in Dali City generally wear white or light-blue shirts, or red sleeveless jackets, with fuchsia or black velour coats outside. They like wearing white or blue trousers with wide bottoms. There are usually three or nine silver lines as decoration on the right button. They also wear girdles and blue aprons with embroidered flowing tapes. Girls often have embroidered "Baijie(white) Shoes" or "Fengtou (Phoenix head) Shoes." They wear Niusi (intertwined silver threads) silver bracelets or jade bracelets, rings, gold or jade earrings. The costumes of young girls are very gorgeous and beautiful; however, as age increases, their clothing tend to be simpler and deeper in color, though still refined in style. Their sleeves, apron flowing tapes, and headscarves are often decorated with beautifully dyed patterns, stitched flowers, and embroidery. ~
According to Chinatravel.com: “Batik is a ancient art of the Bai. The pattern of the cloth is simple and natural, looks graceful, and yet is not extravagant. People make different garments with the tie-dye cloth. In the past, people used hand-loomed cloth as the basic material. Now they use cloth produced by machines in modern factories. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
“The batik goes through three steps: making knots, dipping and dyeing, and drying in the sun. The first step is to make some knots in a piece of white cloth by sewing and tying according to the requirements of the designed pattern. It is important to tie these knots tightly. Then, dip the cloth into the die vat and leave it there for a certain amount of time. Fish out the cloth and let it dry in the sun. The dyeing and drying process is repeated several times. The next thing people do is put the cloth in clean water to clear off the redundant dye from the cloth. They then take out the stitches and a miracle appears: the tied parts of the cloth that were not affected by the dye form a pattern. The untied part of the cloth turns deep blue and the tied part remains white, creating a piece of beautiful tie-dye cloth. \=/
“With this method of dyeing, people don't know exactly what the cloth will look like. Surprising and unexpected patterns on the cloth usually appear. The main ingredients of the dye are banlangen (a kind of herb) and indigo. Compared with chemical dye, these natural dyes are better at creating natural colors and do not fade easily. The garments made of tie-dye cloth wear more comfortably and don't negatively affect one’s skin. The most well-known production centers for tie-dye cloth are Zhoucheng Township and Xizhou Township in Dali City.” \=/
Bai Culture and Science
Over the centuries, the Bais have created a science and culture of their own. To their credit are inventions and advances in meteorology, astronomy, calendar, architecture, medical science, literature, music, dancing, carving and painting. Among the representative works of the Bai people are Transit Star Catalogue for Time Determination by the Ming Dynasty scholar Zhou Silian, Collection of Secret Prescriptions by Chen Dongtian and Tested Prescriptions by Li Xingwei. These classics recorded and summarized in detail the valuable experience of the Bai people in astronomy and medicine.[Source: China.org china.org *|*]
According to the Chinese government: “The superb architectural skill of the Bai people is represented by the three pagodas at the Chongsheng Temple in Dali. Built during the Tang Dynasty, the 16-storey main tower is 60 meters high and still stands erect after more than 1,000 years. Figurines in the Shibaoshan Grottoes in Jianchuan County are lifelike, possessing both the common features of figure creation in China and the unique features of the Bai artists. The architectural group in the Jizushan Temple, with bow-shaped crossbeams, bracket-inserted columns, and gargoyles representing people, flowers and birds created with the open carving method, shows the excellent workmanship of the Bai people. The Bais also have high attainments in lacquerware. The famous painting depicting the Resurgence of the Nanzhao was created in A.D. 899 by Bai painters Zhang Shun and Wang Fengzong.” *|*
Bai Myths and Literature
Bai literature is one of the richest among China’s ethnic minorities. They have a rich repertory of love tales, historical stories, Buddhist tales, animal myths and fables. The story "Tuchaoxian the hunter" and their heroic fight against a snake that terrifies the world still moves and frightens children in the Bai villages. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]
The most important Bai myth is "Creation of the world". Which is divided into three sections: 1) Primordial times, 2) Creation of the world and 3) Creation of Man. In the primordial times trees and stones could walk; and oxen, horses, pigs and dogs could talk. The earth was flat without lakes and mountains. The world was created by Panggu and Pangsheng, who turned themselves into heaven and earth respectively. The Creation of Man was the work of Guanyin (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) who hide a brother and sister inside a golden drum. They survived a great flood and created human beings. ~
Given the abundance of Bai deities and fact that each one has a history and story that goes with it, the Bai have an abundant, rich and varied body of legends. These are perhaps the most interesting section of the Bai literature. Most of the tales and legends describe the heroic actions of ancient ancestors and historical figures that became gods. In many of legends fantastic stories are mixed with historical ones. ~
Dragons are important part of the folklore of the Bai who live around Erhai Lake. There are hundreds of tales about big and small dragons, the Dragon King, Dragon Princess, and the mother of Dragon King. "Carving a Dragon" is a beautiful story that shows that although the Bai celebrate the Torch Festival like other people in Yunnan, for them it has a different meaning than for other peoples. ~
Some poems by Bai poets have been included in the Complete Poems of Tang Dynasty. The History of the Bais, Anecdotes of Nanzhao and Kingdoms of Southwest China are among the best historical works written by Bai historians. They provide important data for the study of the history of the Erhai area. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Bai Music and Dance
At most Bai festivals the people enjoy themselves singing and dancing. There are many Bai dances, including the Dance of the Stick and the Flower and the Hero's Whip. In one very characteristic Dai dance, dancers bang bamboo tubes filled with coins like tambourine. The Chinese influence on the Bai is manifested in some of their dances. The most popular dance among the Bai is the Lion Dance, which is said to have originated in the time of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Bai opera, known as chuichui, is an art form combining folk music and dancing.
The Bai have hundreds of old songs, One of the oldest is "Tending the sheep", that depicts the introduction of sheep among the Bai, and the relations between the Bai King and the Shu King. They also have many historical songs and poems, many of which date back or refer to the Nanzhao Kingdom (748-925). "History of the Bai", "Anecdotes of Nanzhao", and "Kingdom of the Southwest" are some of the best known ones. "Burning the Torches Hall" tells how Pilouge, the first king and founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom, killed his opponents by pretending to invite them to a banquet. Among some Bai this was a tragic event as their former kings were tricked and killed by Pilouge. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]
Bai Economics and Agriculture
Agriculture was practiced in the Erhai area as early as the Neolithic Age. People then knew how to dig ditches for irrigation. During the Nanzhao Kingdom, they began the cultivation of rice, wheat, broomcorn, millet and several other crops, and built the Cangshan water-conservancy project which could bring water to tens of thousands of hectares of land. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
About 90 percent of Bai are engaged in agriculture. The soil in the Dali area is very fertile. The Bai have traditionally grown rice and wheat in the plains and maze and buckwheat in the mountains. Opium was an important cash from the mid 1850s until it was outlawed in the 1930s. Cash crops currently grown include tea, sugar cane, rape, tobacco, cotton, peanuts, flax, walnuts, Chinese chestnuts, pears, oranges and tangerines. Pigs are raised for consumption. Other domesticated animals include oxen, water buffalo, horses, mules, sheep and donkeys. Bai women sell souvenirs to tourists. Some are involved in the drug trade.
Prior to Communist rule, landlords and wealthy peasants owned most of the land. Under the Communists, land was taken over by the state, agriculture was collectivized and light industries in paper, textiles, vegetable-oil processing and other were generated. After 1979, there was movement away from collectivization to a contract system in which farmers cultivated land owned by the state in return for turning over part of their harvest as a kind tax payments.
According to the Chinese government: “Before 1949, the feudal landlord economy was dominant in most Bai areas. Incipient capitalism had developed in a few cities and towns, while vestiges of the primitive communalism and remnants of the slave system were still in existence. About 90 per cent of the people were farmers who possessed only 20 per cent of the arable land. In areas where the lord system prevailed, peasants were all serfs, who owned neither land nor personal freedom. In the communal setup in Bijiang and Fugong areas, class distinctions were not clear. There was land which was tilled collectively and the harvest distributed equally among the people. Private ownership of land also was practiced on a small scale. There were also land sales and leasing. *|*
“Commercial capitalism found its way into some Bai areas at the beginning of the modern times. Trading companies owned by bureaucrat landlords emerged, shipped in commodities such as yarns and cloth from the United States, Britain and France via India, Burma and Vietnam, and exported gold, silver, and farm and sideline produce. The Bai people had staged numerous uprisings against the Qing rulers and foreign imperialists. In one of these uprisings, which took place in the mid-19th century, they set up their own political power, the Dali Administration. The new government adopted measures to promote industrial and agricultural production, reduce land taxation and stamp out discrimination against the various nationalities. *|*
“Democratic reform and socialist transformation proceeded in the Bai areas in much the same way as in the Han inhabited areas, but the reforms were carried out in a more gradual manner in those areas with vestiges of pre-capitalist economic organization. Cooperatives were set up to boost production on the basis of abolishing class exploitation and the remnants of primitive communalism.” *|*
Image Sources: Joho maps, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html, CNTO, Wiki Commons
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2015