DAI MINORITY CULTURE: CLOTHES, ART AND DANCE

DAI CULTURE

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Dai dance
The Dai have a rich, colorful culture. They have their own calendar, which started in 638 A.D. There are books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Dai historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering poetry, legends, stories, fables and children's tales. They love to sing and dance, accompanied by their native musical instruments. [Source: China.org china.org |]

The Dai have a strong cultural identity and take great pride in their rich and colorful culture. They have their own calendar, their own books in Dai script used for calculating solar and lunar eclipses, and literary and historical documents that includes poetry and fables and ancient stories and legends. Bai Yue culture—whose name today has been shortened to Bai Ye to distinguish it from the original anthropological culture of the ancient Bai folk—is an expression of Dai pride and has been at the forefront of social development as the Dai first organized themselves into communities within China. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Dai literature is rich in poetry and folk tales. The poetry is sung and improvised. Famous folk tales include the story of the Peacock Princess, based an old Hindu drama. Dai mural painting and sculpture often deal with Buddhist themes. Elephants and peacocks represent good fortune for the Dai. Peacocks are glorified in dances. Only the chief of the Dai can ride an elephant when he gets married.

Bei Ye Culture is a general term for the social and cultural history of the Dai people. Bai Ye cultural artifacts and traditions include original scripture etched onto the leaves of the pattra tree (a tropical plant native to the Dai homelands), Dai scripture copied onto cotton paper, and "song" (chant) the books, as well as a multitude of lesser cultural traditions that are handed down generation after generation. In these terms every Dai person is a walking storehouse of Dai culture. \=/

Bei Ye scriptures on the leaves of the patta tree are called "Tanlan" in the language of the Dai, while those made on cotton are called "Bogalesha". Bei Ye culture has developed over time from its origins as a collection of early ethnic and religious practices that have been combined with the influences of neighboring cultures, primarily the Han Chinese culture, but also Indian Buddhist culture (the Dai practice a form of Buddhism that differs from the Chinese-influenced Indian Buddhism of the mainstream Han Chinese). Though they live in separate countries, and in some cases many kilometers apart, the Dai of China, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Myanmar, and the Thai of Thailand all have evolved from the same root—which is known as Bai Ye culture in China. \=/

Dai Clothes

Men and women wear straight sarongs. Women sometimes wear long sarongs that drag along the ground with an upper part that folds into a lose-fitting waist. One Dai group is known as the “Flower Waist Dai” after the colorful hanging belts worn by women. The women also wear a mortarboard-like head dress. Other Dai women wear short colorful blouses, long tight-fitting skirts or printed sarongs with a silver belt and towel turban or straw hat.

Traditionally, Dai men wore collarless, tight-sleeved short jackets with the opening down the front or along the right side, and long, baggy pants. Many men still wear this today. In winter, Dai men drape a blanket over their shoulders in lieu of a coat. For headgear some Dai man wear a black, white, or blue turban.

Dai women are known throughout Southeast Asia for their beauty. Traditionally, women wore tight-sleeved short dresses and sarongs, suited their slim but shapely figures. Dai women's clothing, particularly in the Xishuangbanna region, comes in a wide variety of styles and colors. Undergarments are typically light shades such as white, light green, sky-blue or pink. Over this is worn a jewel-collared short-waisted shirt that rides above the hips, exposing part of the lower back. It either buttons down the front, or on the right side, and has long, tight-fitting sleeves. The skirt, or sarong, is tight-fitting as well, and is quite long, reaching, in some cases, almost to the ground. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

It is not uncommon for a Dai woman to wear a silk girdle around her waist, and to wind her long, beautiful hair into an elegant bun, fixed with a shapely comb, atop her head. Younger Dai women decorate their hair with flowers, while older Dai women typically wear a hat, often made of bamboo straw. A woman's personal jewelry includes silver earrings, necklaces, waistbands, bracelets, and bejeweled coronets. Some Dai women also wear jewelry made of jade, agate and colored glass. \=/

Dai Tattoos and Black Teeth

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Dai tattoo

Dai men are often heavily tattooed with images of elephants and tigers and messages in curly Dai script. "Tattoos identify you as being Dai," one Dai man told National Geographic. Marco Polo noted the custom when he visited the area. He wrote that tattoos were applied using "five needles joined together...they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff."

Many people have thought the blue-black lace pattern tattoos that Dai men have on their thighs was a custom that dated back hundreds of years but one 77-year-old man told the New York Times, "During the anti-Japanese war, we all got tattoos to show that we are of the Dai people and not Han Chinese so the Japanese would not kill us." One man told the New York Times, "I got the this tattoo in 1944 because all the other people did and, besides, it looks pretty nice." A younger man said. "When we saw it on the old people, we thought it was very handsome so we got it also."

Tattooing was common among Dai men. Traditionally, when a boy reached the age of 11 or 12, a tattoo artist was invited to tattoo his body and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns or the Dai written script. Tattooing is achieved by first drawing the relevant patterns on the skin with colored dye, then the patterns are pricked with a fine needle which will allow the dye to sink into the skin. After a period of time (the curing period), the pattern is then permanent. The most propitious time of the year for tattooing is during the Dragon Boat Festival. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

According to legend Dai tattooing originated a long time ago the Dai people were still in search of a suitable homeland. They lived as water nomads, moving along rivers in search of their staple food at the time, fish. On one river, the Dai encountered a very hostile dragon that attacked anything with a dark yellowish color, including humans. In an attempt to deceive this fierce dragon, the Dai painted their skin in the colors like black that the dragon wouldn’t attack. Unfortunately, when the Dai entered the river to fish or bathe, the colors washed off skin and clothing, and the dragon renewed its attacks. A clever shaman figured out how to make the body paint permanent by applying pigment in pricked the skin, thus giving birth to Dai tattooing. \=/

The Dai have traditionally inlaid their teeth with gold and blackened them through betel nut chewing. Children often have their teeth capped gold. Marco Polo described people with gold-sheathed teeth as well as tattoos. During the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties, the Dai were often referred to as the "olden Teeth" and "blackened Teeth" peoples, as a result of the Dai tradition of blackening one's teeth by chewing betel nuts. Blackened teeth in women especially was considered a mark of beauty, or at least of modesty, and it was thought betel nut juice prevented cavities. Japanese women also used to blacken their teeth for beauty reasons. \=/

Dai Buddhist Art and Crafts

Dai weavers have produced fine brocades for more than a thousand years. Today the produce beautiful cotton and silk brocades with wooden looms. They used to be famous for silver crafts. Silver jewelry remains popular among women but the stiff is bought at stores. They also make rattan and bamboo crafts and furniture and pottery and elegant water jars.

As Theravada Buddhists, the Dai make Buddha statues that have features in common with other Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Myanmar. Dai Buddha statue are generally made in two styles: 1) a traditional Sakymuni Buddha representation, with "snail-shaped" hair (sometimes flame-shaped or lotus-flower-shaped) and an exposed right shoulder; and 2) a more stately representation of Buddha with a crown, cape, and an arm-guard as well as precious stones decorating the front, or chest area. It is typical for the Dai Buddha to be in a sitting posture with the head making up one-third of the height of the statue. Other, smaller Buddha figures may be in a standing posture, with more natural proportions. In contrast to the Han Chinese Buddha figures, which is generally chubby and smiling, the Dai Buddhs are slimmer, with a more tranquil expression on a more elongated face atop a thin neck that protrudes above broad shoulders and a short upper torso.[Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Dai paper-cutting is a traditional folk art used as decorations in their own right or to design patterns on household articles such as bed linen, bags and hats. The Dai paper-cut motifs are beautiful and intricate, composed of images of grass, trees, insects, animals and humans, all interacting in a harmonious way. Others contain a more specific set of story-telling images relevant to the Dai culture, as well as relevant to more local traditions.

Dai Buddhist temple art included Jin Shui pillar patterns and murals. Jin Shui is a common pillar decoration method involving Dai scripture. The Jin Shui procedure is complicated, but can be summed up in the following steps: 1) the areas of the pillars to be decorated are painted black. 2) Paper-cut images of the scripture's text are then pasted onto the black areas of the pillar, after which the rest of the pillar is painted red. 3) When the red paint dries, the paper-cut images are painted with a golden paint which seeps into the paper and onto the black background behind it, leaving a red pillar with scripture in golden letters of the Dai alphabet, called "Jin Shui".

Mural-making is the most vivid form of folk painting among the Dai. Murals are usually drawn on temple walls in a fluid, panoramic style that typically tells a story. The imagery almost always involves the Buddha and various princes and princesses, as well as impressive members of the animal kingdom such as the white elephant, horses, and deer. Another fixture in the Dai Buddhist temple mural is the Buddhist pagoda set in among bright green trees. The colors of a Dai Buddhist temple mural are in general very bright and richly contrasting.

The Dai satchel, known as "Tong Pa" in the Dai language, displays the practical side of Dai handicrafts. The satchel is used by both men and women for keeping a variety of everyday items such as cigarettes, seeds, sewing items and decorations. Young people use them to keep gifts exchanged with a boyfriend or a girlfriend. The patterns on the satchel are varied, typically with multiple images of animals, with trees and flowers of various types. Sometimes there are geometric shapes. In general, each pattern, color, animal, plant, or geometrical shape a special meaning. For example, red and green signify respect for ancestors, while the image of a peacock signifies good luck. Animage of an elephant signifies a good harvest and a happy life.

Architecture, See Temples and Pagodas Under Religion

Dai Music, Dances and Elephant Foot Drums

The Dai are good at singing and dancing. Their most popular dances are the Peacock Dance, the Lusheng Dance, the Sanxian Dance, the Lion Dance and the Drum Dance. The most important musical instrument in accompanying Dai dances is the so-called elephant-foot drum, which fortunately is made from wood and animal skin not a real elephant foot. It is played by people of all ages, from young children to old folks. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Singing and dancing are featured in festivals and religious ceremonies. Dai dance is graceful and has a wide range of delicate hand, finger and eye movements The body is bent in three curves at all times. The dances themselves deal with three main themes: nature, worship of the peacock and Hinayana Buddhism. The Dai performed an elaborate danced call the Dance of the Hundred Animals until the 1950s. Wearing mask and costumes the dancers mimicked the movements of animals they were representing with the elegant being the central figure. Smaller scale animal dances are still performed in Dai villages.

The elephant-foot drum is very long. It is made of a section of log that has been hollowed out. In the past it was covered with the skin of a python. Now mostly sheepskin is used. The drum is painted in a variety of bright colors, and adorned with the feathers of a peacock - a bird that is especially auspicious in Dai culture, hence the dance of the same name. A stout ribbon serves as a strap that is attached to the drum so that it can be carried by the performing dancer. The performing dancer carries the elephant-foot drum slung over his left shoulder, beating the drum mainly with his right hand, while his left hand helps to steady and/or shift the position of the drum so as to facilitate the playing rhythm. \=/

The legend of the origin of the elephant-foot drum has nothing to do with elephants or feet. In ancient times, the Dai homeland was frequently subjected to severe flooding. The people learned about the presence of an evil dragon nearby that was causing the floods. A brave Dai youth, aided by his fellow villagers, eventually managed to kill the monster, and for the celebrations that followed, a special drum was hollowed out of a log and the hide of the slain dragon was used as the drum's resonating outer skin. The drum’s name is perhaps linked to the fact its sounds like an elephant stomping its foot. \=/

Dai Peacock Dance

The Peacock Dance is the favorite dance of the Dai. It is a very graceful and elegantly performed dance that imitates the stately strutting of the peacock, and is marked by undulations of the waist and the arms. The Peacock Dance is usually performed during Dai New Year celebrations, as well as during certain Buddhist festivals such as the annual Baipala Festival. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

The peacock dance is a graceful folk dance that imitates movement, gait and flight of the bird. Peacocks are holy birds and symbols of luck and happiness. Special emphasis is placed on the tail and wing movements. In the White Peacock Dance, dancers wear white long-sleeve silk chiffon dress with a full skirt with multiple painted peacock eyes trimmed with sequins.

As to its origin, according to legend, long ago, the feathers of the peacock were not so colorful and beautiful, nor did the peacock possess the characteristic "eyed" tail feathers by which it is known today. The peacock was known, however, for its relative tameness and obedience. It so happened that once during a Buddhist festival at a local temple, word spread that the Buddhist patriarch would descend to earth. Therefore a great throng of adherents came rushing to the temple, which quickly became overcrowded. At the time, the peacock was living in a remote mountain region. When he heard the news about the patriarch, being a devout Buddhist, he flew the long journey as fast as he could to join the other worshippers in the already overcrowded little temple, just as the patriarch arrived. \=/

But with all the people the peacock couldn’t see anything. In agitation he paced back and forth behind the throng of other worshippers, looking for a view of the patriarch. The patriarch became aware of this and cast a beam of the light of Buddha in the direction of the devout peacock. The light beam struck the tail of the peacock, lighting it up in iridescent colors and producing the characteristic "eyed" tail feathers by which the peacock is recognized today. On departing, the patriarch said to the devout peacock that the two would meet during the next Baipala Festival. From then on, when the Patriarch descended to earth during the Baipala Festival, he would first meet with his human followers at the temple, and afterward he would visit the peacock on its remote mountain and watch it prance and dance and show off its beautiful tail. That is how the peacock came to be so beautiful, and that is also why the Dai perform a dance in its honor every year during the major Dai festivals, including the harvest festival and of course the Baipala Festival. \=/

Choreography of the Peacock Dance

The Peacock Dance involves a number of fixed elements that imitate the behavior of the peacock. According to Chinatravel.com: “These imitative elements include: launching into flight from the nest; flying about; strolling about; searching for a water source; peering intensely, combined with suggestive eye movements; bathing in a water puddle; spreading the wings and shaking them to dry off; and spreading the tail feathers as if to announce its presence as the most exquisite creature in the whole of the animal kingdom. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

“The hand gestures of the Peacock Dance include the following: turning the thumb inwards towards the palm of the hand, while extending the four fingers that are held tightly together (not splayed); tucking the thumb only slightly, with the index finger bent and the other three fingers extended but splayed (known as the "peacock hand" gesture); the thumb and index finger extended and clasped together at the ends, and with the other three fingers fanned out, in a slightly curved manner, suggesting the shape of an eye. \=/

“Typical Dai dance movements involve lowering the body, raising the body, stepping to the right and stepping to the left (usually combined with lowering and raising the body). Raising the body from a lowered position begins on both legs but ends on only one: as the dancer rises, one leg is forced backwards, ending in a kicking motion as the dancer rotates from side to side, then the "kick" leg is brought forward and the dancer hops to the side, onto that leg, i.e., the dancer hops laterally, either to the right or to the left, depending on which leg was used for the kicking motion. The dancer alternates between kicking backwards with the right and then the left leg. \=/

“The beginning of the dance is signaled by a lowering of the body. It is done with a straightened back, and to the accompaniment of a heavy musical rhythm. In both lowering and raising the body, the dancer maintains a rigidly straightened back posture. While hopping right (left), the dancer swings the body to the right (left) and brings the knees together, turning the head sharply in the opposite direction of the body.” \=/

Dai Dragon Boat Races

The Dai also enjoy dragon boat racing. Unlike the dragon boat races that the Han Chinese hold during the summer, races of the Dai take place around the same time as the Water-Splashing Festival. The largest race in the Xishuangbanna area in Yunnan Province, is held on a wide stretch of the Mekong that runs past Jinghong. Twelve villages take part. The rowers alternate by sex each year. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 28, 2009]

The wooden dragon boat of Mannao, one of the villages that participates in the race, has been in use for about three decades and is stored under a roof on the grounds of the village temple. It seats 70. The day of the race, villagers pray to the boat and place in its tail a lighted candle, a bottle of rice wine, a packet of cigarettes and bundles of sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves....The racing tradition is evolving. More and more boats are being assembled in part with metal, which makes them more durable. Seven or eight of the dozen villages in the annual competition now have this new style of boat.

In Mannao, before each year’s race, the rowers practice for 10 days at the orders of the village chief. Villagers who are older than 20 and younger than 50 are all expected to row, Yi Xiangsan said. Women who have children are believed to be the strongest rowers. Women, too, are more dedicated to practice, she said: The women, if they don’t prepare well, they won’t go row. The men go row no matter what.

In the 2009 contest, which had only female rowers, the team from Mannao raced four times. “The reason we do it is so we can fully express the spirit and history of the Dai people,” said Yi Xiangsan, a veteran of 13 competitions. “It’s very tiring,” she added. There are some people who can’t get out of bed the next day because they ache so much.”

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Dai Dragon Boat Race Parties

Reporting from Mannao, an an hour’s drive from Jinghong, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: The dragon boat came first in the procession, all 75 feet of it, carried by a tractor past the Buddhist temple and a grove of towering coconut palm trees. Then came two tractors crowded with the rowers: dozens of women dressed inwhite blouses and turquoise skirts, laughing and clapping and waving. So went another victory parade in this village nestled in the tropics of southwest China.”[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 28, 2009]

After the race the are parties with singing, dancing, featsing and drinking. All the villages that had taken part in the race on April 16 would throwparties that night, but here in Mannao the rice wine would flow more freely,the women would sing louder and monks in saffron robes would shoot homemade rockets into the sky because Mannao had once again affirmed its standing as the top rowing village in the area. When you win first place, you just feel different, you feel happy, said YiXiangsan, one of the rowers. You have more face.

The night after the race, the women had gathered in a concrete yard with the men of the village to feast and to serenade the men. (The response of the men, apparently rooted in tradition, was to hand out money to the women.)

Two days after the race, Yi Xiangsan sat in her stilt home mending a dress with a sewing machine. Her team had brought back a certificate and the first-place award of about $1,300. As Yi Xiangsan spoke, her 16-year-old daughter translated from the Dai language to Mandarin Chinese, and was asked whether she looked forward to rowing once she reached her 20s. “I’m too young to think about it,” she said. The mother instantly piped up, “I definitely want her to do it.”

Winner Get a Bowl Originally Given by Zhou Enlai

Where dragon boat racing is concerned, a legend that began in 1961 with a visit to the area by Zhou Enlai, then the prime minister of China, has cloaked Mannao with an aura of invincibility. That year, as Zhou watched, Mannao won the annual race. Zhou, who is revered by Chinese as the humane foil to Mao Zedong, gave several Dai villages a silver bowl, locals say, but the one he handed Mannao was a little bigger, a little finer. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 28, 2009]

The story of the bowl has circulated among the Dai. We generally don’t lose, said Yi Ying, 36, who has rowed on the village’s women’s team in a half-dozen competitions If we lose, we wouldn’t be able to face this bowl. On the bowl are faint etchings in the Dai language that say the recipient of the bowl placed first in the dragon boat race that year. Yi Ying said Zhou presented the bowl to the two most important rowers in the boat — the one at the prow and the one at the stern. Those two rowers are now dead.

In 1961, Zhou arrived in the area during the Water-Splashing Festival to meet with U Nu, the prime minister of Burma, now called Myanmar. The two attended song-and-dance shows, toured a tropical plant research institute and, at 2:10 p.m. on April 14, watched Dai in traditional costumes race 19 dragon boats across the Mekong, according to a Web site run by the government of Xishuangbanna. The two prime ministers then handed out silver bowls.

Dai Minority Theme Park

The Dai Minority Park in Manzha in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, which hosts a Dai water-splashing festival everyday, attracts about a half million visitors each year, each shelling out $15 for an entrance ticket. Most of the tourists are Han yuppies that arrive by the busload and engaging in splashing and dunking with 100 Dai women, dressed in traditional pink, yellow and blue dresses. Also at the park are traditional Dai stilt houses, groomed palm trees and statues of elephants and 333 actual Dai household. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 23, 2010]

“A lot of tourists want to come see this, but it’s only a few days a year, said Zhao Li, one of the management office employees, told the New York Times. ‘so we decided to make it everyday, so everyone can experience water splashing.” Virtually all the management at the park is Han, the dominant ethnic group in China.

The Dai park was started by a Han businessman from Guangdong Province in the late 1990s and sold to a state-run rubber companyin 1999. About 500 residents work here and put on the daily show, including water-splashing festivals and dragon boat races, held on a nearby stretch of the Mekong River. Some tourists pay to sleep in family homes that stay true to Dai tradition.

Most villagers still farm rubber for their primary income. The villagers also make some money from leasing the land on which they live to Ganlanba Farm, the state-owned rubber company that operates the park. In exchange, they have to follow rules laid down by the rubber company managers — no significant changes to their stilt homes, for example. By contrast, some villagers outside the park use brick and concrete to build homes now. Residents had become dissatisfied with the annual lease price for their land, he said. The rubber company was paying the villagers $73 a year per one-sixth of an acre. Only in recent months has the company agreed to pay about 20 percent more in rent.

Homestay owners have tossed out some traditions to meet the needs of Han tourists. The first tourists slept with their hosts on the floor of a large room, according to Dai custom, but visitors soon complained, Ai Yo said. So homeowners built separate bedrooms. Traditionally, too, the Dai were skittish about allowing strangers to look inside their bedrooms, because of a belief that the gaze of strangers would frighten away ancestral spirits. Over all, though, he says tourism has bettered his life. I had rice paddies, and I worked morning to night and didn’t seen any money, he said while sitting outside his home one warm morning.

At another table outside were two Han tourists from the city of Chongqing. Zheng Jing, a big-bellied man wielding a Canon camera, was a repeat visitor. He said this park was the only place in the Dai region where he would ever consider staying. There are many villages around, and they’re all primitive, he said as a Han motorcycle club pulled up to Ai Yo’s house for lunch. It’s not suitable for us to go there. They don’t speak the Han language. You can’t have exchanges with them.

That kind of attitude puzzles Dai residents living right outside the park.The culture here is the same as inside the park, said Ai Yong, 32, a rubber farmer in Mannao village. You’re getting cheated inside. You come out here, you can see everything for free.

See Manzh, Places

Image Sources: Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Joho maps, twip com, Nature Products, Beifan Travel China

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 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) \=/; 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.

Last updated July 2015


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