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Courting game at water festival
Marriage is a serious matter however. Marriages are usually arranged and organized by a matchmaker Bride-prices are high and grooms are required to do a three year bride service to the bride’s family. The wedding feast and service of the groom to the bride’s family are negotiated with the help of the matchmaker. Bride snatching is sometimes done to get out of paying the bride price. Weddings feature a "tie knots with threads" ceremony.

Dai have traditionally married within their village or community, often marrying cousins or partners with the same surname. Couple usually live with or near the bride’s family, and sometimes the grooms, until the inherit some property of the own. Divorces are easy to arrange. In the case of the woman she moves into her family’s house and sends her husband a candle. Remarriages are common.

According to the Chinese government: “The marriage of the Dais was characterized by intermarriage on strictly equal social and economic status. Polygamy was common among chieftains, who also humiliated the wives and daughters of peasants at will. The patriarchal monogamous nuclear family was the common form among peasants. Pre-marital social contact between young men and women was quite free, especially during festivals. It was common for the groom to move into the bride's home after the wedding. [Source: China.org ]

If a couple decides they want to get married, the parents of the male ask a matchmaker to propose to the female family. Usually, marriage is smoothly carried out. If an agreement is not achieved, they couple discusses what to do, with eloping of staging an abduction being a last resort. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]

Dai Courting Activities

The Dai are famous for their dating and marriage customs. Young males and females flirt and date before marriage. Dai girls have traditionally indicated that they married or single using their silver waistbands. According to Dai custom, a married girl will hang the keys of her household on her waistband, thus indicating that she refuses any advance. Premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. In some cases, though, parents may encourage their daughters to have boyfriends but marriage has traditionally been expected to be arranged through a matchmaker, usually the boy's mother's brother and sister.

Dai adolescents engage in courtship rituals that include antiphonal singing of love songs and love-bag throwing. Teenage girls have traditionally had a room away from their parents so the can secretly meet their lovers and signaled their interest in a young man through atonal singing or by tossing him “love bag.” If he was interested they dated and later they may became engaged to marry.

The Dai young people are quite free in choosing their lovers. Crowded roads to markets and the festivals are good places to hunt. Carpet-wrapping is a courting activity carried by young Dai. On a road to a festival, market or religious activities, youn men wrap themselves all up in a carpet, except their eyes, and waits for girls they fancy. If a young man sees a girl he likes goes over to her and strikes up a conversation. If the girl likes him and responds positively to his advances, they wrap themselves together in the carpet and go to a quiet place. ~

When the weather cools after the Open Door Festival, and people are not busy with farming, girls go to the "Hanhong"— spinning field— when dusk falls in groups, carrying with them spinning wheels, bamboo stools, as well as tobacco, betel nut and fruit. Young men show up uninvited and sing and play musical instruments such as flutes. They come over and squat beside the “needfire,” talking and laughing with the girls, and move closer and closer to the girls they like. If a girl has no similar feeling, she politely refuses, or intentionally make some weird sound on the spinning wheel when he speaks to her. If she likes the young man, she takes out a stool hidden under her skirt, and asks him to sit down, saying: "Did you have your rice with pumpkin or salt?" There is a proverb in Dai that goes: "Having rice with pumpkin means satisfied and pleased with the girl, while having rice with salt means he comes to negotiate because he has difficulties." Therefore, if the answer is "with pumpkin", the girl snuggles up against the young man, who in the meantime has spread out his carpet to wrap them up. ~

Dai Flower Ball Festival Courting Activities

Dai youths express their affection for the opposite sex through a variety of courting activities, but chief among them is the Flower Ball Festival, which involves a bag throwing game like the one described above. "Pouch throwing" or "Tossing an embroidered ball" at the Water-Splashing Festival is a traditional game played by young men and women seeking love. The ball — a diamond-shape embroidered pouch with cloth of different colors and cotton seeds inside — is a 10 centimeter (four inch) square bag padded with cottonseed, with a 1 meter-long brocade band attached at one of its corners.

Boys and girls are separated into two teams and stand in lines about 10 to 30 meters apart facing each other led their own leaders "Naichang" and "Naishao". Member of the teams hold the band and rotate the ball, then throw it toward the opposite team; and should be caught by a member of the opposite sex. At the beginning, all throws are casual and done without aiming. Those who cannot catch the pouch are "losers". and have to offer flowers or another gift to the thrower. By and by, the girls do not throw casually anymore, but aim especially at the boy she likes. If the young man also likes her, then they throw back and forth. The girl throws high and far intentionally, while the young man pretends to miss it. He admits "defeat", and gives her a present, usually a bouquet of flowers, and says something that expresses his feelings. The girl should receive the flowers and listen to his confession of love. Then they leave together. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

When the game starts and the boys and girls stand in separate lines, the girls usually line up first and the boys take their positions opposite the girls they fancy. By pre-arrangement, any potential conflict such as two boys wishing to court the same girl is resolved by parents, well in advance. According to China Travel: Flower ball throwing is done round after round, because not every girl catches the flower ball on the first attempt (it is a requirement to eventually catch the flower ball). The rule is if the girl doesn't catch the flower ball, the boy will give the girl a gift as encouragement, since further rounds will be played for those not having caught the flower ball. In the event that a girl does not catch the flower ball, she is required to pick a flower for the boy who cast the ball to her. In reality, a girl may deliberately fail to catch the flower ball many times over, in order to thus elicit more gifts (a certain amount of pre-arrangement here cannot be excluded). Not all boys and girls "paired" at a Flower Ball go on to become serious sweethearts, but many, if not most, do, as there is more to the ceremony than innocent children choosing a favorite - suitability issues such as social standing, inter-family relations, etc., plays a role as well.” [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Dai Threading-Tying Wedding

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” During the wedding ceremony, the bride and the bridegroom sit on a felt mat, side by side. The master of ceremonies ties a white thread on their wrists. Then a senior person among the relatives binds the bridegroom's left shoulder, crosses their backs, and binds the bride's right shoulder. The thread is finally tied by a guest. "White" means pure love. "Tying the thread" means binding the couple together, never to separate. There are quite a few marriage rites. For instance, the bride's side and bridegroom's side set up tables exhibiting their respective wedding gifts. the gifts from the bridegroom's side usually include wine, two rolls of white threads, straight skirts, garments, two silver waistbands, a silver bracelet, a long sword, glutinous rice, eggs, and cooked chickens; the gifts from the bride's side usually include wine, a hat made of banana leaves, a piece of white cloth, a piece of black cloth, five strings of areca, two strings of banana, brown sugar, and salt. these traditional gifts are symbolic and express the wish that the new couple will lead a sweet and tasteful life. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The wedding is usually held in the bride's house. A bamboo table is set at the inner end of the central room, on which two cooked chickens, a cup of wine with betel leaf, as well as sticky rice, salt and white thread are set. The person who presides over the wedding MC is seated at the most honorable place of the table, while the other relatives and friends sit around the table, close to him. Bride and groom kneel before the presider, who gives a congratulation speech, while others are listening with their right hands on the table, showing politeness. After the speech, bride and groom run and try to grab the betel leaves in the cup. Whoever gets them first will have a final say in the future family life. Then bride and groom separately pick up a dollop of sticky rice, and dip it in a cup of wine. Chicken and salt are also offered as sacrifice. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

During the wedding ceremony itself, the host first prays for the bride and groom, then he takes a long white thread and begins to tie it around the hands of the new couple as a symbol of a long, healthy and happy life together. Thereafter the other family members of both the bride and groom perform the same symbolic thread tying ritual upon the bride and groom, and lastly, invited friends of the couple do the same. [Source: Chinatravel.com, \=/]

During the ceremony the presider picks up the white thread on the table, circles it over their backs and shoulders of the bride and groom, and put the ends on the table again, implicating that their souls have already been fastened together, and they will live to their deaths in bliss together. Then the presider fastens the two short threads respectively to their wrists. At this time, others at the table all fasten threads to their wrists, and wish their love be as pure as water in the Lancang River, and their life be as sweet as sugarcane. After the thread-fastening ceremony, one of the two chickens is given to the presider, while the other is divided between the single men present, encouraging them to find a girls' love soon. At last, an old person kneads some sticky rice into a triangle, and puts it on the tripod of the fire pit, with salt on it. The rice burns and falls into the fire, foretelling a stable life and a solid love. ~

Dai Thread Tying

The Thread Tying Custom is known in the Dai language as Shu Huan, meaning "tying the souls". Shu Huan is a social event that involves the extended families of both parties to the wedding, as well as specially invited guests. It is done both at an official "engagement" ceremony that takes place any time between the 15th of December (the Opening-of-the-Door Festival) to the 15th of September of the following year (the Closing-of-the-Door Festival), and during the marriage ceremony itself. The purpose of this well-wishing ceremony is to pray for the bride and groom, and to tie thread for them in the hope that theirs may be a happy and well-suited union. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

According to legend the custom of tying thread as a symbol of the marriage union goes back a long, long ago, to a young noble girl, who often wondered about what type of man she would marry. One day, the girl mused to a very young male servant - a boy of roughly her own age, in fact: "I wonder who I will eventually marry?" The young boy answered matter of factly, and without the slightest hesitation: "You are going to marry me." Upon hearing this, the girl, in a fit of rage, grabbed a knife lying on a nearby table and threw it at the boy, making a deep gash in his forehead, which would leave a permanent scar. Moreover, the young boy, for his impertinence, was driven out of the country. \=/

In a different place, the young boy became a young man, and a very successful one at that: he eventually became the country's king. As was the custom at the time, rulers of neighboring states and countries chose intermarriage as a means of defusing potential rivalry, so a marriage between the young king and the girl of the country from which the young man, as a boy, had been rudely kicked out, was arranged. On the day of the wedding, the girl immediately recognized the groom-to-be as her former servant, for the scar from the deep gash she had given him as a boy was clearly visible on his forehead. The girl was so overwhelmed with remorse - and also with awe at the boy's prophetic words - that she placed her right hand between the hands of her groom-to-be, and proceeded to tie their hands together, as a sign of her eternal devotion to her coming husband and king.

Dai Women and Children

Women have traditionally done all the agriculture work, with the exception of heavy work done by men, and sold stuff in the markets. Old married women in the Dai tribe have no identity of their own. When they are introduced their name is not used, They are simply referred to as their husbands' wife.

The Dai are very gentle with their children, seldom beating them. In the old days boys were regarded as adults after receiving a Buddhist name and mastering the Dai scripts and Buddhist scriptures. These custom was abolished in the Cultural Revolution but have made a comeback in recent years. Secular schools are often in conflict with temples because many children to go to temples to learn Dai writing while secular school focus on Chinese writing.

In the old days, the education of Dai children was carried out primarily at Buddhist temples. Only monks acquired enough knowledge to be considered educated. In Xishuangbanna, traditionally every boy became a monk when he was seven, eight or nine years of age became monks for two or three years, and sometimes as long as ten years. Most of them then resumed a normal life and got married. A small number remained at the temple and became monks for life. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

“Women Bathed in Holy Water: The Dais” is a booklet put out in 1995 by the Yunnan Publicity Centre for Foreign Countries as part of the a “Women’s Culture series, which focuses on different ethnic groups found in Yunnan province. The soft-cover 100-page booklet contains both color photographs and text describing the life and customs of women. The series is published by the Yunnan Publishing House, 100 Shulin Street, Kunming 65001 China, and distributed by the China International Book Trading Corporation, 35 Chegongzhuang Xilu, Beijing 100044 China (P.O. Box 399, Beijing, China).

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Dai Women Willingly Seeking Work as Prostitutes

An increasing number if young women in Yunnan Province are willingly going to Thailand and Malaysia to work as prostitutes or are being ordered by their families to work in brothels in these countries because the money is good. Girls from the Dai minority are particularly sought after in Thailand because they are regarded as beautiful and their language is similar to Thai.

One 20-year-old woman in the Mekong River village of Langle told the New York Times, “If you can’t go to Thailand and you are a young woman here, what can you do? You plant and you harvest. But in Thailand and Malaysia I heard it was pretty easy to earn money so I went....All the girls would like to go, but some have to take care of their parents.”

The girls work in bars and most of the money they take in tricks goes to their pimp or brothel owner. The money they earn comes from “tips” by customers. Many make their way across the border hidden in the baggage compartment of buses and hope to get lucky and meet and marry an overseas Chinese or at least bring enough money back for a better life for themselves and their families.

Many are unable to save much even after a couple of years. Some do quite well and this is often reflected by the nice homes — with satellite television, air conditioning, generators and tile designs — in the home of their parents. Some families with several daughters live in chateau-like homes with chandeliers, leather-covered sofas, golden Buddhist altars and fancy home entertainment centers. Dai boys often don’t like the set up because the girls who return from Malaysia and Thailand come back snobby and don’t want to have anything to do with them.

Image Sources: Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Nolls China website, 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 *\; 4) 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.

Last updated September 2022

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