The Dai are a relatively large and prosperous minority that live primarily in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests and valleys in the Xishuangbanna region of southwestern Yunnan Province along the Burmese and Laos border. They have traditionally been valley-dwelling rice cultivators and are similar to the Thai, Lao, Shan and Ahom peoples who live valleys scattered throughout Southeast Asia and the Assam area of India. The Dai have their own distinct customs, cuisine, clothing and languages. They are most numerous in Xishuabgbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southern Yunnan Province along the border with Laos. Large numbers also live in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture.

The Dai are also known as the Baiyi, Beiyi, Boyi, Bitsu, La Sam, Mitro, Siam, Tai, Shan, Daija, Dailu, Taily, Daina, Han Baiyi, Han Dail, Shui Baiyi and Shui Dai. Dai means freedom. Before 1949, the Dai were known mainly as the Baiyu, which means “white clothing.” According to where they live or which Dai subgroup they belong to they also use names like "Daili", "Daiya", "Daina", "Daibeng" and "Daiduan". After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the various Dai groups were unified by the Chinese government under one name Dai. The Dai people are often divided into three groups—1) the Dailu or the Shui Dai (Water Dai); 2) the Daina or Han Dai (Land Dai); 3) Daija Huanyai Dai (Festoon Waist Dai, known for their bright colored blouses); —based on their customs, clothes and whether they live near a river or not. Sometimes a forth group, Kemu Dai, are included. All of these groups speak a language similar to Thai and Lao. The Dailu and Daina are the largest groups.

The Dai live mainly in lush subtropical southwest Yunnan Province in: 1) Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, 2) Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefectures, and 3) several districts between them, including Dima, Menglian, Jinggu, Xinping, Jinping, Yuanjiang, and Shuangjiang. Mostly they live in the plain and valley areas at the foot of the mountains in an area with abundant rainfall and rich soil. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences]

The Dai are the 19th largest ethnic group and the 18th largest minority out of 55 in China. They numbered 1,329,985 and made up 0.09 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. The Dai of China belong to a larger family of Dai/ Tai ethnic groups that also exist in neighboring Myanmar, India, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Dai populations in China in the past: 0.0946 percent of the total population; 1,261,311 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,159,231 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,025,128 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. A total of 478,966 Dai were counted in 1953; 535, 389 were counted in 1964; and 864,340 were in 1982. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Dai Song YouTube ; Elephant Foot Dance dailymotion.com; Book Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Paul Noll site: paulnoll.com ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984



The Dai and several smaller ethnic groups living mainly in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern Yunnan Province, though smaller pockets of Dai live in and around the Yunnan cities of Xinping and Yuanjiang, as well as in other autonomous counties in Yunnan Province.

Xishuangbanna is a region in southern Yunnan, near Burma and the Golden Triangle opium-growing region, known for its tropical forests, green mountains, and ethnic minorities. About a quarter of the people are Dai, another quarter are Han Chinese and the remainder include members of the Miao, Zhuang, Jinou, Bulang, Lahu and Wa minorities. Xishuabgbanna means “Twelve Thousand Fields” or “Twelve Principalities.” It was once the center of a kingdom that stretched into Burma, Thailand and Laos. During World War II it was the site of some bombing raids and many of the tribal people fled into Burma, Thailand and Laos. When the Communist took over the region they ended the kingdom, and the king became an academic in Kunming. Large numbers of Han Chinese moved in to the area during the Korean War when the region was used to grow rubber trees for the war effort.

The prefecture of Xishuangbanna is unique in China. For it's semi-tropical climate and abundance of flora and fauna, it enjoys special protection, as demonstrated by the declaration of numerous Nature Reserves and the development of a model of tourism that largely focuses on a respect for nature. Today almost one third of Xishuangbanna is protected forest. [Source: Ethnic China]

Dai and Tai Groups

"Dai" is the Pinyin form of "Tai". The Dai People of China, Thai people of Thailand and the Lao of Laos are part of the larger Tai ethnolinguistic peoples found in Southeast Asia and southern China. Their languages are languages are classified as part of the Tai–Kadai family of languages. The majority of them are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Other Tai people include the Shan in Myanmar and the Lao in Laos. Each group speaks its own Tai language or dialect and has customs and characteristics unique to the region they live in. Almost all Tai people are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote in Ethnic China: “The official category "Dai" includes several Tai-speaking groups linguistically related to other peoples belonging to the Tai-Kadai (Dong-Tai in Chinese) linguistic family and officially classified under the categories Zhuang, Li, or Shui. Those groups currently categorized as "Dai" were traditionally designated by the Han Chinese as "Pai-yi"/ "Bai-yi" -a name whose origin remains obscure. Some Han Chinese, following traditional categories, still divide the peoples included under the "Dai" category according to arbitrary, dated denominations, such as Han Dai (Dry-land Tai) and Shui Dai (Water Tai), Huayao Dai (Flowered-belt Tai). [Source: Ethnic China] *]

“The two most important Tai groups included in the "Dai" category are the Tai Neua, who inhabited mainly the Tai Khong area (Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture), as well as other regions along the Burmese border, and the Tai Lue, who live mostly in the Sipsong Panna (Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture), bordering Myanmar and Laos. There are also smaller populations of these groups in neighboring Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. *\

While the culture of these main groups, as well as that of the Tai Mao, also concentrated in the Tai Khong area and along the Burmese border, is determined by the Theravada Buddhist tradition, other groups, such as the Tai Ya (Huayao Dai) in Xinping County, have maintained Tai cults previous to the arrival of Buddhism in the area. This is also the case for a small number of Tai groups living along the Vietnamese border, such as the Tai Dam, Tai Khao or the Tai Leang (Black, White and Red Tai, respectively), whose main populations are in Northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. *\

In spite of a supposed common origin and common cultural traits, historically most of the groups categorized as "Dai" had hardly any contact among them, and developed diverse economic and cultural systems: the Tai Neua or the Tai Lue, for instance, were culturally closer to other Tai groups inhabiting areas being part of present-day Myanmar or Thailand, such as the Shan (in the Shan sates of Myanmar), Tai Kheun (Kentung, Shan State, Myanmar) or the Tai Yuan of Lanna (Northern Thailand). As it is true in these areas, Tai groups living in present-day southern China lived in interaction with other ethnic groups, mainly Mon-Khmer or Tibeto-Burman-speaking ethnic groups such as Bulang, Akha-Hani or Lahu. *\

Origin and Early History of the Dai

The Dai is a nationality of great antiquity. The origin of the Dai and Dai-related people is matter of some debate. They have been in southwest China and Southeast Asia for some time. According to some their ancestors are mentioned in historical records dating back to the A.D. 1st century.

According to Chinese scholars the origin of the Dai (Tai) ethnic family goes back to the ancient Baiyue (alternatively, Bai Yue, or Hundred Yue) people. The term "Yue" has historically been used in a broad and general way by the ancient Chinese to refer to a number of ethnic groups that were otherwise difficult to categorize. Similarly, the ancient Greeks used the term "Keltai" (source of the term "Celt") to refer to various peoples and tribes that lived in a wide area of present-day Europe, stretching from France through Germany to the British Isles. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

The Baiyue includes the Dong minority, though this group insists that it is a separate ethnic entity. Some scholars believe that the original Yue people who branched out along a northerly route that would lead them into present-day China are in fact forebears to the Han Chinese. The Cantonese language is also called the Yue language. A similar group, forebears of the present-day Tai (alternatively "Thai") folk of Thailand, branched southward. \=/]

The earliest Dai people of China were separated into three different groups, corresponding to three kingdoms: 1) the Mong Loong Kingdom (Kingdom of Uncle), situated in the southern Yellow River region; 2) the Mong Pa Kingdom (Kingdom of Auntie), in present-day Sichuan Province; and 3) the Mong Yio Kingdom (Kingdom of the Yue/ Yi peoples), east of the Yangtze River. With plentiful rainfall, a subtropical climate and fertile land, the areas that these three Dai groups settled were suitable for the planting of crops that today would be called cash crops. According to ancient Chinese documents, the Dai had a fairly well-developed system of agriculture, and a part of their crops were sold, or bartered, for other commodities. The Dai are believed by scholars to be one of the first ethnic groups to employ oxen to till the land. \=/]

The forebears of the present-day Dai Ethnic Minority of China first organized themselves into a semi-unified political organization - the "Shan Guo" - during the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) Dynasties period. Dai ancestors in the time of the Han and the Jin Dynasties were called "Dianyue", "Dan", "Shan", "Liao" and "Jiuliao", while their residing areas were called the Elephant Riding Country.

Early Contacts Between the Dai and Chinese

The history of contact between the Dai and Han peoples dates back to 109 B.C., when Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty set up Yizhou Prefecture in southwestern Yi (the name used to signify the minority areas of what are now Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces). The Dais in subsequent years sent tribute to the Han court in Luoyang, and among the emissaries were musicians and acrobats. The Han court gave gold seals to the Dai ambassadors and their chieftain was given the title "Great Captain." In the years that followed, the Dai people were officially affiliated with the Han Dynasty, receiving recognition and protection from Han rulers in exchange for their loyalty to the emperor.

In the A.D. 1st century, the Dai chief, Yongyoudiao, sent emissaries to Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220). Yongyoudiao was subsequently given a high post by the central government, thus establishing formal political relations between the Dai and the Chinese authorities. Later on, the name of Yizhou Prefecture was changed to Yongchang. From the 8th to 13th century, the homeland of the Dai was under the control the Nanzhao Kingdom and then of the Dali Kingdom of Yunnan. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

According to Chinese documents of the ninth century, the Dais had a fairly well developed agriculture. They used oxen and elephants to till the land, grew large quantities of rice and had built an extensive irrigation system. They used kapok for weaving, panned salt and made weapons of metal. They plated their teeth with gold and silver. As early as the 9th century, the Dai planted rice extensively in south and southwest Yunnan and set up extensive water conservation works and irrigation systems to increase yields of rice and other grain production. Dai women wove a special cloth called "silver cotton cloth." [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009; China.org]

Dai History During the Imperial Chinese Era

Southern China in the 13th Century

During the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties, the Dai were often referred to as "Jinchi (Gold Teeth)", "Yinchi (Silver 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. In the Yuan Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty, they were called "Baiyi (White Robe)", "Baiyi (Hundred Minority)"; "Baiyi" (Bai Robe) or "Baiyi" (Bai Minority). Since the Qing Dynasty each of the above four "Baiyi" has been written in different Chinese and pinyin forms. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~; Chinatravel.com \=/]

Over the years the Dai further multiplied and split into smaller groups, or tribes. From the 8th to the 12th century, the Dai of the Dehong region lived in their own separate state in the Meng Mao Kingdom whose capital was Ruilijiang. In the 12th century, a Dai chieftain named Bazhen (Pa Ya Zhen ) unified all the tribes and established the Mengle local regime with Jinghong as the capital, and called it the "Jinglong Golden Hall Kingdom." According to local records, the kingdom had a population of more than one million, and was famous for white elephants and fine-breed horses. It recognized the Chinese imperial court as its sovereign. When Bazhen ascended the throne, he was given a "tiger-head gold seal" by the Emperor, and the title "Lord of the Region." Previously, the Dais in the Dehong region had established the Mengmao Kingdom, with Ruilijiang as the capital. |

The Dai were at the edge of the furthest southern thrusts by the Mongols, who managed to conquer much of Burma but not Vietnam. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Dai area was subordinate to Yunnan Province and the system of appointing hereditary headmen from among the ethnic minorities was instituted; this system was consolidated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After the Ming armies drove out the Mongols in the 14th century, many Chinese moved into Yunnan and began encroaching on traditional Dai lands. The centuries that followed were dominated but conflicts and compromises involving the Dai and Han Chinese.

It was only in the 18th century, under the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644 — 1911), that the Dai chiefs were replaced by officials of Manchu or Chinese nationality. From then on the Dai districts were directly administered by the central government. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Dai Kingdoms

The Dai have a tradition of dominating other ethnic groups such as the De’ang, Blang, Hani, Lahu, Achang and Jingpo. In some cases the Dai were powerful landlords and other tribes were like their serfs. The Dai-controlled areas were on the fringes of the Chinese empire and separated from the main population centers by rugged mountains and rain forests.

A chief of the Dai in Xishuangbanna, Bazhen, unified all the tribes in the 12th century. Making Jinghong the capital, he founded the State of Jinglong. Paying homage to the emperor of China as his sovereign, he was granted an official title by the central government; the title passed on to his son. Beginning in the 14th century, the Chinese approved the Dai kings and nobles and officially recognized their control over other ethnic groups. The Dai established powerful local kingdoms such as Mong Mao and Kocambi in Dehong in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Oinaga (or Xienrun) in Xishuangbanna in the 12th century and the Lanna (or Babai Xifu) in northern Thailand in the 13th to 18th century.

During the Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasty, the Mongol rulers of China firmed Chinese grip on Yunnan Province and established a feudal system of appointing hereditary headmen from among the ethnic minorities — including the Dai — to rule over their subjects. This neo-feudal system continued, not only in regards to the Dai, but with respect to the bulk of China's ethnic minorities, through the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), on the whole, carried on the practice of the Yuan and Ming system in the minority areas. However, it placed the Dai areas with more advanced economy under its jurisdiction and sent officials to practice direct control.\=/ |

Social Structure of Dai Kingdoms

Gehan Wijeyewardene wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The fundamental class division of the traditional social structure was between the nobility, with the king and royal family at its peak, and the common people. Both groups, however, were themselves arranged hierarchically. The king—"the lord of the land" (cawphaendin) —was in theory the owner of all land in the kingdom. His hereditary chiefdom was based in Jing Hong, where he held court. The rest of the kingdom was divided into meng or muang, which may be translated as "chiefdoms." Other members of the nobility held various titles and performed duties toward the king or chief, in return for which they held land and rights over serfs. [Source: Gehan Wijeyewardene, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

The commoners were referred to as khaphai by the nobility. This term in fact brought together two different statuses: kha, which meant "slave" and was also generally used of non-Tai, Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples; and phai, which may be variously interpreted as "serf or "freeman." The senior commoner officials had special status and rights to land, as did certain ritual experts. This division among commoners was expressed in the contrast kanmeng/kanban, "the work of the chiefdom (or state)/the work of the village." Officials had a duty to the state itself, while other commoners had a duty to the village community. Today in Xishuangbanna the old class division expresses itself somewhat in the pattern of sinicization. Many Tai have now taken Chinese names, the old nobility having the surname "Dao." Members of the former ruling families hold positions of influence and authority in the provincial administration.

Southeast Asia in the 13th Century

According to the Chinese government: ““The historical conditions of the Dai communities were not the same, nor were the stages of their social development. So each had its own characteristics as to the form of land ownership, class structure and political system. Such areas as Jingdong, Xinping and Yuanjiang, where the Dais mingled with the Hans, had entered the feudal landlord economy stage earlier because the Dais absorbed the Han's more advanced tools and techniques of production. Social progress was slower in Xishuangbanna and Dehong on the border, particularly Xishuangbanna, which still retained a fairly complete feudal manorial economy. [Source: China.org |]

“Since the Yuan, Ming and Qing regimes practiced the system of appointing national-minority hereditary headmen, the "Cheli Official" had for generations been the highest manorial lord and ruler until liberation. All the land, forests and water belonged to him, and he subdivided his domain to be hereditarily ruled by his clan members and trusted followers. Under such a system, part of the land owned directly by the manorial lords became their private manors or served as pay for their household officials. The remaining part was allocated to the serfs and came under the common ownership of the whole village. The manorial lords established a set of political institutions, and had their own troops, courts and prisons to facilitate their plunder and strengthen their rule. |

Modern History of the Dai

In 1874, a Hui Muslim named Du Wenxiu united the Bai, Naxi, Yi and Dai in a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was brutally put down in 1892. Missionaries arrived when the Burma Road was constructed nearby in 1937-38. In the 1950s, the Xishuabgbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture was created under the Communists.

According to the Chinese government: ““After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new republic, under the rule of the Kuomintang set up a special administrative entity, a county, in the Dai homelands, and a policy of oppression was thereafter pursued throughout the reaches of the county's administration. After the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Dai were "liberated" in 1950. In between 1954 and 1985 autonomous administration areas were set in which 90 percent of the Dai people made their homes.” [Source: China.org |]

During the Cultural Revolution many Dai people from the Yunnan Province escaped persecution by fleeing across the border to Dai villages in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Dai Buddhist temples, however, were desecrated, destroyed or turned into granaries. Recently the temples have been restored and many of them provide religious training for young monks.

Dai Identity and Bei Ye Culture

20080305-Dai_gleaning400 in Mekong.jpg
Washing in the Mekong
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 \=/]

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 of Dehong

Yos Santasombat wrote in “Lak Chang: A Reconstruction of Tai Identity in Daikong,”: The Tai ethnic group, in its different branches, is beyond any doubt one of the most widespread of any ethnic group in the Southeast Asian peninsula. Different branches of the Tai are found from Assam, Vietnam and Laos to the Chinese province of Guangxi, and from Thailand to the interior of Yunnan. In Yunnan province, southern China, there are at least two major centres of the Tai civilization. One is Sipsongpanna, home of the Tai Lue in southern Yunnan, and another is Daikong, home of the Tai Yai in western Yunnan. While the Tai Lue of Sipsongpanna have been described sketchily by various students of Tai studies, little is known of the Tai Daikong in western Yunnan. [Source:Santasombat, Yos, “Lak Chang: A Reconstruction of Tai Identity in Daikong,” Canberra, AUS: Pandanus Books, 2001. p 1. (Introduction) Ethnic China *]

“The Tai Daikong are known by various names. They call themselves "Tai Luang" or Tai Yai and in fact share remarkable cultural similarities with the Tai Yai of Shan States and the Tai Yai in Mae Hong Son province of northwest Thailand. According to Chea Yanchong, Tai Daikong refers to a particular group of Tai who settled and continued to live in the areas south (dai) of the River Kong (or Salaween). The Chinese scholars have invariably called this group "Tai Dehong", "Tai Mao", or "Tai Nua"; all these different names connote different state names or places of residence. Professor Chea further distinguished Tai Daikong into two distinct groups. The first group is called Tai Nua (northern Tai). This group of Tai Nua lives near the Burma- Chinese border, in the areas of Muang Mao, Muang Wan Teng or Wan Tieng, Muang One and Chiang Fang. Another group is called "Tai Dai" (southern Tai). The Tai Dai live in the areas of Muang Khon, Muang Ti and Muang La. These two groups of Tai Dehong share many similarities in terms of cultural traits. The spoken languages are basically the same but the written languages are mutually incomprehensible. Tai Dai uses the Tai Pong written characters of the Shan States, while the Tai Nua's written characters resemble those of the Tai Ahom in Assam. *\

Dai manuscript

“As if the multitude of tribe and state names (e. g. Tai Daikong, Tai Dehong, Tai Mao, Tai Nua, Tai Luang and Tai Yai) are not bewildering and confusing enough, a number of Western scholars have adopted the Burmese term "Shan" and referred to Tai Mao or Tai Daikong as "Chinese Shan", "Mao Shan", or "Shan of Yunnan". In fact, as Leach has noted, the Burmese apply the term "Shan" consistently to all the inhabitants of the Yunnan- Burma frontiers area who call themselves Tai. The Burmese usage of the term "Shan" has not been confined only to Tai Yai but also included other ethnic Tais such as Tai Lue and Tai Khun who speak different dialects. *\

The question, then, is who are the Tai Daikong? Postulating from the linguistic arguments, around the eighth century AD, the Tai world already extended across much of northern Southeast Asia, differentiated into five linguistic groups. The western group were ancestors of the present Tai Yai in Burma and Yunnan. By the next century, Tai-speaking chieftaincies were established on the flooded plains of the River Mao. These were believed to be Muang Mao and Pong. In the succeeding centuries, the western group of Tai-speaking people established themselves as the governing population through the Burmese Shan states, Assam and in much of Yunnan. According to Wyatt, Tai-speaking people can be differentiated into five groups: 1) the northern group, ancestors of Zhuang; 2) Upland Tai group, ancestors of Black, Red and White Tai; 3) Siang Kwang group, ancestors of central Thai (Siamese); 4) Lao group, ancestors of Lao and Sukhothai languages.” *\

Dai Language

The Dai people have their own spoken and written languages. The classification of Dai language is a matter of some debate. Some linguists classify it as a Sino-Tibetan language. Others classify it as Thai-Austronesian language. The Dai and use four written languages. They once used five non-Chinese written languages but now primarily use Chinese, Xishuangbanna Dai and Dehond Dai writing. Their script appeared in the 13th century. Most linguists say the Dai language belongs to Zhuang-Dai branch of Zhuang- Dong group of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. There are three major dialects. All Dai women have Yi at the start of their name.

The Dai written language originated from Sanskrit. There used to be four written variations: types: Daili, Daina, Daibeng and Jinping. The special Dai writing system is written in an alphabetic, as opposed to a character, script. There are five different branches of this writing system spread throughout the various Dai communities in China. Among these, the most common are the Daikou and the Daina writing systems, which are also known as the Xinshuangbanna and the Dehong writing systems, respectively. [Source: Chinatravel.com]

Writing forms used by the Tai Lue in Myanmar and Thailand are derived from the Mon and look like the Burmese script. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In the 1950s the PRC reformed Tai scripts in Yunnan, and for Lue additional tone markers were added and all characters were written on the line. These reforms have created some problems. There are complaints that there is not sufficient material to read in the new script and that those educated in the new script cannot read the old Tai Lue documents. [Source: Gehan Wijeyewardene“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Place Names in the Dai Language

There are many place names like "Xishuangbanna" that are derived from the Dai language. But their meanings are different from the literal Chinese characters, and we cannot interpret them superficially without real understanding. "There is no 'long' (dragon) in Menglong and Feilong, no 'dao' (island) in Nongdao and Bingdao, neither is there 'jie' (sister) in Jiegao and Jiexiang, nor city of stone in Nanjing." In Dai, "long " means big, so Menglong and Feilong means "big plain" and "big shade"; "dao" means lichen, so Nongdao and Bingdao means "the pool with lichen" and "the corner with lichen"; "jie" means town, so Jiegao and Jiexiang are respectively "old town" and "gem town". In Zhenyuan County, Yunnan Province, there is a Nanjing village and a Nanjing street, and in Ruili County a Nanjing Li. Actually in Dai, "Nan" is river or water resource, "Jing" means to eat or drink, and "Li" means good. Therefore, "Nanjing" is a place with drinking water, while "Nanjing Li" is a place with good drinking water. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, literally means the Town of Dawn: "Jing" is town and "Hong" is dawn. It was said that when Sakyamuni (the Buddha) arrived there during his missionary traveling, it was at daybreak, with cocks crowing. So He gave the name "the Town of Dawn" to this place. Then Sakyamuni moved on, and came to today's Zhuanghong Lu in Jinghong when it was breakfast time. Thus the street gets its name — "Zhuanghong Lu," is a place name composed of both Chinese and Dai; Zhuanghong is from Dai, meaning the first meal or breakfast, while "Lu" is from Chinese, meaning road. Then Sakyamuni crossed Mengyang and climbed up to Manpo of Jinuo Mountain, where he looked behind and found out that there was still a small piece of land he had not trod. So He cried out surprisedly "Meng Yang Nan!" - still a small piece of land! Thus the place gets the name of Mengyang or Little Mengyang. "Meng" means place, "Yang" means remaining, and "Nan" means small. The place names above are all of Buddhist origin, from which we can see how the Dai people respect and worship Sakyamuni.

20080305-Dai-char Nolls.jpg
Dai in Chinese characters
Some other place names are related to natural resources and environment. Mannonghan in Gadong District, means "the Golden Lake Village": "Man" means village, "Nong" lake, and "Han" gold. As it is said, there used to be a lake, where golden red deer often came to drink water. Thus it got the name from that. And that reminds us of Payalawu chasing a golden deer to the mysterious Xishuangbanna. Maybe this is just the lake the deer had jumped into. Menghun, in Menghai County, means river having reversed its way. "Meng" means place while "Hun" means to reverse. There is a Nanhun River in Menghun County, which means river reversed its way. It is said that Nanhun River used to flow southeastward from Gelang River. When Sakyamuni travelled to the place, He pointed his staff to the west, and then the river reversed its flow to the west. So there are names of "Nanhun" and "Menghun". Besides, Mengla means a place producing tea; Menglun means a place producing soft stone; Mohei means "salt well", and Mozheng means "lead well".

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) and Gehan Wijeyewardene, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993; 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, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Reuters, AP, AFP, BBC, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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