20080305-Dai Peacock-group Atlanta Chinese Dance.jpg
Dai peacock dance

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. [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, kepu.net.cn ~]

There are roughly roughly 1.26 million Dai living in China. However, 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 population in China: 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. [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 ethnic-china.com *]

The Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Xishuangbanna is where over a dozen ethnic minorities live together, including Dai, Hani, Bulang, Jinuo, Lahu and Yao. During the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, this area was under the administration of local authorities under the Dali-based Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. During the period of Chunxi of Song (1180 A.D.), a Dai leader named Bazhen established a local authority in Mengle called "Circle of Golden Hall in Jinglong", taking Jinghong as the centre. In the Yuan dynasty the central government set up a local government called Cheli Overall Ministration, which was changed into Cheli Xuanwei Department in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In the early 20 century at the time of the Republic of China, the Sipu Frontier Chief Office was established. The Dai Autonomous Region was established in 1953. It became the Dai Autonomous Prefecture in 1955. It embraces the counties of Jinghong, Menghai and Mengla, covering a land of 19, 220 square kilometers. [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, kepu.net.cn ~]

According to a Dai legend, once there was a Dai leader named Payalawu. In order to catch a golden deer, he climbed 9,999 mountains and crossed 9,999 rivers, and at last arrived at a beautiful golden lake. The golden deer jumped into the lake, and immediately lotus flowers broke out on the water and hundreds of birds singing. Payalawu deeply fell in love with this "nice and mysterious land of happiness" — Mengbalanaxi, which is Xishuangbanna today. In the Dai language "Xishuang" means twelve, while "Banna" refers to a thousand fields. In the year 1570, the governor of Cheli, Dao Yingmeng, divided his region into twelve tax units called "Banna", on which he later set up twelve districts.

Xishuangbanna is charming and beautiful place, with abundant in natural resources and lush, subtropical vegetation. There are over 20,000 kinds of plants, and more than 200 species of rare birds and animals and is the original producing area of "Nanyao" (southern herbs) and "Pu'er Tea". Local products include rice, sugar cane, coffee, hemp, rubber, camphor and a wide variety of fruits. The dense forests produce large amounts of teak, sandalwood and medicinal plants, and are home to wild animals including elephants, tigers and peacocks.

Dai, Tai and Thai People

The Dai and Thai people of Thailand 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.

Traditionally, Tai groups ruled over polities known in Tai language as muang, multi-ethnic domains of variable extension in which the Tai groups would occupy the rice fields of the lowland areas and exert political domination over mountain-dwellers -mainly Mon-Khmer or Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups such as Bulang, Akha-Hani or Lahu. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic. In Thailand, these Austro-Thai groups belonged to the Thai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer language families. The Thai-Kadai is the most significant ethno-linguistic group in all of Southeast Asia, with 72 million speakers extending from the Brahmaputra River in India’s Assam state to the Gulf of Tonkin and China’s Hainan Island. To the north, there are Thai-Kadai speakers well into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and to the south they are found as far as the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

“In Thailand and Laos they are the majority populations, and in China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) they are the largest minorities. The predominant Thai half of the Thai-Kadai group includes the Ahom (Assam), the Siamese (Thailand), the Black Thai or Thai Dam (Laos and Vietnam), the Thai Yai or Shan (Myanmar and Thailand), the Thai Neua (Laos, Thailand and China), the Thai Lü (Laos, Thailand and China) and the Yuan (Laos and Thailand). The less numerous Kadai groups (under a million) include such comparatively obscure languages in southern China as Kelao, Lati, Laha, Laqua and Li.”

Origin and Migrations of Tai People

According to the Library of Congress: The forebears of the modern Thai, Dai and Lao were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas. During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Tai-speaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: The origin of Tai is a matter of academic debate. While most scholars favour a region vaguely stretching from Guangxi in southern China to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, a more radical theory says the Thais descended from an ocean-based civilisation in the western Pacific. The oceanic proponents trace the development of symbols and myths in Thai art and culture to arrive at their conclusions. This vast, non-unified zone of Austro-Thai influence spread all over Southeast Asia at various times. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

“A linguistic map of southern China, northeastern India and Southeast Asia clearly shows that the preferred zones of occupation by the Thai peoples have been river valleys, from the Red (Hong) River in the south of China and Vietnam to the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. At one time there were two terminals for movement into what is now Thailand. The ‘northern terminal’ was in the Yuan Jiang and other river areas in China’s modern-day Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and the ‘southern terminal’ along central Thailand’s Mae Nam Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya River). The human populations remain quite concentrated in these areas today, while areas between the two were merely intermediate relay points and have always been less populated.

“The Mekong River valley between Thailand and Laos was one such intermediate zone, as were river valleys along the Nan, Ping, Kok, Yom and Wang Rivers in northern Thailand, plus various river areas in Laos and also in the Shan State of Myanmar. As far as historians have been able to piece together, significant numbers of Austro-Thai peoples in southern China or northern Vietnam probably began migrating southward and westward in small groups as early as the 8th century AD – most certainly by the 10th century.

“These migrant Thais established local polities along traditional social schemata according to meuang (roughly ‘principality’ or ‘city-state’), under the rule of chieftains or sovereigns (jâo meuang). Each meuang was based in a river valley or section of a valley and some were loosely collected under one jâo meuang or an alliance of several. Wherever Thais met indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers in the move south and westward (into what is now Myanmar, Thailand and Laos), they were somehow able to displace, assimilate or co-opt them without force. The most probable explanation for this relatively smooth assimilation is that there were already Thai peoples indigenous to the area.

Dai and Tai Groups

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 ethnic-china.com *]

“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. *\

Dai History

20080305-Dai_gleaning400 in Mekong.jpg
Washing in the Mekong
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. 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.

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. Beginning in the 14th century, the Chinese approved the Dai kings and nobles and officially recognized their control over other ethnic groups.

The Dai were at the edge of the furthest southern thrusts by the Mongols, who managed to conquer much of Burma but not Vietnam. 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.

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.

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.

Origin and Early History of the Dai

The Dai is a nationality of great antiquity. 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 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.

Dai History During the Imperial Chinese Era

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. In the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, the Dai were also called "Mangman", "Jinchi (Gold Teeth)", "Yinchi (Silver Teeth)", "Baiyi (White Robe)". 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, kepu.net.cn ~; Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

In 109 B.C., Emperor Wu Di of the Western Han (206 B.C. - A.D. 009) Dynasty set up the prefecture of Yizhou (alternatively Yi Zhou, "Yi" being a variant of "Yue", and "Zhou"—alternatively "Zhao"—meaning state, or prefecture) as a special area to house the Yue people in southwestern China, corresponding to present-day Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. In subsequent years the Dai of Yizhou Prefecture sent emissaries bearing tributes to the Han court in Luoyang in appreciation of the recognition shown them by the Chinese emperor. Included in the entourage were Dai musicians and acrobats whose performance at the Han court won the Dai people great praise; these emissaries, or "Dai ambassadors", received gold seals from the emperor while their leader was given the title of "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. \=/

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.[Source: China.org china.org |]

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. |

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.\=/ |

Chinese Marxist View of Dai History

According to the Chinese government: “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." 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). [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The increasing economic and cultural interflow between the Han and Dai peoples, as well as the migration of many Han people to the frontiers, taking with them advanced production skills and culture and science, promoted the economic development of Dai society. The feudal lord system established in the Dai areas at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty further promoted social production. The use of iron implements was widespread, new strains of crops were cultivated, and cotton was grown extensively. A number of fairly large commercial townships such as Cheli were established.

“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. | “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. |

“The frontier Dai areas such as Dehong, Menglian and Gengma were nearly the same as Xishuangbanna, basically having a feudal manorial economy. However, their social economy underwent new changes. The land allocated to the peasants became more stabilized and hereditary, and land rent in kind was widely practiced. In Mangshi and Yingjiang, the landlord economy developed faster and the rich peasant economy also grew, because of the Dai people's frequent contact with the Hans. |

“For a long time the Dais had grown rice as their main crop, and they had developed a rather complete, intensive farming system and gained rich experience in irrigation. However, under the shackles of feudalism, yields were low. The reckless exploitation by the luxury loving ruling class and the Han landlords and merchants forced many peasants to flee their villages. |

“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.” |

Dai Identity and Bei Ye Culture

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 \=/]

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 ethnic-china.com *]

“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. *\

“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

20080305-Dai-char Nolls.jpg
Dai in Chinese characters
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. The Dai 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 chinatravel.com \=/]

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, kepu.net.cn ~]

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.

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 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) 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 July 2015

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