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Bai woman playing yueqin

The Bai have traditionally lived villages clustered around Erlai Lake and on the Dali Plain. in two-story, mud-brink, tile-roof, U-shaped houses, surrounded by a courtyard. Typically the family lived on the top floor and the bottom floor was used for storage. Some lived in the mountains in thatch-roof homes made with wood and bamboo. Bai villages near Dali are famous for their unique homes and pagodas. The houses have grey brick walls, tiled roof houses and beams decorated with paintings of birds, flowers and mountains. The towers in the villages have roofs with upturned eaves.

The Bai people live mainly on farming. Some earn income from fishing, livestock raising, tourism and handicraft industries. The main food crops are paddy rice, wheat and corn. Their main cash crops are sugar cane, tobacco and tea. The Bai is one of the minorities of southwest China that has been in contact with the Chinese people for the longest period of time and have received many cultural influences from the Chinese. This has been due, in part, to the accessibility of the lands they inhabit, their peaceful character and the similarity of their rice culture to that of the Chinese. [Source: Ethnic China]

Work has traditionally been divided equally among men and women with men doing the heavy work and women selling stuff in the markets. Women were known for their ability to carry heavy loads for long distances. The Bai people enjoy eating raw meat. Marco Polo wrote that people of Yunnan ate raw flesh of sheep, oxen, water buffalo and fowl raw "as well as they do the cooked." Often before a feast the meat is sent to a health clinic to make sure it safe. In Dali some people keep parrots as pets and use falcons for hunting.

The Bai traditionally believed sickness was tied to having offended a tutelary spirit or to having been possessed by a malevolent spirit. Religious semispecialists or shamans, using medicinal herbs, songs, and chants, worked as doctors and exorcists and received food and money as payment. Many endemic (sometimes epidemic) diseases, such as schistosomiasis (a parasitic worm disease carried by certain types of snails) was eradicated after the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949. [Source: Beth E. Notar, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Bai Society

Village life revolves around nuclear families and families with different names are bound together by their village not a common ancestor. People living in the same village, no matter what their family name or kin group, all worshiped a common ancestor said to be the founder of the village. Surnames and the term for lineage, as well as the system of patrilineal descent, seem to have been imposed on the Bai through Chinese influence. [Source: Beth E. Notar, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Before 1949, Bai society was divided into landless peasants, peasants, artisans, wealthy peasants who lived in the cities, merchants and landlords. Village elders were respected and women had fairly equal status with men. Under the Communists, the wealthy were stigmatized but since the economic reforms in 1970 socioeconomic classes have reemerged.

In the 13th century, after the fall of the Dali Kingdom, the Bai were governed by the traditional Chinese civil-service system in which counties were headed by magistrates who collected taxes and meted out justice. In the 1920s, the Nationalist government introduced a modified bao jia, or "family guarantee," system, under which sections called ju were composed of three to four villages, which in turn were composed of five family units. Each section was led by a headman, usually a village elder expected to work in conjunction with the villagers. After the 1949 Communist takeover the Bai came under Communist Chinese administration.

The Bai have traditionally settled disputes among themselves with the guidance of village elders rather through the Chinese judicial system. Punishments often varied depending on whether the victim was a relative or not. For example, the murder of relative might be punished with death while that of a stranger would not. Most disputes involved water rights and couples wishing to get out of arranged marriages.

Drug addiction has become a problem with the Bai and other ethnic groups in Yunnan. Yunnan is a stop on Golden Triangle drug smuggling routes. Another source of problem is the contrast in wealth between lowland, urban Bai who have a relatively high standard of living and the poor mountain-dwellers.

Bai Families and Marriage

left Sons sometimes lived with their parents but could establish households on their own. If a couple didn’t have a son they could adopt a son from a relative or a stranger or could have a son-in-law look after them in old age. Inheritance was divided among sons. Son-in-laws could become eligible if they changed their name. Bai children are given a lot of attention when they are young. Families often make toys for them. Girls are encouraged to go to school as well as boys.

Arranged marriages — with children betrothed while they were infants and wed when they were teenagers — was the norm in many Bai areas until the early 20th century. A bride price and dowry were exchanged. Cousins were allowed to marry; wives usually kept their maiden name; and marriage was mostly monogamous except among wealthy landowners. The ease in getting a divorces varied. During weddings, houses are festooned with pine garlands, neighbors are invited, four hogs are slaughtered and a big feast of raw pork is served up.

In the old days, young people expressed their feelings for the opposite sex by blowing on a tree leaf. The object of the attention tried to decipher the meaning from the melody and the tune. Conflicts sometimes arose when grown children refused to marry the partner their parents had arranged for them. Couples that were in love and wanted to escape their arranged marriage could stage a face-saving elopement in which the couple would be chased by the bride’s male relatives who have no intention of catching them while a financial settlement is worked between families involved in the arranged marriage. Negotiations usually yielded an agreeable, peaceful solution. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

According to the Chinese government’s Marxist view: “Monogamous families have been the basic social cells of the Bais, with a very few people who practiced polygamy. Parents live with their unmarried children, but only in big landlord families did four generations live together. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, matches between young men and young women of the same surname or clan were not permitted, while marriages between cousins were encouraged, and were arranged by the parents. High bride prices caused many poor families to fall into debt. Women were discriminated against, and only men had the right to inherit family property. But all such feudal practices and customs have been fading away since 1949. Young people now enjoy the freedom to choose their lovers.” [Source:]

Bai Customs and Taboos

Gifts are very important. When guest arrive at some event they usually present a gift to he hosts. When the guest are about to leave, they usually receive a gift in return from the host. Every festivals or family event is accompanied by congratulatory visits. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ]

According to “The Bai people are very hospitable. Guests are well-received and well-treated. The well-known Sandao tea ceremony is a good example of the ritual of the Bai when they receive and entertain guests. Normally, locals offer only a half cup of tea but a full cup of wine to a guest because they believe this shows respect. They don't force guests to drink the wine, and guests may drink as much as they like. When warmly received, guests should say "thank you" to their host. [Source: \=/]

Dali pagodas
“It is tradition for the Bai people to honor their elderly. Young people always take the initiative to greet old people, to say hello to them, to give them their seats, and to offer them tea and cigarettes. The first cup of tea for the day is given to the most senior member in a family. He always takes up the seat of honor at the dining table and is the first to eat. Young people are not allowed to speak badly in front of old people, and it is impolite for young people to cross their legs when sitting in the presence of old people. \=/

“The fireplace in a home is sacred and people are not allowed to spit at it or walk over it. It is also taboo to sit on the threshold of a house. Women should avoid walking over the tools that men use. And people in mourning are not allowed to enter other people's houses. On New Year's Day on the Chinese lunar calendar, using a knife, carrying water home, and sweeping the floor are taboo. On New Year's eve, people should return borrowed items and retrieve items they lent to others; otherwise, they will have bad luck and a poor harvest in the coming year. The seventh day of the New Year is women's day and on that day, women do not cook, carry water, or do other housework. Instead, they relax, play, and enjoy themselves. The ninth day of the New Year is men's day and on this day, men relax and rest. In Yuanlong County, on the 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, people are not allowed to visit others' homes. \=/

Bai Architecture

According to the Chinese government: “The superb architectural skill of the Bai people is represented by the three pagodas at the Chongsheng Temple in Dali. Built during the Tang Dynasty, the 16-storey main tower is 60 meters high and still stands erect after more than 1,000 years. Figurines in the Shibaoshan Grottoes in Jianchuan County are lifelike, possessing both the common features of figure creation in China and the unique features of the Bai artists. The architectural group in the Jizushan Temple, with bow-shaped crossbeams, bracket-inserted columns, and gargoyles representing people, flowers and birds created with the open carving method, shows the excellent workmanship of the Bai people.

Bai civilian architecture varies from region to region. In flat lands, houses are generally have timber frames but are constructed with bricks. In frigid mountain areas, however, most houses are "Duomufang"-houses constructed by laying logs into walls. One feature of Bai architecture is that the buildings have a graceful and refined curving roofs with a tall and sharp peak and two upturned ends. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Adapted to the geographical features of the area, civilian buildings generally have backs oriented towards Blue Mountain and their fronts facing Erhai Lake. Winds are strong there, so eaves are covered with bluestones to prevent wind from damaging them or blowing them off. There are no windows on the front wall, which creates privacy within the building. The eaves are large because of the rainy weather. Earthquakes frequently take place in Dali; therefore the quakeproof measures are very strict. The timber frames of Bai building are integrated structures with every part solidly constructed. ~

Many civilian building walls in Dali are built by laying rectangular stones together. These walls are very solid and durable. Some others are even built with pebbles in the Eighteen Brooks of the Blue Mountain. There is a byword among the local people that "as one of the three treasures in Dali, pebbles make walls that never collapse." ~

Bai Houses

Most Bai houses are made of wood and mud bricks and usually have tile roofs. They are typically oriented toward the east and have a courtyard. The walls on two sides are often higher than the roof to keep fire from spreading. The house itself is usually composed of two floors: the upper one for storing grain and other stuff, the lower one with a central room for daily life and receptions. Some houses have a front corridor and eaves with double layers. In most cases, the front wall is a wooden structure with an engraved door and windows. Bai houses generally have a symmetrical shape and elegant appearance, with beautiful arches, upturned eaves and angles. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities~]

Bai House at a Folk Village

In some rural areas, wooden houses on stilts can still be found, with animals such as pigs and chickens kept on the ground floor, while the family lives on the second floor. Bai dwelling in mountainous areas are sometimes thatched-roof cottages. Bai inhabiting the plains and valleys have traditionally had a much higher standard of living than mountain-dwellers. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The "three houses with one front wall" building style is favored by many of the Bai people. The most common styles of overall arrangement include: "one main house with two more cottages," "three houses with one front wall," and "four houses with five patios". "One main house with two more cottages" consists of a two-storied house with a cottage on each side; the "three houses with one more wall" style is a combination of three double-storied houses with one more wall on the other side where the main door or gate is positioned; a "four houses and five patios" building has four double-storied houses in a square shape, a big patio in the center and a small patio and a pavilion in each corner. ~

The bases of Bai houses are usually constructed of square stones that give the structure a stable and solid footing. The gate or front door is often decorated with engravings and colorful paintings. The door of the main room consists of six lattices. Each lattice has an upper part and a lower part, both engraved with various lively patterns of legendary characters, birds and beasts, and flowers. The gate is often constructed with materials such as timber, clay, marble or blue bricks. ~

Walls are usually painted with slaked lime. Inside the patio, parterres are laid to plant flowers and trees. The front wall has upturned eaves, which are decorated with bricks on the brim. Covered with blue or glazed tiles, the roof is symmetrical and looks very graceful. The middle part of the front wall is painted white, on which Chinese characters like "Wan Zi Qian Hong"(thousands of red and violet flowers blooming in spring), "Cai Yun Nan Xian" (colorful clouds appearing in the South), "Nong Feng Cheng Xiang" (A dragon and a phoenix present a good omen), "Fu Shou An Kang" (fortune, longevity and good health) are written to show their wish for good blessings. Some times, single Chinese characters like "Fu (fortune)", "Shou (longevity) ," "Lu (richness)," "Xi (happiness)" are also favored on these occasions. People may paint or write their poems or prose on the front wall as well. ~

Types of Bai Houses

Bai houses fall into three categories, according to the material, decorations, and furnishings: 1) bamboo sawali house and thatched cottage, 2) wooden house, and 3) house with tiled roof. These divisions reflect different economic levels and the different geographical environments. [Source: \=/]

Inside a Bai House

1) A bamboo sawali house is usually built on the slope of a hill or mountain. It has two stories; the lower story is about 1.5 meters tall and the upper story is 2.5 meters tall. The lower one stores livestock while people live in the upper. The floor of the upper story is wooden and the walls are made of bamboo sawali. The house is about 10 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. The upper story is usually divided into two small rooms and one big room using bamboo sawali walls. One of the small rooms is a bedroom for children or the youngest son and his wife. The other small room is to store farming tools and utensils. The big room serves as the sitting room, the kitchen, and the bedroom for the elderly, or the host and hostess. \=/

People build a thatched cottage with wooden pillars and beams of about 8 to 15 centimeters in diameter. The cottage is enclosed with walls of branches, bamboo sawalis, or maize stalks. The roof is covered with thatches. The cottage measures 8 to 15 square meters in area. It has only one room. A fire pit is at the center of the room. Beside the fire pit, boards are put on the floor for a bed. People lay cabinets, back baskets, barrels, knives, and hoes at the corners of the room. Bamboo sawali houses and thatched cottages are mainly found in the areas in Nujiang Prefecture inhabited by the Bai. \=/

2) Wooden house: The Bai in Eryuan County, Yunlong County, Lanping County, and Weixi County live in wooden houses. People build the houses with pine trunks of about 10 to 15 centimeters in diameter. They make the pine trunks square in cross-section and then lay one pine trunk on another to set up the walls. However, the material for the roof is different, and uses boards or thatches. Some wooden houses have only one room. This type of house measures 4.5 meters long, 3.9 meter wide, and 2.5 meters high. It is for a couple and their children under seven years old. Children over seven years of age live in another wooden house or with their grandparents. A fire pit used for cooking is found in the center of the house. \=/

3) House with tiled roof: The typical house with a tiled roof has two stories. Each story has three rooms. The ground floor has two bedrooms and one sitting room. In front of the house is a courtyard and steps leading to the sitting room. On the second floor is one storeroom, and probably another bedroom. A memorial tablet is usually placed against a wall where the family holds memorial ceremonies for their ancestors. Houses with tiled roofs are found in Dali, Kunming, Lijiang, and Yuanjiang. [Source: \=/]

Bai Food and “Milk Fans”

Rice and flour are the staple foods of the Bai. Mountain dwellers often favor corn and buckwheat. Bai like sour, cool, and spicy dishes and enjoy fresh vegetables and pickles. Women are good at making a variety of pickles. They are also good at making salted fish, ham, and sauces such as broad bean sauce, lobster sauce, snail sauce and flour sauce. The people in Jiangchuan and Heqing cook different dishes with edible seaweed picked from Erhai Lake. Pork is the main meat of the Bai diet. The Bai prepare different dishes with it and enjoy ham, sausage, banger, smoked pig liver, shredded and seasoned roast pork .and smoked pig intestines. During winter, people enjoy beef soup with radishes, turnips, and shallots. People living near a river or a lake are good at cooking fish. Baked tea is a unique dish. Bai generally eat three meals a day. [Source:; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

left "Milk fan" is a traditional solid dairy product peculiar to the Bai nationality. It is mainly produced in Dengchuan of Eyuan County and has the shape of a fan. So, it is named "milk fan" or "Dengchuan milk fan." Although unique, milk fan is not complicated to make: 1) first ferment milk into acidophilus milk (tangy, slightly thick milk that is fermented with certain bacteria) and heat to a temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Celsius; 2) then add some fresh milk and stir it with a wooden spoon. 3) The acidophilus milk and the fresh milk flocculate and then agglomerate. Take the agglomerate out, knead it and then pull it into a thin piece that is about 20 centimeters long and 8 centimeters wide. 4) Last, pull the two ends of the piece a little thinner and longer, and dry it with the two ends rolled around two slender bamboo rods. The distance between the two rods is about 16 to 17 centimeters and there can be more than 10 milks fan drying on them. 5) After drying, the two-layer milk fans can be loosened and then taken off. Milk fan is tasty and rich in fat, protein, lactose and many other nourishing ingredients. Milk fans can be stored for a long time and are portable. The Bai people often entertain their guests with a dish prepared with milk fans, and give it to people as presents. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

There are various ways to cook and prepare milk fans. One way delicious way is to cook eggs with fresh milk and put some milk fans and rock candy in it. This is called "fresh milk, egg, rock candy, milk fans." If you cook eggs with brown sugar and milk fans, you get milk fan poached eggs. Among the common milk fan dishes are "fried milk fan chips," "braised sanxian (three kinds of fresh food) milk fans," "deep-fried milk fans," and "steamed stuffed bun with milk fan inside." Milk fans are sweet when eaten raw, fragrant and spicy when fried, soft and tasteful when cooked, refreshing when steamed, and aromatic when baked with some salt. Whichever cooking method you take, milk fans always have a strong aftertaste. ~

Bai Tea Ceremony: "Three Cups of Tea"

For the Bai, tea is a popular drink. They normally drink tea twice a day, in the early morning and at noon. The tea drunk in the early morning is called "morning tea" or "wakening tea," and is consumed immediately after getting up. The tea drunk at noon is called "relaxing tea" or "thirst-satisfying tea.” People often add some popcorn and milk to their tea. [Source: \=/]

The Bai tea ceremony, known as "three cups of tea (san dao cha)," is central to the Bai's traditional etiquette for welcoming and entertaining guests. Its history can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. At that time Fan Chuo wrote in a book on ethnic minorities that “barbarians” presumed to be the Bai “gave me a drink, which was a cooked with a mixture of peppercorn, ginger and cassia.” A famous tourist and explorer from Ming dynasty said when he was in the Bai region he was served "first a cup of clear tea, then a cup of salt tea, and last a cup of honey tea." [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

The Bai people are very hospitable. When a guest or visitor comes to a Bai house, the host invites him into the ir main room and serves him "three cups of tea." There are two types of "three cups of tea." One is baked tea, which used to serve ordinary guests. To make baked tea: 1) put selected Dayezi tea (a tea with large leaves) or Xiaguantuo tea into a jar; 2) heat and shake it over a charcoal fire until the tea leaves turn yellow and a pleasant fragrance emanates from it; 3) then pour a small amount of boiled water into the jar. Snow-white tea froths then overflow the jar, producing a rush of tea fragrance that fills the nose. 4) Add a proper amount of boiled water, and then pour it into exquisite teacups to serve the guests.. Due to the noise produced when pouring water into the baked jar, the drink is sometimes called "thundering tea." Since this type of tea is served three times in most cases, people call it "three cups of tea"—"drink the first cup for its fragrance, the second for taste, and the third to quench the thirst." ~

The other sort of "three cups of tea" is served to honored guests. The first cup of tea — "thundering tea" — is made from local bitter tea. The second looks like soup. It is made from brown sugar, milk fan chips, walnuts, chayote, sesame, orange skins, and popcorn. It tastes sweet. The third cup of tea is made by mixing prickly ash, ginger, pine nuts, and Chinese cinnamon with honey and bitter tea. The tea set includes a jar, a porcelain mug, a tray, a copper kettle for making condiments, a small plane, a copper strainer, a spoon, a sugar mug and a condiment tray. The first cup of tea has the symbolic meaning of "To make great achievements, one should not fear hardships." It also shows welcome to the guest. The second cup, the sweet one, means that after all hardships, the sweet will finally come. The third cup is pungent, with a distinct aftertaste. It suggests after going through all kinds of hardships, and enjoying the joys of life, one can recall both bitter and happy experiences. This kind of traditional tea culture is unique to the Bai. This display of the wisdom of life—"bitterness, then sweetness, and last aftertaste”—reflects the beauty of Bai culture. These days tourists in Dali can enjoy the "three cups of tea" with a show of singing and dancing and other activities at a tea party or tea banquet. ~

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Bai Clothes and Hairstyles

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”“Men wear multi-buttoned Chinese-style upper garments in white or blue, sometimes with a vest, and long white trousers. They wrap their heads with white or blue cloth and carry a decorated bag over the back of the shoulder. Most women wear white tops with a black or purple velvet vest and loose trousers in blue. A short apron with embroidered ribbons is fastened to the waist. A string of silver ornaments is hung on the right of the garment. The Bai are fond of embroidered shoes. Their costumes for special occasions are not much different from their daily dress. Various ornaments are put on during the festival. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Bai clothing styles have long history. Historical record describe the Bai weaving a kind of cloth known as "Tonghua” in the A.D. second century. During the Nanzhao Regime and the Dali Kingdom, the Bai created their own clothing styles. Today Bai people is known for its bright and well-matching in colors, delicate and fine embroideries, and plain and simple in style. Bai clothing is usually adorned with camellia flowers because the Bai view these flowers as a symbol of beauty. The Bai enjoy wearing a red scarf on their shoulders and a white outer upper garment, a combination that resembles blooming camellias. [Source: \=/]

Unmarried girls have a braid on their back or coil the braid on the top of the head. Married women comb their hair into a bun, which they wrap with an embroidered or printed scarf with the tassels hung over one side of the head. Some of them put together the four angles of the scarf on the back of the head, then fix them with string. According to “An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. She also likes to wear an apron with embroideries. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers. The scarf on a girl's head is special and has a special name, "the flower in the wind and the moon on a snowy night." The overall shape of the scarf on a girl’s head is that of a crescent. The upper part of the scarf is as white as snow. The embroideries on the lower part are of flowers. The tail of the scarf falls down naturally on one shoulder, waving to and fro in the wind.” \=/

However, due to different geographical environments, economical conditions and influences of neighboring nationalities, their costumes vary from area to area while retaining some similarities. Women's coats, aprons and trousers in areas like Jianchuan, Eyuan, Lijiang, Yunlong, Heqing, Lanping and Weixi are usually of light-blue, blue or black color. Unmarried girls in Jianchuan usually wear small hats, or hats with silver balls called "Drum-nail Hats" or "Fishtail Hats." Girls in Eyuan also like wearing "Phoenix Hat", but those in Heqing prefer to braid their hair into a single plait and tie it on the head, and then cover it with a kerchief with embroidered patterns of bees and butterflies. Girls in Lijiang often wear several or even more than ten pieces of folded head cloths tied to the hair with headbands of various colors. And the outside piece of cloth has patterns of different colors. In addition, most women in Jianchuan, Eyuan, Heqing have a piece of pure-white sheepskin over their shoulder, which is seen as a symbol of their industry and chastity. In Fushang county of Hunan Province, the Bai people like wearing white clothes and white headscarves, too. And there is a saying among them: "To be beautiful, first to your parents be dutiful.” [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]

Bai Clothes and the Color White

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The Bai people hold white color in high esteem and most of them prefer to wear white clothes, or at least clothes with a lot of white on them. White color is often the grounding which serves as a foil to deep colors like red, blue and black; sometimes, colors such as blue or black also serve as the grounding, which sets off thin and thick white patterns and gives it a dazzling and gorgeous effect. The Bai think that the snow-white tassels of head wrapping represent the blue mountain covered with snow, and blue aprons represent the rippling blue Erhai Lake. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Wearing white is a symbol of filial piety in most cultures of China. The Bai believe that white represents dignity and high social status. Among the Bai people, men generally wear white front-buttoned shirt and white head wrappings and black cloth shoes; and women wear white side-buttoned shirt, blue jacket, embroidered aprons, blue trousers, white leg wrappings, and white headscarves with white embroidered or dyed patterns. This style of clothing, though seemingly simple, is beautiful and graceful, and shows the good and unique aesthetic taste of the Bai people. ~

Among the Bai people that inhabit Dali, men generally wear white front-buttoned shirt with black-collar jacket outside, white or blue trousers, white head wrappings and black cloth shoes. However, many Bai people living in mountain areas wear blue or black head wrappings, too. Women's costumes vary with their living places; the unmarried and the married wear different clothes. In terms of hairstyle, an unmarried girl often braids her hair and makes a bun, which is tied together with a white-tasseled, colored kerchief or towel, and a red headband. Married women generally wear their hair is unbraided, and put on hair clasps and head scarves, which are mostly made of Zharan (a form of beautiful dyeing) cloth, black or blue cloth, or colored towel. ~

Young girls in Dali City generally wear white or light-blue shirts, or red sleeveless jackets, with fuchsia or black velour coats outside. They like wearing white or blue trousers with wide bottoms. There are usually three or nine silver lines as decoration on the right button. They also wear girdles and blue aprons with embroidered flowing tapes. Girls often have embroidered "Baijie(white) Shoes" or "Fengtou (Phoenix head) Shoes." They wear Niusi (intertwined silver threads) silver bracelets or jade bracelets, rings, gold or jade earrings. The costumes of young girls are very gorgeous and beautiful; however, as age increases, their clothing tend to be simpler and deeper in color, though still refined in style. Their sleeves, apron flowing tapes, and headscarves are often decorated with beautifully dyed patterns, stitched flowers, and embroidery. ~

Bai Tie-Dyeing and Batik

Dyeing, weaving and embroidery are all carried out by the Bai with great skill and artistry. The Bai are particularly famous for tie-dyeing, also known as ‘skein dyeing’. Bai usually use white cotton cloth or cotton and linen blended white cloth as the raw material, and the dye is the indigo dye made from Baphicacanthus cusia Bremek. The key to tie-dye technique is the tie approach and dying process. Bai tie-dye has a wide variety and features naturally shaped small patterns with even distribution, and motifs of auspicious meaning. It is a functional and beautiful craft. “Tie-dyed Scarf with Design of Pomegranates Surrounding a Ball” is on display at the Shanghai Museum. [Source: Shanghai Museum.

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bai silver bong
The Bai tie-dye traditional handicrafts, daily attire and clothes worn for special occasions. The first step in making a tie-dyed garment involves drawing different designs on each piece of cloth. The next step is to tie the cloth with thread-not too tightly and not too loosely. The cloth is then dyed. Afterwards the threads are removed and the cloth is hung out to dry. [Source: CRI March 26, 2009]

According to CRI: Tie-dying has a very long history, dating back over 1,000 years. Originally, Bai people carried out tie-dying in their own homes. Gradually, home-based workshops appeared and became so common that nearly every family had one. The designs and the colour choices are now richer than before-not just single blue but blue, green, red, brown and so on. You can see flaming tie-dyed tablecloths, handkerchiefs, door hangings and clothes hung out in the courtyards, waving in the wind.” There is a tie-dying cloth factory not far from the Butterfly Spring Park. Workers there use dye made of Banlangen, is a kind of Chinese herbal medicine. It is said the dye is good for your skin and health. "

According to “Batik is a ancient art of the Bai. The pattern of the cloth is simple and natural, looks graceful, and yet is not extravagant. In the past, people used hand-loomed cloth as the basic material. Now they use cloth produced by machines in modern factories. “The batik goes through three steps: making knots, dipping and dyeing, and drying in the sun.The first step is to make some knots in a piece of white cloth by sewing and tying according to the requirements of the designed pattern. It is important to tie these knots tightly. Then, dip the cloth into the die vat and leave it there for a certain amount of time. Fish out the cloth and let it dry in the sun. The dyeing and drying process is repeated several times. The next thing people do is put the cloth in clean water to clear off the redundant dye from the cloth. They then take out the stitches...the tied parts of the cloth that were not affected by the dye form a pattern. The untied part of the cloth turns deep blue and the tied part remains white, creating a piece of beautiful tie-dye cloth. With this method of dyeing, people don't know exactly what the cloth will look like. Surprising and unexpected patterns on the cloth usually appear. The main ingredients of the dye are banlangen and indigo. Compared with chemical dye, these natural dyes are better at creating natural colors and do not fade easily. The garments made of tie-dye cloth wear more comfortably and don't negatively affect one’s skin. The most well-known production centers for tie-dye cloth are Zhoucheng Township and Xizhou Township in Dali City.” [Source:]

Bai Culture and Art

Over the centuries, the Bais have created a science and culture of their own. To their credit are inventions and advances in meteorology, astronomy, calendar, architecture, medical science, literature, music, dancing, carving and painting. Among the representative works of the Bai people are Transit Star Catalogue for Time Determination by the Ming Dynasty scholar Zhou Silian, Collection of Secret Prescriptions by Chen Dongtian and Tested Prescriptions by Li Xingwei. These classics recorded and summarized in detail the valuable experience of the Bai people in astronomy and medicine.[Source: |]

Singing and dancing are featured in festivals and religious ceremonies. Temples have traditionally hosted dramas with Buddhist themes. In the imperial era, the Bais were famous for their carved furniture. At one time many Chinese palace carpenters were Bai. The famous painting depicting the Resurgence of the Nanzhao was created in A.D. 899 by Bai painters Zhang Shun and Wang Fengzong. Today, the Bai produce marble, wonderful embroidery and blue and white-dyed cloth for sale to tourists.

The Bai are skilled at making lacquerware and wood carvings,. Their lacquerware was prized Imperial Chinese courts of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Bai wood carving feature exquisite birds, flowers, and personages. Such decorations are found on the doors and windows of Jizushan Buddhist Monastery as well in private houses throughout Dali. Dali Jianchuan carpenters are well-known. A typical openwork carvings is made of three wooden boards, with a dragon swimming upwards on each piece, heading towards the precious pearl. Such works features ingenious designs, vivid pattern and skilled carving technique. A foldable hat stand is a good example of light, artistic work of art with a practical use. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Bai Folklore, Myths and Literature

Bai literature is one of the richest among China’s ethnic minorities. They have a rich repertory of love tales, historical stories, Buddhist tales, animal myths and fables. The story "Tuchaoxian the hunter" and their heroic fight against a snake that terrifies the world still moves and frightens children in the Bai villages. Dragons are important part of the folklore of the Bai who live around Erhai Lake. There are hundreds of tales about big and small dragons, the Dragon King, Dragon Princess, and the mother of Dragon King. "Carving a Dragon" is a beautiful story that shows that although the Bai celebrate the Torch Festival like other people in Yunnan, for them it has a different meaning than for other peoples. [Source: Ethnic China *]

C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: Bai myths are usually long and complex. Most of them are related to daily life, love, and religious beliefs. A famous one, called "Husband-expecting Cloud" was transformed into a dance drama and a Bai opera. In short, a princess of Nanzhao Kingdom fell in love with a young hunter. They escaped to Cang Mountain and married in a cavern. During a snowstorm, the hunter left the cavern to find a suit of thick clothes for his chilled wife. Unfortunately, he was discovered by a Buddhist priest of the royal court. The priest turned the hunter into a stone mule, which was sunk into the Er'hai Lake. Dying from cold and hunger, the princess transformed herself into a cloud. If it suddenly appeared around the peak of Cang Mountain in winter, the stone mule in the deep water always cried in response. Then a strong gale blew abruptly, the water split, and the stone mule appeared in an awe-inspiring manner. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

The most important Bai myth is "Creation of the world". Which is divided into three sections: 1) Primordial times, 2) Creation of the world and 3) Creation of Man. In the primordial times trees and stones could walk; and oxen, horses, pigs and dogs could talk. The earth was flat without lakes and mountains. The world was created by Panggu and Pangsheng, who turned themselves into heaven and earth respectively. The Creation of Man was the work of Guanyin (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) who hide a brother and sister inside a golden drum. They survived a great flood and created human beings. ~

Given the abundance of Bai deities and fact that each one has a history and story that goes with it, the Bai have an abundant, rich and varied body of legends. These are perhaps the most interesting section of the Bai literature. Most of the tales and legends describe the heroic actions of ancient ancestors and historical figures that became gods. In many of legends fantastic stories are mixed with historical ones. ~

Some poems by Bai poets have been included in the Complete Poems of Tang Dynasty (Quan Tang Shi). The History of the Bais, Anecdotes of Nanzhao and Kingdoms of Southwest China are among the best historical works written by Bai historians. They provide important data for the study of the history of the Erhai area. [Source:]

Bai Music

In some places, young boys and girls have traditionally wooed one another in by singing all night long in antiphonal style, accompanied by three-string instruments. “The "Bai Melody" is a kind of folk song shared by all Bai and featured at every major Bai festival. Although it varies slightly from place to place, it is always a poem with five or seven characters to a line, accompanied by three stringed instruments, sometimes accompanied by a woodwind instrument). Bai opera, known as chuichui, combines music, song, and dance, and has been strongly influenced Chinese theater and opera. The famous Lion Dance, associated with the Chinese originated with the Bai and was borrowed by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *] The works of Bai poets of Nanzhao Kingdom were included in the great

The Bai have hundreds of old songs, One of the oldest is "Tending the sheep", that depicts the introduction of sheep among the Bai, and the relations between the Bai King and the Shu King. They also have many historical songs and poems, many of which date back or refer to the Nanzhao Kingdom (748-925). "History of the Bai", "Anecdotes of Nanzhao", and "Kingdom of the Southwest" are some of the best known ones. "Burning the Torches Hall" tells how Pilouge, the first king and founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom, killed his opponents by pretending to invite them to a banquet. Among some Bai this was a tragic event as their former kings were tricked and killed by Pilouge. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Book: “Chinese Ethnic Minority Oral Traditions: A Recovered Text of Bai Folk Songs in a Sinoxenic Script”(Cambria Sinophone World Series, 2015) by Jingqi Fu and Zhao Min with Xu Lin and Duan Ling is book on the oral traditions of the Bai based a booklet written in the Old Bai script. According to a description of the book: “In 1958 while conducting fieldwork in Yunnan, a professor came across a ricepaper booklet with strange script created from Chinese characters. This turned out to be a folksong booklet in Old Bai script. She safeguarded it carefully through the tumultuous Mao years until the 1990s, when the political environment had relaxed enough for her to conduct full-scale ethnographic research. Very few such texts remain, and what makes this booklet even more valuable is that it records songs that have already disappeared, including some with sexually explicit content. The introduction begins with a process of textualization, recounting the origin of the written song text. The section is on Bai folklore and culture, with a discussion on traditional performance genres, in particular antiphonal singing, of which these songs are a part.

At most Bai festivals the people enjoy themselves singing and dancing. There are many Bai dances, including the Dance of the Stick and the Flower and the Hero's Whip. In one very characteristic Dai dance, dancers bang bamboo tubes filled with coins like tambourine. The Chinese influence on the Bai is manifested in some of their dances. The most popular dance among the Bai is the Lion Dance, which is said to have originated in the time of the Nanzhao Kingdom.

Bai Dance

Square dancing in China refers to dances done in a public square. Often for exercise, rather than American-style square dancing. The rattlesnake dance seen at People's Park in Dali and is said to be Bai ethnic dance even though as far as I know there are no rattlesnakes in China. Describing a version of the dance performed at the Galaxy Awards competition for community art held in Qingdao, Shandong province in 2013, Sun Ye wrote in the China Daily: “With a rattlesnake whip in one hand, use the other to give yourself a tap on the shoulder, then your elbow, wrist, waist, kneecap and instep until you have tapped each joint in your body. It looks like the perfect stretching exercise. Except you are holding a whip decorated with six little coins that give a jaunty jingle with each "swish". .[Source: Sun Ye, China Daily, November 13, 2013]

The routine is not solely for exercise. is an emotional expression of culture. "Listen to the coins, it's how we welcome wealth and happiness. It's our tradition to dance the rattlesnake dance at major festivals and celebrations," explains Yang Zhenyi, 36, who led her group of amateur dancers from Yunnan "The dance at the square we practice daily is easier than the original ones, but it's the same free-spirited and engaging dance that just makes you happier and happier when you tap to the tune," says Yang. "I've only seen the full set of dances in the village where my grandparents lived, but I love it." Yang was raised in the city and is a clerk at the local art museum. Dancing in the square is best accompanied by impromptu Bai ethnic tunes sung a cappella. "Listen to it, we dance to say how lovely we Yunnan 'golden flower' girls are," Yang says.


Bai Recreation and Sports

C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Traditional forms of entertainment are mainly singing and dancing. Singing contests are held around Mount Wudiao in the fall of each year. Torches are kindled. The rising and falling sounds of songs fill the night like waves. When the busy season of transplanting rice shoots is finished, the Bai people have a festive dinner party in the temple of the Master. They dress as fishermen, woodcutters, peasants and scholars, participate in the procession of the "rattling stick dance," and tour their village for fun. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“"Tossing the silk ball" and "rattle stick dance" are traditional popular Bai sports and spectator sports as well. The game of "tossing the silk ball" is usually played on festivals. The ball is actually a small bag padded with cottonseed or rice husk, ½ to 1 lb in weight, and variable in size. Two teams, one of boys and one of girls, oppose each other, but are separated by a mat shelter. A member of one team tosses the ball over the top of the mat shelter; the ball should be caught by a member of the receiving team. If the ball is missed, a negative mark will be recorded. This game offers the occasion for boys and girls to meet and get acquainted socially. *\

“The rattle stick is a 3 ft bamboo stick, thicker than one's thumb. There are nine openings on the shaft, each of which is pierced by a bamboo nail. Two-holed copper coins are hung on each bamboo nail. Each player taps his or her own shoulders, arms, knees, and feet with the rattle stick while dancing, jumping, marching, or squatting, but without letting the coins drop from the stick. The one who loses the least coins is the winner. *\

Bai Economy and Agriculture

Agriculture was practiced in the Erhai area as early as the Neolithic Age. People then knew how to dig ditches for irrigation. During the Nanzhao Kingdom, they began the cultivation of rice, wheat, broomcorn, millet and several other crops, and built the Cangshan water-conservancy project which could bring water to tens of thousands of hectares of land. The Dali area was an important trade center for routes between China, Southeast Asia and Tibet. Muleteers and porters conducted trade by carting goods over the mountains on the Tea-Horse Road and other routes. [Source: ]

About 90 percent of Bai are engaged in agriculture. The soil in the Dali area is very fertile. The Bai have traditionally grown rice and wheat in the plains and maze and buckwheat in the mountains. Opium was an important cash from the mid 1850s until it was outlawed in the 1930s. Cash crops currently grown include tea, sugar cane, rape, tobacco, cotton, peanuts, flax, walnuts, Chinese chestnuts, pears, oranges and tangerines. Pigs are raised for consumption. Other domesticated animals include oxen, water buffalo, horses, mules, sheep and donkeys. Bai women sell souvenirs to tourists. Some are involved in the drug trade.

Street hustlers in Dali

Prior to Communist rule, landlords and wealthy peasants owned most of the land. Under the Communists, land was taken over by the state, agriculture was collectivized and light industries in paper, textiles, vegetable-oil processing and other were generated. After 1979, there was movement away from collectivization to a contract system in which farmers cultivated land owned by the state in return for turning over part of their harvest as a kind tax payments.

Fruit growing, stock raising, and fishing on Lake Er'hai are important commercial activities. Tourism is big in the Dali area. Slabs of marble from the quarry in the Cang Mountain in some cases is still carried on the backs of Bai workers as it was 1,000 years ago. The processing of the slabs is now carried out with machines though. The fine texture and natural designs have made Dali marble famous for a long time. Dali horses and knives carved by Bai artists are still valued. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Image Sources: Joho maps, Nolls China website, CNTO, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | 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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