rightThe Bai are one of Yunnan's largest and most prosperous minorities. They live most famously at the foot the Blue Mountain and on the edges of the Erhai Lake in Dali, Yunnan Province. Bai means white. The name Bai appears to have been selected centuries ago because of the white sheepskins they wore and to distinguish them from the Wuman (with wu meaning “black”) who lived near them. The Bai are also known as the Baihuo, Man, Baizu, Bo, Bozi, Cuan, Minjia and Sou. In China, they are known for the movie Five Golden Flowers, a Chinese romantic musical film released in 1959. In addition to those around Dali in Yunnan Province, there are a few in specific areas of Guizhou, Sichuan and Hunan Provinces.[Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

The Bai people mainly live in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Lijiang, Bijiang, Baoshan, Nanhua, Yuanjiang, Kunming and An'ning in Yunnan Province. Others are also scattered in Dayong and Sangzhi of Hunan Province, Bijie of Guizhou, Liangshan of Sichuan and some other places. Two rivers, the Lancang and Nu, flow south through the Dali prefecture, which is located on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Large Erhai Lake near Dali is major landmark. The deep river valleys are thickly forested. Snowcapped Cang Mountain shadows many Bai areas. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The Bai People call themselves "Bai," "Baizi," "Baini" or "Bairen." People of other nationalities also call them "Minjia," "Lebu," "Lema," and "Lemo". Naxi people call the Bai "Nama," and Lisu people called them "Emo." And, the Bai people from different places call themselves different names, such as Fenzi, Fenerzi, Baini, or Baihuo. In history books of Yuan and Ming Dynasties, they are referred to as "Bairen" or "Boren." In November of 1956—after the founding of the People's Republic of China— they were officially designated the Bai nationality.

Bai are the 14th largest ethnic group and the 13th largest minority in China. They numbered 2,091,543 in 2020 and made up 0.15 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. Bai populations in China in the past: 0.1451 percent of the total population; 1,933,510 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,861,895 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,594,827 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. There were 567,119 in 1953; 706,623 in 1964; and 1,147,360 in 1982. About 80 percent live in concentrated communities in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, southwest China. Most of the rest are scattered in Xichang and Bijie in neighboring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces respectively. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia,]

Websites and Sources: Book Chinese Minorities ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities ; Minority Rights ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; (government source) ; Paul Noll site: ; 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

Origins of the Bai

Bai areas in China

There were references to the Bai being taken as slaves by the Chinese when China was unified under Emperor Qin in 221 B.C. At that time the Bai lived around the Yunnan-Sichuan border. Chinese migrations into their homeland forced them to move south into Yunnan, where they settled in the Dali area and made a living from fishing and farming. In the A.D. 3rd century there were references to the Bai rebelling against the Chinese.

Around the second century B.C., the forefathers of the Bai settled in Dali. Dali seems to have been unaffected by the changes that occurred in central Yunnan after the 3rd century B.C. expedition by Chu Kingdom general Zhuang Qiao and the southern road built by Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang (ruled 246–221 BC). After the fall of the short lived Qin Dynasty, the Han Emperor campaigned in Yunnan, and succeeded in taking effective control of some of the northeast parts of the province. In the year 109 B.C., Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty sent troops to Yunnan, conquered part of it, and established Yizhou County in Yunnan. [Source: Ethnic China] The ancestors of the Bai people were called Bo and were descendants of the ancient Qiang (Tibeto-Burman group), who lived around present-day Sichuan more than 2,000 years ago. Some believe the Bai are descendants of people of ancient Ji, one of the great kingdoms of ancient China. During the pre-Qin period (about 2,200 years ago), the Ji inhabited the drainage area of the Huangshui (Yellow River). However, during the Han and Jin Dynasties, they scattered along the eastern side of the Lanchangjiang River in Yunnan Province and the northern Honghe River area. During this time, they lived with the Qiang people (another ancient people). Gradually, the Ji concentrated in fewer areas. Since the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Ji have been known as the Bai. [Source:]

After unifying China, the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) wanted to create a corridor to carve out a way to India through the region where the Bo lived. During this period of upheaval the Bo gradually migrated to Yunnan.. In 109 BC, the King of Yunnan pledged allegiance to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), putting the Bo under Chinese authority. From the A.D. 1st century the Bo occasionally rebelled. Over time the Chinese character that was pronounced "Bo" in ancient times became "Bai," both of which mean "white." [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ]

Early History of the Bai and the Bai Area of Yunnan

The history of the Bai is inextricably linked to Dali City and surrounding regions. The first traces of human habitation in the Erhai Basin date back to 4,000 years ago, based on pottery found in the area. The next traces of human cultures in this area comes from Dali Bronze Culture, whose link to modern-day Dali and the Bai located is unclear. Archaeological finds from Canger and Haimenkou show that the Erhai area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Age, and artifacts of that period indicate that the people of the region used stone tools, engaged in farming, livestock rearing, fishing and hunting, and dwelt in caves. Possibly, they began to use bronze knives and swords and other metal tools about 2,000 years ago. [Source:]

According to the Chinese government: “The people in the Erhai area developed closer ties with the Han majority in inland provinces in the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties. In 109 B.C. the Western Han Dynasty set up county administrations and moved a large number of Han people to this border area. These people brought more advanced production techniques and iron tools, contributing to the economic development of the area. During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the farming there had reached a level close to that of the central plains. |

In the A.D. 7th and 8th century, the Bai established a powerful kingdom south of Dali in Nanzhao after driving out the imperial Chinese army of Tang dynasty (618-907). Extending across southern China and reaching into northern China, the Bai kingdom grew rich by controlling the important trade routes between China, Burma and India and helped the Chinese fight against the Tibetans. The Thais and a handful of Chinese and Southeast Asian ethnic groups descended from the members of the Bai kingdom. In the 10th century, the Nanzhao kingdom collapsed and was replaced by the Kingdom of Dali, which embraced 37 tribes and had good relations with China. It lasted until Kublai Khan's Mongol invasion in the 13th century. After the Ming armies drove out the Mongols in the 14th century, many Chinese moved into the Dali area and intermarried with the Bai.

Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms

In the A.D. 7th and 8th century, the ancestor of the Bai established a powerful kingdom south of Dali in Nanzhao after driving out the imperial Chinese army of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Extending across southern China and reaching into northern China, the Nanzhao kingdom grew rich by controlling the important trade routes between China, Burma and India and helped the Chinese fight against the Tibetans. The Thais and a handful of Chinese and Southeast Asian ethnic groups descended from the members of the Nanzhao kingdom. In the 10th century, the Nanzhao kingdom collapsed and was replaced by the Kingdom of Dali, which embraced 37 tribes and had good relations with China. It lasted until Kublai Khan's Mongol invasion in the 13th century.

In the A.D. sixth and seventh century, the area around Dali developed very quickly. The tribes inhabiting the Erhai Basin joined together to create political entities that become to be known as the Six Zhaos (Kingdoms). Among them was the Mengshe zhao—also called Nanzhao for being the southerner of these kingdoms. Established by Xinuolou in 649 in the present city of Weishan, it became the most powerful of these kingdoms. By 737 the other five zhaos were under the rule of Piluoge, who is considered the founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom. [Source: Ethnic China]

In the 8th century, six principalities unified to create the powerful Nanzhao kingdom, whose capital was in Dali. It ruled Yunnan for 247 years and ten of its 13 kings were granted titles by the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The Nanzhao Kingdom was led by ancestors of the Yi and Bai ethnic groups. King Piluoge, was called King of Yunnan. The Kingdom of Nanzhao was the most powerful political structure in the south of China from 8th to 10th century. It served as both a buffer zone between China and Tibet and became an important trade link between China and Southeast Asia, a beachhead for Theravada Buddhism in southern China. *\

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, ”Later, Nanzhao was replaced by Dali, which acknowledged allegiance to the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and ruled Yunnan for more than 300 years. In 1253, the Mongolian aristocrats conquered Dali. Before long, the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) set up a system appointing Bai headmen under the jurisdiction of the former royal court of the Dali Kingdom. In the following centuries, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Mongolians, and Manchus moved from the central provinces into the areas of Yunnan inhabited by the Bai. There was much cross-cultural exchange and intermarriage. Chinese culture exerted a strong influence on the Bai. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Marco Polo, Imperial Chinese Rule and Recent History of the Bai

During the Imperial Chinese era certain ethnic minorities in southwest China and Southeast Asia were nominally ruled on behalf of the central Chinese government under the tusi system. Tusi, often translated as "headmen" or "chieftains", were hereditary tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan (960–1279), Ming (1271-1368), and Qing dynasties (1368-1644) of China. Tusi were located primarily in Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, the Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan, and the Enshi Prefecture of Hubei. Tusi also existed in the historical dependencies of China in what is today northern Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and northern Thailand. [Source: Wikipedia]

Marco Polo visited Yunnan in the 1280s. He wrote of people that ate the raw flesh of sheep, oxen, water buffalo and fowl. They put in "garlic sauce mixed with good spice" and eat "as well as they do the cooked." The Bai people around Dali do this today. Describing the Yunnan city of Kunming in the 13th century, when it was under the rule of Kingdom of Dali, Marco Polo wrote: "In it are found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population, consisting of idolaters, Nestorian Christians and Saracens or Mohametans...The land is fertile in rice and wheat...For money they employ the white porcelain shell, found in the sea, and which they also wear as ornaments a round their necks....The natives do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connection with their wives, providing the act is voluntary on the woman's part."

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) took power from the Yuan rulers in 1381. After the Ming emperors consolidated their power in the Central Plains, China began exerting itself more in Yunnan. More Han Chinese immigrants arrived in the region. For the most part Chinese and Bai cohabit the region peacefully. Dali was the main political, economic and trading center in Yunnan. According to the Chinese government: The Dali kingdom “was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) rule was established there. The Mongols designated Yunnan a province while establishing Dali and Heqing as prefectures. In order to strengthen their control over Dali, the Yuan rulers offered former chieftains official posts and granted their families hereditary privileges. Though land was mainly concentrated in the hands of the local aristocracy at that time, the feudal lord system began to give way to a landlord system. [Source:|]

The Ming court removed local chieftains and replaced them with court officials. This kind of reform resulted in the weakening of the political and economic privileges of the local lords, brought freedom to the slaves and raised the enthusiasm of the peasants for farming. Those Bais and Hans who had emigrated were encouraged to return, while Hans from other areas were persuaded to settle there. This measure accelerated the development of the landlord economy of Bai society.In addition to the continuation of the Ming policy of dispatching officials from the central government, the Qing (1644-1911) court also appointed local officials and chieftains to rule over the Bais. Some Bai people in remote areas still suffered feudal exploitation and oppression at the time of liberation.” |

The Bai people had staged numerous uprisings against the Qing rulers and foreign imperialists. In one of these uprisings, which took place in the mid-19th century, they set up their own political power, the Dali Administration. The most significant uprisings was the Muslim-led Panthay Rebellion. It lasted more than a decade and a half IIn 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 1949 the Chinese Communist party defeated the Nationalists who had occupied the area. In 1956, the Dali Baizu Autonomous Region was created under the Communists.

Bai Language

The Bai speak a Sino-Tibetan language. They have their own written language which first appeared in the Tang (A.D. 681-907) dynasty. Today their language is written with Chinese characters. Many Bai speak Chinese.

The Bai language belongs to the Yi branch or Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It has similarities with Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese and includes numerous Chinese loan words due to the Bais' long contact with Han Chinese. Many Bai are bilingual and speak fairly good Chinese. The Bai language has three dialects: the southern dialect, the central dialect, and the northern dialect. The majority of the Bai people speak the southern dialect, also known as the Dali dialect.

Written languages applied by the Bai have included: 1) the Bo language (an ancient language written as Chinese but read in the Bai people's way) and 2) Sanskrit-Chinese, the most widely used. The Bai started making records with written Chinese characters during the Tang Dynasty. During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the Bai for a while completely adopted Chinese characters but pronounced them differently. In 1950s, a Bai written alphabetic language was created. Many Bai children study at Bai-Chinese bilingual schools.

How History and Folklore Have Shaped the Bai Identity

Interior of a Bai House

In a review of “Mystifying China's Southwest Ethnic Borderlands” by Yuqing Yang, Yanshuo Zhang wrote:“When the Past is Present,” examines how the Bai identity is reconstituted in Dali, Yunnan province. This part centers on how ancient folklore, local legends, and myths from the Bai tradition are reworked to construct the Bai identity. Particularly, the history of the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom in Yunnan and its relationship to dynastic Chinese rule is discussed in detail. Surveying accounts by Han and Western scholars on the origin and history of the Bai, Yang suggests that the writing of Bai history is subsumed under the official ideology of “harmony,” where concepts of ethnic “assimilation” and “amalgamation” hold sway and a “de-familiarizing gaze” subjects the Bai to the Han-centric aspiration of a “heterogenous Chinese culture” [Source: Book: “Mystifying China’s Southwest Ethnic Borderlands: Harmonious Heterotopia by Yuqing Yang (Lexington 2018); Reviewed by Yanshuo Zhang, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January, 2019]

The book “also traces how certain local myths and legends, such as the story of Baijie ( or ), the Holy Consort and symbol of maternal power in the Bai tradition, help minority people imagine their identity by functioning as cultural “mobilizers” in various textual and performative forms. Yang elaborates on the modern and contemporary adaptations and re-creations of the Baijie/holy mother legend, including its dramatic incarnations in various local and national operas. By doing so, Yang reveals the generative power of folkoric tropes in revitalizing a local minority tradition.

Chapter 3 furthers this line of thought by discussing how the Bai female writer Jing Yi reworks the legend of Baijie into her fiction. Here, Yang adopts a feminist perspective to inquire into the constitution of the ethnic subject: she probes how the multivalent, embodied experience of the ethnic woman defies the definition of the minority as the essentialized other. Yang marshals a rich array of texts to examine how Jing Yi deploys an “idiosyncratic way of regarding herself as a Bai woman” in her fictional re-creations of Bai legends.

Nama and Leimo

The Leimo and the Nama are two groups considered by some to be branches of the Bai and two separate ethnic groups by others. According to the official histories, the ancestors of the Leimo and Nama people migrated toward their current territory, in the basin of the Mekong River several centuries ago. They have lived separated from mainstream of the Bai culture for such a long time clear linguistic and cultural differences have appeared. Though they share a common ancestry with the Bai, they have give up some of the most important features of their cultural, social and spiritual life. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The Nama number around 50,000 or 60,000 people and live in two western districts of Yunnan Province: Lanping and Weixi. In the 13th century, when Kublai Khan conquered the Dali Kingdom, many of its inhabitants fled. Among them there was a group that traveled westward and settled in steep canyons and isolated valleys of the Mekong river basin (known as Lancang in Chinese). These migrants were the ancestors of the Nama, and also of the Leimo. The Nama still live in this same area: In Lanping County, in Yinpang, Shideng, Zhongbai, Hexi, Mien'e Townships In Weixi County, they are in the area bordering with Lanping, Weideng zone. There are also some Nama that live in mountainous areas of Yunlong County. "Nama" means "tiger", a a name perhaps derived from the languages of the Lisu and the Naxi people who live among them. The tiger is the protective animal of the Nama, who believe they descend from the tiger and they worship the mother tigress as their ancestor. The Nama are named in Qing dynasty documents. *\

About 300 years ago some clans of the Namas crossed the mountains to the basin of the Nujiang river (called Salween out of China). The Lisu and the Nusu who lived there named them, Leimo, which means "arrived across the mountains" and Miaowang, meaning "those who use oxen to cultivate". At the end of the 18th century, the discovery of salt mines in the lands of the Nama, provoked a new migratory wave of Bai people coming from Dali, who brought with them their Chinese-influenced culture. *\

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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