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ETHNONYMS: Baihuo, Bai Man, Baini, Baizi, Baizu, Bo, Bozi, Cuan, Minjia, Sou


Identification. The name "Bai," meaning "white" in Chinese, seems to have been first used to refer to inhabitants of the southwest border region of China, the Baiman, as distinguished from the Wuman (wu meaning "black") by the white sheepskins they wore. The Bai refer to themselves as "Bozi," "Baini," "Baihuo," or "Baizi." The Chinese used the term "Minjia" from the fourteenth to twentieth centuries. The Chinese government now refers to the Bai as the "Baizu."

Location. Traditionally the Bai inhabited the region of present-day China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The majority of Bai now live in the Dali Baizu Autonomous Region of Yunnan. Smaller Bai groups are found in the Bijie District of Guizhou Province, Liangshan in Sichuan, and Sangzhi County in Hunan Province.

Demography. In 1982 the total Bai population numbered 1,131,124, of whom 857,410 lived in the Dali region. The 1990 census gives a total count of 1,594,827.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Bai language belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese Branch of Sino-Tibetan. The Bai have no written language, so Chinese characters have been used with Bai pronunciation. Today many Bai speak Chinese.

History and Cultural Relations

According to Chinese historical material, when the Qin armies unified China in 221 b.c. they captured the southwestern kingdom of the Bo, taking the Bo as slaves. Starting in 182 b.c. Chinese migration into the Bo lands of the present-day Sichuan-Yunnan border area caused most of the Bo to move south into Yunnan. In Chinese records, during the third century a.d. the name "Sou" replaced the name "Bo." The Sou are said to have rebelled against the Chinese state of Shu, and the famous Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang was called in to mediate. At this time, the Sou-occupied area was the political, economic, and cultural center of the southwest. In later historical records, the name "Sou" also disappeared, to be replaced by "Cuan." After AD. 339 this group became the most powerful one in the region and developed what is now known as the Dian culture. In the eighth century the southern (nan ) zhao (zhaoji in Chinese means "to convene," "to summon a council") gathered the region's six other zhao to unify the Erhai District of Yunnan and establish the Nanzhao Kingdom. There is some historical debate over whether the leaders of the Nanzhao State were Bai or Yi people. In a.d. 902, weakened by continuing battles and slave rebellions, the kingdom collapsed. Following a briet period of chaos, in AD. 937 a Bai of Dali named Duan Siping united the Eastern Dian region's thirty-seven tribes and established the Dali Kingdom. For nearly 300 years the kingdom maintained close political and economic relations with the Chinese Song dynasty. In a.d. 1253 the Mongols invaded, bringing Muslim soldiers who settled in the region. The armies of the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) eliminated Mongol power in 1381, bringing many Chinese military settlers who eventually intermarried with the Bai. In 1874, a Hui Muslim named Du Wenxiu united the Bai, Naxi, Yi, Dai, Jingpo, and Chinese in a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was brutally suppressed eighteen years later. The construction of the Burma Road (19371938) brought missionaries and increased foreign trade to the region. In 1949 the Chinese Communist party defeated the Nationalists who had occupied the area, and in November 1956 it established the Dali Baizu Autonomous Region, which is part of the People's Republic of China.


The Bai have traditionally lived clustered in villages on the Dali plain and along the shores of Erhai Lake. Some Bai also live in mountain areas. On the plains, homes tend to be two-story, U-shaped structures surrounding a courtyard, built of mud bricks with tile roofs. A family might live on the second floor and use the ground floor as a stable, or they might live on the first floor and use the upper floor for storage. Mountain homes are usually constructed of wood or bamboo with thatched roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the Bai economy depended on plow agriculture, with rice and wheat as the main crops on the plains and with maize and buckwheat as the mountain cultigens. Until it was outlawed, opium was an important cash crop from the first half of the nineteenth century to the late 1930s. Present cash crops include tea, sugarcane, rape, tobacco, cotton, peanuts, flax, walnuts, Chinese chestnuts, pears, oranges, and tangerines. Pigs are raised for consumption, and domesticated animals include oxen, water buffalo, horses, mules, sheep, and donkeys. Since 1949, the Dali area has been developed for light industry and now boasts 565 local industries, including electrical, mechanical, chemical, paper, textile, leather, salt, vegetable-oil processing, and mining concerns. Tourism is a growing industry in the area.

Industrial Arts. Lacquerware from Dali was famous up through the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Bai were renowned for carved wooden furniture, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries all Chinese palace carpenters were Bai. Today fine marble work and blue and white tie-dyed cloth persist as crafts for sale to tourists.

Trade. The Dali area is the meeting point for the roads leading south to Myanmar (Burma) and northwest to Tibet. Previously muleteers and porters conducted trade by carting goods over the mountains. The completion of the Burma Road in 1938 facilitated transport, but as vehicles were scarce, human and animal labor were still widely used. Prior to 1949, the Bai imported foreign products and exported marble, pig bristles, leather goods, minerals, and herbal medicines. Trade declined in the first three decades and immediately following 1949, but it has increased again since the implementation of Chinese economic reforms in 1979. Recent years have seen the revival of trade fairs, the largest of these being the Third Month Market (linked with the Guanyin Festival) and the Fish Pool Fair. The former is held in Dali during the week of the fifteenth day of the third lunar month and attracts merchants and traders from all over the southwest, most notably Tibetan medicine merchants and horse traders. The Fish Pool Fair usually occurs in the first week of the eighth lunar month on the northern shore of Erhai Lake. Unlike the Third Month Market, this fair is geared to local Bai trade in carved wooden furniture, silver jewelry, marble, and embroidery.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men and women did the same work in the fields, except that men did the heavy plowing. Both married and single women were responsible for marketing. Bai women were noted for their strength and ability to carry heavy loads long distances. Women and girls mostly worshiped publicly at temple festivals and fairs, while men engaged in private ancestor worship at home.

Land Tenure. Prior to 1949, 10 percent of the population, namely landlords and wealthy peasants, held 60-80 percent of the land. The remaining 90 percent of the population held only 20-40 percent of the land, and 70 percent of these people were either poor peasants or hired laborers. After 1949, all land became state property, and the area followed the shifting guidelines of Chinese agricultural policy, which emphasized collectivization. Since 1979 policy has moved away from collective labor to individual and family labor.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditionally, the nuclear, small extended family and the village, not the lineage, were the most important kin groups for the Bai. People living in the same village, no matter what their family name, all worshiped a common ancestor said to be the founder of the village.

Kinship Terminology. 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.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the seventeenth to nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, probably through Chinese influence, the practice of arranged marriage by parents became common. Children were betrothed at infancy and wed in their late teens. The exchange of bride-price and dowry depended on the class and locality of the bride and groom's families. The Bai did not practice surname exogamy, and both paternal and maternal cousins were allowed to marry. Marriage was monogamous except for a few wealthy landowners. Postmarital residence might be neolocal or patrilocal depending on how many sons a family had. Sons could choose to establish a new household upon marriage, or they could live together in a small extended family until the parents died. If a couple had no sons, they could adopt a baby boy from a relative or stranger, or they could have an adult son-in-law move in to look after them. The ease of obtaining a divorce seemed to depend on the locality. In towns greatly influenced by Chinese codes and values, divorce was difficult to obtain, and a widow who remarried was considered disgraceful. In more remote areas, divorce was more easily obtained, and a widow could remarry freely.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear or small extended families were the norm. Elderly parents generally lived with the youngest son.

Inheritance. There was no primogeniture or ultimogeniture. Inheritance was divided among the sons, adopted sons, or sons-in-law, although the latter two would have to change their family names in order to be eligible.

Socialization. Bai parents were traditionally very affectionate toward their children, and they made them many toys. Girls and boys played together and worked in the fields together. Prior to 1949 parents tried to send all their children to school to study Chinese reading and writing; however, educated boys were more numerous than girls. Since 1949 elementary education has been compulsory for all children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the time of the Nanzhao Kingdom, the society was composed of a king, nobles, free people, commoners, tribespeople, and slaves. Before 1949, the society was stratified into landless peasants, peasants, artisans, wealthy peasants who lived in the city, merchants, and landlords. Village elders were highly respected. Women had a relatively equal status with men. After the revolution, the poorer classes were glorified, and the wealthy were attacked. With the 1979 economic reforms, there has been a reemergence of more stratified socioeconomic classes.

Political Organization. After the fall of the Dali Kingdom in the mid-thirteenth century, the Bai came under the traditional Chinese civil-service system of counties headed by a magistrate who was responsible for the collection of taxes and the administration of justice. Two decades before the Communist Revolution, 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 headman would be an elder of one of the villages and had extensive authority based on the cooperation of the villagers. After 1949 the Bai came under the new forms of Chinese government administration.

Social Control. Despite the existence of a Chinese judicial system, the Bai traditionally preferred to solve problems among themselves or by going to a village elder. Both civil and criminal cases were most often settled out of court. Punishment varied depending on the relationship of the persons involved. For example, the murderer of a relative would face execution, whereas the murderer of a stranger would face imprisonment. Rape and adultery were severely punished.

Conflict. In the past, generational conflict was common if grown children refused to marry their prearranged partner. The parties involved solved such a problem through a face-saving system whereby the young couple would elope and be chased by the girl's father and other male relatives, who never intended to catch them. After the couple's escape, there would be a prolonged period of negotiations between the young people's parents. Usually the matter would be settled peaceably. Disputes over water rights were also common and were generally settled by a village elder.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Bai believed in abstract heavenly spirits and natural spirits. Later, these beliefs came to be mixed with beliefs in tutelary spirits, Buddhism, and Daoism. Buddhism appeared in the Dali area during the ninth century and remained a strong force up until 1949. The three famous white pagodas that still stand in Dali were once part of a large Buddhist temple. Christian missionaries made some inroads in the twentieth century, but converts were generally regarded with suspicion and sometimes ostracized by their families. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) most temples were destroyed and religious practices forbidden. Since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has taken a more lenient view of religion, and the people have rebuilt many of the temples and revived many Daoist associations. However, religious practice is now confined mainly to the older generations.

Religious Practitioners. The mix of religious beliefs spawned a mélange of part-time specialists trained in dancing and singing for religious ceremonies, semiprofessional Buddhist masters, and formal Buddhist monks and nuns. Associations for worshipers of Daoist deities also existed. The influence of all of these practitioners has declined under Communist rule.

Ceremonies. The largest religious event was the Guanyin Festival (linked with the Third Month Market). The festival commemorated the legendary seventh-century visitation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin to Mount Cangshan and drew many worshipers as well as traders and merchants from afar. In addition, every village, at least once a year, held a ceremony and sacrifices for the feast day of the local gods. Other festivals included the Butterfly Festival, Rao San Ling, and the Torch Festival.

Arts. Singing and dancing have been an important part of Bai religious ceremonies and festivals. The people often produced dramas influenced by Buddhist themes on temple stages. Some temples still hold performances today, although religious themes are no longer prevalent.

Medicine. The Bai generally thought that 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.

Death and Afterlife. The Bai believed that worship of ancestors protected the living by linking them to dead spirits. Buddhism engendered a belief in the afterlife and reincarnation. The Bai also believed strongly in poltergeists. Originally the Bai cremated their dead, but under Chinese influence they came to bury the dead in quite elaborate marble tombs. At present the government encourages cremation in order to conserve land.


Fitzgerald, Charles P. (1941). The Tower of Five GloriesA Study of the Minchia of Tali. London: Cresset Press.

Jiang Chunfang, Shi Lei, Li Shijie, et al., eds. (1986). Zhongguo da baike quanshu (Encyclopedia Sinica). Vol. 20, Minzu (Nationalities). Beijing: Encyclopedia Sinica Press.

Mackerras, Colin (1988). "Aspects of Bai CultureChange and Continuity in a Yunnan Nationality." Modern China 14(1).


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