Tai Lue

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Tai Lue

ETHNONYMS: Bai-yi, Dai, Lawa, Lü, Lua', Lue, Pai-I, Pai-yi, Shui Bai-yi, Shui Dai, Tai


Identification. The Tai Lue are the Tai-speaking inhabitants of Sipsongpanna. (This name is written "Xishuangbanna" in Pinyin; when the status of the prefecture as part of the People's Republic of China is being referred to here it will be written in its Pinyin form, and when the Tai sociopolitical unit is the important issue it will be written in romanized Tai. It should also be mentioned that "Dai" is the Pinyin form of "Tai," which is the conventional spelling in English. There is no difference in pronunciation.) Sipsongpanna means "the twelve thousand fields" or "the twelve principalities." The extent of the kingdom varied over time, but in the precolonial period it included Muang Sing, now in Laos, and parts of the Tai-speaking areas of Myanmar (Burma). Today, however, there are Lue communities throughout northern Thailand, and it is not easy to make distinctions between the Lue and the Yorng and Khoen of Myanmar. There is now also a sizable Lue population in Taiwan. The term "Tai" is used for all Tai-speaking peoples. In the southwestern part of Yunnan these are mainly the Lue and the people known variously as Tai Nuea (Northern Tai), Chinese Shans, Tai Khorn, and Tai Mao. There is considerable difference between the Tai Lue and Tai Nuea languages and they should be considered mutually unintelligible.

Location. Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture lies in the southernmost part of Yunnan Province of the People's Republic of China (PRC), roughly between 21°10 and 23°40 N and 99° 55 and 101°59 E. The capital of the prefecture is the city of Jing Hong (Ceng Hung, "the city of the dawn"). Jing Hong is situated on the Lancang Jiang, the Mekong River. The Tai Lue mostly live in the river valleys. As in upper Myanmar and north Thailand, the year is divided into three seasons with the rains falling from about June to October.

Demography. In 1923 the population of Tai Lue in Xishuangbanna was estimated at just under 100,000. Recent estimates indicate a figure of 240,000. There have also been major changes in relative populations. In 1923 it was estimated that the Tai Lue constituted slightly over 70 percent of the population of Xishuangbanna. In 1945 this had probably fallen to about 50 percent. During the Korean War, when there was an embargo on the sale of rubber to China, Xishuangbanna proved to be one of the more suitable areas for its growth and there was a massive movement of Han into the prefecture, which reduced the percentage of Tai Lue to about 35 percent. The Lue population of Thailand was estimated at about 50,000 in the 1960s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tai Lue belongs to the Southwestern Group of Tai languages and is very similar to the languages known as Yorng, Khoen, and Kam Muang (the language of northern Thailand). The writing systems, which are also similar, are derived from the Mon and look like the Burmese script. In the 1950s the PRC reformed Tai scripts in Yunnan, and for Lue additional tone markers were added and all characters were written on the line. These reforms have created some problems. There are complaints that there is not sufficient material to read in the new script and that those educated in the new script cannot read the old Tai Lue documents. One of the major differences between the phonology of Tai Lue and Kam Muang of northern Thailand is that Lue appears not to use diphthongs. In vocabulary, the massive borrowing of Central Thai into Kam Muang has not taken place in Lue; instead, there has been extensive recent borrowing from Chinese.

History and Cultural Relations

There is dispute as to the movements of the Tai-speaking peoples to the area they now occupy. According to tradition, the Tai Lue entered this area and displaced earlier inhabitants, who included the modern-day Akha, in about the eighth and ninth centuries. No evidence is available to verify these claims. Tai came into contact with the Han in the fourteenth century. Nineteenth-century European scholars suggested that the kingdom of Nan Chao (seventh to thirteenth century) was Tai. This view is now generally rejected. Tai speakers probably formed only a small, nondominant section of the population. Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Yunnan was incorporated into China, but control was little more than nominal until 1325 when a Lue chieftain was appointed Chinese commander-in-chief based in Jing Hong. Suzerainty over Sipsongpanna fluctuated among the Ming emperors (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), local rule, and the Toungoo dynasty of Burma. Ming control of Sipsongpanna was greater than that of the Mongols. They interfered with the hereditary succession of Lue chiefs and demanded silver tribute. Ming control was extended to the Mekong River and was mainly peaceful to the middle of the seventeenth century. The conquest and pacification of the southeastern region proceeded with much turbulence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The prizes sought were the region's tea and cotton. During the middle years of the nineteenth century much of Sipsongpanna was in revolt against Chinese attempts to impose land taxes and remove the powers of the Lue chieftains. In many parts of the country the outcome was joint authority vested in Chinese magistrates and Tai chiefs. The chief of Jing Hong was recognized as suzerain over the chiefdoms, which constituted the twelve panna. He had the title of cawphaendin, which is translated as "king." During World War II Yunnan suffered badly in the conflict between the Allies and the Japanese. Siam was then occupied and an ally of the Japanese, and Sipsongpanna was subject to rather indiscriminate bombing because of the alleged presence of Chinese troops. Many Lue fled to Burma and northern Thailand at this time. With the victory of the Communists and the establishment of a Communist administration in Sipsongpanna, the kingdom ceased to exist: the last king is now an academic in Kunming. There was much movement out of Sipsongpanna. Among the nobility and elite many Tai had thrown in their lot with the Kuomintang and so most fled to Taiwan. There were divisions within the court on purely factional lines and this determined, to some extent, who stayed and who fled. Many, including both nobility and common people, also fled to Burma and Thailand. During the hundreds of years that Chinese rule was being extended into Sipsongpanna, the region and the Lue also had cultural links, political alliances, and conflicts with Tai speakers in Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Sharing very similar languages with these peoples, the Lue developed similar forms of Theravada Buddhism, a common literary tradition, and much familial contact. The twentieth century has seen these lessen, although contacts improved during the 1980s. There has been much recent movement of population between China, Myanmar, and Thailand. At the elite level this movement has been by air between Bangkok and Kunming, but there is also a probably more important movement of ordinary people, by foot, motorcycle, boat, and pack animal. The reasons for this movement include trade, family visits, religious purposes, and professional pursuits.


Settlements tend to be nucleated, either on raised ground surrounded by rice fields or on high ground on either side of a road or pathway. No detailed information on village size is available for Sipsongpanna as a whole, but figures are available for four villages (Chang Chai, Thung, Dorn Taen, and Thin) within easy reach of Jing Hong, from 1940 and from 1987. In 1940 the populations ranged from 106 to 195; in 1987, from 416 to 600. Houses are built on stilts, and are of bamboo or timber, often with tiled or shingled roofs. Houses are usually occupied simultaneously by three generations. Traditionally, ordinary farmers' houses were said to be built of bamboo and thatch, while those of village officials were of timber. Not all villages have temples (wat ) today, because many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Traditionally, each village had a piece of forest land (dong sya ), which was sacred to the tutelary deity; hunting was prohibited there. Population pressure and acquisition of land for rubber plantations have now deprived many villages of such land.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Tai Lue have been wet-rice agriculturalists using the standard technology of Southeast Asian rice cultivation. Plowing, raking, and leveling are done with wooden equipment with steel blades and rakes, which are buffalo-drawn. Mostly glutinous rice is grown for consumption and sale, the dark purple variety being particularly favored. Tractors are now used, but they seem to be valued more as an efficient and cheap means of transport than as an agricultural tool. Some smallholding rubber is cultivated, though most Xishuangbanna rubber is grown on state plantations with Han labor. A wide variety of other cropscotton, sugar, and tobacco being among the most importantare also grown, as are maize, beans, and a variety of vegetables. Many villages have communal fish ponds, and under the new system villages are allotted shares in the catch. They also keep a range of domestic animals, buffalo, cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Industrial Arts. Weaving and the manufacture of elaborate textiles were important aspects of rural life, but although Lue textiles are still well known, they seem to be becoming rarer around Jing Hong. In recent years individual villagers have set themselves up with equipment for such tasks as rice milling and noodle making. Some of these enterprises compete with state factories. The refugee population of northern Thailand, particularly in the town of Mae Sai, warrants special mention. Because of Thai government restrictions on their movement they depend heavily on such things as the making of reed brooms and employment in factories as cutters and polishers of precious stones.

Trade. There are markets everywhere and many local areas seem to rotate markets on a five-day cycle. Markets are not ethnically exclusive: there are Tai, Han, and other minorities selling a range of goodscloth, shoes, and manufactured articles that have come up from Thailand through Myanmar; vegetables, meat, fish (often still alive), chickens, eggs, cooked food, and all kinds of forest produce. Whereas most Han traders are men, most Tai traders are women, though men may sell freshly butchered pork or beef. Not much is known of how the cross-boundary trade is organized, but it is clear that Tai Lue control a large part of it. It is also clear that there is some smuggling of jade and precious stones.

Division of Labor. In agriculture the major division of labor is that the heaviest tasks, such as plowing, are confined to men, and it seems that the cultivation of vegetables and small cash crops is done by women, but not exclusively. In the domestic sphere, cooking is done mainly, but not exclusively, by women. Village officials, both traditionally and under Communist rule, have almost always been men.

Land Tenure. Traditional land tenure in Sipsongpanna is thought to have been based on village communities under the control of chiefs. Certain lands were reserved for the chief and his senior officials and these plots would be worked either with the nobles' own retainers or with corvée. Other village officials, including ritual officials, had special allocations of land that included the right to free labor. The commoners had access to what land was left, but even here there were said to be divisions. There were first the "native" Lue who occupied the best villages, had major duties, and did not marry with other types of villager. The second major group was comprised of the "dependents of the lord's house," who were migrants from other Tai muang (chiefdoms) or prisoners of war. They cultivated state land, but could cultivate a small portion for themselves. They performed domestic duties and other labor for which they were paid wages. The third group consisted of the remote kin of the nobility, who were granted land as free peasants. It appears their land was not liable to reallocation. Much effort by Chinese officials throughout the centuries appears to have been directed at making cultivators directly liable to pay taxes to the emperor for the land they cultivated, thus breaking the power of the traditional rulers. Although this appears to have succeeded in the north, it was only imperfectly achieved in the southeast and west. During Communist rule, though Sipsongpanna was never completely communized, there was a period during which individual control of production and access to produce was very limited. Today the village decides how much land is available and how it should be divided each yearit seems mostly to be done on a per capita basis. Under the system that began in Xishuangbanna about 1985, each household is allotted land for five years and contracts to pay specified amounts to the government during that period. As an example, a household that has been given rice land at the rate of 1.3 mou per person (1 mou equals about 0.06 hectare) would be expected to pay 26 kilograms of paddy per person per year. The government acquires another 80 kilograms at about half the market price. The farmer may sell additional paddy to the government at slightly below the market price, but may prefer to take his chances elsewhere.


Kin Groups and Descent. No detailed studies of Tai Lue kinship are available. There is reason to believe that the multigenerational household and compound has been the major unit of social organization. It also appears that even villages close to the capital of Jing Hong have a strong tendency toward endogamy, suggesting that kin ties within villages are pervasive and that it is probable that villages act very much as kinship units. The literature suggests that succession in princely families was patrilineal and followed rules of primogeniture. However, experience with other Tai groups and the region in general suggests that though this may have been an expectation, dynastic disputes may have brought quite different outcomes. The question of matrilineal descent is also a problem. Many groups with close cultural connections to the Lue have a system of matrilineal descent particularly concerned with a cult of domestic spirits. There is no clear evidence about this for the Lue, but Kon Muang from Chiang Mai, who have family connections with the Lue, claim that a similar system was traditionally present.

Kinship Terminology. The Lue system is very like that of northern Thailandgenerational, but distinguishing "elder" from "younger" in one's own and senior generations. The skewing of nephew/niece and grandchild terms is also present. In address the terms ai and ii, ambivalent in northern Thailand, are used as normal terms of address for adults as well as children.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, ordinary Tai Lue marriage appears to have been characteristically Informal and largely monogamous. Sources suggest that evening weaving on public platforms (compared to open verandas in northern Thailand) was an institutionalized occasion for courtingas were the festivals associated mainly with religious occasions. If villages were largely endogamous, this pattern of working while courting is consistent with the informality of courting and marriage. Premarital sexual relations seem not to have been disapproved, but a permanent relation required agreement on such matters as how long the bridegroom would reside with his new wife's family. Many modern Tai Lue homes do not contain the Tai matrilineal ancestral shrines characteristic of northern Thailand that are involved in marriage and the control of sexual behavior. Contemporary information also suggests that postmarital residence is decided pragmatically according to which household requires the residence and services of the couple. This decision is known as aw koei/aw njing, "taking a son-in-law/daughter-in-law." Traditionally divorce by mutual consent was easy.

Domestic Unit. Many Tai houses around Jing Hong are large and may contain more than one elementary family. They appear to operate as a single economic and ritual unit. Today allocation of agricultural land is calculated per capita but assigned by household units.

Inheritance. Very little is known about the intricacies of traditional inheritance. If land was administered as indicated earlier, it seems that the major inheritance pattern was bilateral right to communal land. Today the youngest daughter, if there is one, remains with her parents and expects to inherit the family home.

Socialization. Fathers and mothers are the prime care givers for children, though the household members and neighbors appear to take over duties when required. Both boys and girls attended traditional school in the wat, though only boys went on to be ordained as novices. Today children attend state primary schools where, depending on the population of the area, they may be taught Tai as well as Chinese. In secondary schools, however, Tai is no longer taught. Traditionally the Lue ordained their boys as novices, and not many adults were ordained as monks. Today their numbers are slowly increasing after the destruction of temples during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Sociopolitical Organization

Xishuangbanna is a Dai Autonomous Prefecture of the province of Yunnan in the People's Republic of China and is therefore today part of that political system.

Social Organization. The fundamental class division of the traditional social structure was between the nobility, with the king and royal family at its peak, and the common people. Both groups, however, were themselves arranged hierarchically. The king"the lord of the land" (cawphaendin) was in theory the owner of all land in the kingdom. His hereditary chiefdom was based in Jing Hong, where he held court. The rest of the kingdom was divided into meng or muang, which may be translated as "chiefdoms." Other members of the nobility held various titles and performed duties toward the king or chief, in return for which they held land and rights over serfs. The commoners were referred to as khaphai by the nobility. This term in fact brought together two different statuses: kha, which meant "slave" and was also generally used of non-Tai, Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples; and phai, which may be variously interpreted as "serf or "freeman." The senior commoner officials had special status and rights to land, as did certain ritual experts. This division among commoners was expressed in the contrast kanmeng/kanban, "the work of the chiefdom (or state)/the work of the village." Officials had a duty to the state itself, while other commoners had a duty to the village community. Today in Sipsongpanna the old class division expresses itself somewhat in the pattern of sinicization. Many Tai have now taken Chinese names, the old nobility having the surname "Dao." Members of the former ruling families hold positions of influence and authority in the provincial administration. This phenomenon is not confined to Tai. The present governor of Yunnan is from the Naxi minority. Around Jing Hong traditionally owned land has been converted into businesses of various kinds, particularly those related to the tourist trade, such as restaurants and guest houses. Within the village there is now general social equality and equal access to land resources. There are, however, clear signs that village officials and party cadres have special privileges. One phenomenon is the different style of housebrick and mortarfavored by some village officials.

Political Organization. Traditional political organization has been reported as being very formalized, and we should keep in mind the possibility that the actual working of the system was much less formal and also that the history of warfare and conflicting claims to suzerainty would have greatly modified it. The king was also part of the Chinese administration and was known by a title translated as the "Cheli Pacification Commissioner" ("Cheli" being a Chinese name for Jing Hong). Below the king was the upalat (a comparable rank in Siam was translated by nineteenth-century Europeans as "second king"). Government was conducted by two councilsthe Royal (or outer) Council and the Private (or inner) Council. The Royal Council was presided over by a representative of the territorial princes (the rulers of the meng). The membership consisted of senior-ranking princes, the younger brothers of the king, four senior ministers (the prime minister, in charge of general administration, finance, and revenue; the minister of justice and recorder of population; the minister in charge of government rations; and the president), an official in charge of sacrificial rites at markets, and all the rulers of meng or their representatives. This council discussed all matters to go before the king, as well as proposals by the king. Ultimate authority, however, appeared to remain with the monarch. The Private Council was made up of members of the royal family, of four grades. The council was presided over by the chief official of the palace. When the king did not attend a meeting of the outer council, a member of the inner council took his place. The Private Council appears to have been an advisory body of close kin, who kept watch over the activities of the Royal Council. The councils of the meng chiefs were patterned on the central bodies. Below the chief were the president of the council, a senior phya (lord) who acted as "prime minister," and two or three other lords. There were also representatives of local organizations such as the ho sib, literally the "head of ten." At the village level the officials were phya, ca, and saen, which may be glossed as "lord," "lieutenant," and "noble" (the latter also means "one hundred thousand"). Sources also say that large villages would have an official responsible for ceremonies and rites, one responsible for irrigation, one responsible for the registration and reception of strangers, and one who managed lost and found property. There was also a leader for each youth group, male and female. In the modern administration, village officials have Chinese titles that translate as "headman," "treasurer," "chief of women," and "constable."

Social Control. In traditional times, in communities with recurrent warfare, where political authorities had constant recourse to armed might, control was tight in settled areas. But as the history of flight and migration shows, there was always a means of escape. There are Lue law codes, but like the codes of the Mangrai in northern Thailand, it is not known to what extent and how these were enforced. There are no detailed studies of village life, so comments on social control at that level must be speculative. There is evidence that patterns of witchcraft accusation, as reported particularly from northern Thailand, are also found among the Lue. These are extreme mechanisms, perhaps better interpreted as mechanisms of oppression rather than social control. But they do suggest that public opinion, gossip, and similar mechanisms are manipulated in Tai Lue villages as elsewhere in the Tai-speaking world.

Conflict. The history of Sipsongpanna is a history of conflictbetween heirs to high office, between meng, with conquerors coming out of Burma, Thailand, and Laosas well as against the continuing push of the Chinese for suzerainty. The Communist conquest has brought an end to warfare, and since the early 1950s there appears to have been no significant movement to change the political status of the Tai Lue. Little, if anything, is known about the resolution of conflict within the general population.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tai Lue are Theravada Buddhists, with historical links to the Yuan tradition of the Tai speakers of upper Myanmar and northern Thailand. The term "Hinayana" is generally used in Chinese sources to refer to the religion of the Tai Lue, and it also has some indigenous currency. Spirit beliefs are widespread and, particularly among the elite and upper classes, there is evidence of beliefs from Chinese religion. More recently, a small but significant strain of skepticism has appeared. The Tai Lue, like Tai groups in Thailand and Myanmar, believe in spirits known as phi as well as in the hierarchy of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. Of major importance are the territorial deities. The deity Phya Alawu (sometimes called Arawi) parallels legendary figures in northern Thailand and Luang Prabang, and appears to have the status of protective spirit for the entire kingdom. Information on domestic spirits is limited.

Religious Practitioners. Because of the Cultural Revolution the number of monks and novices now in Sipsongpanna is small. The Tai Lue traditionally preferred to be ordained as novices, leaving the monkhood as a specialized category. Many monasteries are still struggling to build up their numbers. During the Cultural Revolution monks were forced to leave the order, and stories are told of many fleeing to monasteries across the border in Burma; a few defied the worst excesses of the time, maintaining their vows under threat of death. Villages have lay elders who are necessary in the performance of Buddhist ritual and there are officials who perform the territorial spirit-cult activities. Presumably many of these are also healers and diviners.

Ceremonies. The Tai Lue celebrate the full cycle of Buddhist festivities. In recent years, as part of the Chinese government's promotion of tourism, the Buddhist New Year in April has become an international event, known as the "Dai water-splashing festival." To the Lue, ceremonies of major importance are the beginning and end of the Buddhist "Lent," the period of the rains when Buddhist monks are constrained to sleep in the precincts of their monasteries, and Vesak, the day associated with the major life events of the Buddha. The celebration known in the literature as pai has become synonymous with the Tai Lue. Some scholars theorize that the term "Pai-yi" (or "Bai-yi") derives from this ceremony; the more popular interpretation is that it means "white barbarian." The Chinese representation of "Pai" (in Pinyin "Bai") does not seem to be an accurate representation of the pronunciation of this word. The major purpose of this ceremony is the installation of a Buddha statue in a wat. Sponsors gained status through this activity. Ceremonies are held to propitiate tutelary deities, sya ban, at village shrines called cai ban ("the heart of the village").

Arts. Traditionally the Lue practiced a range of arts and crafts, such as the production of textiles, basket weaving, temple murals, music, and theatricals. Two items are worthy of brief mention here. One is the distinctive decorated and covered well, characteristic of Sipsongpanna and Dehong (Tai, but not Tai Lue) farther north. The other is the musical form kap, which is akin to the sor of northern Thailand. This is now encouraged by the government and there are regular performances on Jing Hong radio. The most popular is the kap langka, the Lue version of the Ramayana.

Medicine. Tai Lue practice both supernatural and herbal treatment of the sick. Chinese sources say their procedures for diagnosing illness are similar to those of the Han: observation, listening and questioning, and taking the pulse. There are numerous Lue medical texts and pharmacopoeia, some of which have been published in Lue and Chinese.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally the Lue cremated only monks and very old people, burying others, except those having "unfortunate" deaths. This is the opposite of Central Thai (Siamese) practice, but it is similar to the traditional practice of the Kon Muang of northern Thailand. It is not known why these differences occur. It is reported that Lue villagers long settled in northern Thailand have practices like those of the Siamese. The Lue subscribe to Buddhist beliefs about the nature of heavens and hells, rebirth, and final enlightenment.


Chen Han-Seng (1949). Frontier Land Systems in Southernmost China. New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.

Lemoine, Jacques (1987). "The Tai Lue Historical Relation with China and the Shaping of the Sipsong Panna Political System." Proceedings of the International Conference on Thai Studies 3, pt. 1:121-134. Compiled by Ann Buller. Canberra: Australian National University, Department of Anthropology.

Moerman, Michael (1965). "Ethnic Identity in a Complex Civilization: Who Are the Lue?" American Anthropologist 67:1215-1230.

Moerman, Michael (1968). Agricultural Change and Peasant Choice in a Thai Village, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter (1988). Canberra: Australian National University, Department of Anthropology (numerous items).