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ETHNONYMS: Baiyi, Beiyi, Boyi; Bitso, La Sam, Mitro, Siam, Tai; Daija, Dailü (Taily), Daina; Han Baiyi, Han Dai, Shui Baiyi, Shui Dai


Identification. The Dai (one of China's fifty-five ethnic minorities) are valley-dwelling rice cultivators of China's southwest frontier. The name "Dai" has been used officially since 1953 to replace "Tai" or "Thai." There are three major subgroups: Dailü (who used to be called "Shui Baiyi" and "Shui Dai" by the Han, meaning "the Baiyi or Dai living near the water"); Daina (Han Baiyi or Han Dai, Chinese Baiyi or Dai); and Daija (Huayao Dai, "the Dai wearing bright-colored blouses"). Within each subgroup there are regional units such as Daide, Daipeng, Daila, Dailian, and Pudai. Neighboring groupsLahu, Hani, Jingpo, Benglong, Wa, Bulang, and Achangcall the Dai "Bitso," "Siam," or "La Sam."

Location. The Dai live exclusively in Yunnan Province, mostly along the Yunnan-Myanmar (Burma) border. Over 55 percent of the population lives in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (21°10 to 23°40 N and 99°55 to 101°50 E) and the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (23°50 to 25°20 N and 97°31 to 98°43 E); about 7 percent live in the border areas of the Lincang Prefecture. The rest are spread throughout south and southwestern Yunnan, with a very small number living in the north of the province. Most of the Dai regions are river valleys and pocket flatlands between the mountains covered with tropical or semitropical monsoon forests. With very few exceptions the people live at elevations of 500 to 1,200 meters above sea level. With the tropical and semitropical climate, the average rainfall is between 101 and 170 centimeters, the average annual temperature is 19° C, and the annual frost-free period is about 300 days. Each year in these regions is usually divided into two seasons, a dry season from November to May and a wet season from May to October, the latter receives most of a year's precipitation.

Demography. In 1990 the Dai population was 1,025,128. The Dailü and Daina are the major groups, making up 56 percent and 40 percent respectively of the total Dai population. The Daina, Daide, and Daipeng mainly live in Dehong and Lincang; the Dailü live mostly in Xishuangbanna, while the Daija are distributed in Yuanjiang and Xinping counties and the Red River valley. The Dai also have kin known as "Shan," "Tai," or "Thai" in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chinese scholars commonly hold that the Dai language with its dialects is a Subbranch of the Zhuang-Dong (Kam-Tai) Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Family. Some Western linguists classify it in the Thai-Austronesian Language Family. Five Dai written languages were in use before 1949: Dailü, Daina Daipeng, Jinping Dai, and Xinping Dai scripts. Those based on ancient Pali, Dailü, and Daina scripts were more popular and later formed the basis of present-day Xishuangbanna Dai and Dehong Dai writing.

History and Cultural Relations

Because the Dai are an important group in the ethnohistory of southwest China, their origin has long been a subject of debate. Chinese ethnohistorians link the ancestors of the Dai to the "Dianyue," the name both of a kingdom and of diversified local groups. It was part of Yue or Bai Yue (meaning "hundreds of Yue"), an ancient macrogroup of south China. Over the past 2,000 years, the name "Dianyue" has changed often: "Dianyue" and "Shan" (Siam) in the Han dynasty (206 b.c.-a.d. 220); "Pu," "Yue," or "Liao" in the Wei and Jin dynasties (a.d. 220-419); and "Heichi Man," "Jinchi Man," "Yingchi," "Man Qichi Man," "Xiujiao Man," "Mang Man," and "Baiyi" in the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618-905). In Heichi, Jinchi, Yingchi, and Qichi, the word chi means "teeth," while the words jin, ying, hei, and qi refer to the colors gold, silver, and black. These names seem to reflect a particular custom of the Dai, who inlay their teeth with gold or silver or blacken them by chewing betel nuts. "Baiyi" means "white clothing" the name is likely inspired by the Dai's favorite clothing color. The names "Baiyi" or "Jinchi Beiyi" were used to refer to the people before 1949.

The Dai and related groups were distributed throughout southern and southwestern China and Southeast Asia. They established powerful local kingdoms such as the Mong Mao and Kocambi (tenth to eleventh centuries) in Dehong, the Yonaga or Xienrun (twelfth century) in Xishuangbanna, and the Lanna or Babai Xifu (thirteenth to eighteenth centuries) in northern Thailand. They conquered local groups such as the Benglong (De'ang), Blang, Hani, and Lahu and later the Achang and Jingpo, and the Dai thus became the most powerful group in the area. In the fourteenth century, under Han control, China's imperial court set up the tusi system (see "Political Organization") with Dai kings and nobles as court-appointed tusi lords. Thereafter, the dynasties officially recognized Dai lordship over the other groups. The earliest contact of central China with Yunnan was recorded in the first century b.c., but mass movement of Han into the Yunnan frontiers took place several times after that: in the eighth century, during the war between the Tang dynasty and the Nanzhao Kingdom; in the thirteenth century, when the Mongols conquered the Dali State; and later, in the Yuan dynasty's wars with Burma and Babai Xifu. The largest flow of Han migrants into Yunnan occurred in the early fourteenth century, when an army of over 300,000 soldiers were sent by the Ming emperor to fight the Yuan. After the war the troops stayed on the frontiers as military colonists. As the Han marched in, the traditional Dai feudal system first became part of the tusi system and later faced constant challenge; eventually the political system of interior China replaced it. Coalition and compromise as well as contention and conflictbetween the Chinese governments and the Dai tusi and between the different groups of the areasformed the main themes of the local history as well as a legacy of the area's ethnic relations.


A typical Dai village has 40 households, but those with 80 to 100 households are not uncommon. The settlements are permanent. They are mostly located by rivers or streams. Huge banyan trees and a delicate Buddhist temple or pagoda are the signs of a Dai village all across the Yunnan frontier. Dai houses vary regionally in type of construction and settlement pattern. In Xishuangbanna, each household builds its own bamboo house in the center of a fenced garden. The house (average floor area about 10 by 10 meters) is built 2 to 3 meters above the ground, on twenty-one wooden posts in three rows. People live upstairs, leaving the downstairs without walls for domestic animals and farm tools. The purlins (rafters) are made of bamboo poles, the walls and floors of bamboo mats. The steep pitched roof is thatched. Inside, seven posts with mat walls in the center row divide the house in half lengthwise: the inner part serves as a bedroom while the outer part is a living room. A fireplace in the living room near the entrance serves as the kitchen. As a rule, the room next to the stairs is for an adolescent daughter, so that she can meet her lover conveniently, while the room on the other side is for the parents and serves as grain barn as well. Clear-cut class differences in terms of size, structure, materials, and decoration were strictly observed before 1949. Now rich families build their houses with planked floors and walls and tile roofs. In Dehong the Dai in Ruili build their houses in basically the same style as the Dailü in Xishuangbanna, while the Daina's houses are of a quite different style. Under Han influence, most Daina build their houses in quadrangles: three one-story houses (one central and two side) are on 1-meter-high raised ground around a small courtyard. The houses have wooden frames, mud-brick walls, and thatch or tile roofs; the animal pens are usually by the gate, opposite the central house. The Dai in Yuanjiang, Xinping, and other areas live in two-story mud-brick houses, in the same style as their Yi and Han neighbors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Dai were among the earliest rice cultivators in Yunnan. As early as the seventh century, the Dai used elephants in paddy-field plowing, according to Chinese historical records. More advanced farm tools and techniques brought later by Han immigrants greatly promoted the wet-rice cultivation in Dai regions. Today the wet-rice fields account for 70 percent of the total farmland of all Dai regions. The tropical and semitropical climate, rivers, and fertile alluvial valleys form an ideal environment for wet-rice growing. Vast land resources with a small population make Dai cultivation quite extensive. Most fields produce only one crop (rice) a year, and the farmers plow their paddy fields once and harrow twice, whereas their Han neighbors grow at least two crops (rice and wheat or rapeseed) a year and have three plowings and three harrowings. Dai farmers seldom weed and never apply night soil (dung) in the fields (except some green manure in seedbeds). The output is therefore low (3,386 pounds per acre in 1984). Farmers plant wet rice first in a specially prepared seedbed where it grows for about 30 days. Meanwhile, they prepare regular fields through plowing, soaking, and harrowing. In May or June, they transplant rice seedlings to the prepared fields. After transplanting, the farmers maintain the dikes and regulate the flow of water. Harvest is in November or December; the fields remain fallow until the next spring. Water buffalo, wood plows with iron shares, wood harrows, steel knives, hoe, sickles, and wood flails have been the main tools used in farming for centuries. In recent years improved seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides have been introduced. Farmers also grow dry rice in the hills with slash-and-burn methods. In addition, they often grow tea, cotton, tobacco, camphor, sisal, and coffee, as well as bananas, pineapples, shaddock, mangoes, and other tropical fruits. Sugarcane has a long history in Dai areas, and in the past decade its cultivation has rapidly increased because of government incentives. Rubber trees were introduced in the 1950s. Today tea, sugarcane, rubber, and tropical fruits are major cash crops. Fishing with poison, traps, and explosives is common, but the catch is mainly for domestic consumption.

Industrial Arts. Cotton and kapok spinning and weaving are every household's handicraft. Beautiful silk or cotton brocades made by women on the wood loom are well known all over the province. Dai silver work is equally famous. In the past, Dai kings and nobles commonly used the locally made silverware. Today, silver ornaments remain very popular among the women but all come from state-run shops. The Dai reportedly developed blacksmithing in earlier times, but now the Han and Achang make most metal tools. Rattan and bamboo works and pottery are also well-known Dai handicrafts. Rattan and bamboo furniture of Burmese style and classically elegant water jars are popular articles in the local markets.

Trade. Although Dai women are regarded as able local marketers, the Dai, as a whole, are self-sufficient farmers. There are few Dai businesspeople except those part-time peddlers and a few recently emerged small grocery owners. Most trading is between the lowlanders and highlanders through the local market, which is held every three or four days and deals in farm produce and household handicrafts. The mountain people trade firewood, timber, mushrooms, wild fruits, and so on while the Dai trade rice, rice liquor, vegetables, and bamboo and rattan utensils. The biggest trading party from the 1950s to the early 1980s was the state, through state-run shops and the cooperatives. The Dai sell their rice, rapeseed, and other farm products to these stores and buy most of the manufactured goods they need there. This is changing with the rise of the free market. The role of long-distance traders/merchants was filled by Han, Hui, and to a lesser extent Bai and Naxi. These culture groups were key in the tea trade out of Xishuangbanna.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, women do all the farming work, except plowing and harrowing, as well as household chores. Women are in full charge of marketing any household surplus.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, all land belonged to the tusi. An adult farmer could receive a piece of paddy field for cultivation from his tusi lord. In practice, all farmland fell into five categories: (1) salary fields, which the tusi assigned to his relatives as fiefs and which were tax-free but few in number; (2) official fields, which farmers received from their lords in exchange for taxes and corvée and which constituted the largest proportion of land; (3) private land, which farmers opened from wasteland with the consent of the tusi and which they usually could privately "own" for one or two years without paying tax, before the fields reverted to the tusi and were taxed; (4) public land, a very small, tax-free percentage of the land, which the lords appropriated to their villages for religious or other public use; and (5) manor land, which fell within the tusi manors and which the tusi families directly controlled and the villagers cultivated in corvée and later rented to the peasants. In the last century some changes occurred in land tenure. Official records indicate that several tusi sold paddy fields to Han landlords; mortgaging and renting of land became more common in the areas connected with the Han or near commercial centers. Nevertheless, the Dai land system remained feudal in nature until 1957, when a political campaign of "peaceful land reform" turned the tusi's land into socialist collective property, owned first by the agricultural mutual-aid groups, later by the agricultural co-op, and then by the people's commune. Since 1981, the government has adopted a new type of land tenure, the household contract-responsibility system; paddy fields are allocated by contract to each household, while dry land remains communal. Each contracted household is obliged to pay an agricultural tax (in grain) and to sell its quota of grain to the state at the state-set lower price; each household makes its own decision about resource allocation while considering the suggested plan of the local government about the types and the amount of crops to grow.


Kin Group and Descent. The Dai identify more with community than with kin group. The Dai always identify themselves with their homeland, the place where they were born, even when they live elsewhere. Except for the tusi and nobles, people historically had no lineage patronymics. In fact, the imperial court bestowed tusi surnames. As a given surname might have been granted to several tusi who had no kinship relations, it cannot be used to identify their lineages. Some common people (mostly in Dehong and other interior areas) got their surnames from schools or government workers after the 1949 Revolution. Nevertheless, the Dai distinguish mother's, father's, and wife's groups, with mother's group listed before the father's. In spite of this, however, the Dai trace descent patrilineally. Individuals now inherit their surnames from the father.

Kinship Terminology. Dai kin terms are of the Eskimo type with some regional variation. In Xishuangbanna, grandfather, maternal grandfather, and their brothers share the same term (ipu ); grandmother, maternal grandmother, and their sisters share the same term (ija). Parents' brothers share the same term with parents' brothers-in-law (polong), whereas mother's brother's wife shares the same term with father's brother's wife (mielong). Brother's and sister's children share the same term (lan ) with the children of brother-in-law and sister-in-law regardless of generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Before the 1949 Revolution, class endogamy and ethnic endogamy (with the exception of some marriages with Han) were the rules. Polygyny among tusi and nobles was common. A man was supposed to take his wife from his own village community, while a girl was usually reluctant to marry out of her community. There is no restriction on marriage between cousins, nor on the marriage of persons with the same surname. Therefore, a local community is often an endogamous group. Freedom of Dai adolescents in flirtation, dating, and courtshipwhose rituals include antiphonal singing of love songs and love-bag throwingare well known and recorded in anthropological writings. Premarital sex is common; parents rarely interfere, and they encourage their daughters to have boyfriends. Marriage, however, must be arranged through a matchmaker, usually the boy's mother's brother and sister. Bride-price, the length of the bridegroom's service for the bride's family, and the grand wedding dinner are always the major issues negotiated by the matchmaker. Bride-price is high and has inflated in recent years; bride-service is at least three years, and in some cases it is as long as ten years or more.

"Wife snatching" or "wife seizing" by elopement occasionally occurs because of a high bride-price or the failure of the matchmaker's negotiation. The parents and village community will recognize such a marriage after the matchmaking and bride-price are made up. Matrilocal residence of at least three years is the norm. In Xishuangbanna, three-year matrilocal residence and at least three-year patrilocal residence are taken alternately until the couple inherits property from either side. Only then can they establish their neolocal household. Divorce is easy, and either side can initiate it. Remarriage is quite common and socially acceptable. When a wife demands a divorce, she simply goes back to her parents if the couple already have their own household, or she gives the husband a candle and sends him to the gate of the house if the couple live with the wife's parents. When the husband demands the divorce in the matrilocal residence, he may have to pay some compensation for the unfulfilled bride-service. In any case, the divorced husband has the right to ask for partial restoration of bride-price from the divorced wife's next husband.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family made up of parents and unmarried children (and sometimes a daughter with her husband in bride-service) is the basic family form. In the areas connected to Han regions, some extended families exist. Average family size is four to five people.

Inheritance. Tusi and noble families strictly followed patrilineal primogeniture. The eldest son inherited the titles, offices, and the majority of property (mainly the land) of the tusi, while the other sons shared the remaining properties. For the common people, the family's legacy is usually divided by all sons with the eldest son inheriting the house; the unmarried daughters and matrilocal sons-in-law also have the right to inherit part of the property.

Socialization. Both the Buddhist temple and family play roles in children's socialization and enculturation. The Dai are gentle and mild in disposition; parents seldom beat their children, and the young respect their elders. A boy at the age of 8 or 9 used to spend at least two to three years, usually ten or more years, in a Buddhist temple as a monk. After receiving a Buddhist name and after having learned Dai scripts and Buddhist scriptures, the boy became an adult, resumed a secular life, and married. This custom was abolished in the Cultural Revolution but has recently reappeared. Secular public schools are set up in all Dai regions. Some tension exists between the public school system and the temple, as children prefer to go to temples to learn Dai writing.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Dai society was split into two classes, the aristocracy and the commoners, based on their blood origins. In each class were several strata. In Xishuangbanna, the aristocracy had three levels: the mong or sadu (the chaopianling "the lord of the land"and his relatives of lineal consanguinity); the wung (the chaopianling's collateral relatives); and the lulangdaopa and the chaochuang (the distant relatives of the mong and wung). Commoners were of three kinds: daimong (natives or the earliest settlers of a place); gunghengchao (people born in aristocrats' servants' families); and kachao (aristocrats' domestic slaves). Only the aristocrats were entitled to hold fiefs and/or offices, whereas the commoners were all serfs, engaging in different occupations in accordance with their status. After the 1949 Revolution, these class differences were abolished.

Political Organization. The tusi was the basic political system in the Dai regions before 1956. The term refers to the central authority's system of appointing native chieftains as local hereditary officials. The tusi polity was autonomous. The tusi had complete power over legislation, administration, and the military within his domain under the condition of obeying the orders and commands of the imperial court and providing tributes, taxes, and corvée to the court. Combined with the original feudal structure of the Dai, the tusi became not only the official government administrator in the area but also an officially recognized lord over the other local minorities. The tusi regions varied in rank and size. Before 1956, while all the tusi in Xishuangbanna were ruled by one big tusi, Dehong was divided into seven tusi regions independent from each other. Rigid hierarchy existed within the tusi organization. In Xishuangbanna, the cheli xuanweishisi, the highest tusi office in Yunnan, was the "central" government there. Headed by the chaopianling (lord of the land), the government had four major departments: the chaojinha (senate); the huailangmanwa (administration); the huailangchangwan (department of finance and taxation); and the huailangmanhong (department of census registration and justice). The region was divided into thirty-odd fiefs (mong). Headed by an enfeoffed aristocrat, chaomong, each mong had its own administration and senate. Under the mong office werehierarchicallylong, huoxi, and huoheng, the grass-roots units of the structure. In Dehong, every tusi office was headed by the zhengying tusi (the tusi with the emperor-granted seal). Below him there were tusi officials of different levels: the daiban (deputy) ; the huying (keeper of the tusi seal); and the zuguan (adult male relatives of the tusi, which were further divided into three levels: mong, zhuen, and yin). Most mong and zhuen had the posts of chaomong, the ruler of 10,000 commoners. The tusi had his administration to conduct daily affairs. For the control of the mountain peoples in his domain, the tusi had special headmen, guan or liantou, in charge of collecting taxes. In this way, the tusi built a pyramid-type structure, a true monarchical system; every tusi region was virtually an independent kingdom. The Dai tusi system lasted for over 500 years; it was the oldest tusi in China.

In 1956, the local polity was reorganized into a unified structure with the following levels: state; province or autonomous region; prefecture or autonomous zhou; xian (county); and xiang (district). The xiang (the people's commune from 1958 to 1985) is the lowest level of state authority and the basic administrative unit. A xiang includes several administrative villages, which consist of a number of natural villages. The xiang government is appointed by the xiang people's congress, which is elected from candidates recommended by the Communist party and functions under the leadership of the xiang party committee. The head of the administrative village is appointed by the xiang government, while the head of the natural village is elected by the villagers.

Social Control and Conflict. As Buddhism once dominated both the religious and the political life of the Dai, the Middle Way philosophy, the Four Noble Truths (see "Religious Beliefs"), and other Buddhist commandments have played an important role in both formal and informal social control. Teachings of the Buddha and words of the monks and elders as well as the party's instructions and government regulations are commonly cited in judgments of right and wrong and in arbitration of disputes. Village heads adjudicate most disputes with the help of the elders, and keep most cases at the local level. Only serious cases are brought to the xiang's people's court, the lowest level of the governmental justice system.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Buddhismthe Theravada (Way of the Elders) or Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) schoolwas the official religion of the Dai. Although Buddhism was said to have been introduced to the Dai of Yunnan as early as the seventh century, it only gained great popularity after 1569, when Dao Yin Mong, the nineteenth chaopianling of Xishuangbanna, married a daughter of the king of Burma. Since then, Buddhism was accepted by the tusi as the official religion and spread widely to all classes. With four sects (Ruen, Baizhuang, Dolie, and Zodi), Buddhism in both Xishuangbanna and Dehong argues for reaching enlightenment by following the Middle Way (avoiding the extremes of life) and the Four Noble Truths (all existence is suffering; suffering arises from desire; cessation of desire means the end of suffering; cessation of desire is achieved by controlling one's conduct, thought, and belief), and it emphasizes gaining wisdom and working out one's own salvation by renouncing the world and living the life of a monk, devoting oneself to meditation and study in a temple. Therefore, it is customary for men to spend at least some part of their lives in a temple. For the lay believers, making offerings to the Buddha, supporting the monks, and sending their sons into a temple are the ways to become enlightened and achieve salvation. In addition to Buddhism, traditional spirit belief also has its place in Dai society. The Dai believe that human beings become spirits (diula or pi ) after death and that the spirits exist everywhere; some are benevolent and helpful, while others are wicked and harmful. Rituals of worship and sacrifice provide protection and assurance to people and community.

Religious Practitioners. Formal ecclesiastical systems exist in Xishuangbanna and Dehong. In Xishuangbanna, monks are grouped into ten classes in the hierarchy: (1) the pano (small monk, the elementary class of the system) ; (2) the pa (common monk); (3) the dugang (deputy abbot of a temple); (4) the dulong (abbot of a temple); (5) the kuba (elder of the first grade) ; (6) the shami (elder of the second grade); (7) the samghaloshe (elder of the third grade); (8) the pachaoku (elder of the fourth grade); (9) the songdi (elder of the fifth grade); and (10) the songdi aghamoni (the highest elder). Dehong has a similar system with variation in grading and terminology. Those with the title of kuba or above are master monks and, as a rule, cannot resume secular life. Before 1956, the highest title holders of a tusi region were approved and granted authority over all the temples in the region by the tusi. Today the temples and monks that survived the Cultural Revolution are under the supervision of official Buddhist Associations of the county and prefecture.

Ceremonies. The main Buddhist ceremonies are Haowasa and Aowasa, Shaobaichai, Sangha, and Dan or Bai. Haowasa and Aowasa, meaning "in" and "out" of the fast period, are yearly ceremonies popular in both Xishuangbanna and Dehong. The Dai make series of Buddha offerings between the ninth and twelfth days of the month from June to October. During this period, the believers go to local temples every seventh day to offer food and flowers to the Buddha and to listen to the monks reciting scriptures; male adults have to stay three nights a week at the temples, experiencing a monk's life. On the first day and last day of the period grand celebrations are held. Through the whole period, all farm work is suspended, and no courtship, wedding, long journey, house building, promotion, or resumption of secular life by monks is allowed. Formerly, this was also the time for the tusi to appoint the village heads. Shaobaichai, meaning "Burning of White Firewood," popular only in Dehong, is held at the beginning of every spring. At this time, adolescents go into the mountains to collect firewood and then burn it by the village temple to expel the coldness and thus show the people's goodwill to Buddha. Sangha, the Water-Sprinkling Festival, is celebrated in all Dai regions at Buddhist New Year (about mid-April). On the day, people gather at the temple with fresh flowers, food, and other offerings, build small Buddhist pagodas in the yard of the temple with clean sand from the rivers, and then sit around the pagodas and listen to the monks reciting the scriptures to expiate the sins of the dead. Meanwhile, a figure of Buddha is carried into the yard. People wash the Buddha and sprinkle each other with clear water as a blessing. Now the day is officially declared a Dai national holiday and celebrated with a big rally, dragon-boat races, and fireworks. It draws large numbers of tourists. Dan (in Xishuangbanna) or Bai (in Dehong) is the Buddha-offering ceremony. The most common and pious way for the lay believers to gain salvation, the ceremony is performed on every important occasion such as a birth, marriage, death, harvest, the building of a Buddhist pagoda or a house, the upgrading of monks, etc. The ceremonies can be held either by an individual household or a community. People offer flowers, food, candles, money, and so on before the figures of Buddha, listen to the monks reciting the scriptures, and appeal to the Buddha for blessing. In Dehong, a Bai sponsor first has to go to Myanmar to buy one or more figures of the Buddha, make elegant streamers and umbrellas, hire monks to make a copy of Buddhist scripture, and put all these in a temporarily built hall at his house. Then the family invites the local abbot and monks to officiate at the ceremony, feasting all relatives and villagers. After the ceremony, all the items are sent to the local temple as offerings. All those who have made a Bai become an honorable paka, a disciple of the Buddha, and will be able to enter the Western Paradise after death. In addition to Buddhist ceremonies, there are spirit-offering rituals (linpimong ) in all Dai regions, communally held for the village's protection and well-being.

Arts. Dai literature is especially rich in poetry and folktales. In Dai, poetry (kahma ) means talking and singing. With relatively loose rhyme, rules, and forms, Dai poetry leaves much room for the zamha or haluanhong, the balladists, in their impromptu recital. Epics are an important part of Dai poetry, among which Langaxihuo, Chaoshutun and Nanmanuola (or The Peacock Princess), and Wuopin and Losang are most famous. The first is about the Dai ancestors' conquest of flood; the second and third are love stories of ancient princes and princesses. The story of the peacock princess seems to be a Dai version of an ancient Hindu drama, Manva. The Dai are well known for their gracerul peacock folk dance, which vividly imitates and displays the elegance of the peacock, the symbol of luck and happiness for the Dai. Mural painting, wood and stone carving, and sculpture are closely tied to Buddhism. Woven and embroidered wool, cotton, and silk bags and other works are famous Dai handicrafts, and they sell well in the markets.

Medicine. Medical knowledge and expertise are mainly passed on orally by the moya (medical man) from generation to generation. Traditional medicine comes from herbs, minerals, or materials from animalsginger, chili, anise, shaddock and pine leaves, opium paste, camphor, borax, tiger bone, pilose antler (of a young stag), the gallbladder of a bear or a snake, and so on. Local epidemics and frequently occurring disorders are malaria, dysentery, cholera (now rare), and convulsions. Massage, oral or surface application of medicines, bloodletting, and heat application are common methods used in treatment and cure. The Dai have accepted modern medicine since the Revolution, but they still use traditional medicine and treatmentas well as the Buddha or spirit offeringsas supplemental cures.

Death and Afterlife. Dai belief about death is a combination of Buddhism and traditional spiritism. The people believe in samsara (all human beings are wandering from life to life through countless rebirths) and karma (people are suffering the consequences of past and present lives). Also, they believe that all humans become spirits after death. The traditional idea is actually more popular among ordinary people, whose fear and reverence of the spirits are reflected vividly at funerals. Burial (for commoners) and cremation (for Buddhist monks and tusi) are common ways to dispose of the body. The funeral ceremonies are for normal deaths only. When a person is dying, the relatives get a small bamboo tablet with two pieces of yellow cloth on it from the temple and put it on the body as a verification of belief in the Buddha so that the deceased can enter paradise. The elder of the family has to recite several verses of Buddhist scriptures to the dying person. All the villagers should stop their work and come to help, for the spirit dislikes any noise of working. All water at home should be tipped away lest the spirit come back to wash. The abbot and the monks are invited to perform rites for one day or more to release the soul from purgatory and expiate the sins of the dead. When the coffin is carried out, all family members come upstairs to drive the spirit out of the house. The spouse of the dead cuts up a pair of candles at this moment to manifest eternal separation from the dead. On the way to the cemetery, the abbot and monk go in front, holding a string tied to the coffin, as guides; behind, the relatives of the dead carry packages of cooked rice and occasionally allow the eldest son of the deceased to take some rice from the packages for the deceased. Each village has its own cemetery nearby in the woods. Adults are buried at a location separate from the sites for those who died young and those who died by accident or violence. Dead children cannot become spirits, whereas those who died through violence become evil spirits. Back from the cemetery, people burn a special kind of nut, exposing themselves to the smoke, and wash their hair with stale rice water to cleanse themselves.


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Jiang Yingliang (1983). Daizu shi (A history of the Dai). Chengdu: Sichuan Nationalities Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1983-1984). Daizu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Dai). 5 vols. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1983-1984). Xishuangbanna Daizu shehui zonghe diaocha (Comprehensive investigations of Dai society of Xishuangbanna). 2 vols. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1984-1987). Dehong Daizu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Dai in Dehong). 2 vols. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

T'ien Ju-k'ang (1949). "Pai Cults and Social Age in the Tai Tribes of the Yunnan-Burmese Frontier." American Anthropologist 51.

T'ien Ju-k'ang (1985). Religious Cults of the Pai-I along the Burma-Yunnan Border. Cornell Southeast Asia Program Monographs. Ithaca, N.Y.



views updated May 17 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Daile, Daina, Daiya, Daibengm, Dianyue, Dan, Liao, Gold Teeth, Silver Teeth, Black Teeth, Baiyi
POPULATION: Over 1 million
RELIGION: Polytheism; ancestor worship; some Buddhism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


From ancient times, the Dai inhabited a region at the southern tip of Yunnan Province, which was set up under the name of Yizhou Prefecture in 109 BC by the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC—AD 8). In the 1st century AD, the Dai chief, Yongyoudiao, sent emissaries thrice to Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25—220). Yongyoudiao was subsequently appointed to a high post by the central government, thus establishing formal political relations between the Dai and the Chinese authorities. Later on, the name of Yizhou Prefecture was changed to Yongchang. From the 8th to 13th century, the prefecture was successively under the jurisdiction of the Nanzhao Kingdom and then of the Dali Kingdom of Yunnan.

As early as the 9th century, the ancestors of the Dai planted rice extensively in south and southwest Yunnan. Plowing was done by elephants and buffalo. Extensive water conservation works and irrigation systems were set up to increase rice and other grain production. Dai women wove a special cloth called "silver cotton cloth." The Dai decorated their teeth by covering them with a thin sheath of gold or silver; thus, different Dai tribes were named "Gold Teeth," "Silver Teeth," "Black Teeth," etc. A chief of the Dai in Xishuangbanna, Bazhen, unified all the tribes in the 12th century. Making Jinghong the capital, he founded the State of Jinglong. Paying homage to the emperor of China as his sovereign, he was granted an official title by the central government; the title passed on to his son. From the Yuan Dynasty (1271—1368) onward, the custom of appointing Dai hereditary chiefs became official. It was only in the 18th century, under the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644—1911), that the Dai chiefs were replaced by officials of Manchu or Chinese nationality. From then on the Dai districts were directly administered by the central government.


The Dai population amounted to just over one million in 1990. They are mainly concentrated in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (South Yunnan) and in three western Yunnan "mixed administrations," namely Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture of Dehong; Dai and Wa Autonomous County of Gengma; and Dai and Lahu Autonomous County of Menglian. The rest of the Dai are scattered into more than 30 counties of Yunnan Province. They live mostly in the plain and valley areas at the foot of the mountains, a region of the subtropics with abundant rainfall and rich soil.


Dai is classified as belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, Zhuang-Dong group, Zhuang-Dai branch. There are three dialects

(mutually unintelligible). The Dai have devised several alphabetic writing systems of their own in various regions, but these systems are mutually incompatible. The main systems are Daina (Dehong dialect), Daile (Xishuangbanna dialect), Daibeng (around Ruijiang), and Dairui (Quanping dialect).

Dai is a self-given name meaning "people who love peace and freedom." The Dai also call themselves by other names, such as "Daile," "Daina," "Daiya," "Daibeng," and so on. Other designations were given by the Chinese or by other nationalities, such as, "Dianyue," "Dan," "Liao," "Gold Teeth," "Silver Teeth," "Black Teeth," "Baiyi," etc. Dai was chosen as a unified designation since 1949.


One of the most stirring stories in the rich Dai mythology is the long poem "Princess Peacock and Prince Zhaoshutun." One day, Prince Zhaoshutun of Mengbanjia Kingdom went hunting. He saw seven princesses in peacock clothes bathing in the Golden Lake. Helped by the Dragon God, he stole the peacock clothes of the youngest princess, Nannuona. She could not fly back to her Peacock Kingdom without those clothes. Besides, she loved the prince at first sight. They married and led a happy life. However, King Peacock was so angry about their marriage that he sent troops to attack the Mengbanjia Kingdom. Prince Zhaoshutun had to leave his beloved wife and lead his army to battle. Unsure about the length and the outcome of the war, King Peacock ordered a shaman to perform divination; he falsely accused Nannuona of being a demon and advised that she should be killed. She asked for remission, but it was refused. She then asked to dance one last time in her peacock clothes before her execution, to which he agreed. As soon as she put on her peacock clothes, she swiftly flew upward and returned to her Peacock Kingdom. Prince Zhaoshutun defeated his enemies and returned in triumph. Overcome with grief and regret, his father told him the story. He went back to the Golden Lake, where he was helped again by the Dragon God to stride over thousands of crags and torrents and ultimately arrived in the Peacock Kingdom. Surmounting all sorts of obstacles put up by the Peacock King, he was finally reunited with Princess Peacock, Nannuona.

According to the myths entitled "The Origin of Yingba" and "The Creation of Yingba," Yingba was the ancestor of all gods. The many stories attached to this mythological figure form an important part of the traditional beliefs of the Dai.


The Dai are polytheistic. They offer sacrifices to "Diula" (a divinized ancestor) on an annual, three-year, and even nine-year cycle. The rite is called "Diula Meng." "Meng" means an area where many villages are bound by blood ties. Therefore, many villages attend the rite, which may last from 1 day to as many as 10 days. The participants wear uniform ceremonial clothes. Oxen and pigs are butchered as offerings. The road leading to the ceremonial place should be sealed off and no outsiders allowed.

The Dai also offer a sacrifice to the Paddy Field Ghost before they transplant the rice shoots and after harvest. A makeshift shed is set up in the paddy field to perform the ritual. Four pairs of candles, a certain amount of areca leaves and one rice roll are used.

Each village may have a few "village gods" of its own; these are actually ancestors who made important contributions to the village in the past. Villagers offer them sacrifices at regular intervals.

Hinayana Buddhism came to the Dai in the 7th century (according to another version, in the 14th century). Sakyamuni receives special homage as the founder of Buddhism. The religion advocates as the highest ideal that the Buddhist believer become a monk or a nun, lead an ascetic life, free oneself from worldly preoccupations and, in the end, reach nirvana (a state of perfect bliss), equally detached from life and death. For this reason, people are asked to offer donations to the monks, the nuns, and their temples. In Dai areas, each village has its own temple and monks are very common. In Xishuangbanna, boys are expected to lead the life of a monk for a certain period of their life. They learn to read and to chant scriptures, then resume their secular life; some of them choose to remain monks all their lives.


Most Dai festivals are related to Buddhism, such as the Haolunwa Festival, Danpa Festival, Dangang Festival, Shanghan Festival, Danpopazhao Festival, Aowasa Festival, Danmuohaban Festival, Dandanmu Festival, the Haowasa Festival, etc. One of the goals of festivals is to offer donations to the temples.

Besides these temple festivals, traditional Dai holidays include the Spring Festival, the Multicolored Egg Festival, the Water-Splashing Festival, the Moon Worship Festival, the Opened-Door Festival, the Closed-Door Festival, and Huanglu Festival, and so on. Among them, the Water-Splashing Festival is the most elaborate and the best known. It is comparable to the Spring Festival of the Chinese, but is held June 24—26 (Dai calendar). The first thing the Dai do after dawn on the Festival day is to prostrate themselves before the Buddha and give alms to the monks. They splash clean water on the Buddha image to wash off the dust. Thus, they perform the "Bathe-Buddha Ceremony." Then, they splash water on each other. It is said that a fire demon had occupied Xishuangbanna. One day, it kidnapped seven beautiful girls. The youngest of them, Nongxiang, coaxed a secret out of the demon: a long hair put around its neck would cut its head off. She did a good job with her hair, but the demon's head turned into a fire ball. Wherever it went, it burned. The seven girls splashed a lot of water and finally put out the fire. They rid the people of a fierce scourge. In memory of their contribution, the Dai have performed water-splashing activities annually since then and ultimately turned the ritual into a festival. Water-splashing on each other is considered very auspicious. Many recreational activities, performances, and competitions are held on the same day. It is, of course, a great opportunity for the young people to date. If it happens to be raining, this is regarded as an omen of a bumper crop.

The Closed-Door Festival is a festival in which the door of love and marriage is closed and a grand donation activity is held in the temple. The Opened-Door Festival is held right after the Closed-Door Festival; it is a feast dedicated to young people, where dating and marriage are encouraged.

The Huanglu Festival is both a fair and a parade held at harvest time, fostering the exchange of commodities in the context of festive recreation; it follows the Opened-Door Festival. The central figure of the parade is the image of an elephant, woven with bamboo strips and covered with multicolored papers. It is operated by a man lying beneath the elephant belly. The base of the image is carried on the shoulders of four or eight strong men.


In the past, the education of Dai children was restricted to the temple. Only monks acquired a certain amount of knowledge through religious education. In Xishuangbanna, there has been a tradition that every boy should be a monk from the time when he was seven or eight years old. He only left the temple when he reached adulthood. Most of them then resumed their secular life and soon married. A select few chose the monastic life and remained in the temple for the rest of their lives.

In general, the Dai bury their dead in the ground, but the monks practice cremation. The ash of the dead monk is put into a pot and buried in the rear of the temple. A rite should be held for a widow or widower to cut off her or his relation with the dead. A thread is bound to the body of the widow or widower and its other end is attached to the coffin or to the straw mat wrapping of the dead. A senior person cuts the thread, then the deceased is no longer related to the surviving spouse. This ritual is probably linked to the wedding ceremony, in which a thread-tying ritual is performed.


Taboos among the Dai often bear profound religious meanings. For example, to stroke a young monk's head is strictly prohibited. When calling on a family, the guest is not allowed to stride over the firepool, sit behind the fire while facing the door, sit on the threshold of the door, lean against a column, or enter the inner rooms. In spite of such formalities, the Dai are very hospitable. Tea, tobacco, and wine are offered as soon as the guests arrive. The family prepares special dishes to honor the guests, including fish, chicken, pork, vegetables, sweet bamboo shoots, peanuts, and fruits after a meal. When a guest is to leave, the host will see him off to the gate.

Dai youngsters enjoy full freedom in dating. The sure way of knowing whether a girl is married or single is to look at her silver waistband. According to Dai custom, a married girl will hang the keys of her household on her waistband, thus indicating that she refuses any advance. "Tossing an embroidered ball" is a sport and also a ritual of social intercourse between boys and girls. The ball is a 4 in square bag padded with cottonseed, with a 1 m-long brocade band attached at one of its corners. Boys and girls are separated into two teams and stand in lines about 10 m apart facing each other. One member of a team—a girl, for instance—holds the band and rotates the ball, then lets the ball fly toward the opposite team; the ball should be caught by a young man. However, if the ball is tossed by a girl he likes, he might purposely "miss" the ball and let it drop; according to the rules, he must then walk to the girl, present a bouquet of flowers, and say something (in this case, of course, words expressing his innermost feelings). The girl should receive the flowers and listen to his confession of love.


The Dai live in stilt-supported storied houses made of bamboo. They use 24 to 40 bamboos as stilts. A wooden floor is laid on the stilts, 2-3 m above the earth. The house is cubic in shape. Rows of straw cover the double slopes of the roof. A bamboo ladder leads to the door. There is a corridor and a balcony for relaxation and cooling off in the evening and for hanging the wash out to dry. Livestock and miscellany are placed on the ground floor. The central room, covered with a large bamboo-strip mat, serves for eating, for resting, and for receiving guests. There is a firepool in the center, with a triangular iron framework for cooking or boiling tea. The inner room, separated by planks or a mat woven with bamboo strips, is the main bedroom; there are also bedrooms on each side of the central room. People should take off their shoes before they enter. Some houses are built with bricks and tiles. In Delong District, most houses are one-story. The wall is built by adobe or bamboo, the roof covered with straw.

Transportation in the Dai districts is very convenient. there are highways connecting almost all the townships and even the villages. A reinforced concrete bridge crosses the Lanchang River. A land and water communication network is already operative around Jinghong. There are airlines connecting Simao and Baoshan with Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province.


Dai families are patrilineal and small. The parents live with the unmarried children. In case a couple has no son, the man is welcome to live with his bride's family. This situation is quite common. There are quite a few marriage rites. For instance, the bride's side and bridegroom's side set up tables exhibiting their respective wedding gifts. the gifts from the bridegroom's side usually include wine, two rolls of white threads, straight skirts, garments, two silver waistbands, a silver bracelet, a long sword, glutinous rice, eggs, and cooked chickens; the gifts from the bride's side usually include wine, a hat made of banana leaves, a piece of white cloth, a piece of black cloth, five strings of areca, two strings of banana, brown sugar, and salt. these traditional gifts are symbolic and express the wish that the new couple will lead a sweet and tasteful life.

During the wedding ceremony, the bride and the bridegroom sit on a felt mat, side by side. The master of ceremonies ties a white thread on their wrists. Then a senior person among the relatives binds the bridegroom's left shoulder, crosses their backs, and binds the bride's right shoulder. The thread is finally tied by a guest. "White" means pure love. "Tying the thread" means binding the couple together, never to separate.

In some districts, the bridegroom should work for the bride's family for three years. Then, the couple is allowed to move to his family's home.


Dai men wear collarless, edge to edge tops and long trousers. They usually wrap their heads with white or dark blue cloth. In the winter, they have felt draped over their shoulders. Tattoos are very common. As early as 11 years old, boys are tattooed over the chest, back, belly, loin, and extremities with the figures of animals and flowers, as well as with symbolic designs and even with Dai writing. Quite a number of the aged and middle-aged men are tattooed with Buddhist scriptures over their thighs. It was a custom in the past: anybody whose thigh was not tattooed with scriptures would be looked down upon.

The traditional clothes of women include short garments with tight sleeves and long straight skirts reaching to their feet. In areas around Mangshi, girls wear long trousers and a small waistband. Dai women usually comb their hair into a bun with a multicolored wooden comb stuck into it. They like to wear a silver waistband, a bracelet, and other ornaments.


Rice is the staple food of the Dai. They prefer pork to beef. Sweet wine is welcome by all of them, including the children. They usually take two meals a day. Chopsticks and bowls are used. In the case of glutinous rice, they take it with their hand. Their traditional foods include rice in a bamboo tube, sour bamboo shoots, roasted fish, sour vegetables, thick sauce made from shrimp, fish, crab, cicada, ant's eggs, or cricket, as well as fried ant's eggs, fried crickets, roasted spiders, and raw worms in the bamboo. They like to chew areca leaves (tropical Asian palms).


Primary schools, middle schools (junior and senior), and technical schools are set up in all Dai areas. The vast majority of students receive primary school education. Many Chinese teachers, who learned the Dai language and writing, work as teachers. Newspapers and books written in Dai are published. Programs in the Dai language are broadcasted. Traditional temple education is gradually being transformed; however, the cultural and educational level of the Dai is still lower than the average for the national minorities of China.


Dai folk singers are called zhuanha. their performances are well received. The Peacock Dance is usually performed on festivals by one or two dancers. They wear white masks and ornaments simulating peacock wings. Their movements imitate those of a peacock, such as leaving the nest, sliding down the slope, taking off, finding the water, looking at their image in the water, drinking, bathing, and flying. the performance is accompanied by musical instruments, such as the elephant foot drum, gongs, and cymbals.


The Dai have acquired more than 1,000 years of experience in rice cultivation. They have well-integrated systems of cultivation, of water conservation, and of irrigation. This is the basis of their economy. Handicraft, trade, livestock husbandry, light industry, and mining are all making progress. There are nearly 100 small-scale power stations in Xishuangbanna Prefecture. Their Pu'er tea is famous throughout the country. the success of rubber tree plantations promises important developments in the rubber industry in the near future.


Basketball, soccer, and volleyball are very popular with the youngsters. The Dai have also developed a distinct style of shadow-boxing based on the Peacock Dance.


Besides movies and television, which are already popularized, karaoke halls have recently been set up in almost all townships. This is due to the influence of tourists who visit the Dai areas in increasing numbers. But, traditional forms of entertainment remain very much alive—in particular, song competitions and festival entertainment. For instance, during the New Year celebrations, groups of young people sing and dance in front of each household in the village. New Dai theater has developed from traditional themes.


The artistic sense of the Dai is best seen in the architecture and design of Buddhist buildings, especially the Manfeilong White Pagoda in Jinghong County, the Mangmengding Pagoda in Yingjiang County, and the Octagonal Pagoda in Jingzhen County. These are not only admired for their architectural sophistication, but also their exquisite carvings and paintings. Among handicrafts, Dai brocade items have a special attraction for the tourists.


The Dai have their own calendar, writing system, and a well-developed agriculture. Their educational inadequacy, however, is quite marked among the minorities. This is related to their traditional form of education and inhibits their economic development in the future.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involves organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


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—by C. Le Blanc


views updated May 23 2018

DAI Abbrev. for distributed artificial intelligence.