The Bai ethnic minority


¡¡¡¡Of the 1,858,063 Bai people, 80 per cent live in concentrated communities in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, southwest China. The rest are scattered in Xichang and Bijie in neighboring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces respectively.

      The Bais speak a language related to the Yi branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese roup of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. The language contains a large number of Chinese words due to the Bais' long contact with the majority Chinese ethnic group--Han.

      Situated on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the Bai area is crisscrossed with rivers, of which the major ones are the Lancang, the Nujiang and the Jinsha. The river valleys, dense forests and vast tracts of land form a beautiful landscape and provide an abundance of crops and fruits. The area round Lake Erhai in the autonomous prefecture is blessed with a mild climate and fertile land yielding two crops a year. Here, the main crops are rice, winter wheat, beans, millet, cotton, rape, sugar-cane and tobacco. The forests have valuable stocks of timber, herbs of medicinal value and rare animals. Mt. Diancang by Lake Erhai contains a rich deposit of the famous Yunnan marble, which is basically pure white with veins of red, light blue, green and milky yellow. It is treasured as building material as well as for carving.


Origins and History

      Archaeological finds from Canger and Haimenkou show that the Erhai area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Age, and artifacts of that period indicate that the people of the region used stone tools, engaged in farming, livestock rearing, fishing and hunting, and dwelt in caves. Possibly, they began to use bronze knives and swords and other metal tools about 2,000 years ago.

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

      Bai aristocrats backed by the Tang court unified the people of the Erhai area and established the Nanzhao regime of Yis and Bais. Its first chief, Piluoge, was granted the title of King of Yunnan by a Tang emperor.

      Slaves were used to do heavy labor, while "free" peasants were subject to heavy taxation and forced to render various services including conscription into the army. Some of them, who lost their land, were made slaves.

      The Nanzhao regime lasted for 250 years. During that period of time, while maintaining a good relationship with the central government, the rulers cruelly oppressed the slaves and mercilessly plundered other ethnic nationalities through warfare. Productivity was thus seriously harmed. This caused slave rebellions and uprisings. Nanzhao's power came to an end in the year 902. Then a regime based on a feudal lord system, known as the Kingdom of Dali, was established. The kingdom adopted a series of measures such as abolishing exorbitant taxes and removing conservative ministers. As a result, social productivity was restored.

      The kingdom lasted for over 300 years (937-1253) as a tributary to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) court. It sent war-horses, handicrafts and precious medicines to the court, and in return received science and technology, as well as books in the Han language. Economic and cultural exchanges with the Hans contributed greatly to the development of this border area.

      The kingdom was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) rule was established there. The Mongols designated Yunnan a province while establishing Dali and Heqing as prefectures. In order to strengthen their control over Dali, the Yuan rulers offered former chieftains official posts and granted their families hereditary privileges. Though land was mainly concentrated in the hands of the local aristocracy at that time, the feudal lord system began to give way to a landlord system.

      The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) took power from the Yuan rulers in 1381. The Ming court removed local chieftains and replaced them with court officials. This kind of reform resulted in the weakening of the political and economic privileges of the local lords, brought freedom to the slaves and raised the enthusiasm of the peasants for farming. Those Bais and Hans who had emigrated were encouraged to return, while Hans from other areas were persuaded to settle there. This measure accelerated the development of the landlord economy of Bai society.

      In addition to the continuation of the Ming policy of dispatching officials from the central government, the Qing (1644-1911) court also appointed local officials and chieftains to rule over the Bais.

      Some Bai people in remote areas still suffered feudal exploitation and oppression at the time of liberation.


Culture and Folklore

       Over the centuries, the Bais have created a science and culture of their own. Agriculture was dominant in the Erhai area as early as the Neolithic Age. People then knew how to dig ditches for irrigation. During the Nanzhao regime, they began the cultivation of rice, wheat, broomcorn, millet and several other crops, and built the Cangshan water-conservancy project which could bring water to tens of thousands of hectares of land. To their credit are inventions and advances in meteorology, astronomy, calendar, architecture, medical science, literature, music, dancing, carving and painting. Among the representative works of the Bai people are Transit Star Catalogue for Time Determination by the Ming Dynasty scholar Zhou Silian, Collection of Secret Prescriptions by Chen Dongtian and Tested Prescriptions by Li Xingwei. These classics recorded and summarized in detail the valuable experience of the Bai people in astronomy and medicine.

      The superb architectural skill of the Bai people is represented by the three pagodas at the Chongsheng Temple in Dali. Built during the Tang Dynasty, the 16-storey main tower is 60 meters high and still stands erect after more than 1,000 years. It bears a resemblance to the Dayan Pagoda (Wild Goose) in Xi'an, an ancient Chinese capital city in today's Shaanxi Province. Figurines in the Shibaoshan Grottoes in Jianchuan County are lifelike, possessing both the common features of figure creation in China and the unique features of the Bai artists. The architectural group in the Jizushan Temple, with bow-shaped crossbeams, bracket-inserted columns, and gargoyles representing people, flowers and birds created with the open carving method, shows the excellent workmanship of the Bai people. The Bais also have high attainments in lacquerware.

      They have created a wealth of literary works reflecting their life, work, and struggles against nature and oppression. The epic, Genesis, sings the praises of the communal life of Bai primitive society. Some poems by Bai poets have been included in the Complete Poems of Tang Dynasty. The History of the Bais, Anecdotes of Nanzhao and Kingdoms of Southwest China are among the best historical works written by Bai historians. They provide important data for the study of the history of the Erhai area.

      The Bai people are good singers and dancers. The "Lion Dance," created during the Nanzhao regime, was appreciated in the central plains during the Tang Dynasty. Bai opera, known as chuichui, is an art form combining folk music and dancing. It has also absorbed some of the characteristics of Han operas.

      The famous painting depicting the Resurgence of the Nanzhao was created in 899 A.D. by Bai painters Zhang Shun and Wang Fengzong. This masterpiece was stolen by foreign imperialists in 900 from Beijing.


Customs and Habits

      The Bais are Buddhists and worshippers of "communal god." Dotted with monasteries and temples, Dali has been known as a "Scented Wonderland." Abbots who held huge amount of land and other property in the past were big landlords and usurers. The ordinary people were heavily burdened by this caste and by religious activities which required sacrifices of cattle and other valuables.

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

      The "March Fair," which falls between March 15 and 20 of the lunar calendar, is a grand festival of the Bais. It is celebrated every year at the foot of the Diancang Hill to the west of Dali city. It is a fair and an occasion for sporting contests and theatrical performances. People gather there to enjoy dances, horse racing and other games. June 25 is the "Torch Festival." On that day, torches are lit everywhere to usher in a bumper harvest and to bless the people with good health and fortune. Streamers bearing auspicious words are hung in doorways and at village entrances alongside the flaming torches. Villagers, holding aloft torches, walk around in the fields to drive insects away.



      Before 1949, the feudal landlord economy was dominant in most Bai areas. Incipient capitalism had developed in a few cities and towns, while vestiges of the primitive communalism and remnants of the slave system were still in existence.

      About 90 per cent of the people were farmers who possessed only 20 per cent of the arable land.

      In areas where the lord system prevailed, peasants were all serfs, who owned neither land nor personal freedom.

      In the communal setup in Bijiang and Fugong areas, class distinctions were not clear. There was land which was tilled collectively and the harvest distributed equally among the people. Private ownership of land also was practiced on a small scale. There were also land sales and leasing.

      Commercial capitalism found its way into some Bai areas at the beginning of the modern times. Trading companies owned by bureaucrat landlords emerged, shipped in commodities such as yarns and cloth from the United States, Britain and France via India, Burma and Vietnam, and exported gold, silver, and farm and sideline produce.

      The Bai people had staged numerous uprisings against the Qing rulers and foreign imperialists. In one of these uprisings, which took place in the mid-19th century, they set up their own political power, the Dali Administration. The new government adopted measures to promote industrial and agricultural production, reduce land taxation and stamp out discrimination against the various nationalities.


New Life

      Democratic reform and socialist transformation proceeded in the Bai areas in much the same way as in the Han inhabited areas, but the reforms were carried out in a more gradual manner in those areas with vestiges of pre-capitalist economic organization. Cooperatives were set up to boost production on the basis of abolishing class exploitation and the remnants of primitive communalism.

      The Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture was founded in November 1956 after the completion of the democratic reform and socialist transformation.