¡¡¡¡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
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
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
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
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.
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.