ĦĦĦĦThe Dai ethnic group
lives in the southern part of Yunnan Province, mainly in the Xishuangbanna
region. The area is subtropical, with plentiful rainfall and fertile
Local products include rice, sugar
cane, coffee, hemp, rubber, camphor and a wide variety of fruits.
Xishuangbanna is the home of China's famous Pu'er tea. The dense
forests produce large amounts of teak, sandalwood and medicinal
plants, and are home to wild animals including elephants, tigers
The Dai language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan
language family and has three major dialects. It is written in an
The history of contact between the
Dai and Han peoples dates back to 109 B.C., when Emperor Wu Di of
the Han Dynasty set up Yizhou Prefecture in southwestern Yi (the
name used to signify the minority areas of what are now Sichuan,
Yunnan and Guizhou provinces). The Dais in subsequent years sent
tribute to the Han court in Luoyang, and among the emissaries were
musicians and acrobats. The Han court gave gold seals to the Dai
ambassadors and their chieftain was given the title "Great
According to Chinese documents
of the ninth century, the Dais had a fairly well developed agriculture.
They used oxen and elephants to till the land, grew large quantities
of rice and had built an extensive irrigation system. They used
kapok for weaving, panned salt and made weapons of metal. They plated
their teeth with gold and silver.
In the 12th century, a Dai chieftain
named Bazhen unified all the tribes and established the Mengle local
regime with Jinghong as the capital, and called it the "Jinglong
Golden Hall Kingdom." According to local records, the kingdom
had a population of more than one million, and was famous for white
elephants and fine-breed horses. It recognized the Chinese imperial
court as its sovereign. When Bazhen ascended the throne, he was
given a "tiger-head gold seal" by the Emperor, and the
title "Lord of the Region." Previously, the Dais in the
Dehong region had established the Mengmao Kingdom, with Ruilijiang
as the capital.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368),
the Dai area was subordinate to Yunnan Province and the system of
appointing hereditary headmen from among the ethnic minorities was
instituted; this system was consolidated during the Ming Dynasty
Past Socio-Economic Conditions
The increasing economic and cultural
interflow between the Han and Dai peoples, as well as the migration
of many Han people to the frontiers, taking with them advanced production
skills and culture and science, promoted the economic development
of Dai society. The feudal lord system established in the Dai areas
at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty
further promoted social production. The use of iron implements was
widespread, new strains of crops were cultivated, and cotton was
grown extensively. A number of fairly large commercial townships
such as Cheli were established.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), on the
whole, carried on the practice of the Yuan and Ming system in the
minority areas. However, it placed the Dai areas with more advanced
economy under its jurisdiction and sent officials to practice direct
control. During the Kuomintang rule, a county was set up in the
Dai area close to the frontier and the policy of national oppression
was carried out through the county administration.
The historical conditions of the Dai
communities were not the same, nor were the stages of their social
development. So each had its own characteristics as to the form
of land ownership, class structure and political system. Such areas
as Jingdong, Xinping and Yuanjiang, where the Dais mingled with
the Hans, had entered the feudal landlord economy stage earlier
because the Dais absorbed the Han's more advanced tools and techniques
of production. Social progress was slower in Xishuangbanna and Dehong
on the border, particularly Xishuangbanna, which still retained
a fairly complete feudal manorial economy.
Since the Yuan, Ming and Qing regimes
practiced the system of appointing national-minority hereditary
headmen, the "Cheli Official" had for generations been
the highest manorial lord and ruler until liberation. All the land,
forests and water belonged to him, and he subdivided his domain
to be hereditarily ruled by his clan members and trusted followers.
Under such a system, part of the land owned directly by the manorial
lords became their private manors or served as pay for their household
officials. The remaining part was allocated to the serfs and came
under the common ownership of the whole village.
The manorial lords established a set
of political institutions, and had their own troops, courts and
prisons to facilitate their plunder and strengthen their rule.
The frontier Dai areas such as Dehong,
Menglian and Gengma were nearly the same as Xishuangbanna, basically
having a feudal manorial economy. However, their social economy
underwent new changes. The land allocated to the peasants became
more stabilized and hereditary, and land rent in kind was widely
practiced. In Mangshi and Yingjiang, the landlord economy developed
faster and the rich peasant economy also grew, because of the Dai
people's frequent contact with the Hans.
For a long time the Dais had grown
rice as their main crop, and they had developed a rather complete,
intensive farming system and gained rich experience in irrigation.
However, under the shackles of feudalism, yields were low. The reckless
exploitation by the luxury loving ruling class and the Han landlords
and merchants forced many peasants to flee their villages.
The religious beliefs of the Dai people
were closely related to their economic development. Residents on
the borders generally were followers of Hinayana, a sect of Buddhism,
while retaining remnants of shamanism. There were many Buddhist
temples in the countryside, and it was a common practice, especially
in Xishuangbanna, to send young boys to the temples to learn to
read and write and chant scriptures, as a form of schooling. Some
of them became monks, while most of them returned to secular life.
While staying in the temple, the boys had to do all kinds of hard
work, and the Dai people had to bear all the financial burden of
Customs and Habits
The marriage of the Dais was characterized
by intermarriage on strictly equal social and economic status. Polygamy
was common among chieftains, who also humiliated the wives and daughters
of peasants at will. The patriarchal monogamous nuclear family was
the common form among peasants. Pre-marital social contact between
young men and women was quite free, especially during festivals.
It was common for the groom to move into the bride's home after
The graveyards of aristocrats and poor
people were strictly separated. When a monk or a Buddhist leader
died, he was cremated and his ashes placed in a pottery urn to be
buried behind a temple.
Men wore collarless tight-sleeved short
jackets, with the opening at the front or along the right side,
and long baggy trousers. In winter they drape a blanket over their
shoulders. They wore black or hite turbans. Tattooing was common.
When a boy reached the age of 11 or 12, a tattoo artist was invited
to tattoo his body and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric
patterns or the Dai written script. Traditionally, women wore tight-sleeved
short dresses and sarongs.
Rice is the staple food. The Dais in
Dehong prefer dry rice, while those in Xishuangbanna like sticky
rice. All love sour and hot flavors. In addition to beef, chicken
and duck, they enjoy fish and shrimp. Cabbages, carrots, bamboo
shoots and beans are among the popular vegetables. The Dais also
love wine, liquor, and betel nuts.
The villages of the Dais in Dehong
and Xishuangbanna are found on the plains, near rivers or streams,
and among clusters of bamboo. The buildings generally are built
on stilts. Some of the houses are square, with two stories. The
upper story serves as the living place, while the lower space, without
walls, is used as a storehouse and for keeping livestock.
Dai festivals, closely related to religious
activities, included the "Door-Closing" festival in mid-June
by the lunar calendar, the "Door-Opening" festival in
mid-September, and the "Water-Splashing" festival in spring.
"Door-Closing" started three months of intensive religious
activities. "Door-Opening" marked the beginning of normal
life. "Water-Splashing," still held every year, is the
most important festival, during which the Dais splash water on one
another, and hold dragon boat races in the hope of chasing away
all the illnesses and bad fortune of the past year and bringing
about good weather and bumper harvests.
The Dais have a rich, colorful culture.
They have their own calendar, which started in 638 A.D. There are
books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Dai
historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering
poetry, legends, stories, fables and children's tales. They love
to sing and dance, accompanied by their native musical instruments.