The Dai ethnic minority
Population: 1.02 million
Major area of distribution: Yunnan
The 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 land.
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 and peacocks.
The Dai language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family and has three major dialects. It is written in an alphabetic script.
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 Captain."
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 (1368-1644).
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 the temples.
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 wedding.
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.