the 1,598,100 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
group 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.
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 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 24 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
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.