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
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
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
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
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.
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 wear 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 white 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
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