The Dai are one of the happiest and most carefree of all the ethnic minorities in China and this is reflected in their chosen name, which means “freedom” in the Dai language. Just over one million Dai people currently live in China, predominantly concentrated in Yunnan province, but the term Dai can also be applied to communities in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Myanmar, and Vietnam. This is because the illustrious ancestors of the Dai people, known as the Bai Yue, Bai Yi, or Bai Ye people, are thought to be shared with the Lao people of Laos, the Shan people of Myanmar and the Thai people of Thailand.
Nowadays the vast majority of the Dai population can be found in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, both in Yunnan province. They can be further subdivided into the Dai Neua, which are mainly found in Dehong, and the Dai Lue, which are mainly found in Xishuangbanna. Like many ethnic minorities, their language is incredibly complex and different Dai communities will speak one of some five southwestern Tai languages, known as Tai Lü, Tai Nüa, Tai Dam, Tai Ya, and Tai Hongjin. All of these spoken languages are closely related to those of the Zhuang and Dong ethnic minorities.
The average Dai village is usually made up of about 40 households, with larger villages consisting of nearly 100. They are normally situated close to rivers or streams, as the Dai people revere water, and feature a large banyan tree or sacred forest, where the locals believe the spirits of their ancestors live. Even the smallest of villages will have its own Buddhist temple or pagoda, as the Dai are devout Buddhists. The peacock is also greatly admired as a symbol of beauty, honesty, and peacefulness. Their Peacock Dance has garnered great fame in China for its grace and use of complex arm movements. Just imagine Swan Lake but with a lot more color!
Apparel of the Dai ethnic group
In their multi-colored silk skirts and tight-fitting shirts, the Dai women look as fragile and beautiful as flower petals. Their clothes, particularly their underclothes, normally block, pastel colors such as sky blue, spring green, blossom pink, or snow white. Traditionally their short shirts expose a portion of their lower back and have a bejeweled collar. The button down the front or the right side and can be sleeveless, short-sleeved, or long-sleeved.
The accompanying skirt or sarong is tight-fitting, narrow and long, ranging from calf to floor-length. In some areas, women will wrap multi-colored silk girdles around their waist to further emphasize their slender midriff. Resplendent in their simple elegance, with their long hair curled in a bun and fastened by a decorative comb, Dai appears like lithe pixies gliding through the tropical rainforests.
With such a wealth of natural beauty, the women rarely bother with embellishments but some young women will decorate their hair with fresh flowers while older women will wear a bamboo straw hat for practical reasons. Although jewelry is not as popular among Dai as it is with other ethnic minorities, they will sometimes wear silver earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and are fond of articles made from jade, agate or colored glass.
Historically, a bizarre tradition amongst the Dai women resulted in them being referred to as the “old teeth” or “blackened teeth” people during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties. This tradition involved chewing betel nuts until one’s teeth became completely black. Blackened teeth were considered a modicum of beauty and modesty by the Dai, and from a practical standpoint, it appears that the betel nut juice also prevented cavities! A similar practice was carried out by Japanese women during the 16th century for roughly the same reasons so you never know, with fashion becoming ever stranger and dentistry becoming more expensive, we may see a revival of the “old teeth” look in the coming years!
The traditional dress of Dai men resembles that of the women, although it is not as ornate and they don’t wear skirts! They prefer tight-sleeved collarless jackets that are buttoned from the front or the right side, which are accompanied by loose trousers. They are often seen wearing white, black, or blue turbans and, during the winter months, it is not uncommon to see a man with colorful blankets draped over his shoulders. However, like the black-toothed women, the Dai men have an obscure aesthetic tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
When a boy reaches the age of about 11 or 12, he will normally invite a tattoo artist to adorn his torso or limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns, or letters of the Dai script. First, the pattern will be drawn on the skin using a colored dye and is then pricked into the skin using a fine needle. This allows the dye to sink into the skin and, after a period of time known as the “curing period”, the tattoo is permanent.
Festivals of the Dai ethnic group
The Dai calendar begins with a New Year celebration known as the Water Splashing Festival, which takes place sometime in April and is the first Buddhist festival of the year. It is sometimes called “Shanghan” or “Jingbimai” in the Dai language, meaning “New Year”, but is more often referred to as “Hounan” or “Water Splashing Festival”. The jovial nature and lively atmosphere of this festival has earned it great fame throughout China. That and it provides anyone with the opportunity to douse their friends in water!
The first day, known as “Wanduoshanghan” or “New Year’s Eve”, is marked by dragon-boat races and the firing of gaosheng (a type of homemade firework). These acts symbolize saying goodbye to the old year. The following two days are called “Wannao” and involve similar activities. The final day of the festival, known as “Wanbawanma” or “when the King of Days comes”, is the most famous and involves the characteristic water splashing. Early in the morning, all of the villagers will take a ceremonial bath, change into new clothes, and carry offerings to the local temple. On arrival, they will build a tower of sand and arrange themselves around it. There they will listen to the preaching of Buddhist scripture and then help clean the temple.
Finally a statue of Buddha is carried out of the temple and is bathed by the local women. This is followed by a more playful display, where villagers splash one another with water. This water fight, so to speak, can involve anyone who happens to be passing by and is a favorite pastime among younger members of the community. It is punctuated by the sprightly sound of elephant-foot drums and bronze gongs. The Dai believe that anyone who is splashed with water during the festival will have good luck in the following year, so splashing someone is a sign that you are wishing them well. There is even a popular Dai saying which goes: “At the Water Splashing Festival, soak whoever you think is worthy”.
The origin of the Water Splashing Festival is rooted in an ancient legend involving a demon that once plagued the Dai people. Long ago, the Evil King of Fire descended on the Dai homeland and perpetrated all kinds of misdeeds. The local people hated him bitterly but his powerful magic meant no one was capable of opposing him. He had already taken seven beautiful wives from the community, who all despised him, but one day the seventh wife hit upon an ingenious plan. She grew close to the demon and persuaded him to expose his weaknesses. It turned out the demon was impervious to human weapons but his hair, which was sharp as razor wire, could harm him.
Once he was sound asleep, all of the wives gathered by his bedside and wrapped his hair around his neck. With one mighty pull, the hair sliced through the demon’s throat and cut off his head. However, once the head touched the ground it caught fire and would have burned down their bamboo house were it not for an act of selflessness by one of the women. Swiftly she rushed to scoop up the head and held it tightly in her arms. To her amazement, the fire died out immediately. Yet as soon as she dropped the head it would start burning again.
So the seven women agreed that each year they would take turns holding onto the head, exchanging it only on the fateful day when they killed the demon. When the time came to pass the head-on, the local people would splash water on the girl who had previously held the head to wash away the demon’s blood. Over time, this ritual came to signify the beginning of a new year and developed into the happy festival we know today.
If you’ve read any of the legends behind many Dai customs, you’ll know that the Dai people have something of a complicated relationship with dragons! On the one hand, dragons can bless man with a good harvest, but they can also be vicious and dole out punishment indiscriminately. The Dai regard dragons as deities and the Dragon Homage Festival, which normally falls sometime in January, is the closest celebration in the Dai calendar to the traditional Chinese Spring Festival.
During this festival, a monk from the village temple will arrange a collection of food and clothing to be sacrificed to the Dragon God. Every villager must contribute, regardless of their wealth or social standing, but gifts will be commensurate with one’s wealth. For example, a rich family might offer gold or silver while a poor family may simply offer rice or flowers. All offerings are placed inside the temple, where they are preserved in a makeshift “Dragon Palace”. When the time comes, the monks carry the “Dragon Palace” down to the Menglong River and place it on a bamboo raft. The raft is then left to float away while the locals pray and the monks chant Buddhist scripture.
Other Dai festivals include the Door Closing and Door Opening Festivals, which take place in mid-September and mid-June respectively. They predominantly involve the sacrifice of food, flowers, clothes, and other wealth to Buddha.
The architecture of the Dai ethnic group
While wood, brick, concrete and even tile have been used to build houses for decades, the Dai ethnic minority are one of the few communities in China that have taken advantage of another novel and abundant resource. From the bases to the rafters, traditional Dai households are made almost entirely of bamboo! These two-storey houses are normally square or rectangular and their unique style dates back over 1,400 years. Large, load-bearing bamboo shafts are used to make the main framework of the house, whilst narrower ones are used to make the walls. The Dai have become so industrious with this versatile material that they even use bamboo twigs to bind together the bundles of dry grass used to thatch their roofs!
The upper floors of these houses are perched on thick stilts while the area under the stilts, or the ground floor, is either open or partially walled. This ground floor area is used to shelter livestock and store food, while the upper levels are used as a living space. Each household will have separate eating rooms, working, and receiving guests, along with several bedrooms and a balcony used for drying laundry and storing the water tank. They are designed to be well-ventilated, as the Dai live in a very humid climate, and the living area is far off the ground to avoid flooding, poisonous snakes and insects such as mosquitoes. With a design this comprehensive, the only thing the Dai people have to worry about are hungry pandas!
According to local legend, the idea behind these houses came long ago, when a man named Zhu Geilang was traveling through Xishuangbanna. There he met a Dai youth named Yanken, who asked for his advice on how to build a better house. Zhu thought for a moment, then crouched down and pushed a few chopsticks into the earth. He took the hat from his head and placed it over the chopsticks, then turned to Yanken and said, “Just build it like this”. I dread to imagine what our houses would look like if we based them on our fashion choices!
The Dai people have an enduring reverence for water, so it should come as no surprise that every village has a water well that is loved and respected by the community. However, these are no ordinary wells! They look like tiny towers, resplendent with meter-high archways, painted decorations, golden roofs, and even elaborate sculptures of animals. A fence surrounds the well itself, outside of which people must use a long-handled bamboo ladle to scoop water into their buckets. It is forbidden for children to play near the well, for women to wash clothes in the well, and for men to water their cattle at the well. Play it safe and don’t do anything near the well!
Religions of the Dai ethnic group
For over 1,000 years, the people of the Dai ethnic minority have been devout Buddhists and subscribe to a sect of the religion known as Hinayana. They adopted the Indian religion sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries and it has had a profound influence on their culture, virtually shaping many of their customs and practices. From the temples that rest like jewels at the heart of every Dai village to the many murals depicting the history of Buddha, the love and admiration that the Dai have for their faith is palpable everywhere.
According to the Dai’s Buddhist beliefs, the world of the senses is void and in order to reach paradise, or nirvana, one must first achieve a state of enlightenment by releasing one’s grip on the material world and transcending the demands of the senses. To become enlightened, one must follow the Tripitaka, which is an umbrella term for three categories known as sutras, Abhidharma and Vinaya. Sutras are the sermons of Gautama Buddha, the founding father of Buddhism, that have been transcribed. Abhidharma is the philosophical and psychological discussion and interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Vinaya are the rules and regulations that apply to Buddhist monks, such as dress code, dietary restrictions, and appropriate behaviour.
The religion plays such a focal role in the lives of the Dai people that it is common for most boys between the ages of 8 and 10 to be sent to a temple. There they will learn how to read, write, chant scripture, and learn sutras. After between one to five years, many of them will return home in pursuit of a secular lifestyle while some will stay on at the temple as monks. This practice evolved because, in the past, this was the only way that boys could receive an education and in exchange, the parents would financially support the temple. So remember, even in ancient times you couldn’t get out of going to school!
Yet while the Dai officially follow Buddhism, many communities still hold on to their ancient shamanistic and animistic beliefs. In Xishuangbanna Prefecture, there is a Dai proverb that states: “Buddhism is for our future, but the cult of the village gods is what helps us in the present”. Their indigenous religion still plays a vital role in daily life and many villages will have sacred groves or forests where they believe the spirits of their ancestors live.
These spirits act as protective gods that watch over the village and people will only enter the forest on two occasions during the year, both times as part of a ceremony to honor the ancestors. All of the animals and plants, the water and even the soil in this forest is sacred and cannot be damaged or taken away. It is forbidden to cut the trees, hunt the animals, cultivate the earth, or gather the fruits from this forest. Anything that dies, even fruit that falls from the trees, is left to rot naturally. So if a tasty mango on the forest floor catches your eye, be sure to check with the locals before you eat it!
Taboos of the Dai ethnic group
Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, the Dai adhere to numerous taboos that one should be aware of before entering their villages. For example, the Dai will only ever prepare enough rice for one day as they believe it is unlucky to eat rice that was cooked on the previous day. If you notice a village is stockaded, you must not enter as the villagers are currently worshipping the Stockade God. You must take off your shoes when entering any Dai household or Buddhist temple and, if you happen to pass by a Buddhist monk, it is forbidden to step on his shadow or touch his head. Etiquette dictates that all passers-by, regardless of faith or nationality, must show respect to a monk by placing their palms together in the universal gesture of prayer and nodding slightly.
Medicinal care will be handled by a shamanistic medicine man known as a “moya”. Strangers must not enter the house of a pregnant woman or a sick person, nor are they permitted entry to the home of a family whose relative has recently passed away. The Dai funeral is a close knit affair, so you must not attend the ceremony without express permission from the family. When a person is near death, two pieces of yellow cloth and a small bamboo tablet from the local temple are placed on their body, as it is believed these articles will aid their admission into paradise.
Once the person has passed away, monks will perform the funeral rites at the deceased’s home and the community will come to a standstill, as the Dai believe that spirits dislike the sound of work. When the coffin is carried from the house, the spouse of the deceased will cut a candle in half to symbolize their separation from the dead.
Before the funeral, the family will hang a bamboo keg near their front door, which is filled with water and a few sour leaves. After the funeral rites have been completed, all participants must sprinkle a small amount of this water over their heads and expose their skin to the smoke of a burned nut, which the Dai believe will ward off evil spirits. Common people will traditionally be buried, while monks and aristocrats are cremated. Anyone who dies in accidents or as a result of violence will be buried far away from the community as it is believed that, over time, they will become evil spirits. So if you happen to be walking through the forests near a Dai village, keep a few smoking nuts handy or you might just come face-to-face with a ghost!