Bai Ethnic Minority

Written by Matteo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

People of the Bai Ethnic Minority mainly live in Dali, Lijiang, Bijiang, Baoshan, Nanhua, Yuanjiang, Kunming, and Anning of Yunnan Province, Bijie of Guizhou Province, Liangshan of Sichuan Province, and Sanzhi of Hunan Province. The population of the Bai nationality is 185,800.

Today’s Bai are descendants of the ancient Ji. During the pre-Qin period (about 2,200 years ago), the Ji inhabited the drainage area of the Huangshui River. However, during the Han and Jin Dynasties, they scattered along the eastern side of the Lanchangjiang River in Yunnan Province and the northern Honghe River area. During this time, they lived with the Qiang people (another nationality in China). Gradually, the Ji concentrated in fewer areas. Since the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Ji have been known as the Bai.

Around the second century BC, the forefathers of the Bai settled in Dali. In the year 109 BC, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty sent troops to Yunnan, conquered it, and established Yizhou County in Yunan. In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Piluoge, a Bai leader, united the tribes of the Bai nationality around Erhai Lake and set up a regime known as Nanzhao. The people living around Erhai Lake are the ancestors of today’s Bai population.

In the year 937, the Dali Kingdom under the central government of the Song Dynasty was founded. In later years, it had closer contacts with the central parts of China. Because of these contacts and the exchange of cultures, the Bai’s culture was greatly enriched. In the year 1253, the Mongol army conquered the Dali State. In 1271, the Yuan Dynasty replaced the Song Dynasty. The central government of the Yuan Dynasty established Yunnan Province, where the Dali Kingdom was once situated. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, many people of Bai nationality took positions in the central and local governments by passing the imperial examinations.

The Bai ancestors were known as "Dianfen," "Sou," "Baiman," "Bairen," and "Minjia" during different periods in history. Naxi people call the Bai "Nama," and Lisu people call the Bai "Emo." And, the Bai people from different places call themselves different names, such as Fenzi, Fenerzi, Baini, or Baihuo. In 1956, when the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture was founded, their names were unified as one, as Bai.


Bai has its own language, which  belongs to the Tibet-Burma language group in the Chinese-Tibetan language family. The Bai language has three dialects: the southern dialect, the central dialect, and the northern dialect. The majority of the Bai people speak the southern dialect, also known as the Dali dialect. Chinese language is also widely used by the Bai, who started making records with written Chinese characters during the Tang Dynasty. Because of the frequent interactions between the Bai and the Han, the Bai language adopted many words from the Chinese language. In ancient times, Chinese became the popular language where the Bai lived. During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the Bai once completely adopted Chinese characters but pronounced them differently.


The Bai costume has a long history. As long as 1,800 years ago, the Bai wove a kind of cloth known as "Tonghua.” During the Nanzhao Regime and the Dali Kingdom, the Bai created their own styles of clothing. Now, the clothes of the Bai people are bright and well-matching in colors, delicate and fine in embroideries, and plain and simple in style.

Bai clothing is usually adorned with camellia flowers because they view these flowers as a symbol of beauty. The Bai enjoy their lives and love flowers. They like to wear a red scarf on their shoulders and a white outer upper garment, a combination that resembles blooming camellias.

White is the favorite color of the Bai. They believe that white represents dignity and high social status, and this can be seen in their clothes. It is typical for men to wear white outer upper garments and white trousers. Girls and women have more choices of colors. They like to wear white, light blue or pink outer upper garments and rosy, purple or black waistcoats. An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. She also likes to wear an apron with embroideries. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers.

The scarf on a girl's head is special and has a special name, "the flower in the wind and the moon on a snowy night." The overall shape of the scarf on a girl’s head is that of a crescent. The upper part of the scarf is as white as snow. The embroideries on the lower part are of flowers. The tail of the scarf falls down naturally on one shoulder, waving to and fro in the wind.

Food and Drink

Pickles: The Bai enjoy fresh vegetables and pickles. Women are good at making a variety of pickles. They are also experts at making sauces, such as broad bean sauce, lobster sauce, and flour sauce. The people in Jiangchuan and Heqing cook different dishes with edible seaweed picked from Erhai Lake.

Meat: Pork is the main meat of the Bai diet. The Bai prepare different dishes with it and enjoy ham, sausage, banger, smoked pig liver, and smoked pig intestines. During winter, people enjoy beef soup with radishes, turnips, and shallots. People living near a river or a lake are good at cooking fish.

Tea: For the Bai, tea is a popular drink. They normally drink tea twice a day, in the early morning and at noon. The tea drunk in the early morning is called "morning tea" or "wakening tea," and is consumed immediately after getting up. The tea drunk at noon is called "relaxing tea" or "thirst-satisfying tea.” People often add some popcorn and milk to their tea.

Sandao Tea Ceremony

The Sandao tea ceremony is well-known at home and abroad. There are two types of tea ceremonies.

The first serves baked tea. People put tea with large leaves or tea from a place called Xiaguan into a very small pot and bake it over a charcoal fire. They shake the pot at all times to avoid the leaves from burning. When they can smell the fragrance of the tea, they pour a little boiled water into the pot and immediately sense the aroma. After a while, they add more boiled water into the pot and then the tea is ready. Normally, the hosts pour the tea into guests' cups three times. The first time lets the guests smell the aroma, the second time lets them taste the tea, and the third time lets them satisfy their thirst. In China, the tea ceremony is called Sandao tea, meaning “tea services of three times.” It is also called "thunderous tea" because it makes a loud sound when people add water to the baked tea in the pot for the first time.


The Bai people are very hospitable. Guests are well-received and well-treated. The well-known Sandao tea ceremony is a good example of the ritual of the Bai when they receive and entertain guests. Normally, locals offer only a half cup of tea but a full cup of wine to a guest because they believe this shows respect. They don't force guests to drink the wine, and guests may drink as much as they like. When warmly received, guests should say "thank you" to their host.

It is tradition for the Bai people to honor their elderly. Young people always take the initiative to greet old people, to say hello to them, to give them their seats, and to offer them tea and cigarettes. The first cup of tea for the day is given to the most senior member in a family. He always takes up the seat of honor at the dining table and is the first to eat. Young people are not allowed to speak badly in front of old people, and it is impolite for young people to cross their legs when sitting in the presence of old people.


The fireplace in a home is sacred and people are not allowed to spit at it or walk over it. It is also taboo to sit on the threshold of a house. Women should avoid walking over the tools that men use. And people in mourning are not allowed to enter other people's houses. On New Year's Day on the Chinese lunar calendar, using a knife, carrying water home, and sweeping the floor are taboo. On New Year's eve, people should return borrowed items and retrieve items they lent to others; otherwise, they will have bad luck and a poor harvest in the coming year. The seventh day of the New Year is women's day and on that day, women do not cook, carry water, or do other housework. Instead, they relax, play, and enjoy themselves. The ninth day of the New Year is men's day and on this day, men relax and rest. In Yuanlong County, on the 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, people are not allowed to visit others' homes.


The main festivals of the Bai include the March Fair, worship gathering in three temples, the Torch Festival, the Folk Song Singing Festival at Shibaoshan Mountain, and Protecting Immortal's Day.

March Fair

Also known as the Kwan-yin Fair, is one of the most important festivals. It is held annually at the foot of the Diancang Mountain in the west of Dali city. The fair lasts from the 15th to 20th in the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Of religious origin, it has become a commercial fair. >> Read more

Torch Festival

On the 25th of the sixth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Bai celebrate the annual Torch Festival in a special way. They wear costumes and butcher pigs and sheep for a feast. Children dye their fingernails red with a kind of flower root. On the eve of the festival, people get everything ready for the big celebration. They set up a large torch about 20 meters high made of stalks and pine branches. On the top of the torch sits a large flag. Several small flags are fixed around the torch, printed with auspicious Chinese characters meaning peaceful land, favorable weather, bumper harvest, and abundant farm animals. Fruits, fireworks, and lanterns are hung around the torch. >> Read more

Worship Gathering in the three temples

This activity is called Guanshanglan in the Bai language. It is a carnival for the Bai people to entertain themselves during the slack season for farming. It is also an occasion to welcome the coming of immortals from heaven, and occurs from the 23rd to the 25th of the fourth month, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This event dates back to ancient times and was originally a religious ceremony. The three temples involved are the Chongsheng Temple, the Shengyuan Temple, and the Jinkui Temple.

On the first day, people from the villages gather at Dali City and march off to Shengyuan Temple to pray for favorable weather and a bumper harvest. On the second day, they walk together to Jinkui Temple to offer sacrifices to a famous historic king, Duan Zongpang. On the last day, they go to Chongsheng Temple to pray for happiness and peace. The procession disassembles at a village named Mayi.

Folk Song Singing Festival at Shibaoshan Mountain

This annual festival lasts a week, from the 27th of the seventh month to the third of the eighth month in the Chinese traditional calendar. During this period, thousands of young people from Jianchuan County, Yunlong County, Lanping County, Heqing County, and Lijiang County assemble at the four temples in Shibaoshan Mountain to sing folk songs. The four temples are Shizhong Temple, Baoxiang Temple, Haiyun Temple, and Jinding Temple. People play musical instruments and sing love songs, even in front of the solemn statues of Buddha. This festival is to commemorate a legendary pretty girl who lived 2,000 years ago who sung very well. Today, young people use the festival as an occasion to make friends or to find lovers.

Protected Immortal's Day

The immortal is equivalent to a western patron saint. The worship of the protected immortal is popular with the Bai. In Dali, people worship immortals to a greater degree. Almost every village has its own protected immortal and people select a Buddha, a Dragon King, a king, a general, or a hero as their protected immortal. However, the celebration date differs from place to place. People say prayers, burn incense sticks, and kowtow in front of the statue of their protected immortal. They also sing and dance on this day.

Local Houses

The houses of the Bai people fall into three categories, according to the material, decorations, and furnishings. The three categories are: bamboo sawali house and thatched cottage, wooden house, and house with tiled roof. This division reflects the different economic levels and the different geographical environments.

Bamboo sawali house and thatched cottage

A bamboo sawali house is usually built on the slope of a hill or mountain. It has two stories; the lower story is about 1.5 meters tall and the upper story is 2.5 meters tall. The lower one stores livestock while people live in the upper. The floor of the upper story is wooden and the walls are made of bamboo sawali. The house is about 10 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. The upper story is usually divided into two small rooms and one big room using bamboo sawali walls. One of the small rooms is a bedroom for children or the youngest son and his wife. The other small room is to store farming tools and utensils. The big room serves as the sitting room, the kitchen, and the bedroom for the elderly, or the host and hostess.

People build a thatched cottage with wooden pillars and beams of about 8 to 15 centimeters in diameter. The cottage is enclosed with walls of branches, bamboo sawalis, or maize stalks. The roof is covered with thatches. The cottage measures 8 to 15 square meters in area. It has only one room. A fire pit is at the center of the room. Beside the fire pit, boards are put on the floor for a bed. People lay cabinets, back baskets, barrels, knives, and hoes at the corners of the room. Bamboo sawali houses and thatched cottages are mainly found in the areas in Nujiang Prefecture inhabited by the Bai.

Wooden house

The Bai in Eryuan County, Yunlong County, Lanping County, and Weixi County live in wooden houses. People build the houses with pine trunks of about 10 to 15 centimeters in diameter. They make the pine trunks square in cross-section and then lay one pine trunk on another to set up the walls. However, the material for the roof is different, and uses boards or thatches. Some wooden houses have only one room. This type of house measures 4.5 meters long, 3.9 meter wide, and 2.5 meters high. It is for a couple and their children under seven years old. Children over seven years of age live in another wooden house or with their grandparents. A fire pit used for cooking is found in the center of the house.

House with tiled roof

The typical house with a tiled roof has two stories. Each story has three rooms. The ground floor has two bedrooms and one sitting room. In front of the house is a courtyard and steps leading to the sitting room. On the second floor is one storeroom, and probably another bedroom. A memorial tablet is usually placed against a wall where the family holds memorial ceremonies for their ancestors. Houses with tiled roofs are found in Dali, Kunming, Lijiang, and Yuanjiang.


Batik is a ancient art of the Bai. The pattern of the cloth is simple and natural, looks graceful, and yet is not extravagant. People make different garments with the tie-dye cloth.

In the past, people used hand-loomed cloth as the basic material. Now they use cloth produced by machines in modern factories.

The batik goes through three steps: making knots, dipping and dyeing, and drying in the sun.

The first step is to make some knots in a piece of white cloth by sewing and tying according to the requirements of the designed pattern. It is important to tie these knots tightly. Then, dip the cloth into the die vat and leave it there for a certain amount of time. Fish out the cloth and let it dry in the sun. The dyeing and drying process is repeated several times. The next thing people do is put the cloth in clean water to clear off the redundant dye from the cloth. They then take out the stitches and a miracle appears: the tied parts of the cloth that were not affected by the dye form a pattern. The untied part of the cloth turns deep blue and the tied part remains white, creating a piece of beautiful tie-dye cloth.

With this method of dyeing, people don't know exactly what the cloth will look like. Surprising and unexpected patterns on the cloth usually appear.

The main ingredients of the dye are banlangen (a kind of herb) and indigo. Compared with chemical dye, these natural dyes are better at creating natural colors and do not fade easily.

The garments made of tie-dye cloth wear more comfortably and don't negatively affect one’s skin. The most well-known production centers for tie-dye cloth are Zhoucheng Township and Xizhou Township in Dali City.


The Bai worship their own protected immortals and believe in Buddhism. Almost every village has its own protected immortal. The choice of the immortals varies. Some are kings from history and some are heroes. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism came to the area and gradually was accepted. Many temples have been built since then and many can still be found, especially around Erhai Lake.

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