Dai Ethnic Minority

Written by Sally Guo Updated Apr. 6, 2021

The Dai (alternatively, Tai) are one of the 56 official ethnic minorities in China, whose ethnic majority are of course the Han Chinese.

The Dai Ethnic Group comprises several smaller ethnic groups living mainly in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in the southern part of Yunnan Province. 

Smaller pockets of Dai live in and around the Yunnan cities of Xinping and Yuanjiang, as well as in other autonomous counties in Yunnan Province. In all there are roughly 1.2 million Dai living in China. However, the Dai of China belong to a larger family of Dai/ Tai ethnic groups that also exist in neighboring Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

History of the Dai People

The origin of the Dai ethnic family goes back to the ancient Baiyue (alternatively, Bai Yue, or Hundred Yue) people, a tribe of ancient ethnic groups. The term "Yue" has historically been used in a broad-stroke manner by the ancient Chinese to refer to any number of larger to smaller ethnic groups that do not necessarily belong in the same ethnic "pot", much like the ancient Greeks used the term "Keltai" (corresponding to the present-day English-language term "Celt") to refer, in broad-brush strokes, to certain peoples of present-day Europe, stretching from France through Germany and on to the British Isles.

The Baiyue include the Dong, though this group insists that it is a separate ethnic entity. In fact, scholars believe that the original Yue folk who branched out along a northerly route that would lead them into present-day China (a similar group, forebears of the present-day Tai (alternatively "Thai") folk of Thailand, branched southward) are in fact forebears to the Han Chinese - indeed, the Cantonese language is also called the Yue language (to read more about this interesting migration theory, which relates the Dong, the Yue, and the ancestors of the Han together, click here).

The earliest Dai peoples of China were separated into three different groups, corresponding to three kingdoms: the Mong Loong Kingdom (Kingdom of Uncle), situated in the southern Yellow River region; the Mong Pa Kingdom (Kingdom of Auntie), in present-day Sichuan Province; and the Mong Yio Kingdom (Kingdom of the Yue/ Yi peoples), east of the Yangtze River. With plentiful rainfall and fertile land, the areas that these three Dai groups inhabited was quasi-subtropical, and thus suitable for the planting of Dai crops that today would be called cash crops. According to ancient Chinese documents, the Dai had a fairly well-developed system of agriculture, and a part of their crops were sold, or bartered, for other commodities. The Dai are believed by scholars to be one of the first ethnic groups to employ oxen to till the land.

The forebears of the present-day Dai Ethnic Minority of China first organized themselves into a semi-unified political organization - the "Shan Guo" - during the Qin (BCE 221-207) and Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasties period. In BCE 109, Emperor Wu Di of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty set up the prefecture of Yizhou (alternatively Yi Zhou, "Yi" being a variant of "Yue", and "Zhou" (alternatively "Zhao") meaning state, or prefecture) as a special area to house the Yue people in southwestern China, corresponding to present-day Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.

Dai Ladies
Dai Women

In subsequent years the Dai of Yizhou Prefecture sent emissaries bearing tributes to the Han court in Luoyang in appreciation of the recognition shown them by the Chinese emperor. Included in the entourage were Dai musicians and acrobats whose performance at the Han court won the Dai people great praise; these emissaries, or "Dai ambassadors", received gold seals from the emperor while their leader was given the title of "Great Captain." In the years that followed, the Dai people would be officially affiliated with the Han Dynasty, receiving recognition and protection from Han rulers in exchange for their loyalty to the emperor.

Over the years the resourceful Dai further multiplied and split into smaller groups, or tribes. From the 8th to the 12th century, the Dai of the Dehong region had lived under their own separate, semi-autonomous rule - but within the confines of Imperial China, of course - in the Meng Mao Kingdom whose capital was Ruilijiang. But in the 12th century, a Dai chieftain named Pa Ya Zhen unified all of the Dai tribes and established a local kingdom, albeit, still within the confines of Imperial China, called Mengle, with Jinghong in present-day Yunnan Province as its capital.

During the Yuan (CE 1271-1368) Dynasty, the Dai homelands were subordinated to Yunnan Province, and the feudal system of appointing hereditary headmen from among the ethnic minorities - including from among the Dai - was instituted, which was a step backward compared to the more progressive organizational system of the previous, principally Han Chinese, dynasties, and it was surely a form of cultural appeasement towards ethnic minorities with whom the Yuan Dynasty had its share of problems. However, this neo-feudal system continued, not only with respect to the Dai, but with respect to the bulk of China's ethnic minorities, on through the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, except for small enclaves of minority groups that lived within the confines of the more advanced Han Chinese areas; these latter enclaves of Dai folk were subject to the same administrative rule as the surrounding mainstream Chinese society.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new republic, under the rule of the Kuomintang - which feared a civil-war-like break-up of the country (and which may even have feared defeat at the hands of some of these minority groups, not least the Mongolians) - set up a special administrative entity, a county, in the Dai homelands, and a policy of oppression was thereafter pursued throughout the reaches of the county's administration.

After the formation of the People's Republic of China, the Dai area that had been under strict Kuomintang rule was "liberated" (1950). In subsequent years, in particluar between 1954 and 1985, upwards of 90% of the Dai people would come to live in areas which had been granted autonomous administration within the PRC.

The Dai Language and Writing System

The language of the Dai belongs to the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong group of Chinese-Tibetan Phylum, or family of languages. The Dai have their own special writing system, which is written in an alphabetic, as opposed to a character, script. There are five different branches of this writing system spread throughout the various Dai communities in China. Among these, the most common are the Daikou and the Daina writing systems, which are also known as the Xinshuangbanna and the Dehong writing systems, respectively.


Women's Costumes

Traditionally, Dai women wore tight-sleeved short dresses and sarongs, which accentuated their slim but shapely figures admirably, imparting a femininity and daintiness that was, and remains, unique. Dai women's clothing, particularly in the Xishuangbanna region, comes in a wide variety of styles. Undergarments are typically of a light shade such as white, light green, sky-blue or pink. Over this is worn a jewel-collared short-waisted shirt that rides above the hips, exposing part of the lower back. It either buttons down the front, or on the right side, and has long, tight-fitting sleeves. The skirt, or sarong, is tight-fitting as well, and is quite long, reaching, in some cases, almost to the ground. It is not uncommon for a Dai woman to wear a silk girdle around her waist, and to wind her long, beautiful hair into an elegant bun, fixed with a shapely comb, atop her head.

Dai Ladies
Dai Festival

Younger Dai women decorate their hair with flowers, while older Dai women typically wear a hat, often made of bamboo straw. A woman's personal jewelry includes silver earrings, necklaces, waistbands, bracelets, and bejeweled coronets. Some Dai women also wear jewelry made of jade, agate and colored glass.

Men's Costumes

Traditionally, Dai men wore collarless, tight-sleeved short jackets - with the opening down the front or along the right side, as seen in the Dai woman's shirt - and long, baggy pants. This tradition continues today. In winter, Dai men drape a blanket over their shoulders in lieu of a coat. To finish off his rather austere wardrobe, a Dai man wears a turban in black, white, or blue.

Cuisine and Eating Habits

Rice is the staple of the Dai diet. The Dai in the Dehong region prefer a rice sort that, when cooked, produces a looser-grained finished product, i.e., does not stick together (similar to long-grained rice in Europe and America), while the Dai of the Xishuangbanna region generally prefer a stickier, more glutinous type of rice, similar to the rice sort that is used in Europe and America to make pudding.

The Dai are fond of pork, beef, duck, chicken, and fish; they seldom eat mutton. In some areas, dog meat is also popular among the Dai. In general, the Dai love flavors that are sour and/or spicy hot. They are known for their roasted chicken and pickled fish, but also for their pickled bamboo shoots, pickled peas, and pickled meat. Not surprisingly, the Dai are wild about dry sauerkraut. The Dai are fond not only of fish, but also of other seafoods such as shrimp, crab, and shellfish. Besides being fond of sour and spicy hot dishes, the Dai also enjoy foods that are slightly bitter, such as bitter gourd and bitter bamboo shoots, both of which everyday vegetable dishes are as common to a Dai household as is apple pie to an American household.

Local Specialties

Since the Dai live in areas that are hot and humid, replete with a cornucopia of large insects, they have learned to incorporate this rich protein source into their diet. Therefore, dishes and snacks made of insects constitute a large part of the Dai diet, and enhance it with their special flavors. In addition to the cicada, the bamboo worm as well as a number of species of spiders are the most commonly used insects in the Dai diet, which also includes exotic foods such as field turtle and the eggs of giant ants. The Dai also have a liking for partially-fermented wine that is generally homemade. These are more often than not sweet wines. Although tea is a local specialty, the Dai prefer their tea made of large-leaf tea sorts that are not highly perfumed. Other typical Dai products include sun-dried pork, sun-dried eel, and salted eggs.

Dai Food
Dai Food

Etiquette and Taboos

Most of these taboos occurs in Sacrificial Occasions:

Tourists are forbidden to enter a stockaded village when the Dai are engaged in the worship of the stockade god.

Tourists are required to take off their shoes before entering a Buddhist temple.

 Neither may a tourist step on the shadow of a monk, nor touch the head of a monk. Proper etiquitte calls for passersby of all nationalities and faiths to show respect to a monk by placing their palms together in the universal gesture of prayer, and nodding a greeting, however slight the movement.

Weddings, Childbirths and Funerals

1) A tourist may not enter the home of a pregnant woman or a sick man.

2) A special object made of bamboo hanging near the main door of a home signifies that a pregnant woman is nearing childbirth, and this means that all visitors will be refused.

3) A tourist may not enter a home where a member has just died. Moreover, a tourist is forbidden to attend a Dai funeral ceremony without express permission of the family.

4) A bamboo keg for holding water is always hung near the door where a death has occurred in a family. Inside this keg are placed sour leaves, and after the funeral rites have been completed, all participants sprinkle a small amount of this special water over their heads, in order to turn away evil spirits.

Top Festivals and Celebrations

The Water Splashing Festival

The Water Splashing Festival falls during the New Year of the Dai Calendar. It is sometimes called Shanghan or Jingbimai (both variants meaning "New Year"), but it is more commonly called Hounan ("Water Splashing Festival") in the Dai language. The Water Splashing Festival is not only the first Buddhist festival of a new year, but also the most important festival observed by the Dai.

Water Splashing Festival
Water Splashing Festival

The Dragon Homage Festival

The Dai pay yearly homage to the dragon, who is seen as a deity with the power to bless or punish mankind, especially as regards the yearly harvest. This Dragon Homage Festival is held at a date determined by the Dai calendar, which means that it often falls in January of the Western calendar, and thus also occurs close to the traditional Chinese Spring Festival. During the Dragon Homage Festival, a monk from the village temple organizes the collection of food and clothing to be offered to the Dragon God.

Every Dai, without regard to income or social standing, is encouraged to make such an offering to the Dragon God, though one of course offers gifts commensurate with one's wealth. For example, rich families might offer items in gold or silver, including coins. All offerings are dropped off at the temple, where they are preserved in an appropriate "Dragon Palace" until the highlight ceremony of the Dragon Homage Festival, at which time the "Dragon Palace" is placed on a bamboo raft and allowed to drift away down the Menglong River, while the people pray and chant Buddhist scripture.

Dai Cultural Identity

The Dai enjoy a rich and colorful culture, the Bai Yue culture, whose designation today is shortened to Bai Ye to distinguish it from the original anthropological culture of the ancient Bai folk. The ancient Bai Yue culture was in the forefront of social development in many respects when the Dai first began to organize themselves into communities in China. The Dai also have their own calendar, they have books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses, and their historical documents span a rich variety of literary works, from poetry and fables to ancient stories and legends.

The Bei Ye Culture

Bei Ye Culture is a general term for the social and cultural history of the Dai people. Bai Ye cultural artifacts and traditions include original scripture etched onto the leaves of the pattra tree (a tropical plant native to the Dai homelands), Dai scripture copied onto cotton paper, and "song" ("chanting" may be the better term) books, as well as a plethora of lesser cultural traditions that are handed down generation after generation, and thus every Dai individual is a walking preserve of Dai culture. The Bei Ye Culture became known especially for the scriptures that were etched onto the leaves of the pattra tree.

Bei Ye scriptures, as indicated, are preserved on two different media: the leaf of the patta tree and paper made of cotton. The former is called "Tanlan" in the language of the Dai, while the latter is called "Bogalesha". The Bei Ye culture has developed over time from its origins as a collection of primitive ethnic and religious practices that have been combined with the influences of neighboring cultures, primarily the Han Chinese culture, but also Indian Buddhist culture (the Dai practice a form of Buddhism that differs from the Chinese-influenced Indian Buddhism of the mainstream Han Chinese).

Though they live in separate countries, and in some cases miles apart, the Dai of China, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Myanmar, and the Thai of Thailand all have evolved from the same ethnic origins - they all share the same Bai Ye culture particular to Southeast Asia.

The Dai Calendar

Dai have their own calendar, which is still in use today. The Dai calendar is unusual, compared to the Han Chinese lunar calendar, in that the former incorporates elements of both the solar and the lunar calendars. Borrowing from the Han Chinese Taoist tradition, Dai use the method of Heavenly Stems and the Terrestrial Branches to record days and years in their "hybrid" calendar (this is a reference to the Taoist sexagenary cycle, or a cyclical system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles: the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 Earthly Branches). Dai has chosen to not only employ much of the Han Chinese calendar terminology, they have also preserved the Han Chinese pronunciation of this terminology.

A year is divided into twelve months in the Dai calendar, while some months are called "single" months and others are called "double" months. There are thirty days in a "single" Dai month and twenty-nine days in a "double" Dai month. A year is also composed of three seasons: the Cold Season, which runs from January to April; the Hot Season, which runs from May to August; and the Rainy Season, which runs from September to December. To further account for the irregularities of the earth's orbit, so as to make the Dai calendar fit the actual time trajectory of the earth's orbit, there are seven leap years to every span of nineteen years.

According to ancient Dai documents, there are four epochs, termed "Saha", in Dai history. The fourth epoch is the current one, or the "Zhujiang Saha", which began in the year CE 647, circa, in Western calendar terms, and was announced by a Dai religious leader by the name of Payazhula.

Songs and Dances

Dai are exceptionally good at singing and dancing. Their most popular dances are the Peacock Dance, the Lusheng Dance, the Sanxian Dance, the Lion Dance and the Drum Dance. The most important musical instrument in accompanying Dai dances is the so-called elephant-foot drum, which can be played by people of all ages, from a young child to a pensioner.

The elephant-foot drum is typically long and made of a section of log that has been hollowed out, then covered with the skin of a python, though today sheepskin is used (otherwise pythons might soon be on the endangered species list). The drum is painted in a variety of bright colors and adorned with the feathers of a peacock - a bird that is especially auspicious in Dai culture, hence the dance of the same name. A stout ribbon serves as a strap that is attached to the drum so that it can be carried by the performing dancer. The performing dancer carries the elephant-foot drum slung over his left shoulder, beating the drum mainly with his right hand, while his left-hand helps to steady and/or shift the position of the drum so as to facilitate the playing rhythm.

Regarding the origin of the elephant-foot drum, legend has it that in ancient times, the Dai homelands were frequently subjected to severe flooding. The people learned about the presence of an evil dragon nearby that was causing the floods. A brave Dai youth, aided by his fellow villagers, eventually managed to kill the monster, and for the celebrations that followed, a special drum was hollowed out of a log and the hide of the slain dragon was used as the drum's resonating outer skin.

The Peacock Dance

The Peacock Dance is the favorite dance of the Dai. It is a very graceful and elegantly performed dance that imitates the stately strutting of the peacock and is marked by undulations of the waist and the arms. The Peacock Dance is usually performed during Dai New Year celebrations, as well as during certain Buddhist festivals such as the annual Baipala Festival. As with so many other folkloric practices, there is a Dai legend attached to the origin of the Peacock Dance. The legend goes like this...

Long, long ago, the feathers of the peacock were not so colorful and beautiful, nor did the peacock possess the characteristic "eyed" tail feathers by which it is known today. The peacock was known, however, for its relative tameness and obedience. It so happened that once during a Buddhist festival at a local temple, word spread that the Buddhist patriarch would descend to earth. Therefore a great throng of adherents came rushing to the temple, which quickly became overcrowded.

In the meantime, a peacock in a remote mountain region heard the news of the imminent arrival of the patriarch at the temple in question and being a devout Buddhist peacock, it, therefore, flew the long journey to join the other worshippers in the already overcrowded little temple, where the patriarch himself had just arrived.

When the peacock, in agitation at not being able to get a better view of the patriarch, paced back and forth behind the throng of other worshippers, the patriarch became aware of this and cast a beam of the light of Buddha in the direction of the devout peacock. The light beam struck the tail of the peacock, lighting it up in iridescent colors and producing the characteristic "eyed" tail feathers by which the peacock is recognized today.

On departing, the patriarch said to the devout peacock that the two would meet during the next Baipala Festival. From then on, when the Patriarch descended to earth during the Baipala Festival, he would first meet with his human followers at the temple, and afterward, he would visit the peacock on its remote mountain and watch it prance and dance and show off its beautiful tail.

That is how the peacock came to be so beautiful, and that is also why the Dai perform a dance in its honor every year during the major Dai festivals, including the harvest festival and of course the Baipala Festival.

The Peacock Dance
The Peacock Dance

The Choreography of the Peacock Dance

The Peacock Dance involves a number of fixed elements that imitate the behavior of the peacock. These imitative elements include: launching into flight from the nest; flying about; strolling about; searching for a water source; peering intensely, combined with suggestive eye movements; bathing in a water puddle; spreading the wings and shaking them to dry off; and spreading the tail feathers as if to announce its presence as the most exquisite creature in the whole of the animal kingdom.

Hand Gestures

The hand gestures of the Peacock Dance include the following: turning the thumb inwards towards the palm of the hand, while extending the four fingers that are held tightly together (not splayed); tucking the thumb only slightly, with the index finger bent and the other three fingers extended but splayed (known as the "peacock hand" gesture); the thumb and index finger extended and clasped together at the ends, and with the other three fingers fanned out, in a slightly curved manner, suggesting the shape of an eye.

Basic Body Movements

Typical Dai dance movements involve lowering the body, raising the body, stepping to the right and stepping to the left (usually combined with lowering and raising the body). Raising the body from a lowered position begins on both legs but ends on only one: as the dancer rises, one leg is forced backwards, ending in a kicking motion as the dancer rotates from side to side, then the "kick" leg is brought forward and the dancer hops to the side, onto that leg, i.e., the dancer hops laterally, either to the right or to the left, depending on which leg was used for the kicking motion. The dancer alternates between kicking backward with the right and then the left leg.

The beginning of the dance is signaled by a lowering of the body. It is done with a straightened back, and to the accompaniment of a heavy musical rhythm. In both lowering and raising the body, the dancer maintains a rigidly straightened back posture. While hopping right (left), the dancer swings the body to the right (left) and brings the knees together, turning the head sharply in the opposite direction of the body.

Dai Architecture

The Traditional Dai House

Dai architecture, except for temple architecture, which was built according to dictated architectural standards of Buddhism, is vernacular architecture, i.e., it is "people's architecture", or architecture that does not involve the services of professional architects.

The most typical building material in Dai culture is bamboo, and the building style of the typical Dai house is called "Gan Lan". The columns, beams, purlins, rafters, and walls of the house are of bamboo, as is the gate leading to the house. In fact, the grass, or thatch, that covers the roof of a Dai traditional house is held together in tufts, or bundles, with the help of bamboo twigs, which are quite elastic. In some areas, the roof consists of bamboo shafts split in half, then tied together to form a seamless roof. Obviously, the greater the bearing requirement the larger, or sturdier, the bamboo. Thus the house's main framework will be made of the largest bamboo shafts, while narrower bamboo is used for walls, for the roof, and as a final covering over the bearing framework of the floor, if wooden planks are not to be used.

A traditional Dai house is two-storeyed and roughly square in shape. The upper store serves as the living quarters for the family, while the lower store, which may be only partially walled in, but is generally partitioned into more than one room, serves as a storeroom for grain, etc., and as a shelter for livestock. The living quarters contain, besides bedrooms, room for working, for dining, and for receiving guests. There is traditionally a balcony for washing clothes. It is here that the household water supply, its water tank, is located. The advantage of having the living quarters raised above ground are obvious: it reduces the risks to life and property during high water conditions (flooding), being well above ground, it is free of dampness, ground chill, and it is generally free of insects, especially mosquitoes.

dai house
The Traditional Dai House

Religious Architecture: Temples and Pagodas

Religious buildings in China are traditionally built in secluded, auspicious locales on mountains or hilltops, tucked in among trees. The aesthetics of the physical setting is of paramount importance in the placement of religious buildings in China, as the physical setting contributes greatly to the overall religious experience.

The Buddhist Temple

The Buddhist temple, or "Wa" in the language of the Dai, is a place of reverence. The typical temple complex consists of a temple gate, the main hall, and various rooms for the monks who live and work at the temple, as well as a special room for housing the drum. The larger the temple complex, the greater number of pagodas. The placement of the pagodas - indeed of the placement of all the building components - is undertaken with an eye to the overall aesthetics of the temple complex, taking the topography of the surrounding terrain into consideration (these considerations hold true in China not only for Buddhism but also for Taoism).

The Temple Gate

Facing eastward, and slighly offset behind the meter-high wall that surrounds the temple complex, the temple gate is built in a memorial archway style, with two equal-sized staircase steps before and after the archway itself. Such symmetry is crucial to the memorial archyway style.

The Buddhist Hall

The main hall, or Buddhist Hall, is also called a "Wei Han" in the language of the Dai. Situated on an east-west axis, the Buddhist Hall is the primary place of worship, it is the locale where Buddhists gather to worship the founding father of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha. Here worshippers light incense, chant sutras, and conduct various religious activities in accordance with Buddhist tradition. The center area of the Buddhist Hall is topped with a roof with an apsis in the center, with one-half of the roof sloping in one direction and the other half sloping in the opposite direction, in the quintessentially Chinese hip-and-gable roof style. There is a dividing wall directly below the apsis, such that each half of the roof corresponds to a walled-off room below the roof, one room, or hall, facing eastward, the other westward. A large statue of Buddha stands in the hall facing eastward (below is a detailed description of the Buddha statue).

The walls of the Buddhist Hall are only two meters high, and seem dwarfed by the height of the arched roof. Since Dai homelands are synonymous with a humid climate, even the Dai Buddhist temple walls are constructed so as to permit ventilation. Windows, where present, are quite small. The supporting pillars of the main hall are thick and sturdy, and the pillars, as well as supporting beams, are painted a bright red. This feature, together with the "Jin Shui" scripture which adorns the walls of a Dai Buddhist temple, defines, as it were, Dai temple architecture.

The Buddhist Pagoda

Either standing alone or as part of the superstructure of a Buddhist monastery, the brick-built pagoda is a repository for relics, and for the ashes of Buddha. Being the dominant feature of the skyline of a Dai village, Dai Buddhist pagodas differ considerably from the corresponding pagodas of Han Chinese and Tibetan-Chinese areas. The plinth of the Dai Buddhist pagoda is typically either in the shape of the Chinese "Ya", or in the shape of a lotus blossom. The overall shape of the pagoda is in the form of an upside-down Buddhist alms bowl. The pedestal on which it stands has a rock-solid appearance, which contrasts with the light appearance of the pagoda that rises above it. Where there are multiple pagodas, they generally come in varying shapes, yet each fits the overall scheme of the temple's superstructures well as the overall scheme of the layout of the temple complex.

The Buddha Statue

The statue of Buddha represents the pinnacle of Dai sculptural arts. It is made by Dai artists who are Buddhist devotees. The Dai Buddha statue is generally of two varieties: one that is a traditional Sakymuni Buddha representation, i.e., with "snail-shaped" hair (sometimes flame-shaped or lotus-flower-shaped) and an exposed right shoulder; and one that is a more stately representation of Buddha with a crown, in a resplendent cape, and with an arm-guard as well as precious stones decorating the front, or chest area. It is typical for the Dai Buddha to be in a sitting posture.

This Buddha is characterized by a head that makes up one-third of the height of the statue. Other, smaller Buddha figures may be in a standing posture, with more natural proportions (the head of the sitting Buddha figure is considered the most prominent feature). In contrast to the Han Chinese Buddha figure, which is generally quite plump and often smiling, the Dai Buddha figure is slimmer, with a more subdued expression on a more elongated face atop a thin neck that protrudes above broad shoulders and a short upper torso.

Dai Handicrafts

The Paper-cut

The Dai paper-cut is the traditional folk art of the Dai minority. Paper-cut drawings are used as well to design patterns on household articles such as bed linen, bags and hats. The Dai paper-cut motifs are beautiful and intricate, composed of images of grass, trees, insects, animals and humans, all interacting in a harmonious way. Others contain a more specific set of story-telling images relevant to the Dai culture, as well as relevant to more local traditions. In the paper-cut, the Dai follow a proud Chinese tradition, albeit, adapted to meet the specific cultural and artistic aspirations of the Dai ethnic minority.

Dai Buddhist Temple Art: Jin Shui Pillar Patterns and Murals

Jin Shui is a common pillar decoration method in Dai Buddhist temples involving Dai scripture. The Jin Shui procedure is complicated, but can be described roughly as follows: the areas of the pillars to receive the decorations are chosen, then painted black. Paper-cut images of the scripture's text are then pasted onto the black areas of the pillar, after which the rest of the pillar is painted red. When the red paint dries, the paper-cut images are painted with a golden paint which seeps into the paper and onto the black background behind it, leaving a red pillar with scripture in golden letters of the Dai alphabet, called "Jin Shui".

The mural is the most vivid form of folk painting among the Dai. Murals are usually drawn on temple walls in a fluid, panoramic style that typically tells a story. The imagery almost always involves the Buddha and various princes and princesses, as well as impressive members of the animal kingdom such as the white elephant, horses, and deer. Another fixture in the Dai Buddhist temple mural is the Buddhist pagoda set in among bright green trees. The colors of a Dai Buddhist temple mural are in general very bright and richly contrasting.

The Satchel

The Satchel, also called "Tong Pa" in the language of the Dai, belongs the practical side of Dai handicrafts; it is very popular among the Dai. The satchel is used for the safekeeping of variety of everyday items from cigarettes to special seeds to sewing items and decorations. Young people use the satchel to keep memorable items exchanged with a boyfriend or a girlfriend. The patterns on the satchel are varied, typically with multiple images of animals, some rare, and with trees and flowers of a variety of types. Sometimes the artist will include geometrical shapes for added interest. In general, each pattern - be it animal, plant, or geometrical shape - has its own significance, as does each particular color theme. For example, red and green signify respect for ancestors, while the image of a peacock signifies good luck, the image of an elephant signifies a good harvest as well as a happy life in general. Such images reflect the Dai people's tendency to strive for a better life for themselves and for future generations.

The Tattoo, or Body Art

The Dai are proud of their beautiful tattoos - "the more the better" seems to be the motto. When a boy reaches the age of eleven or twelve, a tattoo artist is invited to tattoo the boy's body and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns, and examples of Dai script. Tattooing is achieved by first drawing the relevant patterns on the skin with colored dye, then the patterns are pricked with a fine needle which will allow the dye to sink into the skin. After a period of time (the curing period), the pattern is then permanent. The most propitious time of the year for tattooing is during the Dragon Boat Festival.

The origin of tattooing in the Dai culture stems from a legend. Long, long ago (as most legends worth their salt begin) the Dai people were still in search of a suitable homeland, and in this nomadic state, they continued to move along the river, or to move to other rivers, in search of their staple food at the time, fish. On one particular river, the Dai encountered a very hostile dragon that would attack anything with a dark yellowish color, including humans. In an attempt to deceive this fierce dragon, the Dai painted their skin in the colors of the dragon - which included black, but excluded yellow, of course.

Unfortunately, when the Dai entered the river, which was essential both in order to fish, to bathe, and to wash their clothing, the paint - which was only painted on the outer surface of the skin - would wash off, and the dragon would attack anew. A clever shaman figured out how to make the body paint permanent by applying the paint, then pricking the skin, and thus was born the practice of tattooing among the Dai people.


Most of the Dai people believe in the Sthaviravada (the little vehicle) while some still adhere to the principle of animism, or the notion that all things, from what we call animate to inanimate things, possess a soul. The Sthaviravada holds that the world of senses is void, and that to reach nirvana, or the state of release from material existence, it is necessary to transcend the demands of the senses.

The Buddha sutra of the Sthaviravada is generally called The Three Pitakas, one of which is the sutra that aims at maintaining stability in the laws of the universe.  Another, the Vinaya Pitaka, advocates religious discipline, while the last, the Abhidharma Pitaka, makes public the Buddhist theory and its teachings. According to the Sthaviravada, it was a common practice to send young boys to the temple to be educated, which also elevates the boy's social status. There, the boy would learn to read, write and chant scriptures, but it served as a form of schooling in general. Some of the boys would enter the monastery to become monks, though the vast majority remained within their villages, partaking in secular life as well.

dai religion
Dai Religion


The Courtship Custom of the Flower Ball Festival

There are many ways for Dai youths to express their affection for the opposite sex, but chief among them is the Flower Ball Festival. When the New Year of the Dai Lunar Calendar - i.e., the Water-Splashing Festival - is on the horizon, all the unmarried youths of the village and its environs get together to participate in the Flower Ball Festival. The event is carried out by having boys and girls stand in separate lines opposite each other, then the boy throws the flower ball, when it is his turn, to the girl he fancies the most and who is standing in the line directly opposite him (as can be understood, the girls line up first, then the boys take their positions opposite the girl of their choice, and, by pre-arrangement, any potential conflict such as two boys wishing to court the same girl is resolved by parents, well in advance of the Flower Ball Festival). Flower ball throwing is done round after round because not every girl catches the flower ball on the first attempt (it is a requirement to eventually catch the flower ball).

The rule is if the girl doesn't catch the flower ball, the boy will give the girl a gift as encouragement since further rounds will be played for those not having caught the flower ball. In the event that a girl does not catch the flower ball, she is required to pick a flower for the boy who cast the ball to her. In reality, a girl may deliberately fail to catch the flower ball many times over, in order to thus elicit more gifts (a certain amount of pre-arrangement here cannot be excluded). Not all boys and girls "paired" at a Flower Ball go on to become serious sweethearts, but many, if not most, do, as there is more to the ceremony than innocent children choosing a favorite - suitability issues such as social standing, inter-family relations, etc., plays a role as well.

The Custom of Thread Twining

The Thread Twining Custom is known in the Dai language as Shu Huan, meaning "twining the souls". Shu Huan is a social event that involves the extended families of both parties to the wedding, as well as specially invited guests. It is done both at an official "engagement" ceremony that takes place any time between the 15th of December (the Opening-of-the-Door Festival) to the 15th of September of the following year (the Closing-of-the-Door Festival), and during the marriage ceremony itself. The purpose of this well-wishing ceremony is to pray for the bride and groom and to twine thread for them in the hope that theirs may be a happy and well-suited union.

During the wedding ceremony itself, the host first prays for the bride and groom, then he takes a long white thread and begins to twine it around the hands of the new couple as a symbol of a long, healthy and happy life together. Thereafter the other family members of both the bride and groom perform the same symbolic thread twining ritual upon the bride and groom, and lastly, invited friends of the couple do the same.

The custom of twining thread as a symbol of the marriage union is an old Dai tradition. Once again, its origin is enshrouded in legend...

Long, long ago, there was a very young princess - just a girl, really - who often wondered about what type of man she would someday marry. One day, the princess mused to a very young male servant - a boy of roughly her own age, in fact: "I wonder who I will eventually marry?" The young boy answered matter of factly, and without the slightest hesitation: "You are going to marry me." Upon hearing this, the princess, in a fit of rage, grabbed a knife lying on a nearby table and threw it at the boy, making a deep gash in his forehead, which would leave a permanent scar. Moreover, the young boy, for his impertinence, was driven out of the country.

There, the young boy became a young man, and a very successful one at that: he eventually became the country's king. As was the custom at the time, rulers of neighboring states and countries chose intermarriage as a means of defusing potential rivalry, so a marriage between the young king and the princess of the country from which the young man, as a boy, had been rudely kicked out, was arranged. On the day of the wedding, the princess immediately recognized the groom-to-be as her former servant, for the scar from the deep gash she had given him as a boy was clearly visible on his forehead. The princess was so overwhelmed with remorse - and also with awe at the boy's prophetic words - that she placed her right hand between the hands of her groom-to-be, and proceeded to twine their hands together, as a sign of her eternal devotion to her coming husband and king.

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