The Bai: the face of Dali

Travel, Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: May 4th, 2012 | Updated: August 9th, 2014 | Comments

The second most populous minority in Yunnan (behind the Yi minority), the Bai people (Bái zú, 白族) occupy a roughly triangular region in northwestern Yunnan that incorporates Dali and its surrounding autonomous prefecture, though Bai communities can also be found in nearby Guizhou Province and in smaller numbers in Sichuan and Hunan. As international and domestic tourism have increasingly made their way to Dali and the surrounding areas, the Bai people and their traditions have become the face of local culture even as urbanization and Han migrants move in from the east.


History of the Bai People

The Bai are considered to be one of the many descendants, along with Tibetans and other Yunnanese minorities like the Dai, of the Neolithic Di-qiang people who slowly migrated southward from the cradle of their culture in the northwestern parts of modern-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Those who became the Bai settled in what is today northwestern Yunnan. As early as the Qin Dynasty, the Bai people were in contact with the Han, who began spreading their culture and language into the Bai region during the Han Dynasty. By the time of the Sui Dynasty, Chinese was used among the Bai.

In the eighth century, the Bai people helped to found the Nanzhao Kingdom in the region. Though a writing system for the Bai language was developed around this time, it wasn't standardized nor was it officially adopted by the kingdom, which instead took on Chinese as its official language. Like the rulers of Japan at this time, the Nanzhao Kingdom's rulers greatly admired the culture of the Tang Dynasty and it functioned a vassal state to the Tang Chinese Empire.

The Dali Kingdom, which gives the modern city its name, succeeded the Nanzhao Kingdom as both the ruling power in the region and as a vassal state to the Chinese Empire and lasted from 937 until 1253 when the Mongol hordes rolled over the city of Dali like they did to so many others in Asia and incorporated the formerly independent kingdom into the Yuan Empire.

Among the different ethnic groups of the former Dali Kingdom, the Bai were looked at relatively positively by the Han for their similar cultivation of rice which had made many of the region's Bai prosperous. The "white people" to themselves, the Bai were labeled the Minjia (Mínjiā, 民家), or "common households," by the succeeding Ming Dynasty. These locals were forced by the ruling Ming to assimilate through destruction of minority communities and historical records and the establishment of Han-centric imperial examinations in Yunnan, though the group maintained their identity and intermarriage occurred between the two groups.

During the subsequent Qing Dynasty, the Bai joined other ethnic minorities in the area in an unsuccessful uprising. It wasn't until 1956 that the group took on the name "Bai," when the Communist government in Beijing officially changed their name and established the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture (Dàlǐ Báizú Zìzhìzhōu, 大理白族自治州).

The Bai Minority in Modern China

The Bai are considered by many to be largely assimilated to the predominate Han Chinese culture. Similarities exist between the two languages—considered a Tibeto-Burman language officially by China, it borrows many words from the Middle Chinese of the 17th century and is regarded by some linguists as a Sinetic language—as well as in other aspects of culture, including the adoption of Mahayana Buddhism from the Tang Dynasty rather than the Theravada Buddhism practiced by the Dai in Yunnan. Before their official designation as the Bai in 1956, the group largely shied away from identification as "Minjia." This attitude is changing, however. Studies by anthropologists in the 1980s showed an increase in identification as Bai compared to studies done in the 1930s and 40s.  This sense of identity has also become a valuable asset for the Bai.


After the economic reform policies of the 1980s, the Bai in Xizhou, a village located north of Dali Old Town,  restarted their vibrant pre-PRC market economy by cashing in on the tourism industry as it made its way to Dali. What started as a move from collectivized agriculture and coal mining to textiles took on a new face as locals realized the tourist demand for traditional Bai clothing.

Images of the "exotic" Bai in China predated the modern tourist industry—the films Five Golden Flowers (Wǔduǒ Jīnhuā五朵金花) in 1959 and Ashma (Āshīmǎ阿诗玛) in 1964 following Bai protagonists—and travelers from eastern China were curious about the Bai and their culture, even if in a simplified presentation. Bai culture has become an important part of tourism in Dali.

Practices like cormorant fishing, where trained birds snatch fish from the water, are well-advertised tourist attractions in the area and people in traditional Bai outfits can be seen around the tourist areas posing for photographs. Performances of traditional Bai Opera (Bái Jù, 白剧) can also be seen. Some of the largest numbers of tourists descent upon Dali annually to catch the Third Month Festival (Sānyuè Jiē, 三月街), a market festival celebrated on the 15th day of the third lunar month. The nearby village of Xizhou remains a center of modern Bai identity (although less acculturated communities exist in more remote villages). The Linden Centre, occupying a traditional Bai home, offers an introduction into the culture of the Bai village (as well as room and board).

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