The Dai: China's Connection to Southeast Asia

Culture, Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: January 27th, 2012 | Updated: August 5th, 2014 | Comments

Although not one of China's larger minorities (they don't even rank in the top ten most populous of the 56 official ethnic groups of China), the Dai minority (Dǎi zú, 傣族) are well-known in China for their annual Water Splashing Festival (Pōshuǐ Jié, 泼水节), which has become a popular tourist attraction for both domestic and foreign tourists in China. When the festival arrives, tourists flood the eponymous group's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

Even outside festival season, the group's culture is on display in ethnic theme parks and flashy stage shows in hotels in cities like Jinghong, the capital of the prefecture, which are often decorated with the sweeping roof styles of Dai architecture—more similar to Thai architecture than that of the Han Chinese. Beyond the stereotype of a colorful, exotic minority with vibrant ethnic costumes and quaint customs, the Dai are an influential group that has held on to its culture and spread influence beyond China into southeast Asia.

Where Borders Blur: Culture of the Dai Minority

Since their first appearance in Chinese historical records around the first century BC, the people who have become today's Dai have moved ever south, finally settling in southern Yunnan around the Mekong River Valley, although still seeping southward all the way to the tip of Mainland Southeast Asia. The people are actually made up of a number of ethnic groups lumped together as the Dai, and their culture migrated south of the Chinese border into Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. In Xishuangbanna, not only does the landscape stop feeling Chinese, but the culture of the Dai, the largest minority group in the prefecture, has more in common with those on the other side of the border.

Unlike the Chinese, who predominately practice Mahayana Buddhism like much of Northeast Asia, the Dai practice Theravada Buddhism, more common in Southeast Asia. The two paths are similar, but don't agree on the same set of scriptures and deviate in their idea of enlightenment. Dai Buddhist temples also display some of the same iconography and stylistic elements of those south of the border rather than the look of other Chinese Buddhist temples. Outside, snakelike nagas are more likely to guard the sharp-spired temples, like those in Laos or Thailand, rather than the lions that guard the peak-roofed Buddhist temples of the Chinese.



The Dai script, which appears on street signs and elsewhere around Jinghong, bears no resemblance to the Han Chinese script it accompanies, but looks a lot like the Thai and Burmese scripts. Similarly, other tongues of the Tai language family, of which theirs is a part, are spoken in a number of southeast Asian countries, including parts of India.

Differences exist between some of these dialects, with the Dai in Xishuangbanna and those in Dehong being mutually unintelligible. The name of the prefecture is actually a transliteration of the Tai name Sipsongpanna (different Romanized forms exist for this word), which means "12,000 rice paddies."

Still an important crop and staple food for the Dai, rice has been cultivated by the group for over a thousand years. In Dai cuisine, the rice gets a boost from spicy or sour flavors that are similar to the cuisines of Laos and Thailand.


Holy Water: The Water Splashing Festival


The well known Water Splashing Festival (Songkran), often a popular image for Xishuangbanna tourism, occurs mid-April and was originally a celebration of the Buddha's birthday. Also marking the beginning of their new year, Songkran sees celebrants splashing one another with water to wash away the grime of the old year.

Today, it's become a major tourist draw for Chinese tourists who want to enjoy splashing (usually from cheap plastic basins) one another and Dai in colorful costumes . A number of Dai villages have become ethnic theme parks like the Galanba Dai Minority Park, where the festival becomes a thrice daily event.

Water is considered holy to the Dai. Important to everyone and everything on Earth, the Dai hold it in particular regard as the source of life. Fountains are sometimes decorated with guardian animal statues for protection. Despite the lush, green landscape, Yunnan does experience droughts, though. Around the time of Sogkran, water is actually rather scarce and the festival is also seen as a prayer of sorts to alleviate the drought. This is at odds with the modern depiction of the festival, which sees much more water thrown around for fun than a traditional celebration, particularly when it's being done to please crowds three times a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year.

A Moving People: History of the Dai Minority

The Dai have moved ever south. Historic records show them coming out of central China in the first century BC when they offered tribute to the Han Dynasty capital at Luoyang in 109 BC. Migration took them farther south to Dali, where they established the Nanzhao Kingdom around the 7th century AD. They settled in Xishuangbanna some two centuries later, where Buddhism gained prominence and their current language developed. Many of the Dai tribes united under a single banner and became a suzerainty of the Chinese court. Chinese influence grew as the imperial capital began appointing officials.


Movement continued ever south despite establishments in southern Yunnan in Xishuangbanna and Dehong. Further waves of Dai moved south after the Mongols tore through Asia and they established kingdoms south of China in what are today Laos and Thailand. Chinese dominance of the Dai region increased with the Communist victory of the civil war.

Today, the Han Chinese population increases as do waves of tourists and there are fears of assimilation and loss of the culture. During the 1950s, the government in Beijing attempted to reform the Dai written language as they had their own, which met with resistance. Their language as a whole is threatened by the prominence of Mandarin in government, business and education, although many things are still printed in their native script, including street signs.

How or if this culture survives in modern China remains to be seen. But travelers to Jinghong and other cities in Xishuangbanna can still see the culture—in commodified forms in theme parks and stage shows or, in more genuine forms, from passing Dai women in traditional garb, trekking to more distant villages that haven't become Wild West Shows, or dining on a delicious Dai meal in a local restaurant.

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