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Cultural Circles and Epic Transmission: The Dai People in China

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 28, Number 1, March 2013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


The Dai ethnic group in China and the Thai people in Southeast Asia can all be broadly divided into two cultural groups: a Buddhist cultural circle and another circle centered around indigenous religion. Within the Buddhist circle, the Dai people practice Theravada Buddhism, celebrating the Songkran Festival and using a writing system created by their ancestors long ago with the result that poems were often recorded as written texts or books very early in their history. Within the indigenous circle, the Dai communities in China are generally referred to as “Hua-Yao Dai” (“Colorful-Waistband Dai,” in connection with their vivid clothing), and they adhere to folk belief or animism. These communities have little or no literacy education; consequently, their poetry has been handed down orally from generation to generation. Interestingly, in both of these Dai cultural circles, the poetry employs a key technique that can be termed “waist-feet rhyme” wherein the last syllable of one line rhymes with an internal syllable in the succeeding line. This feature—which is discussed in detail below—is embedded in both the oral and written traditions and is an important enabling device within the poetry of the Dai people.

Subgroups of Dai People in China

The Dai ethnic group is one of 56 minorities in China, with a population of 1,159,231 according to the Chinese National Census in 2000. Its people live mainly within Yunnan Province in southern China, especially in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. They also live in other areas, such as Gengma County, Menglian County, Jinggu County, Xinping County, Yuanyang County, Pu’er City, Lincang City, and so on, mostly residing in basins or valleys along the Nujiang River, Lancangjiang River, Jinshajiang River, Yuanjiang River, and Honghe River.

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Map 1. 

Yunnan Province, China.

According to their own terminology and names, there are widely varying Dai branches in different areas, such as the Dai-lue (“Dai living along the Lue River”) in Xishuangbanna Prefecuture, the Dai-le (“Dai living along the Lancang River upstream from Burma”) in Dehong

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Map 2. 

Dehong Prefecture and Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan Province.

Prefecuture, the Dai-yat (“Dai who lagged behind or separated from others”) and Dai-sai (“Dai living in Gasa Town”) in Xinping County, the Dai-dam (“Black Dai”) in Maguan County, and so on. However, some outsiders distinguish only three broader groups—the Shui-Dai (from the Chinese word shui [“water”] and thus understood as “Dai who live along rivers”), the Han-Dai (from han [“dry”] in Chinese and referring to Dai who live in farms within dry areas), and the Hua-Yao Dai (a “catch-all” category for all other Dai subgroups)—but such classification is not accepted among the Dai people themselves.

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Fig 1. 

The branches of Dai in China.

Why are there so many branches of the Dai population in China? The historical reasons are complicated, but the following narrative provided by Thao’ enkai, a 50-year-old man from Luosa Town, Magua County, may contain relevant information of a previous migration (Qu 2010):

A long time ago, all Dai people lived in a kingdom named Meng si. There were so many people residing together that they battled each other for food, water, and other resources. As a result, some Dai subgroups left southwards led by their chief men, searching for a new world. Some people were strong enough to be the vanguard team; some people were too weak to catch up. Among these migrants, some people were nobles in precious dress and they marched more slowly. Therefore, they made an agreement: the vanguard team should cut down the banana stems as road marks so that the laggard groups might follow them by these marks. However, when they found that the banana stems had grown new leaves, they thought the vanguard team had gone too far to be caught. So they decided not to pursue anymore; they then stopped and stayed with other kinds of ethnic groups, such as the Hani and Yi peoples. For instance, “Dai-yat” means “the laggard Dai;” it is one of these...

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