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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 25-41

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The Hawaiification of Sipsongbanna
Orality, Power, and Cultural Survival in Southwest China

Sara Davis


It is midnight in a village in tropical southwest China, a brief motorcycle ride from the Burmese border. The temperature is in the 70s and the night sky is clear. A full moon lights the clean-swept dirt alleys that wind between coconut palms and wooden stilt houses. A large black hairy pig grunts as it roots under a stilt house. Ladders lead up to porches 10 feet above the ground, and cheerful drunken guests spill up and down the ladders. This is a Tai village, with a mellow pace and a language all its own. Today, 15 village boys were initiated as Buddhist monks, and their families are celebrating.

We climb up to the porch of a stilt house and are greeted by a huddle of women talking close together on low stools by the open doorway. The women are dressed in long tight skirts, their hair wrapped in buns. The room inside is crowded, mostly with male villagers in fedoras. Up in a corner sits a sleepy young monk. In the center of the room sit a man and a woman, flushed with the room's heat. The man opens a fan in front of his face. His accompanist plays a long lilting melody on a bamboo tube. The singer, Ai "Father" Saut, chants:

Lord, hey Lord, hey...
O hear me, lady,
Smelling sweet as the heart of a flower,
planted in a row of flowers inside the fence of a compound,
Suppose this thief sneaks over the fence, goes in to pluck you out,
He fears others will see him.
If only little sister so esteemed him that she freely gave him the flower with her own hand,
Now, that wouldn't look so bad.
But big brother fears these others have gathered to spy, watching and waiting,
And seeing a poor man longing for your gold, they will shout, "Thief!" [End Page 25]
Then others will come and grab big brother in the garden,
And Aiyo! Lord Gold Monkey will be trapped [...].
O hear me, lady,
With your glimmering white skin,
shining like the water seeping up through the sand of a new well,
How I long to scoop up a little with my bamboo ladle,
Put it on to heat, boil it on the fire,
Add the green leaf of Muang Hai tea, tiny and delicate, to steep,
Roll off a little nommi fragrant tea to explode in the water;
I would scoop out the tea and drink,
till I'd drunk up an urn,
and never get my fill [...]. (Ai 1998a) 1

The listeners raise their shot glasses and cheer: "dok-dok, shay! shay! SHAY!"

Father Saut and his female singing partner are ethnic Tai zhangkhap singers of Sipsongbanna (Chinese: Xishuangbanna, Dai Autonomous Prefecture), a mountainous, tropical region on China's southwest frontier. Sipsongbanna, in the south of China's Yunnan province, sits on the province's border with Laos and Burma, in the so-called "Golden Triangle." 2 The Tai name Sipsongbanna literally means "the 12 rice-growing counties." The region is ethnically diverse: China officially recognizes 14 ethnic groups, each with a distinct language, out of a total of 56 nationalities in the nation. Of Sipsongbanna's ethnic minorities, the valley-dwelling, rice-growing Tai are the most populous. There are roughly 300,000 Tais in Yunnan, with tens of millions more spread across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and northeast India. Because the network of Tai villages (ban) and counties (muang) predates the nation-state, Chinese Tais don't tend to think much of these borders, and cross them freely.

One of the things linking the Tai counties is Buddhism; language is another. For centuries Tais have practiced Theravada Buddhism, documented in indigenous Tai Buddhist scriptures written on parchment in a looping Tai alphabet. The alphabet is based on that used in the Pali-language Buddhist canon transmitted from Southeast Asia. Their spoken language...


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