The Dai people are a minority nationality in China which is closely related to the Thai people of Thailand, the Lao people of Laos, the Shan people in Burma/Myanmar, and the Zhuang 壮 minority people in Guangxi 广西province of China. China is an enormous country that is built on the foundation of several consecutive empires, and as such, it incorporates much more diversity than what many people realize. While the majority of ‘Chinese’ people are ‘Han’ 汉 which make up roughly 92% of the total population, the remaining 8% consists of 55 minority nationalities or ‘shao-shu-min-zu’ 少数民族 which literally means ‘small numbered ethnic people’. The Dai are one of these ethnic minorities and their cultural roots are much closer to the peoples of Southeast Asia than those of Han China.
The province of Yunnan 云南 in southern China (which means ‘South of the Clouds’) is considered to be ‘Chinese Southeast Asia’ and 25 of China’s minority groups inhabitant this area, including the Dai. One of the highest concentrations of Dai is found in the prefecture of Xishuangbanna西双巴纳 which is right next to the borders of Laos and Burma/Myanmar. The name ‘Xi-shuang-ba-nna’ itself is from the Dai language and means ‘Twelve thousand rice fields’. Xishuangbanna is a tropical region which features fairly hot weather all year round with tall palm trees, jungles with elephants, pineapple and banana farms, and as the name suggests, rice fields.
The Chinese character for ‘Dai’ is 傣 which is very similar to the character for ‘Thai’ or ‘Tai’ 泰. 傣 is actually the character 泰 as in 泰国 ‘Tai-guo’ for ‘Thailand’, plus the radical for person ‘ren’ 亻 which is a variation of the character 人. While there are some linguistic and cultural distinctions between the Dai 傣, Thai 泰, Lao, Shan, and Zhuang; the Dai also have a lot in common with these other ethnic groups. First of all, most of these groups are predominantly Theravada Buddhist, and it is not uncommon to see young monks wearing orange robes in the predominantly Dai regions of China. The Dai also have a similar spoken and written language as the Thai, Lao, Shan and Zhuang, but unfortunately the Dai language and its subgroups are becoming endangered due to the proliferation of Mandarin in the region, and younger generations of Dai people are increasingly unable to speak or write this language. The Dai people, like every other minority nationality in China, are becoming ‘Sinicized’ or ‘Han-hua’ 汉化 which literally means ‘Han transformation’. In other words, they are adopting the language, fashion, customs, and cultural norms of the dominant Han majority in China.
One custom that the Dai people are famous for is the Water-Splashing Festival or ‘po-shui-jie’ 泼水节. This festival represents the New Year’s celebration in most of Southeast Asia and it attracts thousands of tourists every year to Xishuangbanna. It starts on April 13th and is generally three days consisting of dragon boat races, water splashing, fireworks and gift-giving. The streets are filled with people splashing buckets of water on each other which represents washing away the bad luck of the old year and replacing it with the good luck of the New Year. This festival is so well-known and popular in China that some theme-parks around the country have a ‘Water-Splashing Festival’ event every day! (During the summer time of course). Of course, this event is also celebrated at around the same time in Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam.
Dai cuisine is considered by some to be among the best food in China, but it is also some of the spiciest! They use a lot of chicken and fish and cook them with fresh tropical ingredients such as bamboo shoots, ginger, citrus, shallots, banana leaves and chili peppers for a spicy, yet refreshing flavor. They also have a famous dish called ‘bo-luo-fan’ 菠萝饭 which is pineapple that has been mixed with rice and other sweet ingredients.
Finally, the Dai are well-known for their clothing, instruments, and dance. The traditional clothes are colorful and form-fitting sarongs, which are suitable for the very slim figures of the Dai people. The use of the parasol or a flat-straw hat is also quite common in traditional Dai dress. Of course, Dai people these days generally where modern Western-style clothing in conformity with their Han counterparts. Men have traditionally gotten tattoos and this practice is still much more common among Dai people than most other people in China. One of the most popular dances of the Dai is the ‘Peacock Dance’ or the ‘Kong-que-wu’ 孔雀舞. This dance is performed by female dancers will slim figures who use their hands and arms to represent the head and neck of a peacock. Their movements imitate that of a peacock, which is considered to be a lucky animal in Dai culture. A famous instrument that is often played during this dance is the ‘hu-lu-si’ 葫芦丝 or ‘gourd flute’ which makes a very smooth pleasant sound representative of the graceful motions of the Dai dancer.
The Dai are very friendly and hospitable people. If you ever get a chance to visit tropical Xishuangbanna, and some local Dai villagers invite you into their traditional stilted home, be sure to join them for some rice wine and enjoy a different side of China – one that is far away from the Great Wall of China or the tall buildings of Shanghai – but is still China non-the-less.