The Dai, also sometimes spelled Tai, are among 55 officially-listed Chinese ethnic minorities in China, a country dominated by the Han. They live primarily in the southwestern part of the country, and have their own distinct customs and language. The Dai ethnic group is made up of several smaller groups who live in Dehong and Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefectures.
Both of these Dai prefectures are located in southern Yunnan Province, but small numbers of Dai live outside of them around Yanjiang and Xinping, both cities in the central to northern part of the province. Overall about 1.2 million members of the Dai group live in China, but these people belong to a larger Dai ethnic group that also lives in Laos, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand.
Dai cultural differences include an alphabetic writing system separate from the character-based Chinese script. This method of writing has five branches, which are used throughout the Chinese Dai communities. The Dai also have a strong focus on dance, including their famous Peacock Dance, and are Buddhists.
The first Dai prefecture was set up by Emperor Wu Di in 109 BC, during the Western Han Dynasty. Located in Southwest China, this special area corresponded to the current Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces. It provided an excellent climate for agriculture, encouraging the Dai to develop new techniques, such as the use of oxen for tilling.
As with most peoples in southern China, the Dai prefer rice as their staple grain. They eat many meats, including fish, chicken and duck, pork and beef, but they avoid mutton. Dai cuisine favors spicy and sour flavors, such as pickled meats, fish, peas and bamboo shoots. The Dai are also famous for their roasted chicken, cooked over low heat until it is moist and flavorful.
The Dai primarily live in regions with a humid, warm climate that favors large insects, which are also a favorite snack. They may be eaten deep-fried, roasted or grilled with spices. Homemade, partially-fermented wines and large-leaf, un-perfumed teas are among the Dai's favorite beverages.
Traditional Dai houses are square to rectangular and have two stories. The upper of these stories acts as family living space, while the lower is both livestock shelter and food storage. It may be only partially enclosed. The family area usually has a room for eating, a room for work, and an area for receiving guests, as well as bedrooms and a laundry balcony. The household water tank is kept on this balcony.
The biggest advantage of this raised living style is protection from flooding. Since the Dai live in a very wet climate, their homes are at risk of high water conditions, and ground level living spaces could be uncomfortable and even dangerous. Other problems, like dampness, chill from the ground and insect invasion are also easy to avoid in a second story home.
The historical Dai costume is made up of a short, narrow-sleeved dress worn with a sarong. Modern clothing comes in a wider range of styles, but there are some commonalities.
Most women's underclothes are a light color such as blue, spring green, pink or white. Many women wear a short-waisted shirt that exposes a portion of the lower back over these garments. This shirt usually has a jewel-style collar. These are worn with a calf to floor-length narrow skirt and a bun hairstyle secured with a comb.
Male Dai clothing includes some similarities to female dresses, such as the tight-sleeved, collarless jackets they prefer. These are worn with long, loose trousers. Headgear includes white, black and blue turbans. In cold weather, a blanket may be wrapped around the shoulders.
Music and Dance
Dai culture includes many songs and dances, the most popular of which include the Drum Dance, Peacock Dance and Lion Dance. Most dances are accompanied by the elephant foot drum, named for its shape, which can be played by anyone. These drums are relatively long and made of hollowed logs covered with sheep or python skin, then painted bright colors and ornamented with peacock feathers. The drums include a ribbon or strap that allow dancers to sling the instruments over their shoulders, playing as they dance.
The famous Peacock Dance is notable for its undulating arm and torso motions, as well as several steps that imitate peacock behaviors. These include strolling, looking for water, peering about, bathing, drying the wings and spreading the tail feathers, as well as flying from the nest. These motions are usually interspersed with free-form dance movements decided upon by the performer.
Holidays and Festivals
The Dai calendar starts with the Water Splashing Festival, which occurs during Chinese New Year. This is the first Buddhist festival of the year, as well as the most important Dai festival. Several tours are available to allow tourists to see this interesting event, which lasts for three days.
The first two days of the festival are marked by dragon-boat competitions designed as a method of saying goodbye to the old year. The last day of the Water Splashing Festival is for lucky activities that will welcome the new year and guarantee good luck throughout it.
Early in the morning, everyone in a town or village takes a ceremonial bath, changes into new clothes and goes to the temple. There, they build a tower of sand, which they arrange themselves around to listen to Buddhist scripture. A statue of the Buddha is then carried out into the temple yard and splashed, or bathed, by the women of the village.
This is followed by a playful splashing of water, especially among the younger members of the community. This can involve anyone who might be passing by. The water is thought to bring good luck for the new year to anyone who is splashed, and will usually be accompanied by congratulations.
Take one of our Minority Discovery Tours to experience Dai culture or tailor-make your own tour to see the Dai people
I updated this article on February 27, 2014
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