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The Bai are an ethnic group with a long and colorful history and tradition who live mostly in Yunnan. Unlike many other ethnic groups, they have long been sophisticated about business, education, and trade and built large complex ancient towns with advanced technology for their times.
The word bai means white, and they like the color very much and often wear white clothes. Their preference might have something to do with their origins 1,000 years ago as explained below.
Now, their regions and the region of their nearby ethnic relatives, the Naxi people, are Yunnan's favorite tourist areas. Tourists like to see their architecture and old cultures, and they enjoy their food and fine crafts and the mountain scenery of Yunnan.
There are about 2 million Bai. They live primarily around Dali area of Yunnan. They also live in Lijiang, Bijiang, Yuanjiang, Baoshan, Nanhua, and Anning County of Yunnan Province, Bijie of Guizhou Province, Liangshan in Sichuan Province, and Sanzhi of Hunan Province.
Of the 2 million Bai people, almost 80 percent live in concentrated towns and villages in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan. Due to the concentration of the population and the degree of urbanization, unlike many other ethnic people in China, the majority, an estimated 1.2 million people, can still speak their traditional language.
The Bai are the descendants of an ancient powerful kingdom called the Nanzhao Empire (738–937) that later became the Dali Kingdom (937–1253).
It is thought that the ancestors of the Nanzhao were Qiang who had moved eastwards from western China and down from the Himalayas to settle in the lowlands around Yunnan. It is believed that the Qiang people of Sichuan's mountains are descended from those ancient Qiang also.
Some of the Qiang in Yunnan became the Yi tribes. They became the Nanzhao Empire in 738. The empire included much territory including Yunnan and parts of Sichuan. The Nanzhao profited from trade with Tibet called the Tea Horse Road trade, and they built the biggest of the Three Pagodas of Dali.
The empire had two main castes. It is thought that the Yi were the ruling class and were called the Black Men perhaps because they distinguished themselves by wearing black clothes, and the Bai were the underclass and wore white clothes. Maybe this is how the Bai's tradition of wearing white clothes started. However, some Bai leaders rebelled and took over the empire and established the Dali Kingdom in 937. During their reign, the Bai built the smaller two pagodas in Dali.
Then Kublai Khan who was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) invaded, and the Bai lost their independence after that. So the modern Yi, the Bai people living around Dali, the Naxi who live further north around Lijiang, and the Mosuo who live in high mountains are all descended from the Nanzhao and Kingdom of Dali people.
The Bai used to weave a type of cloth called Tonghua 1,800 years ago. Bai people came up with their own type and style of attire during the Nanzhao Regime (737 – 902) and the Dali Kingdom (937 – 1253).
Perhaps continuing the customs of the Nanzhao Empire, the Bai still like to wear white. Many Bai people dress like other modern Chinese, but if they are dressing traditionally, women generally wear white dresses, sleeveless jackets of the colors red, blue or black, belts, a pair of loose trousers, white shoes, and jewelry made of silver or gold. The men wear white jackets, black-collared coats, and dark loose shorts.
Today, Bai people wear bright clothing in coordinating colors. The fabric and embroidery used are delicate. Many pieces of Bai clothing will have a camellia flower represented on it. This flower symbolizes beauty.
If a girl is unmarried, she’ll wear her hair in a ponytail. Her hair will have a red string tied around the end of it. The string will also coil around the girl’s head. Most unmarried women will wear an embroidered apron.
Pork is the center of the Bai diet. Several types of pork are cooked including ham, sausage, and smoked pig liver and intestines. In the wintertime, Bai people eat beef soup that also contains radishes, shallots, and turnips. The Bai people who live close to a lake or river often have a lot of fish in their diet, and they’re adept at preparing fish in a variety of ways.
Bai people eat a lot of vegetables and pickles. Bai women are skilled at making all sorts of pickles and sauces. Common sauces include bean sauce, lobster sauce, and flour sauce. The Bai people who live in Heqing and Jiangchuan tend to cook different kinds of dishes. They’ll often use pickled seaweed from the Erhai Lake in their cooking.
Tea drinking: To wash all the meat and pickles down and to keep healthy, they drink lots of tea. Most Bai people drink tea twice a day, every day. Tea is consumed in the morning and during the afternoon. Morning tea, also called “wakening tea,” is consumed immediately upon waking. The afternoon tea is called either relaxing tea or thirst satisfying tea. Some Bai people choose to add milk or popcorn to their tea.
Drinking tea is essential for a traditional Bai's way of life. One of the most important traditions and one you will might be asked to participate in if you visit the Bai around the Dali area is the sandao tea ceremony (三道茶). It is called that because the word sandao means "tea poured three times" or more literally: "three courses of tea."
Your host will pour the tea into your cup three times. You may hear these words used: 'yiku, ertian, sanhuiwei' 一苦二甜三回味 (The first is bitter, the second is sweet, and the third brings the "reflection" (aftertaste).) The third cup has a burning or stimulating effect that stays with people as they go because they add cassia, Sichuan pepper, and ginger.
The Bai people are extremely hospitable. Visiting guests are generally received warmly and treated well. A full cup of wine is offered to guests, but guests aren’t forced to drink the wine. Instead, they can drink as much or as little as they want.
The Bai population also honors the elderly. Young Bai people will generally greet elderly Bai people and offer their seat, tea, and a cigarette. It’s a sign of disrespect to cross your legs when sitting in front of an elderly Bai person. The first cup of tea served during the day is given to the oldest person. The most senior Bai person also always takes the head seat at the table and starts eating first.
Most Bai homes have a fireplace, and the fireplace is considered sacred. People aren’t allowed to spit on the fireplace or walk over it. It’s also taboo to sit on the threshold of a Bai home. Those who are mourning a death aren’t allowed to enter another Bai home. On Chinese New Year’s Day, people aren’t allowed to use a knife, carry water into the home, or sweep the floor.
There are two basic types of Bai homes: the Sanfang Yizhaobi that has a courtyard in the center, rooms on three sides of the courtyard, and a wall that reflects light on the fourth side.
There’s also the Sihe Wutianjing style of courtyard home. It is a set of four different houses. Each one is in the corner of a large, central courtyard.
Our festival tours include some of the following Bai festivals.
The Third Month Fair: Chinese calendar: month 3, days 10 to 21 (approximately April) in Dali Ancient Town
Worship Gathering in the three temples: 23rd to 25th of the fourth lunar month in Chongsheng Temple, Shengyuan Temple, and Jinkui Temple in Dali.
Folk Song Singing Festival at Shibaoshan Mountain: from the 27th of the seventh month to the third of the eighth month of the Chinese traditional calendar in Dali.
Bai villages and places of interest extend from around the city of Dali and around the large lake Erhai area and extend northwards to Lijiang. Interesting Bai and former Nanzhao Empire places are around Precious Stone Mountain that is about a 2 and a half hours from Dali. To travel around the Bai areas and to go to other interesting places in Yunnan such as Lijiang, our guides and private drivers can be a great help for quicker sightseeing, arranging accommodations, shopping and communication.
Having a knowledgeable local guide and interpreter is important for learning about the area's history and culture as well. We can take you to visit with families.
Here are sample itineraries which you could use to see the Bai:
China Highlights' Minority Discovery Tours to Yunnan, almost without exception, include a chance to explore the Bai people's ancient culture. Choose a tour or tailor-make a tour to include time with the Bai people.
You can contact us about your tour ideas and modify the tours above. Inquiry is free, and receive a response within 24 hours.