Dai Ethnic People

Last Update: 2008-4-14; By Melinda

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The Dai Nationality, one of the minorities in Yunnan Province, with a population of about 1.2 million, lives mainly in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous prefecture and Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous prefecture. The rest scatters in Xinping, Yuanjiang and other autonomous counties in Yunnan province.

TOPHistory of Dai people

The root of Dai Nationality goes back to ancient "Baiyue" people, a branch of ancient ethnic groups. Now, the Dai Nationality has three branches. With plentiful rainfall and fertile land, the area where the Dai Nationality inhabits is subtropical and suitable for the planting of tropical cash crops. According to Chinese documents, the Dais had a fairly well developed agriculture; they are one of the first ethnic groups used oxen to till the land.

The forefathers of Dai Nationality built a first political organization "ShanGuo" during the period of Qin-Han. In 109, Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty set up Yizhou Prefecture to develop the minority areas in southwestern China. The Dais in subsequent years sent tribute to the Han court in Luoyang, and among the emissaries were musicians and acrobats whose performance won wide praise and the Han court gave gold seals to the Dai ambassadors and their chieftain was given the title "great Captain." From then on the Dai Nationality was under the affiliation to the Han Dynasty politically.

From 8th century to 13th century, the Dai area had been affiliated to Men's regime and Duan's regime. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Dai area was subordinate to Yunnan Province and the system of appointing hereditary headmen from among the ethnic minorities was instituted; this system was consolidated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), on the whole, followed the practice of the Yuan and Ming system in the minority areas. However, it placed the Dai areas with more advanced economy under its jurisdiction and sent officials to practice direct control. During the Kuomintang rule, a county was set up in the Dai area close to the frontier and the policy of oppression was carried out through the county administration. The Dai area was liberated in1950, and more than 90 percent of the Dai area was under the autonomous administration from 1954 to 1985.


The nationality calls itself as Dai, which means freedom. They also call themselves Daile, Daiya, Daina, DaiBeng and so on. The earlier records about Dai Nationality can be traced back to the period of Han and Jin when which was named "Dianyue" or "Shan". In Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty they were called "olden Teeth" and "lack Teeth", and "Baiyi" in Qing Dynasty. After liberation it is named Dai formally under the will of the nationality.

TOPLanguage and writing system

Dai Nationality has its own language which belongs to Zhuang-Dai branch of Zhuang-Dong group of Chinese-Tibetan Phylum. Dai Nationality also has its own writing system which is written in an alphabetic script. This writing system has five branches that are used in different regions. Among the five branches the Daikou and Daina writing systems are commonly used, which are also called Xinshuangbanna writing system and Dehong writing system.


Women's costume

Traditionally, women wore tight-sleeved short dresses and sarongs which could demonstrate their slim figures perfectly. The Dai women's clothes have a variety of styles. Women often wear white, light green, sky-blue or pink tight underwear with Jewel-collared short skirt outside, with buttons on the front or on the right. The shirt has long and slim sleeves which wrap on the arms tightly. It is thin and narrow at the waist, exposing part of skin at the lower back. The sarongs are usually a tight skirt, which is long and can even reach the feet. Many Dai women wear a silk girdle around their waists. Such a dressing usually adds beauty to women.

The Dai women prefer to have their hair long and wind their long hairs into a bun on the top of the head, fixing it with only a beautiful crescent-moon-shaped comb. Some decorate their hair with flowers or cover it with a piece of cloth. Some wear high straight hat or a bamboo hat of comical shape.
Women's accessory includes silver earrings, necklace, waistband, bracelet and jewelry phoenix coronet. Some women also wear jewelry made of jade, agate and glass.

Men's costume

Men usually wore collarless tight-sleeved short jackets, with the opening on the front or along the right side, and long baggy pants. In winter they drape a blanket over their shoulders. They wore black, blue or white turbans.


Rice is the staple food of Dai Nationality. The Dais in Dehong prefers polished round-grained rice (dry rice), while those in Xishuangbanna like polished glutinous rice (sticky rice).

The Dais often eats pork, beef, duck and chicken in their daily life. They seldom have mutton in their diet. Comparatively, Some Dais residing in the inner land prefers dog meat a lot. All Dais loves sour and hot flavors. They are good at toasting chicken and sour fish. They also enjoy aquatic products like fish, shrimp, shell and crab.

Bitter taste dishes are typical of diet in the Dai Nationality. Bitter gourd is one of the most prolific vegetables, which is eaten commonly. In addition to bitter gourd, bitter bamboo shoot is another kind of popular vegetable.

Some dishes and snacks are usually sour taste, for instance, sour bamboo shoots, sour pea, and sour meat. All love dry sauerkraut.

Famous local food

The Dai Nationality lives in areas hot and humid with a great amount of sects. Therefore, dishes and snacks made of sects become special flavors and constitute a large part of their diet. In addition to cicada, bamboo worm and spiders, the most commonly used sects also include field turtle and ant eggs. The Dais also has a liking for wine of lower degree, usually home made. Such wine taste sweet. Although tea is one of the special local products, the Dais merely drinks large leaf tea without adding any perfume. Other typical products include dry pork, salted egg and dry finless eel.

TOPEtiquette and taboos

Etiquette and taboos in sacrificial occasions

Tourists are forbidden to enter the stockade village when the Dai Nationality is worshiping stockade god. Tourists must take off shoes before entering a Buddhist temple. Neither can they step on the shadow of a monk nor touch the head of a monk. They had better put their palms together and nod a greeting when encountering a monk.

Etiquette and taboos in wedding, funeral and childbirth

Tourists can't enter the home of a pregnant woman or a sick man. A kind of bamboo product hanging near the door means that a pregnant women is going to give birth to a baby and any visit will be refused. One can't even enter a home where one member is dead, and looking around the funeral needs permission. A bamboo barrel for holding water is always hung near the door, inside the barrel some sour leaves are put, after the funeral rites all participants will spray some water from the barrel over their heads to turn away evil spirits.


Water Splashing Festival

Water Splashing Festival is the New Year in Dai Calendar. It is called "Shanghan"or "Jingbimai" (the new year), as well as "Hounan" (Water Splashing Festival) in Dai Language. Water Splashing Festival is not only the first Buddhist festival at the beginning of a new year but also the most important festival of the Dai Nationality, De-ang Nationality and A-chang Nationality. More on Water Splashing Festival

Sending Dragon Festival

The festival means sending sacrifice to the Dragon God, because people believe they have a good harvest due to the blessing of Dragon God. This festival is generally held in January, close to the spring festival. During the festival, the monk from the temple will organize and collect food and clothes for the Dragon God. Everybody can send something to the Dragon God without taboos. The rich families even donor gold or silver accessory and coins. All goods will be gathered in the temple and held in a well-made "Dragon palace" and then the "Dragon Palace" will be put onto a bamboo raft and drift away along the Menglong River, while all people will pray or chant Buddhist scripture.

Culture and Arts

The Dai Nationality enjoys a rich, colorful culture. They have their own calendar. There are books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Dai historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering poetry, legends, stories, fables and so on.

TOPBeiYe Culture

BeiYe Culture is a general term for social history and culture in Dai Nationality, including BeiYe scripture, copied scriptures written on cotton papers, chanting books and the Dai's traditional culture existing in folk. BeiYe Culture won its name for the cut scriptures on the leaves of the pattra tree, an indigenous tropical plant.

"Beiye (pattra leaves) scriptures" have two kinds: the leave quality and the paper quality. The former is called "Tanlan" in Dai language, while the latter made of cotton is called "Bogalesha". The BeiYe culture has developed from the co-existing and combination of primitive religious culture and Buddhist culture, at the same time it absorbed the Han culture.

In spite of living in different countries, the Dai Nationality in China, Thai Nationality in Thailand, Lao Nationality in Laos and Shan Nationality in Myanmar evolve from the same Nationality, while adjoining each other, therefore a BeiYe culture circle comes into being in the Southeast Asian.

TOPThe Dai Calendar

The Dai Nationality has its own calendar which is still in use today. According to Dai documents, there are four epochs named "Saha" in Dai history. The fourth one is the current "Zhujiang Saha" which was announced to be used by a man named "Payazhula"; up to 2000 this epoch had been used for 1362 years. A year in Dai calendar is calculated according to a solar year, that is, the time the earth turning around the sun in a week. While the moon in Dai calendar is made according to a lunar month, that is, the time the moon wax and wane once.

A year is divided into twelve months in Dai Calendar. There are thirty days in single months, and twenty nine days in double months. There are seven leap years in nineteen years. A year is also composed of three seasons. Cold season is from January to April; hot season is from May to August; Rainy season is from September to December.

TOPSongs and Dances

The Dai Nationality is good at singing and dancing. The most popular dances are Peacock Dance, Lusheng dance, Sanxian Dance, Lion dance and drum dance. Peacock Dance is the best loved dance of the Dai Nationality. It's a very graceful and elegant dance, formed by imitating the dance of the peacocks, marked by the undulations of the waist and the arms. The Peacock Dance is usually performed when the New Year comes or on some Buddhist festivals. A legend could explain why Peacock Dance is so popular. The story goes like this: long long ago, the furs of peacock were not so colorful and beautiful, nor had the dotted feather. But the birds were known for their tameness and obedience. Once on a Buddhist festival, it's said that the Buddhist patriarch will descend to earth; therefore, numerous adherents came to the local Buddhist temple which was densely overcrowded. A peacock in a remote mountain heard this news and flew to join those Buddhist followers. The peacock couldn't get close to the Buddhist patriarch because the temple was too packed to spare any room. When the peacock paced up and down in agitation, the Buddhist patriarch found that the peacock was so devout that he cast a beam of light of Buddha towards it, which shone immediately on the tail of the peacock, like a colorful decorated pattern, as what we have seen nowadays.

On departure, the Buddhist patriarch said to the peacock especially that they were going to meet in next "Baipala" Festival. From then on, the Buddhist patriarch would firstly receive homage from his followers, and then watch dancing of the peacock from the remote mountain on every "Baipala" Festival. The peacock could also demonstrate its beautiful tail which the Buddhist patriarch had endowed on such a kind of occasion. Thus, people will perform the Peacock Dance according to traditional customs to supplicate a blessing and a bumper harvest year when the religious festivals or other festivals come.

One important musical instrument in accompanying Dai dances is elephant-foot drum; people of all ages can play elephant-foot drums ranging from a kid to an old man. The elephant-foot drums, generally long, are made of a section of log which is emptied, and then covered with sheepskin instead of python skin. The drum will be painted colorfully and decorated with peacock feathers. A ribbon is always tied to the drum. The dancer carries the elephant-foot drum over his left shoulder and beats it mainly with his right hand; his left hand helps in coordination.

About the origin of the elephant-foot drum, an interesting legend has it that in ancient times, the Dais suffered from flood frequently, and people learnt that there was an evil flood dragon that brought about such troubles. Later a youth from the Dai Nationality killed the monster under the help of villagers and used its skins to make these drums.

How to dance Dai Dances

The first dancer puts hands before the legs, with thumbs towards inside.

The second dancer bends two wrists and tucks the thumb under and whose arms bend slightly
The third dancer puts his hands behind hips without crossing, a little bit distance from the body, hand curved and thumbs tucked.

The fourth dancer puts his hands like the first dancer.

Basic movements

Firstly, the dancers lower slowly their bodies with a heavy rhythm, with backbone straight. Conversely, rising up is like the lowering, maintaining the same gesture.

Secondly, the dancers step right side and bend knees while lowering their bodies. The knees meet, dancer's body standing out towards left and heads turning right. Then dancers move towards opposite side.

Thirdly, dancers rise up one of their legs on every lowering. While drawing back their legs, they kick backwards swiftly, accompanying their bodies swinging slightly from side to side. It is important to step one side while raising the other leg.

Dai Architecture

TOPResidential House

The Dai Minority live in the bamboo building which is the most typical "Gan Lan" architecture that existed. As the name suggests, the building is mostly made of bamboos. Such as bamboo columns, bamboo beams, bamboo purlins, bamboo rafters, bamboo gates, bamboo walls, even the grass covering the house would be bundled by bamboo twigs. And in some places, people even cut the bamboo into halves and use them for the roof.

When building a bamboo house, the Dai people generally use thick bamboos for the frame, bamboo twigs for the wall, bamboo twigs or wooden board for the floor, grass for roof.

The bamboo houses are square, with two stories. The upper story serves as the living place, while the lower space, without walls, is used as a store house and for keeping the livestock. Outside the rooms upstairs, there are broad bright top-class model worl where the host work, have meals, relax and entertain the guests. Besides, there is also a balcony for washing clothes, crops as well as storing the water pots. The balcony and the top-class model worl are indispensable parts of the bamboo building which has the advantages of moist-proof, clear and cool, avoiding the attach of the insects and wild animals and also flood-proof.

TOPBuddhist temple and pagoda

Mountains of green trees and bamboos are waving in the breeze among which some particular Buddhist temples and pretty forceful Buddhist pagodas appear now and then. The beautiful bamboo buildings scatter here and there in the village. These are the charming idyllic scenery which would make you drink in the characteristic southern beauty and the solemn and mystery religious atmosphere.

The Buddhist temple, also called "Wa" in local language, is a place where the Buddhist believers pray and hold other religious activities. The Buddhist monastery and pagoda, among buildings, have gained the highest achievements and possess the most distinguishing features. Some larger temples are a group of architectures consisting of temple gate, Buddhist hall, rooms for the clerks, drum room, etc. Even in some large-scaled temples there are more than one Buddhist pagodas which can form a glorious scene of both temple and pagoda.

The temple gate: Facing the east, behind the one-meter-high wall, the temple gate is built in memorial archway style with two equal steps behind and in front of the temple wall to walk through the short wall.

Buddhist Hall: It is also called "Wei Han" in Dai language. Located in the east-west direction, the Buddhist hall is the chief part of the temple where people warship the Sakymuni Buddha, chant the sutra and hold their religious activities. The center of the big hall is covered with two sloping roofs. The four sides surround a single sloping roof, and the whole composition is a two-section roof like a Chinese-hip-and-gable roof. A huge statue of Buddha is erected within the hall facing east.

The Temple Wall: With the height of two meters, the wall of the temple seems rather short compared with the huge roof, just like the walls of the bamboo buildings in Dai villages, but are well-ventilated. There are no windows in the wall or just some small ones if there are any. The pillars in the hall are immensely thick. The pillars and beams in the hall are painted red; together with the "Jin Shui" scripture on them are well known as the Dai-style decoration.

Buddhist Pagoda: Alone or together with the Buddhist Monastery, the brick-built pagoda is for relics or ashes of Buddha. Possessing the distinguishing scene of the village, these pagodas are quite different from the ones in the Han areas and the Tibetan ones. The plinth of the Buddhist pagoda is mostly in the shape of the Chinese character "亚" pronounces as "Ya" or in the shape of "lotus blooms". The body is like a huge upside-down alms bowl whose pedestal seems very strong. The whole pagoda is lofty with great minority feature. What's more, there are also some pagoda groups made up of a main pagoda and several small ones which have their own characters.

The statue of Buddha

The statue of Buddha is the symbol of Dai sculpture arts which is made by the excellent workers out of the warship to Buddha. The Dai statue of Buddha generally consists of two kinds, one is the traditional one of Sakymuni Buddha with snail-shaped hair(or fire-shaped, lotus-flower-shaped) and naked right shoulder, the other is the noble one with crown, resplendent cape, an arm-protector and precious jewelry in front of the chest. Most statues are sitting with a big head which makes up one third of the whole statues while there are some standing ones with proper body proportion. Quite different from the plump Han statues of Buddha, the Dai style is slimmer with composed mien, sun flower seeds-shaped face, thin neck, broad shoulder, short upper-body.

TOPLocal handicraft

Paper-cut: The Dai paper-cut is the traditional folk art of the Dai minority. Most of the patterns on daily using like pillows, beddings, hats, and bags are all from the paper-cut drawing. The scene of the paper-cut are wonderful and complex with many objects in it like animals, insects, grass, trees, human which show a harmony picture, as well as their respective stories and features. Those patterns not only have the feature of the picture-story book, but also the obvious meaning of decoration with typical local minority style. The paper-cut is one of the treasures of our Chinese minority art.

The Satchel: Satchel, also called "Tong Pa" in Dai language, is the practical handicraft popular among people in the Dai area. The old people can use it to keep cigarette, areca seed and some odds, while the youth use it to keep things or as a decoration or as a gift for lovers. The bright color and plaint style embody the local life and the minority feature. The patterns on the satchel are multiple with the pictures of some rare animals, various kinds of trees and flowers and some geometrical graph which look like the real ones. Besides, each pattern has its won meanings, for example the red and green colors are in memory of ancestors, peacock means good luck and satisfaction of one's wish, the elephant stands for a good harvest and happy life and all of these reflect the Dai minority's pursue of better life.

TOPJin Shui Pattern and the Mural

quot;Jin Shui" is a commonly used decoration pattern in Dai Buddhist temples. The procedure of Jin Shui is as follows: people would first paint the pillars on which the patterns would have been drawn with black paintwork and then create the dark red color by painting some red paintwork on the pillars, the second step is to cover the figures which carved on the paper board on the pillar. After leaking print with the golden paintwork, the pattern comes into being, called "Jin Shui".

Mural is the most vivid folk paintings of Dai minority. The murals are usually drawn on the walls of the temples with smooth lines, continuous pot, a variety of human beings which of bright color and glorious brocade. Generally, the content of the mural state the story of the Buddha sutra, with prince, princess, white elephant, horses and deer, clerk, Buddhist pagoda, palm tree, etc, which are very vivid and reflect the historic and legend stories of the Dai minority.

TOPReligions and belief

Most of the Dai people believe in the Sthaviravada (the little vehicle) while some, the primitive religion. In the little vehicle, it advocates that the world of senses is void, release and save ourselves by our own. The Buddha sutra of the little vehicle is generally called three Pitakas one of which is the sutra conducting stability, another one is Vinaya Pitaka advocating religious discipline, and the last one is Abhidharma publicizing the Buddhist theory. According to the little vehicle, it was a common practice to send young boys to the temples to be an educated man with upper social status. They would learn to read, write and chant scriptures, as a form of schooling. Some of them became monks, while most of them returned to secular life.

Local Manners and Customs

TOPMarriage customs

Showing love with the flower ball: There are many ways for the Dai youths to show love among which playing flower ball is the most common one. When the New Year of the Dai Lunar Calendar (the Water-Splashing Festival) is on the horizon, all the unmarried youths nearby get together and play the flower ball. Boys and girls stand in lines separately and then throw the flower ball to the beloved one standing on the opposite side. The rule is if the girl doesn't catch the flower ball, he will give the girl a gift, while the girl will pick a flower for the boy who throws the flower ball to her but she fails to catch. Actually, during the game, girls always try to trick boys for more gifts. Flower ball as the woman matcher, some young girls and young boys would know each other and be friend and then find some other ideal places for a further step.

Twining thread on wedding: The wedding in Dai minority, also called "Jin Qian" which means entertaining the guests would be hold at fixed time, that is from 15th, December (the Opening-Door Festival) to 15th September the next year (the Closing-Door Festival). The main content of the wedding is to pray for the bride and bridegroom and twine the thread for them.

On the wedding ceremony, the host would first pray for the bride and bridegroom and then take a long white thread to twine the hands of the new couple from left to right which means a happy and healthy life forever. Other relatives and friends will also twine the hands of the bridegroom and the bride respectively to show their congratulations.

Twining thread is also called "Shu Huan" in the Dai language which means "twining the souls". The custom is from an ancient story. Long long ago, there was a little princess of Dai minority. One day, the princess asked one of the young servants "Do you known whom I am going to marry?" the young servant answered ‘just me!' without any hesitation. Hearing this, the princess burst into anger and threw a knife to scar his forehead. The servant was certainly chased out of the country. After a hard experience, the servant became the king of another country and allied with the former country by marriage. On the wedding day, the princess recognized that the king was just the former servant by the scar on his forehead. The bride was so regretful that she twined their hands with a white thread immediately to show faithfulness to her husband forever. There spreads the twining custom.


The Dai people are proud of their beautiful tattoos and the more the better. When a boy? reach the age of 11 or 12, a tattoo artist was invited to tattoo his body and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns or the Dai-written script.

The best day of tattooing is Dragon Boat Festival, on which people first draw some patterns on the body with ink and prick the patterns to insert the dye. It will be the permanent patterns in body after the cure of the pricking.

The history of tattoo is also from an ancient story. Long time ago, the Dai people had not settled down but moved along the rivers fishing. However, there was a fierce monster dragon in the river which attached any dark yellow objects including human body. People worked out a way by painting themselves black and colorful, pretending to be the son of the dragon to survive. But this did not work when the colors are washed away after a long period in water. Thus people managed to find the way of tattoo which did not fade away to keep away from the dragon.

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