Photo by Chen Haiwen
The Dai are a relatively large and prosperous minority that live primarily in tropical and semitropical monsoon forests and valleys along the Burmese and Laos border in Yunnan Province. They have traditionally been valley-dwelling rice cultivators and are similar to the Thai, Lao, Shan and Ahom peoples who live valleys scattered throughout Southeast Asia and the Assam area of India. The Dai have their own distinct customs, cuisine, clothing and languages.
The Dai are also known as the Baiyi, Beiyi, Boyi, Bitsu, La Sam, Mitro, Siam, Tai, Shan, Daija, Dailu, Taily, Daina, Han Baiyi, Han Dail, Shui Baiyi and Shui Dai. Dai means freedom. Before 1949, the Dai were known mainly as the Baiyu, which means “white clothing." According to where they live or which Dai subgroup they belong to they also use names like "Daili", "Daiya", "Daina", "Daibeng" and "Daiduan". After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the various Dai groups were unified by the Chinese government under one name Dai. The Dai people are often divided into three groups—1) the Dailu or the Shui Dai (Water Dai); 2) the Daina or Han Dai (Land Dai); 3) Daija Huanyai Dai (Festoon Waist Dai, known for their bright colored blouses); —based on their customs, clothes and whether they live near a river or not. Sometimes a forth group, Kemu Dai, are included. All of these groups speak a language similar to Thai and Lao. The Dailu and Daina are the largest groups.
The Dai live mainly in lush subtropical southwest Yunnan Province in: 1) Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, 2) Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefectures, and 3) several districts between them, including Dima, Menglian, Jinggu, Xinping, Jinping, Yuanjiang, and Shuangjiang.
There are roughly 1.26 million Dai living in China. However, the Dai of China belong to a larger family of Dai/ Tai ethnic groups that also exist in neighboring Myanmar, India, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Dai population in China: 0.0946 percent of the total population; 1,261,311 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,159,231 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,025,128 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census.
The Dais have a rich, colorful culture. They have their own calendar, which started in 638 A.D. 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 Dai historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering poetry, legends, stories, fables and children's tales. They love to sing and dance, accompanied by their native musical instruments.
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.