Tai Lue (Dai)

Geographical Distribution

The Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) Dai live mainly in the subtropical regions of southern Yunnan Province, China. They are mostly located in the Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna) Dai Autonomous Prefecture and Simao Prefecture. They also exist in smaller numbers in Myanmar (200,000), Laos (119,100), Thailand (78,000), Vietnam (3,684), and the United States (4,000).

The Dai are one of the 55 officially-recognized minority nationalities of China. They have a long recorded history, together with a still-flourishing culture of their own. They live in compact communities in several areas of Yunnan Province, scattered along the southwest frontier of the country. The majority of the Dai people live in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (known in Thailand as Sipsongpanna, “Twelve Thousand Rice Fields”) in southernmost Yunnan. Other Dai live in the Dehong Dai & Jingpo Autnomous Prefecture in western Yunnan, and the Genma Dai & Wa Autonomous County in the southwest. The remainder of the Dai live in villages dotted throughout some 30 counties or in various towns in other areas of Yunnan Province.

It should be noted that here that the terms “Dai,” “Tai,” and “Thai,” are different versions of the same ethnic name. While “Dai” is used by Chinese writers, “Tai” is favored by many Asian and Western scholars to denote the same ethnic group living outside of China. “Thai” is generally used associated with the majority peoples of Thailand. Within China, the Dai nationality is actually an umbrella term for all of the Tai language groups residing there. The Dai nationality in China includes the Tai Lue, Tai Mao, Hongjin Tai, Tai Nua, Tai Pong, Huayao Tai, Han Tai, Ya, Tai Dam, Tai Kao, Paxi, and Shan (arranged here according to population size, greatest to least).

The total population of the Dai nationality in China is over 1.5 million people (A.D. 2000 estimate). The total population of Tai Lue, or Sipsongpanna Dai, worldwide is approximately 1.2 million people (A.D. 2000 estimate).

The “Sipsongpanna” (or “Xishuangbanna”) Dai are the Dai Lue or Tai Lue people. The Tai Lue in China are also known as the Shui Dai or “Water Dai.” The Sipsongpanna Dai would also include the closely related people segments of the Huayao Dai (“Flower-waisted Dai”), the Han Dai (“Dry Land Dai”), and the Paxi (“Dai Muslims”). The Hauyao Tai, Han Tai, and Paxi people segments only exist in Yunnan Province, China. However, the Tai Lue are also found in Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States.

The “Dehong” Dai would include the Tai Mao, Tai Nua, and Shan (Tai Yai, or Tai Long), although much disagreement currently exists among scholars as to the actual relationship between the Tai Mao and Tai Nua. The languages (or dialects) spoken by the Dehong Dai people segments, although somewhat mutually intelligible, are quite distinct from those spoken by the Sipsongpanna Dai people segments.

The Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture was established in 1953, and following this event, the Dai people who lived in Dehong and other communities later achieved this same autonomy, previously enjoyed by other minority nationalities in China. The word “Xishuangbanna” in the Dai language (“Sipsongpanna”) means “Twelve Pieces of Land” and originates from the time of the Ming Dynasty. In 1570, the Ming Emperor appointed the chieftain of the Dai people, Dao Ying Meng, to serve as local governor. For administrative convenience, he divided the area into twelve pieces of arable land as units for tax collection. Thus the name “Sipsongpanna.”

Adult Literacy (%): 30% (Tai Lue); 70% (Chinese)
Primary Language: Tai Lue (trade language for Huayao Tai & Han Tai)
Secondary Language: Chinese (generally speak Yunnan dialect)
Tertiary Language: Huayao Tai & Han Tai (spoken among themselves)

In the past, Tai Lue men learned to read and write the Old (Traditional) Tai Lue Script while attending the Buddhist monastery as youngsters. Tai Lue is a sanskrit script with Burmese influence, having originally come into Sipsongpanna with the arrival of Theravada Buddhism.

However, in the 1950s, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government developed the New (Simplified) Tai Lue Script. Therefore, since the early 1950s, the New Tai Lue Script has been taught in the Chinese educational system and used on signage and for newspapers and books.

Later, in the early 1980s, the Tai Lue were given permission by the Chinese government to go back to teaching the Old Tai Lue Script. This has created a very confusing situation in relation to Tai Lue literacy. Depending upon age and other factors, some Tai Lue will be literate only in the Old Script and others only in the New Script.

Chinese scholars commonly hold that the Dai language and its dialects is a sub-branch of the Zhuang-Dong (Kam-Tai) branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. There are at least 5 dialects of Dai in Yunnan, the main dialects are those spoken at Dehong and Xishuangbanna. Before 1949, five Dai written languages were in use. The more popular scripts later formed the basis of present day Xishuangbanna and Dehong Dai writing. The script is a cross between Burmese and Lao. After 1949 the Chinese developed a new simplified Dai script for use among the Dai of China. Currently both new and old scripts are taught and used.

Most Dai are rice cultivators. Wet-rice fields account for about 70 % of the total farmland in all Dai regions. The semi-tropical climate, rivers and fertile alluvial valleys form an ideal environment for wet-rice growing. Other local products include tea, sugarcane, tobacco, coffee and camphor, as well as tropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and mangoes which are harvested in abundance. In addition, the dense forests produce large amounts of teak and medicinal plants.

Rubber is becoming an important cash crop. In recent years, large quantities of rubber trees have been planted in Xishuangbanna, and this has become China’s second largest rubber producing area. Gold, silver, tin and coal are also found in the area. The Dai economy will be further developed when various commercial and industrial enterprises such as mining, tea processing, machinery manufacturing and so on are set up.

Religion and Beliefs

The religion of the Dai is Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism was introduced into the Dai region more than a thousand years ago. The Dai also take part in animistic worship by offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors. In actuality, the Dai are perhaps more animistic than Buddhist. As a result, Buddhist religious activities are closely associated with the life of the people. In the past, the Dai people had no schools and entering the priesthood was therefore the only opportunity for education.

At age 7 or 8, many Dai boys become a “keyong” (a novice) and are sent to the village monastery to learn the Buddhist [CANNON] and doctrines. After he is well versed in scriptures, rituals, and so on, he formally joins the community as a “panan” (child monk). Most Dai return to the secular life around age 17 or 18 and then marry.

Religious practices and ceremonies
Buddhist influence is seen in the many temples and pagodas found in Sipsongpanna and other Dai areas, and it plays an important role in their life. Along with Buddhist tradition, and its rituals and practices, there exist pre- Buddhist animistic superstitious beliefs and practices. Many Dai are quite nominal in their Buddhist beliefs and adherence. The Dai are frequently described as “Animists with a Buddhist veneer.” Buddhism creates a ritualistic form and legalism, but the daily life of a Dai person is controlled by superstition, fear, and the appeasement of spirits. Many of the young people no longer believe in Buddhism, especially as a result of the atheistic indoctrination they receive within the Chinese educational system.

Christianity was brought to the Xishuangbanna region in late 1890’s by missionaries of the American Presbyterian mission, and three churches were built. The churches were taken over during the 1950s and during the cultural revolution, meetings were stopped. But in the 1980s, Christian meetings were started up again. According to recent estimates, there are about 2 to 3,000 Dai Christians worldwide. The Dai New Testament is currently in print.

Redemptive Analogies/Bridges:
Dai folk literature should be studied for redemptive analogies, especially the Water Splashing Festival (Po Shui Jie) and the reverence the Dai, especially the Tai Lue, feel for water, its cleansing power, the use of mirrors on their water wells, etc. The Tai Lue believe that splashing water on each other during the Dai New Year washes away the sins of the previous year and prepares them for the year ahead. The Dai need to know of the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, as well as the spiritual cleansing that comes from being washed by the Word of God. It has also been reported that the Dai were originally monotheistic and have a traditional story about a coming redeemer. Also, the Dai believe that they are all part of one family, having descended from common parents.

Spiritual Climate/Openness:
A Christian evangelist who is working among the Dai of Sipsongpanna reported that there is great openness to the Gospel among them. Dai Christians can be found within many of the registered (Three Self) churches and meeting points located in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. It was also reported within the last year that a group of Dai believed in Christ (apparently spontaneously through an unknown catalyst) and desire to have a church established in their midst, but they currently are being repressed by local government officials and are unable to meet together openly.

The Tai Lue Project
The Tai Lue Project has been working on the transliteration of the Tai Lue New Testament for awhile now.  The original New Testament translation was done by American Presbyterian missionaries back in 1933 in the traditional Tai Lue script.  Here is a listing of what was been completed thus far.  Some scripture portions have already been checked by our translation team, while others still need to be checked.  Once the scripture portions have been checked, they will be printed and made available.

Matthew 1-28 (completed)
Mark 1-9 (completed), 10-16 (yet to be done)
Luke 1.1 – 2.13 (completed); the rest remains to be done
John 1.1 – 7.12 (completed); the rest remains to be done
Acts through Colossians (yet to be done)
1Thessalonians and 2Thessalonians (completed)
1Timothy (yet to be done)
2Timothy (only chapters 1-2 completed)
Titus – James (completed)
1Peter – Revelation chapter 2 (completed)
Revelation 3-8 (yet to be done)
Revelation 9-22 (completed)