The Dai are an ethnic minority in China. They live in the province of Yunnan, which lies in the south. The provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi Zhuang (also spelled Szechwan, Kweichow, and Kwangsi) border Yunnan on the north and east. Myanmar is Yunnan’s western neighbor, and Laos and Vietnam lie to the south.
The Dai of Yunnan live in the southern portion of the province. Politically, they occupy prefectures called Dehong and Xishuangbanna. A few Dai live in other areas. For example, some live farther north in the cities of Yanjiang and Xinping, according to China Highlights.
The Dai have their own language – several dialects in fact. If you take a glance at Dai writing, you will be surprised. Instead of the elaborate characters that you usually find in Chinese writing, the Dai use an alphabetical script to write their language, according to China Culture.
If you have heard anything at all about this interesting ethnic group, it probably was in connection with their Water-splashing Festival. The Dai New Year occurs in April. During the celebration, the inhabitants douse one another with water until everyone is thoroughly soaked.
Tourists find this festival intriguing; and to attract tourist dollars, the festival has become more dynamic than it originally was. Originally, instead of a free-for-all water fight, the Dai would bless one another by using moistened tree branches and flower stems to sprinkle them gently with a little water. The festival occurs during the driest part of the dry season, and its chief purpose is a symbolic prayer for the blessing of rain, according to Time.
The Dai economy depends on abundant rain. Rice is their main crop, and their rice grows anaerobically – in the absence of air. So it must be planted in such a way that its roots and part of its stems are under water.
Another Dai celebration is the Dragon Homage Festival, in which the people offer food to the dragon, who is thought to be a deity. This festival generally takes place in January, according to China Travel.
In Nayun Town of Menglian County, the Dai celebrate the Holy Fish Festival. The focus of this celebration is Kanghao, the god of rice. An important feature of this festival is a soul-evoking ceremony in which the biggest fish caught in the Nanlei River is offered to Kanghao, according to Ynta.
The traditional Dai home is a cozy affair. According to China Travel, the house and the furniture are typically made of bamboo. Even the roof employs this useful plant. The principal material in the roof is a tough grass, but twigs of bamboo hold it together.
According to China Culture, the house is generally a square two-story structure surrounded by a court in which such plants as papayas and bananas grow. The lower story, which may not be completely enclosed, is the abode of livestock while the family lives on the second floor. A simple stove brings cheer to the home, while the loosely constructed bamboo walls let in light and a cooling breeze.
According to China Culture, visitors entering a Dai home must observe certain rules. For example, they should not whistle, cut their finger nails, or sit by the fire. Above all, they should not enter or look into the areas of the home that are reserved for the private use of the family. Needless to say, they should take off their shoes before entering the habitation. This is a widespread practice in many Oriental countries, though sympathetic hosts have occasionally told me not to remove my sandals if it is a cold day.
In many Dai homes, traditional features have been replaced by modern innovations, such as glass windows and tile roofs.
The Dai love to dance. Their favorite is the peacock dance, which imitates the movements of this magnificent bird. They also enjoy drum dances of various kinds. In the garland dance, the dancer manipulates a garland made of flowers on a bamboo frame. The fish dance imitates a fish swimming in the water, and the egret dance imitates the bird after which the dance is named, according to Cultural China.
The gaduo dance is named after a mythical animal called the duo. According to Cultural China, this creature has “a lion’s head, a dog’s mouth, deer antlers, a long neck and fine hair.” Two dancers manipulate a fabricated duo made of bamboo and covered with cloth.
The roc dance commemorates a myth in which a roc saved the people from starvation. Instead of sending rain, the rain god had left the people in the lurch; but the roc fought the delinquent god and forced him to return and water the land, according to Cultural China. Since the dance depicts a battle, it is rather vigorous, according to Cultural China.
According to Eventful, the Dai religion is a mixture of Buddhism and animism, undermined in part by communistic atheism. But while most Chinese follow a type of Buddhism called Mahayana, the Dai follow Theravada Buddhism. The Dai Buddhists suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, but they survived these dark times and Buddhism is currently thriving.
The message of Christianity has brought hope to a small minority of the Dai people, according to OMF International.