Tai Lue - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Tai Lue have been wet-rice agriculturalists using the standard technology of Southeast Asian rice cultivation. Plowing, raking, and leveling are done with wooden equipment with steel blades and rakes, which are buffalo-drawn. Mostly glutinous rice is grown for consumption and sale, the dark purple variety being particularly favored. Tractors are now used, but they seem to be valued more as an efficient and cheap means of transport than as an agricultural tool. Some smallholding rubber is cultivated, though most Xishuangbanna rubber is grown on state plantations with Han labor. A wide variety of other crops—cotton, sugar, and tobacco being among the most important—are also grown, as are maize, beans, and a variety of vegetables. Many villages have communal fish ponds, and under the new system villages are allotted shares in the catch. They also keep a range of domestic animals, buffalo, cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Industrial Arts. Weaving and the manufacture of elaborate textiles were important aspects of rural life, but although Lue textiles are still well known, they seem to be becoming rarer around Jing Hong. In recent years individual villagers have set themselves up with equipment for such tasks as rice milling and noodle making. Some of these enterprises compete with state factories. The refugee population of northern Thailand, particularly in the town of Mae Sai, warrants special mention. Because of Thai government restrictions on their movement they depend heavily on such things as the making of reed brooms and employment in factories as cutters and polishers of precious stones.

Trade. There are markets everywhere and many local areas seem to rotate markets on a five-day cycle. Markets are not ethnically exclusive: there are Tai, Han, and other minorities selling a range of goods—cloth, shoes, and manufactured articles that have come up from Thailand through Myanmar; vegetables, meat, fish (often still alive), chickens, eggs, cooked food, and all kinds of forest produce. Whereas most Han traders are men, most Tai traders are women, though men may sell freshly butchered pork or beef. Not much is known of how the cross-boundary trade is organized, but it is clear that Tai Lue control a large part of it. It is also clear that there is some smuggling of jade and precious stones.

Division of Labor. In agriculture the major division of labor is that the heaviest tasks, such as plowing, are confined to men, and it seems that the cultivation of vegetables and small cash crops is done by women, but not exclusively. In the domestic sphere, cooking is done mainly, but not exclusively, by women. Village officials, both traditionally and under Communist rule, have almost always been men.

Land Tenure. Traditional land tenure in Sipsongpanna is thought to have been based on village communities under the control of chiefs. Certain lands were reserved for the chief and his senior officials and these plots would be worked either with the nobles' own retainers or with corvée. Other village officials, including ritual officials, had special allocations of land that included the right to free labor. The commoners had access to what land was left, but even here there were said to be divisions. There were first the "native" Lue who occupied the best villages, had major duties, and did not marry with other types of villager. The second major group was comprised of the "dependents of the lord's house," who were migrants from other Tai muang (chiefdoms) or prisoners of war. They cultivated state land, but could cultivate a small portion for themselves. They performed domestic duties and other labor for which they were paid wages. The third group consisted of the remote kin of the nobility, who were granted land as free peasants. It appears their land was not liable to reallocation. Much effort by Chinese officials throughout the centuries appears to have been directed at making cultivators directly liable to pay taxes to the emperor for the land they cultivated, thus breaking the power of the traditional rulers. Although this appears to have succeeded in the north, it was only imperfectly achieved in the southeast and west. During Communist rule, though Sipsongpanna was never completely communized, there was a period during which individual control of production and access to produce was very limited. Today the village decides how much land is available and how it should be divided each year—it seems mostly to be done on a per capita basis. Under the system that began in Xishuangbanna about 1985, each household is allotted land for five years and contracts to pay specified amounts to the government during that period. As an example, a household that has been given rice land at the rate of 1.3 mou per person (1 mou equals about 0.06 hectare) would be expected to pay 26 kilograms of paddy per person per year. The government acquires another 80 kilograms at about half the market price. The farmer may sell additional paddy to the government at slightly below the market price, but may prefer to take his chances elsewhere.

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