Tai Lue - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tai Lue are Theravada Buddhists, with historical links to the Yuan tradition of the Tai speakers of upper Myanmar and northern Thailand. The term "Hinayana" is generally used in Chinese sources to refer to the religion of the Tai Lue, and it also has some indigenous currency. Spirit beliefs are widespread and, particularly among the elite and upper classes, there is evidence of beliefs from Chinese religion. More recently, a small but significant strain of skepticism has appeared. The Tai Lue, like Tai groups in Thailand and Myanmar, believe in spirits known as phi as well as in the hierarchy of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. Of major importance are the territorial deities. The deity Phya Alawu (sometimes called Arawi) parallels legendary figures in northern Thailand and Luang Prabang, and appears to have the status of protective spirit for the entire kingdom. Information on domestic spirits is limited.

Religious Practitioners. Because of the Cultural Revolution the number of monks and novices now in Sipsongpanna is small. The Tai Lue traditionally preferred to be ordained as novices, leaving the monkhood as a specialized category. Many monasteries are still struggling to build up their numbers. During the Cultural Revolution monks were forced to leave the order, and stories are told of many fleeing to monasteries across the border in Burma; a few defied the worst excesses of the time, maintaining their vows under threat of death. Villages have lay elders who are necessary in the performance of Buddhist ritual and there are officials who perform the territorial spirit-cult activities. Presumably many of these are also healers and diviners.

Ceremonies. The Tai Lue celebrate the full cycle of Buddhist festivities. In recent years, as part of the Chinese government's promotion of tourism, the Buddhist New Year in April has become an international event, known as the "Dai water-splashing festival." To the Lue, ceremonies of major importance are the beginning and end of the Buddhist "Lent," the period of the rains when Buddhist monks are constrained to sleep in the precincts of their monasteries, and Vesak, the day associated with the major life events of the Buddha. The celebration known in the literature as pai has become synonymous with the Tai Lue. Some scholars theorize that the term "Pai-yi" (or "Bai-yi") derives from this ceremony; the more popular interpretation is that it means "white barbarian." The Chinese representation of "Pai" (in Pinyin "Bai") does not seem to be an accurate representation of the pronunciation of this word. The major purpose of this ceremony is the installation of a Buddha statue in a wat. Sponsors gained status through this activity. Ceremonies are held to propitiate tutelary deities, sya ban, at village shrines called cai ban ("the heart of the village").

Arts. Traditionally the Lue practiced a range of arts and crafts, such as the production of textiles, basket weaving, temple murals, music, and theatricals. Two items are worthy of brief mention here. One is the distinctive decorated and covered well, characteristic of Sipsongpanna and Dehong (Tai, but not Tai Lue) farther north. The other is the musical form kap, which is akin to the sor of northern Thailand. This is now encouraged by the government and there are regular performances on Jing Hong radio. The most popular is the kap langka, the Lue version of the Ramayana.

Medicine. Tai Lue practice both supernatural and herbal treatment of the sick. Chinese sources say their procedures for diagnosing illness are similar to those of the Han: observation, listening and questioning, and taking the pulse. There are numerous Lue medical texts and pharmacopoeia, some of which have been published in Lue and Chinese.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally the Lue cremated only monks and very old people, burying others, except those having "unfortunate" deaths. This is the opposite of Central Thai (Siamese) practice, but it is similar to the traditional practice of the Kon Muang of northern Thailand. It is not known why these differences occur. It is reported that Lue villagers long settled in northern Thailand have practices like those of the Siamese. The Lue subscribe to Buddhist beliefs about the nature of heavens and hells, rebirth, and final enlightenment.

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Jul 21, 2012 @ 5:05 am
Very good information, thanks.

I am married to a Tai Lue and live in Southeast Asia. The Musical form should be spelled khap since a k without the h would be another sound, the unaspirated which to western ears sounds mostly like a g.

Also cremation. My wife's village (Christian) has been cremating people as long as I've been there (1996) and she says that the Buddhist villages she knows cremate. Maybe there is variation in practice.

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