Tai Lue - Sociopolitical Organization

Xishuangbanna is a Dai Autonomous Prefecture of the province of Yunnan in the People's Republic of China and is therefore today part of that political system.

Social Organization. The fundamental class division of the traditional social structure was between the nobility, with the king and royal family at its peak, and the common people. Both groups, however, were themselves arranged hierarchically. The king—"the lord of the land" (cawphaendin) —was in theory the owner of all land in the kingdom. His hereditary chiefdom was based in Jing Hong, where he held court. The rest of the kingdom was divided into meng or muang, which may be translated as "chiefdoms." Other members of the nobility held various titles and performed duties toward the king or chief, in return for which they held land and rights over serfs. The commoners were referred to as khaphai by the nobility. This term in fact brought together two different statuses: kha, which meant "slave" and was also generally used of non-Tai, Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples; and phai, which may be variously interpreted as "serf or "freeman." The senior commoner officials had special status and rights to land, as did certain ritual experts. This division among commoners was expressed in the contrast kanmeng/kanban, "the work of the chiefdom (or state)/the work of the village." Officials had a duty to the state itself, while other commoners had a duty to the village community. Today in Sipsongpanna the old class division expresses itself somewhat in the pattern of sinicization. Many Tai have now taken Chinese names, the old nobility having the surname "Dao." Members of the former ruling families hold positions of influence and authority in the provincial administration. This phenomenon is not confined to Tai. The present governor of Yunnan is from the Naxi minority. Around Jing Hong traditionally owned land has been converted into businesses of various kinds, particularly those related to the tourist trade, such as restaurants and guest houses. Within the village there is now general social equality and equal access to land resources. There are, however, clear signs that village officials and party cadres have special privileges. One phenomenon is the different style of house—brick and mortar—favored by some village officials.

Political Organization. Traditional political organization has been reported as being very formalized, and we should keep in mind the possibility that the actual working of the system was much less formal and also that the history of warfare and conflicting claims to suzerainty would have greatly modified it. The king was also part of the Chinese administration and was known by a title translated as the "Cheli Pacification Commissioner" ("Cheli" being a Chinese name for Jing Hong). Below the king was the upalat (a comparable rank in Siam was translated by nineteenth-century Europeans as "second king"). Government was conducted by two councils—the Royal (or outer) Council and the Private (or inner) Council. The Royal Council was presided over by a representative of the territorial princes (the rulers of the meng). The membership consisted of senior-ranking princes, the younger brothers of the king, four senior ministers (the prime minister, in charge of general administration, finance, and revenue; the minister of justice and recorder of population; the minister in charge of government rations; and the president), an official in charge of sacrificial rites at markets, and all the rulers of meng or their representatives. This council discussed all matters to go before the king, as well as proposals by the king. Ultimate authority, however, appeared to remain with the monarch. The Private Council was made up of members of the royal family, of four grades. The council was presided over by the chief official of the palace. When the king did not attend a meeting of the outer council, a member of the inner council took his place. The Private Council appears to have been an advisory body of close kin, who kept watch over the activities of the Royal Council. The councils of the meng chiefs were patterned on the central bodies. Below the chief were the president of the council, a senior phya (lord) who acted as "prime minister," and two or three other lords. There were also representatives of local organizations such as the ho sib, literally the "head of ten." At the village level the officials were phya, ca, and saen, which may be glossed as "lord," "lieutenant," and "noble" (the latter also means "one hundred thousand"). Sources also say that large villages would have an official responsible for ceremonies and rites, one responsible for irrigation, one responsible for the registration and reception of strangers, and one who managed lost and found property. There was also a leader for each youth group, male and female. In the modern administration, village officials have Chinese titles that translate as "headman," "treasurer," "chief of women," and "constable."

Social Control. In traditional times, in communities with recurrent warfare, where political authorities had constant recourse to armed might, control was tight in settled areas. But as the history of flight and migration shows, there was always a means of escape. There are Lue law codes, but like the codes of the Mangrai in northern Thailand, it is not known to what extent and how these were enforced. There are no detailed studies of village life, so comments on social control at that level must be speculative. There is evidence that patterns of witchcraft accusation, as reported particularly from northern Thailand, are also found among the Lue. These are extreme mechanisms, perhaps better interpreted as mechanisms of oppression rather than social control. But they do suggest that public opinion, gossip, and similar mechanisms are manipulated in Tai Lue villages as elsewhere in the Tai-speaking world.

Conflict. The history of Sipsongpanna is a history of conflict—between heirs to high office, between meng, with conquerors coming out of Burma, Thailand, and Laos—as well as against the continuing push of the Chinese for suzerainty. The Communist conquest has brought an end to warfare, and since the early 1950s there appears to have been no significant movement to change the political status of the Tai Lue. Little, if anything, is known about the resolution of conflict within the general population.

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