Dai - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Dai were among the earliest rice cultivators in Yunnan. As early as the seventh century, the Dai used elephants in paddy-field plowing, according to Chinese historical records. More advanced farm tools and techniques brought later by Han immigrants greatly promoted the wet-rice cultivation in Dai regions. Today the wet-rice fields account for 70 percent of the total farmland of all Dai regions. The tropical and semitropical climate, rivers, and fertile alluvial valleys form an ideal environment for wet-rice growing. Vast land resources with a small population make Dai cultivation quite extensive. Most fields produce only one crop (rice) a year, and the farmers plow their paddy fields once and harrow twice, whereas their Han neighbors grow at least two crops (rice and wheat or rapeseed) a year and have three plowings and three harrowings. Dai farmers seldom weed and never apply night soil (dung) in the fields (except some green manure in seedbeds). The output is therefore low (3,386 pounds per acre in 1984). Farmers plant wet rice first in a specially prepared seedbed where it grows for about 30 days. Meanwhile, they prepare regular fields through plowing, soaking, and harrowing. In May or June, they transplant rice seedlings to the prepared fields. After transplanting, the farmers maintain the dikes and regulate the flow of water. Harvest is in November or December; the fields remain fallow until the next spring. Water buffalo, wood plows with iron shares, wood harrows, steel knives, hoe, sickles, and wood flails have been the main tools used in farming for centuries. In recent years improved seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides have been introduced. Farmers also grow dry rice in the hills with slash-and-burn methods. In addition, they often grow tea, cotton, tobacco, camphor, sisal, and coffee, as well as bananas, pineapples, shaddock, mangoes, and other tropical fruits. Sugarcane has a long history in Dai areas, and in the past decade its cultivation has rapidly increased because of government incentives. Rubber trees were introduced in the 1950s. Today tea, sugarcane, rubber, and tropical fruits are major cash crops. Fishing with poison, traps, and explosives is common, but the catch is mainly for domestic consumption.

Industrial Arts. Cotton and kapok spinning and weaving are every household's handicraft. Beautiful silk or cotton brocades made by women on the wood loom are well known all over the province. Dai silver work is equally famous. In the past, Dai kings and nobles commonly used the locally made silverware. Today, silver ornaments remain very popular among the women but all come from state-run shops. The Dai reportedly developed blacksmithing in earlier times, but now the Han and Achang make most metal tools. Rattan and bamboo works and pottery are also well-known Dai handicrafts. Rattan and bamboo furniture of Burmese style and classically elegant water jars are popular articles in the local markets.

Trade. Although Dai women are regarded as able local marketers, the Dai, as a whole, are self-sufficient farmers. There are few Dai businesspeople except those part-time peddlers and a few recently emerged small grocery owners. Most trading is between the lowlanders and highlanders through the local market, which is held every three or four days and deals in farm produce and household handicrafts. The mountain people trade firewood, timber, mushrooms, wild fruits, and so on while the Dai trade rice, rice liquor, vegetables, and bamboo and rattan utensils. The biggest trading party from the 1950s to the early 1980s was the state, through state-run shops and the cooperatives. The Dai sell their rice, rapeseed, and other farm products to these stores and buy most of the manufactured goods they need there. This is changing with the rise of the free market. The role of long-distance traders/merchants was filled by Han, Hui, and to a lesser extent Bai and Naxi. These culture groups were key in the tea trade out of Xishuangbanna.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, women do all the farming work, except plowing and harrowing, as well as household chores. Women are in full charge of marketing any household surplus.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, all land belonged to the tusi. An adult farmer could receive a piece of paddy field for cultivation from his tusi lord. In practice, all farmland fell into five categories: (1) salary fields, which the tusi assigned to his relatives as fiefs and which were tax-free but few in number; (2) official fields, which farmers received from their lords in exchange for taxes and corvée and which constituted the largest proportion of land; (3) private land, which farmers opened from wasteland with the consent of the tusi and which they usually could privately "own" for one or two years without paying tax, before the fields reverted to the tusi and were taxed; (4) public land, a very small, tax-free percentage of the land, which the lords appropriated to their villages for religious or other public use; and (5) manor land, which fell within the tusi manors and which the tusi families directly controlled and the villagers cultivated in corvée and later rented to the peasants. In the last century some changes occurred in land tenure. Official records indicate that several tusi sold paddy fields to Han landlords; mortgaging and renting of land became more common in the areas connected with the Han or near commercial centers. Nevertheless, the Dai land system remained feudal in nature until 1957, when a political campaign of "peaceful land reform" turned the tusi's land into socialist collective property, owned first by the agricultural mutual-aid groups, later by the agricultural co-op, and then by the people's commune. Since 1981, the government has adopted a new type of land tenure, the household contract-responsibility system; paddy fields are allocated by contract to each household, while dry land remains communal. Each contracted household is obliged to pay an agricultural tax (in grain) and to sell its quota of grain to the state at the state-set lower price; each household makes its own decision about resource allocation while considering the suggested plan of the local government about the types and the amount of crops to grow.

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