Dai - History and Cultural Relations

Because the Dai are an important group in the ethnohistory of southwest China, their origin has long been a subject of debate. Chinese ethnohistorians link the ancestors of the Dai to the "Dianyue," the name both of a kingdom and of diversified local groups. It was part of Yue or Bai Yue (meaning "hundreds of Yue"), an ancient macrogroup of south China. Over the past 2,000 years, the name "Dianyue" has changed often: "Dianyue" and "Shan" (Siam) in the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220); "Pu," "Yue," or "Liao" in the Wei and Jin dynasties ( A.D. 220-419); and "Heichi Man," "Jinchi Man," "Yingchi," "Man Qichi Man," "Xiujiao Man," "Mang Man," and "Baiyi" in the Tang dynasty ( A.D. 618-905). In Heichi, Jinchi, Yingchi, and Qichi, the word chi means "teeth," while the words jin, ying, hei, and qi refer to the colors gold, silver, and black. These names seem to reflect a particular custom of the Dai, who inlay their teeth with gold or silver or blacken them by chewing betel nuts. "Baiyi" means "white clothing" the name is likely inspired by the Dai's favorite clothing color. The names "Baiyi" or "Jinchi Beiyi" were used to refer to the people before 1949.

The Dai and related groups were distributed throughout southern and southwestern China and Southeast Asia. They established powerful local kingdoms such as the Mong Mao and Kocambi (tenth to eleventh centuries) in Dehong, the Yonaga or Xienrun (twelfth century) in Xishuangbanna, and the Lanna or Babai Xifu (thirteenth to eighteenth centuries) in northern Thailand. They conquered local groups such as the Benglong (De'ang), Blang, Hani, and Lahu and later the Achang and Jingpo, and the Dai thus became the most powerful group in the area. In the fourteenth century, under Han control, China's imperial court set up the tusi system (see "Political Organization") with Dai kings and nobles as court-appointed tusi lords. Thereafter, the dynasties officially recognized Dai lordship over the other groups. The earliest contact of central China with Yunnan was recorded in the first century B.C. , but mass movement of Han into the Yunnan frontiers took place several times after that: in the eighth century, during the war between the Tang dynasty and the Nanzhao Kingdom; in the thirteenth century, when the Mongols conquered the Dali State; and later, in the Yuan dynasty's wars with Burma and Babai Xifu. The largest flow of Han migrants into Yunnan occurred in the early fourteenth century, when an army of over 300,000 soldiers were sent by the Ming emperor to fight the Yuan. After the war the troops stayed on the frontiers as military colonists. As the Han marched in, the traditional Dai feudal system first became part of the tusi system and later faced constant challenge; eventually the political system of interior China replaced it. Coalition and compromise as well as contention and conflict—between the Chinese governments and the Dai tusi and between the different groups of the areas—formed the main themes of the local history as well as a legacy of the area's ethnic relations.

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