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Heritage Trail project

Preserving Dai Culture for Posterity

In a broad valley in a remote corner of southern Yunnan Province, in the District of Meng Lian, twenty kilometers from the Burmese border, lie a number of Dai villages.  The Dai of these villages are heirs to a culture dating back hundreds of years to a time when the Dai formed a powerful kingdom dominating southern Yunnan Province and contiguous areas of Burma.  Over the centuries this kingdom broke up into a number of small Dai states, each headed by a jaofa, or Lord of Heaven.  These states gradually fell under the suzerainty of Beijing dynastic rule, and the Chinese emperor gave each jaofa the title of tusi, or local administrator, in the Chinese system of governing outlying ethnic minority areas.
Despite Chinese suzerainty, the Dai in these areas continued to live as their ancestors had, with Dai culture very much intact, with almost no influence from Han culture. All this changed after 1949, when the new Chinese government asserted strong administrative control over the Dai and other minority groups in Yunnan and elsewhere around the nation. From the 50s through the early 70s, aspects of traditional Dai culture came under attack as they were perceived to be “feudal”.  Today, in addition to the cultural disruption which occurred during those ideologically driven decades, the continuity of Dai culture is threatened by the same modernizing influences that are bringing about change in all traditional Asian cultures, and also by the economic and social attractiveness of China’s dominant Han culture.

In February of this year, I traveled to Meng Lian District to review the progress of CHP’s Dai Culture Documentation Project in Meng Ma Village. Initiated in the spring of 2005, this project is a grassroots culture documentation project: after initial training and organization by CHP, the documentation work is being carried out by the villagers themselves, with support and encouragement from the Meng Lian District Culture Department.
Due to the cultural disruptions that occurred during the period 1950-1975, and to the ongoing impact of modern development and increasing Han cultural influence in the area, knowledge of the traditional Dai culture is gradually atrophying, and young people are no longer literate in the Dai script or knowledgeable about their Dai cultural heritage. The elders of the Dai villages are the repositories of the Dai heritage; if they do not record and pass on to the next generation the knowledge of their ancestors, this heritage will disappear as the older generation dies off. It is therefore critical to act at this time to fully document this heritage, and also to provide cultural role models that will inspire the next generation to respect and become interested in their own culture at the same time that they are integrated into the Chinese nation and move with ease in the dominant Han culture.
CHP undertook the initial conceptualization and structuring of the project. Cultural documentation was broken down into 20 categories, including religious practices, sacred aspects of nature, cuisine, handicrafts, traditional healing, literature, building, and a variety of other categories which together encompass the entirety of the Dai heritage in the village. These categories were divided up amongst the older people of the village, who have embraced the project with the enthusiasm. Over the years they had come to feel that their cultural knowledge and their traditional ways were irrelevant to modern life; now their knowledge has been given value and recognition.
I arrived in the village early one sunny February morning. Around thirty of the village elders were gathered at the entrance of the village to welcome me and brief me on the project. The women were dressed in their beautiful pasin, while a few of the men wore their handsome Dai suits, with white turban around the head. One of the key leaders of the project is Mr. Kang Langshuai, 73 years old, who was a monk in the village temple for several years in the late 1940’s, and retains vital knowledge of the village’s rituals for conducting of ceremonies. He and other older members of the village are inscribing their knowledge in Dai script on paper they have made by hand in the traditional fashion from tree bark. Stacks of these beautifully written manuscripts were shown to me as their output to date.
We then walked through the village to one of its two temples. The main temple is a beautiful wooden temple in traditional Dai style, dating back several hundred years. The original wall murals have long since disappeared, but they have been replaced by new murals painted by a self-taught village artist. In front of the temple the villagers performed a variety of their traditional dances, accompanied by Dai musical instruments. At the conclusion of the morning’s program, we all repaired to a community center for a sumptuous repast of Dai dishes, accompanied by sticky rice and several delectable sweets made of sticky rice and cane sugar, steamed in banana leaves.
When I asked two of the leaders of the project what, in their opinion, are the essence features of Dai culture that clearly differentiate Dai people from other cultural groups, I was without hesitation given the response, “Our Buddhist heritage, and the respect between people that is embodied in our sense of courtesy and manners.”
The term “Dai” is officially used by the Chinese government to designate one of China’s 55 minority groups. The Dai live in a broad band, intermixed among other minority groups, across southern Yunnan, not far from the Lao and Burmese borders. But this broad designation does not give justice to the variations of Dai culture and language between different Dai groups. On the eastern side of the Dai region, in Xishuangbanna Prefecture close to the Mekong River, the Dai are called in their own language Dai Lue, and are basically the same as groups in northern Laos and Thailand that go by the name Tai Lue. In the far western portion of the region are the Dai of Dehong. In the middle are the Dai of Meng Lian, the site of the CHP project.
Meng Lian district is less accessible and less economically developed than other Dai areas, As a result Dai culture in this area remains more pristine, with less assimilation into the dominant Han culture. Curiously, it has also been less studied by academics than other Dai sub-cultures.  From what I was able to ascertain, the Dai of Meng Lian regard themselves as very similar to the Shan people across the Burmese border in Chiang Tung (Kengtung), and Chiang Tung remains to this day a sort of cultural center for Dai people in Meng Lian.  And of course, the Dai of Meng Lian share with their distant cousins, the Lao and the Thai, charm and a mellow way of life that is highly seductive to the visitor.
The project’s village documentation phase will soon be completed, leading to the next phase of translation of the entire document into Han Chinese, and publication of the work in bilingual Dai-Chinese version. Meanwhile, the project is giving a restored sense of pride to the village concerning its Dai heritage, and a sense of the importance of preserving this heritage for posterity.
But work in one village, no matter how enthusiastically carried out, does not save a culture from gradual extinction. CHP is gratified to find that the District government of Meng Lian has watched this project unfold with keen interest, and is now interested in working with CHP to replicate the work in other Dai villages and other minority groups within the district. As the project model unfolds in other villages, it will of course need to be adapted from the first pioneering Meng Ma project.  Planning for spreading the work to other villages of Meng Lian will be next phase of CHP’s efforts in working with the Dai people.
CHP wishes to express its thanks to the James Thompson Foundation of Thailand and to the Australian government for making available financial grants to CHP which have permitted the project to proceed successfully.
(James Stent | Director of CHP)
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