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The Meng Ma Files:Progress of CHP’s Dai Cultural Recording Project

One day recently a large package arrived at CHP’s office. The package contained the Menga Ma Files – the results of two year’s work  (see our earlier report on this project in Heritage Update Preserving Dai Culture for Posterity). The beautifully prepared book has elegant handwritten Old Dai script on handmade paper made in the traditional Dai fashion from tree bark.

The separate volumes of the Meng Ma Files each covered an aspect of Dai culture – altogether 35 separate areas of Dai culture as remembered and recorded by the older residents of Meng Ma Village in Meng Lian District of southern Yunnan. Nowadays, few Dai are still able to read their old script, although temples are beginning to teach it again to some interested Dai youth. The older Dai, mostly in their 60s and 70s, who participated in this project as a labor of love are the repositories of the Dai culture of Meng Lian.

Accompanying the Dai text were several hundred photographs, illustrating the cultural rituals and activities described in the text. The photographers were these same older people, many of whom had never before taken photographs in their lives. Also in the package that CHP unwrapped was a Han Chinese translation of the Dai text.

What makes this cultural recording distinctive is the methodology of “non-interference” that CHP employed. A brief orientation and training of two days had been given by CHP to the village elders of Muang Ma at the start of the project, and from then on they carried out the project with enthusiasm on their own, with support and encouragement from the Department of Culture of Meng Lian District. Unlike so much work that had previously been done  on the cultures of minority groups in China, this is a work of and by the Dai people of Meng Ma themselves, rather than a recording from Han scholars who lack the necessary inside understanding of the culture. These project often produce stereotyped and commercialized versions of Dai culture, which is what is mainly displayed for tourists in nearby Xishuangbanna Prefecture.

We showed the text of the Meng Ma Files to sociologists and anthropologists from Peking University and from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  They acknowledged that they had never seen work of this sort done in China before and were fascinated and excited by it, saying that the methodology of the project would produce the most accurate and genuine recording of ethnic group culture.

At the same time, after initial skepticism, the project has received support and encouragement from local Chinese government authorities. The recognition and commendation given by Yunnan authorities to the leaders of the project in Meng Ma has greatly enhanced the self-esteem of the older people of the village and raised the status of Dai traditional culture among the villagers.

The next step is producing a bilingual Dai-Han edition, with an English language foreward. The archive will also be distributed to Meng Lian District Dai villages and interested academic institutions in China and abroad. After that, CHP will work with Meng Ma to build a museum of Dai folk culture.

The final phase of the program will be to consult with the leaders of the many Dai villages of Meng Lian concerning further action to be taken to conserve and revitalize Dai culture in the district. Areas of focus will probably include, among other things, revival of Dai weaving traditions, architectural preservation, and Dai language and literature work.

CHP wishes to once again thank the James Thompson Foundation of Thailand and the Australian government for donating funding for carrying out this cultural recording and book publication project. CHP will in the future be looking for funding for the museum construction and other later stages of the Dai culture projects.

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