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Mengma Archives Introduction

Heather Peters, Ph.D.
Senior Consultant, Culture Unit
UNESCO Bangkok
I am pleased to have been asked to write an introduction to the Archives of Meng Ma, a publication resulting from CHP’s Dai Culture Project which began in 2005.  Having worked with UNESCO[1] Bangkok for over a decade, and having spent many years working and researching in Yunnan, I would like to express my support both for this project, and the resulting publication.

UNESCO has a mandate which is highly relevant to this project – that is to preserve and strengthen the world’s cultural diversity.  In November 2001 the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was signed by all UNESCO member states – including China.  In the words of Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, the declaration is an instrument that “raises cultural diversity to the level of the ‘common heritage of humanity’, as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”[2].
The instrument, which consists of 12 articles and 20 lines of action, fosters cultural diversity and pluralism; aims to safeguard linguistic heritage; and seeks to make cultural rights an integral part of human rights.

 

Over the past ten years, as part of this mandate, the UNESCO Regional Office for Culture in Asia and the Pacific has supported and implemented many initiatives – many of which are illustrated by the goals of Meng Ma Archive Project.  UNESCO has:
* Supported community-managed initiatives to manage and preserve local cultural heritage, including World Heritage Towns and Buddhist Temples.
* Developed interventions to address the growing social and cultural dysfunctions created by development and modernization – this includes such things as HIV and AIDS, increased non-traditional drug use and unsafe migration.
The Culture Unit in the UNESCO Bangkok office has also paid particular attention to the Tai (Dai)[3] cultures in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.  As part of this focus, it implements several projects in Thailand, the Lao PDR and among the Tai-speaking populations in Yunnan.  This includes the Dai in Xishuangbanna Prefecture and the Dai in Dehong Prefecture.
Putting Traditional Dai (Tai) Culture in Yunnan within the Chinese State Perspective

Heather Peters, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant, Culture Unit

UNESCO Bangkok

I am pleased to have been asked to write an introduction to the Archives of Meng Ma, a publication resulting from CHP’s Dai Culture Project which began in 2005.  Having worked with UNESCO[1] Bangkok for over a decade, and having spent many years working and researching in Yunnan, I would like to express my support both for this project, and the resulting publication.

UNESCO has a mandate which is highly relevant to this project – that is to preserve and strengthen the world’s cultural diversity.  In November 2001 the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was signed by all UNESCO member states – including China.  In the words of Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, the declaration is an instrument that “raises cultural diversity to the level of the ‘common heritage of humanity’, as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”[2].

The instrument, which consists of 12 articles and 20 lines of action, fosters cultural diversity and pluralism; aims to safeguard linguistic heritage; and seeks to make cultural rights an integral part of human rights.

Over the past ten years, as part of this mandate, the UNESCO Regional Office for Culture in Asia and the Pacific has supported and implemented many initiatives – many of which are illustrated by the goals of Meng Ma Archive Project.  UNESCO has:

  • Supported community-managed initiatives to manage and preserve local cultural heritage, including World Heritage Towns and Buddhist Temples.
  • Developed interventions to address the growing social and cultural dysfunctions created by development and modernization – this includes such things as HIV and AIDS, increased non-traditional drug use and unsafe migration.

The Culture Unit in the UNESCO Bangkok office has also paid particular attention to the Tai (Dai)[3] cultures in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.  As part of this focus, it implements several projects in Thailand, the Lao PDR and among the Tai-speaking populations in Yunnan.  This includes the Dai in Xishuangbanna Prefecture and the Dai in Dehong Prefecture.

Putting Traditional Dai (Tai) Culture in Yunnan within the Chinese State Perspective

The earliest historical records found in China (for example, the Shang Shu, Qun Qiu, Zuo Juan, and Shi Ji – which date from the Western Zhou through the Han periods) clearly establish that, from its inception, the Chinese State was a culturally diverse society. Throughout the rest of China’s long history (from the Han period up to the present), the numerous historical texts discuss the ebb and flow of China’s state borders, and the increasingly complex relationships of the centralized state government with the numerous ethnic minority populations living on the peripheries of the State.

Recognizing the need to understand and account for the populations living within its state boundaries, the newly formed government of the PRC immediately set about the task of identifying and classifying the ethnic minority populations living within China. Using a definition of “nationality” drawn from the early works of Joseph Stalin[4], the research teams set out armed with a set of four criteria to define who was and who was not a “nationality” in the new China. In China, all nationalities, except for the majority Han, were commonly referred to as ethnic minorities, or minority nationalities.

The result of this vast undertaking was the recognition of 54 (later increased to 55) minority nationalities plus the majority Han. The importance of mentioning this classification system, however, is that a number of what anthropologists call ethnic groups were not officially recognized by the new government, and, as such, they were lumped into larger “nationality” categories. The reasons for the decisions of these research teams were linked with the historical and political context of the early period of the New China. However, the consequence of doing this has resulted in endangering the cultural survival of a number of small ethnic groups in China.

The Dai minority group is such a category which masks a large number of smaller and distinctive Tai language related ethnic groups, including the Dai of Meng Ma.

For a long time, the Dai have been sub-divided by the Han into three categories in the popular literature:

 1. The Shui Dai or “water Dai”;

 2. The Han Dai or “dry Dai”; and

 3. The Hua Yao Dai or the “Flowery Belted Dai”.

These categories, which are commonly used by both officials and lay people alike, are essentially meaningless in anthropological terms. They do not tell us anything about who these people are, what language they speak, nor what are their customs and cultural traits.

That these categories completely lack scientific clarity or precision is obvious. Let us look more closely at the classification “Shui Dai”. The Shui Dai, i.e. the “Water Dai”, simply refers to the fact that these Dai live near waterways and usually practice wet rice agriculture. For most people, the “Shui Dai” are associated with the Dai living in the Xishuangbanna. Yes, they are a people who prefer to live in valleys, cultivate irrigated wet rice paddy fields, practice Theravada Buddhism, and eat sticky rice. However, there are other Dai people living in Yunnan who also have similar cultural practices, for example the Dai populations living in the lowland areas of Dehong Prefecture, but who speak a different Tai language, and although they practice Theravada Buddhism, their temples and Buddhist practices are very different. They are, in fact, the Tai Neua, a Dai ethnic group different from those in the Xishuangbanna.

Professional Chinese ethnographers and anthropologists do, in fact, recognize the linguistic differences found among the various Dai, and consequently make more scientific and precise sub-classifications of the Dai groups within the larger Dai ethnic minority group. For example, the Dai from the Xishuangbanna become the “Tai Lue” because the speak Tai Lue; and the Dai from Dehong are called the “Dai Neua” because they speak Tai Neua. However, even the category of Dai Neua masks a number of different Dai groups. “Neua” simply means “northern Tai”. Other scholars argue that the category Tai Neua includes, for example, the Tai Mao (living in Ruili Municipality) and the Tai Yai (commonly known as the Shan in Burma).

Chinese specialists also acknowledge that, contrary to popular belief, not all Dai are Buddhist. We should note that most of the non-Buddhist Dai fall into the portmanteau category of “Flowery Belted Dai”. The term “Flowery Belted Dai”, like Shui dai”, is also a meaningless term, and tells us nothing about the people in this category except that they like to wear brightly colored and decorated sashes.

Thus, although experts acknowledge that there are many different kinds of Dai who speak related, but different languages, and who sometimes have very different cultural traits, the official classification acknowledges only one group, and therein lies the danger of losing a wealth of cultural diversity.

Tai Ethnicity in other State Contexts

The reality of Tai (Dai) ethnicity is, in fact, very complex.  Let us look at the Tai (Dai) linguistic groups in the Lao PDR, where we find a more elaborated system of ethnic classification and identification than is found in China.  Forty-seven different ethnic groups (ethnic group is the preferred Lao government usage) are officially identified and recognized in Laos.  At least ten groups among the 47 groups speak Tai-related languages.  Among these are the valley-dwelling Tai who have wet-rice paddy fields, and practice Theravada Buddhism, which includes, for example, the Tai Lue, Tai Neua, Tai Yuan, and the Lao themselves.  On the other hand, there is an entirely different category of Tai, who traditionally lived away from the rivers in more upland environments where they relied on rainfall for growing their rice.  These Tai, furthermore, do not practice Buddhism, nor do they have a traditional writing system (which came as a package with Buddhism) They include such groups as the Tai Dam (Black Tai), Tai Khao (White Tai), and the Tai Daeng (Red Tai).  These Tai groups (plus others such as the Tai Luo) are understood as being the “Flowery Belted Dai” in China.  Yet, in Laos, all of these Tai are officially treated, and counted, as separate ethnic groups by the Lao government.

 

The Loss of Dai (Tai) Ethnicity within the Chinese State Context

Thus, the generalized category Dai used in Chinese official and popular sources obfuscates differences among the Dai.  We find that the description of who are the Dai and what are their customs – the description that is found in much of the literature published about the Dai, is frequently a description of the Dai from Xishuangbanna Prefecture.  These are the Dai who are more widely known by Han Chinese because the Xishuangbanna has been a popular tourist destination for decades.

In this homogenizing process, the differences among the diverse Dai cultures, and their uniqueness, becomes lost.  The Dai of Meng Lian, in general, and the Dai of Meng Ma village, specifically, are an example of a Tai sub-group which, over the years since Liberation, has lost its unique identity within the larger category of Dai.  Consequently, the Dai of Meng Lian are one of the more poorly understood Tai groups.

Although I have not visited Meng Ma village itself, I have visited Meng Lian County, Simao Prefecture.  In 1999, before making a visit to Meng Lian as part of a planning mission for a potential UNESCO project, I tried to find some background materials to read.  Not finding very much, I asked several anthropological colleagues in Kunming about the Dai in Meng Lian, and asked if they could refer me to some sources.

The answers I received were surprising.  One colleague said that there was not much material on the Dai from Meng Lian because they were just like the Dai in the Xishuangbanna.  The colleague followed up by saying that, consequently, there was no reason to go there and do research.   I was told to expect that the people would speak a language very close to Tai Lue.  Yet, another colleague said that the Dai in Meng Lian were more like the Dai from Dehong, and spoke a language very close to Dehong Dai (Tai Neua).  Again, the colleague felt that there was no reason to research Meng Lian separately because it would provide nothing that was not already known.  Only one colleague, who had more historical background than the others, correctly emphasized the unique historical heritage of the former Dai principality (muang) in Meng Lian, and said that I should be sure to visit the home of the former Chao Fa (former traditional ruler of Meng Lian), which had been turned into a museum.

My subsequent visit to Meng Lian proved extremely instructive[5], and I immediately recognized that most of my Kunming colleagues had been mistaken.  Meng Lian had its own distinct Tai (Dai) culture that was neither Tai Lue nor Tai Neua – yet, interestingly, on the surface, seemed to incorporate elements from both.  Having studied Tai Lue, I recognized that the language spoken there was clearly not Tai Lue, nor was it related to other Tai languages spoken in Laos or northern Thailand – languages which are more closely linked with Tai Lue and with which I am also familiar.  Yet, the Buddhist temples in Meng Lian physically, i.e. in shape and design, seemed to be similar with temples in the Xishuangbanna.  On the other hand, although the Meng Lian temples were architecturally unlike the Buddhist temples found in Dehong, certain elements inside the temples, for example, a white marble Buddha image in one, reflected Burmese influence – an influence which is more pronounced in the Dehong area than in the Xishuangbanna.

At the museum in Meng Lian, I had the good fortune to meet Madam Zhang Haizhen, who was then a researcher at the museum.  According to Madam Zhang, during the Tang Period, Meng Lian had been a busy crossroads for trade and economic exchange between Yunnan and the neighboring states in today’s Burma.  Then the plague struck, and turned the area into a wasteland.  According to Madam Zhang, it was not until the Yuan period that the area became more populated.  At that point, because of the influx of Dai from Dehong, the spoken language became closer to the Dehong dialect.  The writing system, however, was more like the one used by the Tai Lue.

A unique part of the history of Meng Lian was the relationship the ruling family had with the Wa – especially in the Wa State, which lies inside the border of Burma to the West.   Thus, during my short visit to Meng Lian, a picture was gradually forming of a distinct Dai (Tai) culture and civilization, different from either the Tai Lue (with which I was more familiar) in the Xishuangbanna or the Dai (Tai Neua) from the Dehong area.

It is because of the complex nature of ethnicity that projects such as the one supported by the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center are so important.

Why this Project is Important

This project is important for two reasons, namely:

1. It is a carefully documented record of a particular Dai culture in one particular place.  As such, it expands our understanding of the Dai cultures in Yunnan; it takes us beyond generalizations provided in much of the popular literature; and supplies rich comparative material for scholars researching Dai (Tai) cultures in China, Thailand, Laos and elsewhere.

2. It also uses a challenging and innovative research methodology, i.e. the documentation was gathered and written-up by the community members themselves.  This approach, while not unheard of in China, is not common. The results of using this approach for research are impressive.  In addition, the process of doing this kind of research is almost as important as the actual results.  In the process of gathering and writing up the data, the community members develop a much stronger sense of identity of themselves, and can foster a sense of self-worth and pride about their heritage, both tangible and intangible.

The research and its results can, thus, serve to strengthen a weakening sense of community and identity in the midst of rapid economic development and change.

 

Changes in the Dai (Tai) areas of Yunnan

A reading of the table of contents for this publication underscores the richness of cultural traditions in Meng Ma village, and the diversity of its customs and practices.  And, not least, this richness of the topics and the sheer volume of the text reveal how much knowledge the older members of the community still retain in their memories.  However, missing from the volume is any discussion of the changes which have taken place, and are still taking place, in Meng Ma.  In fairness, I should note that the project was not designed to address this issue.

Change as a concept is not by nature “bad”.  As every anthropologist knows, cultural change is a fact.  No culture has ever been static; nor should it be.  Yet, most culture change in the past occurred slowly, and although often effected by influences from the outside, it change still occurred within and was customized by the framework of the local culture itself.

The changes which are taking place here in Meng Lian and Meng Ma are different, and reflect the global circumstances of the 20th and 21st centuries.  What we are seeing now, is a more rapid erosion of Dai culture over the past half century.  The increased pace of sinicization, and the rapid escalation of development and modernization projects – all carried out in the name of poverty alleviation – are taking their toll.  We should point out that these changes occurring in Meng Lian are not unique to the Dai, nor are they unique to China.  Radical cultural change – accompanied by destruction of traditional culture – caused by rapid development and globalization is a phenomenon found among all poor communities in the world targeted for development.  A large percentage of the “poor” is made up of the world’s ethnic minorities.

Among the 24 ethnic minorities in Yunnan, however, the Dai seem to be among the more vulnerable to three particular threats:

  1. HIV and AIDS;
  2. Non-traditional drug-use; and
  3. Trafficking/Unsafe migration.

These three problems are most widely discussed among Chinese authorities with regard to the Dai in Dehong and Xishuangbanna.  However, they are also found in Meng Lian.

My visit to Meng Lian in 1999, together with a UNESCO colleague and Kunming doctor from the Yunnan Provincial Health Department’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), was precisely to investigate these issues.  The doctor had already carried out earlier HIV and AIDS investigations in Meng Lian, and the district was already recognized by health officials as a potential hotspot.  In addition to investigating the risk of HIV and AIDS, our team was also interested in learning more about the out-migration of young Dai, and especially young Dai women, to Thailand.

In March 2003, I made a visit to Lancang County, this time as part of the UN Inter-Agency Project on trafficking of Women and Children in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (UNIAP).  The team included members from the UNIAP country office, a Beijing academic gender expert, the All China Women’s Federation, Yunnan Provincial Women’s Federation, women from local level Women’s Federations, a professor from a Beijing university who was a specialist in gender issues, and myself[6]. Although we did not visit Meng Lian, the families in the Dai villages we visited all had close family ties with families in Meng Lian.  The out-migration of the young women living in Lancang often used these family connections in Meng Lian, at least in the initial stages of their migration.

What I learned from my visit to Meng Lian in 1999 is that young village women were strongly attracted by the idea of working in Thailand.  Although we were expecting to find that the majority of the young women had been tricked or duped into going to Thailand to work, or even were kidnapped, the reality was somewhat more complex.

We were able to speak with families whose daughters or wives had left the village, or, in a few instances, we were able to interview young women who had returned from Thailand, either permanently, or for a home visit.  These interviews revealed an interesting preliminary profile of the people who were leaving.

  • First, the young women did not seem to be “trafficked” through outright abduction or trickery.  The young women were making conscious decisions to improve their lot in life, and decided to take a chance by going to Thailand to find work.  The young women were not poor in absolute terms.  They were, instead, attracted by a more glamorous life in a big city without the drudgery of working in the rice and sugar cane fields.  They also knew in advance what kind of work they would do.  And, the young women from Dai villages in Lancang County reported that there was already a network of Dai girls from Simao living in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand who would help them to find places to live and set them up in jobs in the massage industry.
  • Second, the young women were not as young as we had previously predicted.  The young women were in their early 20’s, married, and with young children.  They were leaving their families behind in their quest for a better life.  Husbands and their husbands’ mothers were left as the primary care-takers.
  • Third, the amount of money sent back to the village – usually used as a justification for migration to Thailand for work – was not as much as we had believed.  The families left behind reported receiving little to no money sent back on a regular basis.
  • The only real case of “trafficking” we uncovered during this visit was the case of a young unmarried village woman who was invited by a friend or relative to visit Jinghong on an “outing”, and who was re-routed during the trip to Shangdong where she was sold as a bride to an older former military man.  The family had her traced by the local Public Security after she disappeared, and she was found in Shandong.
  • Although local health officials feared a rise in HIV infections in Meng Lian, in 1999, the problem was still small.  However, part of this is the result of insufficient testing and knowledge.  The case of Yi La (not her real name) is a good example of how dangerous the situation is in Meng Lian.  Yi La was one of the earliest young Dai women from Meng Lian to go to Thailand.  She said that she had been tricked by a relative, and left her village circa 1989.  She worked in the sex industry in several places:  Chiangrai, Chiangmai and Bangkok.  In 1991 she was sent home, dying of AIDS.  The CDC officials all knew her because she willingly became a spokesperson for many of the AIDS prevention campaigns they mounted in Simao.

However, after her return to Meng Lian it was suspected that she continued to do sex work and had numerous boyfriends.  Despite her knowledge of AIDS prevention, it is unclear how regularly the men she slept with used condoms, and consequently how many local men were at risk for infection.  Yi La died of AIDS related infections in early 2003, shortly before our team visited Meng Lian.

Although I have returned neither to Meng Lian County since 1999, nor to Lancang County since 2003, I am aware that the out-migration issue continues, and that there is a growing HIV and AIDS problem. This is similar to the continually growing problem with HIV and AIDS, drugs and unsafe migration among the Dai in the Xishuangbanna and Dehong where UNESCO has two current project sites. So, what are the solutions?

UNESCO as an institution supports the preservation and reinvigoration of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage as something good in and of itself.  However, UNESCO has also discovered that culture plays an important role in the success or failure of many projects and programmes.  International and national development and humanitarian assistance projects will fail unless they are grounded within a linguistically and culturally appropriate context.

It is for these reasons that the Meng Ma Archive project can play a role in addressing some of these threats facing the Dai in Meng Lian.

How this Project Can be Part of the Solution

It was stated above that an important result of this project and its publication is the strengthening of the local Meng Lian Dai culture together with a renewed emphasis on its unique Dai identity.  This in itself is not an answer to relieving the strains of local poverty.  Nonetheless, it could be used, and should be used, by new development projects – project which should seek to integrate and harmonize economic development with traditional culture.  Economic development should strengthen traditional culture, not erode or destroy it.

One of the only limitations of this project is that the majority of participants are older members of the village.  Obviously, it is the older villagers who retain the memory of their culture, and it is important to document this before it is lost.  However, the future of Dai cultures in Yunnan lies in the hands of the young.  If they go to Thailand because they “feel more comfortable in Thai culture than they do in Chinese” (quoted from a young woman in Lancang County), then, local authorities have a problem.  Instead, local authorities should seek to create ways to strengthen being Dai within the larger modern Chinese framework.  Leaving their local village culture behind when they go to Thailand is actually another form of cultural destruction and loss of cultural diversity.  Why?  Because the young people rapidly adopt and assimilate into Thai culture.

In conclusion, I see this project as an important first step in strengthening and preserving the cultural diversity of Yunnan’s Dai cultures.  The next stage of this work should consider in what ways the young can be involved so as to rekindle a community focus.  It has been suggested to create a local museum in Meng Lian which would be set up and managed by the local community.  Although it might not solve all the problems of involving the younger generation, it is a project which could and should involve them and strengthen their own sense of Dainess.  The museum could provide some additional economic employment especially as Meng Lian becomes a stronger tourist destination.

 

 

[1] UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization

[2] See www.unesco.org/culture/culturaldiversity

[3] Chinese sources and publications officially call all members of the Tai speaking population “Dai”.  “Tai” is the spelling used by anthropologists and others outside of China to refer to both a language group and peoples speaking Tai-related languages.  The spelling “Thai” refers only to the people living in Thailand, and people who speak the Thai dialect.

[4] According to Stalin, a nation or nationality is a stable community of people which share a: (1) common language; (2) common territory; (common economic life; and (4) common psychological make-up which manifests itself in a common culture. Stalin, Joseph 1913 Marxism and the National Question, first published in Prosveschcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May.  www.maxrists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works

[5] Peters, Heather  1999  Mission Report to Lancang and Meng Lian Counties, Simao Prefecture, Yunnan.  5-17 October 1999.  Culture Unit, UNESCO Bangkok Office.

 

[6] Peters, Heather 2003 Mission Report to Kunming and Lancang County, Simao Prefecture, Yunnan. 10-17 March 2003. UN Inter-Agency Project for Trafficking in Women and Children in the Mekong Sub-Region, Bangkok.

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