Dai, the Sons of the Monsoon - Yunnan China


At the heart of Tropical China, in the region of Xishuangbanna, the Dai ethny lives at the pace of the monsoon. Their culture is rooted deep into this territory crossed by the Mekong river, a vital artery. A place where they have been maintaining their originality and differences. Their language? Decorating their body, and carrying on the skin their actual identity. Tattooed man and dressed up women are now face to face with modernity.

 Heavy clouds blending in a shadow of grey. Humid heat, lead sky. The downpour is about to crack the sombre mass, and refill the Mekong to bring water to the thirsty soil. Month of June. The rain season is beginning and the replanting of rice is in full swing. According to the Dai's calendar, we are in 1363. At mid April, the end of the dry season, the new year has been greeted: after the procession and the offerings to the temple, boat races on the Mekong, launching of fireworks to celebrate the celestial heights, every one has been drenched into the river to call on the monsoon; spring of life, the water and its powers of fertility so much awaited for.

« Wherever there are trees there will be water, and where there is water there will be men», here goes the saying. At the entrance of the villages, wells have been dug up to keep the precious element. Decorated like a pagoda and covered with mirrors so as to chase the evil spirits away, they are guarded by dragons, lions or even ornate elephants. Watch out evil eye the water is under a close watch. Then nothing really surprising in how the Chinese Han have called the people living here: the Shui Dai, « Dai of the water». They call themselves Dai Lue, they are considered as the ancient descendant of the old kingdom, that was for a long time independent from China.

Jinghong. Manting Temple. The little monks are rushing out of the school to the upper floors. In front of the door of the common room, the shoes are stacked, blocking the passage. We can hear great animation inside, and soon enough loud screams …Ah ! missed again! China has lost against Turkey. An ephemerous success of the World Cup. The supporters' emphasis has even reached the serene atmosphere of the monastery. Blending of the kinds. Since the revolution has been abolished, pagodas are back, temples as well. The Xishuangbanna is back in full richness. When we arrived at Jinghong, the very centre of modernity, we wished to watch the ochre red waters of the Mekong river. We went all the way to Ganlaba, a wide plain surrounded by hills extending the banks of the river. The economic development and the increase of incoming tourists have changed the landscape. In the small towns, white tile facade and grey cement are now paving the streets, replacing wood and bamboo; however around the lake, nature has still kept its overwhelming strength.

Fearless men

Jungle to the North, river to the south, creek to the East, fields to the West. the Ideal Symbolic setting. The house are in the shade of the tall feather flowers of the bamboo. Above the doors, small geometric shapes, talismans which are here to chase the evil eye away. At the center of each village, a sacred tree with a large trunk is watching over the villagers. If a disease was to prevail, appropriate offerings are then given. Rituals play a major role in the life of the peasants, and there is always a small temple erected next to the dwellings. A few monks in saffron colour robes standing there. It is past noon. Children go back home in the small town near by.

Some of the young boys will take off the school uniform ( a scarlet red handkerchief) to put on the monk's saffron coloured robe for the afternoon. The temple is a place for learning, it was at a time the only school. Here, Buddhism Theravada (Small vehicle) is blending with the many beliefs in different spirits, called phi, who are populating the fickle nature and that you need to keep at distance. It is on Dai's skin that you can identify the ambivalence of their relationship with nature, sources of pain as well as joy, through which man affirms his presence and yet keeps a respectful distance with.

Mankat. Aidan, 53 years old, greets us with a wide warm and friendly smile. His tipped moustache gives him a martial air. In the village, only three men have the body covered with tattoos, and that has given Aidan a privileged situation within the society. He speaks and everybody listens.

« I was tattooed at the age of thirteen, it marked the end of my learning at the monastery. It took three entire days to complete it. They stopped only to sleep and eat …did it hurt?… » his wide smile opens on a row of gold teeth. "For sure, the air moved by the fan could not soothe the pain left by the black and blue marks on the body and my entire flesh swelled up. « but a tattooed man has no fears»", concluded soberly Aidan. The great physical and moral courage of the young tattooed man has granted him a consideration among his peers.

Little after, Aidan got married. His wife claimed with a laugh: « we would not want a man with no tattoos! » once he is of age a true man shows through his tattoos. A ritual of passage, it opens the threshold to marriage. Furthermore, it was once used to affirm a Dai's identity. The ethnic identity showed on the skin. Aidan points to the monkey which is on his torso: it is his astrological sign. On the upper part of his body which is supposed to be the spiritual part of the person, the elements of the tattoo are corresponding to the year of his birth. The bonze tattooed motives, from the Buddhist iconography, are supposed to protect the corporeal envelop from eventual perforations, and violent strokes. A Dai's past is marked by war deeds. Women just like men decorate their bodies but they do so with fabrics to dress. They use motives of animal figures and symbols of prosperity. Tattooing and weaving are part of the same symbolic process.

Aidan and Afu, his disciple and friend, have their body tattooed from the waist to the knees. Its is called the « under-pants tattoo» a tradition in tattooing that goes way back in time. It was considered a social obligation for the Dai men up to the middle of the past century. Only the old ones are the remaining living witnesses of this practice that has fallen apart. The curves evoke the waves of a rough sea. But for Aidan making the comments, these motives are the symbols of the frog skin. « because frogs live in water and we Dais love water. With this tattoo, we can feel free in our element. » A mimetic practice? Harmonisation of man and nature? The legend says that once a young Dai fisherman befriended the daughter of a dragon. With her help he had her drawing on his legs motives which gave him the power to spread open water and protected him from aquatic evil spirits. All the men then imitated his tattoo, and they were no longer attacked by evil spirits when they went fishing.

Wearing culture

Crossing the green rolling hills, we arrived nearby Mengyang. A spread of rice patch and hill covered with well aligned rubber trees. The Dai Ya, neighbours of the Lue, have gathered in some of the nearby villages. Here no Buddhism and no tattoos. Here the women wear their culture, by way of a colourful costume. Guided by Ayi, we arrived at Manna. While his aunt was stripping corn, we get to eat delicious sticky rice with spiced vegetables which were served to us with great attention. Ayi explains with great emphasis the major role played by the feminine costumes: « through the costume we express the coherence of the group.

They represent us and it concentrates by then the hundreds of years of experience and knowledge. » Azhuang, her cousin, decides to show us the rich dresses that she will wear for her wedding day. When time comes she is to wear what tradition calls for, a head piece and a plastron with silver decoration. The dressing in these ornaments is actually a very delicate operation. An experimented neighbour comes to help her and Azhuang is finally ready for her wedding, she is very proud yet, « It is good to follow the way our elder ones have paved for us, but if it was only for me fundamentally I would simply give it up! » after her wedding, she will never wear again the dress, unlike her mother and the elder ones in the village. « Times are changing, we are the new generation», she adds. A universal way of summing up the situation. No way out but acculturation ?

Here we consider that the vital force is within the dresses. The dress is one with the body. In case of sickness - or the loss of one of the 32 souls that every one of us have in us -, the dress is then confided to the shaman (mo) who will put it under his pillow. Becoming a support of the dream, it will guide the shaman towards the lost soul. Once it will be found again he will symbolically fix it inside the body by tying a bracelet to the wrist of the person who has come to visit him. Just like when one looses a dress in a far place away from his own home it could very well lead to the alteration of the vital forces. "Not loosing your dress means not loosing your soul"… It should become an adage followed by the consumers and the fashion victims of the "new world".

With the « Market socialism», a recent way of living, the economic development has brought a new set of behaviour in the dress codes. For the Chinese tourists in increasing number, the Dais are often considered as the quintessential ethnic exoticism. « did you see the women bathing in the Mekong river? » we are asked. Image of the erotic beauty and strange irony …where is the virility of the fearless warriors, the power of the warriors? Aidan, for the past four years, is doing shows. Music and dances, but most of all dances inspired by the bare hand fights and the sword fights. He has been invited to Beijing. The martial power is no more than a folkloric cliché. The young generation will have to find their way as Dai and as Chinese. A deep change towards modernity. Yet is it something to worry about? Life goes on, full of richness from a cultural dynamic that is resolutely creative. IN this world apart of the Tropical China, the central power is still weighing, like heavy dark clouds of the monsoon. The downpour will not this time have the bitter taste of the past repression. Yet behind today's cultural power in place, is it a recovered freedom or a controlled future?


Photo 1 : Flowered Dai
The young women belonging to the Dai Ya ethny are easily distinguishable through the dress they still wear with great pride.

Photos 2 and 3 : Dai with flowered belt
The non married young girl wear the silver ornament. A chain is rolled on onto the head piece.

Photos 4, 5, 6 : Dai with flowered belt
The Dai Ya are called « Dai flowered belt» by the Chinese for the aesthetic quality of the feminine costumes.

Photo 7 : Dai with flowered belt
The non married young girl wear the silver ornament. A chain is rolled on onto the head piece.

Photo 8 : Corn stripping
Corn is a major part of the food habits and the culinary tradition of the Dais, with rice and spicy vegetables.

Photo 9 : dye on the fabrics
The Dais dye themselves their clothes and then they assemble the various parts and saw them together.

Photo 10, 11 :Green tea from Menghai
The hills of Menghai is the cradle of the famous Pu’er tea. Once burnt, the green tea is conditioned the old way, pressed into small tarts or bricks.

Photo 12 : terraces of rice patches
Crossing the hills covered with rich green vegetation, we discover the terraces of rice patches and hills covered with well aligned rubber tree.

Photo 13 : Dai with flowered belt
The non married young girl wear the silver ornament. A chain is rolled on onto the head piece.

Photo 14 : Tattoos
For the Dais, a tattooed man is fearless. Tattoos with motives from Buddhist iconography inspiration, bring a magic protection for the ones who wear them.

Photo 15 : The bow nets
To catch fish and shell fish the fisherman use hand made bow nets.

Photo 16 : Dai's house
The region of Xishuangbanna is made of plains covered with rice patches and hills covered with a tropical forest. In some spots, the ample roofs of the houses appear in places among the vegetation.

Photo 17 : Dai's architecture
The many villages which are spreading on the plain of Ganlanba are typical of Dai Lue's architecture. The house built on piles are made of a wide wood structure which supports the floor of the living space.

Photo 18 : Dai of water
The fishing of water snails is a current practise in Xishuangbanna.

Photos 19, 20 : Women's dress
Women wear their culture through a colourful costume. The dress is one with the body. In case of sickness, the dress is confided to the shaman who will put it under his pillow. Becoming the support of the dreams, it will guide the shaman towards the lost soul.

Photos 21, 22, 23 : The Mekong river
On the Mekong river, the traffic is getting more intense during the summer for trading with the neighbouring countries.

Photo 24 : Temple of Manchunman
The Temple of Manchunman from Ganlanba is one of the oldest of Xishuangbanna. The presence of a monastery is for the Dai Lue a fundamental criteria of social integration.

Photo 25 : Monastery of Manting
The presence of a monastery is for the Dai Lue a fundamental criteria of social integration and the insurance of the existence of endless pride.

Photo 26 : The monks
Some of the young boys will drop the red handkerchief of the school boy to wear a monk's robe for the rest of the day.

Photo 27 : Fishing water snails
Fishing water snails is part of a ritual. This task is a man's job.

Photo 28 : Dai with flowered belt
The non married young girl wear the silver ornament. A chain is rolled on onto the head piece.

Photo 29 : Entrance of Xishuangbanna village
Buddhism is blending with the various belief in the various spirits who are populating the fickle nature and requires that they should be kept at distance.

Photo 30 : Rice patches
Working the rice fields at dawn, when the heat is not so humid as it can get later in the day.