Much of the Dai ethnic minority’s culture has been inherited from the ancient Bai Yue culture, with a few elements from both Han Chinese culture and Indian Buddhism. This is reflected not only in their historical texts but also in their rich literary heritage, which spans poetry, legends, fables, and even children’s stories. The etching of scripture onto leaves of the pattra palm tree, known in the Dai language as “tanlan”, and the copying of scripture onto cotton paper, known as “bogalesha”, are just a couple of traditions passed down among the Dai over generations. Even the “chanting” books used in Dai religious activities can be traced back to these other ancient cultures.
And, if you thought the Chinese lunar calendar was confusing, you’ll want to look away now because the Dai have their own painfully complex calendar! Their calendar began in the year 638 AD and is particularly complicated because it incorporates features of both the lunar and solar calendar. In the Chinese religion of Taoism, it is believed that time moves in a sexagenary cycle, or a cycle of 60 combinations, which are made up of two more basic cycles known as the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 Earthly Branches. The Dai record days and years in a similar way and even use the Chinese terms “the Heavenly Stems” and “the Earthly Branches”.
The easiest way to explain their calendar is to simply say that the Dai follow the months of the Chinese lunar calendar but adhere to the years of our Gregorian calendar. Any discrepancies between the two systems are resolved using leap years, of which there are 7 for every 19 years. The year also features only three seasons, known as the Cold Season from January to April; the Hot Season from May to August; and the Rainy Season from September to December. However, considering the average temperature during the Cold Season is about 16°C (60.8°F), I think the term “cold” might be something of an exaggeration!
Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, the Dai adhere to numerous taboos that one should be aware of before entering their villages. For example, the Dai will only ever prepare enough rice for one day as they believe it is unlucky to eat rice that was cooked on the previous day. If you notice a village is stockaded, you must not enter as the villagers are currently worshipping the Stockade God. You must take off your shoes when entering any Dai household or Buddhist temple and, if you happen to pass by a Buddhist monk, it is forbidden to step on his shadow or touch his head. Etiquette dictates that all passers-by, regardless of faith or nationality, must show respect to a monk by placing their palms together in the universal gesture of prayer and nodding slightly.
Medicinal care will be handled by a shamanistic medicine man known as a “moya”. Strangers must not enter the house of a pregnant woman or a sick person, nor are they permitted entry to the home of a family whose relative has recently passed away. The Dai funeral is a close knit affair, so you must not attend the ceremony without express permission from the family. When a person is near death, two pieces of yellow cloth and a small bamboo tablet from the local temple are placed on their body, as it is believed these articles will aid their admission into paradise.
Once the person has passed away, monks will perform the funeral rites at the deceased’s home and the community will come to a standstill, as the Dai believe that spirits dislike the sound of work. When the coffin is carried from the house, the spouse of the deceased will cut a candle in half to symbolise their separation from the dead.
Before the funeral, the family will hang a bamboo keg near their front door, which is filled with water and a few sour leaves. After the funeral rites have been completed, all participants must sprinkle a small amount of this water over their heads and expose their skin to the smoke of a burned nut, which the Dai believe will ward off evil spirits. Common people will traditionally be buried, while monks and aristocrats are cremated. Anyone who died in accidents or as a result of violence will be buried far away from the community as it is believed that, over time, they will become evil spirits. So if you happen to be walking through the forests near a Dai village, keep a few smoking nuts handy or you might just come face-to-face with a ghost!