Traditional Dress of Uyghur Minority


Uyghur dress

The traditional dress of the Uyghur people is deeply intertwined with both their history as traders along the Silk Road and their devout belief in Islam. In particular, two pieces of clothing have become symbolic of the Uyghur ethnic minority: the chapan and the doppa. The chapan, a variant of the caftan, is a long coat that is worn over the clothes during the winter months. It is typically worn by men and comes in a variety of colours, from muted blues to fiery reds. Intricate patterns are embroidered on the exterior and, instead of buttons, the chapan is bound by a large cloth band around the waist.

The doppa is a square or round skullcap that is worn not only by the Uyghurs but also by the Kazan Tartars, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. The cap itself is usually black or white, although other colour variants do exist, and it is traditionally embroidered with vibrantly colourful patterns, much like the chapan. Older Uyghur men are known to grow long beards and wear a much taller version of the doppa, which is fringed with fur at the bottom.

While men sport the chapan, women wear exquisitely embroidered long-sleeved dresses that billow out at the waist. Popular embroidery motifs include vines, pomegranates, moons, arabesques, and geometric patterns. Golds, reds, and blacks are the most popular colour combinations, although pinks, greens, blues, purples, and even tie-dyes also feature. To complement these luxurious dresses, Uyghur women don plenty of jewellery, including large earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.

Young girls tend to braid their hair in a number of long plaits, as this is regarded as a symbol of feminine beauty, while married women usually wear two plaited pigtails affixed to the head with a crescent-shaped comb. Although it is still reasonably uncommon, some women will wear the veil in-keeping with their Islamic faith. Both men and women wear silk slippers or leather boots, depending on the season and the occasion. From shimmering satins to rich silk threads, the opulence of the Uyghurs’ traditional dress is undeniable!


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The Uyghur Ethnic Minority

Uyghur ethnic

With a population of over 8 million, the Uyghur people are easily one of the largest ethnic minority groups in China. The majority of them reside in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, although there are substantial constituencies of them in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Smaller communities of Uyghurs can be found throughout the world, even as far as Germany, Australia, and the United States! They live primarily at the base of the Tianshan Mountains, with an estimated 80% of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population occupying territory surrounding the Tarim Basin. Outside of Xinjiang, the largest community of Uyghurs in China can be found in Taoyuan County of Hunan province.

When it comes to religion, they predominantly follow the Sunni branch of Islam and subscribe to the mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism, although they tend to distance themselves from other Muslim groups in China, such as the Hui people. Compared to China’s other ethnic minorities, the Uyghurs are profoundly physically diverse, ranging from people who look ethnically European or Middle Eastern to those who have a far more East Asian appearance. This physical diversity points to a difficulty in defining exactly what makes someone a member of the Uyghur ethnic group.

In the Turkic Uyghur language, the word “Uyghur” literally means “united” or “allied”, which is somewhat fitting when you consider that the Uyghur group is actually a melting pot made up of a multitude of ancient peoples! The term “Uyghur” was first used during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) in reference to a clan of the Gaoche people, who were a group of Turkic tribes. Later on, the Gaoche became known as the Tiele people.

Historically, the Uyghurs were a nomadic tribe who spent much of their time as vassals to larger and more powerful ethnic groups, such as the Mongolians and the Han Chinese. However, that wasn’t to be the case for very long! In 734, the Turkish Khaganate (682–744), which had once ruled much of the area on China’s northern borders, started to fall apart and numerous Turkish subject tribes vied with one another to annex its valuable territory. After a lengthy period of warfare, the Uyghur people emerged victorious and established the Uyghur Khaganate (745-840). At its peak, its territory stretched from the Caspian Sea right through to Manchuria. Yet, rather confusingly, anyone who was a citizen of the Uyghur Khaganate was designated a Uyghur, regardless of their ethnic heritage.

It was at this time that the Uyghur people were influenced by Sogdian refugees and converted to Manichaeism. Their situation at one of the crucial stops along the Silk Road meant that trade blossomed in the Uyghur Khaganate, and this trading culture is still evidenced by the many lively markets throughout Xinjiang. Unfortunately, after a brutal famine and a civil war, the empire was overrun by the Kyrgyz people and collapsed in 840. The Uyghur refugees were forced to flee and ended up settling in the area surrounding the Tarim Basin. They established the Kingdom of Qocho (856–1335) and eventually converted to Buddhism.

As time went on, they gradually intermarried with the local people and became the Uyghur ethnic group that we know today. Islam arrived into China sometime during the 7th century and was widely spread by the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840–1212), which was a Turkic dynasty that ruled an area in Central Asia known as Transoxiana. By the 17th century, the majority of Uyghurs had finally adopted Islam as their main religion. The region where they lived, which was once known as East Turkistan, didn’t become part of China proper until it was conquered by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in 1864 and renamed Xinjiang or “New Territory”. The small community of Uyghurs that currently live in Hunan province are descended from Uyghur soldiers that were sent to the region during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to help quell a local rebellion.

UyghurNowadays, the Uyghurs are well-known for their rich culture and fascinating customs. Throughout Xinjiang, visitors are consistently dazzled by the bright colours of their traditional dress, the sumptuous aroma of freshly grilled kebabs, the beauty of their local mosques, and the sprightly sounds of Uyghur musicians. In particular, a type of musical performance known as the 12 Muqams of the Uyghur people was designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005, proving the impact that these people have had on local culture. In short, a trip to Xinjiang simply wouldn’t be complete without indulging in the opulence of Uyghur culture.


Read more about Uyghur Ethnic Minority:

Uyghur Spirituality       Traditional Dress       Festivals       Marriage Customs       Performance       Craftwork


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The Customs of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

Even something as commonplace as building a house is imbued with symbolic customs in Bouyei culture. First, a specialist will be invited to select an auspicious place to build, ideally a location beside a mountain and a river. However, the house should not only back onto mountains but should also face them, and the shape of these mountains is particularly important.

The mountains behind the house should look like guarding lions, defensive dragons, or nobleman riding on horses, while the mountains in front ideally must look like dragons fighting over jewellery, dragons playing with pearls, a thousand horses returning to their stables, or the God of Longevity rising up. Luckily, the area where the Bouyei live is surrounded by strangely shaped Karst mountains so, even if your chosen mountain doesn’t exactly look like two dragons arguing over a silver necklace, you can just say it does!

bouyei dragonA propitious day will then be chosen to erect the house and one month before this day a carpenter will prepare the house’s structure. When the day finally comes, a sacrifice will be made to Lu Ban, the God of Carpentry. The main beam, which is decorated with red silk, will then be carried from the father-in-law’s house to the building site and accompanied by an orchestra, as well as a team of acrobats. In other words, this beam gets a grander entrance than most celebrities! Once the beam has been fixed, a singing and dancing ceremony will take place, followed by a feast. After the festivities, a shrine dedicated to the family’s ancestors and the Kitchen God will be positioned in a central part of the new house.

In some Bouyei communities, an annual ceremony known as “inviting the dragon” is still practised. Before the ceremony, villagers will gather offerings for the dragon in the form of food and wine. Then a local priest, known as a Bumo, will sit down and recite the appropriate prayers. Once he has finished, the village chief will carry two eggs and bury them at the foot of two posts. In Bouyei culture, the yolk of an egg symbolises gold and the white signifies silver, so overall the egg represents wealth. Thus, while the eggs are being buried, the villagers all sing: “Keep the gold and silver that we bury, and don’t let anyone take it”. It may not be the most spectacular gift in the world, but at least the dragon can have a decent omelette!

bouyei funeralFunerals in Bouyei communities are notoriously complicated procedures. Once a person has died, their relatives bath them, comb their hair, and dress them. The corpse is then placed on a bed, where friends and relatives can pay their last respects. The funeral begins with a priest performing a ritual where he asks the dragon to help the deceased’s soul on its way to the underworld. Then a bull is slaughtered and its meat is shared by everyone except relatives of the deceased. The Bouyei believe that this bull will help the soul of the deceased plough fields in the underworld, although we dread to think what kinds of crops they grow down there!

Finally the priest will conduct an “opening the way” ceremony, where he indicates the passage that the soul must follow in order to reach its ancestors. The priest will then lead the funeral procession to the grave site accompanied by the sound of horns and drums. Paper money and incense is burned in honour of the deceased before they are buried and the burial is punctuated by the sound of a bronze drum, which will be beaten three times a day after the burial. The Bouyei believe that this will help carry the soul to its ancestors, as the belief that the bronze drum can communicate with the underworld is widely spread throughout China and Asia. After three years, the person’s remains are disinterred and the bones are placed in a clay urn for reburial.

There are also a number of taboos in Bouyei culture. For example, the first time thunder is heard each year, it is forbidden to do any type of farm work for several days; a woman must never return to her parents’ home to give birth; and the corpse of anyone who has died outside must not be carried back into their home.

Marriage Customs of the Bouyei Ethnic Minority


bouyei wedding 01

Under the feudal system of the past, a Bouyei youth’s love life entirely depended on the discretion of their parents as almost all marriages were arranged. Fortunes appear to have changed for the Bouyei, as now they are largely allowed to marry for love! Nowadays fairs and festivals provide the perfect opportunity for unmarried men and women to mingle, sing songs together, and find a suitable partner.

If a woman is attracted to a man, she will often throw a ball to him made of silk strips, which she will have embroidered herself. This indicates that the man is free to pursue her and, if the man returns her affections, he will ask her on a date. Bouyei men are no strangers to romance, as these dates are almost exclusively spent singing love songs! After several of these songful dates, the couple will usually announce their engagement.

There is also a popular folk tale in Bouyei literature about how women should choose which man to marry. First a young woman must sew seven bags, each about ten inches long, with large fabric handles. She must then fill each bag with a different grain; one with long grain rice, one with glutinous rice, one with millet, one with rice bran, and so on. After preparing all these bags, one could even say the woman had become a cereal filler!

At an appropriate time, the girl would then pitch the bags out to her suitors, or suitor if she wasn’t all that lucky, and ask them to pick one up. The man who selected the bag full of rice bran was the one she should marry, as this was the gods’ way of indicating he was a diligent and honest man. Though this custom isn’t taken seriously, it is sometimes still practised today as a bit of fun.

bouyei wedding02Bouyei weddings are two or three day affairs with much singing, dancing, and delicious food. The Bouyei often marry very young and it is commonplace for children as young as twelve to already be married! However, directly after the wedding the wife will return to her parents’ home and this arrangement usually carries on for 3 to 5 years, but can be extended to 7 or 8 years!

The wife will only go to live with her husband on one of three conditions; when her parents decide; when she becomes pregnant with her first child; or when she elects to wear a special hat known as a jiagu[1]. Customarily, once the jiagu has been worn, the wife must return to her husband’s home, so women are sometimes the target of sneaky hat attacks!

In the area near Mount Biandan, Guizhou province, they practice a custom every year during April, August or September where the man’s mother and sister, or two of his female relatives, will bring a chicken and a jiagu to his wife’s home. While they are there, they will sneakily try to unclasp her hair and put the jiagu on her head! If they are successful, she must return with them to her husband’s home. If not, they have to try again another time. In some cases, it is also acceptable for the husband to simply creep up on his wife and un-braid her hair. We’re not sure how all of these sneaky customs came to be, but we can’t imagine it inspires much trust between husbands and wives!


[1] Jiagu: A special headdress made by wrapping decorative fabric around a bamboo shell-shaped frame.


Festivals of Bouyei Ethnic Minority


Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, the Bouyei celebrate several of the traditional Chinese festivals, including Spring Festival. They also follow a few of the Zhuang’s festivals, such as the Ox Soul Festival, but have a few festivals of their own, which normally revolve around their religious beliefs and may differ depending on where you are.

The Sanyuesan Festival

The Sanyuesan Festival bouyeiThough the Zhuang ethnic minority also celebrate the Sanyuesan Festival, the two versions of this festival have vastly different origins. The name “Sanyuesan” literally means “March 3rd” so it’s unsurprising that the festival is held on the 3rd day of the 3rd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, although it usually falls sometime during April in our calendar. The festival honours the God of the Mountain and on this day villagers will make sacrifices to him in the hopes that he will protect their livestock and provide them with a good harvest in the coming year.

As with all good festivals, they celebrate by singing, dancing and having a feast. Five-coloured rice is the feature dish and it is made using rice that has been coloured red, black, purple, white and yellow using natural plant dyes. In fact, this rice looks so marvellous that it’s hard to tell whether you’re meant to eat it or appreciate it as a work of art! In the Bouyei villages near Guiyang they normally hold a song contest and they believe that the winner will be blessed by the gods with a golden throat, which endows the singer with the ability to scare off harmful pests and birds from their crops when they sing!

The June 6th Festival

The June 6th Festival bouyeiLike the Sanyuesan Festival, this festival revolves around a particular date, namely the 6th day of the 6th lunar month. However it actually falls sometime during July according to our Gregorian calendar. It is a time for the Bouyei people to worship the God of the Fields, the God of Land, and the God of the Mountain as well as the legendary Pangu, who created the earth according to Chinese mythology and supposedly died on June 6th. Typical offerings to the gods include paper figures, paper horses, wine, meat, and a type of rice dumpling known as zongzi. In some regions, the plough, rake and other farm implements will be placed in a shrine in the hopes that they will be blessed. Along with making sacrifices, people celebrate by dressing in their traditional outfits, singing in antiphonal style and dancing to the rhythm of several instruments.

The Chabai Singing Festival

This festival takes place on the 21st day of the 6th lunar month and so usually falls sometime during July. It’s a huge event where tens of thousands of people will gather from neighbour villages, counties and even provinces to engage in a series of singing competitions. Just when you thought X-Factor was an original idea, it seems the Bouyei have been doing it for years! During the day, the contests will be held in an arena but in the evening they will be performed in the courtyards and homes of the local villagers.

The festival dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is celebrated in remembrance of two young lovers named Chalang and Baimei, whose names are combined in the festival’s title. Chalang and Baimei fell in love at first sight but a local landlord, who coveted the beautiful Baimei, killed Chalang and kidnapped the girl against her will. The landlord forced her to marry him but, during the wedding, she set fire to the landlord’s house and threw herself upon the flames. Baimei’s devotion to her lover Chalang even after death is a testament worth honouring, but probably not repeating!

Fang Ji or “To Visit Several Houses”

This is more of an annual ceremony than a festival and it takes place on the 1st day of the 6th lunar month, so it also falls sometime in July. Before the ceremony, all of the villagers will contribute some money to pay for the wine, pigs, and chickens that will be used as sacrifices. A bumo or local shaman presides over the ceremony and performs invocations asking the gods to protect the village and its people.

The bumo will visit every house in the village and at each house he will ask “Does the demon leave, or not?” To which another bumo will reply “He leaves”. So, if you ever have a demon squatting in your house, don’t call in an exorcist, just politely ask him to leave! Once the bumo have cleansed every house, they will place a talisman at the village gate which will prevent evil from entering. In the evening, all of the villagers will gather at the temple of the God of the Village and take part in a sumptuous banquet, where they will eat, drink, sing and dance late into the night.



Traditional Dress of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

bouyei dress 04

From dragons and fish to mountains and rivers, the motifs embroidered on the Bouyei’s traditional dress are deeply symbolic and all harken back to their religious beliefs. Young Bouyei men tend to wear short, long-sleeved jackets that button down the front accompanied by long trousers, with scarves made of black or lattice cloth wrapped around their heads. Their clothes may seem somewhat underwhelming, but the Bouyei women’s superior fashion sense more than makes up for it!

bouyei 02Their traditional dress is incredibly varied and depends on what region they live in. In Guizhou they can roughly be split into four styles: Northwest, Southwest, Central, and Eastern. In the Northwest, the women prefer a short black jacket that is secured on the left side by a band rather than buttons. This jacket will be beautifully decorated at the cuffs and on the front with batik[1] patterns, and is complemented by a pleated skirt made of batik cloth. This is accompanied by a turban and glittering silver jewellery. And, if you want to know whether that pretty Bouyei girl is married or not, just look at her apron! Unmarried women will wear a plain apron, while married women wear aprons that have been embroidered with a floral pattern.

The Central-style is characterised by long, green trousers and an abundance of silver ornaments, including hairpins, earrings and bracelets. Women who live in the Southwest will either wear trousers with a long-sleeved blue jacket or a coat with a long, pleated batik skirt. The sleeves, front, and shoulders of the coat are normally bedecked with either batik or embroidery, making the Southwest-style the most elaborately decorated of them all!

bouyei dress03Finally, the long term contact in the East with the Han ethnic majority has meant the Eastern-style differs very little from the Han traditional dress. Here the women wear a dress and trousers, both trimmed in lace, accompanied by a turban. In Zhenning County, Guizhou province, the Bouyei women sometimes wear a special type of hat known as a jiagu. This hat is made by wrapping batik fabric around a bamboo shell-shaped frame but only certain women are allowed to wear it.

Unmarried women will braid their hair and then partially or fully cover it with a black, embroidered turban. However, only when a married woman has returned to her husband’s home and given birth to their first child will she wear the traditional jiagu. In Bouyei culture, husbands and wives can remain separated after their wedding for up to 8 years! So it’s unsurprising that this special hat means so much to them.

Once a married woman has put on the jiagu, she must officially leave her parent’s home and go to live with her husband. Many married girls enjoy continuing their free lifestyle and so refuse to wear the jiagu, much to the chagrin of their husbands. So these women are often the target of tricky surprise attacks!

bouyei dress 01Every year, during April, August or September, the man’s mother and sister, or two of his female relatives, will bring a chicken and a jiagu to his wife’s home. While they are there, they will sneakily try to unclasp her hair and put the jiagu on her head! If they are successful, she must return with them to her husband’s home. If not, they have to try again another time. In some cases, it is also acceptable for the husband to simply creep up on his wife and un-braid her hair. So next time you’re looking for a date in a local bar, just try popping a hat on the girl’s head!



[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.


The Spirituality of the Bouyei Ethnic Minority


The Bouyei predominantly follow a polytheistic indigenous religion which incorporates features of shamanism[1], animism[2], and ancestor worship, as well as the Zhuang ethnic minority’s religion of Moism. Local priests or shamans are known as bumo and are often called upon to perform exorcisms, conduct funerals, or chant scripture at festivals. Yet these bumo do not making a living from religious activities, and will work primarily as farmers just like other members of the community. At least they know their crops will be blessed!

BOUYEI BUMOThere are also female shamans known as yaya, who carry out divination ceremonies and exorcisms. Unlike the bumo, the yaya are not formally trained and instead discover their unique abilities after suffering from a severe illness. It is only then that they are able to notice the demons that surround themselves and others, which probably comes as quite a shock after recovering from a major infection!

The dragon and the fish have a special place in the Bouyei’s folk religion as they are believed to be relatives of the Bouyei’s ancestors. And you thought your family was weird! According to one of their legends, the Bouyei people originated from a dragon woman who was impregnated by a man. In keeping with this legend, to give birth to a boy is known as “having a dragon” so many women will embroider dragons on their clothes in the hope that they will have sons. They believe that dragons are everywhere, and are always careful not to disturb them. For example, before they erect a new house, they will ask the dragon to leave first and only invite it to return once the house is built.

A rather more disturbing and less magical legend recounts the story of an ancient ancestor who impregnated a fish, hence why they regard fish as relatives. For many centuries the Bouyei did not eat fish because, according to another legend, a boy who once ignored his mother’s advice and ate a fish was then subject to numerous disasters; perhaps because that fish was his second cousin!

Regardless of whether you’re half fish, a quarter dragon or just a normal human being, family matters to the Bouyei people. In keeping with their tradition of ancestor worship, every house will have a tablet dedicated to the resident’s ancestors where offerings of food and wine will be made on any important family occasion or during festivals.

Totem Pole of bouyei minorityAll religious ceremonies revolve a sacred book known as the Mojing, which is a collection of songs. The longest ceremonial song is reserved only for funerals, where it will be sung by a bumo. Their most important religious ceremony is known as “bringing the souls of the dead out of purgatory”, which lasts seven days and seven nights and can draw crowds of more than 10,000 people! It is actually a sequence of several ceremonies designed to worship 36 of their deities.

A small pig will be sacrificed to each of the deities but other offerings depend on the specific deity’s importance. For example, some will have a whole chicken sacrificed to them while others may only receive an egg or a piece of meat. Some of the choicest offerings are reserved for the Mother Goddess, their fertility deity, and the Goddess of the Flower Forest, who distributes “flowers” or children to parents.

On top of this grand ceremony, there are other, simpler ceremonies throughout the year in honour of specific deities, such as the God of Water and the God of Fire. However, the most revered deities are the God of Land and the God of the Mountain, also known as the God of Insects. The God of Land controls the harvest while the God of the Mountain can punish people by sending pests or animal spirits to destroy their crops. Every Bouyei village will have temples dedicated to these gods and annual festivals are held in their honour.

bouyei culture 01The importance of children is tantamount and so there are a staggering twelve Mother Goddesses in the Bouyei pantheon. They are in charge of protecting children until they reach the age of twelve and each of the goddesses corresponds to a geographical location; for example, there is the Mother Goddess of the Bed, the Mother Goddess of the Fields, the Mother Goddess of the Rivers, and so on. Each goddess protects children in their designated location and it is believed that, if a child doesn’t worship these goddesses properly, they will become sick or the target of misfortune. In this instance, their parents will call a yaya, who will carry out the necessary appeasement ceremonies.

Every Bouyei village will also be flanked by a large banyan or camphor tree and a stone shrine dedicated to their ancient ancestor Baogendi. Both the tree and Baogendi are thought to protect the village and are thus honoured with a small ceremony during every festival. Sometimes people will place small animal figurines, such as horses, sheep, or pigs, inside Baogendi’s shrine as he supposedly has the power to bless people with livestock.



[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.


Dai Ethnic Garden

Dai Ethnic Garden

Deep within the Ganlan Basin, obscured by the verdant tropical jungles that loom over the banks of the Lancang River, the five small villages of the Dai Ethnic Garden have thrived for hundreds of years. They are just 28 kilometres from Jinghong, the capital city of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and all of them are occupied by ethnically Dai people. The basin benefits from the hottest climate in Xishuangbanna and is able to sustain numerous tropical plant species, which is what earned the place the name “ethnic garden”. It is in fact more of a theme park, where visitors can learn about Dai culture and visit traditional Dai villages.

The villages are called Manjiang, Manchunman, Manting, Manzha, and Manga, and together they house approximately 300 families and 1,500 villagers. They consist primarily of traditional Dai buildings, which are square, two-storey houses that are built on stilts and made entirely from bamboo. The ground floor is used as a storehouse and stable for livestock while the upper floor is used as a living space. The upper floor is normally 2 metres off the ground and can be reached via a wooden ladder, which can make ascending the house with a hot cup of tea quite a challenge! Yet this is how the Dai people will undoubtedly welcome you, as they are known for their incredible hospitality. The Dai ethnic minority are traditionally Buddhist and so every village has its own Buddhist temple. It is important to note that you should take your shoes off before you enter any Dai home or temple, as a sign of respect.

Dai handicrafts are on sale throughout the villages and performances of Dai folk songs and dances, as well as other folk customs, occur regularly on the main stage. There is even a recreation of the Water Splashing Festival every day at 3pm, where visitors can join the Dai people near the fountain and throw water at each other. It’s one of the more delightful festivals celebrated by China’s ethnic minorities and nothing compares to the sheer joy of dousing your friends with buckets of water. If you want to extend your stay, there are plenty of guesthouses in each village that are sure to welcome you.


In the Dai language, the word “man” means “village”, while the word “jiang” means “strips of bamboo”. The Dai people commonly strap bamboo strips to heavy items in order to help carry them. According to local legend, long ago one of Buddha’s ancestors came to this village and commented on a stone, which he said had a particularly auspicious aura. He asked the locals if they could carry the stone to a small hill by the river, thus making the hill a holy place for people to visit. The stone was far too heavy to move simply by pushing it, but with the help of bamboo strips the locals were able to carry it up the hill. Buddha’s ancestor was elated and renamed the village Manjiang in honour of this good deed.

manchun templeManchunman

The name “manchunman” translates literally to mean “the village of gardens”. That being said, bizarrely Manchunman is not famous for its gardens but rather for the magnificent Buddhist temple at its centre. The Manchunman Buddhist Temple is over 1,400 years old, making it the oldest temple in Xishuangbanna, and stunning painted murals of Buddhist legends further enhance the value of this sacred place.


manzha templeYou’ll be pleased to know that the word “manzha” translates to mean “cook’s village” so, if you’re looking for some tasty Dai dishes, this is the place to go! In ancient times, the tribal leader of the region would set aside a special village that was only to be inhabited by cooks. These chefs would train for years to prepare suitably delicious meals for the tribal leader. If you think having your own chef is indulgent, imagine having a whole village of them! Nowadays the villagers welcome visitors to try their local cuisine, which has been honed to perfection over hundreds of years. The 200-year-old Manzha Temple in the village is also worth noting, as it is one of the only Buddhist temples in existence that contains images and statues of monks but none of Buddha himself.

manting templeManting

Although the name “manting” means “court garden”, the village was once commonly known by its nickname, Peacock Village, thanks to the many tame peacocks that once populated Manting. Nowadays the village has become particularly famous for its White Pagodas and Buddhist Temple, which date all the way back to 669 AD. The statue of Buddha in the temple is said to be the largest in the Ganlan Basin.


mangaIn the Dai language, the name “manga” inexplicably means “going to the fair”; a name that seems completely unconnected to the village’s history. It is believed that Li Daorong, a man of the Han ethnic group, married a Dai woman and established the village. Thereafter, many Han people came from Guangdong and Guangxi to settle in Manga. Gradually members of the Han and Dai ethnic group mingled and so now many of the villagers are a mixture of these two ethnic groups.

The Manga Temple, hidden in the forest behind the village, looks almost like a pavilion. Regardless of what time of day it is, the interior of the temple is always drenched in darkness and must be lit by candles or lighted lamps. Two door-gods flank the entrance and, deep within the temple, there lies an offering stand where locals can worship Li Daorong. On March 6th or July 7th every year, the Dai and Han people from Manga will bring a pig’s head, a cockerel, joss sticks, and paper money as sacrifices to Li Daorong.

Ganlan Basin xishuangbannaThe Peacock’s Tomb

According to local legend, in the 1960s a golden peacock inhabited the Ganlan Basin and, when it died, it brought great wealth to the local people. As a symbol of their appreciation, the people buried the peacock together with the treasured sword that once stood at the centre of the five villages. On the 14th day of July according to the Dai calendar, male villagers carry a pig’s head and wrapped rice to the tomb as offerings to the peacock. A large banquet will then be held and a memorial service for the peacock will take place.


Architecture of Dai Ethnic Minority

While wood, brick, concrete and even tile have been used to build houses for decades, the Dai ethnic minority are one of the few communities in China that have taken advantage of another novel and abundant resource. From the bases to the rafters, traditional Dai households are made almost entirely of bamboo! These two storey houses are normally square or rectangular in shape and their unique style dates back over 1,400 years. Large, load-bearing bamboo shafts are used to make the main framework of the house, whilst narrower ones are used to make the walls. In fact, the Dai have become so industrious with this versatile material that they even use bamboo twigs to bind together the bundles of dry grass used to thatch their roofs!

The upper floors of these houses are perched on thick stilts while the area under the stilts, or the ground floor, is either open or partially walled. This ground floor area is used to shelter livestock and store food, while the upper levels are used as a living space. Each household will have separate rooms for eating, working, and receiving guests, along with several bedrooms and a balcony used for drying laundry and storing the water tank. They are designed to be well-ventilated, as the Dai live in a very humid climate, and the living area is far off the ground to avoid flooding, poisonous snakes and insects such as mosquitoes. With a design this comprehensive, the only thing the Dai people have to worry about are hungry pandas!

According to local legend, the idea behind these houses came long ago, when a man named Zhu Geilang was travelling through Xishuangbanna. There he met a Dai youth named Yanken, who asked for his advice on how to build a better house. Zhu thought for a moment, then crouched down and pushed a few chopsticks into the earth. He took the hat from his head and placed it over the chopsticks, then turned to Yanken and said, “Just build it like this”. I dread to imagine what our houses would look like if we based them on our fashion choices!

dai architecture 01The Dai people have an enduring reverence for water, so it should come as no surprise that every village has a water-well that is loved and respected by the community. However, these are no ordinary wells! They look like tiny towers, resplendent with metre-high archways, painted decorations, golden roofs, and even elaborate sculptures of animals. A fence surrounds the well itself, outside of which people must use a long-handled bamboo ladle to scoop water into their buckets. It is forbidden for children to play near the well, for women to wash clothes in the well, and for men to water their cattle at the well. Basically, play it safe and don’t do anything near the well!

The Dai are devout Buddhists and so each of their villages will have its own temple. These temples tend to conform to the traditional Buddhist style of architecture but have an ethnic flair and follow the Chinese tradition of being placed in isolated and auspicious locations on mountainsides or deep within forests. The average temple complex consists of a temple gate, a main hall, rooms for the resident monks to live in, and a special room for housing the drum.

Large temple complexes will have a number of pagodas that are used as repositories for Buddhist relics. The interior and exterior of the temple buildings are often painted with panoramic murals depicting scenes from both Dai folklore and Buddhist history. They typically feature images of Buddha, various princes and princesses, and animals such as white elephants, horses, and deer, all stunning in their multi-coloured glory.

The main hall is situated on the east-west axis and is the primary place of worship. Monks gather here to light incense, chant sutras, and conduct a number of other religious activities in reverence to Buddha. The hall is punctuated by a dividing wall, which is at the central point where the roof slopes down on either side. The side of the hall facing eastward is home to a large statue of Buddha, which is arguably the most vital feature of any Buddhist temple.

The Dai people traditionally depict Buddha in a sitting position with “snail-shaped”, “flame-shaped” or “lotus-flower-shaped” hair and an exposed right shoulder. In order to draw attention to both his intelligence and his fabulous hairdo, his head makes up one-third of the height of the statue, although smaller figures are usually more naturally proportioned. While the Han Chinese traditionally depict Buddha as plump and smiling, the Dai’s representation is usually much slimmer and has an elongated face transfixed in a subdued expression.

Bai Ethnic Minority

Bai Ethnic Minority

The Bai people hold the colour white in high esteem and the term “Baizu” (白族) actually translates to mean “white people”. That being said, the Bai aren’t racist! They just have a preference for white clothes. The majority of their nearly 2-million-strong population can be found in Yunnan province, with smaller constituencies in Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan. They can be further separated into three ethnic subgroups; the Minjia, who represent 95% of the total population; the Nama, who account for just 3.5%; and the Lemo, who make up the last 1.5%. While the Minjia people predominantly live in the region near Erhai Lake, the Nama people can be found near the Lancang River, and the Lemo people inhabit areas near the Nujiang River.

The complexity of their culture is matched only by that of their history! Archaeologists have found evidence in the Erhai region that suggests it was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Era (c. 10,200-2,000 BC). Their findings indicate that these ancient people had already invented stone tools and engaged in farming, livestock rearing, fishing, and hunting. Other evidence, such as bronze knives and swords, imply that they began using metal tools approximately 2,000 years ago. Yet no one, not even the Bai people themselves, is absolutely sure whether these early settlers are their ancestors!

During the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD) dynasties, it is believed that locals in the Erhai area developed close ties with the Han ethnic group. In 109 BC, the imperial government sent large numbers of Han people there, who brought with them advanced techniques and tools. The Bai language, which borrows many words from Chinese, also supports the theory that they interacted with the Han people from an early stage. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the Bai’s history began to be formally documented. Supported by the Tang Court, a group of Bai and Yi aristocrats unified the ethnic groups in the Erhai area and established the Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902), which was ruled by a man known as Piluoge.

Bai Ethnic Minority02Throughout its reign this kingdom was the most powerful political entity in southern China and successfully established alliances with both the Chinese and Tibetans. It was not only an important trade centre, linking China to commercial routes in Southeast Asia, but was also a religious centre where Buddhism flourished. At one point, this burgeoning empire was so large that it controlled parts of Vietnam, Burma, and Laos! However it oppressed many of the local ethnic groups, plundered their resources, and forced numerous people into slavery. The kingdom was overthrown with such violence that it took 35 years of chaos and revolt before the region finally recovered and Duan Siping was able to establish the Dali Kingdom (937-1253).

This kingdom was predominantly made up of Bai people and retained many of the political, cultural, and religious characteristics of its predecessor, but abolished exorbitant taxes and treated its citizens far more fairly. Since it was a valued commercial partner of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), its people enjoyed a period of peace and productivity. Unfortunately this tranquillity was not to last, as the Mongols annexed the Dali Kingdom during their eventual establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and demoted the Duan royal family from leaders to Tusi[1]. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Duan were removed and replaced with imperial officials.

This is where their history begins to get rather hazy, as it seems many Bai people decided to take matters into their own hands! In Bai culture, they have a complex clan system that has depended upon the use and systemisation of surnames since the Nanzhao Kingdom. This means that most clans will have a family temple where they keep extensive lineage records detailing their ancestors’ histories and accomplishments. Before the 13th century, most of these family records would place emphasis on the fact that their ancestors were officials for the Nanzhao or Dali Kingdoms.

However, during the Ming Dynasty many of these records were changed to “prove” that their ancestors had originated from Nanjing and were related to the Han ethnic group. Many scholars believe that this was designed to curry favour with the ruling Han imperials and help Bai aristocrats gain official positions. The Bai people thus foster a belief in dual ancestral origins; on the one hand, they believe that their forefathers were high-ranking officials in the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms; on the other hand, they allege that their ancestors were Han people who came from Nanjing as part of the Ming army. In short, don’t ask a Bai person about their family history unless you have a lot of time on your hands!

Historically the Bai are an industrious and well-educated people, having made great advances in meteorology, astronomy, architecture, medical science, literature, and art. Perhaps their most famous achievements are the magnificent Three Pagodas, which stand just outside Dali Ancient Town.

Like many ethnic minorities, the Bai people have great reverence for their elders. Traditionally youths should greet elders warmly and offer them their seat, a cup of tea, and a cigarette. It’s considered incredibly disrespectful to cross your legs or use foul language in front of an elderly person. In a Bai household, the first cup of morning tea is always offered to the oldest relative and during meals they will always sit at the head of the table and start eating first.

Many of these elders will be heads of their family temple. The Bai predominantly follow a surname-based clan system and so family temples are very common, particularly in the Erhai region. In Xizhou alone, there are temples belonging to the Yang, Yin, Dong, Zhang, and Yue families. When an elderly member of the family is appointed as head of the temple, they have the power to resolve disputes and make important decisions within the family. It is their responsibility to discipline and educate younger relatives, as well as oversee affairs such as the buying and selling of land.

The Bai people are also extremely superstitious and adhere to a number of taboos. Fireplaces are considered sacred and so it is forbidden to spit on or step over them; people who are mourning a death are not allowed to enter the homes of others; on New Year’s Eve, people should return anything they have borrowed and retrieve any items they have lent out, otherwise they will have bad luck and a poor harvest in the coming year; and on New Year’s Day, people must not use a knife, carry water into their home, or sweep the floor.

[1] Tusi: Chieftains or tribal leaders who were permitted to rule over a certain region and were acknowledged as imperial officials but who ultimately answered to the Emperor.

Read more about Bai Ethnic Minority:

Bai Spirituality       Architecture       Traditional Dress       Festivals       Marriage Customs       Agriculture and Craftwork       Three Courses of Tea