The Yellow River

Known simultaneously as “China’s Pride”, the Yellow River has occupied a controversial space in the country’s history. At an estimated length of 5,464 kilometres (3,395 mi), it is the third longest river in Asia and the sixth longest in the world. It originates from the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai province of western China and crosses through nine provincial level regions before finally emptying into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong province. While ancient Chinese civilisation would have been unable to develop without it, its turbulent waters have led to some of the most devastating natural disasters in human history.

The Yellow River’s long and winding path through the country can be roughly separated into three sections: the segment northeast of the Tibetan Plateau; the Ordos Loop; and the North China Plain. Characterised by clear waters and shimmering lakes, the upper reaches of the river flow mainly through pastures, swamps, and knolls between the Bayan Har Mountains and the Amne Machin Mountains of Qinghai province. As the river leaves Qinghai province and enters Gansu province, it passes through a series of 20 narrow gorges. A number of hydroelectric plants have been established in this region in order to take advantage of the river’s extremely fast and turbulent waters.

The river continues in a roughly northeastern direction until it reaches the town of Hekou in Inner Mongolia, where it turns sharply south and forms the Ordos Loop. From there, it travels south through the Loess Plateau, creating a natural border between the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. It is in this section that the riverbed suddenly tapers down from 300 metres (984 ft.) in width to 50 metres (164 ft.), forming the magnificent 15 metre-high (49 ft.) Hukou Waterfall. As the river winds through the Loess Plateau, it causes substantial erosion and thus accumulates a vast amount of mud, sand, and silt. It is in this section that it takes on its iconic ochre hue, earning it the name of the Yellow River. In many ways, this sediment is both its blessing and its curse.

The Yellow River in Ordos Loop

As the river heads east towards the Gulf of Bohai and meanders through the North China Plain, it provides a colossal 140 million people with water for drinking and irrigation. The mineral-rich sediment makes the surrounding farmland incredibly fertile, which frequently results in an abundance of crops. For this reason, agricultural societies were able to survive along the rivers’ banks over 7,000 years ago, and it has been vital to the survival of people in northern China. The myriad of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age archaeological sites found within the river’s drainage basin attest to the major role it played in the development of ancient Chinese civilisation.

However, in the slower reaches of the river, the sediment is deposited at random in large heaps and eventually forms small subaqueous dams, which in turn elevate the riverbed. This has created the infamous “river above ground”, as high levees are now required to keep the river within its banks. Historically, during times of flooding, the river has broken out of its levees and changed its course entirely, causing mass devastation to the surrounding countryside in the process. The rushing waters would burst forth and inundate everything in their path, including farmland, towns, and even cities. From the year 595 BC to 1946 AD, before the advent of modern dams, it is reckoned that the river shifted its course 35 times and flooded a shocking 1,593 times!

In its darkest hours, the Yellow River has been either solely or partially responsible for three of the deadliest floods in recorded history: the flood of 1332, which killed an estimated 7 million people; the 1887 flood, which caused the death of anywhere from 900,000 to 2 million people; and the 1931 floods, which resulted in the death of between 1 to 4 million people. While the floods themselves caused a substantial number of deaths, it was the ensuing famine and pestilence that drove the death toll to such staggering heights. In spite of the incredible danger that the river posed, a surprising number of these floods were actually manmade.

From the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.) onwards, sabotaging levees, canals, and reservoirs became a standard military tactic to deliberately flood areas and cause problems for the opposition. In fact, the devastating flood of 1938 was caused by the Nationalist Government, who blew up the levees at Huayuankou and flooded the provinces of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu in a vain attempt to halt the progress of the advancing Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The plan tragically backfired and resulted in the loss of vast tracts of farmland, the death of approximately 800,000 people, and the displacement of nearly 3 million refugees.

In its time, the Yellow River has been responsible for the rise and fall of dynasties; the reaping of bumper harvests and the absolute devastation of crops; the birth of a civilisation and the death of millions of its people. It is the lifeblood that runs through the country, as important to China as the Nile is to Egypt. Yet its power should never be underestimated. After all, as the old Chinese proverb goes: “Water can not only float a boat, it can also sink it”.

The Yellow River in Shanxi Province

Explore more about the Yellow River on our tour: Explore “the Good Earth” in Northwest China

Sichuan Opera

There are numerous differences between Western and Chinese opera, the most notable of which is that Western opera tends to follow one long plotline, while Chinese opera is usually made up of several separate components, including circus-like stunts, short dramas, and story-telling portions. This difference is never more obvious than in Sichuan opera, which thrives on its magnificent spectacles and outrageous comedic skits to keep the audience wholly entertained. Employing expert clowns, illusionists, and acrobats, it’s a performance art that represents a true feast for the eyes!

This style of opera originated from Sichuan province sometime during the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is actually comprised of five other, much older styles of opera. These five styles are known as Gaoqiang, Kunqiang, Huqing voice, Tanxi, and Dengdiao or Lantern theatre. Some of them date all the way back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) and represent some of the oldest styles of opera in China. As their popularity began to wane, a revival movement was begun during the early 20th century. In 1912, a reformer named Kang Zhilin established the Sanqing or “Three Celebrations” Company, which came to be known as one of the most prominent opera troupes in China.

It was Kang who combined these five historic styles to form traditional Sichuan opera. Many of the trademark physical movements and tropes of this style were masterminded by Kang himself. Over time, the style not only absorbed features from the other styles, but started to incorporate elements of the province’s local languages, customs, and folk songs. In this way, it is inextricably linked to Sichuan and its heart will always remain in the provincial capital of Chengdu.

Nowadays Sichuan opera is said to boast over 3,000 stories, most of which date back to the Three Kingdoms Period, the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Many of them are comedies and the style itself is renowned for its vivacity, good humour, and breath-taking stunts. The singing is usually in a higher pitch than Beijing opera and is also known for being less constrained. Unlike more dramatic styles of Chinese opera, the face paint is subtle and typically limited to the colours black, red, white, and grey. It’s missing the archetypal jing or villain character, so normally an evil character is simply indicated by a small patch of white paint in the middle of the face.

While the traditional formula for the opera is quite systematic, it is punctuated by lively acts of face-changing, beard-changing, fire-spitting, rolling light, and puppetry. The art of face-changing is unique to Chinese opera and has been a closely guarded secret for centuries. It is said the practice originated when ancient people would paint their faces to scare away wild animals, but has since been perfected into a performance art of the highest order. The act involves one performer changing their face mask within the blink of an eye, with masters of the art switching between a staggering 10 masks in less than 20 seconds!

No one knows exactly how it is done, as the secret is only passed down among theatre families, but there are roughly three methods: the wiping mask, the blowing mask, and the pulling mask. During the wiping mask routine, the actor hides cosmetic paint in his eyebrows or sideburns. At the opportune moment, he will turn away from the audience and swiftly wipe the paint into a pattern on his face. Similarly, the blowing mask routine involves the actor holding a box of powdered cosmetics and blowing on it. Since the actor will have oiled his face beforehand, the powder will naturally fly up and adhere to his face.

The pulling mask routine, however, is by far the most popular and the most complicated. The masks are delicately painted beforehand on silk fabric, which is cut, attached to a silk thread, and lightly pasted to the face. Each one is gently laid on top of the other and the silk threads are hidden somewhere within the actor’s costume. With a sharp flick of his cloak, the actor is able to pull away each mask one by one, although the exact method is still a tantalising mystery. In short, we may never know what secrets are hidden behind the mask!

The different coloured masks are used to represent the actor’s characteristics and function to tell a simple story, much like a one-man monologue. For example, red represents someone who is steadfast, black signifies the character is righteous, green or blue symbolises that they are strong or violent, and white implies the person is treacherous. This veritable rainbow of traits is the ideal way for the performer to reflect their character’s hidden feelings without speaking, since the face-changing act contains no dialogue whatsoever. In some simplified versions of the act, the performer will simply pull on his beard and have it change colour from black to grey to white, in order to show displeasure or confusion.

In many cases, face-changing is combined with the fire-spitting act to add an extra dimension of complexity. While fire-spitting is not uncommon in performances throughout the world, actors in Sichuan opera are capable of spitting a fire column that is up to 2 metres (6.6 ft.) in height! In a similarly fiery display, the act known as rolling light involves the actor performing a series of complicated acrobatic moves while balancing a bowl of fire on is head.

The character is typically a clown and the set-up is normally that of a woman angry with her husband. For example, one skit involves a married couple arguing about the husband’s gambling. Throughout the course of the argument, the wife demands that the husband perform a series of increasingly difficult tasks while balancing the bowl on his head. Other highlights include the stick puppet and shadow puppet shows, which usually revolve around traditional Chinese mythology and folktales. With so much on offer, Sichuan opera is certainly one of the most diverse forms of Chinese opera and has something to suit everyone’s tastes!

Yu Opera

The most famous Yu Opera ‘The Commander-in-Chief Mu Guiying’

Yu Opera is the third most popular style of Chinese opera in the country, ranking just below Peking Opera and Yue Opera. The term “yu” is actually an abbreviated name for the province of Henan, which is unsurprisingly where this style of opera originates. Like the artist formerly known as Prince, this was the style formerly known as Henan Bangzi[1]! The name was officially changed after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1911. Although it is largely endemic to Henan, there are professional Yu Opera troupes scattered throughout the provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and numerous others.

The style itself dates back over 400 years ago, but it didn’t become truly popular in northern China until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In the beginning, it was characterised by its simple folk stories and soulful arias, without the use of make-up, lavish costumes, or even accompanying instruments. Its rustic charm meant it was beloved by the common people and this lead to its rapid development. Small performances were mainly held in teahouses throughout the city of Kaifeng but, as the art spread to other cities, new sub-styles began to develop. It’s true what they say: immature artists imitate, mature artists steal, and great artists make it into something better, or at least something different!

Nowadays it is generally separated into four sub-styles: Xiangfu, which originated from Kaifeng; Yudong, which arose in the Shangqiu region of eastern Henan; Yuxi, which became popular in the area surrounding the city of Luoyang; and Shahe, which came from Shahe County. Of these, the Yudong and Yuxi sub-styles are the most prevalent, and are known for their comedies and tragedies respectively.

Overall the style of Yu Opera is renowned for its high-pitched singing, fast-paced dialogue, powerful rhythms, stylised dancing, and use of martial arts. As time went on, musical accompaniment was added, and eventually developed into grand orchestras complete with gongs, drums, traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu[2] and the suona[3], and typical Western instruments like the violin and cello. Like many other styles of Chinese opera, an actor’s persona is portrayed through their make-up and costume, conveying stock characters like the scholar, the beautiful woman, the soldier, or the clown.

Yet it is the stories behind each opera that capture the imagination of its audience. These intricately woven tales describe the lives of the people or local folklore using simple language, costumes, and sets. In many ways, it’s said to resemble the people of Henan province, who are known to be outspoken, straightforward, down-to-earth, and good-humoured. There are reputedly over one thousand traditional plays in the Yu Opera repertoire, the most popular of which are The Command Mu Guiying and Hua Mulan.

The popular souvenir in Henan Province

While The Command Mu Guiying is a folktale that is not well-known outside of China, the story of Hua Mulan became the basis of the classic Disney film Mulan. It tells the tale of a young woman who defies tradition and takes her elderly father’s place in the army by disguising herself as a man. After twelve brutal years of war, she is honoured for her service and is able to return home. Move over Xena, because Mulan was the original warrior princess!

Other exemplary plays in the Yu Opera canon include The Clever Magistrate, a story set during the Ming Dynasty about a prime minister’s villainous sister, who is eventually brought to justice by a wily magistrate named Tang; and Chaoyanggou Village, which revolves around a young high school graduate named Yinhuan who struggles with the choice between settling in her fiancé’s backwater village or moving back to the city, only to discover the simple beauty of the local people and their rural lifestyle. Rich with tales of morality, family, love, and loss, Yu Opera takes a candid look at what makes daily life so special.



[1]Bangzi: A Chinese woodblock percussion instrument. Traditionally, two bangzi were used to keep the main tune during an opera, like a primitive form of metronome. Now the term bangzi or bangziqiang is widely used to refer to a type of melody used in Chinese opera.

[2]Erhu: A two stringed bowed instrument that originated from China. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘Chinese violin’.

[3] Suona: A Chinese wind instrument. It is made up of a horn with a double reed that makes a distinctively loud and high-pitched sound. It comes in several sizes and the size of the horn affects the sound it makes. It is used throughout China in ritual music and folk music.

The Lantern Festival

Great red orbs illuminate the night sky, floating off into the distance as the full moon rises like a pearl in a sea of darkness. Each one carries the wishes, desires, and dreams of an individual, all dancing their way up to the heavens in the hopes of bringing their owners good fortune. Lanterns, those great beacons of traditional art, have become synonymous with Chinese culture. Cut from paper; carved from wood; chipped from jade; these radiant decorations are as varied as they are charming. And what better time to admire them than during the magnificent Lantern Festival?

Also known as the Yuanxiao Festival, the First Full Moon Festival, and the Shangyuan Festival, this time-honoured tradition falls on the 15th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This means it normally lands sometime during February or March according to our Gregorian calendar. The holiday itself falls on the night of the first full moon and marks the end of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year period. With that in mind, you can see why the Chinese people would want their most treasured festival to go out with bang!

In Hong Kong, it is regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day because, in ancient times, it was one of the few occasions where single men and women would be allowed to go out in the evening and mingle freely. Although it has lost this association throughout much of mainland China, the lonely hearts of Hong Kong still hold out hope that they’ll light a fire under more than just a lantern!


Customs related to the Lantern Festival are innumerable and varied. Folk traditions such as firework displays, lion dances, dragon dances, and stilt-walking all feature prominently, making this one of the most vibrant festivals in the Chinese canon. However, three main activities dominate the celebrations: the lighting of lanterns, the guessing of lantern riddles, and the eating of delicious tangyuan.

Over time, the colourful lanterns have become increasingly more complex and artistic, allowing artisans to showcase their unique talents. Nowadays, for safety reasons, most of them are lit using electric or neon lighting. In some cities, such as Chengdu in Sichuan province, fairs will be held where colossal lanterns in the shape of zodiac animals or figures from Chinese folklore are erected for the enjoyment of the public.

Yet some of these lanterns aren’t just for decoration! Throughout China, large groups of them will be strung up together in public parks and have small strips of paper pasted inside of them. Each piece of paper is inscribed with a riddle and locals will gather under the lanterns in order to solve them. If you think you’ve cracked one, you must take the piece of paper, find the person who wrote the riddle, and tell them your answer. Correct answers earn you a small prize, while incorrect ones mean that, like the lanterns, you’ll be hung out to dry!

If you don’t get a prize, then a hearty bowl of tangyuan is sure to cheer you up! This traditional festival food, known as yuanxiao in the north of China, is a type of glutinous rice ball that can be served plain or with filling. The Chinese people believe the round shape of these balls and the bowls they are served in symbolise family togetherness. Even the name tangyuan, which is a homophone for “tuanyuan” or “union”, suggests harmony. In short, a family who eats tangyuan together, stays together!

In the south of China, tangyuan are made by hand, with the glutinous rice being moulded into a flat circle before being wrapped around the filling. Tangyuan are usually much softer than northern yuanxiao and come in sweet and savoury varieties, with the savoury tangyuan typically being stuffed with salty fillings like minced meat and vegetables. In the north, yuanxiao are made by taking balls of filling and rolling them in wet, powdered glutinous rice until they become fully coated. They only come in sweet varieties, with fillings like red bean paste, sesame paste, jujube paste, walnut butter, or peanut butter. Depending on personal preference, these squishy treats can be boiled, fried, or steamed. The sweet version is often served in a syrupy soup, while the savoury variety comes in a clear broth.

tangyuan and yuanxiao


The decorated history of the Lantern Festival starts as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), although its origins are unclear. Some people believe it is connected to Taiyi, who was regarded as the God of Heaven in ancient times and was believed to have omnipotent control of the human world. According to legend, he commanded an army of sixteen fearsome dragons, who would inflict drought, storms, famine, or pestilence on mankind at his beck and call. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, would honour him every year with splendid ceremonies so that he would bestow good weather and good health on the people. During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu paid special attention to this annual event and, in 104 BC, he marked it as an official festival of great significance, declaring that its ceremonies would last throughout the night. It was these religious ceremonies that eventually became the basis for the Lantern Festival.

tianguanAlternatively, others attribute the festival to a Taoist deity named Tianguan. Tianguan was the official of heaven who bestowed good fortune on people, and his birthday fell on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It was believed that this benevolent god enjoyed all kinds of entertainment, so worshipers would prepare a myriad of activities for his birthday as a way to pray for his good favour. After all, you can’t have a godly birthday without a party of epic proportions! This is where the name Shangyuan Festival came from, as the term “shangyuan” (上元) in Taoist philosophy denoted the time period surrounding this deity’s birthday (i.e. Spring).

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this festival had developed into a 3-day long affair and the Emperor had lifted the traditional curfew, meaning civilians were allowed to enjoy the lantern displays throughout the day and night. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), celebrations were extended over a 5-day period and the custom of writing riddles on lanterns had emerged. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) extended it to a whopping 10-day long extravaganza, although it was curtailed back to 3 days by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, it was during the Qing Dynasty that the festival’s popularity really started booming, as fireworks became a staple part of the celebrations.


With a history that stretches back over 2,000 years, it’s unsurprising that the Lantern Festival has accrued as many origin stories as there are lanterns in the sky! Each one is as diverse as the next, and they are all endowed with a peculiar charm unique to Chinese tales. One of the chief legends concerns the great Tiandi, who was the first god according to Chinese folk religion. One day, a heavenly crane descended to earth and was accidentally killed by a villager. Tiandi was enraged, as this crane had been one of his favourites. He decided that, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, he would send an army to burn the village to the ground. His daughter heard about his plan and decided to warn the villagers, who were all at a loss as to what to do.

It was then that a wise old man came forward and suggested that the villagers hang red lanterns outside of their houses, light bonfires in the streets, and set off firecrackers. He said that, from the heavenly realm, this would give the village the appearance of being on fire and hopefully fool Tiandi. Lo and behold, on the 15th lunar day, Tiandi’s army arrived and were baffled by what they saw. From above, it was clear that the village was ablaze, so they returned to Tiandi and informed him that the village had already been destroyed. Thus the village was spared and, from that day onwards, people celebrated the occasion by carrying lanterns and setting off fireworks.

Another popular legend involves a maiden named Yuan-Xiao, who supposedly worked in the imperial palace during the Han Dynasty. One cold winter’s day, the Emperor’s favourite adviser, Dongfang Shuo, was strolling through the imperial gardens when he came across Yuan-Xiao, who was weeping and preparing to throw herself into a well. Dongfang asked her why she wanted to end her life and Yuan-Xiao told him that she hadn’t seen her family since she had started working in the palace. If she couldn’t show her filial piety in this life, she would rather die. Dongfang was a kind man and said that, if she promised not to kill herself, he would find a way to reunite her with her family.

Dongfang then left the palace and disguised himself as a fortune-teller. People crowded round to ask for their fortune, but everyone was given the same prediction: an emissary of the God of Fire, dressed in red, would descend from heaven on the 13th lunar day and a catastrophic fire would burn down the city on the 15th. Rumour of this disaster spread quickly and the civilians decided that they would beg the emissary for mercy. On the 13th day, Yuan-Xiao pretended to be the emissary and, when the citizens pled with her, she demanded that they pass a decree from the God of Fire on to the Emperor.

The Emperor read the decree and, to his dismay, it stated that the city would be burned down on the 15th day. He immediately consulted Dongfang, who said that the God of Fire loved eating a sweet type of dumpling known as tangyuan, so the Emperor should command every household in the city to cook it. In order to deceive the god, every family should hang red lanterns outside of their homes and set off firecrackers so that the city would look like it was already ablaze. Finally, all of the civilians should be free to wander the streets and appreciate the decorations on the night of the 15th.

On that night, Yuan-Xiao’s parents were allowed into the palace to admire the lanterns and were reunited with their daughter. The celebration was so enjoyable that the Emperor decreed it should be practised every year and, since Yuan-Xiao cooked the best tangyuan, he named it the Yuanxiao Festival in her honour. So, the origins of the Lantern Festival may be diverse, but one thing is clear: deities love setting cities on fire and they are all easily fooled!

Other Customs of the Dai Ethnic Minority

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!

Marriage Customs of the Dai Ethnic Minority

Long ago there was a young princess, who spent lazy afternoons wondering what type of man she would eventually marry. One day, the princess turned to her male servant and asked him, “Who do you think I will marry?”. Without missing a beat and with great confidence, the boy replied: “You are going to marry me”. The princess was deeply offended by the servant’s gross impertinence and, in a fit of rage, grasped a knife from a nearby table and threw it at him. The knife grazed the boy’s forehead, leaving a deep gash that would never fully heal. The princess had him banished from the country and assumed she would never to see him again.

As the boy grew, he worked tirelessly to become successful and eventually became king of a neighbouring nation. Rulers would often use intermarriage to show solidarity between their countries, as was the custom back then, and so a marriage was arranged between the young king and the princess that he had once served. On their wedding day, the princess looked up at her husband-to-be and noticed the deep scar on his forehead. She immediately recognised him as the servant boy she had banished all those years ago and was overwhelmed with remorse. Placing her right hand between his, she twined their hands together as a symbol of her eternal devotion to him.

This simple yet poignant gesture, known as “shu huan” or “the twining of souls”, has become an integral part of Dai marriage ever since. Sometime between the Door Opening Festival and the Door Closing Festival, this thread twining ceremony will take place as part of an engagement ritual before the official wedding. It begins with the host first praying for the couple and then taking a long white thread, which he winds around the couple’s hands. Thereafter other family members will approach the couple and perform the same gesture, followed by other guests such as friends. This act symbolises that the two have intertwined their destinies and will have a long, healthy and happy life together.

On the wedding day, members of the extended family and friends will gather in the bride’s home, where a long bamboo table has been set up. On this table, the bride’s family will have laid out two cooked chickens, a cup of wine with a betel leaf next to it, a bowl of sticky rice, salt, and a white thread. The host is offered the most honoured position at the table, while other relatives and friends arrange themselves around it accordingly. The wedding begins with the bride and groom kneeling before the host as he gives a congratulatory speech. Other guests listen with their right hands firmly on the table to show politeness.

Once the speech is finished, the bride and groom must run for the betel leaf near the cup, as the first person to get to it will supposedly have the final say in future family life! If the same were the case with our tradition of catching the bouquet, I’m sure we’d see a lot more men with flowers in hand! The couple then each pick up a dollop of sticky rice and dip it in the cup of wine as a sacrifice. In much the same manner as before, the thread twining ceremony takes place again.

dai wedding 02After this second thread twining, the first cooked chicken is given to the host and the other is divided amongst the unmarried men in the hopes that they’ll find love that year. I suppose it’s the Dai way of saying don’t chicken out when it comes to girls! The eldest guest is then asked to knead the sticky rice into a triangle, sprinkle salt on it, and place it on a tripod above a charcoal fire. The rice is allowed to burn and fall off the tripod unhindered, which foretells the stable and unobstructed progress of the couple’s love.

Later on, when the bride becomes pregnant, strangers are forbidden to enter her house at any time. If you happen to notice a special object made of bamboo hanging near the main door of a Dai household, this means that a member of the family is pregnant and nearing childbirth. All visitors will be refused at this time, including family members.

The Spirituality of the Dai Ethnic Minority

For over 1,000 years, the people of the Dai ethnic minority have been devout Buddhists and subscribe to a sect of the religion known as Hinayana. They adopted the Indian religion sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries and it has had a profound influence on their culture, virtually shaping many of their customs and practices. From the temples that rest like jewels at the heart of every Dai village to the many murals depicting the history of Buddha, the love and admiration that the Dai have for their faith is palpable everywhere.

According to the Dai’s Buddhist beliefs, the world of the senses is void and in order to reach paradise, or nirvana, one must first achieve a state of enlightenment by releasing ones grip on the material world and transcending the demands of the senses. To become enlightened, one must follow the Tripitaka, which is an umbrella term for three categories known as sutras, abhidharma and vinaya. Sutras are the sermons of Gautama Buddha, the founding father of Buddhism, that have been transcribed. Adhidharma is the philosophical and psychological discussion and interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Vinaya are the rules and regulations that apply to Buddhist monks, such as dress code, dietary restrictions, and appropriate behaviour.

The religion plays such a focal role in the lives of the Dai people that it is common for most boys between the ages of 8 and 10 to be sent to a temple. There they will learn how to read, write, chant scripture, and learn sutras. After between one to five years, many of them will return home in pursuit of a secular lifestyle while some will stay on at the temple as monks. This practice evolved because, in the past, this was the only way that boys could receive an education and in exchange the parents would financially support the temple. So remember, even in ancient times you couldn’t get out of going to school!

Yet while the Dai officially follow Buddhism, many communities still hold on to their ancient shamanistic[1] and animistic[2] beliefs. In Xishuangbanna Prefecture, there is a Dai proverb that states: “Buddhism is for our future, but the cult of the village gods is what helps us in the present”. Their indigenous religion still plays a vital role in daily life and many villages will have sacred groves or forests where they believe the spirits of their ancestors live.

These spirits act as protective gods that watch over the village and people will only enter the forest on two occasions during the year, both times as part of a ceremony to honour the ancestors. All of the animals and plants, the water and even the soil in this forest is sacred and cannot be damaged or taken away. It is forbidden to cut the trees, hunt the animals, cultivate the earth, or gather the fruits from this forest. Anything that dies, even fruit that falls from the trees, is left to rot naturally. So if a tasty mango on the forest floor catches your eye, be sure to check with the locals before you eat it!

[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel its energy. 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 Festivals

The Dai calendar begins with a New Year celebration known as the Water Splashing Festival, which takes place sometime in April and is their first Buddhist festival of the year. It is sometimes called “Shanghan” or “Jingbimai” in the Dai language, meaning “New Year”, but is more often referred to as “Hounan” or “Water Splashing Festival”. The jovial nature and lively atmosphere of this festival has earned it great fame throughout China. That and it provides anyone with the opportunity to douse their friends in water!

The first day, known as “Wanduoshanghan” or “New Year’s Eve”, is marked by dragon-boat races and the firing of gaosheng (a type of homemade firework). These acts symbolise saying goodbye to the old year. The following two days are called “Wannao” and involve similar activities. The final day of the festival, known as “Wanbawanma” or “when the King of Days comes”, is the most famous and involves the characteristic water splashing. Early in the morning, all of the villagers will take a ceremonial bath, change into new clothes, and carry offerings to the local temple. On arrival, they will build a tower of sand and arrange themselves around it. There they will listen to the preaching of Buddhist scripture and then help clean the temple.

Finally a statue of Buddha is carried out of the temple and is bathed by the local women. This is followed by a more playful display, where villagers splash one another with water. This water fight, so to speak, can involve anyone who happens to be passing by and is a favourite pastime among younger members of the community. It is punctuated by the sprightly sound of elephant-foot drums and bronze gongs. The Dai believe that anyone who is splashed with water during the festival will have good luck in the following year, so splashing someone is a sign that you are wishing them well. There is even a popular Dai saying which goes: “At the Water Splashing Festival, soak whoever you think is worthy”.

The origin of the Water Splashing Festival is rooted in an ancient legend involving a demon that once plagued the Dai people. Long ago, the Evil King of Fire descended on the Dai homeland and perpetrated all kinds of misdeeds. The local people hated him bitterly but his powerful magic meant no one was capable of opposing him. He had already taken seven beautiful wives from the community, who all despised him, but one day the seventh wife hit upon an ingenious plan. She grew close to the demon and persuaded him to expose his weaknesses. It turned out the demon was impervious to human weapons but his hair, which was sharp as razor wire, could harm him.

Once he was sound asleep, all of the wives gathered by his bedside and wrapped his hair around his neck. With one mighty pull, the hair sliced through the demon’s throat and cut off his head. However, once the head touched the ground it caught fire and would have burned down their bamboo house were it not for an act of selflessness by one of the women. Swiftly she rushed to scoop up the head and held it tightly in her arms. To her amazement, the fire died out immediately. Yet as soon as she dropped the head it would start burning again.

So the seven women agreed that each year they would take turns holding onto the head, exchanging it only on the fateful day when they killed the demon. When the time came to pass the head on, the local people would splash water on the girl who had previously held the head to wash away the demon’s blood. Over time, this ritual came to signify the beginning of a new year and developed into the happy festival we know today.

If you’ve read any of the legends behind many Dai customs, you’ll know that the Dai people have something of a complicated relationship with dragons! On the one hand, dragons can bless man with a good harvest, but they can also be vicious and dole out punishment indiscriminately. The Dai regard dragons as deities and the Dragon Homage Festival, which normally falls sometime in January, is the closest celebration in the Dai calendar to the traditional Chinese Spring Festival.

During this festival, a monk from the village temple will arrange a collection of food and clothing to be sacrificed to the Dragon God. Every villager must contribute, regardless of their wealth or social standing, but gifts will be commensurate with one’s wealth. For example, a rich family might offer gold or silver while a poor family may simply offer rice or flowers. All offerings are placed inside the temple, where they are preserved in a makeshift “Dragon Palace”. When the time comes, the monks carry the “Dragon Palace” down to the Menglong River and place it on a bamboo raft. The raft is then left to float away while the locals pray and the monks chant Buddhist scripture.

Other Dai festivals include the Door Closing and Door Opening Festivals, which take place in mid-September and mid-June respectively. They predominantly involve the sacrifice of food, flowers, clothes, and other wealth to Buddha.

Dai Performances

dai dance

The Dai are renowned throughout China for the grace, poise and elegance that they employ in their performances. From the ethereal Peacock Dance through to the lively Elephant-Foot Drum Dance, both men and women take part in this vibrant tradition. Performances will be accompanied by a variety of instruments, including the lusheng[1], bronze gong, clarinet, and hulusi[2], but none are as important as the elephant-foot drum. This indigenous instrument has played a focal role in Dai festivals for decades and its history is intrinsically linked with that of the Dai people.

According to legend, in ancient times the homeland of the Dai people was frequently subjected to severe flooding. These floods destroyed many homes and killed many people, and it was not long before the locals learned that a nearby dragon was responsible for these disasters. A brave Dai youth, accompanied by his fellow villagers, went out into the forest and slay the dragon. The dragon’s body was stripped of its hide and its skin was stretched over a hollowed out log to form a special drum, which was gifted to the youth in honour of his courage. Though no elephants were strictly involved, the unusual shape of this large drum earned it the name “elephant-foot drum”.

Nowadays the drum is made using hollowed out tree trunks or logs that have been covered in sheep skin or cowhide, since dragon skin is somewhat hard to come by. It is then painted and ornamented in peacock feathers. It can be long, medium-length, or short depending on the sound desired, as each drum can only produce one note. Originally they were covered in python skin but the potential endangerment of that animal warranted the change. A strap is attached to the drum that allows the performer to sling the instrument over their shoulder and beat it with their right hand as they dance, using their left hand to steady or shift it. Like a herd of Asian elephants trampling through the rainforest, the elephant-foot drum makes up for its lack of sound variety by being incredibly loud!

In keeping with the animal theme, the most famous performing art among the Dai is that of the Peacock Dance. The Dai revere the peacock as a symbol of happiness, beauty and kindness, and it appears that, according to local legend, this colourful bird was also once a devout Buddhist! In ancient times, the peacock was neither beautiful nor particularly colourful, and its tail fathers did not possess the characteristic “eyes” that they are known for today. It was a tame and obedient animal that lived a simple life.

One year, word spread that Buddha himself would descend to earth and grace the local temple with his presence during the Baipala Festival. Meanwhile, in a remote mountainous region far away, a peacock learned of the news. This peacock happened to be a Buddhist and so flew for miles and miles to reach the temple. Fortuitously, its arrival happened to coincide with that of Buddha’s! Unfortunately throngs of worshippers had already rushed to the temple and it was so overcrowded that the peacock could not get a decent view. In its agitation, it began pacing back and forth behind the crowd.

At that moment, Buddha noticed the anxious peacock and cast a beam of light in its direction, lighting it up in iridescent splendour and creating the many “eyes” along its tail feathers. As Buddha prepared to depart, he turned to the peacock and told it that they would meet again. Thereafter every time Buddha descended to earth during the Baipala Festival, he would first meet with his human worshippers at the temple and then go to the remote mountain where the peacock lived. There he would watch the peacock prance, dance, and show off its beautiful tail. It was the peacock’s dedication to Buddha that earned it such beauty and so, during major festivals, the Dai perform the Peacock Dance in its honour.

The dance is characterised by its use of undulating arm and torso movements. Several of the steps aim to imitate peacock behaviour, such as strolling, looking for water, peering intensely, bathing, drying the wings, spreading the tail feathers, and flying the nest, and these set movements are punctuated by free-form dance moves chosen by the performer. The clothes are normally patterned after the peacock’s tail feathers and endow the dancer with an otherworldly beauty.

[1] Lusheng: A wind instrument made of multiple bamboo pipes, each fitted with a free reed, that are all in turn fitted into a large, hardwood pipe. Normally there are five or six bamboo pipes that are each of a different pitch. Air is blown into the hardwood pipe to create sound. They vary in size from small, handheld ones to ones that are several metres in length.

[2] Hulusi: Also known as the cucurbit flute or “bilangdao” in the Dai language. It is a Chinese free reed wind instrument made up of three bamboo pipes attached to a gourd-shaped wind chest. The central pipe has finger holes, while the two outer pipes act as drone pipes, and air is blown into a mouthpiece at the front of the wind chest.

Dai Traditional Dress

In their multi-coloured silk skirts and tight-fitting shirts, the Dai women look as fragile and beautiful as flower petals. Their clothes, particularly their underclothes, are normally block, pastel-colours such as sky blue, spring green, blossom pink, or snow white. Traditionally their short shirts expose a portion of their lower back and have a bejewelled collar. They button down the front or the right side, and can be sleeveless, short-sleeved, or long-sleeved.

The accompanying skirt or sarong is tight-fitting, narrow and long, ranging from calf to floor-length. In some areas, women will wrap multi-coloured silk girdles around their waist to further emphasise their slender midriff. Resplendent in their simple elegance, with their long hair curled in a bun and fastened by a decorative comb, the Dai appear like lithe pixies gliding through the tropical rainforests.

With such a wealth of natural beauty, the women rarely bother with embellishments but some young women will decorate their hair with fresh flowers while older women will wear a bamboo straw hat for practical reasons. Although jewellery is not as popular among the Dai as it is with other ethnic minorities, they will sometimes wear silver earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and are fond of articles made from jade, agate or coloured glass.

Historically, a bizarre tradition amongst the Dai women resulted in them being referred to as the “old teeth” or “blackened teeth” people during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties. This tradition involved chewing betel nuts until ones teeth became completely black. Blackened teeth were considered a modicum of beauty and modesty by the Dai, and from a practical standpoint it appears that the betel nut juice also prevented cavities! A similar practice was carried out by Japanese women during the 16th century for roughly the same reasons so you never know, with fashion becoming ever stranger and dentistry becoming more expensive, we may see a revival of the “old teeth” look in the coming years!

The traditional dress of Dai men resembles that of the women, although it is not as ornate and they don’t wear skirts! They prefer tight-sleeved collarless jackets that are buttoned from the front or the right side, which are accompanied by loose trousers. They are often seen wearing white, black, or blue turbans and, during the winter months, it is not uncommon to see a man with colourful blankets draped over his shoulders. However, like the black-toothed women, the Dai men have an obscure aesthetic tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

When a boy reaches the age of about 11 or 12, he will normally invite a tattoo artist to adorn his torso or limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns, or letters of the Dai script. First the pattern will be drawn on the skin using a coloured dye, and is then pricked into the skin using a fine needle. This allows the dye to sink into the skin and, after a period of time known as the “curing period”, the tattoo is permanent.

According to local legend, the Dai people were once nomads who were desperately searching for a suitable homeland. They would move from river to river in search of fish to eat but, one day, they came upon a river guarded by a fierce dragon. The dragon’s eyesight was poor so it would only attack based on colour. In an attempt to deceive the water dragon, the Dai painted their skin in the colours of the dragon himself.

However, as they entered the river to fish, the paint gradually washed off and the dragon, realising they were not kin, fell upon them with renewed rage. Luckily, the Dai managed to escape but were crestfallen that their plan had failed. It was then that a clever shaman figured out how they could make the paint permanent. By applying the paint and then pricking the skin, the colour would sink into the skin itself and the pattern would stay. This is how the Dai practice of tattooing was born and, when it comes to tattoos, the Dai men believe “the more, the better”. I suppose you’d feel the same way if your tattoos were the only thing standing between you and an angry dragon!