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cultural transformation and ecological sustainability among the dai people in xishuangbanna

By: James Miller

A conservation biologist by training, I first arrived in Xishuangbanna because of my interest in the ecological value of sacred groves called “holy hills,” fragments of old-growth rainforest that remain protected by indigenous Dai people despite rapid deforestation due to the proliferation of rubber plantations.

A typical landscape: rice paddies in the valley, rubber on the hillsides.
The Dai protect holy hills because they believe their gods reside in these groves of large trees. As a result, holy hills are often the only fragments of natural forests remaining outside nature reserves and have been documented containing endangered species from China’s Plant Red Data List.

I realized quickly upon my arrival that the question of conservation with holy hills requires a strong cultural perspective: because holy hills are religious entities without formal government protection, their existence and persistence is entirely dependent on local people and how they maintain their traditions. The relationship between the Dai and their sacred landscapes is long and complex, and I will not delve into that discussion in this current post. Instead, I will share some preliminary observations of changes in cultural and religious practices among the Dai from my two months in Xishuangbanna in summer 2011.

A holy hill: “White Elephant Mountain.”

For those of you who are new to this area of the world, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province of southwest China is renowned for its exceptional natural beauty. Although the region covers only 0.2% of the country’s land area, it contains 16% of China’s plant biodiversity, 36% of China’s bird species, 22% of China’s mammal species, and 15% of China’s reptile and amphibian diversity. The people of Xishuangbanna are no less diverse, with more than 13 recognized minority nationalities, including Dai, Hani, Yi, Lahu, Bulang, Jinuo, Yao, Miao, Bai, Hui, Va, and Zhuang. With rich histories of traditional practices and beliefs, these minorities comprise roughly 75% of the local population. The Dai people, with 30% of the local population, are the biggest ethnic group in this area.

The Dai may have arrived in Yunnan as early as 3,700 years ago. Before Theravada Buddhism was introduced in the middle of the Tang dynasty, about 700 C.E., Dai religious life was heavily bound to the natural world. The Dai perception of the human-nature relationship consisted of five major elements: forest, water, land, gods, and humanity. Today, they still believe that the forest is humanity’s cradle, that water comes from the forests, that land is fed by the water, and that food comes from the land that is fed by the water and forests. Dai culture is deeply rooted in nature, as a traditional Dai folk song illustrates: “If you cut down all the trees, you have only the bark to eat; if you destroy the forests, you destroy your road to future.” To them, human life is supported by the forests, which are also intertwined with the supernatural realm.

Drying rubber latex.

Historically, the Dai live on the land by cropping upland rice and clearing forests. Their traditional land management practices include the collection non-timber forest products, cultivation of fuelwood trees, development of homegarden plants and different types of agroforestry, establishment of sacred holy hills as community-protected areas, and management of diverse plants in temple yards. More recently, the Dai have adopted a new land use practice: the cultivation of rubber. Following the 1949 revolution, rubber was first introduced to Xishuangbanna as a crop in state farms because it was thought to be a critical product for the national military and industrial development. In the 1980s, communes were dissolved, land was allocated to farmers, and the prefecture government was ordered to help minority farmers pursue economic development. The first smallholder rubber campaign began in the mid-1980s. It served two purposes: to help state rubber farms meet the rising national demand for rubber, and to help raise minority farmers’ incomes. Thirty years later, the campaign is more successful than its creators perhaps ever imagined.

Tourists in Dai homes.

Besides rubber, another area of rapid economic growth in Xishuangbanna is tourism. Local minorities entertain tourists with local foods, crafts, dances, songs, and wedding shows. Dai villages are major attractions, and large numbers of tourists are brought to these communities by travel agencies. Improvements in transportation, hotel services, and other tourism facilities have led to an increase in tourists from just over 5000 visitors in 1985 to nearly 2.8 million in 2005. The majority of visitors come from developed areas of China, though the international market is certainly expanding as well. I was quite surprised at the frequency with which I’d encounter Americans and Europeans during my stay.

Thus, it is evident that Xishuangbanna has undergone rapid cultural, ecological, and economic transitions throughout the past few decades. This is reflected both in the landscape and in the people themselves. The growing economy is pervasive, and the Dai are not immune to its effects: people are responding to new opportunities, values are shifting, and new practices arise. The following are a few anecdotes of changes I noticed during my travels.

With Xishuangbanna as one of the hottest new tourist destinations, Dai communities must routinely accommodate large influxes of domestic and international tourists and have modified some traditional practices to do so. According to religious customs surrounding the Kaowasa Festival (or guanmenjie 关门节 in Chinese), Dai villages are to be sealed off for three months such that no one may enter and no one may leave. However, this is impossible for villages with a growing tourist population, and many communities have reduced the sealed-off duration from three months to three days – in the most heavily visited areas, I was told that some villages can only be sealed for three hours!

Components of a traditional loom.

Many of the traditional activities applauded by tourists are becoming increasingly obsolete in the context of modern society. For example, I was graciously hosted by a lovely family in the village of Mengxingxiazhai, and the grandmother of the family was well-known for her ability to make beautiful traditional clothing. She proudly showed me her loom, and said that she was one of three women remaining in the village who knew how to use one. I asked her why, and she replied that making cloth is time-consuming and inconvenient, so the vast majority of people prefer to purchase their clothing from stores; thus, few young women have expressed interest in learning how to use the loom, and this traditional practice is fading.

Making traditional drums.

This dilution of cultural activities is not limited to making cloth. One man I spoke to, a well-known Dai dancer and traditional drum-maker in Mengla, said that his son is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn Dai dance and drum-making. This man told me the main factor is money: with the lucrative option of farming rubber, the son chooses to spend his time collecting rubber latex instead. Even this man’s wife is opposed to him spending so much time dancing and making drums because she thinks he should be out farming rubber to make money; she says, “Are you crazy? Why are you dancing when everyone else is out planting rubber?”

To my great surprise, I learned that another activity in danger of becoming a relic is going to school. Education is a difficult path to pursue, to which many of us can attest, and the motivation to achieve academic success is simply non-existent for Dai youth in Xishuangbanna. Farming rubber provides a comfortable and stable salary, and no education is required for such a career; thus, the more prudent choice for many is to invest their time and energy in planting rubber instead of reading books. I spoke to schoolteacher in Xishuangbanna who passionately believed in education and strongly encouraged children to stay in school. She told me that the typical response to her campaigns for education was, “What’s the point of going to school? For school graduates like you, your monthly salary is equivalent to my salary for one day. So what’s the point of spending extra time in school? And in addition to me making more money than you, I have more freedom in life.” (The last point is in reference to the growing season for rubber: rubber trees lose their leaves for four months each year, during which rubber latex cannot be collected and most farmers go on vacation.) There are few Dai students who make it to university, and in modern Chinese society where the majority of youth attend university, a Bachelor’s degree does not guarantee a job or any advantage on the job market. Moreover, if these students return to the rubber farms to earn a living, they are at a disadvantage to their peers who chose to stay home and gain experience with farming rubber.

A monk on a motorcycle.

One evening, I met a crowd of teenage boys for beer and fresh barbeque. I found that while all of them could speak Dai, none could read or write. I asked if they learned any Dai in school, and they said very little. The reason for this, I learned from a schoolteacher, is that the curriculum in schools is formatted after a Han curriculum. When speaking to elders in Dai villages, my interviewees said that they learned the most about Dai knowledge and culture when they were monks in the temple as young men. Unfortunately, the recent decline in education is not limited to the secular realm, and enrollment of young boys as monks in temples has also dropped precipitously. Furthermore, for those who do enter monkhood, the rules are significantly relaxed. Monks can leave the temple when they choose to, ride motorcycles, and enjoy many modern luxuries. Many elders saw this slackening of rules as a drop in moral strength; indeed, they said, reports of theft in the temples has been higher than ever before. Twenty years ago, no one would dare to steal from the temple. Now, temple thefts are common enough that they are no longer scandalous.

One important question is: as Dai culture changes, what is preserved? It is obvious that both the land and the people if Xishuangbanna are undergoing a period of rapid transition, and it remains unclear how people will redefine their relationship with their religion, culture, and environment. In the case of my particular interest in holy hills, it appears that culture which created them may not be the same one that preserves them – that is, if the people choose to maintain these holy hills. When speaking to Dai villagers, everybody young and old unanimously asserted their unwavering faith in the spiritual power of the holy hill. Even teenagers who could not read or write Dai still firmly believe in their sacred forests because their parents raised them to revere and fear the holy hill. But with weakening traditions and declines in cultural and spiritual education from schools and temples, how can this reverence be maintained?

Lily Zeng

Categories: Blog, Fieldwork


  1. I believe the continuation of the revered hills will be because of the relationship of the people to the spirits living in the hills. My wife is Cambodian and I have experienced this first hand. The Cambodian culture seems to be similar to the Dai.
    I can discuss my experiences in Cambodia with spirits if you are interested.

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