To understand the connection we have with puerh tea, it is imperative that we talk about the land on which it is grown and harvested. For generations, the Dai ethnic minority of China have cultivated some of the best puerh the tea drinking world has ever known.
Along the southwestern border of the Yunnan province that runs alongside Laos and Myanmar is where you can find the Dai people. They are one of the 55 ethic minorities that live with the predominantly Han Chinese population. Interestingly, the Dai people of China are very similar to the thai culture that permeates either side of the Mekong delta. Their land extends from hilly mountain side to lower flatlands, the former of which is often used for cultivating the finest puerh tea. There are up to 1.5 million Dai in China and more than 7 million in Laos and Myanmar while a mere 200,00 remain in Thailand.
The long and illustrious history of the Dai People
According to Chinese historians, the Dai's forefathers are known to have lived in the Yangtze River basin, far to the north. However, as the Qin Empire (221–206 BC) and later the Han Empire (206 BC–20 AD) gained control of the basin, the Han people and their dominance of the region grew. The Zhuang people settled north of Yunnan in Guangxi Province and the neighbouring territories. Others migrated south towards Yunnan, where they formed the Dai.
Emperor Wu Di of the Western Han Dynasty formed a vast prefecture across Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces to administer and rule the Dai. The Dai developed innovative agricultural practises tailored to the region like oxen for tilling, thanks to the favourable environment.
Further battles and invasions drove a portion of Yunnan's ancient Dai people south into Thailand and Laos about a thousand years ago. These are the people who are now known as Thais and Laotians.
The Dai have historically been custodians of land use and agricultural efforts due to their influence over the lowlands and the Mekong River commerce. They are well-known for their plentiful rice harvests, which include both white and the unique purple rice cultivated by the Flower Waisted Dai, a tribe of note within the ethnicity.
The Written Language of the Dai
The Dai language is part of the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong Phylum, or language family, of Chinese-Tibetan languages. The Dai have their own unique writing system, which uses an alphabetic rather than a character-based script. This writing system has five separate branches that are used by the numerous Dai groups in China. The most prevalent of them are the Daikou and Daina writing systems, commonly known as the Xinshuangbanna and Dehong writing systems, respectively.
Cultural Attire of the Dai
Dai costumes have historically been a short, narrow-sleeved garment worn with a sarong. Although their modern clothing is available in a broad variety of styles, there are certain similarities.
A typical feminine undergarment tends to be light blue, spring green, pink, or white. Over these clothes, many ladies wear a short-waisted shirt that exposes a part of the lower back. The collar of this shirt is generally jewel-style. These are styled with a calf to floor-length tight skirt and a comb-secured bun hairdo.
The tight-sleeved, collarless coats that male Dais typically have some resemblance to their feminine counterparts. These are paired with long, baggy pants. Turbans are available in white, black, and blue. A blanket can also be draped across the shoulders in chilly weather.
Melodies and Dance of the Dai
The Drum Dance, Peacock Dance, and Lion Dance are among the most popular songs and dances in Dai culture. The elephant foot drum, aptly named because of its form, is used to accompany most dances.
These drums are crafted from hollowed logs that have been wrapped with sheep or python skin, then painted vivid colours and embellished with peacock feathers. The drums include a ribbon or strap that allows dancers to throw them over their shoulders and play them while dancing.
Among the many traditional dances, the Peacock Dance is recognised for its undulating arm and torso gestures, as well as many moves that mimic peacock activity. Step walking, seeking for water, glancing around, bathing, drying the wings, spreading the tail feathers, and flying from the nest are all examples. These avian gestures are frequently mixed with the performer's own free-form dancing moves.
Dai Cultural Festivities
The Dai people's festivals are mainly linked to their religion. The Door Closing Festival, the Door Opening Festival, and the Water Splashing Festival are the three main festivities.
The Water Splashing Festival, which occurs during Chinese New Year, kicks off the Dai calendar (between early January and the end of February depending on the lunar calendar). This is the most significant Dai festival and the first Buddhist celebration of the year. The festival lasts three days.
Dragon-boat races are held on the first two days of the festival as a way of bidding farewell to the previous year. People take a ceremonial bath, change into new clothes, and head to the temple on the third day, early in the morning.
Following that, there is a fun splashing of water, which is essentially a water fight, especially for the young. Everyone who happens to be passing by can be a target. Anyone splashed in the water is said to get good luck for the new year. Its roots may be traced back to the Buddhist rite of "bathing the Buddha." Songkran, the Thai name for the holiday, is also extensively observed in Thailand.
The lasting legacy of the Dai: Puerh Tea
Puerh tea has been grown in the mountains for hundreds of years and consumed by the masses and the elite connoisseurs for just as long. In fact, the Dai people have perfected this tea as an art and a science, to produce highly sought after leaves that have graced the cups of commoner and noble alike. That is why, as a Dai myself, I feel it is my duty to share this legacy with you.