The Dai peoples

The official category "Dai" includes several Tai-speaking groups linguistically related to other peoples belonging to the Tai-Kadai (Dong-Tai in Chinese) linguistic family and officially classified under the categories Zhuang, Li, or Shui. Those groups currently categorized as "Dai" were traditionally designated by the Han Chinese as "Pai-yi"/ "Bai-yi" -a name whose origin remains obscure.

Some Han Chinese, following also traditional categories, still divide the peoples included under the "Dai" category according to non-emic denominations, such as Han Dai (Dry-land Tai) and Shui Dai (Water Tai), Huayao Dai (Flowered-belt Tai), etc. Such clasiffications, nowadays often assumed by members of the groups themselves, must be abandoned if one is to have a clear historical perspective of the culture of these groups.

The two most important Tai groups included in the "Dai" category are the Tai Neua, who inhabited mainly the Tai Khong area (Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture), as well as other regions along the Burmese border, and the Tai Lue, who live mostly in the Sipsong Panna (Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture), bordering Myanmar and Laos. There are also smaller populations of these groups in neighboring Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

While the culture of these main groups, as well as that of the Tai Mao, also concentrated in the Tai Khong area and along the Burmese border, is determined by the Theravada Buddhist tradition, other groups, such as the Tai Ya (Huayao Dai) in Xinping County, have maintained Tai cults previous to the arrival of Buddhism in the area. This is also the case for a small number of Tai groups living along the Vietnamese border, such as the Tai Dam, Tai Khao or the Tai Leang (Black, White and Red Tai, respectively), whose main populations are in Northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

In spite of a supposed common origin and common cultural traits, historically most of the groups categorized as "Dai" had hardly any contact among them: the Tai Neua or the Tai Lue, for instance, were closer to other Tai groups inhabiting areas being part of present-day Myanmar-Burma or Thailand, such as the Tai Kheun (Kentung, Shan State, Myanmar) or the Tai Yuan of Lanna (Northern Thailand).

Traditionally, Tai groups ruled over polities known in Tai language as muang, multi-ethnic domains of variable extension in which the Tai groups would occupy the paddy fields of the lowland areas and exert political domination over mountain-dwellers -mainly Mon-Khmer or Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups such as Bulang, Akha/ Hani or Lahu.

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