An Introduction to China's Bai People

Bai Traditional Dress
Bai Traditional Dress | © Luca Casartelli / Flickr
Photo of Rachel Deason
11 May 2018
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The ancient Bai were once at the center of a great kingdom in Yunnan. Though life has inevitably changed for the Bai since their incorporation into China, many of their traditions are still alive today.

The Bai are a highly visible minority group of roughly two million living primarily in and around Yunnan’s famous Dali region. The name “Bai” means white, a color which the Bai associate with dignity and high social status and one which describes the sheepskin clothing they wore centuries ago.

Homeland

The Bai are blessed with fertile land, having historically been centered around Erhai Lake and the foot of the Blue Mountain in Yunnan province. Because of the accessibility and desirability of their homeland, the Bai have long had interactions with other ethnic groups, most notably the Han.

Today, roughly 80% of Bai still live in their ancestral homeland, which has since been termed Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Others are spread throughout Guizhou‘s Bijie area and Hunan‘s Sangzhi area.

Visitors to Dali‘s old town have many opportunities to buy handicrafts from local Bai residents and see them in their traditional dress.

Dali, Yunnan | © Zhang Yu / Flickr

History

Archaeological evidence found around Erhai Lake confirms that the Bai existence dates back as far as 2050 BC. By the 8th century AD, the Bai were part of a flourishing kingdom called Nanzhao, whose capital was at Dali. In the 9th century, after an unsuccessful attempt to expand into Sichuan, the Nanzhao Kingdom was overthrown by a man named Duan Siping, who, although he claimed Han heritage, was likely Bai. Duan established the Dali Kingdom, which maintained good relations with China. The kingdom survived until the Yuan dynasty, when it was conquered by Kublai Khan and incorporated into China.

The Mongols of the Yuan dynasty were driven out by the succeeding dynasty, the Ming, at which point many Han Chinese moved to the Dali area and intermarried with the Bai.

Elderly Bai Women | © utpala ॐ / Flickr

Culture

The Bai culture has been fairly well preserved, due in part to the tourist boom in and around Dali. Though Bai traditions are not being practiced in the same way they once were, being instead performed for tourists, the boom has given many Bai the opportunity to live an ancient lifestyle in the modern age.

One tradition that has been kept alive for the Bai’s entire existence is cormorant fishing on Erhai Lake. Unfortunately, this particular tradition is endangered by rising water pollution levels.

The Bai traditionally speak Bai, a Sino-Tibetan language that once had its own writing system. Today, that system has been replaced by Chinese characters.

Most Bai practice Buddhism, but an indigenous folk religion called Benzhuism is still held on to by some. The religion centers around the worship of the ngel zex, or local gods and deified ancestors, such as a Nanzhao prince, for example.

Bai Handicrafts | © Mulligan Stu / Flickr

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