Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  

The Bai people, also known as “Minjia,” has the largest population among all of the ethnic minority groups in China today. Members of this ethnic group mainly reside in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in western Yunnan Province, which includes the flatlands (bazi) centered on the Erhai Plain and its surroundings. They call themselves “Bai,” ”Bai ren,” “Bai zi,” or “Bai ni,” which means “descendants of the Bai King.” After the People’s Republic of China was established, the Bai ethnic group underwent the nationality identification project of the 1950s and finally became the “Bai Nationality,” one of China’s fifty-six “ethnic minority groups” [sic]. Until ethnic identification became a national policy, Bai society had been considered no different from any typical rural society in China. This was mainly due to the fact that out of the various ethnic minority groups in Yunnan, the Bai people’s society most culturally resembles that of the Han people, especially in terms of architecture, language, religion, and high level of literacy in the villages. Lineage records found in many Bai households state that the ancestors of these families were Han people who had come from Nanjing. In fact, before the 1950s many ethnic Bai intellectuals matter-of-factly considered themselves Han. But when these self-proclaimed “Han people” started to call themselves “Bai” after the ‘50s, this phenomenon became a thought-provoking topic in contemporary ethnic studies.

One might consider the Bai people an ethnic group constructed by history. This is because in the course of history, the main body of this particular ethnic group and its ethnic identity once vanished, and later reappeared due. The formation of the Bai ethnic group can be traced back to Nanzhao Dali Kingdom, which was established in the 8th century A.D. (752-1254). At the time, the king of Nanzhao organized the various independent tribal leaders into a single ruling class, which became an aristocracy based on a combination of political, military, and religious powers. This ruling class was composed of leaders from many different indigenous tribes, including Heman (river babarians), Baiman (white babarians), and Wuman (black barbarians), as well as elites who had migrated to the southwest from the Central Plains during different time periods. Approximately during the Dali Kingdom era (938-1254), these various tribes and clans began to develop a collective and symbolic “Bai” ethnic identity. From this early bit of history we can infer that the monarchy’s basis of power was one important mechanism for subjugating inhabitants. From the 13th century onwards, Dali Kingdom fell under the external rule of Yuan and Ming emperors, causing the kingdom’s former rulers and aristocrats to change their ethnic identity and start claiming that their ancient predecessors had originated from Nanjing. However, at the same time, because a large number of migrants were assigned to develop agriculture at formerly military areas, their language, style of dress, and literacy rate and degree of participation in the National Exam (ke ju) of males were almost equal to Han people. This is why in the early years of the Republican era, when such people were called “Minjia,” the term “Minjia” still suggested that they were, to a certain degree, ethnic Han. During the 1950s, when Chinese authorities began to identify and classify ethnic minorities in China, the ethnic identity of “Minjia” people was once again brought into the spotlight by members of their own society and reintroduced via historical investigation. Based on this we can say that the Bai people is an ethnic group that was formed on the foundation of historical identification.

During the early stages of history, the Bai people were once an enormously powerful monarchy in China’s southwestern region. Therefore, the local culture and folk religion of the Bai people carry connotations of royalty and aristocracy; rural villages in particular have preserved tales and legends about past kings and queens. In addition, many cross-regional activities, such as “rao sang lin” and the “Torch Festival,” are heavily influenced by the ethnic group’s monarchal past. In the Bai people’s religious belief of local gods, we can also observe their idolization of historical heroes and kings and queens. Long ago the Bais made the Erhai Plain their center of development and built their royal palace here. As a result, today the Erhai region is still densely populated by Bai people, and most members of Bai communities outside of the Erhai region also trace their ancestry back to the Bai King who was based in this region. This is why they call themselves “descendants of the Bai King.”

For a long period of time, the Bai people lived in their Erhai Plain kingdom, where agriculture and transportation systems were highly developed, and as a result this ethnic group has long been characterized by a willingness to absorb foreign cultures. They frequently communicate and interact with other ethnic minorities and the Han, which allows them to take in the culture of other social groups, including that of the Tufans in the north, the Burmese in the south, and the Sichuanese in the northeast. It is because of this long-term interaction that we can still observe elements from surrounding cultures in areas mainly inhabited by Bai people, for example, the esoteric Acarya school of Buddhism of an early period, the Daoist-leaning Dongjing sect, and long-term commercial activities between different ethnic groups. Later on, cultures of the Bai regions began to develop Han-like characteristics.
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