Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
The Historical Debate

Dai People in China and Thailand
Scholars have long held different opinions regarding the history and the origin of the Dai. Not only has this resulted in varied understandings of the Dai kingdoms that have existed throughout history, it has also sparked the debate on whether it was Dai people who had established the ancient Nanzhao Kingdom. Often this was not merely about different academic views, but something political as well. The Dai people in Yunnan are an ethnic group that has a complicated history with Thailand, just as it does with China, the “Central Kingdom.”

The History of the Dai and Tai Kingdoms
Dai people in Yunnan, the Shan in Myanmar, and the mainstream Tai in Thailand are all members of the same language family, and are intimately intertwined with each other throughout history. Around the ninth century A.D., a number of Dai and Shan tribes in the northern Indochinese Peninsula and along the edge of southern Yunnan formed a large and powerful kingdom in order to defend themselves against vicious attacks by the Khmer people from the southern region of the peninsula. In 857 A.D., the Tai people of northern Siam broke free from Khmer control and declared independence. Shortly afterwards, a Tai kingdom called the Kingdom of Lan Na appeared where today’s Chiang Mai, Thailand, is located, followed by the establishment of a handful of small kingdoms in today’s Cambodia, Myanmar, and northern Vietnam. In order to fight against the Khmers, the above kingdoms united to form a kingdom known as Yonaka. At the same time, similar events were taking place in the Dai territory in the west. During the 11th century, four tribes united together and established a new kingdom named Kausambi.5
The Kausambi Kingdom mentioned here was founded by the Tai and Dai people, and is not the same as the Kausambi Kingdom in India.
The territory of Kausambi reached north to Tengchong and the Ayeyarwady River, south to the upper reaches of the Maenam River, and east to the border of Yonaka.

After the birth of the Kingdom of Yonaka, in 1180 A.D. a kingdom called Jinglong Golden Palace, also known as the Menglue Kingdom, appeared in Xishuangbanna.6
In 1570, the twenty-first king of the Mengle Kingdom divided his nation into twelve administrative districts—“Panna” in Dai language—that served as tributaries to him. As a result, the Mengle Kingdom was also called Sipsong Panna (sipsong means “twelve”), or Xishuangbanna (Xie Shi-Zong 1993:91).
Its founder was a Dai leader named Bazhen. He was one of the first generation of zhaopianling officials in Dai history in Xishuangbanna,7
The term zhaopianling literally means the lord of the vast land, and although it was originally used to refer to local tribal chiefs, it was later used to refer to the highest ruler of Xishuangbanna. This position is equal to the cheli zongguan position in the Yuan Dynasty, and the cheli xuanweishi position in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
as well as the first person to establish a unified political entity in Xishuangbanna. Within the boundaries of Xishuangbanna, various Dai tribes had long controlled the portions of land that they each occupied, and after Bazhen conquered or recruited these tribes to form a union, he become the leader of the union but preserved each tribe’s internal organization. Menglue Kingdom has an official history, which recorded that Bazhen took over Menglue in 1180, and built the capital in Jinglan (today’s Jinghong) ten years later. It was not until then that Lan Na Kingdom, a former ally of Yonaka Kingdom, finally officially recognized Bazhen as its chief leader, and Menglue merged with Yonaka Kingdom, becoming its northern center.

Historical Ties and Conflicts between the Dai and Thailand
According to Lue Shi, the official history of Menglue,8
Le Shi is a history written in the Dai language. It was translated into Chinese by Li Fuyi and published in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 1947, and later republished in Taiwan in 1983.
Bazhen conquered what is northern Southeast Asia today, and let his eldest son rule Lan Na (Chiang Mai), his third son Menglao (today’s Cambodia), and his fourth son Xishuangbanna. The kingdoms that had friendly ties with the Dai people in Xishuangbanna were located in today’s northern and northeastern Thailand.9
When discussing the relationship between the Dai people and the Tai people, one must first distinguish between the typical Tai region (centered on Bangkok), and northern Thailand (centered on Chiang Mai) and northeastern Thailand (which is known as I-san). The language and religious rituals of the Tai people in Chiang Mai are different from that of the people in Bangkok, Siam. Lao people form the majority of the residents in I-san. Up until the late nineteenth century, there had been dozens of independent and semi-independent kingdoms in both the northern Thailand and northeastern Thailand regions. Later these two regions were acquired by Siam for its purpose of developing into a nation state.

The Academic Debate concerning the Nanzhao Kingdom
Thai scholars believe that the Nanzhao Kingdom, which appeared in Yunnan during the Tang Dynasty(618-690 AD), was built by Tai people. Elementary and middle school textbooks in Thailand describe how early Tai kings founded the Nanzhao Kingdom, only to be chased by the Chinese and forced to move away from their homeland of Yunnan to today’s Indochinese Peninsula. However, Chinese scholars strongly disagree with the Thai and Western scholars’ theory that the Nanzhao Kingdom was an independent nation established by Tai people, dismissing it as nonsense. Thai and Western scholars believe that Tai people, which are the dominant race in Thailand today, belong to the same race as the Dai people in Yunnan and the Shan people in Myanmar. These people originally inhabited central China and the Yangtze River region, but were later forced by Han people to relocate to Yunnan, where they founded the independent Nanzhao Kingdom (later known as the Dali Kingdom). In the 13th century, this kingdom was conquered by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, causing many to migrate to the borders of today’s Yunnan, Myanmar, and Thailand. The latter in particular received a significant influx of new migrants, who became the nation’s dominant race. To this day there is still no universally agreed-upon opinion in the Chinese academic world on the ethnic origin of the Nanzhao Kingdom, but the controversy is centered on the Bai people and the Yi people, for academics have already dismissed the possibility that Dai or Tai peoples made up the royal family and dominant race of the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The first scholar to propose that Tai people founded the Nanzhao Kingdom was Terrien de Lacouperie of University of London, who discussed the theory in his book, The Cradle of the Shan Race. The American pastor William Clefton Dodd directly stated that Siam was formerly Nanzhao in his book, The Tai Race. When British scholar W.A.R. Wood talked about the ancient history of Tai people in his History of Siam, what he mentioned was actually the history of Ailao (Laos) and Nanzhao. Chinese scholars strongly rebuked such views, emphasizing that according to ancient documents, Dai people have long been subjects of the “central kingdom” of China, and that they had by no means founded the Nanzhao Kingdom. (See the discussion on the Bai people on this website for more details on Chinese historians’ studies on the Nanzhao Kingdom.)
Copyright © Institute of History & Philology, Academia Sinica . All Rights Reserved