The Bai ethnic minority

The Bai ethnic minority


  Over 80% of the 1,860,000 Bais inhabit Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, with a scattering found in Xichang and Bijie in neighboring Sichuan and Guizhou provinces respectively.

  The Bais speak a language related to the Yi branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese group of the Chinese-Tibetan language family.

  Situated on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the Bai area is crisscrossed with rivers, of which the major ones are the Lancang(Mekong),


 the Nujiang(Salween) and the Jinsha(Yangtze). Dali is blessed with a mild climate and fertile land yielding two crops a year. Here, the main crops are rice, winter wheat, beans, millet, cotton, rape, sugar-cane and tobacco. The forests have valuable stocks of timber, herbs of medicinal value and rare animals. Mt. Cangshan contains a rich deposit of the famous Dali marble, which is basically pure white with veins of red, light blue, green and milky yellow. It is treasured as building material as well as for carving.

  Their traditional national dress adds much to the daily scene. Both men and woman show a partiality for white, with a Bai man usually wearing a short black gown over his jacket with buttons down the front, while a Bai woman coiling her hair over her head and often wearing a black or blue gown over her white jacket. The daily attire for Bai girls is red closing-fitting jackets without sleeves. They like to wear one pigtail tied with a red string and colorful towel wrapped about their head and snowy tassels waving to and fro on the right side.

  The Bai celebrate many festivals, the largest of which is Third Month Festival, which had its origins over a thousand years ago. This festival, which starts on the 15th day of the third lunar month (usually April or early May), has become more secular as the Bai and the other minorities from around the area gather in the foothills of the Cangshan Mountain for 7 days of singing, dancing, wresting, horse racing, and large-scale trading of everything from Tibetan-made felt and silk floss to horses and medicinal herbs.

  The local products include Dali marble, compressed tea lumps, marble inlaid furniture, straw weaving, and tie-dye cloth. 

Origins and History

    As early as the New Stone Age, Dali was inhabited by the ancestors of the Bais and the people used stone tools, engaged in farming, livestock rearing, fishing and hunting, and dwelt in caves.

    The people in the Erhai area developed closer ties with the Han majority in inland provinces in the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties. The Han people brought more advanced production techniques and iron tools, contributing to the economic development of the area. During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the farming there had reached a level close to that of the central plains.

    In 737, Bai aristocrats backed by the Tang court unified the people of the Erhai area and established the Nanzhao regime of Yis and Bais. The Nanzhao regime lasted for 250 years. Nanzhao's power came to an end in the year 902. Then a regime based on a feudal lord system, known as the Kingdom of Dali, was established. The kingdom lasted for over 300 years (937-1253) as a tributary to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) court.

The kingdom’s prosperity continued until 1253 when Kublai Khan’s armies conquered the region and Dali became a remote but important outpost in the Mongol’s vast military empire.