Dai people

Dai peoples
Total population
(8 million (approx.))
Regions with significant populations
 China 1,158,989[1]
 Laos 126,229
 Thailand 145,236
 Myanmar 6,345,236
Tai Lü, Tai Nüa, Tai Dam, Mandarin Chinese, Lao, Thai
Theravada Buddhism and Dai folk religion [2]

The Dai people (Kam Mueang: ᨴᩱ᩠ᨿ; Thai: ไท; Shan: တႆး [tai˥˩]; Tai Nüa: ᥖᥭᥰ, [tai˥], Chinese: ; pinyin: Dǎizú) are one of several ethnic groups living in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (both in southern Yunnan, China), but by extension can apply to groups in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar when Dai is used to mean specifically Tai Yai, Lue, Chinese Shan, Tai Dam, Tai Khao or even Tai in general. For other names, please see the table below.

Name ambiguity

The Dai people form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China, and are closely related to the Lao and Thai people who form a majority in Laos and Thailand. Originally, the Tai, or Dai, lived closely together in modern Yunnan Province until political chaos and wars in the north at the end of the Tang and Song Dynasty and various nomadic peoples prompted some to move further south into modern Laos then Thailand. As with many other officially recognized ethnic groups in China (See Gaoshan and Yao), the term Dai at least within Chinese usage is an umbrella term and as such has no equivalent in Tai languages who have only more general terms for 'Tai peoples in general' (e.g., Tai Lue: tai˥˩, but this term refers to all Dai people, not including Zhuang) and 'Tai people in China' (e.g., Thai: ชาวไทในจีน'), both of which include the Zhuang for example which is not the case in the Chinese; and more specific terms, as shown in the table below. Therefore the word Dai, like with the aforementioned Yao, is a Han-Chinese cultural concept which has now been adopted by other languages such as English, French and German (see respective Wikipedias). As a solution in the Thai language, however, as in English, the term Tai Lue can be used to mean Dai, despite referring to other groups as in the table below. This is because the two main groups actually bear the same name, both meaning 'Northern Tai' (lue and nüa are cognate).

Although they are officially recognized as a single people by the Chinese state, these Tai people form several distinct cultural and linguistic groups. The two main languages of the Dai are Dai Lü (Sibsongbanna Dai) and Dai Nüa (Daihong Dai); two other written languages used by the Dai are Tày Pong and Tai Dam. They all are Tai languages, a group of related languages that includes Thai, Lao, and Zhuang, and part of the Tai–Kadai language family. Various dialects of the Tai/Dai language family are spoken from Assam, India to Taiwan and Shanxi Province, China. The Tai peoples follow their traditional religion as well as Theravadin Buddhism, and maintain similar customs and festivals (such as the Sankrant) to the other Tai-speaking peoples. They are among the few natives groups in China who nominally practice the Theravada school of Buddhism.

Tai groups and names

Chinese Pinyin Tai Lü Tai Nüa Thai Conventional Area(s)
(Xīshuāngbǎnnà Dǎi)
tai˥˩ lɯː˩ ไทลื้อ Tai Lü, Tai Lue, Lue Sipsongpanna Tai Autonomous Prefecture, Laos, ThailandBurmaVietnam
(Déhóng Dǎi)
tai˥˩ nəː˥ tai
ไทเหนือ, ไทใต้คง, ไทใหญ่ Tai Nüa, Northern Tai, Upper Tai, Chinese Shan, Tai Yai Dehong (德宏); Burma
傣擔 Dǎidān tai˥˩ dam˥ ไทดำ, ลาวโซ่ง, ไททรงดำ, Tai Dam, Black Tai, Tai Lam, Lao Song Dam*, Tai Muan, Tai Tan, Black Do, Jinping Dai, Tai Den, Tai Do, Tai Noir, Thai Den Jinping (金平), Laos, Thailand
傣繃 Dǎibēng tai˥˩pɔːŋ˥ ไทเบง, ไทมาว, ไทใหญ่ Tay Pong Ruili (瑞丽), Gengma (耿马),
along the Mekong
傣端 Dǎiduān tai˥˩doːn˥ ไทขาว White Tai, Tày Dón, Tai Khao, Tai Kao, Tai Don, Dai Kao, White Dai, Red Tai, Tai Blanc, Tai Kaw, Tày Lai, Thai Trang Jinping (金平)
傣雅 Dǎiyǎ tai˥˩jaː˧˥ ไทหย่า Tai Ya, Tai Cung, Cung, Ya Xinping (新平), Yuanjiang (元江)
傣友 Dǎiyǒu tai˥˩jiu˩ ไทโยว Yuanyang (元阳),
along the Red River
* lit. "Lao [wearing] black trousers"


Peoples classified as Dai in China speak the following Southwestern Tai languages.

Yunnan (1998:150)[3] lists 4 major Tai language varieties.


The original areas of the Tai Lue included both sides of the Mekong River in the Sipsongpanna. According to the Tai Lue, there were five city-states on the east bank and six on the west, which with Jinghong formed twelve rice field divisions with all twelve having another 32 small provinces. These were:

On the west bank - Rung, Ha, Sae, Lu, Ong, Luang, Hun, Phan, Chiang Choeng, Hai, Chiang Lo and Mang; On the east bank - La, Bang, Hing, Pang, La, Wang, Phong, Yuan, Bang and Chiang Thong (present-day Luang Prabang). (These names are transcribed according to their Thai Language pronunciations not their Tai Lue(Dai) pronunciations. If transcribed according to their Tai Lue pronunciations they would be as follows: Hung, Ha, Sae, Lu, Ong, Long, Hun, Pan, Cheng Choeng, Hai, Cheng Lo, Mang, La, Bang, Hing, Pang, La, Wang, Pong, Yon, Bang and Cheng Tong)

Some portions of these Tai Lue either voluntarily moved or were forcibly herded from these city-states around one to two hundred years ago, arriving in countries of present-day Burma, Laos and Thailand.

The Tai Yong

In the 19th Buddhist century Chao Sunanda, son of the ruler of Chiang Rung, led a following of Tai Lue from Chiang Rung to Yong in present-day Shan State .

Family ties with and a tributary system to the city-states of Chiang Rung and Kengtong, and the building of official alliances with clusters of city-states around Chiang Rai on the banks of the Mekong, such as Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong.

Given this history, the Tai Yong are the Tai Lue. In Thailand, these people are still known as Tai Lue Mueang Yong, as distinct from the Tai Khoen of Kengtung (Kyaingtong) and the Tai Yai of Shan state generally. The term Shan is generally not used in Thai.

Tai Lue in Thailand

Wat Rong Ngae is a Thai Lue temple in Pua District, Nan Province

In Thailand there are Tai Lue in many provinces of the upper regions of Northern Thailand; these provinces are:


The Dai people are typically farmers, growing a variety of tropical crops such as pineapples, in addition to the staple crop of rice. Many Dai live near the Mekong river where it meanders through the far south of Yunnan.


  1. "Ethnic Groups". China.org.cn.
  2. Haimei Shen. Risk Society, the Predicaments of Folk Religion and Experience of Modernity: The Guardian Spirits in the Mandi Dailue Ethnic Society of Xishuangbanna. China: An International Journal , Vol. 11, No. 2
  3. Yunnan Gazetteer Commission [云南省地方志编纂委员会] (ed). 1998. Yunnan Provincial Gazetteer, Vol. 59: Minority Languages Orthographies Gazetteer [云南省志. 卷五十九, 少数民族语言文字志]. Kunming: Yunnan People's Press [云南人民出版社].
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