The Dai ethnic group, with a population of about 1,158,989, mainly lives in the Dai Autonomous Region and the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Region in Xishuangbanna in the southern part of Yunnan Province. Dai is the name of the nationality, which means 'freedom' or 'human beings'.
Descendants of the same ancestors as the ancient 'Baiyue' people, the Dai ethnic group has strong connections with nationalities such as Zhuang, Dong, Shui, Bouyei, and Li. The earliest records about the Dai ethnic group can be traced back to 1 B.C., when it was named 'Dianyue' or 'Shan'.
The Dai ethnic group has its own language that belongs to the Zhuang-Dai branch of Zhuang-Dong Austronesian of Chinese-Tibetan Phylum, and it is written in unique characters.
The Dai ethnic group was the first in history to plant rice and to use a furrow to plough. Living in a subtropical climatic zone with abundant rainfall and fertile land, Dai's main products are rice, sugar cane, coffee, hemp, rubber, camphor, and various fruits. Besides rare plants and herbs, animals such as elephants, tigers and peacocks can also be found in the residential areas of the Dai people.
Eating rice as their staple food, Dai people enjoy beef, chicken, and duck as well as fish and shrimp. Their favorite vegetables include cabbages, carrots, bamboo shoots and beans. All Dai people like sour and hot flavors.
Dai women's clothes have a variety of styles. In the Xishuangbanna area, women often wear white, sky-blue or pink tight under garments with a jewel-collared short shirt over them that buttons either down the front or on the right. The shirt has long, slim sleeves that wrap tightly around the arms. It is narrow-waisted, exposing the lower back. Below the shirt is usually a long, tight skirt that can even reach the feet. Many women wear a silk girdle around their waists and wind their long hair into a bun on top of their heads, fixing it with a single beautiful crescent-moon-shaped comb.
Men wear collarless tight-sleeved short jackets, with the opening at the front or along the right side, and long baggy trousers. They wind black or white turbans around their heads. Tattooing is common amongst them; when a boy reaches the age of 11 or 12, a tattoo artist is invited to tattoo his torso and limbs with designs of animals, flowers, geometric patterns or Dai script.
Most Dai people believe in Hinayana, a sect of Buddhism. There are many Buddhist temples in the countryside, and it is common practice, especially in Xishuangbanna, to send young boys to the temples to learn the Buddhism scriptures. Some of them later become monks, but the majority returns to secular life.
Dai festivals, closely related to religious activities, include the 'Door-Closing Festival' in mid-June, the 'Door-Opening Festival' in mid-September, and the 'Water-Splashing Festival' in spring.