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The Divergence of Ethnocultural Identities


This article examines the political processes and social environmental factors in the genesis of the Lao Song Dam identity category in Central Thailand as a branch of the Black Tai1 in northern Laos and northwestern Vietnam. Historical documents, ethnographic descriptions, and the observations of Western travelers reveal a pattern of political marginalization and ethnic definition of upland Tai peoples during the consolidation of lowland regions by the Siamese and Lao Tai states during the last six centuries. As the descendants of Black Tai forcibly resettled to the under-populated and undeveloped savannahs of the Chao Phraya river valley, Lao Song emerged and persist as a rural minority people whose distinct identity is based upon the retention of a patrilineal kinship ideology and other supposedly archaic Tai sociocultural traditions within modern Thailand.

My intention in this article is to provide an understanding of the emergent context and significant ethno-history of the Lao Song Dam, a little-known minority Tai people of Central Thailand. For well over a century, Lao Song have persisted as a distinct ethnic category in symbolic opposition to and objective social separation from the majority Central Thai or Siamese polity according to consistent if not unchanged cultural and historic charters. Lao Song are the descendants of Black Tai families taken from the upland valleys of Laos and the Tonkin of Vietnam as captives of the Siamese government during the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, and relocated to the central plains of Thailand. Today, Lao Song costume, dialect, folklore, ritual, and social organizational traditions still have close affinities with those of the Black Tai. Both Lao Song and Black Tai are distinguished along with smaller populations of upland Tai from the majority of Tai peoples occupying areas south of China, by a dialect revealing relatively little Sanscritic and Pali admixture, patrilineal kinship organization, ritual beliefs emphasizing the veneration of patrilineal ancestral spirits, and a traditional but currently abbreviated recognition of feudal class structure. 

The divergence between the Black Tai and the Lao Song represents an unusual case of Tai ethnopolitical diversification in mainland Southeast Asia, not in terms of historical events or political processes, but in the fact that what many scholars might recognize as an archaic or even prototypical Tai culture is embodied in an ethnic tradition incorporated and nurtured (to a certain extent, through neglect) by a central Thai polity engaged in "self-conscious modernization" (Sharp, 1976: 476) and national cultural definition. Numerous "tribal Tai" are found along Thailand's geopolitical periphery, as is a large regional category of "Lao Tai" in the North and the Northeast. The Lao Song, however, emerged and persist as a distinct people in the central provinces, the heartland of the modern Thai nation. 

Ethnographic and historical material in this article derive from field work among Lao Song during August 1982-August 1983, and extensive archival research of Western and Thai historical documents or treatments, Christian mission records, and journals of European travelers. Some details of Lao Song origin have been documented in Thai language publications, but accounts in Western scholarship are largely limited to Seidenfaden's brief and tentative remarks, or references thereto (e.g., Pedersen, 1968 : 114), identifying Song as a branch of the Black Tai. Seidenfaden notes: Spread round about in the North, at Sawankaloke and Nakhon Sawan, in the West, at Rajaburi and Petchaburi, and right down to Bandon in the South, are settlements of the so-called Lao Song Dam. They hail from the region east of Luang Phrabang, and they are recognized by their black dresses with silver buttons, their women wearing black phasins with thin vertical white stripes (1954 : 88). 

The so-called Lao Song Dam in Central and Southern Thailand seem to be Black Thai, both sexes dressing in black. They are the descendants of former captives of war from Muang Thaeng (1958 : 89). 

These people were originally prisoners of war and were, about a hundred years ago, brought down here from the highlands lying to the east of Luang Phrabang, and they present as such the curious fact of mountaineers who have become plain dwellers.  They still talk their own dialect and have preserved many of their old traditions and quaint customs (1931 : 4). 

It is atypical that Black Tai and Lao Song resisted or were protected from a degree of assimilation, considering the Tai experience generally.  A tradition of political and religious culture from the Indic and Sinitic traditions has pounded as definitional in the florescence of Tai civilization in mainland 1st Asia, with all its "dialectal" diversity (e.g., Coedes, 1968; Keyes, 1977 : 75). Beyond any accidental aspects of culture contact in the Tai migration into at flood-plains of the south, assimilation and acculturation have been considered virtual "propensities" and adaptive "abilities" by observers (see Lebar et al., 1964 : 187). 

The continuity of cultural form and common traditionalism noted between Tai and Lao Song suggests a coherence of identity which is, in contemporary terms, spurious. Despite that Lao Song have preserved much of Black Tai culture generations of separation from the northern homeland, the categories are discrete. Relocation from semi-autonomomous frontier polities to the capital region of the Siamese state certainly invalidated the former feudal principles of social organization, and several adaptations in ritual practice, marriage custom, and inheritance patterns have occurred through subsequent generations. Formally, however, affinity with Black Tai is even now apparent; tracing events antecedent to separation, the physical linkage is demonstrable. Yet, cultural affinity between categories and facts of common origin do not constitute common identity in terms salient to ethnocultural categorization in mainland Southeast Asia. Lao Song identity is defined in part by common recognition of a distinct historic experience and common opposition to the dominant culture and political society following relocation. The migrants trace descent to families of the new settlement, rather than to focal ancestors shared with those remaining in the Black Tai homeland. Both peoples trace an ancient, mythic descent from common ancestors at the beginning of humankind, but the Black Tai and their upland states in the northern areas of Laos and Vietnam have become another link in the chain of mythic forbears in Lao Song ethnogenesis.

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Divergence of Ethnocultural Identities | Emergence of the Tai in the North | Black Tai
Conflict and Relocation | Phet Buri Song | Summary | References Cited
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