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A culture does not arise ready-made and this applies also to the remarkable and unique Chinese civilisation. To place this civilisation in its cultural setting, either historically or geographically, has long been wished. In the latter case it would be seen as part of a greater cultural region or situated at the intersection of several regions. Both these approaches are quite legitimate and in both cases they apply to a non-recurrent event.

It might also be possible to regard this culture as a concurrence of several general principles. The bases for these would have to be clearly defined and obtained by an intensive synchronic analysis of Chinese society. In this case the relationships between the different categories in the life of the society would have to be investigated and the different phenomena fitted into the whole. As a matter of fact these three approaches are complementary.

Reliable documents of the oldest Chinese culture are, however, few and difficult to interpret. The archaeological evidence has considerably increased over the last few years but gives us hardly any information about the social conditions of the past.

In order to place the oldest Chinese civilisation in its cultural setting, geographically speaking, we need comparative material from other parts of China and their vicinity. This is, however, lacking from older epochs. Material from a later time is still very limited, especially as up to now field-work by modern methods has been rather scarce. rrhis particularly applies to the peoples living, south of the Chinese.

The ethnography of South China is still far from being completed and by and large the sinologists do not seem to have been interested in this area which came under Chinese domination so lately. It is not surprising that anthropologists have not dealt with the South Chinese tribes to a greater extent, as very few have taken an interest in South East Asia at all.

Considering the rarity and sporadic nature of the available material, I would like to add a few notes, with this essay, on two different Tai people I once visited, as a small contribution to the material on this unknown world.

It would be of very great interest to gather material from the Tai tribes. Much valuable information could be obtained as they mostly have their own script as well as rich stores of myths, proverbs, tales and songs. I do not think it would be difficult to get good spokesmen amongst the Tai to write these down themselves.

During my stay in Indo-China, in 1936-38, my investigations were mainly concentrated on the Lamet tribe in North Laos, but I also had the opportunity of contacting several different Tai tribes. Most of these tribes were Lao but I also came into contact with the Lu, both those living in Tafa and those living in Muong-Sing. At the latter place there were also several other Tai tribes; among them were the Tai Neua which are otherwise mainly found on Chinese territory. In Muong Luong Namtha I also met an enclave of the Black Tai which had come there a number of years before from the area around Dien-Bien-Phu (Muong Theng). I also paid some short visits to the Black Tai and to the Tai Neua in North Laos, as well as to the White Tai in the Lai-chan district.

The time before my going home was spent with the Black Tai where my research was conducted from my headquarters in Muong Theng (Dien-BienPhu) and Son-La. From there I did some reconnoitring with the hope of coming back later to undertake a more thorough investigation. This intention was never realized as the War broke out just as I was ready to travel out there. Since then the majority of the Black Tai are to be found within North Vietnamese territory.

My visits there were of a temporary nature and my short reconnaissance mainly aimed at determining the area which was to be my headquarters or starting point for future field work. It is obvious that I had not much opportunity of acquiring any considerable material. But now that it is impossible to do any field work in this area, even a few small notes might be interesting. The Tai peoples are unfortunately anything but fully investigated and there remains almost everything to be done in all fields. In particular this is true regarding their family and political structure about which we have far too little knowledge. As most of the Tai peoples have writings and also documents of great interest, these could supplement modern field work - which ought to be done as soon as possible, before it is too late.

The notes presented in this short essay are only a few selected ones.

Introduction | The Lu | The Sacrifice to Phi Muong | The Black Tai
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Tai Dam Origin Myth
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Last Modified: 09/24/03