Sometime later in the spring of 1938 I had the opportunity
of making a tour of reconnaissance for a few months ill part of the area inhabited by the
Black Tai. I shall limit myself to a few details.
The so-called Black Tai live on both sides of the Black River and the Song Ma, right up
in upper Tonkin and also in all of the Dien-Bien-Phu area. Their habitations are
concentrated in the valleys and along the rivers, as they move about very little on the
land but more on water in their canoes; one could compare the rivers to paths connecting
the different Tai villages. The villages vary greatly in size from very large villages,
which often have feudal officials, to small hamlets. One of the largest Tai villages I saw
was Muong Het, which had about 200 houses. This village was divided into different
quarters, each with its own official.
In the mountain valleys irrigated rice was mainly grown and not only there but also to
a certain extent on terraces somewhat above the valley, as far up as water can be taken.
The irrigation technique is a gravitational one: a dam is built far up a river, and then
the water is led in canals along the terraces and down into the valley. They also use the
swidden technique up in the mountains but they do not cultivate so much rice there. Rice
growing is mainly confined to the irrigated fields. In the mountains it is possible to
grow cotton, indigo, vegetables and many other things. During the rain period they have
sufficient water for watering, which enables them to have one rice crop a year. During the
dry period they grow things in their gardens and to water these they use norias which
pump the water to some terraces above the valley.
The whole Tai area was originally a federation of twelve Tai states called Sippsong
Chau Tai, which means the twelve Tai states. Each of these states was divided into several
muong and these muong were relatively independent, which was still the case when I
visited them. The land within the muong is communally held, but such land that can be
irrigated, that is the irrigated rice fields, is differentiated from that which is used
for dry cultivation. The former is divided amongst the members of the muong in a special
way which I shall now describe, while the latter is more or less regarded as a common,
where every member has rights of usage. It is the irrigated land which is especially
valuable, but it is rather limited. This depends on the supply of water during the rains.
One cannot, of course, have terraces and the irrigated rice fields higher up the slopes of
the valley than the water can be led. In principle this land is divided between the
different members, but in order to understand how this is done it is necessary to say
something about the structure of the society.
6) K. G. Izikowitz: Lamet - Hill peasants
in French Indochina. (Etnologiska Studier, vol. 17, Goteborg 1951. P. 247.)
It is evident that the irrigation system - the digging and maintaining of channels,
dams - demands a large amount of co-operation from the members of the muong. This is
indeed the case, they help each other; a large labour force can be assembled in one place
and there is apparently a great feeling of unanimity where work is concerned. As an
example of this may be mentioned an incident crossing a stream on my return journey by
lorry. The bridge had been damaged by the strong current. I immediately asked for help to
get the bridge repaired as soon as possible. Very early the next morning practically every
able-bodied man from the nearest Tai village came and they repaired the bridge very
Besides rice, cotton and indigo are cultivated to a large extent - the Black Tai are
well-known for their fine cotton cloth. In the valleys they cultivate the mulberry tree
whose leaves are used to feed silkworms. There is a special part in every Tai house
devoted to rearing silk worms.
Amongst the Black Tai there is a patrilinear joint family in every house. }. The houses
can be very large and hold many people. In particular the higher officials in these parts
have very large houses as they must be able to give feasts and entertain strangers. The
whole Tai population is divided into large groups of relatives each of which has its own
"totem", but I am uncertain whether they should be regarded as true clans. Such
a group is called a king and is possibly connected with the similarly
sounding Chinese word. One is not allowed to marry anyone having the same surname or
family name. There are only eight types of these family names. These groups are subdivided
into three different social groups or classes, noblemen at the top, priesthood next and
ordinary people at the bottom of the scale. The nobility, ?g king, is
divided into four different, exogamous groups. The clans of the lowest class - where one
can almost speak of clans - have their own myths of origin which relate how the clans were
formed and why certain things cannot be used. Curiously enough these clan myths are the
same as those I found among the Lamet. (fn.7)
There are a number of things which point to the fact that the Tai tribes invaded this area
and subjugated the original population, absorbing and, so to speak, taiifying them.
It is also said amongst the Tai that several of the clans belonged to the original
population. According to my informants these clans, however, are no longer of any
importance, they are no longer exogamous among the commoners of the Black Tai. A commoner
must marry within his own class and thus cannot marry a woman from the priestly class or
from the nobility. On the other hand the opposite can happen, a nobleman can marry a
commoner. The same applies to the priestly class which cannot marry into the nobility.
Polygamy is allowed hut mainly occurs within the nobility.
7) K. G. Izikowitz, op. cit. Pp.
The political organization is highly important. There is a head for every chau but
there never appears to have been a king or anything of the kind common to all the twelve
Tai states, but apparently they formerly formed a federation. The head of a chau is
called a tri-chau and a chief of a muong is called a ceng tong. Under him
there were two officials, one called a fia di and the other a fia fo. All
these officials come from the lo clan, from the nobility. There are three grades
within the priesthood, ong, mo, ong nie and, ong chang. They
are all sacrificial priests and tend the sacrifices for the phi muong or the spirit
of the muong. Among the clans of the commoners there is a whole scale of different
officials. There are, in the first place, four notables: ong sen, ong pong, ong horung,
and ong pongkang. They serve under the two fia, and their task is
to find porters and workers and to nominate the daylabourers for duties on the domains of
the nobility. There are also lower officials, so-called thua, of three kinds, who
act as secretaries to the nobility. The chiefs over a group of villages are divided into
five categories and after them in rank come the village chiefs and the deputy village
There are als four fia who come from the commoners. They were all old men and
constituted, so to speak, a council of elders. A special type of official called the kai,
of which there were five kinds, surveyed the day-labourers' work and were thus a sort
of foremen. After these in rank were a host of "feast notables". They were
middle-aged men who had the places of honour at feasts and ceremonies. They are called cuong
and there are no less than thirteen types. The so-called kuang, of which there
are an equal number, have the same function but are considered to be of lower rank.
Besides these there was a chief of the muong's police (kuang tien) who had under
him eight policemen or soldiers (kuan bek). Furthermore each muong had its herald,
v sometimes more than one. There were two in Muong Teng. They are called nam
pong. In the villages there were likewise heralds, called ca. Besides all these
officials there were a number of medicine men or "il1ness shamans" but they had
no special rank.
The land within a muong was communal and could not be owned by any private person, it
could neither be inherited, sold nor bought. The irrigable land was regarded as the most
valuable and from a theoretical point of view it should be divided amongst the different
families according to their needs.
The non-irrigable land, on the other hand, was regarded as commons where anyone could
make a swidden. The distribution of the irrigable land is made by one of the officials in
the village. If it is in a village where the chief of the muong resides, it is he that
deals with the matter. In other valleys it is dealt with by the highest local officials.
The ordinary people, the commoners, must pay for every unit of irrigable land that is
allotted them by working for so many days for one of the higher officials. Those who held
the highest titles did not cultivate the ground themselves but were allotted a certain
number of families from the tax-paying commoners. Thus tri chau and ceng tong each
had twelve families allotted to them. The lower nobility had fewer. Fia di had six
families and fia fo had three. The four highest notables had one family each. The
nearest in rank after these apparently had no families as day-labourers but on the other
hand they were exempt from having to perform day-labouring. This applied all the way down
the scale of ranks to and including the village chief. The deputy village chief, however,
had to do day-labouring. The priesthood were also exempt from day-labouring as also were
the council of elders who were old men and unable to do such work. The so-called kai, foremen
of the day-labourers, did not have to do daylabouring as they themselves led the work. the
police and heralds were also exempt from day-labouring. The others who were not real
officials but some sort of feast notables of higher or lower rank had to do day-labouring
like the common people.
If a man did not wish to do any day-labouring he was not allotted any irrigable land
and thus had to make swiddens in the, commons of the muong. If a man was so energetic that
he cleared land so that it was possible to irrigate it, he could keep this for a year
tax-free but at the end of that year the land was taken over by the commune and
distributed, unless he could pay the rent for this land in the form of day-labouring. If a
man wished to leave the muong he belonged to for some reason, he could do so but then he
had to pay a high entrance fee to the muong into which he moved.
According to the reports of my informants the idea was that the irrigable land should
be distributed every year, but many families held the same piece of land for several years
if it was considered suitable. Whether the highest officials got the best pieces of land I
am not able to say, as I did not investigate this matter more closely.
The higher officials receive taxes in kind, in the form of buffaloes and pigs, and if a
commoner has killed a deer or a stag he must give a thigh of this to one of the noble
officials. These also have their houses built free by the day-labourers. There is an
enormous difference between the small huts of the common people and the large houses of
the nobility. There are no communal buildings and for festivities and such-like they
gather in the large houses of the higher officials. Traveling strangers are also received
there and put up for the night.
Houses, domestic animals and all tools are private property. By rearing pigs. horses.
buffaloes, etc., a. Tai can thus earn some money. as well as by rearing silk-worms.
Handicrafts also playa certain role in some villages. Certain villages specialize in
pottery and sell their products over a wide area. Others are skilled weavers - nearly all
the Black Tai are. Very intricately ornamented cotton and silk materials are produced in
most of their villages. The art of weaving is of a high order and the making of patterns
is greatly developed. I have seen, to mention one example, ornamented cotton cloth with a
brocade pattern in indigo-coloured cotton on a white background, a type that is very
common in the Tai district, and where the pattern is repeated "along the whole length
of the doth roughly like the pattern on a wall-paper. I have seen patterns nearly two
metres in length. These' are constructed in such a way that the basic pattern is only half
of the total pattern, the other half being its mirror image. In any case, to produce such
a large pattern shows a considerable skill in weaving. These cloths are produced in draw
(fn. 8) I will
restrict myself to giving some information concerning the Dien-Bien-Phu district, in
particular that relating to the sacrifice to phi muong, the spirit of the district.
This is a feast which takes place just before the transplanting of the rice, as with most
of the Tai peoples I know. Unfortunately I have not taken part in this feast myself but I
have the prayers of this ceremony recorded in Tai; I have not, however, completely
succeded in translating them. The meaning of the prayers is relatively clear and a summary
of the contents will therefore suffice.
Specialization of handicrafts is not an individual matter but is distributed amongst
the various villages so that everyone in the same village has the same craft. I have seen
the same thing among the North Laotians. The so-called Tai P'ouen, who come from the
Tran-Ninh plateau, seem to be wholly specialized in forging iron. Their villages are to be
found well outside their real domain, right up in North Thailand, and on caravan routes
and rivers it is not uncommon to meet P'ouen travelling to sell their wares.
An exception to this rule seems to be the silversmiths and goldsmiths who can be found
singly in different villages.
The Black Tai are not Buddhists like most of the other Tai peoples I met. This means
that a study of them is considerably more valuable as they lack this influence, though
they have undoubtedly been influenced from India to some extent. They have their own
script, which like the writing of the other Tai tribes can be derived from an Indian
alphabet and they also have myths and stories, some of which may have arisen through
Indian influence. Maspero has, however, dealt with the religion of the Black Tai in a
number of articles and so I do not propose to go into this matter.
8) H. Maspero Legends mythologiques dans
le Chou King. (Journal Asiatique, 1924.) H. Maspero: La societe et la religion des Chinois
anciens et celles des Tai modernes. (Les religions chinoises, Mel. posthumes, vol. I.
Paris 1950.) H. Maspero: Les coutumes funeraires chez les Tai noirs du Hant-Tonkin. Ibid.
The prayer to the phi muong consists of twenty-two sections, the first few
containing a request for the protection of the spirit of the sky regarding the fertility
of the ground. It then goes on with an invitation not only to the spirit of the sky, but
also to the five gods of the skies. and also to the spirit of the water. Then follow
several prayers to other spirits, which mainly consist of the names of deceased high
officials from the nobility. Some of the spirits enumerated represent different natural
phenomena in the district of Muong Teng - spirits of different hills and mountains in the
surrounding district and spirits found along the boundaries to other muong. There are
spirits that live in a deep part of the river, where every year two buffaloes are
sacrificed at the feast of phi muong. In Laotian times, when the Lao were in
control of the country, there was a Buddhist temple here and ten kilometres from
Dien-Bien-Phu there are some stones left of this temple. These too have their spirits and
are included in the incantation. The hills round this old temple site also have their
spirits. The main part of this prayer is an enumeration of the spirits of deceased high
officials. I do not know whether this is a sort of genealogy or not, as I was
unable to check this. In the latter part of the incantation are listed animals and plants
and in particular certain dragons which guard the whole area and especially the border
between Muong Teng and Sop Ngao, the two most important muong in this district. Generally
speaking, every remarkable tree, every mountain top, every remarkable rock, every mouth of
a brook or river has its own spirit which is named and invited to the great sacrifice. Not
until in the fourteenth verse there appears a prayer to le genie tutelaire of the
district, the guardian, spirit of the district. It was he who first started to clear the
district and who founded the first village. He is thought to live in a mountain northeast
of Dien-Bien-Phu, and he is one of the most important spirits here.
It is, in other words, the sacral topography of the muong that is accounted for. This
prayer to the phi muong is directed partly to the sky with its hierarchy of
spirits, partly to those who govern the muong's - districts' - sacral geography and
finally the founder of the village at the head of the other important deceased potentates
in the history or mythology of the area.
I do not propose to expatiate on the various themes which occur in the prayer; I shall
only point out certain traits which should be investigated and commented on in the future.
Much too little is known about what I would term "sacral topography", which
certainly is of the greatest interest. For one thing, it can give an insight into
the nature lore of the Tai, which in its turn could explain some things in the ritual
action. Sometimes in ethnography one makes an analysis of a house and its parts and looks
at it in relation to cosmology and to the society as a whole and in the same way
one does this with the organization of tho whole village. (fn. .9) Therefore I
suppose it would also be instructive if the closed administrative district were to be
analysed in a similar. way. In China this has had a certain importance in geomancy where
the conception of the landscape and its details are important. Every more or less public
building such as a temple, palace, etc. was not planned nor placed in the landscape
haphazardly but after certain rules of a magical nature.
9) See, H. A. Stein, note 18 below.
(fn. 10) The village and the district often mirror their view of life and
In China in recent times and also amongst the Viet-Namese geomancy has had added
importance by using the compass. This division according to the compass points and other
categories, when building a house, reaches far back in time; it is only during the last
few centuries that it has developed into a kind of "science" or school
systematized by Chinese scholars.
The founder of the village is a concept which is very important in East Asia, appearing
in Ancient China but also amongst many different peoples south of China. (fn. 11) This would
also he an interesting field to investigate.
Ch'en Han-Seng in his paper on Frontier Land Systems in China treats of the Lu people
in S. W. Yunnan, in the area around Cheli. (fn.
12) Like the Black Tai they also had a federation of
twelve states called Sippsong panna, i.e. the twelve districts. Na means rice field
in Tai but the word. panna, which is an old administrative unit, is probably
equivalent to chau (fn. 13) Two of these states lie in Laotian territory while the others are
According to Ch'en they lived in relative isolation from the Chinese, who first came
into contact with them during the 14th century. "Closer relation between the two
began only during the Ming dynasty." He regards them, moreover, as the least
sinified, showing minimum evid.ence of Chinese political and social influence. They
certainly were conquered, incorporated and had to pay tribute to the Mongols during the
13th century, when all Yunnan was incorporated with China. Despite this and the changes
during the Ming era no essential changes were made in the old land system. Ch'en thus
considers that "the original land system is still intact here. Chinese conquest, as
far as the land west of the Mekong is concerned, is as yet incomplete. (fn. 14)
The only thing influenced was the court of the Tai
king which at the time of Ch'en's investigation (1940) consisted of two hundred. and five
officials divided into five ranks, apparently a close imitation of a feudalistic
organization, probably of the Chinese Ming dynasty. (fn. 15)
Next to the king, whose title is Zao-pillin and
who was living then in Xienghung, were four officials or ministers. There were eight in
the second rank, sixteen in the third, eighteen in the fourth, and nine in the fifth rank.
There were also one hundred and fifty pages. Down to the fifth rank they were all paid in
10) Pierre Huard et Maurice Durand:
Connaissance du Viet-Nam. Paris 1954. P. 70 seq.
11) Bernhard Karlgren: The book of Odes. Ode 250. Stockholm 1950.
12) Ch'en Han-Seng: Frontier Land Systems in Southernmost, China. (Institute of Pacific
Relations, New York 1949.)
13) Op. cil., p. 4. Compare: Jean Hispaud: Les noms a elements numeraux des
principautes Tai. (The Journal of the Siam Society. Bangkok 1937.)
14) Ch'en, op. cit., p. 15.
15) Ch'en, op.cit., pp.16 and 32.
Besides this there were five classes of Muong chiefs.
Apart from this superstructure we have an old feudal system. Within this the officials
were paid by having the right to permanently utilize certain pieces of land. These were
also inheritable. No private land really existed. That the land was communal in the olden
days is indicated, according to Ch'en, by 1) common and collective ownership of land, fish
ponds and of wood and forests, 2) collective labour directed to cultivation, hunting,
fishing, lumbering, 3) corporate nature of the village in such matters as tribute payment
and land tenancy.
In most villages the communal land of the village is redistributed each year by the
village officers for cultivation, usually carried out according to households.
In certain villages one cultivates rice on dry land and there is no rent exacted from
The land assigned to the officials as salary requires labour rent, i.e. the land
requires cultivation by the villagers and all the harvest is taken by the official.
Alternatively the rent can be paid in produce, being a portion of the whole harvest, but
cultivation is distributed among a number of households. In the former case the village
itself is a tenant, while in the latter not all villagers are tenants. In the latter case
the land is cultivated by the entire village's labour power.
New cultivation can be started by anyone and for this no tribute is exacted for the
first five years. But the cultivator has no rights of ownership over this land, only
rights of use.
There was furthermore a group of officials in Cheli who were not commoners, i.e. they
were exempt from paying tax. These are "elected and hereditary officials and their
This organization has many parallels with that of the Black Tai, and it would be
interesting to compare it with that of other Tai peoples.
Without going into details it is easy to see the similarities between Maspero's notes
on the eastern Black Tai, my own notes and Ch'en's valuable information on the Lu in
Sippsong panna within China. They obviously belong to the same form of organization. But
according to Ch'en this feudal organization, at least all its court officials, was
strongly influenced by the Chinese Imperial Court of the Ming dynasty.
There remains to describe the muong organization. A muong is a closed bounded area,
governed partly by a temporal noble with all his officials and partly by spiritual
potentates such as the phi-muong, i.e. the spirit of the area who governs it, together
with a lot of other spirits representing special units in the muong's sacral topography.
These are the units that are named in the prayer to the phi-muong. Added to these are the
spirit of the village founder and the spirits of important deceased feudal nobles. Above
all there is the spirit of the skies together with the special spirits. The muong is 'thus
ruled by a high feudal lord and his functionaries and the land is owned by the feudal lord
and the right of use (usufruct) is divided among the officials as salary. Those who arc
not officials, on the other hand, must pay tax.
(fn.16) certainly does not, but he points to obvious similarities between
the Black Tai on the one hand and the data in ancient Chinese writings and documents on
the other. Karlgren has, however, in his paper "Legends and Cults in Ancient
China", given a critical survey of the documents concerning this period and shown
that these similarities may be assigned to the latter part of the Chou dynasty. (fn. 17) During that
time, but mainly in the Han dynasty, the Chinese had pushed southward and come into
contact with the non-Chinese tribes in the Ch'u kingdom. There may therefore very well
have been an influence from the southern peoples.
We know nothing about the kinship relations between the officials and the feudal lord
of the muong, but Ch'en mentions that the highest officials belong to the lord's family or
are married into it.
Unfortunately we know far too little about the family structure of the different Tai
tribes and its relationship with the political structure. Most of the Tai people appear to
have an ambilineal structure, and one would like to know whether the central lineage group
could be the one from which the chief of the muong was taken and whether the nobility
belonged to his family or kin. All these things are far from having been satisfactorily
In this connection the question may be raised whether the Tai organization and the Tai
customs as a whole are Chinese. It is not uncommon to find that some authors simply refer
certain things which are found among the southern Chinese people to China at large.
Revaluations have to be made, using the critically studied ancient Chinese text
material as a starting point. It is not my intention to carry them out here; I only wish
to point out certain facts in this connection.
R. A. Stein has written two very interesting articles in which he has investigated the
relation between cosmology and the architecture of the Chinese house. (fn.18) When he
compares thc details of the house, he keeps almost exclusively to the types of house found
in North and Central Asia. He admits that he has not attempted any comparison with types
further to the South. I hardly think that it is possible to prove any similarities with
houses in these latter parts. The houses which show a resemblance to the ancient Chinese
ones are thus mostly of an Arctic type. Stein maintains that there is also a resemblance
between certain kinds of Chinese and North Asiatic shamanism. This would
16) H. Maspero, Legendes, op. cit.
17) Bernhard Karlgren: Legends and Cults in Ancient Chino.. (The Museum of Far
Eastern Antiquities, Bull. No. 18, Stockholm 1946. Pp. 349 seq.)
18) R. A. Stein: L'habitat, Ie monde et Ie corps humain en Extr8me-Orient et en
Haute-Asie. (Journal Asiatique, vol. 245. Paris, 1957.) R. A. Stein: Architecture et
pensee religieuse en Extreme-Orient. (Arts Asiatiques, vol. 4. Paris 1957.)
imply that the oldest North Chinese culture is
based upon an Arctic foundation. One may thus presume that when agriculture was first
introduced in Northern China it occurred on an Arctic cultural basis. This primarily
concerned the cultivation of various types of millet. Rice was hardly cultivated in this
area, to judge from ancient Chinese documents. (fn.19) It must not be forgotten that in this
area there was a rich supply of edihle plants to add to the food supply, besides an ample
amount of game.2O) Without doubt it was possible to support a large num bel' of people on
the fertile Chinese loess soil even with a relatively primitive method of agriculture.
In his book on fishing equipment in the South Seas B. Anell concludes: "One of the
most interesting results of this study is the fact that the typical Melanesian fishing
implements belong to the South Asiatic culture sphere of which Melanesia seems to
constitute an easterly outpost. The implements typical of Polynesia and Micronesia, on the
other hand, belong to the NorthEurasian fishing culture, except in those cases where they
have a pure interOceanic distribution.
. the Polynesian fishing implements
have their closest parallels in north-eastern Asia, above all in Japan. Neolithic Japan
seems to have constituted a south-eastern outpost of the widely diffused northern Eurasian
But at the same time the Polynesians cultivated
different kinds of yams and taro, which cannot grow in Northern China but only in tropical
parts. The northern limit for their cultivation area stretches a good deal south of the
Yangtse river but comes further north along the coast. (fn. 22) How they came to Polynesia and which
way they came is still a problem. Did the Polynesians come from an area on the mainland
where they both grew these tropical plants and at the same time used sub-arctic fishing
equipment? As yet there is no answer to this question. What we can suppose is that both
yams and taro could have been grown in the south before rice was cultivated in earnest.
Hence, when the growing of rice began, the limits of cultivation could be extended
considerably further north until it met the area of cultivation of the northern kinds of
millet. It is quite possible that this extended area was formerly occupied for a long time
by people who 111l1inly lived by hunting and fishing. Much of this argument depends on
chronology, and Chinese archaeology is not yet far enough advanced for any conclusions to
be reached. In the north agriculture was probably fully developed during the Yangshao
period,23) but unfortunately the archaeology of the southern districts is not
19) Maspero. La societe et la religion, op.
cU., P. 145.
20) Andre G. Haudricourt et Louis Hedin: L'Homme et les plantes cultivees. (Paris 1943.
P. 149 seq.)
21) Bengt Anell: Contribution to the history of fishing in the Southern Seas.
(Studio. Ethnographica. Upsaliensia IX. Uppsala 1955.)
22) I. H. Burkill, personal letter. Cf. Burkill. The rise and decline of the greater
yam in the
service of man. (The Advancement of Science, vol. VII. No. 28. London 1951.)
23) Cheng Te-K'un: Archaeology in China. (Prehistoric China, vol. 1. Cambridge 1959.
sufficiently advanced to supply any dating.
According to the Russian investigator Vasiljeff, rice was probably first grown about the
middle of the first millenium B.C, and was probably the very plant which united the two
areas. (fn. 24)
Even if much of this is speculation one can,
however, assume that there have been two separate and original areas of cultivation - one
mainly milletgrowing in the north built on an Arctic basis and another one based on yams
and taro in the south. In both these areas there were quite good means of supporting a
large number of people in limited districts. Thus it is not unreasonable to suppose that a
feudal organization was possible in both places Thus it is not so self-evident that the
feudal organization of the Tai peoples is just an imitation of the North Chinese. It is
difficult to compare these two, as one of them lives right up in the north and the other
in the southernmost part of China. There is moreover a difference in time of about three
thousand years in this comparison.
What I have pointed out may be regarded as a working hypothesis. We can suppose that
the two cultivation areas were relatively independent of each other in the beginning; they
first came into contact with each other later, either when the cultivation of rice was
brought northwards or when the North Chinese pushed south. When they came into contact,
one must not only assume that it was the Chinese who were the givers and the southern
peoples the receivers. It is quite likely that the synthesis is not only in the sum of
these two cultures but also something additional - a common result of such a fusion.
It is possible to find institutions and customs in southernmost China which do not
occur in the north. Such things as ball games, tug-of-war and also the dragon boat
festivals may be regarded as examples of a purely Southern nature. Ritual dances and
competitive games between two opposing teams occur mainly in South China and still further
south in Further India and Indonesia.
It might be interesting to investigate this tug-of-war motif in relation to the Spring
festivals among the Tai people which often take place in caves. (fn. 25)
The tug-of-war between men and women has often been regarded as having a connection
with fertility and would thus be a kind of phallus cult, This is possible, but for my part
I prefer to think that the rope in the tug-of-war in some way represents a dragon or has
to do with the dragon cult. Are the caves the dragon's dwellings1 This monster is the
symbol of rain, and hence also fertility, it is the women's task to pull out this dragon
so that agriculture can begin, The rain time is also governed by yin, the female
Frogs are likewise connected with rain, if we dare point to certain customs amongst the
Viet-Namese in which certain rites take place in caves in order
24) L. S. Vasiljeff, under Miscellanea in
Anthropos, vol. 56, 1961, p. 288-289, and Cheng Te-K'un, Archaeology in China, vol. II,
Shang China, Cambridge 1960, p. 197.
25) Leopold Cadiere: Croyances et pratiques religieuses des Vietnamiens. Vol. II, p.
269. Saigon 1954.
to produce rain. (fn. 26) I do not intend to investigate
this problem here but only to suggest some possibilities to those who are interested in
taking them up for further research. It might be of interest to place the ball game and
the dragon boat festivals in a social setting. The same might be attempted with many other
customs showing the particular characteristics of the Southern Chinese or rather South
East Asian cultures, which so far have received all too little attention from
ethnographers. Just as well as one can show similarities between North and South China, I
feel that it would be of value to investigate the differences between these areas, above
all their social organization.
(fn. 27) This is obviously an imitation of an
organization which is considered to have a higher status, a phenomenon analogous to the
Tai tribes' imitation of the court of the Ming emperor. A similar process may be observed
in the highlands of Burma amongst the Kachin, where the feudal organization of the Shan
princes was imitated by a people whose social structure is unilinear and democratic. There
has arisen a new product, gumsa, between the old gumlao society and the Shan
feudal structure, a fact elegantly demonstrated by Leach. (fn. 28) A similar
process occurs in many other places where two different types of society come into
contact, not least in the Africa of to-day. (fn.
This does not mean that great similarities do not exist. Maspero mentions in his paper
on legends and myths in the Chou dynasty that certain Chinese clan names and heroes were
adopted by the barbarian kings in the neighbourhood.
It is surely possible to trace other similarities
or certain features possessed in common in North and South China, however these may have
to be explained. One example is the theme of the village founder which occurs over
large parts of East Asia. But this is not something to be explained by diffusionism, but a
phenomenon to be investigated by modern structural methods. Amongst the Black Tai special
sacrifices and prayers are made to the village founder and this idea is common amongst
many different tribes in South East Asia.
In any case, we are undoubtedly dealing with two different cultural areas in China, and
strictly speaking this is not very remarkable since this difference is dependent on the
geography and exists even to day. If one wants to understand the Chinese society in its
many aspects one must not limit oneself to Northern China and the oldest documents, since
in the various epochs of China's history (what we now mean by China) the diverse areas
have in turn influenced the development of this remarkable and many-faceted Chinese
In order to understand this, it is absolutely necessary to take into consideration the
whole of South China, not only the Chinese element in its population but also the
non-Chinese minorities. Unfortunately these peoples are all too little known. Field work
according to modern methods has been scarce.
26) Maspero, Legendes, op. cit., p.
78 seq., p. 82 seq.
27) E. R. Leach: Political Systems of Highland Burma. (London 1954.)
28} Op. cit.
29) A. Southall: Social Change in Modem Africa. (London 1961.)
There is a great task here awaiting modern ethnography. To begin with one could collect
all the material available into a handbook, from both Chinese and European sources. With
such material as a starting point it would be possible to make some progress. Such a
handbook demands cooperation, not only from the Chinese ethnographers but from all
ethnographers interested in this area - a work passing the borders of nationalities. It
cannot be denied that we do need a reference book for this area on the same lines as the
one which is now under publication about. Africa, Ethnographic Survey of Africa, or that
published about South America, Handbook of South American Indians. This would to a great
extent further the studies of South China and neighbouring areas and above all it would be
of great help to all those who are interested in the Far Eastern cultures and their
various manifestations. What is mainly needed, however, is field work with modern
Above all, this would elucidate important social relationships by placing the different
concepts into the social system. We would then not have to attempt the establishment, as
in the present paper, of a regional division on very vague grounds. Even if they are based
on hypotheses, however, such regional divisions have necessarily to be surmised, at the
outset in order to find out which ways research has to be directed.