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The Dai stilted house

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Dai house in Jingne
Dai house in Jingne

When the ancestors of Xishuangbanna's Dai people first migrated to southern Yunnan over two millennia ago they discovered the lush valleys were suitable places to grow the kind of rice that was so important to their way of living. So the new settlers selected sites near rivers or streams and set about building the kind of houses that they were accustomed to back in their original southeast China homeland.

The model was the stilted house, with high, sloping roofs and adjoining open-air balcony, which is still the norm in the twenty-first century for most Dai villages in the prefecture. Its structure is perfectly suited to the weather and environment. The stilts keep the living quarters above the damp and flood-prone ground and away from snakes, scorpions and other wild creatures. The high, peaked roofs protect the interior from rain and allow for plenty of ventilation. And the overall shape, set against the undulating hills, is perfectly harmonious in its environment.

The Dai, or their Baiyue (百越) ancestors, were not the only people in ancient times to use stilted houses. In fact, the earliest archaeological evidence of them comes from Zhejiang province, dating back at least 6,000 years. They were also in use in central Yunnan about 3,300 years ago, according to relics unearthed near Jianchuan (剑川). So the Dai may not have been the original inventors. But according to their own mythology they were, or at least their culture-bearing hero Pa Ya Shanmudi was.

Simple 'phoenix house' in Mengla County
Simple 'phoenix house' in Mengla County

Dai legends vary, but Pa Ya Shanmudi was either the original leader of the Dai race or its chief priest. The story begins in the aftermath of a great flood that wiped out life in the plains. The Dai then were living in caves in the hills. After the floodwaters receded, the population began to increase so fast there were not enough caves to shelter everyone from the elements. Pa Ya Shanmudi decided to lead his people to a new location on the lowlands.

After a long journey they finally came to what seemed like an appropriate site. On a knoll just above the plain they rested beneath the canopy of an enormous tree and observed a rainstorm as it broke upon the surrounding area. Pa Ya Shanmudi noticed that the rain pummeled a patch of wild taro plants, but the raindrops kept splashing off the surface of the leaves. When the storm ended he took four thin tree trunks, stuck them in the ground and then created a roof of interlaced branches, covered by a thatch of taro leaves. This was the first Dai shelter.

His people copied the design and built their own structures. No sooner had they settled beneath the roofs than another storm broke. The taro leaf thatch kept them dry for a while, but eventually the roof began leaking and the people were soon thoroughly soaked. Even after the rain had ceased, water kept dripping through the roofs. Pa Ya Shanmudi angrily abandoned the project and led his people back to the caves. But, knowing life was basically no longer tenable in the hills, he continued to ponder the problem of a proper shelter for his people.

One day he happened to spot a dog sitting on the ground during a rain. He observed that the dog's body, seated on its haunches with its forelegs straight, formed a slope. And the rainwater slid down its back while the ground beneath it remained dry. So Pa Ya Shanmudi ordered a new structure built. This time the two front poles were tall and the rear poles were short, with the same kind of roof, but now sloping. This was the second Dai shelter.

All went well when the first rains came, for the water ran right down the side of the angled roof and did not leak inside. Everybody remained dry. But then the storm kicked up further, the wind reversed and the rain began pouring in the front of the shelter and soaked the people through and through. Well, that kind of shelter wasn't going to work either, so Pa Ya Shanmudi once more led his people back to the hills and resumed brooding over the problem.

At this point in the story a Dai equivalent of a deus ex machina enters the narrative. Having observed and admired Pa Ya Shanmudi's sincere efforts to better the lot of his people, the gods in heaven decided to help him with a lesson on how better to learn from nature. One of them transformed into a golden phoenix and, after summoning up a storm, flew down in the rain to Pa Ya Shanmudi. The bird called out to him to observe how it stood tall on its long legs as its wings, slightly spread, resisted the winds from all directions and allowed for the rains to run off.

Dai village near Daluo
Dai village near Daluo

So here was the solution. Like the legs of the phoenix, the Dai built a structure on stilts. Like the wings and tail of the phoenix, they used sloping roofs on all sides. This withstood storms blowing from any direction, while the elevated living quarters would always remain dry. This was the third Dai shelter, now more properly called a true Dai house. In memory of the source of the inspiration for the house, the Dai still call it a 'phoenix house', or hon hen in their language.

The original was no doubt a lot simpler than what we find today, with extra gables and sliding windows and sometimes open-air balconies. Wooden roof tiles have largely replaced the original thatch, too. Yet its suitability for the climate of Xishuangbanna is obvious by its continued use millennia after its introduction, as well as by its basic adoption by most of the peoples who later moved into the hills.

Basically the Dai house is an elevated rectangle with roofs like the sides of a triangle. Access is by a staircase at the front entrance, though in the past it was a notched log. Attached to one end is an open-air balcony, with its own staircase or notched log. People use this area to dry crops, laundry, dyed cloth or thread, or to just sit out in the sun for a while. Within the one-story building, the cooking, sleeping, reception of guests and other activities of daily life all take place on this single floor. There may be also be partitions for the kitchen, the sleeping quarters of the elders, or a small family shrine. Generally, at night the family spreads mattresses and pillows along the floor and all sleep together.

traditional house in Ganlanba
traditional house in Ganlanba

Besides the interior, the hosts might also invite guests, if the weather is good, to sit outside on small round stools on the balcony. Nowadays, with piped water coming into every village, the family water tank might well be mounted on the balcony, and perhaps a solar heater, pigeon coop or satellite dish as well.

Below the living quarters, the space under the house is high enough for people to stand up easily. Here the people stored their plows and other agricultural tools, as well as their looms, spinning wheels and thread winders. Nowadays the looms are mostly gone and the space occupied instead by motorbikes and tractors.

Dai houses sit in separate compounds, originally delineated by bamboo fences or hedges. More recently they have taken to brick walls. Within the yard, part of which might be used as a vegetable garden, sits a small, elevated building that is the granary. In the rear of the yard was the outhouse. To clean themselves after defecation, the people used rectangular bamboo chips, rounded off and angled at each end. Since the twentieth century introduction of paper, of course, they don't do this anymore. Yet in the old days, specific Dai villages were assigned the production of such bamboo toilet chips for the royal household.

Mixed architecture of a village in transition
Mixed architecture of a village in transition

By the late twentieth century many Dai houses had installed modern toilets and the extension of electricity and piped water everywhere in the prefecture put an end to the need to bathe in the river or suffer the meager illumination of oil lamps at night. But in just about all other respects domestic architecture and lifestyle resembles that of their ancestors centuries earlier. When Xishuangbanna began hosting tourists in the 1980s, the classic stilted house was still the norm in every Dai village.

That would soon change, although not because of tourism so much as due to the sudden wealth generated by two booming businesses — rubber and tea. Given the go-ahead by government reforms that allowed long-term leases on formerly state-owned land, Dai families joined the rush to clear forests and plant rubber trees, even replacing the traditional village bamboo grove with a patch of rubber trees. Prices peaked in the mid-90s, then fell by half at the end of the decade, only to begin rising steadily after the turn of the century.

The rapid spread of rubber cultivation also upset Xishuangbanna's ecological balance. By 2010, rubber plantations covered 20 percent of the land and the prefecture's natural forest cover had shrunk to only 26 percent. Voracious rubber trees eat up all the nutrients in the soil, so that virtually nothing else can grow on a plantation. The plantations need more water than other crops and the run-off is three times that of a natural forest. This puts strains on the local water supplies and causes wells to dry up fast. Due to these factors, the government finally had to step in and declare the rest of Xishuangbanna's forests as protected reserves.

Dai village near Menghai, 1998
Dai village near Menghai, 1998

Most rubber plantations lay in the central and eastern parts of the prefecture. Menghai County (孟海县), the western third of Xishuangbanna, lies on a higher plateau, and most of it is not conducive to rubber cultivation. But Menghai is perfect for tea, especially the Pu'er variety, which people grow both in the hills and on the plains. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, newly rich Chinese speculators, looking for a suitable investment, suddenly took an interest in Pu'er tea.

The mania took hold after a cabal of speculators cornered Xishuangbanna's tea market, bought everything available and drove up prices. Cultivators planted more tea bushes and Dai farmers in the plains of Menghai County created tea gardens at the edges of their rice fields. Ambitious investors from other parts of China arrived to contract for some of the expanded production and set up tea factories of their own. By mid-decade there were 3,000 tea merchants and manufacturers in Xishuangbanna, all intensely competitive and suspicious of one another.

By 2007, the price of Pu'er tea had risen to ten times what it sold for at the start of the millennium. But it wasn't just the speculators who made money. Pickers and growers could, at the peak of the frenzy, get 200 yuan per kilogram for fresh leaves and 300 yuan per kilogram for leaves sun-dried in one of the village squares. The tea bubble burst in 2008, when prices fell by 90 percent. Over a third of the new tea factories closed down and outside speculators took their money elsewhere. But many local people, including Dai farmers, got rich from the boom years.

Same valley ten years later
Same valley ten years later

Like the rubber farmers, the tea cultivators suddenly found themselves in possession of more cash than they dreamed they could have had twenty years earlier. And like the newly rich rubber planters, they rushed to spend it on improvements in their material lives. The first priority seemed to be new, 'modern' houses. So they demolished their traditional stilted houses and erected cement and brick houses that sat on the ground, shaped like a box, with flat roof and no open-air balcony. They basically copied the design of the immigrant Han houses around the state rubber plantations, a type particularly inappropriate for the tropical climate.

In general, once a few families took the lead in making new-style houses the rest of the village households hurried to ape them. Within a few years villages which formerly consisted of nothing but traditional stilted wooden houses were transformed into villages of nothing but identical concrete boxes. This was especially true in Menghai County, where the bulk of Pu'er tea was grown. In some cases the transformation was not quite so drastic, as the new houses at least maintained the angled, Dai-style roofs, and perhaps the open-air balconies as well. These would likely have satellite dishes placed on them, because televisions, automobiles, motorbikes and designer clothing were part of the spending spree as well.

In Jinghong (景洪) and Mengla (勐腊), the urge to abandon traditional Dai houses has not been so strong. Just downriver from Jinghong, in Ganlanba (橄榄坝), traditional Dai architecture is the main feature of Dai Park — a collection of five old villages — opened as a tourist attraction in 1999. The houses are all in the traditional style and by law must be kept that way, though the park authorities also pay for repairs and renovations.

Jingha Dai village
Jingha Dai village

Traditional Dai architecture in Ganlanba is not restricted to Dai Park. The outskirts of town feature outstanding examples of Dai houses, festooned with peacock decorations under the apex of the roof ends or on the rooftop itself. Villages along the road to Menglun (勐仑) are equally well endowed with classic Dai houses. They are getting mixed with modern styles, though, as the deforestation of recent decades has led to a scarcity of timber.

One outside observer, already alarmed by this trend, was Zhu Liangwen, himself an architect and author of a detailed study of traditional Dai architecture. Zhu believed that the traditional house type, raised above the ground, with a peaked, sloping roof and open-air balcony was still the most suitable type possible for the climate, while also blending with the environment in an esthetically pleasing way. If the problem was the scarcity of traditional building materials, then the solution was simply to change the materials.

Zhu designed a new Dai village, called Manjingfa (曼景法), five kilometers south of Jinghong. He used the traditional layout and style for the houses, but substituted concrete, aluminum and plastered brick for wood and bamboo. Houses stand on concrete pillars, with an attached concrete balcony — also on concrete pillars — and have walls of brick covered with white plaster. The sliding windows and screens are made of aluminum and the metal tiles on the roofs are blue, with upturned corners and ceramic figurines lining the edges. While all the houses are white with blue roofs, no two are exactly alike, combining a general uniformity of style with individual variations in the details, just like Dai villages hundreds of years old.

Manjingfa houses
Manjingfa houses

The main difference between these houses and traditional ones is in the interior. Instead of one large room and one separate bedroom for the older folks, the big room is subdivided into several rooms for separate sleeping quarters for the family members. This also reduces air circulation, but Manjingfa folks tend to spend a lot of their daytime hours on the ground floor underneath the house, which is paved with cement and is altogether tidier than the area under their former houses.

The forty houses radiate out from a walled central circular area with a small chedi — or stupa — in the center, and two ornate pavilions surrounded by some ornamental plants. On the western edge of the village stands an old temple. With its classic, clean and orderly layout and its angled rooftops rhyming with the hills behind them, Manjingfa was designed as a model and prototype for new Dai villages in Xishuangbanna — an exercise in demonstrating that one need not jettison traditional esthetic values in order to be modern.

While Manjingfa-style villages did not start springing up elsewhere, in Dai villages that missed out on the tea and rubber booms, residents changed their attitudes about traditional houses. Instead of regretting they didn't have the money to build modern-style houses, they began appreciating what they already had. The local government, anxious to promote what remained of traditional Dai culture, sponsored the recognition of 'culture villages', where the architecture is at least 75 percent in the traditional style.

The area beneath a Manjingfa house
The area beneath a Manjingfa house

Two such villages lie near Jinghong. Busloads of Chinese tourists arrive daily to appreciate the traditional layout and houses and shop at stalls selling fruits and snacks or typical Xishuangbanna handicrafts, which may or may not be made in the villages. But the Dai villagers themselves now benefit from their own appreciation of all things traditionally Dai, especially their stilted houses. Perhaps this appreciation will spread and the stilted house will survive the coming decades. It is still the most appropriate and most comfortable possible house for living in the tropics.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Great article, excellent accompanying pictures. Thank you!

Interesting. I'm dwelling on the intro section. If the Dai ancestors came from SE China how did they come to be more religiously and linguistically aligned with Lao or Thai people, as well as often looking more SE Asian or hill tribe-like?

Dai, Lowland Lao and Thai peoples all have ancestors from China - not all within China became 'sinicized' - the Dai did not, though they have been becoming increasingly sinicized more recently. Until recent centuries, and even into recent centuries, contact between the Dai and Lao and Thai and other Tai groups continued - modern nationalist borders are more strongly established, and the areas within them more culturally colonized, than those of former empires and kingdoms.

Thanks for the good read, Jim. Although I didn't get to see it like you did in the 80s when all the houses were traditional, I still greatly enjoyed traveling through rural Xishuangbanna and seeing all the traditional architecture that remains, as well as the interesting traditional-modern hybrids which you so well describe.

I have a question about Mangjingfa though. The Mangjingfa I'm familiar with is kind of a cluster of Dai-themed nongjiale just 5 km from downtown Jinghong, near the Big Buddha. Is that the place you're talking about? It's not 20 km away. There's another village I found called Mangjingfa (different "jing" character—曼井法) 40 km away, but it doesn't seem like that's the one you're talking about.

@Geogramatt: the confusion with distances from Jinghong to Manjingfa is my mistake. I've changed the article to read "five kilometers" instead of the erroneous 20. Thanks.

Another great article Jim. Super Mengla time-lapse there!

An equivalent of the Jinghong valley would hammer home the changes ... literally sleepy farmer town to skyscraper neon city!

We're in Prague (the city not the cafe) of all places, but miss hanging out with you guys talking about Dai architecture for the 1000th time!

@DanTheMan: Dai and Lao and Thai people are collectively known as Tai peoples, or Tai-Kadai peoples. They are also closely related to the Zhuang minority. They emigrated from southeast China. Their original belief system was not Buddhism, rather forms of animism, some of which are still respected.

Various Tai peoples along this journey exposed to foreign belief systems: Chinese religions, Theravada Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. However, they are very predominantly Theravada Buddhists... with a syncretic approach to prior belief systems and tolerant to parallel practice.

However, the writing system used by the Dai did come from the south, up from Chiang Mai region through the Shan States of Burma. Ultimately that in turn was based on other Indian abugida scripts which are eventually traced to Brahmi and Kharosthi. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmi_script and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kharosthi

Unfortunately the traditional script used in southwestern Yunnan (Dehong area) and southeastern Yunnan (Xishuangbanna area) were different. The problem was made worse by Mao-era government refactoring of the language, which has since gone on yet again, and by government meddling in the traditional education at monasteries. These days most Dai kids there probably can't read Dai, or can only read one version. In another generation, I'd be surprised if it isn't effectively extinct as a written language.

Glad I saw some if these in XBanna a few years back. Going to assume they are all replaced now.

Nope, not all replaced.

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