Cultural Circle and Epic Transmission: Centered on Oral Narratives of the Dai People Living in China
Author: Qu, Yongxian
Affiliation: Institute of Ethnic Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The Dai[1] ethnic group, officially recognized as one of the 55 minorities in China in 1950s, mainly inhabits in Yunnan Province, Southwest China, especially in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, and Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. Besides, they also dwell in other areas, such as Gengma, Menglian, Jinggu, Xinping, Jingdong, Simao, Lincang, Yuanyang, Yuanjiang, and so on, mostly residing in basins or valleys along with the Lancang River, Jinsha River, Yuanjiang River, and Honghe River. There are different Dai branches or subgroups in different places as above mentioned, such as Dai-lue in Xishuangbanna, Dai-ne in Dehong, Dai-yat in Xingping, Dai-zhong in Yuanjiang, Dai-dam in Maguan, and so on, in terms of names called by themselves.

However, all these subgroups can be divided into two cultural circles: (1) within the Buddhist cultural circle, the Dai people who believe in Theravada Buddhism, celebrating the annual Water-Sprinkling Festival (Songkan Festival), keeping practice a writing system created by their ancestors long before… so that the varied poems in local communities had been recorded as written texts or books in the early history. They call these textualized epic or epos as “Lik” or “Tham” in Dai language (2) within the indigenous religious circle, the Dai communities are generally called as “Hua Yao Dai” as a whole, they adhere to folk beliefs or the Animism, having no literacy education… consequently, their time-honored oral poetry have been handed down from generation to generation as a striking fact.

Generally speaking, the earliest literature is primarily reported as corpus of oral songs and myths. The Dais take a long time to develop their traditional poetry, from short ballads to hundreds of thousands lines of oral poems in length (e.g. creation epics, heroic epics, epos among other genres), from the oral to the written, and from the simple to the complex. Amongst the treasure of Dai poetry, the poetic line is unlimited, shorter or longer, but the number of the syllables in one line is always odd; one verse is generally consisted of two lines, and one stanza is usually consisted of two verses; two lines constitute one unit of rhyme, this rhyme is called “yao-jiao-yun” in Chinese. Literally, "jiao" means "feet", "yao" means "waist," and "yun" means "rhyme." So we may “invent” a specific term in English here ----"waist-feet-rhyme" to indicate that the last syllable of first line functions as an end rhyme, corresponding to a syllable as an internal rhyme in the second line, which is usually recognized as the third syllable counting from the end of line.

Although there are different subgroups living in different places culturally and historically belong to the Dai ethnic group, they share the same expressive form of traditional culture, that is to say, the “waist-feet-rhyme” or "internal-end-rhyme" embed both in oral poetry and in written counterparts, witnessed in the two cultural circles. Moreover, this kind of rules of rhyming in oral poetic narratives is much more regular and strict than that of in the written poetry. The various rhymes in verse have been maintained steady in written literature up to now, the “waist-feet-rhyme” is dominantly featured in poetic lines however.

Keyword: cultural circle, epic tradition, oral narrative, rhyme rules

[1]The “Dai” ethnic group is officially recognized in China; however they are internationally recognized as “Tai” or “Thai”, especially in Southeast Asia.

     Keywords: cultural circle-epic tradition-oral narrative-rhyme rules