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Bamboo Buildings of the Dai Folks

A Village of the Dai People

The housing of the Dai communities in Xishuangbanna is a kind of double-layered fencing building supported with wooden pillars, and the top of the housing is covered with hays or tree leaves. Since many materials they used are bamboos in the past, we still call them bamboo buildings today. In the bamboo buildings, the Dai folks usually use bamboo chips or boards to make the walls, and they live in such buildings. The bamboo buildings also have corridors and terraces, the corridors are used as passages or storehouses, sometime as guestrooms; and the terraces are used as storerooms for placing vats, bamboo cans or places for drying clothes. There is no wall under the buildings, and they could pile fuels, farming tools and other objects there. Sometimes, they also raise poultries and farming animals there. The structure of the buildings is quite suitable for the hot and humid climate in Xishuangbanna; and they dare no earthquakes or floods. According to archeological studies, the history for such bamboo buildings could be traced back to the period of the Neolithic Age. 

There are all sorts of tales regarding the construction of the bamboo buildings and the Dai folks also have ballads about this. In ancient times, the ancestors of the Dai folks used to live in caves or on the forks of trees, and these made them convenient for picking up plants, hunting and fishing. Accompanying the breeding of animals at home and the beginning of farming, they had the demands to construct buildings. A legendary hero, Payasangmudi, began to construct such buildings based on such needs. He constructed three sorts of buildings, though these buildings had elements of mythology in them, they were actually the results of bionic studies. First, he was enlightened by the phenomenon that people shelter rain under trees; therefore, he constructed buildings with flat tops covered by tree leaves and hays, but it leaked during raining; therefore, people could not live in them when it rained. Afterwards, he saw the dog sit on the ground during rains. The dog sat on the ground with its bottom, and the rain came down along the slope from its head to its bottom. Therefore, he constructed a building with tipsy tops. This kind of building settled the problem of shading the rainwater, but it could not solve the problem of moisture inside the building. When he was thinking very hard about the improvement, the God of Dai folks, Payaying, changed into a phoenix and danced in the rain in front of him. When the phoenix spread its wings, it indicated that the ridge of the building should be like a ""(means a "man"); when the phoenix sank its head and pulled back its tails, it indicated that the two ends of the ""shaped framework should be tied together; and when the phoenix stood on the ground, it indicated that the building should have two layers. When the phoenix flied away, the smart Payasangmudi simulated the dancing of the phoenix in the rain and created the high-footed bamboo building, which could shelter people from the rains, prevent moisture, and could also protect people from the attacks of fierce animals. The bamboo building is still in use today. It is said that, when Sangmudi was constructing the building, a flood took place, and he saved many animals; when he constructed the building, he got helps from all animals. The elephant contributed its tongue, the dog contributed its back, the cat contributed its chin, and the egret contributed its wings. So up to the present, many parts of the bamboo buildings are still named after animals. These legends reflect that the Dai folks are good at learning from others, and they have basic knowledge in bionics. 

In the developing process of the bamboo buildings, the Dai folks made use of their talents, and continued to make the structure and materials perfect. What is worth mentioning is that they place large marbles underneath the pillars of the building, so that the pillar would not touch the ground directly; and this prevent moisture from climbing up along the pillars and ants from climbing up to construct their nets, thus also protected the bamboo buildings. It's said that the pillars were invented by a woman chief named Yabanna. For pillars of the terraces and the mortar for processing rice that must contact the ground, they would select hard woods or woods that could prevent the biting of ants, such as double hea tree, simao doufuchai and Mitragyna diversifolia etc. The Dai folks are also quite experienced in the selection of woods for each part of the buildings; for the two most important pillars, they would select Schima wallichii, and Paramichelia baillonii etc.,which are strong enough to support the building and are also quite endurable woods. This reflects their knowledge in wood and trees. 

In order to make the bamboo building more endurable, they also created many practical and effective treatment methods for the bamboos and woods. Some bamboo materials must be put into the river or ponds to saturate for several months after cutting in order to dissolve some soluble substances, such as xylose, and to make the starch deteroprate, so that they would not induce moth or reduce the parasitism by microorganism. The woods that must be buried into earth would first be burnt with fires in order to make the part in the earth harder and have a layer of protection with charcoal. Besides, they also constructed an oven on the bamboo building, when they cook, the smoke would pervade everywhere, which has chemical functions such as anti-erosion and mothproof. Of course, the bamboo buildings are afraid of fires. Therefore, each community established their rules. No one is allowed to use fire in daytime of the dry season; if fire must be used, the user must go to designated places for the use of fire. Therefore, it is seldom seen that bamboo buildings are on fire. 

The most typical building material in Dai culture is bamboo, and the building style of the typical Dai house is called "Gan Lan". The columns, beams, purlins, rafters, and walls of the house are of bamboo, as is the gate leading to the house. In fact, the grass, or thatch, that covers the roof of a Dai traditional house is held together in tufts, or bundles, with the help of bamboo twigs, which are quite elastic. In some areas, the roof consists of bamboo shafts split in half, then tied to gether to form a seamless roof. Obviously, the greater the bearing requirement the larger, or sturdier, the bamboo. Thus the house's main framework will be made of the largest bamboo shafts, while narrower bamboo is used for walls, for the roof, and as a final covering over the bearing framework of the floor, if wooden planks are not to be used.

A traditional Dai house is two-storeyed, and roughly square in shape. The upper storey serves as the living quarters for the family, while the lower storey, which may be only partially walled in, but is generally partitioned into more than one room, serves as a storeroom for grain, etc., and as a shelter for livestock. The living quarters contain, besides bedrooms, room for working, for dining, and for receiving guests. There is traditionally a balcony for washing clothes. It is here that the household water supply, its water tank, is located. The advantage of having the living quarters raised above ground are obvious: it reduces the risks to life and property during high water conditions (flooding), being well above ground, it is free of dampness, ground chill, and it is generally free of insects, especially mosquitoes.

The construction of bamboo buildings is an adaptation of the Dai folks to the tropical forest environment, and it has its scientific and cultural significance. Therefore, other ethic groups in this region, such as the Bulang, Hani and Jinuo people also construct similar buildings model on them. Of course, in modern times, the materials used for the bamboo buildings changed a lot, the hay tops are replaced by tiles and plates, and the bamboo walls are replaced by wooden boards. In some places, the local people have changed the wooden pillars into brick pillars or concrete pillars, but the general style of the buildings are preserved.

The Water Dai villages and stockaded villages, usually distributed by the hilly country near the paddy field or by the side of mountains, are made up of folk houses and Buddhist temples. The local people believe in Buddhism, so folk houses cannot be located in the neighborhood, especially the opposite side of Buddhist temples. What’s more, the height of floor of folk houses cannot surpass the plane of seat stand of Buddha statue. Buddhist culture deeply influences the distribution and folk house forms of the Water Dai people's villages and stockaded villages.

Notes for Travelers:
1. When visiting a Dai household, do not take a quick peek at the host's bedroom as it is out of bounds to anyone outside their family.

2. Taboo in the sitting room

There are three pillars in a Dai sitting room, two of them between the bedroom and sitting room, and the outer Lucky Pillar that may be leaned on. The inner Pillar to Heaven as a solemn function. When a family member dies, the body is rested against it and bathed, dressed and shrouded in preparation for cremation. The pillar beside the fire pit should never be leaned on as, according to Dai belief, it is the Pillar Supporting the Sky.

3. Points of attention when entering a bamboo dwelling

After entering the house, everyone sits down in order of seniority.

Dai people think of the doorsill as a choke point for men and ghosts.

A stool is only for sitting on and must never be used as a pillow.

One should never step over the fire pit, nor move the three-legged rack over it.

Stairs should be climbed softly.

There must never be any whistling at night.

Ignoring any of the above rules of etiquette would be construed as disrespect for the host.

4. If you can't catch the Dai New Year's Day Water-Splashing Festival, there is always the travelers' Water-Splashing Festival held every afternoon at Ganlan Ba by the Xishuangbanna Dai Ethnic Park Company. Enjoy!

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