by Jim Goodman
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 the original homeland in southeast China. The model was the stilted house, with high, sloping roofs and adjoining open-air balcony, which is still the norm, in the 21st 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, sloping 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.
|Dai house in Jingne|
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 Dai population began to increase so fast there were not enough caves to shelter the people from the elements. Pa Ya Shanmudi decided to lead his people to a new location on the plains.
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 the rainstorm as it broke upon the plain. 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, implanted them in the ground, 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 a 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 hills. But, knowing life was basically no longer tenable in the hills, he continued to ponder the problem of a proper shelter for his people.
|simple "phoenix house" in Mengla County|
All went well when the first rains came, for the rain ran right down the side of the angled roof and did not leak inside. Everybody remained dry. But then the storm kicked up, 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 run-off of the rains.
|capacious interior of a traditional Dai house|
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, activities of daily life and the reception of guests all take place on this single floor. There may be partitions for the kitchen, the sleeping quarters of the elders, or a small shrine. Generally, at night the family spreads mattresses and pillows along the floor for all the family to sleep together.
|Dai village near Daluo|
By the late 20th 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 resembled 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.
|traditional house, Dai Park, Ganlanba|
The rapid spread of rubber cultivation also upset Xishuangbanna’s ecological balance. By 2010 rubber plantations covered 20% of the land and the prefecture’s natural forest cover had shrunk to 26%. The voracious rubber trees eat up all the nutrients in the soil, so that virtually nothing else can grow on a rubber 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. The government finally had to step in that decade and declare the rest of Banna’s forest protected reserves.
Most rubber plantations lay in the central and eastern parts of the prefecture. Menghai County, the western third of Xishuangbanna, lies on higher plateau and most of it is not conducive to rubber cultivation. But Menghai County is perfect for tea, especially the Pu’er tea variety, which people grow both in the hills and in the plains. At the beginning of the 21st 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 Banna’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 3000 tea merchants and manufacturers in Xishuangbanna, intensely competitive and suspicious of one another.
|mixed architecture of a village in transition|
In general, once a few families took the lead in making new-style houses the rest of the village households hurried to ape them and within a few years villages which formerly consisted of nothing but traditional stilted wooden houses were transformed into villages of nothing but virtually 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 balcony. These would likely have satellite dishes placed on them, for televisions, automobiles, motorbikes and designer label clothing were part of the spending spree as well.
|Dai village near Menghai, 1998|
|the same Dai village, 2008|
Traditional Dai architecture in Ganlanba is not restricted to Dai Park. The outskirts of Menghan feature outstanding examples of Dai houses, festooned with peacock decorations under the apex of the roof ends or on the rooftop. Villages along the road to Menglun are equally well endowed with classic Dai houses. They are getting mixed with modern styles, though, for the deforestation of recent decades has led to a scarcity of timber. As families expand and children wed and need their own houses, they often opt for the modern style because wood is so hard to acquire anyway.
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 peaked, sloping roofs and open-air balcony, was still the most suitable type possible for the climate and blended 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, two km south of Jinghong, using the traditional layout and style of house, but substituted concrete, aluminum and plastered brick for wood and bamboo. Houses stand on concrete pillars, with 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 medium blue, with upturned corners and ceramic figurines lining the roof 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.
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 the 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 area beneath a Manjingfa house|
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 attitude about their traditional houses. Instead of regretting they didn’t have the money to build a modern-style house 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 was at least 75% traditional style.
Two such villages lie near Jinghong: Mandui, near the airport, and Manhefeng, near the new museum. Busloads of Chinese tourists arrive daily to appreciate the traditional layout and houses and shop at the stalls selling fruits and snacks or typical Banna 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 traditional stilted house will survive the coming decades. It is still the most appropriate, most comfortable possible house for living in the tropics.
|Jingfa Dai village|
for more information on Dai culture, see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan