Tai People in South China

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[This is a guest post by Bob Ramsey]

Fairy Tale-like Landscape in Guangxi

Millions in South China today, especially in Guangxi, are not Han Chinese at all, but “Tai.” Tai groups in China include, among others, the Dai, the Li, and the Zhuang. Culturally and linguistically related to the Thai (or Siamese) of Thailand, Tai in China don’t ordinarily stand out as different. They live among Han Chinese. Most look and act Chinese. They wear the same clothes. Most are bilingual in Cantonese or some other variety of Chinese. Nevertheless, the PRC classifies them as minorities, and some pose for the tourist trade, sporting exotic “native” clothes and putting on colorful festivals for paying visitors.

The Tai in China may be technologically below the level of the Han now, but archeological evidence reveals that an advanced Tai civilization once controlled most of South China. Unlike people living on China’s northern frontiers, Southerners practiced rice agriculture long before contact with the Chinese.

The fact is, aboriginal Tai people settled South China well before Han Chinese arrived in the area, and for many centuries, Tai played a large and shadowy role on the edge of the Sinitic world. Around the beginning of the first millennium B.C., Tai were ensconced in the rice-growing areas of the Yangtze Valley and in the area where Shanghai is today. They dominated the South China coast. As such groups became Sinified, they were gradually swallowed up by the expanding Chinese civilization, and local Tai became Chinese themselves through cultural and linguistic assimilation. According to one ethnographer, at least 60% of today’s Cantonese have Tai-speaking ancestry. China is much more diverse than outsiders realize. 

But many other Tai, especially political and military elite, migrated south before the encroaching Chinese, and as time went on, the centers of Tai control shifted farther and farther south. Eventually these population movements resulted in the present ethnic composition of northern Southeast Asia. Though not widely spoken about today, the Thai of Thailand and the Lao of Laos both originated in southern China in what is now Guangxi, where the Tai-speaking Zhuang still make up a third of the population. 

Selected readings


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    March 19, 2022 @ 4:45 pm

    Yep. A striking proof of the Tai (specifically Zhuang) input into Cantonese language and culture: When I lived in Hong Kong in 1965-66, I had to go and buy water from a standpipe. People would ask me "Where are you going?" Which is the standard Cantonese greeting. I would answer "I'm going to buy water" (heui maai seui). I got VERY strange looks. This is a known thing to anthropologists, so I asked around and found that in Cantonese you only say that when you are ritually getting water to wash a family member's corpse for burial. Well, turns out this is reported from the Song dynasty as a Zhuang custom!

  2. suburbanbanshee said,

    March 19, 2022 @ 5:52 pm

    Apropos of Chinese… Are these "magic signs" from a Roman "magic gem" actually Chinese characters?

    I suspect it is gobbledygook and not a text, but still.


    I link to the blog article, because the picture on the original website jumps around as a slideshow of both sides of the gem.

  3. John Swindle said,

    March 21, 2022 @ 3:37 am

    @suburbanbanshee: See responses at post on "The Origin(s) of Writing".

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