|The Black Tai
The Black Tai are the largest among
the so-called "minority" or "tribal" Tai populations in northern Laos
and the Tonkin highlands (demographic and cultural descriptions reflect conditions prior
to dislocations during the Vietnam Conflict).2 Their villages are widely dispersed between
and contiguous to the Red, Black, and Song Chay or Clear rivers in northern Vietnam and
along the Ou, Ngum, and Khan in Laos. Occupying the lower elevations of mountain valleys,
they practice valley and terrace irrigation riziculture, occasional hillside swiddening in
marginal areas, and peripheral garden or cash cropping (Colonna, 1938 ; Gourou, 1952).
Black Tai are organized in part by affiliation with named, ranked patriclans, or sing,
whose members claim common descent through unspecified links from a putative founding
ancestor (Lafont, 1955). The number, social position, and names of Black Tai sing differ,
according to regional and historical circumstance of observation (see Guillemet and
O'kelly, 1916 : 103-105 ; Lafont, 1955 ; Halpern, 1961 : 139-143 ; Lebar et aI., 1964 :
222 ; Schrock et aI., 1972 : 50 ; Pitiphat, 1980 : 29). Generally, Black Tai sing are
divided as three classes: a ruling nobility, or up Tao ; commoner clans, or pu noi, and;
mo, priestly clans sometimes described as an interstitial category and included at times
with pu tao, perhaps reflecting periods of phratry organization.
Prior to limited and marginally successful reforms imposed by the French in the late
nineteenth century, the tao clans claimed proprietorship over chao myang office and
commune headmanship by divine imprimatur, owned all land and had conscriptive authority
over commoners. Commoners enjoyed freedom of local affiliation restricted only by a system
in which taxes were exacted according to both jurisdictions of origin and residence (ESJ
[anonymous, c.1981] : 181 ; Izikowitz, 163). As with other Tai valley farmers, Black Tai
claimed superior status over the )original or remnant groups of Austroasiatic speakers
whose mountainside or forest communities constituted frontiers between two or more myang
to which they were tributary.
Observers and scholars have ascribed an almost atavistic traditionalism to the Black
Tai. Apart from differences in political history with lowland Tai, upland Tai peoples,
"notably the Black Thai...are set apart...by the retention of their traditional
dress, animistic beliefs, and their strong cohesion as a group" (Smith et al., 1967 :
569). Among minority or tribal Tai, the Black Tai have been singled out as archetypal.
"If there is a general pattern of upland social structure. ..it is the system of the
Black Tai" (McAlister, 1967 : 781). They are "more conservative than any of the
other groups" (Lebar and Suddard, 1960 : 41), "'typical' in that they have
preserved much of what was apparently the traditional Tai way of life prior to the
expansion of Tai-speaking peoples in Indochina" (Halpern and Kunstadter, 1967 : 236).
Compared with any other Tai in Southeast Asia, their language and religious beliefs are
less Indianized ; among all peoples emigrant from the north, their language and political
form are less Sinicized, and; in comparison with their closest cultural and regional
neighbors, the White Tai, they are less Vietnamized (Hickey, 1958 ; Seidenfaden, 1963 : 74
; Gedney, 4; Lebar et aI., 1964: 188 ; Pitiphat, 1980: 37). By virtue of their ecological
adaptation, social organizational character, and cultural integrity, the Black Tai have 1
called the "original Thai", the "ancient Thai" (Senaphitak, 1978 :
7-8), and the Thai of yore" (Seidenfaden, 1963: 74 ; referring to Izikowitz, 1962).
Black Tai retention of traditional culture has often been attributed to their occupation
of dispersed and remote areas (Hickey, 1958 : 206, 210 ; Schrock et aI., 1972 : 50-51 ; 7
; Pitiphat, 1980 : 36-38), just as acculturation among such upland peoples as the Red Tai
and White Tai (see Hickey, 1958 ; Gedney, 1964) and such "tribal" Tai migrants
in northern Thailand as the Lue (Moerman, 1965 ; 1967) has been associated with contiguity
to or other enduring alignment with majority lowland societies. Citing some cultural
diffusion from both lowland Tai and Vietnamese (e.g., adoption of Indianized script,
probable vocabular and phonetic adulteration), others have questioned the significance of
geographical barriers (Halpern and Kunstadter, 1967 : Davis, 1984 : 33-34).
Both positions have merit, describing actual features of Black Tai environment culture.
On one hand, several Black Tai population centers are proximal to historically important
trade routes, and the region has been a focus of intensive competition from neighboring
states in every direction for centuries. On the other, no external power has ever
maintained more than a temporary or tenuous presence in the uplands, nor effected complete
destruction of indigenous political and social institutions. The distance of foreign
political centers, and reluctance in communicating threat of encroachment on rival states
by imposing direct and martial rule, encouraged either administration through local
officers or only nominal limitations to autonomous rule. Such compromises perpetuated the
influence of traditional leaders and the importance of patriliny in social organization,
contributing to the persistence of ethnocultural identity.
In their external relations with other myang, the upland Black Tai autocracies have
been characterized as semi-autonomous, recognizing only periodic alliances or
administrative corporateness, usually in response to the hegemony of external powers
(McAlister, 1967 : 779-780). However ephemeral or derivative, two kinds of supralocal
articulation deserve mention: consolidation of myang under individual powerful chao
through warfare, and "tribal" alignment.
Although long widely dispersed, the Black Tai have traditionally marked their capital
at Myang Teng (var., Theng, Taeng, Thaeng ; now known as Dien Bien Phu), located in the
large upland valley between the au and Ma rivers and founded probably in the eleventh
century (Guillemet and O'Kelly, 1916 : 105). Legendary recognition of this
"magnificent plain" (ESJ : 181) is not exclusive to Black Tai : while they claim
it as original, it is also specified as the hub of Tai dispersal by the lowland Lao and
other Tai in the region. Myang Teng may in fact have been an early "homeland"
for both the Black Tai and lowland Lao, but its legendary stature probably owes as much to
geography. Covering over one hundred square kilometers, it is the most productive of
upland agricultural areas and also dominates the most direct route between the Tonkin and
middle Mekhong valley. The mythic status of certain myang as points of origin for various
Tai as ethnic categories may have a basis in such geopolitical circumstances. Moerman
Propinquity to a strong and durable capital may have resulted in the focusing and
coalescing of minor differences of speech and custom to make them emblems of a
"tribe." Where the states were weak, as in Tonkin, distinctions of language and
tribe are especially unclear... Thai tribal labels seem to record not language and
culture, but historical states which no longer exist. These states were never sufficiently
durable or powerful, nor were watersheds so mutually isolated. ..as to produce the
centripetal interactions that make for objectively distinctive cultures (1967 : 1221).
The situation in Tonkin does suggest regional topography and political demography as
determinants of ethnic alignments (see also Hartmann, 1980 : 82, on Tai dialect groups). A
relevant example of the problematic nature of tribal and culturallingual distinctions
concerns that among the Black and White Tai. Excepting Diguet (1908) and Maspero (1929),
ethnographers have chosen to distinguish White Tai and Black Tai, both as dialect groups
(see Gedney, 1964 ; Fippinger and Fippinger, 1970) and as cultures (see Roux, 1954 ; Lebar
et aI., 1964), despite that regional variations among either are as pronounced as any
sociocultural difference between them (cf. Abadie. 1924 ; Fippinger, 1971). Historically,
"tribal" affiliation in the Tonkin and northeastern Laos has marked conflict
over territory and competition for privileged recognition by more powerful lowland
neighbors. Black Tai and White Tai are distinct ethnic categories, but the fundamental
nature of their opposition is or has been highly specific to political contest, and
persistent only within a context of sociocultural and ecological similarity. Until the
power concentrated in certain myang was legitimized by French in the late nineteenth
century, what are now taken as "tribal" divisions had I less salience to dialect
and culture trait distribution.
According to folk history, the legendary Black Tai homeland of Myang Teng the capital
of a centralized organization of twelve allied feudal states along the Red Black rivers,
known as the Sipsong Chao Tai or "Twelve Tai Chao or Cantons" (also known as the
Sipsong Chu Tai). McAlister questions whether such a confederacy existed, suggesting that
the Sipsong Chao Tai was no more than a "ritualistic entity" of Tonkin myang
whose boundaries were reified by the French in the late nineteenth century as the
political domain of a White Tai clan alienated by the Siamese attracted to the potential
influence of the French (1967 : 807-808). Although Black were more numerous in the region,
they were subjugated by the favored and more unified White Tai.