There were two significant aspects to Tai ascendency over the great valley
civilizations: one was the dynamism of the Tai autocracies which succeeded the Khmer and
Burmans as lowland state powers, relative to those of the upland frontier; a second was
the impact of Tai feudal organization on the political demography of Southeast Asia. In
pursuit of their own baronies, the sons of ruling Tai chieftains fragmentated the vast
Khmer and Burman territories into a number of more-or-less autonomous feudal polities. Tai
ethnocultural differentiation has an historical basis in this fragmentary expansion and
the florescence of political centers.
It is probable that Black Tai identity emerged as a frontier category during the
formation of a Tai-dominated mainland Southeast Asian society. This society was structured
by profound differences in the political ambitions, martial power, and administrative
ideologies of culturally cognate populations and of encapsulated and surrounding peoples
having divergent cultural-linguistic traditions. The social institution of internal Black
Tai organization, directly responsive to external political threat, was stratified
patriclanship ; specifically, the investment of certain individuals, or chao myang, with
supra-local leadership, validated as an hereditary office of aristocratic clans, or tao.
These leaders held powers of land disbursement and labor conscription within the
settlement area and, especially, powers of military conscription to wage wars of conquest
among the highland states or wars of rebellion and defense against lowland states.
Observers during the early French colonial period and after have commented upon the
extraordinary durability of Black Tai ethnocultural identity in the face of continuous
contact and contest with more powerful Vietnamese, Lao Tai, and Siamese neighbors. In
retrospect, the inconsistencies of ethnographic characterizations through time and among
different regions indicate that some accretion of external cultural elements occurred.
More importantly, the persistence of a distinct identity category-despite internal
variation of cultural content-would suggest that the adversarial relationship between the
upland Tai feudal states and lowland political traditions was the generative basis of
Similarly, it appears that the divergence of a Lao Song identity category from Black
Tai occurred during the formation of the modern Siamese Thai state, as the central
government sought to. dominate its frontier populations which were internally fractious
and subject to external political influence. The Lao Song category appeared following the
forced relocation to Central Thailand of thousands of these highlanders; although its
members are generally assumed to have been exclusively Black Tai conscripts, it is
possible that some were other Lao Tai whose former ethnic affiliations are since discarded
from Song ethnohistory. Apart from physical displacement, these early Lao Song suffered
separation from an upland region in which they had been part of the demographic majority
and, in some periods during (he pre-colonial era, the dominant ethnic category. During the
early Phet Buri period, Song were an enslaved minority, confined to large reservation
villages and subject to forced labor. The accounts of missionaries and travelers suggest
that little acculturation or assimilation occurred through the period of enslavement. As
with their Black Tai forbears, Song have been regarded as extraordinarily conservative of
cultural identity. Inasmuch as physical separateness from the Siamese majority was
mandated by the government, ethnic enclavement and cultural persistence may have been as
much a typical, historically consistent social adaptation to continuing political
encapsulation as any intrinsic propensity toward cultural conservation. It is apparent
that alteration of indigenous political institutions occurred with the disappearance of
traditional feudal loyalties to the aristocratic patriclans which controlled the upland myang.
The change in political organization between Black Tai and Lao Song should not, in my
opinion, be overstated as representing a fundamental social structural change. Rather, it
represents a difference in the application and effective scale of a generally unchanging
kinship ideology. While ethnographers tend to emphasize the supravillage polity and the
hereditary authority of the tao as characteristic features of the Black Tai, it is
reasonable to assume that patrilineal structure and morality also operated at the local
level, providing one institutional framework for daily social life. In this
respect, the Siamese government was complicit in the preservation of kinship communities.
From the earliest period of resettlement, the maximal patrician represented an important
social category in terms of marriage prohibitions, ritual observance, and local economic
activity. That it also provided for myang leadership among Black Tai in the uplands
is appropriate to the particular circumstances of political conflict which obtained in the
Sipsong Chao Tai.
Following emancipation, many Song migrated voluntarily or were dispersed under
government direction to isolated and agriculturally marginal rural areas throughout
Central Thailand. In these locations, they organized as separate, initially small
villages. Given the number of marriages between members of the same maximal patrician, it
appears that individual identification with local patrician segments superseded the
importance of affiliations with any more extended kin category, which is more
characteristic of the densely populated Phet Buri villages today. The testimony of elders
indicates a purposeful withdrawal from interaction with non-Song; villages were bounded
and centralized, and ethnic intermarriage is claimed to have been rare or non-occurrent.
As with the Phet Buri colony, however, physical seclusion from other pioneers to the
internal frontier surrounding the capital may have been an important factor in
perpetuating ethnic enclavement. It is only within the past thirty years that roads and
rural marketing networks have expanded to the remote locations typical of Lao Song
settlements. Since dispersal throughout Central Thailand, the nucleated village or hamlet
has emerged as the largest, significant supra-family social .arrangement. Over a period
of. several generations, Song villages and different regional concentrations of Song
settlement have developed certain, trivial distinctions among what are regarded by each as
customary practices, or proper forms of customary practice. In recent years, some
haphazard acculturation has occurred-increasing attendance to Buddhism, formal education,
adoption of Western dress styles, incorporation of local folk rituals, and engagement in
non-traditional occupations and exchange systems-though not uniformly among Song
communities nor to a degree that emblematic cultural practices and membership boundaries
have disappeared. In fact, the persistence of patriclanship and kinship-related
ritual ideology reveals the maintenance of a societal institution which likely extends a
millenium. The diminution of the patrician system from Black Tai feudalism to local
patrician segmentation among the widespread, pre-modern villages, and to the present
conservation of the local segment as a ritual arid land proprietary group, may be
considered an adaptation of the central institution of social articulation within the
Black Tail Lao Song tradition to changing external circumstances.
The similarities between Black Tai and Lao Song cultural form, as well as the common
attributions of traditionalism, must be considered separately from their ethnic
identities. For Lao Song throughout Central Thailand, the Phet Buri colony has replaced
the Sipsong Chao Tai as a "homeland". In recalling family origins, villagers in
Nakhon Pathom or Suphanburi speak not of myang Teng or Muoi, but Myang Phet. Many of
a village's elders were born there, and most. younger Song can trace descent from or
other familial relationship to specific kin remaining in the now large villages of the
old Phet Buri Song settlements. Folk ballads recall migrants' origins in these villages;
standards of custom observance are measured against those maintained in the colony.
For many contemporary Song, Myang Phet is where the recollectible, meaningful history of
the people begins. What existed before displacement from Laos and northern Vietnam is,
at best, indistinct, often entirely unknown, and, where familiar to villagers, legendary
in aspect. The people of Central Thailand who maintain Black Tai beliefs and
practices, today, are descendents of the colony.
Bert F. Sams
1. Conventionally, Southeast Asianists use the term "Tai" in referring to any
speakers of the Tai language family, reserving the aspirated "Thai" to designate
only those citizens of the Kingdom of Thailand as a Siamese Tai state.
2. Prior to mass displacement during the Vietnam conflict, Black Tai were reported to
number about 335,500 in Laos and northern Vietnam, compared with an estimated combined
total of about 171,500 White Tai, Red Tai, Tai Nya, and Phutai in the central upland
region (Lebar et a!., 1964 : 220-228).
3. The Story of the Petchaburi Station in 1861, p.2. Contained in the Eakin
Papers, Box 1Il, File # 017/80, collection of the Manuscript Division, Payap College,
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
4. Seccessional Records of the Vimohnsihn Church, Petchaburi, in the Eakin
Papers, Payap College.
5. Daniel McGilvary to Dr. G. Lowrie, 0.0.,9 Oct 1862. Microfilm File # r. 181 RG
026/79 (e), Payap College.
6. McGi1vary to Lowrie, 1862, ibid.
7. McGilvary to Lowrie, 1862, ibid.
8. The Story of the Petchaburi Station in 1861, ibid.