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Location.  The Tai Dam or Black Tai are found in many locations in southern China and Southeast Asia, as shown in the map below.  The largest concentration live along the borders separating northwestern Vietnam and northeastern Laos.  Scatterings of Tai Dam are also found in Yunnan, China; and in Loei province in northeastern Thailand  and Suphanburi, Kanchanaburi, and Phetburi provinces in central Thailand, where they are known as Lao Song or Lao Song Dam.  In China, Tai Dam settlements are found in Yangmahe Village in Yuan Jiang County and Ser Kher or Seua Dam Village in Maguan County, among other localities.*  Several Tai Dam villages are also located in hamlets in the vicinity of Vientiane, Laos.  In 1975 and subsequent years,  several thousand Tai Dam refugees came to settle in the U.S., chiefly Iowa, and nearly equal numbers settled in France as exiles starting as early as the fall of Dienbienphu in 1945.  There are Tai Dam communities in Australia and Canada as well.

Names.  Several names are used to identify the various Tai Dam groups; some are based on features of native costume - the color of the blouse or trousers worn by different goups, for example:   Tai Dam [Black] or Tai Lam (the sounds /d/ and /l/, /v/ and b/, /y and z/ vary from one location to another); Phu Thai Dam, Song or Lao Song Dam (lit. "Lao [wearing] black trousers" ).  Other names include Tai Muan, Tai Tang, Tai Tan.  In Vietnam the Tai groups are referred to as "Thai," not to be confused with the Thai of Thailand.

Source:  Linguistics Department, Arts Faculty, Chulalongkorn University, 1992

.  In proto-Tai geographic terms, a muang (mfang4) is a basin surrounded by mountains, an ideal location for growing irrigated rice, a bounded  area that lends itself to a central degree of centralized governance.   According to tradition, the Tai Dam ancestral home is believed to be around the area of Muang Thaen or Dienbienphu, in Vietnam. ("Thaen" is the traditional name of the chief Tai Dam deities who reside in the sky.)  Nearby are the large Tai Dam centers of Muang Muay and  Muang La or Sonla, Vietnam.  One version of the Tai Dam Origin myth provided below comes from Muang Muay/Muang La region.  Muang Muay was one of the original twelve "Chu/Cu" in an older alignment of Muang referred to as "Sipsong Chu (Chao) Thai"  literaly the "Twelve Thai Chiefs."   The muang or petty chiefdoms or "cantons" of that era were governed by a "Chao/ Taaw" or "Lord," who was hereditory for the most part.   According to the French scholar Maspero (1950), by the end of the 18th century, Muang Muay was the dominant muang (mfang4) or chiefdom from which all of the hereditary nobles or /taaw2/ came. The twelve, later sixteen, chiefdoms included White and Red Tai groups as well as the Black Tai.  The original twelve names have become obscured over time, and the number of muang was expanded beyond twelve under French rule. (See map from Mission Pavie: Geographie et Voyage by Auguste Pavie - Paris, 1911.  See also the map of  Local Groups of Tai in Laos and Vietnam and Ban Do Cac Dan Toc O Viet Nam (size: 457K) [ Map of Linguistic Groups in Vietnam appearing on page 25 in Cac Can Toc It Nguoi O Viet Nam. 1978. Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi.])

Gedney (1989: 418) had this to say about the origins of the Black and the Red Thai groups. "...there is also an explanation sometimes heard that they are called Black Tai because they come from along the Black River (Riviere Noire). The Red Tai explain that they are so called because they came "centuries" ago from a place called mfaN4 lEEng1 ('Red Town') in Vietnam.  Others deny this, and claim that the Red Tai came from along the Red River, but there is strong evidence in favor of the 'Red Town' theory in J.B. Degeorge, "Proverbes, maximes et sentences tays," Anthropos 22 (1927), pp. 911-32, and 23 (1928, pp. 596, who collected his material at Yen Khuong (Muong Deng)."**

Dang Nghiem Van (1972:146-147) says the following.  "Towards the beginning of the first millenary B.C., the Thai [Tai] left their old place of settlement and moved southwest, reaching southern Yunnan and the west of the Indochinese peninsula.   Towards the same period they came into contact with groups speaking Tibeto-Burmese dialects coming from Central Asia of Northwest China.  Later on, the same migratory current brought them in touch with the expanding Han, a vanguard group of whom came down the valley of the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) in the southwesterly direction.  Further south, they began to cohabit with the Mon-Khmer groups who had settled in the region for a long time.  After many historic events, towards the start of our era, a number of Thai [Tai] states were set up, spreading from the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong rivers to the border regions between Yunnan, Upper-Laos and the northwest of Viet Nam."

He goes on to say, "The above sketchy description, used as a working hypothesis, is generally confirmed by many documents from the official annals of successive Chinese imperial dynasties, from the Tang to the Yuan and Ming (7th-16th centuries).   Therefore, we may think of the forefathers of the present Thai [Tai] as having settled in areas spreading from the northwest of the Chinese province of Yunnan to the valleys of the Red and Black rivers, under different names - Bach Zi, Bai Zi, Bach Y - which even in our days still designate different Thai [Tai] groups in the northwest and south of Yunnan.  Our hypothesis is again confirmed by the genealogical books and written tradition recently discovered among the Thai [Tai], especially the Black Thai [Tai] of the Northwest Autonomous Region such as Tay Pu Xac (which may be roughly translated as "The Expeditionary Road of the Thai [Tai]") and Quam To Muong (Story of the Land).  According to these documents written in traditional Thai [Tai] script, the cradle of the Thai [Tai], the Lue and the Lao was situated at the confluence of nine rivers: the Nam Tao (Red River), Nam Te (Black River), Nam Ma (Ma River which waters Thanh Hoa province), Nam Khoon (Mekong), Nam U, Nam Man and three other unidentified rivers of Yunnan.  There small "states" or rather seigniories commonly called Muong were set up under Thai [Tai] chieftains: Moung Om, Muong Si, Muong La, Muong Bo Te, Muong Oc, Muong Ac, Muong Tum Hoang, Muong Then...Reserches over the past few years have identified most of those places with present-day localities of southern Yunnan.  Muong Then or Muong Theng alone belongs to another region which comprises part of the Lao province of Phong Sa Ly and the northwest of Lai Chau province (in the Northwest Autonomous Region) of which the centre is the plain of Muong Thanh which was the theatre of the Dien Bien Phu battle."***

Acording to Sumitr Pitiphat (1908:29), various Tai groups to the west of what was once known loosely as Annam had a long history of self-government.  Between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Tai Dam came under the protection of the Lao of Luang Prabang while still functioning independently.  With the establishment of the Chakri dynasty at Thonburi and throughout the Bangkok period, the Siamese gained power over the Kingdom of Lan Chang centered at Vientiane and, indirectly, the Sip Song Chao/Chu Thai region.  However, their early control did not extend to the Tai Dam, who remained under the "mild suzerainty" of Luang Prabang.  The Siamese, however, did move Tai Dam captives and resettled them in villages near Bangkok, where they are known as Lao Song Dam.  When Vietnam fell to France, the Sip Song Chao/Chu Thai and the adjacent Hua Phan Districts were ceded by the Thais to Vietnam in 1888.****

In 1999, the Tai Studies Center at Des Moines, Iowa published a two-part volume Kwaam To Nhay (The Great Tale), and Kwaam Tay Pu Serk (The Odyssey of the Warlords), a 260-page history of the Tai Dam.  In the Preface to this publication, they write:  "The region known as Indochina was colonized by the French during the last half of the 19th Century: Cambodia in 1863; southern Vietnam (which they named Cochinchina) in 1867; central and northern Vietnam (named, respectively, Annam,and Tonkin) in 1884; Tai Country (named Sip Song Chau Tai) in 1889; and Laos in 1893.  Sipsong Chau Tai, which means "Twelve Tai Principalities," was colonized and annexed to Tonkin in 1889.  In 1948, the region was reorganized as Sip Hok Chau Tai (Sixteen Tai Principalities), and was referred to by the French as the "Tai Federation".  As such, it was declared an independent country by the Tai and the French, and remained so until 1954 when it was absorbed by Vietnam after the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.  The Vietnamese, in 1955, renamed the region the "Tai-Meo Autonomous Zone" of Vietnam, then again in 1962, the "Northwest Autonomous Zone".  Finally, in 1975, the region lost its identity and became known simply as the northwest of Vietnam, which now includes the provinces of Son La, Lai Chau. Lao Cai, and Yen Bai."


*  For details on some of the locations in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand see the Thai publication Tai-Kadai: Khreuang Taeng Kaay Lae Khreuang Pradap Satri, Tai Dam, Tang, Li ("The Tai-Kadai:  Clothing and Women's Jewelry of the Tai Dam, Tang, and Li") published by Chulalongkorn University, Faculty of Arts, Departmant of Linguistics in B.E. 2535/C.E.1992 as part of "A Research Project to Celebrate the 60th Birthday of H.R.H. Queen Sirikit."

**  Selected Papers on Comparative Tai Studies -  William J. Gedney.   Bickner, R.J, J. Hartmann, T. J. Hudak, P Peyasantiwong, EDS.  Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asian Studies No. 29. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan. 

***  Vietnamese Studies No. 32. Nguyen Khac Vien, ED. Hanoi: Xunhasaba, pp. 142-199.  Note that the Vietnemese use the term "Thai" to refer to Tai groups succh as the Black, White, and Red Tai.

****  "The Religion and Beliefs of the Black Tai, and a Note on the Study of Cultural Origins" in The Journal of the Siam Society 68.1 (Jan. 1980), pp. 29-38.

*****  Kwaam To Nhay (The Great Tale), and Kwaam Tay Pu Serk (The Odyssey of the Warlords) was self-published in 1999 by the Tai Studies Center.  The source of Part I (The Great Tale) was a manuscript "...preserved by a group of Tai refugees who fled from Muong Theng (Dien Bien Phu) to Thailand in the 1790's.  It was copied on palm leaves for preservation, and passed from father to son for more than 200 years.  The letters were in such an ancient style that the last owner,  Mr. Hooy of Phetbury Province, Thailand, claimed to be the only living person capable of reading it.  Mr. Hooy not only sent the copy of the manuscript to the Tai Studies Center, he provided a tape recording as well."   Part I (The Odyssey of the Warlords) "were smuggled out of Sonla Province, Vietnam to a family in France in 1992."  pp. 262-263.  My examination of the specimen pages of the respective manuscripts leads me to conclude that Part I was written in the old Lao Song Dam alphabet of Nakorn Pathom, Thailand;  Part II is written in the more modern Tai Dam style. 


The Tai Studies Center is located at 618 East 18th Street, Suite 206, Des Moines, Iowa 50316, U.S.A.  The founder of the Center is Ms. Siang Bac Thi of Des Moines.  e-mail: TaiStudiesCtr@aol.com

The Tai Studies Center and its members have provided me with many of the materials used in developing this web page and my linguistic research.  In addition, Jay and Dorothy Fippinger, who pioneered in the linguistic analysis of Tai Dam language and published many works on the subject, have been a continuing source of assistance, data, and inspiration.  I am deeply indebted to all of these people.  Any errors in my own work are to be attributed only to me, however.

Additional Acknowledgements:  I would like to thank Dr. Theraphan L. Tongkam and Dr. Peansiri Vongvipanond for their invaluable assistance and generous hospitality during my visits to Thailand, to Chulalongkorn University and to the Lao Song Dam communities in Thailand.  Dr. Thawi Swangpanyangkoon also very generously shared the results of his work on Black Tai and Thai Song Computerized Fonts with me, all to the benefit of this web project. 


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Tai Dam Origin Myth
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Last Modified: 04/21/05