A History of the Bai Minority

China is one of the few countries in the world that is home to a vast range of different ethnicities; indeed, there are 56 officially recognised minority groups and several un-official groups that dwell within her borders. Each ethnic group has its own culture, identity, traditions and history.

As of 1990, the Bai population numbered 1,594,827 and the concentration of them can be found in the Bai Autonomous County, west of Yunnan Province. There are numbers of them scattered across Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces.  Throughout the centuries they have been know as the Baizi, Baihuo and Baini, meaning ‘white people’. In 1956, they were formally known as the Bai due to their reverence of the colour white. 

Like with many of the other ethnic groups in China, the Bai have their own language which belongs to the Yi branch of Zang-Mian Austronesian of the Chinese-Tibetan Phylum. They have their own alphabet which is largely based on Chinese characters. Due to frequent contact with the Han Chinese, a number of Bai words are Chinese and in contemporary society the Chinese language is spoken habitually. 

The ancestors of the Bai are the ‘White’ (Bai) Nan people, a powerful society from the Nanzhao kingdom who, from the 7th century until 902 CE, dominated the area in modern day Yunnan Province. It was noted by a scholar in the 1930’s when the first major study of the Bai people was conducted that In the west Yunnan region, it is quite common among the minority nationalities for people to call themselves ‘white’ or ‘black’ and has been so since before the Nanzhao era.

The Bai have a fascinating religion which is centred on a local deity but Buddhism and Daoism have made their mark on the Bai’s religious beliefs as well. Both the native shamanistic and Buddhist religions co-exist side by side. The traditional beliefs of the Bai, known as ‘chongbai benzhu’ (meaning ‘worship of the local tutelary spirits’), is primarily based on traditional nature and ancestral worship but has also included some Daoist and Buddhist elements. The native deities that are worshipped among the Bai are numerous and although some are more specific to a single village, there are some that are worshipped in other villages.

These deities, or spirits, can be placed into 5 different categories; those that created the world, those associated with nature worship, such as earth, sun, moon, river, or mountain spirits; national heroes or good and notable people, “some of them heroic persons who eliminated evils for the people”; “personalities of the ruling classes” like princes of the Nanzhao and Dali periods; and deities introduced from Buddhism. Ancestors may be distributed across most of these various categories. Each spirit has their own legend behind their own existence.

Throughout the year, there are festivals where the Bai people come together at the temple of a local god. On the god’s feast day (according to data collected in the 1960’s) the Bai sacrifice a pig, chicken or goat and then celebrate for three days. These festivals are known as ‘miaohui’, which means ‘temple-gatherings’.

Marriage is a very important institution among the Bai. A traditional courting will include rural folk songs termed mountain songs (shange). Although these mountain songs are not sung in the homes, they can be heard in the fields or mountains. In the first lunar month to the busy season of the spring plowing, the Bai people gather at temples where the unmarried people will look for ‘counterparts’ and sing mountain songs.

However, forced arranged marriages are still frequent among the Bai due to Han Confucian influence. One scholar wrote that marriage, “”is arranged by the free choice of the bride and groom … and consequently affection and companionship, though these may happily come after marriage, are not pre-determining reasons for a marriage”. Betrothal can be arranged among the Bai during the ages of 4 to 15 years old and even as while the child is still in the womb. The boy’s family will often send flowers to the girl’s family until the wedding. If the flow of gifts ceased or the girl’s family refused them, it signalled the end of the betrothal.

In recent decades, people were believed to have the freedom to choose their own marriage partners. However, a thorough survey of Bai culture and society carried out from 1959 to 1962 found that marriages were still “mainly arranged by parents” and that young people “who flout their parents’ wishes will be considered unfilial and suffer punishment from the clan”. more recent but less thoroughly researched account says “many marriages are arranged by parents through the aid of matchmakers in all [Bai] areas”.

In a traditional Bai marriage the bridegroom will go to the bride’s family home where they show him their love by showing their reluctance to open the door. The bride is then carried by sedan chair to his family where a bridal chamber and a feast had been prepared. In the past, Bai men would usually take a concubine, although never generally more than one. The reason for this was usually if the main wife was unable to bear children or if she only produced daughters. However, the disappearance of the rich classes in the 1950s has probably led to its virtual extinction by the 1980’s. 

Although the Bai have been influenced by the Han Chinese culture, they have nevertheless, been able to keep their own culture and identity alive. The Bai people have been encouraged to take pride in their Bai heritage and not to see themselves as assimilated into the Han ethnicity. Indeed, they have a cultural heritage that makes them unique and distinctive within the Chinese culture.


Mackkerras, Colin (1988) Aspects of Bai Culture: Change and Community in a Yuannan Nationality, Modern China, Sage Publications.