A tale of a mythical, lost kingdom and the Tais from China

What can the architecture of a house tell you?

One could take a quick glance at this quaint wooden house and conclude that it is of Thai design and origins. And while that is true to an extent – if one were to look more closely, one would come to the conclusion that there is something to it that makes it quite unique and different.

Rather than a Thai designed house, the house pictured above is Huean Mon Tood (เฮือนหม่อนตุด), a Tai Lue house, belonging to the Tai Lue ethnic group, displayed at the Lanna Traditional House Museum of Chiang Mai University’s Center for Promotion of Arts and Culture. 

It was once owned by Mon Tood (or Oui Tood), a Tai Lue descendant who lived in Doi Saket.

“This is a Tai Lue house, but it has been modified to fit with the Chiang Mai style,” said Dr Vithi Phanichphant, an acclaimed historian and authority figure in northern Thai culture and professor emeritus of Thai Art at Chiang Mai University. 

“If it was real Tai Lue house – it would have had one roof instead of two, unlike this one,” he added. “This one [in particular] is a Tai Lue house from Doi Saket, they [the Tai Lue’s] were brought down here from Sipsongpanna.”

The unique design of the house was due partly to social pressure, the former professor explained, if the Lue people would really try to make it look like a Tai Lue house, they would be seen as too much of an outsider. 

Therefore, they had to adapt to Chiang Mai, or kloi taarm kon tong tin (conform with the locals), as he puts it.

Huean Mon Tood and the remnants of Tai Lue

Completely made of teak wood, the Huean Mon Tood’s scale is small and compact, fit for a standard-sized family with standard income. 

It has two compartments, sharing the same platform, with a veranda at the front. Connected to the veranda and towards the corner, there is a terrace which houses a small wooden shelf for a drinking water earthenware jar. 

The larger compartment serves as the sleeping area, while the smaller one serves as the kitchen. There are no bathrooms in the house, as people back then used to go into the woods for such matters.

The hing prah (spirit shrine), would be outside of the house, while the hing phee (ghost shrine) is placed inside. That is because the spirit house, which locals use to worship protective spirits, are considered to be outside of the family while the ghost shrine is used for worshipping their ancestors.

While Huean Mon Tood is designed to fit the style of Chiang Mai, or the traditional northern Thai/Lanna houses, certain elements to its Tai Lue origins stand out: it has no kalae, or decorative wooden carvings protruding out from the top of its gables, which is a main feature usually found in traditional northern Thai houses; and its veranda is covered by the roof, not broad and open like the traditional houses found in the region. 

“One thing that makes the Tai Lue house very different from Tai Yuan (northern Thai people), is that they had nets and roofs to cover their verandas and stairs, both at the front and back, to not make the house wet when it rains,” observed Dr Vithi. “They were slightly smarter that way.”

The architecture of these local, wooden traditional houses such as the Tai Lue House, can inform a lot about the ways in which the people lived and identified themselves in the past.

Who are the Tai Lue people?

The Tai Lue people (Tai Lü, ไทลื้อ) are a Tai ethnic group inhabiting the tropical forests and valleys scattered throughout China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and the northern region of Thailand.

They speak a Southwestern Tai language, spoken by about 700,000 people in Southeast Asia. The Tai Lue language is similar to other Tai languages and more closely related to Kham Mueang, or Yai Yuan, which is also known as Northern Thai/Lanna language.

Tai Lue people, although considered to be a part of northern Thailand’s ‘hill tribe’ ethnic groups, have their own written language and identity.

Known for their distinctive, vibrant clothing, weaving and dances, the Tai Lues share many of the same traditions and customs of the Thais – especially its Tai Yuan counterparts – such as its architecture, culture, and religion.

Officially, around 83,000 Tai Lues live in Thailand according to an early 2000 consensus. In reality, though, the population of Tai Lues is believed to be much higher than that.

“Half of the people in Chiang Mai today are of Tai Lue descent,” said Dr Vithi.

Although their ethnic identities and history remain unique, information on the earliest history of Tai Lue people and their settlements are still ambiguous, greatly disputed and leaves much room for further research and analysis.

Xishuangbanna Province in China.

The Tai Lues of China and Sipsongpanna

Mainland China is the original homeland of the Tai Lue people, but many have migrated down south into Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and northern Thailand during the past millennia.

Little was acknowledged or talked about of the Tai Lues in Thailand prior to the mid-20th century. It wasn’t until American anthropologist Michael Moerman, in a series published articles during the 1960s, pointed how some of the northern Thai people among whom he worked in Thailand asserted they had a distinctive ethnic identity called Lue, and “feel a vague nostalgia for ‘the old country’ did this change. The Lue people often related legendary accounts about their migration from a principality within the kingdom of Sipsongpanna.

Sipsongpanna (สิบสองปันนา), or Xishuangbanna, is a Tai Lue autonomous prefecture and region in the extreme south of Yunnan province, China, straddling the borders of Burma and Laos.

Noted for its distinctive culture that greatly differ from that of the Han Chinese, the people, architecture, language, and culture of Sipsongpanna more closely resemble those of the Shan, Dai and Tai peoples, which includes the Tai and Laos.

Like much of middle of the Mekong region, Sipsongpanna is rich in ethnic diversity, but Tai Lues have been known to dominate the region for much of the last thousand years. 

Although still disputed with little evidence to verify these claims, contextual history would tell you that the Tai Lue people started entering the mountainous province of Yunnan, located in the far southwest of present day China, sometime during the eighth century.

In the mid to late 12th century, a Tai Lue noble, Cao Phaya Coeng (1148-1192) – or Chueang – founded Mueang Lue, or Chiang Hung, later known as Sipsongpanna, with its neighbors being Lanna, Laos, Chiang Tung (present day Burma), and Moeng Laem (present day Yunnan).

Cao Phaya Coeng would rule as the first king and chieftain, or cao phaendin (ruler of the earth), of the Lue kingdom, establishing its capital of Jing Hong.

King Mangrai (1238-1317), the first king of the Lanna kingdom and founder of Chiang Mai, is a descendant of Cao Phaya Coeng from his mother’s side, who was a princess from the Tai Lue city in Sipsongpanna.

Although relatively powerful at the time, Sipsongpanna was always subject to the predations of the more powerful kingdoms of Southeast Asia and imperial China, with its government regularly paying tribute to both the Burmese and Chinese. 

Xishuangbanna in China

From Sipsongpanna, to Lanna, to Thailand

Chiang Hung finally submitted to the Qing dynasty during the 19th century and was integrated into the PRC in 1953, officially becoming Sipsongpanna, or Xishuangbanna, an autonomous region of mainland China.

Tai Lue descendants of the Tai ethnicity continue to dominate the region, but many of its inhabitants migrated down south into present day Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and northern Thailand throughout the past millennia.

One important and ambitious migration event took place under King Kawila of Lampang (1742-1816), a Siamese nobleman who ruled as king of Chiang Mai during the early Rattanakosin period.

Kawila is seen as one the Lanna’s most important kings and is often credited for rebuilding and repopulating the city of Chiang Mai after it was abandoned due to the long-running wars between Siam and Burma. 

After rebelling and winning against the Burmese in northern Thailand during the Burmese-Siamese War of 1775-6 and freeing Chiang Mai and Lanna from Burma, Kawila launched a rebuilding policy, referred to as เก็บผักใส่ซ้า เก็บข้าใส่เมือง (put vegetables into baskets, put people into towns).

After seeing Chiang Mai, once the powerful capital, being abandoned and empty – with its walls covered by vines and the inner town abundant with tigers and other wild animals – Kawila sought out the former inhabitants of the city who had fled to the nearby hills and mountains and brought them back into the city.

They would later find out that a most of Chiang Mai and Lanna’s previous inhabitants were captured and relocated by the Burmese into Pagan and Mandalay.

When the surviving inhabitants proved insufficient to repopulate Chiang Mai, he launched numerous campaigns to capture the people from the neighboring Shan states, including the Tai Lues in Sipsongpanna, into the kingdom.

Later, and although the kingdom never really exercised any lasting or real authority over Tai Lue mueangs, Siam was again able to persuade many of the Lue people who lived in Sipsongpanna to settle in the Lao mueangs, which were under Siamese rule since the early 19th century.

More Tai Leus migrated to the area once the People’s Republic of China was established after the end of the Second World War.

Tai Lue in present day Thailand

The migration of Tai Lue people into what is present day Thailand is still a topic that requires more research and scrutinization.

“Their travels and journeys are very mixed and random,” explained Dr Vithi. “There were trade connections and routes, and all those were mixed up.”

The Tai Lue people of Sipsongpanna, during the hundreds of years of threat from imperial China, would also forge political links and alliances with their Tai-speaking counterparts in the middle Mekong region.

Although the different principalities and kingdoms were not united at the time, they were connected by trade in the region, with much of it carried by caravans made up of small horses. Charles Keyes would observe in his 1992 research on the Lue, the trade “facilitated contact between peoples in different mueang [principalities] as well as in trade centers.”

More important than trade, the Lue, along with the Yuan, Lao, and Khun, had a cultural basis for seeing themselves as belonging to a common world and developed very similar forms of Theravada Buddhism, subscribing to the beliefs of the nature of heaven, hell, rebirths, and enlightenment. 

The tradition of Buddhism appears to have developed during the 14th-16th century, when king Tilokkarat, a strong patron in Theravada Buddhism, ruled and expanded the Lanna kingdom.

The political system of Tai Lue in Sipsongpanna also greatly resembled that of other Tai-city states in the region, which worked on the logics of patronage and moral authority that were based on Theravada Buddhist notions of moral rulers.

This, it is believed, is another reason why the integration Tai Lues in Lanna, and subsequently Lanna in Siam, have been rather seamless.

These are also the main reasons why differentiating the Tai Lue descendants in Thailand today is very difficult.

“It is hard to say [today] who is Tai Lue and who is not,” observed Dr Vithi. “We will have to investigate the entire lineage, especially on the maternal side, as the Siam [Thai] system would mostly only speak of the paternal side.”

But to subsume Tai Lue people as merely ethnic minorities or tribal to Thailand is to discount the very significant role the Tai Lue has had in building the kingdom.

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