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Tai-Kadai languages

The Tai-Kadai languages, also known as Kadai, Kradai, or Kra-Dai languages, and in China as Zhuang-Dong languages, are a tonal language family found in southern China and Southeast Asia. The diversity of the Tai-Kadai languages in southeastern China, especially on Hainan, suggests that this is close to their homeland. The Tai branch moved south into Southeast Asia only in historic times, founding the nations that later became Thailand and Laos in what had been Austroasiatic territory.

External relationships

The Kadai languages were formerly considered to be part of the Sino-Tibetan family, but outside of China they are now classified as an independent family. They contain large numbers of cognates with Sino-Tibetan languages. However, these are seldom found in all branches of the family, and do not include basic vocabulary, indicating that they are old loan words (Ostapirat 2005).

In China, they are called Zhuang-Dong languages and are considered Sino-Tibetan along with the Miao-Yao languages. It is still a matter of discussion among Chinese scholars whether such languages as Gelao, Pubiao, Lachi can be included in Zhuang-Dong, since they lack the Sino-Tibetan cognates that are used to include other Zhuang-Dong languages in Sino-Tibetan.

Several Western scholars believe that Kadai is related to or a branch of the Austronesian language family, in a family called Austro-Tai. There is a substantial but limited number of cognates in the core vocabulary. There is yet no agreement as to whether they are mainland Austronesian languages which remained on the mainland, a backmigration from Formosa to the mainland, or a later migration from the Philippines to Hainan during the Austronesian expansion.

Internal classification

Tai-Kadai consists of five well established branches, Hlai, Kra, Kam-Sui, Tai, and the Be isolate. Based on the large number of vocabulary they share, the Kam-Sui, Be, and Tai branches are often classified together. However, this is negative evidence, and morphological similarities suggest that Kra and Kam-Sui be grouped together as Northern Tai-Kadai on the one hand, and Hlai with Tai as Southern Tai-Kadai on the other (Ostapirat 2006). The five consensus branches are:

Population in China

In southern China, people speaking Tai-Kadai (Zhuang-Dong) languages are mainly found in Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, Guangdong, and Hainan. According to statistics from the fourth census taken in China in 1990, the total population of these groups amounted to 23,262,000. Their distribution is as follows:

Zhuang is the largest of these languages and also the largest ethnic minority in China, with a population of 15,489,630. The Zhuang live mainly in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. In addition, there are some Zhuang scattered throughout Lianshan Zhuang-Yao Autonomous County in Guangdong Province, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province and Jianghua Yao Autonomous County in Hunan Province (Zhao Jia 1994).

The Buyi people are mostly found in the south and southwest of Guizhou Province, where there are two autonomous prefectures and three autonomous counties designated for the Buyi and the Miao. There are also Buyi living in the suburban areas of Guiyang (the capital of Guizhou Province), Liupanshui District, Luoping and Maguan counties of Yunnan Province and Ningnan County of Sichuan Province. According to statistics collected in 1990, the total number of Buyi is 2,545,059 (Zhou Guomao et al 1994).

The Kam (Dong) have a population of 2,514,014, found mainly in counties such as Liping, Rongjiang, Congjiang, Jingping, Sanshui, Tianzhu, Jianhe, Zhenyuan, Chengong of Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Yuping, Jiangkou of Tongren Prefecture in Guizhou Province, Xinhuang, Tongdao, Chengbu, Zhijiang, Jingxian, Huitong and Shining etc. in Hunan Province; Sanjiang, Longsheng, Rongshui in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Enshi Xuan'en, Xianfeng in Hubei Province (Yang Quan et al 1994).

Hlai (Li), with a population of 1,110,900, is found mainly in the following counties and districts in Hainan Province: Ledong, Dongfang, Baisha, Lingshui, Cangjiang, Baoting, Qiongzhong, Sanya, and Tongzha. A few are also scattered throughout Wanning, Tunchang, Chengmai and Ding'an (Wen Mingying 1994).

Dai have a population of 1,025,128, mainly inhabiting Yunnan Province. Most them live in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture and such autonomous counties as Gengma, Menglian, Yuanjiang, and Xinping. The rest are scattered throughout many districts of Yunnan province (Zhang Gongjin 1994).

Sui (Shui) have a population of 345,993 and live mainly in Sandu Shui Autonomous County of Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province in some other areas in the counties and districts nearby, such as Libo, Dushan, Rongjiang and Congjiang etc., as well as in Ringshui County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Liu Rirong 1994).

Mulam (Mulao) have a population of 159,328, 80% of which lives in Luocheng Mulam Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The rest are scattered throughout Xincheng, Yishan, Liucheng, Du'an huanjiang, Hechi, Rongshui and Rong'an etc. in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Qin Xiaohang 1994)

Maonan have a population of 71,968, mainly living in Huanjiang Maonan Autonomous County in Guangxi Autonomous Region, while the rest are scattered throughout Hechi Nandan, Yishan and Du'an etc. in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Che Rushan 1994). In the early 1990s, about thirty thousand T'en (Yanghuang) people in Pingtang, Huishui, Dushan in Guizhou Province indentified themselves as ethnic Maonan (Zhang Min 1991).

Lin'gao, according to statistics from the early 1980s, there are about 500,000 speakers of the Lin'gao language. They live in Lin'gao, Qiongshan, Chengmai, Danxian counties, and the suburban districts of Haikou city in Hainan Province, but at this stage have not been recognized as an individual ethnic group (Ni Dabai 1990).

History in China

In China, Kadai languages are mainly distributed in a radial area from the western edge of Yunnan Province to Guangdong and Hainan Provinces. Most speakers live in compact communities. Some of them are scattered among the Han Chinese or other ethnic minorities. The Yue people, who covered a large area in South China in ancient times, were their common ancestors.

Yue was the general name for a number of loosely related ethnic groups which inhabited broad areas of southern China a long time ago. Due to numerous branches, the Yue were once referred to as Baiyue(Hundred Yue/Hecto-Daic) in ancient Han Chinese historical books. According to the History of the Han Dynasty - A Survey of the Geographical Area, "it is about 7 to 8 thousand li¹ from Jiaozhi 交趾 to Huiji 會稽. Different groups of the Yue lived together in these areas, and were distinguished by different surnames." Jiaozhi is in northern Vietnam today and Huiji is in the east of Zhejiang Province. It shows that the ancient Baiyue was a group with a large population, which inhabited broad areas. There were different names for the Yue people living in different areas. From the east coast of China to the northeast of Myanmar, there were such Yue groups as Wuyue 吳越, Yuyue 於越, Ouyue 甌越 (Eastern Ou), Nanyue 南越/南粵, Xi'ou 西甌 (Western Ou), Luoyue 雒越/駱越, Yangyue 揚越, Minyue 閩越, Shanyue 山越, Kuiyue, and Dianyue 滇越. According to the information recorded in some Han Chinese Historical books,² from the early Qin Dynasty through the Wei and Jin Dynasties, different groups of Yue lived in the areas from the Huaihe River Valley, through Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi to Guizhou and Yunnan Provinces. there were even some clans and tribes of the Yue scattered through Sichuan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Anhui.

During the period from the Qin to the Western Han Dynasties, which lasted about 200 years, great changes to each group of Baiyue took place in South China, due to the armed conquest of Baiyue groups by the Central Imperial Court and the establishment of the system of perfectures and counties in that area. At that time, soldiers and civilians of the north of China went or immigrated to the Baiyue areas and lived together with each group of the Yue. Thus, on the one hand, a progress of assimilation between the Yue and the Han and other ethnic groups began, while on the other hand, the Yue were separated into many big or small compact communities by the newcomers. As time went by, different names were given to the Yue living in different areas, and the name Yue, which had before been used indiscriminately to refer to the whole group, gradually disappeared from Han Chinese historical annals.

After the Han Dynasty (about 3rd century AD), new names such as Wuhu, Dan'er, Li, and Lao, etc. were used to refer to different groups of the Baiyue. There are several different opinions among Chinese scholars as to the origin of Wuhu.

Some say it is a variant written form of Wuyue, while other say it is a transliteration of Ou, a different titile for Ouyue (Xi'ou) at a different stage. Dan'er referred to the Yue living on Hainan island. According to Records of The Late Han Dynasty - a History of the Southern Aborigines, "The two prefectures, Zhuya and Dan'er were on the island, about one thousand li east to, 500 li (about 250km.) from south to north. The headman of the aborigines living there thought it was noble to make their ears long, so the people there all bored holes in their earlobes, and pulled them down close to their shoulders.... and called it Dan'er." So Dan'er was originally a custom, but became the name of the group later.

Li and Lao were mentioned in the History of the Late Han Dynasty- History of the South Aborigines and Records of the Sui Dynasty - History of the South Aborigines, and identified as being from the ancient Baiyue. So the Lao during the period from the 3rd century AD to 6th century AD were the Yue who originally inhabited the southwest of China. Until the Tang Dynasty, according to both the old and the new Records of the Tang Dynasty, there were both more than 20 names for the Lao, such as Nanping Lao, Jiannan Lao, Wuhu Lao, Bazhou Lao, Yizhou Lao, Guizhou Lao and Shanlao, etc. The areas where these Lao people lived were mainly inhabited by the ancient Xi'ou 西甌 and Luoyue 雒越 (two groups of the Yue).

The use of name Zhuang for the zhuang people today first appeared in a book named A History of the Local Administration in Guangxi written by Fan Chengda during the Southern Song Dynasty. From then on, Zhuang would usually be seen in Han Chinese historical books together with Lao. In Guangxi, until the Ming Dynasty, the name Zhuang was generally used to refer to those called Li (originating from Wuhu Man) who lived in compact communities in Guigang (the present name), the Mountain Lao in Guilin and the Tho in Qinzhou. According to A History of the Ming Dynasty - Biography of Guangxi Ethnic Minority Hereditary Headman "In Guangxi, most of the people were the Yaos and the Zhuangs, ...the other small groups were too numerous to mention individually." Gu Yanwu (a Chinese scholar in the Ming Dynasty) gave the correct explanation of this point, saying the "The Yao were Jing Man (aborigines from Hunan), and the Zhuang originated from the ancient Yue."

The Chinese character Zhuang had several variant written forms in the ancient Han historical books. It was short form of Buzhuang, which was the name the ancestors of the Zhuang people living in the northeast of Guangxi, the south of Guizhou and the west of Guangdong used to refer to themselves. Later this name was gradually accepted by those who had different names, and finally became the general name for the whole group (Ni Dabai 1990).

The Buyi, who lived in Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau since ancient times, were called Luoyue, Pu, Puyue, Yi, Yipu, Lao, Pulao, Yilai, etc., in the Qin and Han Dynasties. Since the Yuan Dynasty, the name Zhong, which appeared in the historical book later than Zhuang was used to refer to the Buyi. It was originally a variant form of Zhuang, referring to both the Zhuang and the Buyi in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou. Later, it referred to the Buyi only, and always appeared in the historical books as Zhongjia, Zhongmiao, and Qingzhong, until the early 1950s. Like Zhuang, Zhong may also be the short form of Buzhuang, which Zhuang people use to refer to themselves, as the pronunciation of Zhong and Zhuang is similar, and Zhong was once a variant form of Zhuang in the Han Chinese historical books. But today, Buyi people never use Buzhuang or Buzhong to refer to themselves, therefore, the use of Zhong as the name of Buyi may have something to do with the common origin of these two groups of peoples, or the mass migration by Zhuang into Buyi areas (Zhou Guoyan 1996)

Hlai (黎) people living on Hainan island were called Luoyue (雒越) during the western Han Dynasty. During the period from the Sui to the Tang Dynasty, Li began to appear in the Han historical books. Li (黎) was frequently used in the Song Dynasty, ans sometimes Lao was also used. Fan Chengda wrote in History of Local Administration in Guangxi: "On the island (Hainan island) there is a Limu Mountain; different groups of aborigines lived around it, calling themselves Li."

The Kam lived in compact communities in neighboring areas across the Guizhou and Hunan Provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region until the Ming Dynasty. At that time, the name Dong and Dong-Man began to be recorded, In the Qing Dynasty, they were called Dong Miao, Dong Min and Dong Jia. Much earlier, during the period of the Qin and the Han Dynasty, they were called Wulin Man or Wuxi Man. Later the name Lao, Laohu, and Wuhu were used to refer to a group of people that might be the ancestors of the Kam.

As suggested by some scholars, the ancestors of the Sui were a group of Luoyue (雒越) who were forced to move to the adjacent areas of Guangxi and Guizhou from the Yonjiang River Valley, tracing a path along the Longjiang River because of the chaos of war during the Qin Dynasty. The name Sui first appeared in the Ming Dynasty. Before that, the Sui had been included in the Baiyue, Man and Lao groups.

The ancestors of the Dai in Yunnan were the Dianyue (滇越) group mentioned in the Records of a Historian by Sima Qian. In Records of the Later Han Dynasty, they were called shan, and in Records of the Local Countries in Southern China, they were called Dianpu. In the Tang Dynasty, they were mentioned as Black Teeth, and as Face-Tattooed in a book names A Survey of the Aborigines by Fan Chuo. These monikers were given based on their customes of tattooing and teeth decoration. In the Song Dynasty, they were called Baiyi Man, and in the Yuan Dynasty were called Jinchi Baiyi. Until the Ming Dynasty, they were generally called Baiyi and after the Qing Dynasty, they were called Baiyi. Thus we can see clearly that the modern Dai people can be traced back to Dianyue, a subgroup among the ancient Baiyue groups.

Since the Baiyue was a large group in South China in ancient times, they must have had some ethnic characteristics in common. In the historical books, a general name Yue was given to all the small groups with different surname, who were scattered in different areas, and this was not by coincidence, but from findings of the ancient scholars.

First of all, the Yue groups had a common economic life. Most settlements of the Yue were close to rivers, streams or lakes, and although some of the settlements were separated by long distances, they were suitable for agriculture cultivation. So the Yue had a long history of agricultural cultivation.

Textiles were also an important part of economic life for the ancient Yue. Early in the Spring and Autumn Period, the Yue attached great importance to planting mulberry bushed to raise silkworms and cultivating hemp to weave cloth. The Yue cloth mentioned in the historical books at least a two thousand years old. The Yue cloth mentioned in the historical books is at least a two thousand years old. Generally speaking, each group of Baiyue concentrated on agriculture and textiles, but the main part of their economic life was agriculture production.

Secondly, the Yue had common cultural characteristics. We can see this in custom of tattooing and the culture of bronze drums. Tattooing was a very common custom among the ancient Yue, frequently mentioned in the Han historical books. For instance, "the Ouyue (甌越) people were those who wore their hair down, tattooed their bodies, and folded their clothes to the left" (in Tactics of the Warring States-Tactics of Zhao). "In Yue, places beyond the central plains, people there cut their hair short and tattooed their bodies" (in the History of the Han Dynasty - The Life of Yan Zhu)

The custom of tattooing among the Yue had gradually become a common psychological feature, handed down through modern times. Regarding the Dai of Yunnan, "The men tattooed their bodies and applied red and white clay to their faces. Those who tattooed their faces were called 'face-tattooed aborigines', those who tattooed their feet were called 'foot-tattooed aborigines', "the Baiyi men all shaved their heads and everybody would laugh at those who didn't tattoo their feet, saying, 'youare a women, not a man of our Baiyi people.'''

Of the Hlai (黎) people of Hainan island, it was said: "the men tattooed their bodies and coiled up their hair on their heads. The women used pens to draw butterflies or flowers on the sides of their faces for each other, then picked them with a needle, and called it face-tattooing."

Why did those people tattoo their bodies? Liu'an, the Prince od Huainan during the Western Han Dynasty explained in his book Huainan zi, saying "to the south of Jiuyi Mountain, those that work in the water are more numerous than those on the land, so people there all wear their hair down and tattoo their bodies to make themselves like fish or insects with scales," and in order to work safely and smoothly in river or sea. "It is not easy for people to engrave their own body, but the Yue did it for glory." Gao Xiu, a scholar in the Eastern Han Dynasty once provided some notes on Liu's book, saying: "a tattoo is done by carving the body then painting it like a flood dragon (actually the boa), so that the flood dragon won't harm them when they work in the river or sea."

So we can see that the tattoo practice of the Yue had two functions: one was to avoid the wrath of the flood dragon and the other was to gain the recognition and respect of their own groups. Otherwise they might be regarded as people from other groups and be subject to discrimination. As for the face-tattooing of the women, at first, it might have been a way of self protection. Zhou qufei, a cholar in the Song Dynasty once wrote in his book By Way of Explanation of Things Happening Outside Wuling: "The Hlai women liked to tattoo their faces as a kind of decoration. It is possible that in the past, most of the Hlai women were pretty. As a result they were often kidnapped by outsiders. So, some women tattooed their faces in order to preserve their chastity. Then others followed the practice and the custom thus formed and has persisted up to now."

Thirdly, bronze drums are a distinctive artifact of the ethnic groups of South China and Southeast Asia and are also one of the cultural features of the Baiyue groups, as mentioned in the Records of the Later Han Dynasty - Life of Mayuan, "the Luoyue valued bronze drums." Lixian quoted other sources when he explained the statement above, saying that, Li, and Lao cast bronze as drums, and regard the tall and big drums precious, so the face (top) of the drums was usually several meters wide."

Since the 1950s, a large number of bronze drums have been unearthed in 11 provinces and autonomous regions in South China, most of them found in Guangxi and Yunnan. Until now, no bronze drums have been excavated anywhwere north of the Yangtse River. It shows that bronze drums are an artifact particular to the southern ethnic groups. According to the studies of some scholars, Yunnan is the birthplace of the bronze drums.

Bronze drums were used not only by the Yue, but also by the Miao, the Yi (a Tibeto-Burman culture) and by the Wa (a Mon-Khmer culture). But in the early stages, only the Yue culture appeared to have the representative bronze drum. Most of the bronze drums excavated features the Ganlan and boat racing as decorative patterns.

The Ganlan is a kind of typical style dwelling house of the ancient Yue. Nowadays, the Zhuang, the Kam, the Sui, the Buyi of Guangxi, Guizhou and Hunan and the Dai of Yunnan still live in this kind of house just like the Thai, Shan, and Lao. People live upstairs, and reserve the downstairs for livestock.

A common economic life, common culture features and ethnic identity developing in a relatively continuous area and from a similar natural environment form the distinctive characteristics of the ancient Yue people. Moreover, groups with different surnames had a common language, the "Yue language" mentioned in the historical books. That was the early common language from which modern Kam-Tai (Zhuang-Dong) languages have developed (Ni Dabai 1990).


  • Edmondson, J.A. and D.B. Solnit eds. 1997. Comparative Kadai: the Tai branch. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Arlington. ISBN 0883120666
  • Blench, Roger 2004. Stratification in the peopling of China: how far does the linguistic evidence match genetics and archaeology? Paper for the Symposium "Human migrations in continental East Asia and Taiwan: genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence". Geneva June 10-13, 2004. Université de Genève.
  • Sagart, Laurent. 2004. "The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai-Kadai." Oceanic Linguistics 43.411-440.
  • Ostapirat W (2005). "Kra-dai and Austronesian: notes on phonological correspondences and vocabulary distribution." pp 107–131 in Sagart L, Blench R & Sanchez-Mazas A (eds.) The peopling of East Asia: putting together archaeology, linguistics and genetics. London/New York: Routledge-Curzon.

Further reading

  • Tai-kadai Languages. (2007). Curzon Pr. ISBN 9780700714575
  • Diller, A. (2005). The Tai-Kadai languages. London [etc.]: Routledge. ISBN 070071457X
  • Edmondson, J. A. (1986). Kam tone splits and the variation of breathiness.
  • Edmondson, J. A., & Solnit, D. B. (1988). Comparative Kadai: linguistic studies beyond Tai. Summer Institute of Linguistics publications in linguistics, no. 86. [Arlington, Tex.]: Summer Institute of Linguistics. ISBN 0883120666
  • Somsonge Burusphat, & Sinnott, M. (1998). Kam-Tai oral literatures: collaborative research project between. Salaya Nakhon Pathom, Thailand: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University. ISBN 9746614509


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