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The Tai

The Thais originate from an ethnic group known as the Tai, who were the forebears of peoples found in central Southeast Asia today. These include the Dai and Tai Leu in Yunnan, the Shan in Myanmar, the Lao, the Tai Yuan (Northern Thais) and the Siamese (Central and Southern) Thai, and total more than 90 million people.

Controversy surrounds the origin of the Tai, who spoke a language of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. Linguistic evidence suggests that they probably originated from Kwangtung and Kwanghsi in coastal south China. From there they migrated south and west.

The Tai social unit was a muang (the Burmese and Chinese equivalents of muang are meng and mong), which consisted of a group of villages protected by a central fortified town known as a wiang. A muang was physically restricted to the valley where it was located. The leader of a muang protected villagers from danger beyond the valley in exchange for their manpower, the main source of political strength. If the leader of the muang was a high ranking noble or monarch, then the fortified center became a chiang.

Kingdoms were formed from alliances between semi-autonomous leaders of the muang. Alliances depended entirely upon personal relationships between them, so the death of a powerful king often brought political chaos.

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