The population of Thailand is approximately 62 million (January 2001). The most important ethic minority is Chinese. Though the great majority of Thailand's 61 million people are ethnically Thai and Buddhist, the country has a substantial number of minority groups who have historically lived together in harmony. Of these, the Chinese are perhaps the most numerous (particularly in urban areas), though they have become so thoroughly assimilated it would be difficult to isolate them as a distinct group. Similarly, while there are Lao and Khmer groups in the Northeast and East, nearly all regard themselves as Thai, culturally as well as by nationality. More clearly defined as an ethnic group are the Muslims, who are mainly concentrated in the southern provinces, and assorted hill tribes who live in the far North; there are also sizeable communities of Hindus and Sikhs in large cities like Bangkok.
Some 80 percent of all Thais are connected in some way with agriculture, which, in varying degrees, influences and is influenced by the religious ceremonies and festivals that make Thailand such a distinctive country.
The culture of Thailand is midway between the two great cultural systems of Asia, China on the one side and India on the other. Chinese culture did not penetrate further west beyond Annam; nor did Indian culture go further north th an the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. They came to a halt at one another's bulwarks and did not penetrate further.
The Thai tribes in their early days some two thousand years ago or more had their home probably in the north-west, corner of China which is now the province of Shen-si. The word Shen-si in Chinese means "west" of the "Shen". The word "Shen" cannot be translated as it is only the name of a province (it means a "mountain pass"). The Chinese tribes had their old home her too. A few scholars, both European and Thai, have ventured to draw the conclusion that the word "Shan" which the Burmese have given to the Thai tribes in Northern Burma and else where, and the word "Siam" (now Thailand) are one and the same word. These two works no doubt derived their origin from Shen of Shen-si. The name of the Kingdom of Nan-Chao of the Thai in Yunnan in an earlier period was called "Shan San" by the Chinese.
In view of the above fact, there was no doubt that the Thai mixed and blended freely, whether as friends or as foes, with the Chinese of those days. The fortunes of the Thai were bound up with the Chinese every now and then in the episodes of Chinese history throughout those times. Gradually the fortune of the Thai waned and by force of circumstances they had to emigrate further south until they finally established themselves as the Kingdom of Nan-Chao in Southern China. This Kingdom was subjugated by Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Chinese Mongol dynasty some 700 years ago.
The Annamites, though ethnologically Indonesians, were domiciled in China far back in historical times as one tribe of the Yueh or Viet, and abso rbed much of Chinese culture. When they came down to the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, the met the Chams who were highly hinduized people, the Khmers or the Cambodians.
Naturally Chinese culture could not penetrate further for it met an opponent of equal force. Due to the nature of the country and to other facts peculiar to the north of the Peninsula, Chinese culture did not penetrate far for lack of easy communications. Whatever Chinese cultures the Thai brought from Southern China, they adapted to their needs suitable to their tropical surroundings, developing them independently by using the old materials. In their way of life the Thai and the Chinese can mix very well but not with the Indians, even thouyh they have imbibed Indian culture appreciably. The one drawback of the Thai is the climatic conditions of the country. Living in the tropics where food is in abundance and the weather fair, they have become lethargic. But a taste for the arts has been developed by the leisured and elite classes, hence the arts as developed by the Thai though mostly inspired directly or indirectly by India, are uniquely their own. Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels of society were colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. For centuries members of the Chinese community had dominated domestic commerce and had been employed as agents for the royal trade monopoly. With the rise of European economic influence many Chinese entrepreneurs had shifted to opium traffic and tax collecting, both despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and middlemen in the rice trade were blamed for the economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of high officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of oppressive practices to extract taxes also served to inflame Thai opinion against the Chinese community at a time when it was expanding rapidly as a result of increased immigration from China.
By 1910 nearly 10 percent of Thailand's population was Chinese. Whereas earlier immigrants had intermarried with the Thai, the new arrivals frequently came with families and resisted assimilation into Thai society. Chinese nationalism, encouraged by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution, had also begun to develop, parallel with Thai nationalism. The Chinese community even supported a separate school system for its children. Legislation in 1909 requiring adoption of surnames was in large part directed against the Chinese community, whose members would be faced with the choice of forsaking their Chinese identity or accepting the status of foreigners. Many of them made the accommodation and opted to become Thai--if in name only. Those who did not became even more alienated from the rest of Thai society.
Buddhism suited their tastes and temperaments very well, so they readily a dopted it. Accustomed to living in isolated groups in their mountainous districts of the North their political conception and consciousness were confined to their village and city only. But when they became masters of Central Thailand where there was one vast plain, they adapted Indian culture. Being still virile race and with genius they evolved these cultures again as peculiar of their own.
Different from Thailand is Burma. Though Burma is a neighbour of India, she did not take much of India culture, especially Hinduism. They adopted only Buddhism tinged weakly with Hinduism. Judging by the physical features of the Thai or Siamese in Central Thailand they differ in stature and colour from their brothers in the north. They become shorter and dark er gradually south ward and there is no doubt that they mixed immensely with the Mon-Khmer and Austronesian families. They lost physically but gained intellectually through fusion of new blood. Thailand therefore formed the meeting place of the two great cultural systems which came to a halt and fused into a new one with double layers of culture.
In the Thai social system, the village is the unit. It was in former days, a self-contained one in its economy and needs. The people's habits and customs were based mainly o n agriculture and religion. Most villages had a Buddhist monastery and a shrine for a village deity. The monastery served their spiritual as well as the people's education. All arts, crafts and learning emanated from the monastery. From birth till death it centred round it. Its precincts were the meeting place for social g atherings on festive occasions. As to the village shrine it was used only occasionally in times of distress or on New Year's day when offerings were made. It had nothing to do with Buddhism.
No doubt Buddhism softened and tamed animism in many of its cults. The above is only a fundamental and comparative statement which a student has to bear in mind when dealing with mod ern cultural problems. The social system, habits and customs as seen in modern times are superficial modifications of the fundamentals and in a comparative degree only.
In some outlying districts where there are retarded developments of culture due to lack of intercommunication and new ideas, the people are still in their primitive state, quite in contrast to the progress in the capital, towns and cities. In these progressive parts "old times are changed, old manners gone" and a new type of cultures fills its place. This is a sign of progress but it must come gratdually. Adapt the old to the new but not in a revolutionary way. The new cultures have also their dangers with problems to be solved, because people take too much interest in politics. To adopt new cultures wholly unsuited to the needs which are peculiar to, and characteristic of each particular place is a danger. Culture ought to be varied with characteristics of its own in each locality and area, harmonizing, however, with the whole - a unity in diversity.
The differing physical features in all regions of the country have a great impact on the people's way of life, habits, and culture.
The North is usually known as the place where the air is fresh because the place is surrounded by mountains. Moreover, the people are friendly and the dialect is soft-sounding and sweet. For these and other reasons, the growth of tourism is considerable in this region. The northern Thai way of life conforms to the local culture, which is agricultural, paying respect to the sacred things, the ancestors' spirits, and Theravada Buddhism.
There are many ethnic groups in the North, the biggest of which is the Thai Yuan or Yonok Group. This group lives in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Phrae, and Nan. In the past, these people used the Lanna language and alphabet. In addition to them, other groups speak different dialects of the Tai language family, such as Tai Yai who live in the area of the Salween Basin in Mae Hong Son and the Mekong Basin towards Chiang Rai, and Tai Lue who migrated from Sip Song Panna, Yunnan Province, in China and settled down mostly in Nan, Phayao, and Lam- phun.
In the high mountainous areas of the North are found the minority groups such as Karen, Lua, Chin, Akar, and Hmong, who migrated from China. The medium- high mountains are the home of the Musoe and Liso, whose origins are Tibetan-Burmese. In the old days, these hill tribe minority groups earned their living by growing opium under the "shifting cultivation" system. But in the past decade, these hill tribesmen have stopped growing opium and moving their farms and turned to cold-weather crops and vegetables and cultivating orchards of tea and Chinese pear and plum in a settled, more permanent environment. The project to encourage the hill tribes to grow cold-weather plants for their living and to quit growing opium is assisted mainly by the Royal Projects Foundation, under the patronage of the King, in terms of research and support.
In the South, both sides of the peninsula border on the sea, and because of this physical feature, the South has had long relationships with other Southeast Asian countries. The Indians who came to trade brought Brahminism and Buddhism to Thailand through the South. Later, the Persians brought Islam to Sumatra Island and from there it spread to the Malaysian Cape and up the peninsula to Thailand, so many people in the area became Muslims.
The extensive relationships with many countries resulted in a cultural mixture among Thais in the South. The Southerners who live north of Songkhla are mainly Buddhists, who have a particular culture and tradition, while most of the people who live in the more southernly part, especially in the provinces whose borders are near Malaysia, are Muslims, with a different culture. However, the cultures and traditions of the people of both religions harmonize and they are able to live peacefully together.
The Southern people are patient, tough, determined, and active. Their dialect has a shorter and more abrupt sound than the dialects of other regions. Most people who live near the Thai-Malaysian border speak Yawi, or the Malaysian language. The people in the South live together in large families, and when they get married, they may build a house in the same neighborhood or family compound.
Local costumes vary according to the social groups. The Chinese-Thai dress like Chinese; the Muslim-Thai dress like the Malaysians women wear batik sarongs, Yaya blouses (a long, narrow-sleeved blouse) in the Javanese style, and a head cover in the Muslim style; men wear sarongs, long-sleeved shirts, and a head cover or the Indonesian cap. Lately, many have begun to dress in the Western style.
Because of its location in the middle of the country and its plentiful water sources, the Central region has been the center of Thai civilization for a long time. It has been the center for trade, politics, government, and art since the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Rattanakosin periods. Thus, the Central region has a variety of cultures which combine the metropolitan and folk cultures.
Most people in this region are ethnic Thais who originally settled down here; others have Mon ancestors. In addition to these, there are Chinese who migrated to Thailand during different periods and have mixed and finally become Thai. Other groups who live in certain areas are Lao, Karen, and others.
Central Thai society is an extended family system. In the country side people still live in a big family or build their houses in the same neighborhood. Their lives revolve around water, so most of them build their houses along the banks of rivers and canals. In the old days, most vehicles were boats, but now traveling by boat has decreased and has been replaced by road travel.
There are a variety of occupations in the Central region. This region is the most important source of rice cultivation. Along with that, there is also cattle breeding. The provinces near the sea use salt fields to evaporate sea water for the salt. In addition, the Central region has many important industries such as textile factories, sugar refineries, food processing factories, and many more.
The Northeast region is enclosed by mountain ranges, so the weather is dry and the water sources for agriculture are rare. Such physical features give the Isan people specific characteristics. They are patient and generous, and have a strong tie to their relatives. Nowadays, a large number of the Isan people migrate to work in the capital, as well as other provinces all over the country. However, during the Songkran Festival they will nevertheless go back home to pour water as a blessing on their elders whom they respect.
Since this is a large region, which covers one third of the country, the Isan culture can be divided into two groups, namely the Upper Isan or the Mekong culture under the influence of the Thai-Lao culture, which is situated along the fertile bank of the Mekong River, and the Lower Isan, which used to be the trade route of the ancient Khmer civilization; the groups of people in this area are Cambodians, the Thai Khorat, the Suai, the Kula, and the Kraso.
The spoken language of the Isan region is similar to the Laotian language, but the people who live near the Cambodian border also have some influence from the Cambodian language. The folk costumes of the Isan region are hand-woven cotton and silk. Women wear knee-length sarongs and long, narrow-sleeved blouses; men wear trou- sers, shirts, and a long cloth tied around the waist. These are suitable clothes for working in the field.
The people in the Eastern region are like those in the Central region, but the accent and the dialect have certain suffixes peculiar to the locality. Their homes are like those in the Central region. The most popular style is a Thai house with a hip roof, an elevated ground floor and open space underneath.The food is also like the Central region's food, but with more sea food as it is near the coast. Many people in the Eastern region are descended from ethnic Chinese who migrated to Thailand from the Ayutthaya to the early Rattanakosin periods, later spreading out and living peacefully with Thais.
The distance between the Eastern region and Bangkok, which is not far, and the convenient transportation greatly contributed to the economic growth in the area. At the same time, this region is being supported by the Eastern Seaboard Development Project to become a center for major industries. The Industrial Estates Authority of Thailand has built Maptaphut Industrial Estate and stipulated that it must be the center of heavy industry and must use natural gas energy. Generally speaking, even though the people who live in this " golden ax handle " area have come from various origins and have different cultures and beliefs, these differences have co-existed well during the long period of Thai history. The Thai people do not have the same problems with racial or cultural conflicts that other countries may have. It can be said that the different elements in Thai society get along well because of the "easy-going " characteristic of the Thai people.
Anywhere the Tai make their homes, they appear as valley-dwelling, and wet-rice growers. Villages are located in river valleys or in pockets of levelland in the low hills, always near water, and frequently in the midst of an orchard. Housesare constructed of wood and raised about eight feet above the ground on piles with slopegable roofs. Tai women are outgoing and active in economic production. from the land of the Khamti Tai in Assam India to the land of the Black Tai in NorthVietnam, Tai women’s costumes, which one sees in the rice fields, do not vary very muchand are not much different from the national costume of present-day Thailand-a topbodice of rather a tight-fitting jacket with long-sleeves and a skirt that is quite long andnarrow and often in a dark colour.
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