at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Tai Rice Culture

Friday, 5 October 2007 at 12:00 PM
Presented by Professor John Hartmann, Presidential Teaching Professor, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Northern Illinois University

The early Tai were among the first people to develop a system of irrigated rice production employing
an array of skillfully engineered ditches (meuang) and dikes (fai) to channel water from the streams
and rivers of the intermountain valleys of southern China that they inhabited. The development of this
technology and culture, organized around manpower for construction and maintenance of the system,
can be reconstructed using comparative-historical linguistics and further analyzed and illustrated using
GIS. Some scholars place the historical origins of Tai irrigated rice culture as somewhere in Yunnan
Province in southwestern China.

The data presented in this study, while not exhaustive, points roughly to origins in the regions of
Guangxi that border northern Vietnam at the time of proto-Tai some 2,000 years ago. One can easily
explain the expansion of the Tai in terms of their ability as food producers coupled with their skill in
organizing manpower derived from the need to build and maintain irrigation systems. The early Tai
found themselves in an environment that readily leant itself to reliable meuang-fai technology in
contrast to the baray system of the Khmer, which was much more subject to the vagaries of nature and
based on a different social system.


Dr. John Hartmann is a Professor of Thai Languages and Literatures at Northern Illinois University
(NIU) and was named a Distinguished Teaching Professor in 2006. Dr. Hartmann was the Acting Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, NIU, in 1987 and 1990. He was also the Language Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, NIU, from 1986 to 1987. Dr. Hartmann received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Michigan.