The ambiguous use of the term Phu Tai:
a specific ethnic group or a Tai-person in general.
Thanyalak Chaiyasuk & Asger Mollerup
There is probably no other Tai group, about which there is so much confusion about it's ethnonym and history as the ethnic Phutai of the mid-Mekong - often being mistaken with distantly related Tai groups of northern Vietnam and southern China.
The term Phutai is often attached to other ethnic groups than the
Phutai of the Mid-Mekong. In the SW-Tai
branch of the Tai-Kadai language stock the Tai Dam, Tai Khao and the
Tai Daeng of NW-Vietnam have been referred to as Phutai Dam, Phutai
Khao, and Phutai Daeng. In the Central-Tai branch the various
groups of Yunnan and Guangxi, China, have been subject to
insinuation of being identical to or closely related to the Phutai of
the Mid-Mekong. This inconsistent use of the ethnonym Phutai has caused
confusion among scholars,
the general public and the Phutais themselves, and this article focuses
on the ambiguous
meaning of the term phu-tai.
This ambiguous and confusing use of Phutai (as a specific ethnic group)
and “phu-Tai” (as a Tai person in general) has led many writers to
misunderstand that the Phutai of the Mid-Mekong belong to the same
ethnic group as - or are genetically closely related - to the Tai groups
of northern Vietnam and southern China. Some writers even postulate a
Phutai migration from NE-Vietnam to mid-Laos only a few centuries ago.
We disagree for several reasons: 1) The Tai Dam, Tai Khao and Tai Daeng
have all had their own indigenous scripts for more than half a
millennium; whereas the Phutai have no script of its own. 2) None of the
Tai languages of NE-Vietnam are mutually intelligible with Phutai, and
3) other ethnic markers as religion, beliefs, customs, architecture, and
dressing, are different as well.
James R. Chamberlain, splits the Tai languages of the Southwestern Tai
group into two groups based on the pronunciation of initial consonants:
1) Un-aspirated consonants (the P-group: /k t p/) and 2) aspirated
consonants (the PH-group /kh th ph/). Phutai, Phuan, Nyo, Lao and Thai
of the Mekong watershed all belong to the PH-group, whereas the Tai Dam,
Tai Khao, and Tai Daeng belong
to the P-group.
Phutai language is only spoken in the hinterlands of the Mekong River in
NE-Thailand (Isan) and adjacent Mid-Laos, from where the Phutai were
relocated by Siamese troops app. 180 years ago. The language belongs
like the neighboring Lao, Nyo, Saek, Thai, Phuan etc. to the Tai-Kadai
language stock, which comprises of nearly 100 languages and counts
nearly 100 million speakers.
The cradle of the Tai-Kadai languages is generally believed to have been
in southern China app. 3000 years ago. The Huashan rock-paintings
in Guangxi province, southern China, were most likely executed by the
ancestors of the Tai app. 2.200-2.400 years ago, who formed some of the
(“Hundred Yue”) or Bai-phu
groups (“Hundred Tribes”). The app. 2000 years old Dong Son drums can
most likely be credited to these proto Tai groups. In present times the
Tai-Kadai languages can be found from southern China to northern
Cambodia, southern Thailand and as far west as Assam, eastern India,
being the national languages of present day Thailand and Laos P.D.R.
The existence of Tai groups in Dien Bien Phu, who refer to themselves as
“phu-Tai” - Tai people - has not gone unnoticed in the Phutai
communities of NE-Thailand, who together with the Lao, Thai, Phuan etc.
share the legend of having an origin in Mueang Thaen, NW-Vietnam.
 Mainly in the provinces of Mukdahan, Kalasin, Sakon Nakhon and Nakhon Phanom of Thailand and Savannakhet and Khammouane of Laos P.D.R. Several scholars have suggested the existence of Phutai in adjacent Nghe An province of mid-Vietnam, but this has not been confirmed by field studies.
 Li Fang Kuei, 1977, splits the Tai-Kadai language stock into the three groups: The South-western Tai Group, the Central Tai Group, and the Northern Tai Group). See also Johnson, 2010, pgs. 7-9
 Pranee and Theraphan, 1998, page 280 and 291: “Pu Dai”, “Pu Tai (Budai)”. Mingfu & Johnson, 2008, page 14: “Bu Dai (Pu Dai)”. Eric Johnson, private communication: “phu22 tai33”. Johnson, 2010, page 16: “ ... the Taic word pu/phu/bu still used to this day by most Zhuang groups, meaning “tribe, people, person, ethnic group.” and on page 19 Johnson informs, that one of the major ethnic subgroups in Wenshan Prefecture, Yunnan, is the: “pu Dai”, in IPA: “phu55 daai31, phu22 taai31” and that other “exonyms and autononyms used in some areas: Tulao (土僚、土老), Tuzu (土族), Pulao (濮僚; ancient ethnonym)”. In his work Johnson hereafter uses Dai Zhuang for the pu Dai language and ethnicity. Note that only Dai is written with capital letter, pu being a classifier for “group/people”.
 Even a respected institution as Ethnologue (SIL-International) erroneously informs about 209.000 Phu Thai speakers residing in N-Vietnam confusing the Phutai with the Tai Dam, Tai Khao and Tai Daeng.
 Chamberlain, 1983: “the term Phu Tai is to some extend an ambiguous one, since freely translated it means simply “Tai Person” and a great many Tai speakers refer to themselves in this way, including the Black Tai, White Tai, Red Tai, etc. However there is a large population of Tai Speakers known only as Phu Tai. They are to be found today in Savannakhet, Khammouane, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, and Kalasin.”
is in Thailand written in various ways with various meanings. The majority of the
Phutai in Thailand use ภูไท, meaning
“mountain-Tai”. This form was introduced by a famous non-Phutai
monk, Uan Titso
(อ้วน ติสโส) in 1926:
ภูไทย. The official writing in Thailand is
ผู้ไทย (written with a final “ย”)
and used in the Royal Thai Dictionary, where ไทย
is explained as meaning “free”. This
form dates back to Prachum Phongsawadan 4 (“the 4th
Meeting about Chronicles”) from 1915. The Phutai in Laos P.D.R.
“human/group-Tai”. This form is also used in most modern
publications - including this article - in order not to confuse
the ethnonym with the national name of Thailand: Prathet Thai
For the same reason many scholars do not use transcriptions as
Phuthai or Phu Thai, even linguistically being the correct form.
The ambiguity dates back to the end of the 19th
century (the Pavie Mission) and to the mid of the 19th
century (the Mekong Mission), when the French explorers
indiscriminately used forms as Pou Thai for all Tai
groups met with in the Lao-Vietnam border mountains from
Cambodia to China, and had ''a lot of esteem for the
straightness of the mountain Lao''. (Malglaive, 2000, p. 65)
 Dodd, 1923, p. 155: “Pu Tai”
 Pranee and Theraphan, 1998, page 291: “The conclusion that Pu Tai (Budai) and Pu Tai (Phu Thai) are of different ethnic groups ...”
 Johnson, 2010 and Mingfu and Johnson, 2008.
 Johnson, personal communication
 Suwatthana, 1998, page 98.
 The ethnic Lao Noi forms one of several ethnic Lao groups in NW-Vietnam (see Howard, 2002). The authors interviewed a Lao Noi, who was presented as a “Phutai” (sic.) at the 2nd International Phutai Festival in Khao Wong, Kalasin, Thailand in 2013. Her dressing and language indicated that the Lao Noi migrated from Houa Phan in N-Laos to the Dien Bien Phu area of NW-Vietnam, a distance of app. 100 km. Vietnamese sources have proposed the migration to have taken place app. 300 years ago, but could as well have been caused by the Ho terror app. 150 years ago.
 Chamberlain, 1975, page 50
 Chamberlain, 1975, page 63, includes Phutai, Phuan, Nyo, Tai Xam Nuea in an Old Nuea subgroup.
 English: Where are you going? Phutai: /pai1 si6-lFF2/? ไปสิเลอ (ไปสิใล)? Phuan: /pai2 ka3-lFF3/? ไปกะเลอ? (ไปกะใล) Thai: ไปไหน? /pai2 nai1/? Lao: ไปใส /pai1 sai1/?
 Chaiyasuk and Mollerup, 2013.
 Qian, 2013. page 26. On our map located at “6”.
 ... “we might conclude that the Tai began migrating westwards and south-westwards” ... “in the eight century, and that during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries they found their way approximately to their present homes in Southeast Asia” Chamberlain, 1975, p. 58.
Phongsawadan 1, the Lan Xang Chonicle, p. 293, is an
often quoted source in Thailand for this creation myth, which is
shared by many different SW-Tai groups. It was compiled in 1916,
based on interviews conducted by military officers in N-Vietnam
in the 1880s. Souneth Phothisane, 1996, has in his work compared
some 30 versions of the Borom myth (Bulom in Lao) and attributes
the oldest version at 1422, originating in Xieang Khuang. Michel
Lorrillard, 1999, dates the oldest to the end of the same
century, originating in Luang Prabang. In both cases in N-Laos
south of Dien Bien Phu, formerly Mueang Thaen, where Khun Borom
is believed to have ruled the first humans in Na Noi Oi Nu.,
a place of unknown location. We have no mention of Na Noi Oi
Nu from chronicles written in Tai Dam or Tai Khao script.
21 March 2014 © Asger Mollerup and ธัญญลักษณ์ ไชยสุข มอลเลอร์รพ