The Thai (Free) peoples were the last major ethnic group to come into Southeast Asia from China. As with the other groups, few details (if any) are available, but it appears that the Thais originally lived in China's Sichuan province, migrating south to Yunnan to escape assimilation into the growing Chinese empire. By 100 B.C., however, they came under Chinese rule anyway, and the Thais learned the elements of civilization from the Chinese. After the fall of China's Han dynasty (220 A.D.), the Thais regained their independence, and they established a number of city-states where they lived.
Even at this early date the Thais appear to have been a heterogeneous people. The reason for this is the basic nature of early Thai society. Often a group of Thai villages would band together under one prince to form an alliance called a muang . Most muang were temporary, lasting just long enough to solve a specific problem, but a really successful alliance would stay together for years. It did not take much to get the Thais to migrate, and whenever they were dissatisfied a prince would take his muang and move somewhere else. Population pressure also caused migrations. For example, a prince would want his sons to have as much land as he did; usually he would make his youngest son heir to the original territory and take the other sons with him as he went forth to conquer new lands for them. This process tended to fragment Thai society into many smaller ethnic groups. Another factor was the way they treated the previous inhabitants of the lands they moved into; they enslaved them, rather than killing them or driving them away. Because the Thais were spread out over a large area, sharing their land with non-Thais, they were usually an ethnic minority in their own country, even as late as the 14th century.
In the late 7th century, the Chinese were put on the defensive by an expanding Tibet which threatened to annex all of southwest China. In 713 the Chinese gave up trying to defend the southwest by themselves and formed anti-Tibetan alliances with six Thai city-states in western Yunnan. One of the Thai princes, Pi Logo, brought all six states under his rule; in 738 the Chinese recognized him as the "Nan Zhao" or "Southern Prince." Prosperity came immediately, since Nan Zhao and its capital, Dali, were in a well-defended region, and the land route of the Indochina trade passed through their realm.
When the Nan Zhao throne passed to Pi Logo's son, Go Lofeng, the Chinese had second thoughts about the kingdom they had helped create. Four Chinese armies invaded between 752 and 754, but Nan Zhao defeated them every time. Then Nan Zhao took the offensive, conquering all of eastern Yunnan, Guizhou and even Guangxi. Nan Zhao's best years were in the 9th century, when the previously mentioned raids into Burma and Vietnam were made. After this China and Nan Zhao agreed that friendship was the best policy. They got along fine after that until the Mongol Empire conquered both nations in the thirteenth century. Ever since those days the Thais have been masters of diplomacy, a skill that helped them keep their independence when the West conquered their neighbors.
©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball