The White Tai of northern Lai Chau province are distinguished from other groups chiefly by the attire worn by the women. Generally, the blouse worn by a White Tai woman is white with a V-neck cut in the front. They also generally wear a plain white head cloth distinguished from the more ornate head cloth worn by the Black Tai. Like the Black Tai, the White Tai women will normally wear a plain black tubeskirt with a belt made of green or violet colored silk or cotton cloth. The shoulder bag of the White Tai is different from the Black Tai, being made of plain white cotton with thin dark vertical lines.
In Son La and Yen Bai provinces, the White Tai women again wear tubeskirts similar to the Black Tai. They are long and have a dark indigo blue or black body with a white, blue or red waistband. The blouse is relatively short, sometimes leaving a bare space between the skirt and blouse.
The southern White Tai women's tubeskirt is made of 3 segments: a waistband or breast-covering, a central body, and a hem-piece. The patterns vary considerably. An example is shown here.
(From Howard, 2002:245)
Animism (worship of spirits) and ancestor worship is the underlying belief system even for the Buddhists. The White Tai worship various spirits and objects, and also believe that people have ‘multiple personal souls.’ They hold ceremonies for ‘recalling’ the souls because they believe that this will strengthen the individual personality. They believe in spirits of the dead, the natural world, the political world, various localities, etc.
At the heart of their belief system is the Phi, a Tai concept indicating "invisible, amorphous forces, the souls of material things and, in particular, human beings. Phi have direct contact with human beings who however cannot do the same with Phi. Phi have mystical and supernatural powers which can control the spiritual life of each individual and the whole community." The Tai divide the Phi into 2 levels. At the top are the Phi deities, the highest being the Then Luong, which are generally benevolent, but can also cause calamities when offended. Phi spirits or ghosts are harmful forces that cause only mischiefs and misfortunes. For the Tai, they distinguish primarily between Phi di (good spirits) and Phi hai (evil spirits).
"The Phi system is marked by strict hierarchy and specific areas of jurisdiction: the deities in Muong Pha permanently reside in the sky ..., while natural Phi are present everywhere, in the forests, paddy fields, houses, moung, ban. But a certain Phi, like the Phi ancestors of various family clans usually stay in the hong huon (altar of the house) to protect the children and grandchildren. The Phi Moung [district spirit], Phi Ban [village spirit] are present in areas under their jurisdiction." (Dau Tuan Nam, p. 11)
A married Tai woman is allowed to erect a separate ancestor altar at the residence of her husband for the worship of her deceased parents only. She is therefore limited to worship only to the first ascending generation. Primary rituals are conducted by the husband to his own family's ascendants at the ancestor altar in the home.
In the past (and possibly presently), the men customarily wore a silver bracelet as an amulet to protect him from sickness. However, a string around the wrist was often substituted in order to more conveniently perform work tasks. Children would also wear a bracelet for protection against sickness caused by evil spirits.
The main food for the white Tai is sticky rice (glutinous rice) supplemented by vegetables and chicken, pork, beef or fish. Beverages include water, tea, and rice alcohol. Generally fingers or spoons are used in eating as opposed to chopsticks. However, at least among the White Tai in Mai Chau district, chopsticks are also used.
Traditional Thai society was strongly hierarchical, ruled over by feudal lords who controlled vast land-holdings worked by the villagers. Their written language. which is based on Sanskrit, has furnished a literary legacy dating back five centuries, including epic poems, histories and a wealth of folklore. The Thai are also famous for their unique dance repertoire and finely woven brocades decorated with flowers, birds and dragons, which are on sale in local markets.
From their early teens women learn how to weave and embroider, eventually preparing a set of blankets for their dowry. Thai houses are often still constructed on stilts, with wood or bamboo frames, though the architecture varies between regions.
The White Tai are extremely polite, respectful, and hospitable. White Tai children are brought up to respect those of higher rank. Rank is most closely associated with age, but is also related to occupation and wealth. Families are the core of the White Tai society. In rural villages, families often live together. It is a patriarchal family with the husband and wife appearing to have peaceful relationships. White Tai are distinguished by an almost equal division of labor by sex. Both men and women plow, till, fish, cook, care for the children, clean house, and wash clothes.
"The traditional political and social structure of the Black Tai and White Tai was feudal in nature. It centered around the muang, which can roughly be treated as a principality. Each muang contained a number of villages, or ban (also spelled bahn). There were five main social categories. At the top were the hereditary rulers of the muang, the phia tao. Under them were a variety of notables who administered the villages within the muang, supplied corvee labor (kuong), and collected taxes (nguot). Then there was the priestly class (mot lao or mo chang). There were about ten ranked levels of priest. One of their duties during public ceremonies was to recite the origins of the local nobility and history of the migration of the Tai in the muang. Under these upper classes were the vast majority of inhabitants of the muang who made of the class of commoners. Finally, there were domestic servants (khun han), who were mainly Mon-Khmer in origin." (Howard, 2002:76)