Peafowl include two Asiatic species (the blue or Indian peafowl originally of India and Sri Lanka and the green peafowl of Burma, Indochina, and Java) and one African species (the Congo peafowl native only to the Congo Basin) of bird in the genera Pavo and Afropavo of the Phasianidae family, the pheasants and their allies, known for the male’s piercing call and, among the Asiatic species, his extravagant eye-spotted tail covert feathers which he displays as part of a courtship ritual. The term peacock is properly reserved for the male; the female is known as a peahen, and the immature offspring are sometimes called peachicks. These are not to be confused with chickpeas.

In common with other members of the Galliformes, peacocks possess metatarsal spurs or “thorns” on their legs used during intraspecific territorial fights.

The elaborate iridescent coloration and large “train” of peacocks have been the subject of extensive scientific debate about their function. Charles Darwin suggested they served to attract females, and the showy features of the males had evolved by sexual selection. More recently, Amotz Zahavi proposed in his handicap theory that these features acted as honest signals of the males’ fitness, since less fit males would be disadvantaged by the difficulty of surviving with such large and conspicuous structures.

Peacock and Dai Ethnic Minority in XishuangBanna

To people of the Dai minority, peacocks are “sacred birds,” because they represent happiness and good luck. Since ancient times, the Dai people have forged an indissoluble bond with the beautiful bird. Many Chinese call Dehong (in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province) the “home to peacocks” because the prefecture is inhabited by a large number of the “sacred birds.” Each year, in mid-April, the Dai people in Yunnan hold a grand ceremony as part of the Water-sprinkling Festival, during which they dance the “peacock dance.” The graceful dance has been designated an intangible cultural heritage of China. 

Dai people, especially those who live in Yunnan Province, have a special love for peacocks. Many of them keep the birds in their houses. They believe the peacocks will bring them happiness and good luck. 

Many beautiful fairy tales about peacocks have been spread far and wide. Of those tales, the story about the Peacock Princess may be the best known. According to that story, a brave, handsome prince lived in Xishuangbanna (in Yunnan Province) more than 300 years ago. One day, an elderly hunter told the prince that seven peacock princesses would swim in the lake the next day, and that the prince could hide the peacock dress of the youngest princess — the most beautiful of the young women — to prevent her from flying away. The elderly man predicted the woman would marry the prince. 

The following day, the curious prince went to the river’s bank, where he saw seven beautiful young women swimming in the river. He fell in love with the youngest woman, and he hid her peacock dress in the groves. After they played in the water for a while, the princesses climbed onto the bank to get dressed. Startled by a noise, six of the young women flew away, but they left their youngest sister behind. When the young man appeared in front of the youngest princess, holding her dress, the young woman smiled shyly. Her eyes were filled with tender affection. Eventually, the prince and the young woman got married, and they lived happily ever after.

Dai people have such a profound love for the peacock that they made the bird their totem. Also, the people have some folk customs related to peacocks. For example, many parents name their daughters “Peacock,” as they hope their little girls will grow into beautiful, pure women, like Princess Peacock. Very often, Dai people embroider, print and dye the patterns of peacocks on their daily necessities, such as quilts, curtains, towels and women’s straight skirts and bags. In addition, the patterns of peacocks are widely used in house decorations, Buddhist temples’ murals and city sculptures in areas inhabited by the Dai people. 

The peacock dance embodies the residents’ aesthetic and artistic values. Legend has it that a tribal head created the dance more than 1,000 years ago. Before New China was founded in October 1949, Dai men performed the dance while accompanied by gongs and drums on pedestals shaped like elephants’ legs. While they danced, they wore golden helmets, masks and costumes with decorations shaped like peacocks’ wings.

Shortly after New China was established, artists improved the dance, and, as a result, women began to perform the dance. They danced without masks, so they could express their feelings through their eyes and the looks on their faces. Also, the women wore light costumes while they danced, so they could move more gracefully and nimbly, as if they were imitating the peacocks’ movements. 

The dance is performed in virtually every Dai village. Some Dai people earn a living by performing the dance. In addition to the Water-sprinkling Festival, the people perform the peacock dance to celebrate the Door-opening and Door-closing festivals (Buddhist festivals during the sixth and ninth months of the lunar calendar, respectively) and some other folk festivals.