The Yi People: Southwest China's Fieriest Folk

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: May 17th, 2011 | Updated: September 3rd, 2014 | Comments

The Yi Minority

When the first peoples came down out of the Himalayan plateau who knows how many thousands of years ago, they found the mountains slightly more lush, the rivers fuller and the earth softer than up amongst the clouds.

Some, like the Tibetans, took one look at the soft land ahead of them and turned back, preferring the Land of Snows to the Land of Mist. But most of them cried "Eureka" and carried on, filtering into the valleys of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou; following the Yangtze River into the lowlands and the Mekong down toward the ocean.

Somewhere along the way clans split off from each other and formed tribes that would eventually become some of the minorities of today's China:  Qiang, Naxi, Bai, Miao and Yi. They live in villages and walled towns all along the western and southern fringes of modern China, retaining as much of their culture and heritage as possible in the face of a globalized world.

The Yi minority (Yí zú, 彝族), or "Nuoso", are one of the largest and most widespread of the peoples who left the Himalayas for the lower altitudes. They live all along southern Sichuan, western Guizhou and across Yunnan into northern Laos, Thailand and Burma. They kept to Himalayan foothills and stayed out of the damp lowlands. They rose and fell with the dynasties around them and revered the spirits of the land, the Bimo Shamans of their religion and the dragons, demons and fire that infuse their legends.

History of the Yi Minority

Yi minority_torch festival

The Yi were for a long time a scattered people. Never really united, they were split among a hundred different tribes with a hundred or more different dialects—the legacy of those initial wanderings that brought them across the Tibetan plateau—leading to a variety of different customs and religious beliefs revolving around animism, ancestor worship and a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.

The Yi religion over the years coalesced around the Bimo Shamans, leaders revered for their ability to read, write and recite the Yi scriptures concerning life, birth, death, harvest and other important ceremonies for a pastoral people clinging to the remote hillsides of southwestern China. The Yi have their own form of writing which has survived into the present day under the care of the Bimo Shamans whose ability to translate and transmit the wisdom of these writings is the source of all of their power.

The Yi were once feared bandits along the Horse and Tea Trade Route. Even up until a few years ago, Yi gangs ransacking the trains that ran between Chengdu and Kunming and the trucks that ran along the edge of the Tibetan plateau from Ya'an down toward Xichang and across to Chongqing was a common occurrence. In fact, the Red Army, as they marched through this region helped to quell a lot of the banditry through various measures: violent repression, deals sealed in chicken blood and wine and in at least one case, marrying the daughter of a cadre to a chieftain from around the Lugu Lake area.

Ruling the Yi has always been a difficult endeavor. For several centuries the Yi tribes vied with the Bai and Naxi minorities for control of the lucrative Tea Horse Road from Yunnan up through to Xi'an and on numerous occasions they managed to outright conquer Xichang and even Dali. The Mongols put an effective stop to that and for much of the centuries that followed, the fractious Yi were controlled through classic divide and conquer techniques coupled with brutal assimilation pogroms initiated by the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. The pogroms managed to get most of the Yi tribes conversant in Mandarin, but they also kept the Yi scattered, reclusive, wild and slightly hostile to outsiders.

Whenever things got too nasty in the lowlands, the Yi were always prepared to hightail it into the mountains, where few Han officials dared to chase them.

Yi People in Modern China

But now in the modern era, the Yi of Liangshan Prefecture in Sichuan Province have turned the city of Xichang into the de facto capital of Yi society through expansion of the traditional Torch Festival, celebrated up and down southwest China annually in August. For centuries the Torch Festival was celebrated from Xichang all the way down to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna and as far east as Guangxi—but each celebration was separate, attached to different legends and myths and commemorating different events and people. But from 2004, the Xichang Torch Festival became the representative celebration. That year, officials, tourists and other delegations converged on the city and celebrated for a week. Then Party secretary Wu Jingping made it the corner stone of his tenure in Liangshan; the centralization of the festival and the Yi culture thereby promoting the prefecture and attracting visitors, tourism and hopefully a little investment. The Liangshan (Xichang-centered) Torch Festivals celebrate the legend of Zi Ge Ah Liang. According to one legend, God sent his son to Earth to instruct the Yi on how to live and worship. The Yi were indignant and sent their hero, Zi Ge Ah Liang, to kill the false prophet. Successful, Zi promptly turned into a plague of locusts that threatened to devour the entire countryside. In order to save themselves from the plague, the Yi put the torch to everything, thereby killing the locusts. Since then, the Yi have carried on the tradition of circling their towns and villages each year with torches and lighting bonfires. In time, the ceremony has become a festival that includes a celebration of Yi minority feminine beauty, the fighting prowess of local cocks and bulls and various other local and national pastimes such as flute playing, lambchop sucking and fireworks. Yi minority_torch festival_cock fighting The festival has since grown in stature and become a focal point for the historically divided Yi minority. And it couldn't come at a more important juncture in the Yi's history: just as Xichang undergoes tremendous changes and development, the mountainous regions surrounding the city are mired in poverty, neglect and a debilitating HIV epidemic that threatens to cripple the Liangshan Yi for good. The central authorities in Xichang hope that the development of the region's tourism resources will help to counter the spread of HIV in the mountains by bringing education, good medical facilities and money to the people that need it most. But so far the strategy has paid off only for the city itself and for a few key locations, most notably Lugu Lake, far to the southwest of the traditional Yi regions and the home of the Mosuo people, another offshoot of the wandering mountain people who descended into the valleys thousands of years ago.

Xichang & beyond

Currently, the greatest tourism assets the region offers are the Torch Festivals in the summer, the city of Xichang and its environs and Lugu Lake. Other sights include Qionghai Lake, just a 20-minute drive outside of Xichang proper, a large lake surrounded by newly built villas and a large park. BBQ stands ply their wares here and you can take a boat out onto the lake. Luoji Mountain is about an hour's drive out of town and is known for the glaciers and lakes in the valleys and the sheer peaks covered in snow year round. You can get to Qionghai Lake by taxi and there are buses from Xichang's main bus and train station to Luoji Mountain regularly, but you could also take a taxi for a day to the tune of RMB 4-500. Luoji Mountain has cable cars heading to the peak and roads leading up the mountain as well. Much of the area is still undeveloped for tourists but there are hotels, restaurants and guides available—taking a guide on this trip is wise choice, as the information available for Luoji Mountain is pretty scarce. The counties around the city of Xichang—especially Puge and Meigu counties—have flourishing Torch Festivals that include bullfighting, beauty contests, musical performances and of course, a whole lot of fire dancing. But other possibilities, such as the YinYang Lake that I visited in Zhaojue County or the dozens of hot springs scattered throughout the region remain largely unknown and undeveloped. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of the Torch Festivals coming up this summer. We'll talk about the different festivals in Dali, Lijiang and Xichang and fill you in on the more authentic ones taking place in the mountains in areas like Chuxiong and Puge. As always, feel free to drop any knowledge you have that can help us to round out the information we have on this part of China.

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