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The Lisu ethnic minority

    The Lisu ethnic group numbers 574,600 people, and most of them live in concentrated communities in Bijiang, Fugong, Gongshan and Lushui counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. The rest are scattered in Lijiang, Baoshan, Diqing, Dehong, Dali, Chuxiong prefectures or counties in Yunnan Province as well as in Xichang and Yanbian counties in Sichuan Province, living in small communities with the Han, Bai, Yi and Naxi peoples.
    The Lisu language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family. In 1957, a new alphabetic script was created for the Lisu people.


    The Lisus inhabit a mountainous area slashed by rivers. It is flanked by Gaoligong Mountain on the west and Biluo Mountain on the east, both over 4,000 meters above sea level. The Nujiang River and the Lancang River flow through the area, forming two big valleys. The average annual temperature along the river basins ranges between 17 and 26 degrees Centigrade, and the annual rainfall averages 2,500 millimeters. Main farm crops are maize, rice, wheat, buckwheat, sorghum and beans. Cash crops include ramie, lacquer trees and sugarcane. Many parts of the mountains are covered with dense forests, famous for their China firs. In  addition to rare animals, the forests yield many medicinal herbs including the rhizome of Chinese gold thread and the bulb of fritillary. The Lisu area also has abundant mineral and water resources.


    According to historical records and folk legend, the forbears of the Lisu people lived along the banks of the Jinsha River and were once ruled by "Wudeng" and "Lianglin," two powerful tribes. After the 12th century, the Lisu people came under the rule of the Lijiang Prefectural Administration of the Yuan Dynasty, and in the succeeding Ming Dynasty, under the rule of the Lijiang district magistrate with the family surname of Mu.
    During the 1820s, the Qing government sent officials to Lijiang, Yongsheng and Huaping, areas where the Lisus lived in compact communities, to replace Naxi and Bai hereditary chieftains. This practice speeded up the transformation of the feudal manorial economy to a landlord economy, and tightened up the rule of the Qing court over Lisu and other ethnic groups. In the years preceding and following the turn of the 20th century, large numbers of Han, Bai and Naxi peoples moved to the Nujiang River valleys, taking with them iron farm tools and more advanced production techniques, giving an impetus to local production.
    During the period between the 18th and 19th century, the Lisus waged many struggles against oppression. From 1941 to 1943, together with the Hans, Dais and Jingpos, they heroically resisted the Japanese troops invading western Yunnan Province and succeeded in preventing the aggressors from crossing the Nujiang River, contributing to the defense of China's frontier.

    The social economy in the various Lisu areas was at different levels before China's national liberation in 1949. In Lijiang, Dali, Baoshan, Weixi, Lanping and Xichang, areas closer to China's interior, a feudal landlord economy was prevalent, with productivity approaching the level in neighboring Han and Bai areas. Some medium and small slave-owners had appeared from among the Lisus living around the Greater and Lesser
Liangshan Mountains, taking up agriculture or part-agriculture and part-hunting, and using ploughs in farming.
    As for the Lisus living in Bijiang, Fugong, Gongshan and Lushui, the four counties around the Nujiang River valley, their productivity was comparatively low. They had to make up for their scanty agricultural output by collecting fruits and wild vegetables and hunting. Their simple production tools consisted of iron and bamboo implements. Slash-and-burn was practiced. The division of social labor was not distinct, and handicrafts and commerce had not yet been separated from agriculture. Bartering was in practice. Some primitive markets began to appear in Bijiang and Fugong counties.
    Improvement in productivity brought about changes in ownership. Prior to 1949, private ownership of land had been established in the four counties around the Nujiang River valley, though landholding was generally small. The rural population had split up into classes, but the remnants of primitive public ownership and patriarchal slavery still existed. Land ownership was in three main forms: private ownership by individual peasants, ownership by the clan, and public ownership by the clan or village. Among the three, the first was dominant, while the second was a transitional form from the primitive public ownership of land to private ownership. Only a small portion of land was publicly owned.
     As a result of the penetration of landlord economic factors and the instability of the small peasant economy, more and better land came under the ownership by some clans, village chieftains or rich households. An increasing number of poor peasants became landless. They lived on rented land or as hired farmhands.
    Patriarchal slavery existed in the Nujiang River area in the period between the 16th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The slaves were generally regarded as family members or "adopted children." They lived, ate and worked with their masters, and some of the slaves could buy back their freedom. The masters could buy and sell slaves, but had no power over their lives. The slaves were not stratified. All these reflected the characteristics of exploitation under the early slavery system.
    In post-1949 days, the remnant of the clan system could still be found among the Lisus in the Nujiang River valley. There were more than a dozen clans there, each with a different name. They included Tiger, Bear,
Monkey, Snake, Sheep, Chicken, Bird, Fish, Mouse, Bee, Buckwheat, Bamboo, Teak, Frost and Fire. The names also served as their totems. Within each clan, except for a feeling of kinship, individual households had little economic links with one another.

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