Yi ethnic group, with a population of 6,578,500, is mainly distributed
over the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, and the Guangxi
Zhuang Autonomous Region. There are more than one million Yis
in Sichuan Province, and most of them live in an area south of
the Dadu River and along the Anning River. Traditionally, this
area is subdivided into the Greater Liangshan Mountain area, which
lies east of the Anning River and south of the Huangmao Dyke,
and the Lesser Liangshan Mountain area, which covers the Jinsha
River valley and the south bank of the Dadu River. There are over
a million Yis in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, which
holds the single largest Yi community in China. Yunnan Province
has more than three million Yis, most of whom are concentrated
in an area hemmed in by the Jinsha and Yuanjiang rivers, and the
Ailao and Wuliang mountains. Huaping, Ninglang and Yongsheng in
western Yunnan form what is known as the Yunnan Lesser Liangshan
Mountain area. In Guizhou, more than half a million Yis live in
compact communities in Anshun and Bijie. Several thousand Yis
live in Longlin and Mubian counties in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous
Most Yis are
scattered in mountain areas, some in frigid mountain areas at
high altitudes, and a small number live on flat land or in valleys.
The altitudinal differences of the Yi areas directly affect
their climate and precipitation. Their striking differences
have given rise to the old saying that "the weather is
different a few miles away" in the Yi area. This is the
primary reason why the Yis in various areas are so different
from one another in the ways they make a living.
The Yi areas
are rich in natural resources. The Jinsha River running through
Sichuan and Yunnan and its tributaries surging through the Yi
areas in northern and northeastern Yunnan are enormous sources
of water power. The Yi areas are not only rich in coal and iron,
but are also among China's major producers of non-ferrous metals.
Gejiu, China's famous tin center, reared the first generation
of Yi industrial workers. Various Yi areas in the Greater and
Lesser Liangshan Mountains, western Guizhou, and eastern and
southern Yunnan abound in dozens of mineral resources, including
gold, silver, aluminum, manganese, antimony and zinc. Vast forests
stretch across the Yi areas, where Yunnan pine, masson pine,
dragon spruce, Chinese pine and other timber trees, lacquer,
tea, camphor, kapok and other trees of economic value grow in
great numbers. The forests teem with wild animals and plants
as well as pilose antler, musk, bear gallbladders and medicinal
herbs such as poris cocos and pseudoginseng.
The Yi language
belongs to the Tibetan-Myanmese Language Group of the Chinese-Tibetan
Language Family, and the Yis speak six dialects. Many Yis in
Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi know the Han (standard Chinese or
Mandarin) language. The Yis used to have a syllabic script called
the old Yi language, which was formed in the 13th century. It
is estimated that the extant old Yi script has about 10,000
words, of which 1,000 are words of everyday use. A number of
works of history, literature and medicine as well as genealogies
of the ruling families written in the old Yi script are still
seen in most Yi areas. Many stone tablets and steles carved
in the old Yi script remain intact. Since the old Yi language
is not consistent in word form and pronunciation, it was reformed
after liberation for use in books and newspapers.
written in the Han and the old Yi languages show that the ancestors
of the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Lahu and Lisu ethnic groups were closely
related with ancient Di and Qiang people in west China. In the
period between the 2nd century B.C. and the early Christian
era, the activities of the ancient Yis centered around the areas
of Dianchi in Yunnan and Qiongdou in Sichuan. After the 3rd
century, the ancient Yis extended their activities from the
Anning River valley, the Jinsha River, the Dianchi Lake and
the Ailao Mountains to northeastern Yunnan, southern Yunnan,
northwestern Guizhou and northwestern Guangxi.
In the Eastern
Han (25-220), Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) dynasties, inhabitants
in these areas came to be known as "Yi," the character
for which meant "barbarian." After the Jin Dynasty,
the Yis of the clan named Cuan became rulers of the Dianchi
area, northeastern Yunnan and the Honghe (Red) River area. Later
those places were called "Cuan areas" which fell into
the east and west parts. The inhabitants there belonged to tribes
speaking the Yi language.
In the Tang
and Song dynasties, the Yis living in "East Cuan"
were called "Wumans." In different historical
"Cuan" changed from the surname of a clan to the name
of a place, and further to the name of a tribe. In the Yuan
and Ming dynasties, "Cuan" was often used to refer
to the Yis. After the Yuan Dynasty, part of "Cuan"
acquired the name "Luoluo" (Ngolok), which probably
originated from "Luluman," one of the seven "Wuman"
tribes in the Tang Dynasty. From that time on, most Yis called
themselves "Luoluo," although many different appellations
existed. This name lasted from the Ming and Qing dynasties till
experienced a long primitive society in the Stone Age. Legends
and records written in the old Yi script show that the Yis went
through a matriarchal age in ancient times. Annals of the Yis
in the Southwest records that the Yi people in ancient times
"only knew mothers and not fathers," and that "women
ruled for six generations in a row." Patriarchy came into
being at least 2,000 years ago.
Roughly in the
2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., the Yis living around the Dianchi
Lake in Yunnan entered class society. In the early Han Dynasty,
prefectures were set up in this area, and the chief of the Yi
people was granted the title "King of Dian" with a
seal. Around the 8th century, a slave state named "Nanzhao"
was established in the northern Ailao Mountain and the Erhai
areas, with the Yis as the main body and the Bai and Naxi nationalities
included. The head of the state was granted the title "King
of Yunnan." In the same period, "Luodian" and
other groups of slave owners and regimes appeared in the Yi
areas in Guizhou. In 937, the state of "Dali" superseded
"Nanzhao," when it collapsed under the blows of slave
and peasant uprisings. From then on, the slave system of the
Yis in Yunnan gradually disintegrated.
After the 13th
century, "Dali" and "Luodian" were conquered
one after the other by the Yuan Dynasty, which set up regional,
prefectural and county governments and military and civil administrations
in the Yi areas in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan, appointing hereditary
headmen to rule the local inhabitants. By the end of the Yuan
Dynasty, the feudal economy of the Yi landlords in Yunnan had
developed rapidly, but remnants of the manorial economy and
slavery still existed to varying extents in the secluded areas.
The Ming Dynasty used both administrative officials from elsewhere
and local hereditary headmen, and some of the governments consisted
of both types of administrators, expanding the influence of
the feudal landlord economy. The large number of Han immigrants
also promoted economic growth in the Li areas. The Qing Dynasty
abolished the system of appointing hereditary headmen and confirmed
the appointment of administrative officials. This enhanced its
direct rule over the Yi areas, hastened the disintegration of
the manorial economy and firmly established the feudal landlord
were stipulated for marriages within the same rank but outside
the same clan among the black Yis, who relied on the "mystery"
of blood lineage as a spiritual pillar. Some 70,000 black Yis
in the Liangshan Mountains formed nearly 100 clans, big or small,
of which there were less than 10 big clans each with a male
population of more than 1,000. Each clan's territory was clearly
demarcated by mountain ridges or rivers, and no trespass was
tolerated. There were no regular administrative bodies in the
clans, but each had some headmen called "Suyi" (seniors
in charge of public affairs) and "Degu" (seniors gifted
with a silver tongue), who were representatives of the black
Yi slave owners in exercising class dictatorship. They upheld
the interests of the black Yis as a rank, were experienced and
knowledgeable about customary law and capable of shooting trouble.
"Degu," in particular, enjoyed high prestige inside
and outside their clans. Headmen did not enjoy privileges over
and above ordinary clansmen, nor were their positions hereditary.
Important issues in the clans, such as settling blood feud and
suppressing rebellious slaves, must be discussed at the "Jierjitie"
(consultation among the headmen) or "Mengge" (general
conference of the clan membership).
some of their original characteristics, the clans under the
slave system mainly functioned as institutions to enforce rank
enslavement and exploitation, splitting and cracking down on
slave rebellions internally and plundering other clans or resisting
their pillage externally. When subordinate ranks staged a rebellion,
the black Yi clans would take collective action against it,
or several clans would join hands to suppress it. Under such
circumstances, the unanimity of interests among the black Yi
slave owners fully manifested itself. Strictly controlled by
the black Yi clans, the slaves could hardly run away from the
areas administered by the clans. On the other hand, black Yis
often fought among themselves in order to obtain more slaves,
land or property. It follows that the clan, as an institution,
was a force safeguarding and supporting the privileges of the
black Yi slave owning class.
The white Yi
clans, among the Qunuos and part of the Ajias, while being similar
to the black Yi clans in form, were actually subordinate to
various black Yi clans. Only a few white Yi clans were not subject
to black Yi rule and they formed what was known as the independent
white Yi area. The white Yi clans succeeded to some extent in
protecting their own members, and at times they would unite
in "legitimate" struggles to defend their own interests
and win temporary concessions from black Yi slave owners. But,
under the rule of the black Yi clans, they became an
auxiliary tool of the slave owners to oppress the slaves. Some
clan chieftains of the Qunuo rank were fostered by slave owners
as proxies, called "Jiemoke" in the Yi language, who
collected rents, dunned for repayment of debts and served as
hatchet men, mouthpieces and lackeys for slave owners.
There was no
written law for the Yis in the Liangshan Mountains, but there
was an unwritten customary law which was almost the same in
various places. Apart from certain remnants of the customary
law of clan society, this customary law reflected the characteristics
of morality and the social rank system. It explicitly upheld
the rank privileges and ruling
position of the black Yis, claiming that the rule of slave owners
was a "perfectly justified principle." The legal viewpoint
of the customary law was clear-cut. Any personal attacks against
black Yis, encroachment on their private property, violation
of the marriage system of the rank and infringement on the privileges
of the black Yis were regarded as "crimes," and the
offenders would be severely punished.
In most Yi areas,
maize, buckwheat, oat and potato were staples. Rice production
was limited. Most poor Yi peasants lived on acorns, banana roots,
celery, flowers and wild herbs all the year round. Salt was
scarce. In the Yi areas, potatoes cooked in plain water, pickled
leaf soup, buckwheat bread and cornmeal were considered good
foods, which only the well-to-to Yis could afford. At festivals,
boiled meat with salt was the
best food, which only slaveowners could enjoy.
of a distinct ethnic color, made of wood or leather, have been
preserved in some of the Yi areas. Tubs, plates, bowls and cups,
hollowed out of blocks of wood, are painted in three colors
-- black, red and yellow -- inside and outside, and with patterns
of thunderclouds, water waves, bull eyes and horse teeth. Wine
cups are hollowed out of horns or hoofs.
Yi costume is
great in variety, with different designs for different places.
In the Liangshan Mountains and west Guizhou, men wear black
jackets with tight sleeves and right-side askew fronts, and
pleated wide-bottomed trousers. Men in some other areas wear
tight-bottomed trousers. They grow a small patch of hair three
or four inches long on the pate, and wear a turban made of a long piece of bluish cloth.
The end of the cloth is tied into the shape of a thin, long
awl jutting out from the right-hand side of the forehead. They
also wear on the left ear a big yellow and red pearl with a
pendant of red silk thread. Beardless men are considered handsome.
Women wear laced or embroidered jackets and pleated long skirts
hemmed with colorful multi-layer laces. Black Yi women used
to wear long skirts reaching to the ground, and women of other
social ranks wore skirts reaching only to the knee. Some women
wear black turbans, while middle-aged and young women prefer
embroidered square kerchiefs with the front covering the forehead
like a rim. They also wear earrings and like to pin silver flowers
on the collar. Men and women, when going outdoors, wear a kind
of dark cape made of wool and hemmed with long tassels reaching
to the knee. In wintertime, they lined their capes with felt.
But few slaves could afford clothes of cotton cloth, and most
of them wore tattered home-spun linen.
Most Yi houses
were low mud-and-wood structures without windows, which were
dark and damp. Ordinary Yi houses had double-leveled roofs covered
with small wooden planks on which stones were laid. Interior
decoration was simple and crude, with little furniture and very
few utensils, except for a fireplace consisting of three stones.
In the Liangshan Mountains, slave owners' houses and slaves'
dwellings formed a sharp contrast. Slaves lived with livestock
in the same huts that could hardly shelter them from wind and
rain. Slave owners' houses had spacious courtyards surrounded
by high walls, and some of them were protected by several or
a dozen pillboxes.
The Yis are
monogamous, living in nuclear families. Before 1949, marriages were generally arranged by parents, and the
bride's family often asked for heavy betrothal gifts. In many
places, married women stayed at their own parents' home till
their first children were born. In some other places, feigned
"kidnapping of the bride" was practiced to add to
the joyous atmosphere. The groom's family would send people
to the bride's home at a prearranged time to snatch the girl
and carry her home on horseback. The girl was supposed to cry
aloud for help, and her family members and relatives would pretend
to chase after the kidnappers. In other cases, when people from
the groom's side went to fetch the bride, her people would first
"attack" them with water, cudgels and stove ashes,
then treat them to wine and meat after a frolic scuffle, and
finally let them take the bride away on horseback. On the wedding
night, there would also be frolic fighting between the bride
and the groom as part of the ceremony. These were obviously
legacies of primitive marriage conventions.
and monogamous families were the basic units of the clans in
the Liangshan Mountains. When a young man got married, he built
his own family by receiving part of his parents' property. Young
sons who lived with their parents could get a larger portion
of the property. There were rigid differences between sons by
the wife and those by concubines in sharing legacies. Property
handed down from the ancestors usually went to sons by the wife.
The Yis traditionally
associated the father's name with the son's. When a boy was
named, the last one or two syllables of his father's name would
be added to his own. Such a practice made it possible to trace
tree back for many generations. In the Yi families, women were
in a subordinate position with no right to inherit property,
but the remnants of matriarchal society could still be seen
clearly sometimes. The Yis much respected the power of uncles
on the mother's side, and relations between such uncles and
nephews were close. Slaves' marriages and homemaking were in
the hands of slaveholders. The fate of slave girls was even
more wretched, and they were forced to marry just to meet the
needs of slaveowners for more slaves.
The Yis in the
Greater and Lesser Liangshan Mountains practiced cremation,
burning dead bodies in mountains and burying the ashes in the
ground or placing them in caves. After the funeral, the mourners
used bamboo strips wrapped with white wool to make memorial
tablets, which were wound with red thread and placed in the
trough carved in a wooden stick. Again, the stick was wrapped
with white cloth or linen. Some memorial tablets were made of
bamboo or wood and carved in the shape of figurines, which were
placed at the young sons' homes. Three years later, such memorial
tablets were either burned or placed in secluded mountain caves.
The Yis in Yunnan,
Guizhou and Guangxi believed in polytheism, combining worship for ancestors with the influence of
Taoism and Buddhism. The Yis in the Liangshan Mountains worshipped
gods and ghosts and believed in idolatry, and offered sacrifices
to forefathers frequently. Their religious activities were presided
over by sorcerers.
Yi calendar divided the year into 10 months, each with 36 days.
The tenth month was the period of the annual festival. Influenced
by the Han Lunar Calendar, the Yis later divided the year into
12 months, using the 12 animals representing the 12 Earthly Branches to
calculate the year, month and date. There was a leap year every
two years in the Yi calendar. The New Year festival was not
fixed but generally fell between the 11th and 12th lunar months.
In celebrating the New Year, the Yis would slanghter cattle,
sheep and pigs to offer sacrifices to ancestors. In the Liangshan
Mountains, people of the subordinate ranks had to present half
a pig's head to their masters to confirm their affiliation.
The Yis in Yunnan and Guizhou now celebrate the spring festival
as the Hans do. "The Torch Festival," held around
24th of the sixth lunar month, is a common tradition for the
Yis in all areas. During the festival, the Yis in all villages
would carry torches and walk around their houses and fields,
and plant pine torches on field ridges in the hope of driving
away insect pests. After making their rounds, the Yis of the
whole village would gather around bonfires, playing moon guitars
(a four-stringed plucked instrument with a moon-shaped sound
box) and mouth organs, dancing and drinking wine through the
night to pray for a good harvest. The Yis in some places stage
horse races, bull fighting, playing on the swing, archery and