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The Yi ethnic minority

    The 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 Region.
    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.

History

    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.
    Historical records 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 periods, "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 liberation.
    Ancient Yis 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 economy.

    

Customs

    Rigid rules 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).
    While preserving 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.
    Cooking utensils 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.
    Patriarchal 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 the family
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.
    The earliest 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 wrestling.

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