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ETHNONYMS: Axi (also Lolo, Luoluo), Misaba, Nosu, Sani


Identification. The Yi are one of the largest minority groups in China. They are uplands farmers and pastoralists. Most live in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, in the areas of the Greater and Lesser Liangshan mountain ranges, at elevations ranging from 2,000 meters to 3,000 or 3,500 meters above sea level. The main areas of settlement lie south of the Dadu River and along the Anning River. Altitude and access to water varies, making for differences in economic activities in various areas.

Demography. There are about 1,300,000 Yi in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. Another 3,000,000 live in Yunnan Province, with large populations in the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture and in a number of autonomous counties and townships in both northern and southern Yunnan. Another 560,000 live in Guizhou Province, and some 4,600 have located as far east as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The 1985 estimate of the total population was 5.45 million or more, and the 1990 census estimate is 6,572,173.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yi languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman Branch of Sino-Tibetan. There are six distinct dialects. The Yi have a syllabic script developed in the thirteenth century or earlier, which has been replaced with a reformed writing system in recent times.

History and Cultural Relations

The Yi share common ancestry with other ethnic groups such as the Bai, Naxi, Lahu, and Lisu of Yunnan, and seem also to be related to the Di and Qiang peoples of western Sichuan. Between the second century b.c. and the early Christian era, the forerunners of the Yi made their appearance in the areas of Dianchi (present-day Kunming) in Yunnan and Chengdu in Sichuan. After the third century AD. Their activities were extended to northeastern and southern Yunnan and into northwestern Guizhou and Guangxi. Present areas of settlement are shared with a number of different ethnic groups, including Miao, Lisu, Hui, Hani, Dai, Zhuang, and Tibetans. There has also been a long history of interaction with neighboring Han people; Han systems of agriculture influenced the Yi in some areas. Much of the Yi area of settlement was governed indirectly by the Chinese state, through appointment of local Yi. Nobility as rulers. Some Yi families became powerful landlords. Before 1949, many Han people were captured or purchased to become slaves in Yi communities. At the same time, the trade between Han and Yi developed, with the Yi exchanging medicinal materials, furs, and other local products for salt, cloth, and iron provided by Han merchants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Yi were engaged in the opium trade. After 1949, Han and other ethnic groups migrated into the Yi areas. Many modern techniques of farming and stock raising were introduced, as were changes in general life-style. As a result, local industries and enterprises, as well as science, education, and cultural developments have been strongly promoted.


Mountain hamlets tended to be small, averaging some ten to twenty households. Traditionally, the Yi lived in windowless single-storied houses built of wood and earth. The house style was distinguished by double-slope roofs covered with small pieces of wooden plate held down by stones. The houses were simply furnished. The main area of activity was a fire pit cornered by three stones. Sleeping areas were on the ground, behind the fire pit; cattle and sheep were penned at one end of the house during the night. More recently, there has been a shift to brick-and-tile housing following the Han pattern, with livestock penned in adjacent buildings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In recent historical times, most Yi people grew maize, potatoes, buckwheat, and oats as their staples. The maize and potatoes were late borrowings that rapidly became a major part of the diet: potatoes cooked in plain water (salt was scarce) were considered one of the better foods. In the Liangshan ranges and wherever else possible, livestock included cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, and chickens. Sheep and goats were the most numerous, raised for their meat and wool. The diet was supplemented by gathering acorns, roots, wild greens, and herbs year round, particularly among the poorer families, and by hunting and fishing. Farmland was prepared by the slash-and-burn method; lands were often left fallow for five to seven years after use. Little attention was given to seed selection, and use of animal manure was insufficient or unknown. Commercial activities were frequent in the areas inhabited by both Yi and Han, where markets were run by the Han merchants. Animal furs, lard, Chinese prickly ash, and various herbs were sold, as were opium and livestock. In the Liangshan area, trade was done by barter and exchange of goods, but elsewhere the coinage was used. From 1949, state-run shops have been introduced in the township centers and serve the rural areas. From the early 1980s, private merchants and peddlers have been encouraged by state policy and the local government.

Industrial Arts. Among the Yi, there were no full-time artisans. All families were engaged in agriculture and pastoral work, and various handicrafts were done during the slack seasons. These included ironwork, woodwork, stonework, masonry, silversmithing, and coppersmithing. The silver and copper were obtained through the market. Women wove cloth, tailored clothing, and did the decorative embroidery.

Division of Labor. Prior to the various reforms under the new socialist government, there was no marked division of labor by class even though the Yi were a stratified society, headed by a hereditary class of nobles (Black Yi), with a subordinate class of commoners (White Yi) and a lower class of slaves. These classes were endogamous, but members of all classes engaged in similar tasks in agriculture and pastoralism and in various handicrafts, which were part of the household economy. The division of labor by sex was more crucial: Men cleared the land and did the plowing, whereas women (and also children or aged men) did the sowing and cultivation of the crops. Men were responsible for most of the handicrafts save for the making of clothing, which was the responsibility of women. Before 1949, men were also engaged in hunting and in military pursuits. In the Liangshan area and elsewhere, the one clear specialist was the bimo, or "shaman/magician," who was held in high respect. He presided over many different kinds of religious ceremonies.

Land Tenure. Before Liberation, most of the land belonged to Black Yi landlord/slaveowner households, who accounted for about 5 percent of the total Yi society. These lands were rented to members of the White Yi group or use was granted to them in return for military service and loyalty. In parts of Yunnan and Guizhou, Yi landlords also drew tenants from other ethnic groups, particularly the Miao. After land reform in the early 1950s, all ownership of land was transferred to the state. As elsewhere in China, the Yi areas went through a series of different policies. Since the early 1980s, the contracting of land use to households has become widespread.


Kin Groups and Descent. The patrilineage was the significant kin group in the Liangshan mountain areas in the past. Such patrilineages were strong in function, especially among the Black Yi, whose territories were clearly demarcated by mountain ridges or rivers. No trespass was tolerated. Each patrilineage had a headman (suyi ) who was the elder in charge of public affairs. The position of degu went to senior members who were gifted with a silver tongue, and whose responsibility was to uphold the interests of the Black Yi as a high-ranked group. Important issues within the patrilineage, such as the settling of blood feuds or the suppression of rebellious slaves, had to be discussed in meetings among the headmen (called a jierjitie ) or by a general conference of the lineage membership (merigge).

Kinship Terminology. In areas of settlement where there are few Han and little intermarriage, the Yi system of kinship terminology continues to be consonant with a system of bilateral cross-cousin marriage between patricians. Parallel cousins, whether children of father's brother or mother's sister, are equated with siblings, while different terms apply to cross cousins, who, like siblings, are distinguished by sex. Father's brother and mother's sister's husband are called by the same term, whereas a second avuncular term stands for mother's brother or father's sister's husband. Similarly, mother's sister and father's brother's wife receive the same term, and a second "aunt" term refers to father's sister or to mother's brother's wife. Male Ego's terms for parents-in-law are the same as those for mother's brother and wife.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Yi marriages are usually monogamous. The marriage partner must be of the same rank and of a different patrilineage. Cross-cousin marriage is preferred, and marriage with parallel cousins prohibited. In the past, parents had the final say in the arrangement of a marriage even though young people had considerable social freedom compared to the Han population. It was common for the bride's family to ask for a heavy betrothal-price, particularly among the Black Yi. Delayed-transfer marriage was common, with the young bride remaining at her parental home until the first child was born. In some instances, ceremonial kidnapping of the bride was the custom. The groom's side would send people at a prearranged time to snatch the girl and carry her on horseback to the groom's house. The bride was expected to cry for help, and her family members and relatives would come to her aid, chasing after the kidnappers, but not in a serious fashion. A related custom was one in which the groom's emissaries would go to fetch the bride and would undergo a mock attack by the bride's relatives and friends who would throw water and ashes at them and beat them with cudgels. After this initial show of hostility, the groom's side would be treated to a feast of wine and meat and finally be allowed to take the bride away on horseback. Part of the wedding night would be spent in a ceremonial "fight" between the newly wed bride and groom.

Domestic Unit. Patriarchal, monogomous families were the basic units in the Liangshan Mountains. At marriage, sons would be set up in independent households of their own. In the occasional instances of polygynous families, each wife and her children had a household of their own, with the husband rotating visits between them.

Inheritance. Both sons and daughters could inherit, although women were disadvantaged compared to their brothers. The youngest son, who would continue to live with his parents after marriage, was privileged to inherit a larger portion of the family property. There were rigid differences between sons by a wife and those by a concubine: Property handed down from the ancestors usually went only to the former. Among the Black Yi, if a man died without issue his property would be received by his full brothers and his widow would be married to one of his kinsmen. Women received part of their inheritance as dowry at marriage, and dowry goods might include livestock and, in the case of the Black Yi, slaves.

Socialization. Children were treated indulgently and learned about their roles and tasks in the daily life of the family and the community through oral transmission and example. In the past, the aristocratic class paid much attention to the training of their sons, especially in physical training, horsemanship, and handling of weapons. Customary laws and moral standards were also taught at an early age, and youngsters were expected to learn their clan genealogies by heart. For Black Yi this meant knowing some twenty generations or more. Even today, White Yi know the details of their ancestry for seven or eight generations. There was a special coming-of-age ceremony for girls at the ages of 15 or 17, known as the "Change Skirt" ceremony. Odd numbers were considered lucky. During the ceremony, the girl changed into long colorful skirts, and her hair style changed from a single plait into double plaits looped behind each ear. She also received earrings.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Before Liberation, the Yi in the Liangshan area were stratified into four different ranks: Nuohuo, Qunuo, Ajia, and Xiaxi. The top rank of Nuohuo was determined by patrilineal descent and remained permanent: Members of other ranks could not move up to that position. However, over time there was some upward and downward mobility within the other ranks.

Political Organization. During the late Qing dynasty, the system of appointed hereditary local rulers (tusi/tumu ) was abolished in some places in Yunnan and Guizhou, while in others it continued well into the twentieth century. In the Liangshan region, slavery continued until 1949. In more egalitarian communities, the patrilineages were vested with political, legal, and religious functions in addition to regulating marriage and descent.

Social Control. Social controls were generally maintained through moral pressures and customary law. Violations of social norms, particularly sexual relations that crossed class lines, personal attacks on the Black Yi, or encroachments on their private property, would be severely punished. In areas under tusi/tumu controls, the ruling family often provided its own military and police forces and prisons, and the tumu served as judge and jury.

Conflict. There were frequent conflicts between patrilineages or even lineage branches over possession of slaves, land, or marriages. Armed feuds ensued, and many lives were lost before reconciliations were reached. At various times in the Ming and Qing dynasties, Yi were also involved in uprisings against the expanding Chinese state and local Han military settlements.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi the Yi religion was a polytheistic one, mixing older beliefs with elements of Daoism and Buddhism. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries had some success in making converts among Yi in Yunnan and Guizhou in the early twentieth century, and an indigenous church continues in some areas at present. In the Liangshan, religion was less affected by Chinese religions. It included belief in a variety of natural spirits, encompassing animals, plants, the sun, moon, stars, and other natural phenomena. Sacrifices to the ancestors and worship of gods and ghosts were an important part of religious activity. The bimo and suyi presided at religious ceremonies, explained religious concepts, and served as intermediaries between the human and the supernatural world. The bimo was responsible for carrying out sacrifices, whereas the suyi could control ghosts through magic, but sometimes these roles overlapped.

Ceremonies. There were various ceremonies for marriage, the onset and reconciliation of feuds, initiations, etc. Sacrifices were offered to the ancestors of the lineage and household and to other spirits. There were common ceremonies that were held as the need arose and special sacrifices that took place on calendrically fixed occasions. The Yi had a well-developed knowledge of astronomy, though it was mainly the bimo who could read and interpret the texts.

Arts. Cooking utensils were usually made of leather or wood. Tubs, plates, bowls, and cups were handcarved and then painted inside and out with black, red, and yellow colors. Typical patterns included waves, thunderclouds, bull's-eyes and horses' teeth. Wine cups were carved from cattle horns or hooves.

Medicine. In the past, the Yi dealt with disease through both ritual and the use of herbal medicines. If someone died of illness, the bimo would be invited to compound additional medicines to offer to the dead. There have been great changes in medical care since 1949, with modern medicine available at all levels in the Yi areas of settlement.

Death and Afterlife. The dead were believed to travel to the netherworld where they would continue their lives. A properly held sacrificial ceremony was necessary to satisfy and calm the deceased: An unsatisfied spirit would haunt the people and offer no protection to descendants and kin.


Ma Xueliang, et al. (1989). Yizu wenhua shi (The cultural history of the Yi). Shanghai: Peoples Press.

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 232-248. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

National Minorities Commission, Sichuan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1985). Sichuan Liangshan Yizu shehuilishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Liangshan Yi nationality of Sichuan Province). Chengdu: Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences Press.

National Minorities Commission, Sichuan Provincial Editorial Group on the Slavery Society of the Liangshan Yi Nationality, ed. (1982). Liangshan Yizu nuli shehui (The Slavery Society of the Liangshan Yi nationality). Beijing: Peoples Press.


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