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ETHNONYMS: Pumi, Xifan, Prmi, Chruame, Bo, Paimuyi


Identification and Location. The Premi live in southwestern China in an area stretching from the southwestern corner of Sichuan Province into the northwestern portion of the neighboring Yunnan Province. The Premi in Yunnan have been officially classified as a separate "national minority." The Premi in the adjacent areas of Sichuan Province have been labeled as Tibetans, or Zangzu, one of the fifty-five recognized national minorities in China. Historically, the Premi were called Xifan by the Han Chinese. After official recognition in 1960, the Premi in Yunnan were designated as Pumi. Pumi is an approximate in Chinese of the self-appellation of Premi, which means "white people." These people live mainly in Ninglang County, the Lanping Bai and Pumi Autonomous County, and parts of Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County. In Sichuan the Premi population is concentrated in the Muli Tibetan Autonomous County, but there are Premi villages in the surrounding counties of Yanyuan and Jiulong.

Demography. In Yunnan 29,657 Premi were counted in the fourth population census of 1990. In Sichuan, where the Premi do not constitute a separate official category, their numbers do not appear separately in population counts. Estimates based on linguistic studies put their number at approximately the same as in Yunnan, for a total number of approximately 60,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. According to most Chinese linguists, the Premi language, Premihli, belongs to the Qiang branch of the Tibeto-Burman language group within the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are two distinct dialect groupings: a southern one and a northern one. The northern dialects are spoken in Sichuan and in Ninglang County in Yunnan, and the southern dialects in Lijiang and Lanping counties. Many Premi men are bi- or trilingual; in addition to being able to speak the local dialect of Chinese, they often speak the languages of the surrounding peoples: Tibetan, Naxi, Moso, Bai, or Yi. Premi does not have a written form, although Tibetan script sometimes is used for religious purposes and for writing family genealogies.

History and Cultural Relations

The Premi are considered one of the seminomadic peoples descended from the old Qiang people who began migrating southward from the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau around the seventh century b.c.e. They are one of the several groups of Xifan, an ethnonym that surfaces in Chinese sources from Song times (960-1279 c.e.) and was used to designate different peoples living in a north-south corridor in what is now western Sichuan, wedged in between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese.

These peoples combined pastoralism and agriculture. Culturally, they were strongly influenced by their Tibetan neighbors. During the campaign of Kublai Khan against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan in the thirteenth century many Xifan were enlisted in the Mongolian army and ended up settling in northwestern Yunnan. As relatively late arrivals they settled higher in the mountains in small clusters of villages, interspersed with other ethnic groups, such as the Naxi, Bai, and Moso. Most lived in areas ruled by tusi (native chieftains) appointed by the Chinese imperial court. In some areas the tusi were Xifan. In Muli in Sichuan a small semiautonomous "lama kingdom" appeared in the seventeenth century, ruled by a tusi who was also the head lama of a monastery of the reformed Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The majority of the population in Muli, as well as the elite, were Xifan.

The term Xifan was used until the communists took power in 1949. In the large ethnic classification project of the 1950s in China the Xifan of Yunnan, who were all Premi speakers, were recognized as a single national minority. In Sichuan the situation was more complicated, since the Premi were only one of several groups referred to as Xifan. Because they were in many places highly influenced by Tibetan cultural practice, all Xifan in this province were classified as Tibetans, and Muli became a Tibetan Autonomous County.


The majority of the Premi live in rural mountainous areas. In Yunnan the Premi are spread over a relatively large region in the northwestern part of the province, concentrated in village clusters among other ethnic groups. Many of these clusters contain no more than three or four villages varying in size from a few to twenty or thirty households. Housing styles are similar to those of the surrounding ethnic groups. In Sichuan and the adjacent area of Yongning in Yunnan the Premi live in log houses with roofs covered by wooden planks held in place by large stones. A small percentage of the male population resides in Buddhist monasteries. Very few Premi live in urban centers.


Subsistence. As a result of geographical differences, there is considerable variation in the crops cultivated by the Premi. Most Premi still combine subsistence farming with pastoralism. Since the Premi seldom live in the warmer valleys, instead residing higher in the mountains, very little rice is cultivated. The main crops are corn, wheat, barley, vegetables, fruit trees, and in higher mountain regions potatoes, highland barley, and turnips. Most families have domestic animals such as pigs, a few cows, and chickens. Many also have goats, which are herded by the youngest and the oldest members of the family. In Sichuan, in the higher mountain regions, a considerable number of Premi live and work on large state-owned pastures for the raising of yak. These places provide the lower-lying villages with staple products such as yak butter. Each family also owns mules or horses, and traditionally transportation of goods by mule has been one of the few nonagricultural economic activities. This activity has continued into modern times since many of the Premi regions have few motor roads that can be used throughout the year.

Commercial Activities. Commercial activities are not well developed because of the difficulty of transportation. In areas suitable for planting apple trees some cash is generated, and there is some small-scale selling of forest products such as medicinal plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. Depending on the nearness of market towns, a portion of crop production is sold, and the income is used to purchase rice and household necessities. In some regions apples have become a cash crop. Before the general ban on logging in 1999, a number of men provided their families with extra cash by working in state logging companies or transporting timber with privately owned trucks.

Industrial Arts. The Premi are known for home weaving of cloth with beautiful patterns. Women use the fabric as a belt around the waist, and men wind another type around the lower part of the legs. Every house has a loom, and many young girls weave on improvised looms.

Division of Labor. Except for plowing, which is done by men, in most Premi areas both sexes participate equally in agricultural production. Activities farther from the village, such as hunting, leading mule caravans, and driving trucks are generally the domain of men. Only men can become religious experts, hangui or anji, become monks in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Women mainly do household chores, but men participate in many of those tasks. Weaving on the house loom is women's work, but both men and women do basket weaving.

Land Tenure. When the communists took over the Premi areas and incorporated them into the new People's Republic of China, they encountered two different forms of land tenure. In areas ruled by the tusi, all the land was owned by this appointed native chieftain and the local people were his tenant farmers. The land was allocated to them for cultivation, and they paid the tusi with a percentage of the harvest. In areas where the tusi had been replaced by a Chinese official, land was privately owned and most of the people worked their own plots. Land ownership in these areas was made transferable, and the communist regime categorized the Premi in these regions into classes of landless farm workers, poor and rich farmers, and a few landlords. At the end of the 1950s all land was collectivized. In the beginning of the 1980s families could sign contracts for state-owned land, which was divided according to the number of people in each family. Much of the land farmed by the Premi is marginal land on mountain slopes with limited yields. Tight government control of land use limits possibilities for opening up more land, and many expanding families have problems providing a live-lihood for all their members.


Kin Groups and Descent. Premi descent is mostly patrilineal, with the exception of some families in the Yongning area of Ninglang County in Yunnan, which follow the matrilineal pattern of the surrounding Moso. In Muli clan relationship is still a very important identity marker, and many aspects of social life are organized around these patrilineal clans.

Kinship Terminology. Premi kinship terminology is of the Omaha type characteristic of patrilineal societies.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Premi patrilineal clans are strictly exogamous. The preferred marriage form has traditionally been cross-cousin marriage. In Lanping maternal cousins could marry each other. In several areas there is still a high frequency of sororal polyandry and fraternal polygyny. Premi often intermarry with Moso, and several Premi and Moso villages have established relationships in which women are exchanged. The Premi in the Yongning area of Yunnan participate in the local tisese, or "walking marriage," of the Moso. This is a non fixed sexual relationship in which both partners remain in their respective matrilineal households and their children stay in the family of the mother.

Domestic Unit. Most households include three generations. When the house becomes too crowded, one of the sons (usually the oldest one) will leave the household with his family and establish a new house, and the youngest son will take over the ancestral home. Traditionally, the Premi have no family names, but they have house names. Persons are identified first by the name of the house and then by first name. After the communist takeover many Premi adopted Chinese family names, which usually follow clan names.

Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal, with the youngest son often taking over the ancestral house. The older sons leave the parental house with their wives and children if the house becomes too crowded. At that time the land is divided. In Lanping, when there are no sons in the family, property is inherited by paternal cousins. This may be done by adopting one of the sons of the father's brother. In the Ninglang and Muli areas married daughters without brothers can inherit parental property.

Socialization. Traditionally, Premi are considered to reach adulthood at the age of thirteen; this is still celebrated in many areas with a special ceremony in which girls start wearing the typical pleated skirt of the Premi and the boys start wearing trousers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Premi society was largely classless. In the Yongning area, where the Premi lived together with the stratified Moso people under the rule of the tusi and his administration, the Premi as a nonstratified group had a special privileged status vis-à-vis the other ethnic groups. In post-Mao China one of the most notable features of several Premi communities is the persistence of the clan as basis for many aspects of social life. The larger clans have regular meetings for which members travel from faraway places.

Political Organization. Before 1949 a substantial proportion of Premi communities lived under the tusi system, in which they were ruled by hereditary local rulers mandated by the Chinese court. Since many Premi settlements were spread thinly over a large area inhabited mainly by other ethnic groups, these tusi families were not necessarily of Premi origin. The tusi in Muli, who also was the highest lama, came from a Premi family. Except for the special position of this family, Premi society was generally not stratified. The fact that the worldly leader in Muli was also a religious leader made his authority absolute and unquestionable. In the Yongning area, the tusi was the political leader and his younger brother was the highest lama.

After 1949 the political organization in some Premi areas followed the system of nominal local autonomy practiced in other ethnic minority areas of China. Special administrative regions were established on the county, prefectural, or provincial level where one or more officially recognized minority nationalities were given limited power of local decision making, such as the possibility of educating children in a minority language. Technically, the Premi have been provided with only one such region: the Lanping Bai and Pumi Autonomous County in Yunnan. However, in Sichuan there is Muli Tibetan Autonomous County, where the Premi are classified as Tibetans. About two-thirds of these Tibetans are Premi. Premi children in Muli are taught Tibetan in addition to Chinese at school but are not taught Premi.

Social Control. The tusi system provided a detailed criminal code enforced by the tusi's administration. Minor conflicts often were dealt with by the religious specialists, the hangui or anji, or by the house or clan elders.

Conflict. When Premi people engaged in larger conflicts before 1949, they were drafted into the armies of the local tusi, who often fought limited wars against each other for territory or control of economic resources. In areas adjoining Yi territory Premi people were sometimes victims of slave raids by Yi lords.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tibetan Buddhism, mainly in the form of monasteries of the Gelugpa sect, has a firm foothold in many Premi areas. Before the communist takeover religious and political power often were united, and in Muli among every two Premi brothers one had to enter a monastery and become a monk. After the abolishment of this system and religious repression under the Cultural Revolution (19661976), Buddhism lost much of its power.

Besides Buddhism, the Premi have traditional beliefs and related religious practices that continue to play an important role in people's lives. Since most Premi do not believe in reincarnation or in central Buddhist concepts such as karma, there is reason to assume that Buddhism was much more a political factor and a religion for the elite than a deeply felt belief in the villages. Nevertheless, on the formal level Tibetan Buddhism has provided the traditional religion with Buddhist texts, bells, and prayer flags. According to traditional Premi beliefs, spirits and an array of divinities inhabit the invisible dimension of the natural world. The two main categories are water divinities and mountain divinities. Malignant spirits can make people or domestic animals ill and cause disasters for individuals or families. The souls of deceased family members can turn into malignant spirits if they are not taken care of properly by their surviving kin. The Premi therefore emphasized rituals honoring their ancestors. The central place for these rituals is the hearth or fireplace in each house, where offers are made on a sacred stone. Other sacred places where divinities are invoked are springs, lakes, and mountaintops.

Religious Practitioners. The traditional religious specialists are called hangui or anji. Hangui are always men who have learned religious rites mostly from their fathers. The hangui use orally transmitted ritual texts or Tibetan Buddhist scriptures of diverse origin when performing rituals. They play a central role at funerary ceremonies and in rituals for pacifying malignant spirits by invoking the protective spirit of their hangui line, which often involves the sacrifice of a chicken or a larger domestic animal. Other functions include fortune-telling, calculating auspicious dates for important events such as funerals, and consecrating the sacred fireplace in a house.

Many Premi villagers also utilize the ritual services of former Buddhist lamas who returned to their villages when the monasteries were closed in the late 1950s and 1960s. Many of these lamas could not return to the monasteries in the more liberal post-Mao times because they had broken their vows and married. They perform many of the same rituals as the hangui. Whereas the hangui deal with malignant spirits in violent ways, for example, with blood offers, the former lamas utilize persuasion and other nonviolent methods to convince spirits to leave their victims alone. Other religious specialists are mediums who can communicate directly with the spirit world. They can be either male or female and have no specific ritual competence. The Cultural Revolution almost wiped out this traditional religious practice, but since the introduction of more relaxed policies in the 1980s, the few old surviving hangui have been able to find many young students who are willing to learn the trade from their grandfathers.

Ceremonies. There are several annual ceremonies for worshiping different divinities. Some ceremonies are held only when necessity arises, such as drought or sickness. The major festival is the New Year festival, which is celebrated from the seventh to the last day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.

Arts. The major traditional artistic expressions of the Premi are religious in character and practiced at Buddhist monasteries. They include sculpture, wood carving, and thanka painting, which is traditional Tibetan religious painting.

Medicine. If somebody is sick in the village, people may consult a government-trained doctor if one is available or a hangui or a lama. Since it is believed that many diseases are caused by malignant spirits, the religious specialist will perform a ritual to chase away or appease those spirits. This often involves the sacrifice of a chicken. Specific divinities can be invoked for specific ailments; for example, water divinities are believed to cure eye diseases. Divinities may diagnose diseases through the help of a medium.

Death and Afterlife. In the Lanping and Lijiang areas

of Yunnan most Premi have adopted burial, while in the Yongning area of Yunnan and in Sichuan the Premi still practice cremation. In areas where the clan system is still predominant the village has different cremation grounds for each clan. Each clan also has a separate mountain cave where the ashes of the deceased members are placed after cremation. The cremation ceremony, which can last several days, is led by hanguis and/or former lamas, the more the better. A major ritual is the "opening of the road," in which a hangui or lama guides the soul of the deceased back to the place from which the ancestors of the clan originated according to tradition. This ritual has to be conducted properly since any soul can become a wandering, malignant spirit if it is not guided to join its ancestors. To avoid this unlucky development, each family takes care of the souls of its deceased ancestors by making regular offerings. Before each meal some food is placed on the sacred stone near the fireplace in the house, and larger ceremonies are held for the ancestors at the New Year's celebration.

For other cultures in China, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 6, Russia and Eurasia/China.


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Wellens, Koen (1998). "What's in a Name? The Premi in Southwest China and the Consequences of Defining Ethnic Identity," Nations and Nationalism 4(1): 17-34.