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ETHNONYMS: A Long, A Nu, A Yia, Nusu, Rourou


The Nu live in northwestern Yunnan Province, primarily in Bijiang, Fugong, and Gongshan counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture and in the neighboring Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The area is mountainous, with large stands of primary forest, and is rich in timber, wild plants, and game. The valleys are at 800 meters. Climate is temperate to semitropical, with heavy rainfall. Various streams and the Nu River (Salween) cut through the region. Population in the 1990 census was 27,000. Nu speak a Tibeto-Burman language, which divides into three or four distinctive sublanguages. The language spoken in Gongshan County is mutually intelligible with Drung but not with the other Nu languages. Chinese linguists hold that Bijiang speech is close to Yi (Loloish). Some Nu also speak Lisu, Bai, or Chinese. All Nu regard themselves as culturally distinct from these other ethnicities and claim to be the original inhabitants of the area. Despite government assistance, the area remains one of the poorest in Yunnan and in China generally. The state has assisted in building roads and bridges and has expanded the rural school system. All schooling is in Chinese.

History and Cultural Relations

Between the eighth and twelfth centuries the Nu were a part of the Nanzhao Kingdom and the Dali Kingdom, after which they came under control of the Lijiang Mu (Naxi) and Bai tusi rule. Neighboring Lisu made frequent incursions into the area, seizing lands and livestock and taking slaves. The Nu were involved in several panethnic uprisings against tusi and imperial control in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1935 they joined in a short-lived uprising against the Guomindang (Chinese) Frontier Administration, which controlled the region after 1912. The Nujiang Autonomous Prefecture was established in 1954 and Gongshan was made an autonomous county in 1956.


The compact villages average about 150 people, and are far apart. Most are made up of households of a single patriline, though some are multilineage and even multiethnic. Single-story plank wood houses predominate, with a fire pit in the front room, a sleeping room to the rear, and a drying and storage area for grain between the ceiling and the pitched roof. Animals are housed in outbuildings.


Agriculture is the main occupation and techniques include both slash-and-burn and plow agriculture with a team of draft oxen. Chief crops are buckwheat, barley, maize, oats, and rye, with some small amount of paddy rice where possible. Hemp is grown for clothing, and striped homespun is a distinctive feature of the women's skirts and tunics. Livestock include cattle, sheep, and horses, which are pastured in unused fields or in the mountains, and also pigs. Before 1949, pasture, forest, and uncultivated uplands were usually communal property of lineages or villages. Much of the economic work was done cooperatively by households of a localized patriline. Agricultural land was household property, and in some areas could be sold, rented, or worked with hired labor. Landlordism was a problem in the early twentieth century. Some Nu had become bondservants or household slaves to Lisu and Yi overlords in the area. Land was collectivized by the state in the mid-1950s. Both men and women farm. Gathering, cooking, spinning, and weaving are women's work. Manufacture of iron tools, care of livestock, and hunting are men's tasks. Other cottage industries include the brewing of liquor and the fashioning of bamboo and wooden articles. Hunting (with bow and arrow), fishing, and gathering were formerly important supplements to the household economy. Both barter and the marketing of surpluses were employed. Until the 1950s, cattle were a medium of exchange.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Marriages are monogamous. The bride joins her husband's village. A new house, land, and livestock are provided for the married couple. The youngest son inherits the parental house and remaining lands and livestock. Marriage to cross cousins was encouraged: it was said that they strengthened ties between households. Marriages to parallel cousins were also frequent, though in most areas they were distant cousins related through a common great-grandfather or more remote ascendant. These marriages are no longer permitted under state law. Marriages were usually parentally arranged during childhood, and initiated by the groom's family with gifts of wine and cattle. The boy and girl's agreement was required and the marriage took place when they were in their late teens. However, unmarried youth were free to interact and court, which resulted in "elopement marriages" or "stealing the bride." These marriages required the consent of the groom's family and spared them most of the bride-price costs. In some cases, the couple resided with the girl's family until the birth of the first child. Levirate marriage was encouraged but not mandatory. After several decades of a harmonious marriage a couple will hold a dimuwa ceremony to which relatives, friends, and neighbors are invited. At the feast, the couple dress as bride and groom, reenact the marriage ceremonies and are presented with gifts by the guests. Only males could inherit land and livestock, but women's wealth took the form of silver, coral, cornelian, and turquoise jewelry, which were gifts from her parents or husband.

The nuclear family household is the basic unit, and in the past worked together with some ten or twelve closely related households. Under the new socialist government, collectives based on kin ties were discouraged. Above the localized lineage branch is the clan, which has a totemic name drawn from the Nu origin myths, a genealogy going back thirty to forty generations, and its own rituals for the ancestors. Hunting or eating one's totemic animal is forbidden. Community leadership was under the direction of a respected elder male, chosen for his intelligence, ability, and moral standing, who settled internal disputes and represented the community to the outside world. In villages comprised solely of kin he also served as a healer, diviner, shaman, and director of religious rites; in multilineage villages these roles were separated. Women had no public voice in community matters and did not participate in the rituals of their husband's lineage. Chinese sources are vague about women's roles in their natal lineages. Since the 1950s, political criteria have been the main determinants of official leadership at the village, township, and county levels, and religious leaders are discouraged.


Religion centered on the worship of natural forces and exorcism of ghosts and evil spirits. Separate rituals were held by each of the ten or twelve clans. Other rituals concerned community well-being or healing. Able religious leaders spoke Yi, Lisu, and Bai in order to address the spirit-forces of those groups who might be causing illness or other difficulties. Due to the presence of Tibetan Buddhism in the area, some Nu became followers and sent sons to join the lamasaries, where they became literate in Tibetan. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and particularly from the 1930s on, many of the Nu responded to foreign missionaries and became Catholics or Protestants. In some areas, 60 percent of the population were Christian in the early 1950s. The missionaries introduced modern medical care and opened village schools with Chinese as the classroom language.


Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities, 317-321. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Minzuxue yu xiandaihua (Ethnology and modernization) (1986). No. 3:1-47. Symposium on the thirtieth anniversary of the Gongshan Dulong and Nu Minority Autonomous County. Kunming: Yunnan Nationalities Press.

National Minorities Commission, ed. (1981). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu (China's national minorities). Beijing: Peoples Press.

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, and Li Shaohui, eds. (1981). Nuzu shehui lishi diaocha (Research on the society and history of the Nu). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

Shen Che, and Lu Xiaoya (1989). Life Among the Minority Nationalities of Northwest Yunnan, 102-120. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.


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nu / n(y)oō/ • n. the thirteenth letter of the Greek alphabet (Ν, ν), transliterated as ‘n.’ ∎  (Nu) [followed by Latin genitive] Astron. the thirteenth star in a constellation: Nu Draconis. • symb. (ν) frequency.

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NU • abbr. Nunavut (in official postal use).

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