views updated May 09 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Nosu, Nasu, Luowu, Misapo, Sani, and Axi
POPULATION: 7.76 million
RELIGION: Ancestor worship
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The ancestors of the Yi were called the Qiang, one of the more ancient national minorities in China. The Qiang originally lived in the north and northwest of present-day China (Shanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai) and raised stock. Some 4,000-5,000 years ago, a part of the Qiang population migrated in successive waves toward southwest China, mixed with the native peoples, and finally settled in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. After settling, the Yi transformed from being nomads engaged in stockraising to farmers. It seems this process was completed under the Western Han Dynasty (206 bc-ad 8). It was from this time that they were known under the name of Yi. However, they kept until the 18th century a slave-owning system and resisted any attempt by the imperial government to interfere in their social structure. It was only under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that their leaders, who formed a kind of aristocracy, were replaced by Manchu or Chinese officers appointed by the central government. This marked the decline of the slavery system.


As we have seen, the Yi are distributed in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi provinces. They live in compact communities, sharing their territory with other nationalities. Except for a small number living in river valleys, they reside on high plateaus. Most of them live in mountainous areas as high as 10,000-11,000 ft above sea level, with a varied topography and a changeable climate. They have a saying: "Different skies every five miles." The Yi population was 7.76 million in 2000.


Yi language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Tibeto-Burman group, Yi branch. There are 6 dialects, 5 subdialects, and 25 regional idioms. The Yi invented an ideographic writing system, called chuan wen ("traditional script") in ancient Chinese books. Yi script, which is no longer used today, seems to have derived from Chinese characters. The Yi have many self-given names, such as Nosu, Nasu, Luowu, Misapo, Sani, Axi, etc. However, Yi has now become the most common designation.


Yi mythology, like that of many other national minorities of China, centers around the flood and the origin of human beings. However, many aspects of the myths reflect Yi customs and political conceptions. For example, in "The Story of the Flood," the god Entiguzi and his family live in Heaven and ruthlessly rule the people on earth, who are too poor to pay their taxes. Following a dispute, three brothers beat a tax collector to death. Thereafter, when they ploughed their field, the next day the field reverted to untilled soil. They worked hard for three days, but all their efforts were in vain. One night they discovered that it was an old man who restored the ploughed field to virgin land. The two elder brothers wanted to kill him, but the younger brother asked the old man why he was doing this. The old man told them it was useless to plough any more, because Entiguzi in Heaven had decided to flood the earth. They were to build three ships made of iron, copper, and wood, respectively. However, when the flood came, only the youngest brother, Wuwu, escaped death by sheer luck. As the only survivor on earth, Wuwu told Entiguzi that he hoped to marry his daughter. Entiguzi refused. Since Wuwu rescued a great many animals from the flood, they helped him to go to Heaven. He met Entiguzi's youngest daughter. They fell in love at first sight. Entiguzi had no alternative but to agree to their marriage. Later on, she gave birth to three sons. The eldest was the ancestor of the Tibetans, the second of the Chinese, and the third of the Yi.

Another Yi myth of origins, centering on the "Tiger Clan," spread in Yunnan Province. It also begins with a god opening the doors of Heaven to flood the earth. Later, the god opened a calabash and found a brother and a sister inside. Yielding to the god's will, they married. The woman gave birth to seven daughters. One day, a tiger came and asked to marry one of the girls. Only the youngest daughter was willing to marry to ensure the continuation of mankind. The tiger took her away to the mountains. After entering a cave, the tiger was transformed into a good-looking young man. The woman gave birth to nine sons and four daughters. Her nine sons were the ancestors of nine nationalities, among them the Yi. The Yi are described as living in the mountains, as being hunters and pastors, and as being fond of buckwheat and corn. The burial customs of the Yi are linked to the Tiger myth. The Yi still believe that the dead should be cremated, for only cremation will transform the dead into tigers. In some Yi districts, the corpse should be covered with tiger fur to recall that the deceased was the descendent of a tiger and will revert to being a tiger after death. The myth of the "Tiger Clan" is probably the remnant of totemic worship of the tiger in the remote past.


The Yi believe that everything that moves or grows has its own spirit. They worship their ancestors and revere ghosts and gods. Moreover, the Yi borrowed many beliefs and practices from religious Taoism and Buddhism. The religious rites are performed by the shaman Bimuo and the sorcerer Suye. These two kinds of priests are literate, know the ancient Yi script, and are capable of divination. Beating sheepskin drums, they recite the scriptures, expel the ghosts, offer sacrifices, and perform sacred dances while in a state of trance. It is believed that things left behind by the deceased possess their own spirits and the power to protect the people.

The Yi worship the Buddha of Peace and Tranquillity (Taiping), considered the God of Grain, three times a year. What is called the "Heavenly Buddha" is simply a braid on the forehead of a man. The braid, about 8 inches long and 1.5 inches around, is wrapped tightly in a piece of cloth and made to stand out. In the eyes of the Yi, this braid is the lord of fortune and misfortune, so sacred and inviolable that anybody who touches it will be looked upon as an enemy. A man will fight desperately to protect his braid.

In some districts, the Yi worship Asailazi, the god who created the ideographic script of the Yi. There is also a cult to the God of Wind.

Since the 18th century, a considerable number of Yi have converted to Catholicism and Protestantism as a result of missionary work.


The Yi celebrate three main festivals: the Spring Festival, the Yi New Year Festival, and the Torch Festival. As the Yi inhabit areas where there are many Chinese, they fully participate in the festivities surrounding the Chinese Spring Festival. Families kill pigs and sheep to prepare special meals and visit each other. On the first of January (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), the first thing is to carry on a shoulder pole two buckets of water. The family members may use it for cooking or washing, but not for laundry. They go to the countryside for picnicking, singing, dancing, wrestling, and horse racing. The date of the Yi New Year is not fixed (usually in October or November, lunar calendar; Western calendar, between October 24 and January 18) but decided through divination by the shaman. The activities are similar as those of the Spring Festival. The Torch Festival is prevalent in all Yi districts. It is held on June 24 or 25 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between July 22 and August 20). Holding a torch, everybody runs in the fields for fun. Buffalo fighting, sheep fighting, wrestling, arrow-shooting, dancing, singing, swinging, horse racing, and tug-of-war count among the most important sporting and entertainment activities, which are accompanied by heavy drinking.


Right after the birth of a girl, her parents will wind a red thread around her head and change it with a new one frequently. It is treasured as a symbol of purity and happiness until the girl's wedding.

A rite of "skirt changing" is held for teenage girls in their odd years of age. The parents prepare lace, a black kerchief, a new skirt, multicolored beads, and silver collar plate beforehand. Old folks will be invited to reckon the lucky day. When it is decided, the household will entertain many guests at a dinner party. During the rite, males must leave the house, while women and girls happily surround the girl, tease her, and express their good wishes. She is combed, helped to wear the new kerchief overhead, and change to a new skirt. Only then are men and boys allowed to come in the house to admire the enhanced beauty of the girl.

The bodies of the dead are usually cremated. The ashes are buried underground or put in a cavern. Because of Chinese influence, some practice burial of the dead in the ground. The funeral rites include "calling back the spirit of the dead." A wooden cross is made, half a foot in length, with wool on the top, plant leaves on the sides, and some grass at the bottom. It is the symbol of the spirit. The shaman recites the scripture and the family offers a sacrifice. For underground burial, a man will dress up like a ghost and lead the way before the coffin while beating a drum. The shaman also walks before the coffin. After the burial, the family should prepare a "mourning plate," which is hung on a wall in the home. The plate, according to ritual prescriptions, should be "sent off " two or more years later. In accordance with the position of the dead, a send-off team consisting of five to seven persons is arranged. They take the mourning plate down from the wall, place it in front of the house, kill livestock for sacrificial offerings, put the plate on a family member's back, then follow the shaman to send it off. They put the mourning plate in the cavern of their ancestors. Moreover, a ceremony is performed to save the souls of the dead.


When receiving guests, the host will prepare a special meal of oxen, pig, sheep, or chicken, according to the position and familiarity of the guests. Before the meal, the host will present the animal or poultry to the guests, to show that it is live and healthy. After being killed, the animal or poultry will be cooked entirely, including the head, the tail, and the internal organs. These will all be shown after cooking, one by one, to the guests. The meal is very copious, the host inviting the guests to eat and drink without reserve. The host usually asks the guests to take home the head or upper arm of the animal.

The Yi are known for their hospitality. Refusing a toast offered by the host is looked upon as most impolite behavior. The Yi pay much attention to courtesy shown older generations, not on the basis of age, but of seniority in the family or clan.

Young people have full freedom in dating. They take advantage of recreational group activities, such as singing and dancing, as well as country fairs, to meet partners and develop courtship relations. The eighth of February (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between March 1 and 30) is a special festival for youngsters; one of the rituals is for boys to stick an azalea flower in the hair of one's sweetheart.


Because of rigid social stratification in the past, there are imposing dwellings and spacious courtyards, even with watch-towers. These were the living quarters of the nobles. For the common people, houses are low and damp, made of wood and adobes, without windows. The master's room is usually on the left. The room on the right is for livestock and groceries, usually with a loft for the children or for storage of grain. The central piece is the living room and serves for many functions. Furniture and utensils are mostly made of wood.


The Yi family is patrilineal. Sons and daughters leave their parents after wedding. Parents usually live with their youngest son. Males inherit family property. Since ancient times, the Yi have practiced a joint naming system of father and son. The last one or two syllables of the father's name should be put in front of the son's name. A man of noble origin could recite the names of his ancestors up to tens of generations. In the family, the women find themselves in a subordinate position, without the right of inheritance. The Yi lay stress on the power of their mother's brother. Arranged marriage is common. In principle, the Yi family is monogamous. However, there are still polygamy problems left over by history. For older generations that practiced polygamy, the relation between the wife and the concubines is distinct: the wife's sons have the right of succession and inheritance, while the concubines' sons have not.

Cross-cousin marriage (Dravidian marriage) is common among the Yi. The woman, after wedding, will live in her parents' house until she gets pregnant.


Men's clothes vary according to regions. In some districts, men wear multi-pleated loose pants; in others, they wear tight ones. The above-mentioned braid enclosed by cloth on the men's foreheads is their most peculiar symbol of identity. They usually wear a large earring of red or yellow on their left ear. Women wear garments embroidered or trimmed at the edge with cotton lace. They wear multi-pleated long skirts; below the knee, the skirt is made of cloths of different colors. Teenage girls cover their head with a black kerchief; young and middle-aged women usually wear an embroidered square kerchief. Women are fond of wearing ornaments, particularly earrings and a hand-sized, finely carved silver plate attached right below the collar. When they leave home, men and women all wear black wool cloaks, which are decorated by a long fringe at the bottom.


The staple food of the Yi includes corn, buckwheat, oats, and potatoes. Rice is rare. They raise and grow their own livestock, poultry, and vegetables. Few vegetables grow on the high plateaus, but some of the wild herbs are edible. They like spicy and sour food; this is probably related to insufficient salt intake in the past. They make wine from corn and buckwheat and like baked tea.


Illiteracy is still widespread among the Yi, especially among women. Although primary schooling is, by law, compulsory and free of charge, many students in rural areas drop out each year. Few reach middle school (junior and senior) and even fewer go through college.


Dancing is one of the major art forms developed by the Yi. The Moon Dance of Axi is probably their most famous dance and has been performed frequently on stage, at home, and abroad. There are many other dance styles and scenarios. Performers usually sing while dancing.

As we have seen, the Yi invented an original writing system. Hundreds of manuscripts in Yi writing have been published. The Yi also have their own calendar, which divides the year into 10 months of 36 days.


The Yi are mainly engaged in farming and raising livestock, which is mostly men's work. Men are also trained as hunters, carpenters, and lacquer workers. Spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, designing and making clothes, and embroidering all are done by women at home.


Wrestling, arrow-shooting, top-whipping, horse racing, tugof-war, and a variety of ball games are popular sports with the Yi.


Despite the growing popularity of movies and television, the Yi treasure and often prefer their traditional recreation activities. Besides gamecock and buffalo fighting, which the whole community attends, there are two favorite pastimes for the young people, namely Ganhuachang (Rushing to the flower place) and Paohuashan (Running around the flower mountain). Ganhuachang is actually a form of dating. As soon as a young fellow knows that a girl is now visiting a certain family, he arrives there at once and sings a tune accompanied by his traditional full moon-shaped mandolin outside the door. If the girl agrees to go dating, he will invite her to sing and dance at the flower place (a place for outdoor activities). Even married persons might add to the fun on occasion, especially when the dating couple becomes more serious. Paohuashan is a group activity organized by the village. Each household invites a guest from outside their village. The young men and girls line up and move round the mountains. They sing as they walk along. Whenever they arrive on a hilltop, they dance. When they return to the village in the evening, they meet the old folks waiting at the gate. Singing in antiphonal style with the old folks, they are allowed to enter the village only after they have won the singing contest.


Yi lacquerwares are renowned internationally. Many domestic utensils, such as wooden dishes, plates, bowls, cups, spoons, and flagons, are painted vividly with decorative figures and patterns in black, red, and yellow. They have become collector's items and are sought eagerly by tourists.


On account of their environment (high plateaus) and of their mode of production based on artisanal farming, it is very difficult for the Yi to develop a prosperous economy. They face a real dilemma: if they move out of their mountainous terrain, they have to change their traditional professions and risk losing their identity; if they stay, they may retain their traditional ways, but remain relatively poor as China develops economically.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. While the gap in educational levels between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of all college students in 2005, illiteracy is still widespread among Yi women.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.


Chiao, Chien, Nicholas Tapp, and Kam-yin Ho, ed. "Special Issue on Ethnic Groups in China." New Asia Bulletin, no. 8, 1989.

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Gustafsson, Bjorn A., Shi, Li, and Sicular, Terry, eds. Inequality and Public Policy in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Harrell, Stevan. "The History of the History of the Yi." In Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, edited by Stevan Harrell, 63-91. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Heberer, Th omas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia.New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.

Lemoine, Jacques. "Les Yi." In Ethnologie régionale II (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade). Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Shin, Leo Kwok-yueh. The Making of the Chinese State: Ethnicity and Expansion on the Ming Borderlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wiens, Harold J. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. New Haven: The Shoestring Press, 1967.

—by C. Le Blanc


views updated Jun 27 2018


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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