Nine Million People You Might Never Have Heard Of5 min read

Stevan Harrell introduces the Yi of southwest China


Editor’s Note: China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are far from homogenous. The People’s Republic officially recognizes 55 “minority nationalities,” including Mongols, Uyghurs, Tibetans and Manchu, along with many other groups most Westerners don’t know anything about. Taiwan recognizes 16 aborigine groups, many of which have more in common with Hawaiians than with the Chinese. Add to these lists the tribes lumped together by governments to create “nationalities”; the peoples still not made official but who clearly exist; and the cultural and linguistic diversity among the majority Han, with as much variance among them as among speakers of Romance languages in Europe.
In this new series, we will hear from experts who have spent their lives learning the languages and customs of these groups, as well as from people in minority communities themselves. Borderlands will share the richness of traditional cultures and grapple with the ways different groups have adapted modernity to their ways of life. We welcome reader feedback, which you can share @LARBchina with #borderlands. – Anne Henochowicz


There are more Yi people than there are Norwegians, Swiss, Libyans or Tibetans – around nine million. They have one of the world’s only independent writing systems, derived from neither Phoenician nor Chinese. They are the only people who make soup bowls out of water buffalo hide (they also used to use it to make armor and helmets), and they do some of the world’s most unique and exquisite needlework. They are enshrined in Chinese Communist Party history for having helped Mao on the Long March in 1936, only to rebel against land reforms in 1956-57. They helped Theodore Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt shoot the first giant panda to be brought to the US for a taxidermy exhibit. They sacrifice animals on just about all special occasions, but they don’t eat the meat of horses, bears, dogs, monkeys or frogs, because they are all animals with claws (horses have dewclaws) and thus related closely to humans. Some 19th and early 20th century European missionaries thought they might be the Lost Tribes of Israel.  

Why might you never have heard of them?

Yi people live mostly in mountainous areas in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces in southwest China, with a few in Guangxi Province and in Vietnam. Traditionally, they have been farmers, herders and foresters. Until recently, we couldn’t really call them an ethnic group, because they belonged to 60 or 80 different groups with different names for themselves and with different languages, related but not mutually intelligible. And until the 20th century, they didn’t call themselves Yi, which is a term invented by the Chinese. They called themselves Nuosu, Nasu, Azhe, Axi, Sani, Nyisu, Laluo, Nyiluo, Lipo, Lolopo and many other names. When the Communist government decided, following Stalin’s earlier practice in the USSR, to classify the entire population of the country into ethnic categories, all these people were lumped together as Yi.  

Before the PRC officially defined them as Yi, the Chinese had called them Lolo or Luoluo 儸倮, a name that they considered an ethnic slur, or else Yi 夷, a slightly less insulting term that is usually translated into English as “barbarian.” The story is that when Chairman Mao heard about this in the early 1950s – remember he had been through their territory in 1936 – he thought that 夷 was not a very nice written name for his former allies, and suggested instead the character 彞, pronounced exactly the same, but referring to a kind of ancient Chinese ritual vessel. In Mandarin, they have been yizu 彞族, the “Yi nationality,” ever since.  

Two Yi women planting corn. One wears traditional Yi dress, the other contemporary clothing. (Photo by Stevan Harrell)

The largest group within the Yi, numbering about two-and-a-half million, call themselves Nuosu (roughly translated as “the black ones”) and live in the rugged region of southwestern Sichuan known in Mandarin as Liangshan 涼山, or the Cool Mountains, but in their own language simply nuosu muddi, or “the land of the Nuosu.” The Nuosu resisted rule by the Chinese, Mongols and Manchus for thousands of years. As late as the 1940s their homeland was known as Independent Lololand. They captured Chinese intruders and sold them into slavery, and are still proud of their reputation as brave warriors. The Nuosu have retained their original religious traditions and practices to the present day, little influenced by Buddhism, other Chinese folk religions, or Christian missionaries.

Other groups of the Yi were much more influenced by Chinese civilization. The earliest ancestors of the Yi formed the Nanzhao Kingdom, headquartered at Dali in Northwest Yunnan, between the 7th and 9th centuries. Other Yi groups formed kingdoms in Yunnan and Guizhou from the 11th century on, their leaders accepting dynastic titles as tusi 土司, or local rulers, but maintaining locally autonomous rule until, in the Qing dynasty, many of the tusi were deposed and replaced by centrally-appointed officials. Many of these groups have incorporated Buddhism into their religious practices, and not a few, for example the Sani, a group of 800,000 living east of Kunming, saw large-scale conversions to Catholicism by French missionaries beginning in the late 19th century.  

In recent decades, modernity has come to the lands of the Yi. Scholars and officials have come to accept the government designation as members of a unified Yi “nationality.” They do lots of scholarly research on their own culture; most scholars of the Yi are themselves Yi. They remain fiercely proud of their cultural heritage, of their contributions to Chinese civilization and the Chinese nation – some Yi scholars have even maintained that Yi writing is older than Chinese characters, though there is no direct evidence that this is true. At the same time, almost all Yi people resent the majority Han Chinese for looking down on them as primitive, underdeveloped or in need of assistance. Many Yi people today are teachers, scholars, military officers, doctors and nurses, small-business owners and government officials. Others have joined the masses of rural Chinese who migrate to the cities to work in construction, manufacturing, and the service industries. But the majority remain farmers.  

In subsequent posts I will introduce readers to the Yi languages and writing system, women’s and men’s handicrafts, changing wedding customs and popular music and media. If there are other Yi topics you would like to see me cover, write to me at [email protected] or tweet @LARBchina #borderlands. ∎

All images by the author and used with his permission.