Modernity with Yi Characteristics7 min read

Adapting traditions in 21st century China – Stevan Harrell


The Sani people, an Yi group who live in the hills east of Kunming, have faced the puzzle of modernity longer than most. Many were part of a utopian Catholic experiment started by Père Paul Vial in 1887. Vial wanted them to be modern, educated and Catholic, while still being Sani. He built churches, translated scripture into Sani, published a Sani-French dictionary and purchased land for agricultural improvement projects. He also fought fiercely for Sani autonomy and against what he saw as their oppression by Han Chinese landlords and officials. About a third of the Sani population became Catholic by the time Vial died in 1917, and many remain Catholic to this day.

Being Yi in Southwest China has always meant being “ethnic.” Ethnicity used to be about local society, about how local groups related to each other: they lived in different ecological niches, spoke different languages, had different political systems, did or did not marry each other. Ethnicity is still all of that, of course, but for the last century it has increasingly been something else: being part of a nation, willingly or unwillingly, that has set itself on the road to modernity. Yi children learn the same things in school as Han Chinese do. They go to school, take exams, graduate, get jobs. Those who are successful follow professional careers: they become teachers, doctors, business owners and government officials. The arc of their lives is not defined by Yi tradition.

But what happens to Yi as a group, and what happens to Yi cultures, as Yi people participate in the economy and society of a rapidly modernizing China? How do Yi people become modern and still stay Yi? Does becoming modern mean becoming somehow less Yi, or does being Yi mean being a certain sort of modern person? We may find answers in a folk hero remade for tourism and in wedding finery brought to the photo shoot.


A Modern Legend

Sani girls, portrayed mostly by Han performers and wearing a Han film director’s version of ethnic costumes, sing a happy song about washing hemp, an important Sani fiber crop. Image courtesy Margaret B. Swain.

After the Revolution of 1949, government folklorists collected Sani versions of the legend of Ashima, or “golden girl,” creating a standard version that became a symbol of the way China’s minorities were exploited by old, feudal customs and ready to be liberated and advance toward modernity with the proletariat. In the new story, Ashima was turned to a pillar of stone for resisting the advances of a cruel landlord. This aligned the Sani with the good guys in the struggle for history, and Ashima became a revolutionary commodity. Her story was told in woodblock prints beginning in the 1950s, in a 1964 movie musical , and beginning in the 1980s with China’s reforms, at least 40 Chinese and Japanese manga graphic novels and several anime films.

Scene from a manga version of the Ashima story. Image courtesy Margaret B. Swain.

The Sani homeland contains the spectacular karst landscape of Stone Forest National Park, which has been a nature tourist site since before the revolution. By the 1980s tourism development was in full bloom, and the legend of Ashima, along with the karst, became part of the mandatory tourist experience. Tourists can don real or embellished Sani clothing, participate in native dances with Soviet-style choreography, or even watch a film of the Ashima story projected onto a screen of mist generated by what resembles a huge garden sprinkler. Local families have adapted the recent Chinese vacation institution of nongjiale (“farm family happiness”) into Yi jia le (“Yi family happiness”), so tourists can now stay at all manner of Ashima-themed guest houses.

Children from a school in Hong Kong take a field trip to Sani land and try on local clothing. Image courtesy Margaret B. Swain.

There is a scholarly side to the modern Ashima as well collections and analyses of the legend and what it tells us about Sani society started to appear in the 1950s. The height of scholarly activity hit in 2004, the same year that the Stone Forest became a UNESCO World Heritage site. That year’s conference on Ashima Studies, sponsored by the Stone Forest County government, attracted scholars from China and around the world. Most of the scholars of Sani culture, however, are Sani themselves. Both in tourist promotion and in scholarship, Sani are actively creating their own version of modernity – part tradition, part borrowing, part innovation.


Glamor Shots

Like many Yi groups, the Nuosu of Liangshan in southern Sichuan have incorporated wedding practices from wider China, and even further afield, into their traditional wedding customs.

A Nuosu bride on the way home after her wedding, dressed in her bridal finery and carrying her jieshyr felt cape. Photo by the author.

Bridal finery goes way back in Nuosu culture. Until very recently, when a bride made the ritual journey to her husband’s home, she would be decked out in a fancy jacket embroidered with symbolic designs over a new, brightly-colored pleated skirt of home- dyed, spun and woven wool, a belt of home-woven hemp from which would hang a triangular, tasseled bag where she typically kept her pipe and tobacco, and sometimes a hand-sewn case for her needles and thread. Her headdress probably showcased her own needlework. Her silver jewelry included long dangle earrings, an intricately worked rectangular collar buckle, several saddle-shaped rings and a few bracelets. It might all be topped off with the woven, fringed cape called a vala, or with a pleated felt cape called a jieshy.

The groom was not part of the wedding – its purpose was to introduce the bride to her future family, not to him. But his attire on other formal occasions was hardly less elaborate than his bride’s. Flowing, culotte-like pants, a jacket almost identical to what his bride wore, a shoulder-belt studded with white circles of bone, a square bag for tobacco, pipe, flint, and other incidentals, and a plain black turban wound into a forehead-horn that wrapped a lock of his hair. He would wear only a single, plain silver earring, perhaps accompanied by a ring or two.

Chinese-style wedding photos. Images courtesy Ma Xiaolan.

In faraway Taiwan, wedding photography got extremely elaborate beginning in the 1980s. A couple would engage a photo studio to produce a portfolio in an all-day shoot that took place a few weeks before the wedding. The bride underwent a three-hour or longer makeup and hair session. Porting along a series of outfits ranging from a long-trained white gown and tuxedo, to dresses (mostly red) and suits of the latest fashion, to imagined attire from the Tang dynasty, the couple would pose in both studio settings and scenic field locations.

In the 1990s, these elaborate wedding shoots spread to China, and as mass media reached first the towns and then villages of Liangshan, the modern ritual caught on among educated Nuosu. Nuosu brides and grooms posed in white gowns and dinner jackets on the shores of Qionghai Lake and in red against bowers of roses. But they complemented the qipao and re-created Song palaces with modern Nuosu-style clothing and sets evoking a sanitized version of traditional Liangshan architecture.

Nuosu-style wedding photos. Images courtesy Li Musa.

Small corners of modernity, like manga and wedding photos, can hold bits of ethnic culture Every Yi group has its clothing, its music, its dances, its epic poems, its architecture. None of these have disappeared. But they have become more marginal, more external, more commercial. Still, almost anyone getting married in Liangshan will have both pan-Chinese- and Nuosu-style pictures in their wedding album, and everyone in Stone Forest can proudly tell you the story of Ashima. In this way, as the everyday lives of Yi people become more and more like the everyday lives of everyone else in China, there are still reminders, always changing and adapting, of their heritage. ∎


Special thanks to Margaret B. Swain for the Sani material, and to Ma Xiaolan and Li Musa for letting the author use their wedding pictures.