By Jim Goodman in Travel

Southwest China's Yi people comprise the fourth largest ethnic minority in the country. They inhabit mostly mountainous terrain in southern Sichuan, western Guizhou and Guangxi and throughout nearly all of Yunnan, where they form 11 percent of the province's population. They are the most numerous of the latter province's 25 ethnic minorities. Ancestors of Yunnan's Yi founded the Nanzhao Kingdom, which vied for supremacy with Tang Dynasty China from the seventh century for control of southwest China. That is until both regimes collapsed in the early tenth century.

Though the Yi permanently lost political power in Yunnan they were still the dominant ethnic group in the successor Bai-run Kingdom of Dali and remained so after the Mongol conquest in the mid-thirteenth century. Only when the Ming Dynasty sponsored large-scale Han immigration to Yunnan did the ratio of Yi in Yunnan begin to reduce.

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The Cool Mountain Yi people

Contemporary Yi are not, and never really were, a homogenous nationality. In Yunnan alone there are over two dozen sub-groups, residing in different kinds of ecological conditions and speaking five distinct dialects. That much I knew myself before I ever visited Yunnan. But on my first journey there the first Yi I wanted to meet were the Liangshan Yi — or Cool Mountain Yi — of Ninglang County in Lijiang Prefecture.

I had read about them already in author Peter Goullart's account of his journey with a Black Yi aristocrat, as well as when doing research on the Long March. The Red Army had a memorable encounter with the same branch of the Yi in southern Sichuan.

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Maps of southwest China compiled by Western explorers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked the entire Liangshan area — the Greater Cool Mountains in Xichang, Sichuan, and the Lesser Cool Mountains in Ninglang, Yunnan — as "Independent Lololand". The designation Lolo, which translates as something resembling 'savage', was the pre-1949 term for the Yi.

While today all Yunnan Yi refer to themselves as Yi when speaking to outsiders, among themselves they use their own name for their sub-group — 'Nisu' in Yuanyang, 'Tuli' in Weishan and 'Sani' in the Stone Forest. The Liangshan Yi call themselves Nuosu — 'the Dark People'. While they dominate Ninglang County, the Nuosu also reside in places like Lijiang, Shangri-la and Jianchuan, among others.

"Independent" did not mean a separate state. It was more of a no-go zone for outsiders, particularly Han, because the Liangshan Yi society was a slave-holding one and outsiders risked capture and sale as chattel. It was a very complex system, though, and one's status was not permanently fixed.

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A history of slavery

At the top were the Black Yi aristocrats, comprising about 15 percent of the people at most. Below them were the White Yi, serfs to the Black Yi and around 50 percent of the population. They did not have the privileges of the Black Yi and were often drafted to fight in the ceaseless feuds the Yi lords had with each other. But they could not be enslaved or killed with impunity.

Two kinds of slaves ranked below the White Yi — field slaves and house slaves. Unlike the situation in the pre-Civil War American South, the field slaves were actually better off. They had to labor in the master's fields, but could actually work their own private plot, make money and either buy their freedom or buy a slave of their own to work and then amass enough capital to, for example, buy out the slave's whole family. Meanwhile, their slaves could work their own plots and even buy a slave to work for them. The lowest status in Nuosu society, therefore, was to be a slave of a slave of a slave.

House slaves didn't have that option, however, and their lives and conditions were subject to the personality traits of their owners. Some were nice, some were harsh, even cruel, as attested by the display of torture instruments on display in the Xichang Museum.

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After 1949, no "Independent Lololand" could exist. The new Communist government, however, moved gradually to eliminate the slave system. They began by winning over Black Yi slave-owners — who were already aware the system was doomed — to emancipate their slaves in return for positions in the new autonomous governing body.

Not all acquiesced, though, and the government was obliged to mount a military campaign in 1956 against recalcitrant Black Yi in remote areas. It lasted two years and the cemetery in Ninglang is full of the graves of young Chinese soldiers who died in the campaign.

All that is a distant memory today. But while the old slavery system is dead, the Nuosu are still one of the most conservative of all the Yi sub-groups. Typical characteristics associated with Yi culture — the mid-summer Torch Festival, the role of the ritual specialist called bìmaw or bimo, the use of the ancient Yi script — are not necessarily part of Yi life everywhere in Yunnan. But with the Nuosu they are.

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Ninglang hospitality

Among the Nuosu customs maintained is that of an almost ritualized form of hospitality. For Ninglang's Yi there are three kinds of guests and each type requires a separate form of reception. The most common is a fellow villager or other familiar guest, who will be seated by the fireplace and served with whatever is available, tea and potatoes usually, liquor occasionally.

The second category is the special guest, one of high rank or from some distance away. For them the host slays a two-legged animal, a chicken usually. But it could be a duck or goose. For the third type, a very rare guest from especially far away, the host kills a four-legged animal — a small pig, sheep or goat.

Coming from Thailand, I qualified as the third type of guest in every remote mountain village I visited. In Ninglang Yi houses where I made regular visits every season or so, my hosts killed chickens. Part of this hospitality routine was to take a prognosis of the event. This happened while the chicken was being cooked by inserting two toothpicks into two small holes in the chicken's thighbone. If the toothpicks leaned too close together that meant the guest was trying to take advantage of the host. If they were too far apart it signified the host was trying to evade hospitality responsibilities. If they formed a nice 'V' — as mine did each time, fortunately for me and the hosts — then the visit would proceed harmoniously.

For the second and third type of guest, liquor is an integral part of the reception. Overnight guests might bring their own, but the host is obligated to serve some. But first he pours a bit into a small cup, moves it counter-clockwise around the hearth, then places it in a high place in the room as an offering to the ancestors. Only after this does he serve some to his guest, with an exchange of toasts.

Yi in the mountains of Ninglang County are not wealthy. To welcome guests by slaying their animals is an expense beyond their ordinary budget. Traditionally though, the guest acknowledges this by offering kàba, or compensation, before departure, three times, since it is also custom to politely decline twice. Fully informed of this by my Yi friends, I did the same. But the amount I was advised to give was always much less than the value of the food and liquor they served me. The Yi never seek to 'profit' from the encounter.

Along with the meat of the requisite animal, my meals with my Yi hosts included potatoes and buckwheat bread, two Cool Mountain staples. Villages are sited too high up to grow rice. Buckwheat, barley and millet suffice instead, with some of it traded for rice in the markets. They also grow maize, but its main use is for alcohol or animal feed. Potatoes, turnips and radishes are the main vegetables, while chickens, pigs, sheep and goats comprise their main livestock. They usually live in log cabins with tiled roofs, the hearth in the main receiving and dining room with bedrooms to the sides. Overnight guests, however, sleep beside the fire.

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Cool Mountain clothes

Among the conservative traits the Nuosu Yi have retained, particularly among the women, is the preference for traditional clothing. Females of all ages wear a long, cotton skirt, pleated from the knees down, each of the three or four wide sections a contrasting color. Bright pastels are for the younger women, darker tones for the older ones. They hold it in place with a long, narrow, fringed belt, with a triangular purse, fully embroidered or appliquéd with crescents, whorls and spirals, bordered by necktie-shaped, decorated cloth tassels and suspended from the belt.

On the upper part of the body the woman wears a long-sleeved blouse with striped or embroidered cuffs and a silk or velvet vest. Headgear depends on marital status. Those married with children don a wide, rectangular black hat, while the unmarried or married without children wear either a flat, embroidered rectangular cloth held in place by tying the braids over the top of the head, or a large, rounded black hat, the edges trimmed with color bands, the hat held in place by a scarf tied over it and fastened under the chin. For ornaments they will use strings of amber, coral and filigreed silver beads, disk-shaped earrings with attached pendants and embossed silver plates around the neck.

Among the women, traditional clothing is not just for special occasions but is the norm for everyday life — fieldwork, tending to the animals, cooking, fetching water, chopping wood and going to the market. Men usually dress in modern clothes, but may wear dark turbans. Both sexes wear the distinctive Yi woolen cape. Most common is the felted, A-line type called vombaw. More expensive types are from woven wool, the vahlah — fringed at the knees — and the heavier jyeshi — pleated top to bottom.

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Maintaining old traditions

Ninglang is a Yi Autonomous County, so Yi officials run the administration, subsidize the annual Torch Festival celebrations in the city and encourage the maintenance of Yi traditions. While Yi officials, teachers, businessmen and so forth may no longer themselves cling to the old animist world-view, their womenfolk are still steeped in it. I once attended a traditional ritual expulsion of evil spirits in the house of my Yi friend, an English teacher in Ninglang, whose wife insisted on the ceremony due to some domestic bad luck in recent days.

A young bìmaw in his late 20s conducted the rites beside the hearth, wearing a special round bamboo-frame woolen hat, reading incantations from an Yi-language manuscript. Then he poured a bit of water on the coals to create steam, grabbed the sacrificial cock and waved it through the steam to purify it. He next moved it clockwise over the hearth to retain the good spirits in the house, counter-clockwise to repel the bad ones, and several times over the host couple's heads to expel evil and prevent nightmares.

Continuing recitations without the use of the book, the bìmaw next knocked the chicken senseless, slices it through its mouth, breaks the left wing bone at its shoulder and cuts a hole in the skin at that spot. After more incantations, the bìmaw picked up the dead animal, put his mouth over the hole at the shoulder and blew hard. This makes the cock crow as if it were alive, which makes any lingering evil house spirits take fright and flee. Just to be sure, the bìmaw repeated the procedure several minutes later.

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The final act is to throw the cock and the sacrificial knife outside the door. If the blade and the cock's head and feet point away from the house, as it did the time I witnessed this procedure, the rite is deemed successful. If they point towards the house, the bìmaw has to repeat the rite with a fresh chicken. When successful, the host gives the bìmaw a bottle of liquor and some money, placed in a bowl of buckwheat flour. Then everyone dines together when the hostess cooks and serves the chicken.

With an attitude typical for Nuosu men, however secular-minded and well educated they may be, my Yi friend saw no reason not to participate in this 'superstitious' event. For him it was a positive occasion showcasing his people's time-honored customs. The bìmaw's youth testified to the continuing strength of Yi culture.

It takes several years to qualify for the role of the Yi ritual specialist, and obviously the next generation was keeping the tradition going. And though my friend may not have believed in the true efficacy of the ritual, it was fine with him that the women and children did. The rites restored their sense of worry-free domestic harmony. And that's a bonus for the non-believer as well. Being modern doesn't mean you have to stop being Yi.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan.

Images: Jim Goodman