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Chuxiong: Yi Minority


13:56, August 01, 2011

Sing, dance, and drink with the Yi of Yunnan: the most passionate of people. Take a glimpse into spirits burning with an inner fire.

Variety of its landscape and diversity of its people, welcome to Travelogue’s ethnic minority series. And today, we’re they’re going to meet the Yi people of Yunnan province. Look at them, they’re singing, dancing, there’s music. What are we waiting for? Come join us.

Today’s journey will take us through Shilin and Chuxiong in Yunnan to visit the Yi people. The Yi is the largest ethnic minority in southwest China, with the most branches.

We’re starting in Shilin, literally “Stone Forest.” The Shilin Yi Ethnic Autonomous County is about 80 kilometers from Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province.

Here, you can find one of the great natural wonders of the world – the karst limestone area. Walking through the forest, you are surrounded by 270-million-year-old peaks and caves, each of them unique. These strange formations fire my imagination, so it’s not hard to believe that they’ve inspired numerous poems, pictures, and Yi legends.

The Stone Forest is also famous as the home of a branch of the Yi minority, known as the Sani. Theirs is a unique and fascinating history, many episodes of which relate to their unique environment. Scattered among the mountains and valleys, the Yi’s lifestyles are all varied.

If you look carefully, the stone looks like a girl standing with her arm over her shoulder. Can you see it?

The Sani folk epic, Ashima, is passed on orally, and often through music.

Read…Although many legends are passed down orally, the Yi people also have their own written language. In fact, the Yi ethnic minority created the earliest syllabic script in China – that was in the 13th century. To me, the characters look similar to the writing on the oracle bones found at Anyang.

Outside the Yi village is the Mi4zhi1.This is a holy area used for praying and other religious activities. The Yi are polytheistic – they embrace elements of many religions, and they also worship their ancestors and Nature. They believe in the holiness of all spirits. Fire is especially revered, since it represents their passion, straightforwardness, and bravery.

Even in this open field, the traditional Yi hospitality is evident. No sooner have we arrived than they brought song and they brought dance.

Dancing is an important part of life for the Sani. Up in the high mountains, dancing is the main form of entertainment. The music’s strong beat and the cheerful dancers would bring a smile to anyone’s face. Imagine being greeted with such bright costumes and such spirited singing and dancing.

This is an interesting tool? It’s a most traditional form of tool. It’s used to get the water from the lake to the land. The paddles push the water up.

Yi women are industrious workers both in the field and in the home. It’s part of the traditional lifestyle that they do heavy manual labor, embroider and make clothes for the family, and still find time to look after the children. Imagine trying to balance such a busy workload!

After a hard day at work, they join together around the fire and sing and dance. Their dance has different paces, to express different moods. Although the movements are simple, the rhythm is lively. The way I see it, it looks like out-and-out fun. Even the kids join in, although they do it a little differently.

Because of the natural environment, some Yi people build their houses out of stone. It’s a unique construction that provides warmth in the winter and keeps things cool in the summer. They also last – meaning there’ll be somewhere to live for generations to come.

Walking through a village you get a sense of the local way of life. Simple and pleasant.

No matter which village you are in, the sound of singing and dancing fills the air. An important element of the dances is the unique sound of the instruments. The instruments are strangely-shaped – art forms in their own right. There are designs carved on them – traditional shapes, combined with people and characters. Although the craftsmanship is simple, they convey the emotions that were poured into the design. So, who made them?

The old man started making these instruments as a teenager. In fact, most of the instruments in the village are his work. As a child he had a passion for dancing, which inspired him to start making the instruments. Slowly, his interest grew and he began engraving beautiful designs on the instruments, and adding a certain style. He derives great joy from seeing the happiness his creations bring to others.

Among the mountains, there’s this river flow. And this waterfall is the source of all that water. This waterfall is over 90 meters high and provides the nurturing of all the life in this area.

The Yi live in an environment that has everything you could possibly want: Beautiful natural landscapes, stately mountains, and clear waters.

The Dadieshui Waterfall Scenic Area is in the southwest of Shilin County. Here, the air is fresh, the leaves of the trees a crisp green, and your face is splashed by the waterfall. The sound of the fall is said to make the mountains tremble, and can be heard far away.

In the Chuxiong mountainous regions of central Yunnan, we’ve arrived at another Yi village. This land has a long history, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, and a rich natural environment. Dinosaur fossils from 120 million years ago have been found here. At the dinosaur museum we can witness the remains of these giant creatures who roamed the world long before us. Archeologists have put together these fossils piece by piece to recreate the monsters that once were.

Archaeologists around the world regard Chuxiong Prefecture as a cradle of humanity and “a home of ancient living things”. It’s due to the “Yuan-Mou man”, the 17-million-year-old human remains found in 1965. In the Chuxiong museum, there are artifacts from his time. The tools he used, and the art he created. I wonder if the Yi people might be the direct descendants of Yuanmou Man.

In the local museum, we can get a taste of ancient culture in the Yi areas. Bronze drums are one of the most important archaeological artifacts to be found in southern China, dating from as early as the Warring States Period. It seems the simpler the form and decoration, the older the drum. As a symbol of wealth it reflects their social and spiritual life. These pieces of history tell us the stories of ancient men, the way they thought, and their lifestyles.

Other tools they used were simple and practical, made from natural materials. They show their ingenious and frugal character – the saddles, pots, pans, and other objects in their daily life, even the instruments. But every girl’s favorite is, without a doubt, the clothes.

Almost all the colors of the rainbow can be found. The styles are traditional, but the colors and patterns are very creative. Often, images from nature, flowers, birds, and plants appear. All are hand-made, since every girl in a Yi family starts her sewing lessons from the age seven, and continues to practice right up until the preparation of her own wedding dress, which takes several years.

Amongst the mountains and rivers, it’s just perfect.

The Yi people live in the mountains and valleys of Yunnan and one unique characteristic is their written language, which you can see here. These pictographs and below them are han characters. Let’s see what type of people live here.

As an unexpected visitor, I seemed to make the girls shy. But they soon began to speak up when the topic turned to their areas of expertise: Clothes, relationships, and girl stuff.

The Yi are very open. Dating and love talk are openly expressed in song, dance, and conversation.

An important part of Yi culture is to drink. To welcome the guests they always sing sons and then you have to drink. But I’m not a fan of drinking, so I’m gonna put this aside. It’s forced drinking. If you don’t drink, they won’t stop singing.

So I have no choice. Cheers.

It’s some bitter stuff. The only thing to get rid of that taste is to try some of the dishes here. These are all organic. They’re all vegetables and chicken, you gotta come try this yourself.

Tonight, people are dancing around the fire again. A party every night!

The Yi are a festive, passionate people. You can see their spirit is like fire. At night, the fire lights up and people sing and dance. You get a small glimpse of the people and their lifestyles.

Now for a road trip. I’m thinking something rugged.

In a beautiful place like this, who says you can’t have an adventure as well. Sometimes, a girl has got to take matters into her own hands. Buckle up.

The unique natural beauty is rare. If you’re a fan of driving, a ride to the soil forest really gets your sense of adventure stimulated.

The Stone Forest was formed by geological movements and soil erosion one or two million years ago. It’s an amazing sight, out of this world, a magical work of geology.

Speak of a forest and most people will think of lush leaves. But, did you know it meant something as grand as this. The earth forest. Instead they have earth, and rock, and sediment. After 1.75 million years, you get something as captivating as this.

The soil forest is located 110 kilometers northeast of Chuxiong. It’s a primitive, rugged, bare mountain in a remote valley.

The soil forest is a photographer’s paradise. Although the composition seems monotonous, the sharp angles of the peaks and mountains bend the light differently, creating varying moods and different shadows.

Here, in Yuanmo, the Yi people keep their customs alive. You’ll be dazzled by their embroidered clothes, and their mesmerizing songs.

Chuxiong is known for its unique sights and something you see here today is the stone forest. Look around me and you see the unique geological features. But besides just the sights, there’s some unique voices. Let’s look at the people who make such music.

Among the strange landscape, the sound resonates even more beautifully. It’s not pop music, but far more exotic. The Yi voices are just as mysterious as the environment, bringing us back to the primitive land of dinosaurs and Yuanmo man.

Haha, two lovers courting in song. Just what you’d expect.

Among the historical features, you can find an ancient sundial, a symbol of the Yis’ intelligence. Recording the passage of time, slowly, but without stop.

Here we are on lion mountain, with another branch of the Yi. No matter which branch, they have the same passion for fire and for dancing. Let’s see.

The Yis’ personality is represented by fire. When we see fire, we think of the Yi people’s warm, open, direct personalities, and passionate spirit. At night, they drink alcohol and gather around the fire and sing and dance. Here, is the center of their spirit.

There are many different branches of the Yi people. Sometimes they have different outfits, sometimes they do different things everyday, they have different languages even. But one thing binds them together, and that is the sound of the firey spirit and the passion they have. I’m Yin and see you next time on the ethnic minority series.


The Yi are the children of the mountains.

The Yi men appear cold, but their inner spirits burns like fire. The women are hard working, and excellent singers and dancers.

They are passionate towards life, warm-hearted and hospitable. They drink hearty bowls of alcohol, and sing with their open hearts.


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