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The Yi ethnic minority (5)

(People's Daily)

15:42, August 28, 2011

Customs

Rigid rules were stipulated for marriages within the same rank but outside the same clan among the black Yis, who relied on the "mystery" of blood lineage as a spiritual pillar. Some 70,000 black Yis in the Liangshan Mountains formed nearly 100 clans, big or small, of which there were less than 10 big clans each with a male population of more than 1,000. Each clan's territory was clearly demarcated by mountain ridges or rivers, and no trespass was tolerated. There were no regular administrative bodies in the clans, but each had some headmen called "Suyi" (seniors in charge of public affairs) and "Degu" (seniors gifted with a silver tongue), who were representatives of the black Yi slave owners in exercising class dictatorship. They upheld the interests of the black Yis as a rank, were experienced and knowledgeable about customary law and capable of shooting trouble. "Degu," in particular, enjoyed high prestige inside and outside their clans. Headmen did not enjoy privileges over and above ordinary clansmen, nor were their positions hereditary. Important issues in the clans, such as settling blood feud and suppressing rebellious slaves, must be discussed at the "Jierjitie" (consultation among the headmen) or "Mengge" (general conference of the clan membership).

While preserving some of their original characteristics, the clans under the slave system mainly functioned as institutions to enforce rank enslavement and exploitation, splitting and cracking down on slave rebellions internally and plundering other clans or resisting their pillage externally. When subordinate ranks staged a rebellion, the black Yi clans would take collective action against it, or several clans would join hands to suppress it. Under such circumstances, the unanimity of interests among the black Yi slave owners fully manifested itself. Strictly controlled by the black Yi clans, the slaves could hardly run away from the areas administered by the clans. On the other hand, black Yis often fought among themselves in order to obtain more slaves, land or property. It follows that the clan, as an institution, was a force safeguarding and supporting the privileges of the black Yi slave owning class.

The white Yi clans, among the Qunuos and part of the Ajias, while being similar to the black Yi clans in form, were actually subordinate to various black Yi clans. Only a few white Yi clans were not subject to black Yi rule and they formed what was known as the independent white Yi area. The white Yi clans succeeded to some extent in protecting their own members, and at times they would unite in "legitimate" struggles to defend their own interests and win temporary concessions from black Yi slave owners. But, under the rule of the black Yi clans, they became an auxiliary tool of the slave owners to oppress the slaves. Some clan chieftains of the Qunuo rank were fostered by slave owners as proxies, called "Jiemoke" in the Yi language, who collected rents, dunned for repayment of debts and served as hatchet men, mouthpieces and lackeys for slave owners.

There was no written law for the Yis in the Liangshan Mountains, but there was an unwritten customary law which was almost the same in various places. Apart from certain remnants of the customary law of clan society, this customary law reflected the characteristics of morality and the social rank system. It explicitly upheld the rank privileges and ruling position of the black Yis, claiming that the rule of slave owners was a "perfectly justified principle." The legal viewpoint of the customary law was clear-cut. Any personal attacks against black Yis, encroachment on their private property, violation of the marriage system of the rank and infringement on the privileges of the black Yis were regarded as "crimes," and the offenders would be severely punished.

In most Yi areas, maize, buckwheat, oat and potato were staples. Rice production was limited. Most poor Yi peasants lived on acorns, banana roots, celery, flowers and wild herbs all the year round. Salt was scarce. In the Yi areas, potatoes cooked in plain water, pickled leaf soup, buckwheat bread and cornmeal were considered good foods, which only the well-to-to Yis could afford. At festivals, boiled meat with salt was the best food, which only slaveowners could enjoy.

Cooking utensils of a distinct ethnic color, made of wood or leather, have been preserved in some of the Yi areas. Tubs, plates, bowls and cups, hollowed out of blocks of wood, are painted in three colors -- black, red and yellow -- inside and outside, and with patterns of thunderclouds, water waves, bull eyes and horse teeth. Wine cups are hollowed out of horns or hoofs.

Yi costume is great in variety, with different designs for different places. In the Liangshan Mountains and west Guizhou, men wear black jackets with tight sleeves and right-side askew fronts, and pleated wide-bottomed trousers. Men in some other areas wear tight-bottomed trousers. They grow a small patch of hair three or four inches long on the pate, and wear a turban made of a long piece of bluish cloth. The end of the cloth is tied into the shape of a thin, long awl jutting out from the right-hand side of the forehead. They also wear on the left ear a big yellow and red pearl with a pendant of red silk thread. Beardless men are considered handsome. Women wear laced or embroidered jackets and pleated long skirts hemmed with colorful multi-layer laces. Black Yi women used to wear long skirts reaching to the ground, and women of other social ranks wore skirts reaching only to the knee. Some women wear black turbans, while middle-aged and young women prefer embroidered square kerchiefs with the front covering the forehead like a rim. They also wear earrings and like to pin silver flowers on the collar. Men and women, when going outdoors, wear a kind of dark cape made of wool and hemmed with long tassels reaching to the knee. In wintertime, they lined their capes with felt. But few slaves could afford clothes of cotton cloth, and most of them wore tattered home-spun linen.

Most Yi houses were low mud-and-wood structures without windows, which were dark and damp. Ordinary Yi houses had double-leveled roofs covered with small wooden planks on which stones were laid. Interior decoration was simple and crude, with little furniture and very few utensils, except for a fireplace consisting of three stones. In the Liangshan Mountains, slave owners' houses and slaves' dwellings formed a sharp contrast. Slaves lived with livestock in the same huts that could hardly shelter them from wind and rain. Slave owners' houses had spacious courtyards surrounded by high walls, and some of them were protected by several or a dozen pillboxes.

The Yis are monogamous, living in nuclear families. Before liberation in 1949, marriages were generally arranged by parents, and the bride's family often asked for heavy betrothal gifts. In many places, married women stayed at their own parents' home till their first children were born. In some other places, feigned "kidnapping of the bride" was practiced to add to the joyous atmosphere. The groom's family would send people to the bride's home at a prearranged time to snatch the girl and carry her home on horseback. The girl was supposed to cry aloud for help, and her family members and relatives would pretend to chase after the kidnappers. In other cases, when people from the groom's side went to fetch the bride, her people would first "attack" them with water, cudgels and stove ashes, then treat them to wine and meat after a frolic scuffle, and finally let them take the bride away on horseback. On the wedding night, there would also be frolic fighting between the bride and the groom as part of the ceremony. These were obviously legacies of primitive marriage conventions.

Patriarchal and monogamous families were the basic units of the clans in the Liangshan Mountains. When a young man got married, he built his own family by receiving part of his parents' property. Young sons who lived with their parents could get a larger portion of the property. There were rigid differences between sons by the wife and those by concubines in sharing legacies. Property handed down from the ancestors usually went to sons by the wife.

The Yis traditionally associated the father's name with the son's. When a boy was named, the last one or two syllables of his father's name would be added to his own. Such a practice made it possible to trace the family tree back for many generations. In the Yi families, women were in a subordinate position with no right to inherit property, but the remnants of matriarchal society could still be seen clearly sometimes. The Yis much respected the power of uncles on the mother's side, and relations between such uncles and nephews were close. Slaves' marriages and homemaking were in the hands of slaveholders. The fate of slave girls was even more wretched, and they were forced to marry just to meet the needs of slaveowners for more slaves.

The Yis in the Greater and Lesser Liangshan Mountains practiced cremation, burning dead bodies in mountains and burying the ashes in the ground or placing them in caves. After the funeral, the mourners used bamboo strips wrapped with white wool to make memorial tablets, which were wound with red thread and placed in the trough carved in a wooden stick. Again, the stick was wrapped with white cloth or linen. Some memorial tablets were made of bamboo or wood and carved in the shape of figurines, which were placed at the young sons' homes. Three years later, such memorial tablets were either burned or placed in secluded mountain caves.

The Yis in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi believed in polytheism before liberation 1949, combining worship for ancestors with the influence of Taoism and Buddhism. The Yis in the Liangshan Mountains worshipped gods and ghosts and believed in idolatry, and offered sacrifices to forefathers frequently. Their religious activities were presided over by sorcerers.

The earliest Yi calendar divided the year into 10 months, each with 36 days. The tenth month was the period of the annual festival. Influenced by the Han Lunar Calendar, the Yis later divided the year into 12 months, using the 12 animals representing the 12 Earthly Branches to calculate the year, month and date. There was a leap year every two years in the Yi calendar. The New Year festival was not fixed but generally fell between the 11th and 12th lunar months. In celebrating the New Year, the Yis would slanghter cattle, sheep and pigs to offer sacrifices to ancestors. In the Liangshan Mountains, people of the subordinate ranks had to present half a pig's head to their masters to confirm their affiliation. The Yis in Yunnan and Guizhou now celebrate the spring festival as the Hans do. "The Torch Festival," held around 24th of the sixth lunar month, is a common tradition for the Yis in all areas. During the festival, the Yis in all villages would carry torches and walk around their houses and fields, and plant pine torches on field ridges in the hope of driving away insect pests. After making their rounds, the Yis of the whole village would gather around bonfires, playing moon guitars (a four-stringed plucked instrument with a moon-shaped sound box) and mouth organs, dancing and drinking wine through the night to pray for a good harvest. The Yis in some places stage horse races, bull fighting, playing on the swing, archery and wrestling.


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