The elusive Yi


The Yi are one of the most interesting and more numerous minorities in China. However they are one of the less known ones outside the region they inhabit. Perhaps is due to their elusive character, to inhabit high in the mountains, or to the zeal they have determined to maintain their culture.

The ignorance of the Yi has political connotations. During many centuries they defended fiercely their independence from the Chinese invaders. In fact, those that inhabit Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, south of Sichuan, never were dominated by the Chinese emperors. Only after the communist victory of 1949, they were more or less painfully integrated in the Chinese administration.

The ignorance of the Yi is also due partly to the complexity of their culture. In fact, under that denomination "yi" are included several branches. It is supposed that all they had a common origin, but some have been separate during more than 1.500 years, what has caused to have so many cultural, linguistic, religious and historical differences, as to make impossible their identification like an only ethnic entity: Yi.

At historical level, while some Yi, as those of Liangshan, remained locked in their kingdom of mountains, others received growing influence of the Chinese culture, participating, usually with marginal character, in the big historical currents of this country.

The Yi are located fundamentally in Yunnan, as well as in the south part of Sichuan and the west of Guizhou. They concentrate in near twenty autonomous administrative entities.

The population of the Yi was, according to the census of the year 2000, of 7.762.000 people. A slow and sustained growth, as in 1990 they were 6.572.000 people and in 1982, 5.453.000.

The net increase of the Yi population has been due not only to biological reasons, but also to sociological and political ones. A positive change in the political attitude towards the minorities led to people with no knowledge of their culture and language, but of minority ancestry, to reclaim their ethnic affiliation.

This big population hides that there are included many ethnic groups, some with populations of more than one million of people, but other with hardly several hundreds of thousands.

The lack of a clear identification and protection of the diverse ethnic groups considered Yi (officially called Yi branches) can put in danger the survival of the culture and language of the smallest.

They call themselves in many different ways, what reflects the enormous ethnic variety included in the name "Yi."

- The Nosu or Nosou, living in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, living in compact communities up in the mountains, have kept the traditional culture of the Yi.

- The Nisu branch, with more than one million people, is spread in different prefectures of Yunnan Province.

- The Axi branch, living in Mile County, are famous fry their ceremonies of cult of the fire.

- The Lolopo branch kept until 1949, a complex political structure in their lands.

The ethnic dresses of the Yi also show big differences. Only in Yunnan province are registered more than 100 ethnic dresses well differentiated.

The complexity of the Yi world is also reflected in their languages. It is considered that the Yi speak six different languages with numerous dialects.

- Northern Dialect
- Central Dialect
- Western Dialect
- Southeastern Dialect
- Southern Dialect
- Eastern Dialect

They have their writing, but the form of writing is different between the Yi of Sichuan and those of Yunnan. There are even local differences between the scripts of the different branches living in Yunnan.

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