The first description of the Religion of the Yi

ethnic china

The first description of the Religion of the Yi

By Father François Louis Crabouillet in 1872.

The religion of the Lolos[i] is that of sorcerers: it consists only of conjurations of evil spirits, according to them, the only authors of evil. Without being devout like the Tibetans, nor worshippers of idols, they have many minor practices of vain observance, and put a blind trust in their spells. They fear the devil and diabolical imprecations, and therefore, to avoid his disastrous influences, they wear amulets as talismans and hang branches of trees or skulls of animals on the walls of their houses[ii].

The deity, who is the object of great veneration, is a certain Ou-lang, the first of humans and the inventor of cereals; he was also, they say, a famous killer of wild beasts. To represent him, during sacrifices, they put a stick in the ground on which they hang some kind of garment.

The bonzos have no distinctive character in the tribe other than their title. They act as doctors. Called to visit a sick person, they are content to perform exorcisms, since all evil, according to the Lolos, is caused by evil spirits[iii]. With such a persuasion, it is understandable that these barbarians despise remedies, that they consider the bonzes as benefactors of suffering humanity and suppose them to have unlimited power over evil spirits.

The  bonzo doctor, required to cut a fever or cure a rheumatism, or even an incurable disease, puts himself in a position to expel the morbid fluid, that is to say, the devil, reciting prayers that he accentuates with energetic gestures, and stunning the patient with the sound of the drum[iv].

Oxen and sheep are also offered as sacrifices, to appease the wrath of the spirits. If the evil proves rebellious, other victims are killed and then the destiny is consulted by means of a sheep bone. This type of divination is very much in vogue, not only among the Lolos, but among the peoples of upper Asia, either to read the future or to consult fate on important matters . The following is a brief description of how it is done.

A cooked lamb shoulder is taken and with a knife the meat is removed. The bare bone is placed on the coals, where it remains until it is deemed to have sufficient cracks. It is from the arrangement of these cracks, from their proportions, from their connection with each other, that the future, the outcome of an enterprise, life or death, is determined[v].

The Lolos have a vague idea of the future life: after death, the soul flies to heaven and fixes itself there in the form of a star. They know that once a flood swept the world, and claim that their ancestors escaped it on Mount Polo.

[i] Name by which they were known until 1949.

[ii] Customs quite widespread in the rest of China, where branches of calamus or wormwood are hung at the door of the house in the Duanwu festival, and in the West where the bucrania (bovine skulls) have been widespread throughout history.

[iii] Popular idea also in the folklore of the rest of China.

[iv] It seems to describe in broad outline a shamanic session in which the drum leads the shaman to other realities, and while his soul searches for the cure for the sick person, he performs strange gestures.

[v]  A particularly sophisticated form of it was used in the Shang dynasty giving rise to the first Chinese pictographic writing, and that was already heir to traditions similar to the one described for the Yi.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The first description of the Religion of the Yi," in Ethnic China, 21 marzo 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/the-first-description-of-the-religion-of-the-yi/.

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