The history of the Sani of the Stone Forest

ethnic china



The history of the Sani of the Stone Forest

As told by father Paul Vial in his book Les Lolos, Histoire, religion, mœurs, langue, écriture.

The Lolos say they came from the region between Tibet and Burma, and at the very beginning of their history, they place twelve patriarchs who would have taught them how to dress, work and live.

Of these twelve patriarchs, one, in particular, has remained in the memory of this primitive people, as a distinguished protector. They worship him, I will say it later, under the name of Pou, as well as his wife under the name of No. In the tradition of the flood, the Lolos speak of Mount Mouto from where they would have left. In what form did they come to Yunnan? Their tradition is silent, but it is likely that they were led by the heads of families or tribes; perhaps they were even only two, one called White (tou), the other called Black (na); this is, for me, the only way to explain this tradition which divides the Lolos into two species, the white and the black[1].[2]

According to an indigenous version, these would be descended from three brothers, but the descendants of the youngest would be confused with the other two brothers[3].

What is constant is that the white was the elder and the black the younger; but, by an unexplained inversion, the descendants of the black formed the patrician tribe called napou, and the descendants of the elder became the serfs of the other, while being subdivided into a large number of tribes (naseu, ko, kotou, gnisou, gni, ashi, adje, etc.).

The 18 Lolo lords

Tradition reports that the Lolos were subject to eighteen lords or midzemou to whom the people paid an annual royalty; as for the land, it belonged to the one who cultivated it. This is still the property regime among this race today; so that a lord can alienate the royalty due to him, but he cannot alienate the land that does not belong to him. Later these eighteen lordships were obliged to recognize a chief or king under the name of guemou; this king resided where the capital of the province is now, at Yunnan sen [Kunming].

The Chinese, in later seizing this country, merely put mandarins where the lords lived; and in the conquered but unsubdued parts, they gave the title of mandarin to the native lords; these are called tusi guan 土司官 [government of the tusi o local lords].

The viceroy himself lived precisely where the guemou or Lolo king resided.

The capital was divided into eighteen neighborhoods and each lord owned one; there are still remnants of this ancient possession.

Eighteen trees were planted in the royal courtyard, and each lord had one tree to attach his palfrey to when the time came to make an act of vassalage.

It is said that these eighteen trees still exist.

While lordships were hereditary, royalty probably was not; the crown must have belonged to the strongest; hence no doubt there were many competitions, frequent civil wars, which history has not recorded.

The Lolos, by multiplying, overflow their old limits and form new nuclei independent of the lords; but still there are daring men in their midst who dominate them. Thus the Gni tribe, which I am evangelizing, remembers the steps it had to take to get from Tali to here; it keeps the memory of three powerful men who made a name for themselves: Adle, Joke, Dzeshi. I visited the remains of their castles.

The arrival of the Chinese to Yunnan

Meanwhile[4], China, far from forming a single nation, was itself divided into a large number of feudal states all aiming at independence; and it is probable that it would not yet exist as a nation if in the year 220 B.C. the genius of Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝, king of Qin, had not unified it by slaughtering all heads and overthrowing all thrones.

Ambitious as he was, he wanted to extend his empire to the southern sea. He enlisted among the people of war «all those who had no fixed profession, all the merchants who traded only in luxury goods,» and he threw this army south of the Blue River [now called Yantze]. The conquest lasted two years, but he could not keep it. It was renewed by Guang Wudi 光武帝 (AD 56), and by Yang Di 杨帝 (AD 605)[5]. I believe that the Chinese were defeated, for in 790 the Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty sent an ambassador to the king of Yunnan[6] to help him defeat Tibet.

Around 860, the king of Yunnan defeated the Chinese and seized Tonkin[7].

We arrive in 1265 when Marco Polo puts himself at the service of Kublaï-khan (in Chinese Hou-pi-lié 忽必烈). The Venetian traveler seems to divide Yunnan into two kingdoms: Vochang in the west and Carajang in the east. The Mongolian general Ouriangcadaï would have submitted both of them while keeping them intact.

However, in 1394, Hongwu 洪武, of the Ming Dynasty, had a map of the empire drawn up which gave the Blue River as the southern limit to China[8]. In 1400, Jianwen 建文, who reigned as Huidi, the successor of Hongwu, dispossessed by one of his uncles, retired to Yunnan[9], where he remained thirty-eight years hidden. A large number of Chinese follow him and settle there. They currently form the background of this Chinese population that we call bentiren (本地人) or minjia (民家)[10]. The latter have allied themselves with women of the indigenous race. All these bentiren say they come from a place called Gaochejiao[11], in the province of Nanjing[12].

Ancient notices of the Lolos

Gabriel de Magalhães who died in Beijing in 1677, after a twenty-nine year stay at the court of the emperors of the Tartar dynasty of the Qing, currently reigning, having traveled through all the provinces of China, thus gives an account of that of Yunnan :

«Between the cities and towns of this empire, I count several located in the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Sichuan, which however do not pay any tribute to the emperor and do not obey him, but to particular or absolute princes or lords. These cities, for the most part, are so surrounded by high mountains and steep rocks that it seems that nature took pleasure in fortifying them. Within these mountains, there are countryside and plains of several days’ journey, where one sees cities of the first and second order[13], and many towns and villages. The people under these lords use the Chinese language with the Chinese; but besides that, they have their own particular language.”

Later Fathers Fridelli and Bonjour were sent to Yunnan to survey the map. Fr. Bonjour died on the borders of Burma. Régis, president of the Mathematics Tribunal, came to finish the work he had begun. Here is what one of them wrote about Yunnan:

«The nation of the Lolos dominated in Yunnan; it was divided among several sovereign lords. The Chinese, after having built some forts and some cities in the plains which had remained uncultivated, and after having made some fights, took the party to attach these tribes by giving in perpetuity to their lords the seals and the honors of the Chinese mandarins, with the titles of prefects, on condition that they recognize the emperor and place themselves under the dependence of the governor of the province in ordinary affairs as much as the Chinese mandarins of the same rank, and that they would receive the investiture of their lands, not exercising jurisdiction until they had received the approval of his majesty, who undertakes, for his part, to transmit their titles to their closest heirs.[14]» (Cf. La Frontière sino-annamite by M. Devéria).

This is still the political situation of the indigenous people of Yunnan province[15].

During the last revolt[16], deceived by the Mohammedans who called themselves their brothers, they took sides against the Chinese. Invincible in their mountains, but betrayed by their false brothers, they submitted to the victors, keeping against them a hatred that the contempt that they are the object of is only growing stronger every day.

A few words about the Manzi  蛮子 [17]

The few historical data that I have just grouped here can only be completed and corrected when a certain number of traditions of the Lolot tribes have been gathered and the vague, vain, and biased writings of the surrounding nations have been consulted without bias.

The Manzi, these free and independent people landlocked in the Chinese Empire, is still unknown to everyone and ignored by most geographers. Mr. Martin, Apostolic Missionary of the Southern Sichuan and my dear confrere, has devoted himself to bring them the good news[18].

The information he gives me proves that his people are my people and that Manzi and Lolos are one and the same race[19].

The real country or kingdom of the independent Manzi[20] is separated from the Chinese by a belt of tribes ruled by chiefs under the Manzi king.

The Lolos or Manzi,» writes my colleague, «say they come from the West. The dialects vary according to the distances. The Lolos are called Noseu, Noso, or No. The noble race which has a lot of relations with the tribe that you call Naso, from the point of view of the feudal regime, the lower fertility and the numerous serfs, is also called No.

A Lolo myth of creation

My confrere sends me «a singular tradition or genesis lolotte that is recited by way of a proverb, which indicates a reminiscence of the ancient language concise and written in sentences with a number of odd words, as found in their books. »

Here it is, in its text, with my colleague’s translation[21]:

  Heaven and earth created all things,

in the heaven emerged the bright stars,

and in the earth grew the herbs.

The first men who emerged were white, then they perished.

The second men who emerged were black, then they also perished.

The multiplication of people came from the red men

The red men had three children.

The eldest gave birth to the Tibetans,

The second to the Lolo,

The third to the Chinese.

The Lolo, the second son, first lived in Gehu

Then he did it in Kioni,

And then it came to Elmma.

Geho, Kioni, are they countries, mountains, or rivers? we don’t know. Elmma is, my fellow-member tells me, this primitive country from where the breed came out to spread elsewhere; it is located in the loop made by the Blue River south of the Sichuan.

These three strains (white, black, and red), two of which perish, singularly coincide with the three brothers of the Lolo deluge, two of which also perish[22].

In the Manzi tradition, we have the fact; and in the gni tradition, we have the explanation of the fact.

Wouldn’t it be possible to find a more primitive and purer written tradition that would show us which path to follow in order to reach the source from which this race came and from which it took away those snippets of truth? I hope so, but it is a happiness no doubt reserved for our successors.


[1] A particularly noticeable division in Liangshan, where they are said to have maintained their traditions, where the White Yi were totally subordinate to the Black Yi, the aristocratic and ruling caste.

[2] Author’s Note: Despite all my research, I could not discover in the Lolos what would have led to this distinction between Black and White. I do not reject it, but I only accept it for the benefit of inventory.

[3] It may have been because the older one left the family home after getting married, while the younger one stayed there. This gives the younger child more opportunities to maintain and increase the family’s wealth.

[4] I think it is a bit risky for the author to establish a synchrony between the mythical stories of the Sani, surely with a real historical basis, but difficult to specify in time, with the historical times of the Chinese dynasties.

[5] The historical jumps are tremendous. From the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD, when Guang Wu Di of the Han dynasty reigned, and then to the 6th century AD, to the reign of Yang Di of the Sui dynasty.

[6] The Kingdom of Nanzhao at that time. It had its capital in the city of Dali. It played an intelligent plan of alliances with the Tibetans and the Chinese, extending and contracting its territory to the sway of its military triumphs. Its maximum expansion provided them with the government of the entire province of Yunnan and part of the Chinese provinces and bordering countries.

[7] Northern Vietnam, which for many centuries was ruled by Chinese emperors.

[8] Actually, in 1380 this emperor had started the conquest of Yunnan from the Mongols, and had established numerous administrative entities in Yunnan.

[9] His name was Zhu Yunwen, he ascended the throne in 1398 at the age of 21, and officially reigned until 1402, when he was dispossessed by his uncle. He is known as Emperor Huidi or Jianwen. Indeed, there is a legend that the emperor, after being dispossessed by his uncle, fled to Yunnan where he remained hidden in Hongxi.

[10] Bin Yang, in «Between Winds and Clouds-The making of Yunnan», establishes three major waves of Chinese migration to Yunnan during the Ming Dynasty. All three were promoted by the state and focused on the military colonies.

[11] Author’s note: it would be interesting to know, although I have not been able to verify it, if the inhabitants of Gaochejiao have a memory that a part of their population migrated to Yunnan.

[12] In fact, many minority people also claim to be descendants of these Nanjing migrants. It is generally considered that they do this to raise their social status in the imperial era, but it could also have a historical basis.

[13] Author’s Note: I find it difficult to imagine that the Lolos had cities of first and second order, since, in fact, as rulers, they only had their lords, whose castles were mostly in lonely places.

[14] A more complete description of the tusi system.

[15] Author’s Note: All Lolos must be subject to the lords. Those who are not, are ruled by village chiefs and pay taxes to the Chinese Mandarin.

[16] It refers to the so-called Panthay Rebellion, which emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a protest by Muslim populations who had suffered some massacres and between the attacks of the Muslims and the repression of the imperial government ended up devastating the province.

[17] This was the generic name that the Chinese gave to many minorities in the south. It would literally translate as the «savages», but at that time it was still not clear. That’s why the possible identity between the Manzi and the Lolo is raised.

[18] It refers to the Gospels of the Catholic faith.

[19] They are all today’s Yi national minority.

[20] The so-called Lolo Independent Kingdom by some missionaries was in the current Liangshan Prefecture. A prefecture so rugged and mountainous that it is continually featured in the global media because of the difficulties of its inhabitants to communicate with the outside world. The truth is that, except for the most important trade routes, the Lolos (Nousu) lived on their own in their mountains. Not having any political unity, it is difficult to consider them a «kingdom». The independent Lolos lordships would perhaps be a more accurate expression.

[21] We have replaced the bilingual Lolo-Latin text, useful at the time because all Catholic priests knew Latin, as well as many educated people in Europe, with an English translation.

[22] In the myth of the flood, an old man warns the three brothers of the imminent deluge, undoing the work they do in cultivating the land. The two elder brothers want to kill him, but the little one intercedes, that is why the old man gives the two elder brothers wrong instructions to survive the deluge and to the younger one the right ones, which makes him the only survivor.


This history was originally written in French.
There is a Spanish version HERE

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