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The Yi people (own name in the Liangshan dialect: ꆈꌠ, official transcription: Nuosu (諾蘇), IPA: [nɔ̄sū];
中文 :
the older name "Lolo" or "Luǒluǒ" (倮倮) is now considered derogatory in China, though used officially in Vietnam as Lô Lô and in Thailand as Lolo [โล-โล]) are a modern ethnic group in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Numbering 8 million, they are the seventh largest of the 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. They live primarily in rural areas of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, usually in mountainous regions. There are 3,300 Lô Lô people (1999 statistics) living in Hà Giang, Cao Bằng, and Lào Cai provinces in northeastern Vietnam.

The Yi speak Yi, a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to Burmese, which is written in the Yi script.


The Chinese government has grouped the Nisu, Nasu, Sani, Axi (阿细), Lolopo, Pu, and other peoples[citation needed] speaking more than six distinct languages with many dialects into a single group called the Yi[citation needed]. Because of this, a Yi may not be able to communicate with another Yi; and may or may not even agree that they both are Yi. Most Yi are farmers; herders of cattle, sheep and goats; and nomadic hunters. Only about one third of the Yi are literate. Most have no written language.

Although different groups of Yi people call themselves in different ways (e.g. Nuosu, Nasu, Nisu, Lolo, Lolopo, Pu, Ahsi, Sani, Acheh), the various appellations can be classified into three groups:

  • Ni (ꆀ). The appellations of Nuosu, Nasu, Nisu, Nesu and other similar names are considered as derivatives of the original “ꆀ” (official transcription: nip; proximate English pronunciation: ni) with the suffix of -su, which means people with certain natures or occupations. The name of Sani is also a variety of this group. Ni, the historical self appellation of Yi people and is still widely employed in classical Yi epics, traditional Yi literatures as well as some modern Yi phrases. For instance, the modern Yi word ꆀ ꃅ (official transcription: nip mu; proximate English pronunciation: nimu or nim), which means the areas where Yi people reside, can be split into two words with ni referring to Yi people and mu meaning land. Some scholars, however, argue that the Nuosu-series appellations are from the word of "black" as they found that the word "black" in standardized northern Yi language is exactly ꆈ (official transcription: Nuo; proximate English pronunciation: noh) while Yi people in that area call themselves ꆈꌠ (official transcription: Nuosu; proximate English pronunciation: noh-su). Furthermore, it is widely believed that the Chinese name of Yi (Chinese or ) is derived from Ni.
  • Lolo. The appellations of Lolo, Lolopu and similar names are related to the Yi people’s worship to tiger, as “lo” in local Yi dialect means tiger.
  • Other miscellaneous names. This group includes various other appellations of different groups of Yi. Some of them may be of other ethnic groups but recognised as Yi by the central government of the PRC. It is worth mentioning that the self appellation of "Pu" of some Yi people may be relevant to an ancient ethnic group Pu (Template:Lang-zh). In the legends of north Yi area, Yi people conquered Pu and their territory, which is northeastern part of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of modern day.


The Yi are animists, with elements of Daoism, shamanism and fetishism. Shamans/medicine men are known as “Bimo”ꀘꂾ (official transcription: bi mox; proximate French pronunciation: pimo), which means the master who can chant ancient documents. Bimo officiate at births, funerals, weddings and fetes. They are often seen along the street consulting ancient scripts. As animists, Yi worship the spirits of ancestors, fire, hills, trees, rocks, water, earth, sky, wind, and forests. Magic plays a major role in daily life through healing, exorcism, asking for rain, cursing enemies, blessing, divination and analysis of one's relationship with the spirits. They believe dragons protect villages against bad spirits, and demons cause diseases. However, the Yi dragon is neither similar to dragon in western culture nor the same as that in Han culture. After someone dies they sacrifice a pig or sheep at the doorway to maintain relationship with the deceased spirit.

The Nuosu religion (from the Nuosu or Nasu group in the Yi minority) distinguishes two sorts of shamans: the Bimo and the Sunyi ꌠꑊ(official transcription: su nyit; proximate French pronunciation: sougni). Bimo, who can read Yi scripts while Sunyi cannot, are the most revered and maybe also important agents in the Nuosu religion, to the point that sometimes the Nuosu religion is also called “bimo religion”. While one becomes a Bimo by patrilineal descent after a time of apprenticeship or formally acknowledging an old Bimo as the teacher, a sunyi must be elected. Both can perform rituals. But only Bimo can perform rituals linked to death. For most cases, Sunyi only perform some exorcism to cure diseases. Bimo are literate too. Generally, Sunyi can only be from humble civil birth while Bimo can be of both aristocratic and humble families. In order to preserve this heritage and promote tourism, the local government helped construct a museum to house ancient artifacts.

In Yunnan, some of the Yi have been influenced by Buddhism through the Han culture. The Yi believe in numerous evil spirits. They believe that spirits cause illness, poor harvests and other misfortunes and inhabit all material things. The Yi also believe in multiple souls. At death, one soul remains to watch the grave while the other is eventually reincarnated into some living form.

In the 20th century, some Yi people in China converted to Christianity, after the arrival of medical missionaries such as Alfred James Broomhall, Janet Broomhall, Ruth Dix and Joan Wales of the China Inland Mission. According to missionary organization OMF International, the exact number of Yi Christians is not known. In 1991 it was reported that there were as many as 150,000 Yi Christians in Yunnan Province, especially in Luquan County where there are more than 20 churches.[1]


Of the over 8 million Yi people, over 4.5 million live in Yunnan Province, 2.5 million live in southern Sichuan Province, and 1 million live in the northwest corner of Guizhou Province. Nearly all the Yi live in mountainous areas, often carving out their existence on the sides of steep mountain slopes far from the cities of China.

The altitudinal differences of the Yi areas directly affect their climate and precipitation. Their striking differences have given rise to the old saying that "the weather is different a few miles away" in the Yi area. This is the primary reason why the Yis in various areas are so different from one another in the ways they make a living.[2]


File:Yi woman in traditional dressing.jpg

Some scholars believe that the Yi are descended from the ancient Qiang people of today's western China, who are also said to be the ancestors of the Tibetan, Naxi and Qiang peoples. They migrated from southeastern Tibet through Sichuan and into the Yunnan Province, where their largest populations can be found today.

They practice a form of animism, led by a shaman priest known as the Bimaw. They still retain a few ancient religious texts written in their unique pictographic script. Their religion also contains many elements of Daoism and Buddhism.

Many of the Yi in Liangshan and northwestern Yunnan practiced a complicated form of slavery. People were split into the nuohuo or Black Yi (nobles), qunuo or White Yi (commoners), and slaves. White Yi were free and could own property and slaves but were in a way tied to a lord. Other ethnic groups were held as slaves.

Known historyEdit

Currently most of the Yi live in Liangshan of Sichuan and Chuxiong and Honghe of Yunnan. In this area, the Yuanmou Man (Homo erectus yuanmouensis) has been discovered, that have been dated back to 1.7 Ma ago. At the Lizhou relic (Chinese: 礼州遗址) near Xichang of Liangshan of 3,000 annum ago, many artifacts of Neolithic have been discovered. Although no evidence proves that these ancient cultures of stone age have direct correlation with modern Yi people, their descendants, local bronze culture, has some influence on Yi people, as the ancestors of Yi people had frequent contact and intermarriage with local tribes, such as Dian (Chinese: 滇), Qiong (Chinese: 邛) and Zuo (Chinese笮), during their southwards migration from north eastern edge of Tibetan Plateau. Today, the Yi people still call the city of Xichang as ꀒꎂ (official transcription: op rro; proximate English pronunciation: or-dro). In spite of the affix “or-”, the root “dro” is believed by some scholars as related to the tribe Qiong (Chinese: 邛) as the pronunciation is quite close to the ancient pronunciation of Chinese character 邛.

During the Han dynasty, the central sovereign of China conquered the valley of Anning River, which is a tributary of Yalong River, and founded a county there named Qiongdu (Chinese: 邛都). The site is Xichang of present day and from that time onwards, Xichang has become the bridge of Chengdu and Kunming across Yi area. Since Han dynasty, Yi people have been involved in the history of China. In the north dialect of modern Yi language, Chinese Han is still called ꉌꈲ (official transcription: hxie mgat; proximate English pronunciation: henga), which is related to the Chinese word 汉家 (pinyin: hànjiā), which means household of Han.

After the Han dynasty, the Shu of the Three Kingdoms conducted several wars against the ancestors of Yi under the lead of Zhuge Liang. They defeated the king of Yi, ꂽꉼ (official transcription: mot hop; proximate English pronunciation: mokho; Chinese 孟获) and expanded their conquered territory in Yi area. After that, the Jin Dynasty succeed Shu as the suzerainty of Yi area but with weak control.

After the Jin dynasty, central China entered the era of the Southern and Northern Dynasties with frequent wars against the invading nomads from the north and lost its control of Yi and Yi area.

Although the Sui dynasty reunited China, it did not retrieve control of Yi but had close communications with Han residential spots scattered within Yi area (most along Anning River). After the Sui dynasty's mere 37 years, the situation continued in Tang dynasty. During Sui and Tang dynasty, the local aborigines of present-day Yunnan and Liangshan were distinguished by Chinese Han as Wuman (Chinese: 乌蛮, meaning black barbarian) and Baiman (Chinese: 白蛮, meaning white barbarian). Some scholars believe that Wuman is the ancestor of modern Yi while Baiman is the ancestor of modern Bai people (Chinese: 白族) of Yunnan.

The Wuman and Baiman people founded six poleis on Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. The poleis are called Zhao (Chinese: 诏) in Chinese history records with actual meaning of chieftain of a polis. In A.D. 649 the king Xinuluo (Chinese: 细奴逻) of the Mengshe Zhao (Chinese: 蒙舍诏) extended his polis into a kingdom in the name of Great Meng (Chinese: 大蒙国). The location of the Great Meng is near the Erhai Lake. Yi people believe the capital of the Great Meng was located in the area of nowaday Weishan county. In the year A.D. 737, with the support of the Tang dynasty of China, King Piluoge (Chinese: 皮罗阁) of the Great Meng united the six poleis in succession, establishing a new kingdom. As the Great Meng is the most southern polis of the six, Tang dynasty recorded the united Great Meng as Nanzhao (Chinese: 南诏), which means the polis located in the south. Although academic arguments exist, there is a popular view that the royal family of Nanzhao is Yi and the most ministers are Bai. In Weishan county of present days, the saga of King Piluoge is still on every Yi’s lips.

Tibet also noted the spring of Nanzhao, which in Tibetan is called Jang. Although Tibet had successfully won the suzerainty over Nanzhao for decades, Nanzhao finally turned to Tang dynasty. At the era of King Geluofeng (Chinese 阁罗凤), who was the son of King Piluoge, the Tang dynasty performed three expeditions against Nanzhao to conquer it, but all failed.

Nanzhao existed for 165 years until A.D. 902. After 35 years of tangled warfare, Duan Siping (Chinese 段思平) of the Bai birth founded the Kingdom of Dali, succeeding the territory of Nanzhao. Most Yi of that time were under the ruling of Dali. Dali’s sovereign existed for 316 years coterminous with the Song dynasty of central China, until it was conquered by Kublai Khan. During the era of Dali, Yi people lived in the territory of Dali but had little communication with the royalty of Dali.

Kublai Khan included Dali in his domain of Yuan dynasty together with Tibet. From the Yuan dynasty onwards, Yi people together with their area were an uncontroversial part of China, as Kublai Khan established Yunnan Xingsheng (Chinese: 云南行省) at current Yunnan, Guizhou and part of Sichuan. In order to enhance its sovereign over the area, the Yuan dynasty set up a dominion for Yi, Luoluo Xuanweisi (Chinese: 罗罗宣慰司), the name of which means local appeasement government for Lolos. Although technically under the rule of the Mongolian emperor, the Yi still had autonomy during the Yuan dynasty. The gulf between aristocrats and the common people increased during this time.

During the Ming dynasty the Chinese emperor expedited its cultural assimilation policy in southwestern China, spreading the policy of Gai Tu Gui Liu (Chinese: 改土归流). The governing power of many Yi feudal lords had previously been expropriated by the successors of officials assigned by the central government. With the progress of Gai Tu Gui Liu, the Yi area was dismembered into many communities both large and small, and it was difficult for the communities to communicate with each other as there were often Han-ruled areas between them.

The Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty defeated Wu Sangui and took over the land of Yunnan and established a province there. When the Manchu official Ertai became the Viceroy of Yunnan and Guizhou during the era of Yongzheng Emperor, the policy of Gai Tu Gui Liu and cultural assimilation against Yi were strengthened. Yi who lived near Kunming were even forced to change their convention of traditional cremation into burial, a policy which triggered off rebellions among the Yi. These rebellions were suppressed by the Qing dynasty.

After the Opium Wars, many Christian missionaries from France and Great Britain visited the area in which the Yi lived. Although some missionaries believed that Yi of some areas such as Liangshan were not under the ruling of Qing dynasty and should be independent, most aristocrats insisted that Yi is a part of China despite of their resentment against Manchu Qing rule.

After the establishment of the PRC, several Yi autonomous administrative districts of prefecture or county level were set up in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. With the development of traffic and telecommunications, the communications among different Yi areas have been increasing sharply.


Most Yi believe they have the same ancestor, ꀉꁌꅋꃅ(sometimes referred as ꀉꁌꐧꃅ,official transcription: axpu ddutmu / axpu jjutmu; proximate English pronunciation: apu dumu / apu jumu). It is said that Apu Dumu married three wives and had six sons: each of the wife bore two sons. In the legend, the oldest two sons leading their tribes conquered other aborigines of Yunnan and began to reside in most territory of Yunnan. The youngest two sons led their tribes eastwards and were defeated by Han. But finally they make western Guizhou their home and created the largest quantity of Yi script documents. The other two sons lead their tribes crossed Jinsha River and dwelled in Liangshan. This group had close intermarriage with local ꁍ(official transcription: pup; proximate English pronunciation: pu).


The Yi language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman Language Group of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family, and the Yis speak six dialects. Many Yis in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi know the Han (standard Chinese or Mandarin) language. The Yis used to have a syllabic script called the old Yi language, which was formed in the 13th century. It is estimated that the extant old Yi script has about 10,000 mostly logographic characters, of which 1,000 mostly syllabic characters are of everyday use. A number of works of history, literature and medicine as well as genealogies of the ruling families written in the old Yi script are still seen in most Yi areas. Many stone tablets and steles carved in the old Yi script remain intact. Since the old Yi language is not consistent in word form and pronunciation, it was reformed after liberation for use in books and newspapers.[2]


The Yi play a number of traditional musical instruments, including large plucked and bowed string instruments,[3] as well as wind instruments called bawu (巴乌) and mabu (马布).

List of Yi sub-groupsEdit

Groups listed below are sorted by their broad linguistic classification but in reality is more of the general geographic area where they live. Within each section, largest groups are listed first.

Classification Approximate total population Groups
Southern 1,082,120 Nisu
Southern Nasu
A Che
Southern Gaisu
Southeastern 729,760 Poluo
Southeastern Lolo
Central 565,080 Lolopo
Dayao Lipo
Central Niesu
Eastern 1,456,270 Eastern Nasu
Panxian Nasu
Wusa Nasu
Shuixi Nosu
Wuding Lipo
Mangbu Nosu
Eastern Gepo
Xiaohei Neisu
Dahei Neisu
Eastern Samadu
Western 1,162,040 Mishaba Laluo
Western Lolo
Xinping Lalu
Yangliu Lalu
Jiantou Laluo
Western Samadu
Western Gepo
Xuzhang Lalu
Western Gaisu
Northern 2,534,120 Shengba Nosu
Yinuo Nosu
Xiaoliangshan Nosu
Butuo Nosu
Tianba Nosu
Bai Yi
Northern Awu
Unclassified 55,490 Michi (Miqie)
Jinghong Nasu

See alsoEdit

Notes Edit

  1. OMF International. URL accessed on 2008–02–18.
  2. 2.0 2.1

References Edit

  • Cheng Xiamin. A Survey of the Demographic Problems of the Yi Nationality in the Greater and Lesser Liang Mountains. Social Sciences in China. 3: Autumn 1984, 207–231.
  • Clements, Ronald. Point Me to the Skies: the amazing story of Joan Wales.(Monarch Publications, 2007), ISBN 9780825461576
  • Dessaint, Alain Y. Minorities of Southwest China: An Introduction to the Yi (Lolo) and Related Peoples. (New Haven: HRAF Press, 1980).
  • Du Ruofu and Vincent F. Vip. Ethnic Groups in China. (Beijing: Science Press, 1993).
  • Goullart, Peter. Princes of the Black Bone. (John Murray, London, 1959).
  • Grimes, Barbara F. Ethnologue. (Dallas: Wycliffe Bible Translators, 1988).
  • Harrell, Stevan, ed. Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers. The History of the History of the Yi. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).
  • Harrell, Stevan, ed. Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China. (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 2001), ISBN 0-520-21988-0.
  • Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1994).
  • Zhang Weiwen and Zeng Qingnan. In Search of China's Minorities. (Beijing: New World Press).
  • Collective book, Ritual for Expelling Ghosts, A religious Classic of the Yi nationality in Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan (The Taipei Ricci Institute, Nov. 1998) ISBN 957-9185-60-3

External linksEdit

  • The Yi ethnic minority (
  • Yi Peoples of China
  • Huge string instruments of the Yi
  • Nuosu Religion: Rituals, Agents and Belief Article by B. Vermander about the Nuosu religion
  • The Yis of Liangshan Prefecture Another article by B. Vermander
  • The Bi-mox in The Liangshan Yi Society Article by Ayi Bamo, a specialist of religious ethnography
  • [1] Edited by Stevan Harrell. Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China (online link provided). Large wealth of info on the Yi, with sections including their history, their customs (it covers bimo shaman healing practices extensively, as well as funerals, marriage, etc.), the development of national feeling among the Yi, the nature Yi-Han tension, the relationship the Yi have with the Chinese gov't (both positive and negative aspects discussed and compared), differences between different subgroups of Yi with a general discussion on the Yi classification as a whole, Yi legends and literature, and the nature of the prejudicial view of the Yi as China's "last slave-owning people", among other topics.

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