The Yi or Nuosuo people (historically known as Lolo) are an 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. As of 1999, there were 3,300 "Lô Lô" people living in the Hà Giang, Cao Bằng, and Lào Cai provinces in northeastern Vietnam.
Nuosu and dozens of others
|9 million (2010)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Laos 2,203 (2015 census)|
|Yi language (majority); Southwestern Mandarin (minority)|
|Bimoism （native Yi variety of Shamanism）and Tibetan Buddhism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Naxi, Qiang, Tibetan, possibly Tujia.|
Of the more than 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 the climate and precipitation of these areas. These striking differences are the basis of the old saying that "The weather is different a few miles away" in the Yi area. Yi populations in different areas are very different from one another, making their living in completely different ways.
Although different groups of Yi refer to themselves in different ways (including Nisu, Sani, Axi, Lolo, Acheh) and sometimes speak mutually unintelligible languages, they have been grouped into a single ethnicity by the Chinese, and the various local appellations can be classified into three groups:
(Groups listed below are sorted by their broad linguistic classification and the general geographic area where they live. Within each section, larger groups are listed first.)
|Classification||Approximate total population||Groups|
|Southern||1,082,120||Nisu, Southern Nasu, Muji, A Che, Southern Gaisu, Pula,
Boka, Lesu, Chesu, Laowu, Alu, Azong, Xiuba
|Southeastern||729,760||Poluo, Sani, Axi, Azhe, Southeastern Lolo, Jiasou, Puwa,
Aluo, Awu, Digao, Meng, Xiqi, Ati, Daizhan, Asahei, Laba,
Zuoke, Ani, Minglang, Long
|Central||565,080||Lolopo, Dayao Lipo, Central Niesu, Enipu, Lopi, Popei|
|Eastern||1,456,270||Eastern Nasu, Panxian Nasu, Wusa Nasu, Shuixi Nosu,
Wuding Lipo, Mangbu Nosu, Eastern Gepo, Naisu, Wumeng,
Naluo, Samei, Sanie, Luowu, Guopu, Gese, Xiaohei Neisu,
Dahei Neisu, Depo, Laka, Lagou, Aling, Tushu, Gouzou,
Wopu, Eastern Samadu
|Western||1,162,040||Mishaba Laluo, Western Lolo, Xiangtang, Xinping Lalu,
Yangliu Lalu, Tusu, Gaiji, Jiantou Laluo, Xijima, Limi, Mili,
Lawu, Qiangyi, Western Samadu, Western Gepo,
Xuzhang Lalu, Eka, Western Gaisu, Suan, Pengzi
|Northern||2,534,120||Shengba Nosu, Yinuo Nosu, Xiaoliangshan Nosu, Butuo Nosu,
Suodi, Tianba Nosu, Bai Yi, Naruo, Naru, Talu, Mixisu, Liwu,
Northern Awu, Tagu, Liude, Naza, Ta'er
|Unclassified||55,490||Michi (Miqie), Jinghong Nasu, Apu, Muzi, Tanglang, Micha,
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.
Most Yi believe they have the same ancestor, ꀉꁌꅋꃅ or ꀉꁌꐧꃅ (Axpu Ddutmu or Axpu Jjutmu). It is said that Apu Dumu married three wives and had six sons: each of the wives bore two sons. In the legend, the oldest two sons leading their tribes conquered other aborigines of Yunnan and began to reside in most of the territories of Yunnan. The youngest two sons led their tribes eastwards and were defeated by Han, before finally making western Guizhou their home and creating the largest quantity of Yi script documents. The other two sons led their tribes across the Jinsha River and dwelled in Liangshan. This group had close intermarriage with the local ꁍ (Pup).
Most Yi live in Liangshan, Chuxiong, and Honghe. At the Lizhou archaeological site (礼州遗址) near Xichang of Liangshan, dating to 3,000 years ago, many artifacts of the Neolithic Age have been discovered. Although no evidence proves that these ancient cultures of the stone age have a direct connection with modern Yi people, their descendants, a local bronze culture, may have had some influence on Yi people, as the ancestors of Yi people had frequent contact and intermarriage with local tribes, such as Dian (滇), Qiong (邛) and Zuo (笮), during their southwards migration from the north eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Today, the Yi people still call the city of Xichang as ꀒꎂ (Op Rro). In spite of the affix “or-”, the root “dro” is believed by some scholars to be related to the tribe Qiong (邛), as the pronunciation is quite close to the ancient pronunciation of the 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 ("Qiong capital"). 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 (Hxie mgat), which is related to the Chinese word "汉家 (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 (Mot Hop; 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 (乌蛮; "black barbarian") and Baiman (白蛮; "white barbarian"). Some scholars believe that Wuman is the ancestor of modern Yi while Baiman is the ancestor of modern Bai people (白族) of Yunnan.
The Wuman and Baiman people founded six independent cities on Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. The cities were known as zhao (Chinese: 诏) in Chinese texts, meaning 'city chieftain'. In 649 the king Xinuluo (细奴逻) of the Mengshe Zhao (蒙舍诏) extended his city's territory into a kingdom that assumed the name Great Meng (大蒙国). Great Meng was near Erhai Lake. Yi people believe the capital of the Great Meng was located in the area of nowaday Weishan county. In 737 with the support of the Tang dynasty of China, King Piluoge (皮罗阁) of the Great Meng united the six cities (zhao) in succession, establishing a new kingdom. As the Great Meng was the most southern of the six, the Tang dynasty recorded the united Great Meng as Nanzhao (南诏), which means the southern city. Although academic arguments exist (see Controversy of Nanzhao), there is a popular view that the royal family of Nanzhao were Yi people and ministers were Bai people. In the Weishan county of today, the saga of King Piluoge is still widely told.
Tibet also noted the spring of Nanzhao, which in Tibetan is called Jang. Although Tibet had maintained suzerainty over Nanzhao for decades, Nanzhao finally turned to the Tang dynasty. At the era of King Geluofeng (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 (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, grouping it with Tibet. The Yuan emperors remained firmly in control of the Yi people and the area they inhabited as part of Kublai Khan's Yunnan Xingsheng (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 (罗罗宣慰司), the name of which means local appeasement government for Lolos. Although technically under the rule of the Yuan emperor, the Yi still had autonomy during the Yuan dynasty. The gulf between aristocrats and the common people increased during this time.
Beginning with the Ming dynasty the Chinese empire expedited its cultural assimilation policy in southwestern China, spreading the policy of gaitu guiliu (改土归流; "replacing tusi") [local chieftains] with ′normal′ officials"). 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 gaitu guiliu, 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 provincial government there. When Ortai became the Viceroy of Yunnan and Guizhou during the era of Yongzheng Emperor, the policy of gaitu guiliu and cultural assimilation against Yi were strengthened. Under these policies, Yi who lived near Kunming were forced to abandon their convention of traditional cremation and adopt burial, a policy which triggered rebellions among the Yi. The Qing dynasty suppressed these rebellions.
After the Second Opium War (1856–1860), 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 was a part of China despite their resentment against Qing rule.
Much like their Tibetan neighbors, the Yi, specifically the Lolo, actively resisted the Communist occupation of their homeland. This manifested in a large scale armed revolt against the Communist Chinese in 1955, leading to thousands of losses on the Chinese side before the revolt was finally put down. In retribution, the Communist forces staged mass executions in which Lolo men, women, and children were bayoneted and shot. The true scale of these reprisals remains a mystery.
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 automotive traffic and telecommunications, the communications among different Yi areas have been increasing sharply.
(Only includes counties or county-equivalents containing >1% of county population.)
|county/city||Yi %||Yi population||Total population|
|Longlingezu autonomous county||1.03||3,563||347,462|
|Ebian Yi autonomous county||30.65||43,269||141,166|
|Mabian Yi autonomous county||39.15||66,723||170,425|
|Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture||2.56||22,946||897,239|
|Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture||44.43||1,813,683||4,081,697|
|Muli Tibetan autonomous county||27.71||34,489||124,462|
|Qianxi'nan Bouyei Miao autonomous prefecture||2.05||58,766||2,864,920|
|Weining Yi Hui Miao autonomous county||9.06||95,629||1,056,009|
|Shilin Yi autonomous county||32.49||72,779||223,978|
|Luquan Yi Miao autonomous county||22.45||96,388||429,355|
|Xundian Hui Yi autonomous county||8.91||42,934||481,721|
|Eshan Yi autonomous county||52.36||79,289||151,426|
|Xinping Yi Dai autonomous county||46.20||122,259||264,615|
|Yuanjiang Hani Yi Dai autonomous county||20.97||41,923||199,931|
|Chuxiong Yi autonomous prefecture||26.31||668,937||2,542,530|
|Honghe Hani Yi autonomous prefecture||23.57||973,732||4,130,463|
|Pingbian Miao autonomous county||18.51||27,596||149,088|
|Jinping Miao Yao Dai autonomous county||11.97||37,837||316,171|
|Hekou Yao autonomous county||4.42||4,221||95,451|
|Wenshan Zhuang Miao autonomous prefecture||10.62||347,194||3,268,553|
|Puer Hani Yi autonomous county||19.45||36,589||188,106|
|Mojiang Hani autonomous county||9.23||32,812||355,364|
|Jingdong Yi autonomous county||39.92||140,556||352,089|
|Jinggu Dai Yi autonomous county||20.59||59,476||288,794|
|Zhenyuan Yi Hani Lahu autonomous county||27.28||56,119||205,709|
|Jiangcheng Hani Yi autonomous county||13.47||13,503||100,243|
|Menglian Dai Lahu Va autonomous county||2.40||4,999||208,593|
|Lancang Lahu autonomous county||6.74||31,255||464,016|
|Ximeng Va autonomous county||1.05||907||86,598|
|Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture||5.61||55,772||993,397|
|Dali Bai autonomous prefecture||12.94||426,634||3,296,552|
|Yangbi Yi autonomous county||46.09||48,565||105,380|
|Nanjian Yi autonomous county||47.24||99,159||209,887|
|Weishan Yi Hui autonomous county||34.07||100,879||296,124|
|Lijiang Naxi autonomous county||2.42||8,871||366,705|
|Ninglang Yi autonomous county||61.97||142,049||229,204|
|Nujiang Lisu autonomous prefecture||1.99||9,805||491,824|
|Lanping Bai Pumi autonomous county||2.91||5,727||196,977|
|Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture||3.29||11,616||353,518|
|Weixi Lisu autonomous county||1.38||2,016||146,017|
|Shuangjiang Lahu Va Blang Dai autonomous county||1.57||2,605||165,982|
|Gengma Dai Va autonomous county||3.57||11,193||313,220|
The Yi script was originally logosyllabic like Chinese, and dates to at least the 13th century. There were perhaps 10,000 characters, many of which were regional, since the script had never been standardized across the Yi peoples. 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 in use, and there are Old Yi stone tablets and steles in the area.
Under the Communist government, the script was standardized as a syllabary. Syllabic Yi is widely used in books, newspapers, and street signs.
The Yi play a number of traditional musical instruments, including large plucked and bowed string instruments, as well as wind instruments called bawu (巴乌) and mabu (马布). The Yi also play the hulu sheng, though unlike other minority groups in Yunnan, the Yi do not play the hulu sheng for courtship or love songs (aiqing). The kouxian, a small four-pronged instrument similar to the Jew's harp, is another commonly found instrument among the Liangshan Yi. Kouxian songs are most often improvised and are supposed to reflect the mood of the player or the surrounding environment. Kouxian songs can also occasionally function in the aiqing form. Yi dance is perhaps the most commonly recognized form of musical performance, as it is often performed during publicly sponsored holidays and/or festival events.
Yi people's son's given name is patronymic, based on the last one or two syllable of father's name.
Artist Colette Fu, great granddaughter of Long Yun has spent time from 1996 till present photographing the Yi community in Yunnan province. Her series of pop-up books, titled We are Tiger Dragon People, includes images of many Yi groups.
Bimoism is the ethnic religion of the Yi. Shaman-priests of this faith are known as bimo, which means "master of scriptures". Bimo officiate at births, funerals, weddings and holidays. They are often seen along the street consulting ancient scripts. The Yi worship deified ancestors similarly to the Chinese traditional religion practitioners, besides gods of local nature: fire, hills, trees, rocks, water, earth, sky, wind, and forests.
Ritual performances play a major role in daily life through healing, exorcism, asking for rain, cursing enemies, blessing, divination and analysis of one's relationship with the gods. 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 Yi believe that bad 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.
The Nosu form of Bimoism (the religion of the Nosu or Nuosu subgroup of the Yi) distinguishes two sorts of shamans: the bimo and the suni, respectively hereditary and ordained priests. One can become bimo by patrilineal descent after a time of apprenticeship or formally acknowledging an old bimo as the teacher, a suni must be elected. Bimo are the most revered, to the point that the Nosu religion is also called "bimo religion". Bimo can read Yi scripts while suni cannot. Both can perform rituals, but only bimo can perform rituals linked to death. For most cases, suni only perform some exorcism to cure diseases. Generally, suni can only be from humble civil birth while bimo can be of both aristocratic and humble families.
In Yunnan, some of the Yi have adopted Buddhism as a result of exchanges with other predominantly Buddhist ethnic groups present in Yunnan, such as the Dai and the Tibetans. The most important god of Yi Buddhism is Mahākāla, a wrathful deity found in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism. In the 20th century, some Yi people in China converted to Christianity, after the arrival of Gladstone Porteous in 1904 and, later, 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 1500000 Yi Christians in Yunnan Province, especially in Luquan County where there are more than 20 churches.