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Reconstructing Yi History from Yi Records
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1. Reconstructing Yi History from Yi Records

Wu Gu

As a scholar who was born into a Yifamily and who has devoted himself heart and soul to the study of Yi history and culture for several decades, I have developed some knowledge of the comprehensive embodiments of Yi traditional culture, which we can call Yihistorical records, and which include not only written documents but many other kinds of materials that can be used to document the history of this society. This essay represents some of what I have learned.


Because the Yi have a long history and remote origins, they have amassed a considerable cultural store. Already in the pre-Imperial period this attracted attention from outside scholars: the earliest relatively systematic account occurs in the “Record of the Southwestern Aborigines” (Xinan Yiliezhuan) chapter of Sima Qian's Shiji. Ever since that time, accounts of Yi history and culture, perhaps owing to the influence of Confucian thinking, have taken this as a model.

In the last hundred years, owing to the rise of ethnology a new group of scholars have undertaken field research in Yi areas in order to gather new material for the study of Yi history and culture. In their field researches they found that many records still existed in Yi areas, which prompted an effort among learned scholars in China and abroad to collect, collate, translate, and research these sources. Gradually there emerged a systematic, planned effort to open the world of Yi historical records. Later, because of the influences of the anti-Japanese war, this particular effort was halted, but during that war, because Yi areas were turned into the great rear area of the

anti-Japanese effort, a large number of cultural workers was concentrated in those areas; and in their work to carryon the war effort in remote Yiareas, they recovered an even richer and more varied trove of oral records, as well as music and dances of obvious value as cultural records.

After victory in the anti-Japanese war, many of these cultural workers remained in the Yi areas and threw themselves into the revolutionary struggle. In promoting cultural activities in the base areas, they collected materials at the sources; and in the process of deepening their research and collation of materials, they also published several translations and arranged for musical and dance performances, thereby deepening their own knowledge of Yi culture. In the first years after Liberation, many of these cultural workers took up leading positions, and under their leadership and encouragement many Yi works were translated and published, such as Meige, Axi Xianji, Ashima, and Mother's Girl. Yi songs and dances from the “song and dance records,” such as “Hearth Dance,” “Axi Jumps over the Moon,” “Sani Serenade,” “The Big Song and Dance Show,” and others took the stage and were presented to the world. But in the process of publication of these works and the move to present them on outside stages, certain portions that embodied characteristics of “primitive culture” were—because of limited knowledge about them—looked upon as feudal superstitions and unhealthy factors and discarded, weakening the historical and cultural content of oral records and song and dance records. At the same time, through the encouragement of several well-known scholars, Yi historical texts such as Records of the South western Barbarians, Collected Cuan Carved Texts, and The Origins of the Universe were published in translation.

However, due to the fact that the Yi are relatively spread out, and that there are many branches and diverse dialects, combined with the fact that the Yi have always been rather xenophobic, there developed an attitude that there was a difference between insiders and outsiders. As a result, despite a hundred years of effort, the actual process of opening up access to Yihistorical records was very slow and the results meager. The accumulated cultural embodiments of thousands of years could not be developed systematically and transformed into historical documents; the massive amounts of Yi historical records remained as they had been, transmitted from generation to generation in scattered and remote villages.

During the January 1980 “National Conference on Yi Language Work” in Beijing, a group of Yi scholars put forth the opinion that “in order to promote the contribution of Yi culture to human civilization, it is necessary to organize a group of research teams to carry out a systematic, relatively comprehensive effort at saving, collating, translating, and publishing Yi historical records.” This opinion was enthusiastically received from the start by Chinese and foreign scholars and Yipeople generally, and it received the support of governments. As a result, organizations for the collation and research of

Yi historical records were established at province, prefecture, and county levels in areas of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, wherever there were concentrations of Yi people. In order to train the next generation of scholars, majors and classes in Yi historical records were established at the Central Nationalities Institute, the Southwest Nationalities Institute, the Yunnan Nationalities Institute, and the Guizhou Nationalities Institute. In the past ten years, there has developed a force of almost a hundred scholars, most of them Yi, working in organizations at all administrative levels. In order to strengthen cooperation, the Yunnan-Sichuan-Guizhou-Guangxi Work Group for the Collation, Publication, and Standardization of Yi Historical Records was established, with a mission to coordinate the systematic process of working with Yi records. After over a decade of effort, we now have a relatively comprehensive knowledge of Yi historical records: almost a hundred volumes of Yi texts have been published in translation, and books and articles resulting from research on these records have also appeared. This has provided a strong foundation for the development of work with Yi documents and the revival of Yi culture. If in the new century we continue in the same vein in all aspects of this work, Yi historical records will enable Yi culture to be known around the world and make a contribution toward enriching the cultures of humanity.


Yi historical records can be divided into the following types:

  1. Primary material records. Because Yi are scattered about, with many branches and diverse dialects, and because Yi writing has for the most part remained in the hands of bimo (priests) and a few other specialists, among the common people, signs using primary materials have been the principal means of communication and recording of events. I term these primary material records, and of these the following sorts can still be found:

    1. Carved wooden symbols. In traditional Yi households, carved ancestral tablets are the object of worship. They can be made either of wood or green bamboo, and woven goods or hair can be added to the basic human figure to indicate a male or female spirit. In the homes of bimo or shamans, there are also human figurines carved out of ritual implements that represent their spiritual masters.

    2. Carved board symbols. Few of these symbols, called sipei, remain. They are made out of arectangular wooden board, and on the exposed face are carved male and female human figures, domestic animals, slaves, tools, and other things; they are hung over the beds of older people to symbolize the continuity of the household.

    3. Symbols in clothing and jewelry. In traditional Yi clothing and jewelry, one's own status in the system of stratification, as well as one's local

      group, are expressed in the differences in tailoring and embroidery. In women's clothing, differences in color, pattern, and manner of wear express differences in marital, kinship, and parity status. Even more strikingly, in some groups the designs on clothing express “maps of a thousand migrations,” and from these we can read the history of the development of that group.

    4. Musical and dance symbols. Music and dances that accompany ritual activity have their ritual and historiographic purposes. This means that instrumentation, melody, dance steps, and hand gestures feature patterns expressing metaphorically the stories of the creation myths. Still found in areas where Yi people are relatively concentrated are the “Hearth Dance,” “Coordinated Songs,” “Axi Jumps over the Moon,” and “Sani Serenade”; these songs, along with their rather strict rules for performing them, have been transmitted over the generations to today, and they illustrate the hunting, agricultural, reproductive, and migration activity of the ancestors of the Yi through their history. This means that those who participate learn the history of cultural development. But since these performances have moved to the stage there has been a lot of alteration, and it is difficult to differentiate the genuine from the spurious.

  2. Records in metal and stone. In areas inhabited by the Yi and their ancestors, archaeologists have discovered a large number of metal, stone, and pottery artifacts that function symbolically like writing. This legacy is particularly rich.

    1. Pottery containing symbols. In the Sichuan-Yunnan border area, a large number of Neolithic pottery vessels have been unearthed. In the early 1980s, during the process of excavating the remains of Kunming Man, archaeologists uncovered three pottery shards with symbols that had characteristics of writing. According to dating procedures, these come from about 10,000 b.p., and they certainly have a connection with traditional Yi writing. Later on, in the process of excavating remains from the Chunqiu (771—481 b.c.e.) and Zhanguo (480—221 b.c.e.) periods at Caohai in Weining (Guizhou), another group of pottery pieces with incised symbols was found (now stored in the Guizhou Provincial Museum), and people have also matched these up with traditional Yi writing. In the classical Yi text Hnewo (Creation)teyy (Book) (see Wu Jingzhong, chapter 2 in this volume), it is recorded that the ancestors of the Yi, after the division of the six clans, lived at a place called Zzyzzypuvu (in Nuosu). Following the description in the book, this is probably around Caohai in Weining.[1] According to this text, the

      ancestors of the Yihad been involved at that time in wars against people called So or Sa.[2] According to the site report, in the same layer were also found the remains of a large number of warriors killed in battle, along with accompanying artifacts. Therefore, we should be able to extrapolate that those symbols and Yiwriting have a common origin; there is already considerable scholarship on the comparison of Banpo pottery symbols with Yi writing. In sum, symbols on pottery are historical remnants that can be studied in comparison to many kinds of writing, a field that has far-reaching significance for the study of the development of ancient civilizations.

    2. Cliff records. Many paintings using pigments of iron or animal blood have been found in many places in steep mountains and deep valleys where the ancient Aimao used to live. Investigation reveals that these tell the stories of certain historical occurrences, which can thus be translated and “read.” In 1984, researchers found at Xunjiansi in Mile County a Yi language couplet painted with the same pigments on two ends of a cliff. By the Nanzhao period, this kind of cliff document had developed into large-scale stone carving, such as the cliff sculptures at Shibao Shan in Jianquan and at Posiwahe in Zhaojue. Such cliff documents have long been treasures for research into early human civilization.

    3. Tile and brick documents. During the excavations in the core area of the Nanzhao kingdom—Weibao Shan—a large number of brick and tile carvings were found. In addition to totemic images, there were a lot of talismans carved with Yiscript. Talismans like these have also been found in stone grottoes at Jianquan, and they survive in great numbers in the foundation of atower in Dayao County known as the Stone Chime Tower.

    4. Metal and stone documents in Yiscript. Yiancestors, organized into tribes and moving from camp to camp, recorded their history by carving many stone stelae and casting many vessels, leaving behind a large quantity of Yi-language metal and stone inscriptions, along with a few bronze mirrors. Metal and stone documents such as these have lasted a long time because of their durable materials and are now valuable sources for research into Yi history.

  3. Oral records. Because the Yiaredispersed in different groups and speak different dialects, if we compare their oral records with those of other peoples, we can say that they are voluminous and detailed, distinctive and praiseworthy, and have long been an important source of culture history. Because study of oral records was developed rather early, oral history has

    already become a specialized field, and it will not be treated in more detail here.

  4. Books. Because we can trace the origin of Yi writing back ten thousand years, and because it has been used in documents for two or three thousand years, it is no exaggeration to claim, as the old saying goes, that these sources are “plentiful as a sea of smoke, sweating the ox and bending the beams.” According to historical sources, tusi, or local rulers, in various Yi areas carried out large-scale editing projects and established rather large collections of Yi-language books at today's Bijie, Jianshui, Wuding, and Xichang. Later on, because of the gaitu guiliu (replacement of tusi by appointed bureaucrats), Yi-language books were scattered in private collections. Yi books now preserved in Yi areas and around the world probably number over ten thousand titles.

    Through analysis and comparison of Yi-language books, we can see that—even though currently preserved Yibooks have a common origin—because they have not yet undergone comprehensive standardization, they display significant differences in different areas, with the three most important styles surviving in Wumeng, Liangshan, and Ailao. According to their content and use, they can be divided into two major categories: religious and ritual books and books for popular use.

    Research into Yi books in recent years has produced a large number of monographs, and “those who know wisdom will find wisdom; those who know humaneness will find humaneness,” as they say. But the most important reality is that because Yi books are so widespread, the work of collation and cataloguing is a long way from being completed. In addition, because the great majority of Yi texts are inseparable from ritual activities of bimo, if we try to separate the collation of the texts from their significance for ritual activity,we will never be able to understand their content in depth. For this reason, it is critically important in our work with Yi books to salvage their ritual meaning. Only when we have collected both a large number of books and various kinds of data on ritual can we undertake relatively scientific analysis of traditional Yi books.

  5. Records embodied in material culture. The phenomena of material culture—developed and transmitted across the generations by each people in the process of carrying out cultural activities such as devising dress, food, housing, and transport—carry with them embodied documentary value. This kind of record is better developed than other kinds, because these activities are a response to the needs of the market. But because records of such activities have not heretofore been included in the sphere of scientific research, and because development of the activities themselves has recently been hurried by commercial considerations, there have developed both false and poor quality goods. If the tradition is lost, the results will be unthinkable. For this reason, some preliminary research into historical

    records embodied in Yi material culture has been carried out in recent years. The analysis below reveals the pearls hiding in this mud.

    1. Residential architecture. Yi peoples developed permanent, fixed housing very early in their history. In the early periods, the majority of people lived up against mountains beside waterways, and so developed the log-cabin style. Later, because of military considerations, the watchtower house built out of cut stone appeared. In their migrations, some branches moved to hot, humid climates, and in order to protect themselves against rain and mitigate the effects of heat, they invented the earthen insulated house, which is characteristic of a few counties, using mud mixed with straw in the walls and roofs of wood-frame houses. During the Nanzhao period, many styles were adopted from neighboring peoples. But the watchtower house remained the primary building style; sites for offerings to ancestral spirits are still built in this style. Watchtower houses were built during the height of the tusi system, right up to the imposing official residence built for Long Yun, governor of Yunnan in the 1930s.

    2. Clothing styles. Because the Yithroughout history comprised a tribal confederation, the culture of each tribe has come down to us as the culture of a“branch” of the Yi. In addition, vestiges of “caste thinking,” resulting from the long-lived slave society, caused Yi clothing culture to differentiate through color, cut, and pattern not only the branch but also the social stratum, marital status, and profession of the wearer.

    3. Foodways. Because the ancestors of the Yi practiced agriculture very long ago, combining rice cultivation with domestic animal husbandry, they developed a culinary culture suited to this lifestyle.

      They made alcoholic beverages primarily from grains, using the surplus grain from careful cultivation. Because different grains were grown in different areas, each area developed its own liquors, such as buckwheat liquor, wheat liquor, corn liquor, and rice wine, as well as alcoholic beverages fermented or distilled from a mixture of different grains. From the integration of alcoholic beverages into rites of propitiation for ancestral spirits came the development of drinking vessels as sacred objects, and the hereditary profession of manufacture of these objects. Liquor, drinking vessels, and the drinking songs that developed out of the ancestral ritual libations of different areas coalesced into the so-called alcohol culture typical of the Yi.

      One group of Yi ancestors, who migrated to the southern part of Yunnan, began cultivating tea rather early, and a series of distinctive ritual practices of tea drinking developed to please the spirits and to please the practitioners themselves. Examples include the “Weishan eight steps tea,” which has survived to the present as a typical example of the tea culture of the Yi.


      Out of the custom of serving the meat of domestic chickens, pigs, cattle, and sheep to entertain guests and worship ancestors, there gradually developed a set of culinary practices. According to tradition, the ancestors of the Yi in their days of glory developed the “eight steps liquor” to welcome guests. They developed too the “jumping of dishes,” a way of serving dishes with dance steps; qiancai, singing about the origin of the food while dividing it among the guests; the “liquor libation,” in which up to 124 dishes were served in a “feast of whole sheep”; and an ordinary feast in which “eight bowls” of pork, mutton, and beef were served to guests. After the banquet, guests were entertained by the “eight steps tea,” a display of dancing and singing. This whole tradition of feasting styles was known as the “three-eight” style of banqueting guests, and formed a distinctive culinary culture.

The Yi thus constituted, developed, and transmitted from generation to generation a rich and varied culture consisting of the categories described above.


In the last few decades, it has been the constant hope of historians to prepare a history that would straighten out the origin of the Yi. But because all of the historical records and interview materials used have their own particular characteristics, all the results announced so far have become the focus of disputatious debates. In extreme cases, published statements have led to ethnic hostility and the phenomenon of “discuss Yi history and blanch with fear.”

I hope that several decades of editing and researching Yi historical records will eventually enable us to reconstitute the historical development of Yi culture and add a new voice to the disputations over Yi history. Here I will use a general summary of the newly edited History of Ancient Yi Culture (Zhang Fu 1999) as a source for some basic information.

The Origins of the Yi

Research on a large number of Yi poems about the creation of the world shows that the majority of the original Yi were probably descendants of ancient humans of the Sichuan-Yunnan border area who gradually developed and expanded their numbers over the course of about a million years; about ten thousand years ago they entered the period of formation of the Yi as a group. During this period, there arose the simplest of primitive human cultures. The early ancestors of the Yi had an animistic outlook, and thought that all life originated in water. Water was created by snowmelt; as it flowed

downward, there gradually emerged a creature called Ni, who in the movement of water gradually evolved into all forms of life (very much resembling the view of Lao Zi's Daode Jing, which says, “One gave birth to two; two gave birth to three; three gave birth to all creatures,” especially since the Chinese word Yi (one) resembles the Yi word Ni in its form, meaning, and sound, and probably comes from the same origin). So all creatures have the spiritual energy of Ni, and Ni became the highest object of worship of the ancestors of the Yi and is still today one name for the ethnic group. (Also, because Yi people respect black and think of black as a precious thing, contemporary people continue to translate Ni as black.)

About ten thousand years ago, Yi people began to invent a form of writing (the signs, which can be read in Yi, found on pottery from about ten thousand years ago during the process of excavating the remains of “Kunming People” at Jinbao Shan in 1980, are an example).

The ancestors of the Yi at about this time mostly lived in riverine or lacustrine lowlands, called bazi in Chinese, and subsisted primarily by rice cultivation supplemented by fishing and hunting, making theirs the earliest agricultural civilization.

The highly involuted topography of the Sichuan-Yunnan area was created by pressure from the collision of the Indian subcontinent, which also exposed many deposits of precious minerals. Their presence resulted in the world's earliest bronze metallurgical activity (in ancient Yi written documents there are records of bronze-smithing; in the Yi classical text Yypuquopu, it is recorded that when the six ancestral branches of the Yi divided, their ceremony of division was conducted at a sacred place known as Bronze Cave). The development of bronze-age culture was one aspect of the primitive culture of this period.

Spurred on by the material and mental cultural advances related above, the ancestors of the Yi gradually evolved into a tribal society. They evolved productive activities that fit ecologically with the particular environment of the bazi, and evolved into separate tribal cultures with particular characteristics (the multiplicity of the current branches of the Yi probably has something to do with this).

Division and Migration

The ancestors of the Yi, in the process of continually improving their means of livelihood, also developed the idea that relatives could marry each other after a certain number of generations (i.e., some groups permitted marriage only after three generations, some only after six, and some only after nine) and thus improved their reproductive capacity.When the population growth outstripped the capacity of the bazi, they began the pattern of dividing into branches and migrating.


A rather complete set of records of the process of division into branches has come down to us, and it contains characteristics of the lineage system typical of the early stages of slave society. For example, it states, “The elder is the lord; the younger is the slave,” and “The issue of stratum endogamy is a lord; the issue of exogamy is a slave.” Younger brothers who did not wish to be slaves could carry out certain rituals, establish themselves as a xing (surname group), move elsewhere, pioneer the area, and establish, according to the traditions of the lineage system, a new hereditary domain. Gradually, over generations, there emerged a “culture of migration,” which included the creation of “migration epics,” a rich and valuable source of historical documentation.

According to numerous Yi historical records, about five or six thousand years ago among the ancestors of the Yi there was a hero, called Zhygge Alur in the Nuosu language, who completed the military conquest of alarge number of tribes and established a tribal confederation, giving himself the royal title (in Yi) of emu, which can be translated as emperor. (According to the account in the historical book Yypuquopu, the symbol of the emu later evolved into the hairstyle of the nobility. It is probably connected with the hairstyles of certain peoples of the Dian culture.) About four thousand years ago, because of destruction caused by floods, the ancestors of the Yi carried out the largest-ever ceremony of tribal division at a place in northeastern Yunnan called either Lenyibo or Lonibo in Yunnan and Guizhou Yi-language books, and Nzyhxolynyiebo in Nuosu.[3] This began the “division of the six branches”—which so greatly influenced the later history of the Yi—and brought about the further enrichment and development of the migratory practices of the Yi.

Their migratory activities certainly influenced the cultural relations of the ancestors of the Yi. The particular topography of the Sichuan-Yunnan region and the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau determined the direction of migration along the watersheds of the “six rivers.” This gave these people the possibility of moving eastward along the Upper Yangtze into the area of Ba and Chu (eastern Sichuan and Hubei), moving southward along the Mekong River into Southeast Asia, moving westward across the peaks of the six-river region into the Indian subcontinent and even into Europe, and moving northward upstream into the northwest of China and the north China area. This gave rise to a large-scale cultural interchange of the ancestors of the Yi and, unavoidably, to much mixing of ancestral strains.

Thus, the Yi are a mixed group of diverse origins, one that began with the ancient humans of the Sichuan-Yunnan area; incorporated descendants from Chinese, Mon-Khmer, Aryan, and Mongolian groups; and culminated

in the Dian culture. This is another characteristic of the Yi that has survived from the “time of migrations” and the “division of the six ancestors” that is recorded in Yi documents.

The Flourishing of Yi Culture during Nanzhao

Nanzhao (c. 734—902) was the most brilliant period in the development of the ancestors of the Yi, when they developed a polity based on a combination of historical developments—which they recorded in the Classic of Rul ing a Country and Pacifying a Territory—and experiences learned from Han areas. The Classic, a very important text, is lost to posterity, but from a large number of other surviving texts we can reconstitute its essence: the emu was said not only to manage the affairs of the world in concert with the heavenly gods but also to manage the affairs of all the Yi tribes of the time. At that time, Yi tribes were organized as associations of five social statuses—rulers, ministers, priests, artisans, and common people. As recorded in the Classic,“The ruler makes the overall plans; the minister makes concrete decisions; the priest supervises the rituals; the artisan manages indoor labor; and the people cultivate the fields.” Each tribe's administrative territory was demarcated by anywhere from a few to a few tens of boundary rivers. A central administrative area was directly governed by the ruler, minister, and priest, and this area, along with its boundary rivers, was assigned to a mase, or marshal, who held overall military command. Under the mase were several mayi, and the mayi in turn commanded yidu, or battle commanders. The yidu were the lowest level of officialdom, leading military expeditions against other polities under the command of the mayi, capturing prisoners to be used as slaves, and taking direct charge of the labor activities of commoners and slaves in their own areas. From the Classic, it is not difficult to see that this was a set of institutions that served the stratified slave society of the time and had allowed the Yi slave society to continue for several thousand years.

The Yi of the Nanzhao period, because of interactions with neighboring countries, left behind a rich cultural legacy: they gradually developed the architectural, culinary, and sartorial practices described in detail above, as well as music, choreography, and other aspects of high culture.

Music and dance had already reached high levels, owing to the early development of ritual activities and their consequent ritual dances, as well as continuous dance activities for the pleasure of the gods and the participants. Add to this the interaction with neighboring countries, which brought in outside music and dance, and the music and dance of the Yistood out among neighboring ethnic groups and formed an example for others to emulate.

We can thus see that during the development of the Nanzhao, Yi culture not only maintained the traditions of its past but also absorbed much from abroad, becoming a comprehensive culture. Had it been able to continue

developing, it could well have become an independent national culture in its own right. But because of the changes in regime, the Nanzhao period left only a regional culture; putting an actual national label on it would be nothing but ethnic chauvinism.

Cultural Divergence after the Fall of Dali

The replacement of the Nanzhao and Dali (902—1253) regimes, the collapse of the thirty-seven districts, the scattering of a unified ethnic group, the rise of the different ethnic groups of the Yi language family together comprised the most important change in the southwestern area during this time, and it has an intrinsic connection with Yi historical culture.

Extending throughout the history of the development of the Yi was the continuous thread of descent relations, which gave rise to the primitive practice of ancestral worship and was expressed in ancestral genealogies. People could not escape the limitations of the mountainous topography of the Sichuan-Yunnan region or the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau during their longterm migrations, and so they continued to migrate back and forth along rivers and beside lakes and thus developed cultural commonalities based on the concentration in the bazi, or plains areas. The vertical environmental variety of the high mountains and deep valleys meant that these people had to adapt to different ecological circumstances in the different areas in which they settled, and this gave rise to the changeable nature of their cultures. As a result of historical developments and the accumulation of cultural features, groups gradually developed an independent existence based on tribal culture, which led to collapse of the historical tribal confederation. As soon as the Nanzhao and Dali confederations felt the power of the great armies of Qubilai, they collapsed and the union of the thirty-seven tribes wilted like an ephemeral flower. The divergence of the different ethnic groups of the Yi family was historically inevitable.

As a result, Yiculture developed as multiple streams from the same source, and the division of one ethnic group into a large number of ethnic groups (or branches) spawned multifarious ethnic cultures.

According to evidence found in Yi documents, certain practices evolved: Participation in sacrifices is a fundamental duty of all group members. (Yilanguage books detailing sacrifices to the ancestral spirits are among the most important ritual articles transmitted in bimo households.) Ancestral genealogy must be studied by all adults, and nearness or distance of kinship relationships based on descent is a means for determining relationships between people. The recitation of Scriptures for Showing the Way during sacrifices to the ancestors leads members of the group to know the routes taken by previous generations during their migrations.

Like the archival materials and historical records mentioned above, most

other documents that are related through a common cultural origin demonstrate—as a result of their divergent origin from a common source—a set of common cultural characteristics with regional cultural variations:
  1. There are several particular characteristics in stories about the origin of the race. For example, the descriptions of the origin story, in which “water gave birth to the myriad creatures, and the dragon nourished the first ancestors,” that appear in the original stories of all of the regional cultures attest to the specific characteristics of “totems” as symbols of clans.

  2. All sorts of characteristics of architecture, food, and dress have been divergent from area to area.

  3. Methods of public praise, along with music and dance, which originally carried specific cultural characteristics, have also had considerable interchange, intermixing, and mutual absorption with other groups, and have developed large-scale differences.

  4. Medicine and pharmacology depend even more on materials occurring naturally in different environments, and undergo selection, so the local nature of Yi medications is particularly apparent. Nevertheless, the intertwining of spirits and medicaments as two kinds of solutions to health problems is a common characteristic of medical documents. So the document Scripture for Exorcising Spirits and Expelling Ghosts is still in use in many Yi villages.[4]

  5. Agriculture, rice growing, and animal husbandry are traditional subsistence practices of the Yi, and success in these governs the ability of Yi populations to flourish or even survive. The need to “divine the day and fix the time for cultivation” is universal among rice-growing and other agricultural cultures all over the world, and the Yi are no exception. For this reason, astronomical texts and the calendar are important Yi historical documents, but because of differences in latitude and elevation encountered in the course of migrations, many different versions of these documents have been developed to suit particular circumstances. The Scripture for Exorcising Spirits and Expelling Ghosts, as well as the Almanacs for Divining the Auspicious and Inauspicious, which guide those who seek divine assistance in countering the inevitable natural disasters and human depredations, testify to the continued relevance of inherited astronomical and calendrical knowledge.

We thus can see that the Yuan and early Ming comprise the period of the maturity of Yi culture, as well as the time when existing Yi historical records received their lasting form.


Pressure from the Outside and the Making of Modern Yi Cultures

Starting in the Ming and Qing periods, central dynasties, implementing their policies of securing the borders and stabilizing the frontiers, constantly sent troops and dispatched military expeditions into ethnic areas. In the vast Yi areas on the distant southwestern frontiers, people were driven from their original areas of occupation into the high mountains and ancient forests. In the wake of the frontier consolidation undertaken by civil and military colonies, and the shock of having native officials replaced with appointed officials, the Yi also experienced the double shocks of the assimilation policy of Han-centered central political authorities and the alienation policy that preserved ethnic cultures and local power. This was a baptism of blood and fire for Yi culture, and a trial of existence or annihilation for ethnic historical documents.

The history of the Yi, which began ten thousand years ago, has been a process of development, maturity, and flourishing; and the cultural documents that have come from it also have a history in which they have changed and then finally assumed a fixed form. As a result, Yi historical documents have taken on a living strength that transcends time and place.

In sum, Yi historical records, the comprehensive carriers of the Yi culture through the long period since its origin, are a rare treasure of human culture because they re-create a ten-thousand-year ethnic history. Studying them can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves as humans.

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