Yixin CHEN

A group of Yi women, wearing their traditional big hats, on the road to Tiger Leaping Gorge. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

As a minority nationality living in mountainous southwest China and with rich history and distinctive culture and language, the Yi people in modern times have abolished slavery and made progress in agricultural economy, education, health care, and social development.

The Yi people live in southwest China, in the mountainous regions of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi provinces. With 7,762,286 people (2000 census), the Yi are the fourth-largest minority nationality in China. Yi groups in various areas described themselves with a variety of names until the 1950s, when the Chinese government redefined all Yi groups under one common name, the Yi.


Scholars have different views about the origins of the Yi. Some believe that the Yi originated from the ancient nomadic Qiang peoples who had lived in northwest China. Others argue that the Yi people developed from the original inhabitants of Yunnan, as early as 10,000 years ago. In either case scholars agree that starting from the early second millennium BCE, the people in central Yunnan, whether they were the original inhabitants or Qiang immigrants, migrated out of their homeland and mixed with the Han Chinese (the ethnic Chinese majority) and other minority groups. As a result the Yi are a mixed group with diverse origins.

Their migration extended along the watersheds of the six rivers in the Sichuan-Yunnan region and the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau and divided the Yi into six branches. These six branches are the origins of the six branches of the modern Yi nationality: Southern Nisu Yi, Southeastern Sani Yi, Eastern Nasu Yi, Northern Nuosu Yi, Central Yi, and Western Yi. According to a Yi legend, the Yi people originated from an ancient ceremony of tribal division, the division of six ancestors (liu zu).

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the ethnic minority peoples inhabiting the mountainous border region of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou were first referred to as yi (barbarians) in Chinese records. The Yi people were part of this group. The Han government established an administrative prefecture in the region and appointed a Yi chief to rule the region with the title King of Dian. During and after this time, large clans emerged in the Yi tribes. A caste system, which not only established various social statuses in the Yi communities but also defined a large number of common people as slaves, started to dominate Yi societies.

From the Sui (581–618 CE) to the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Yi people were generally referred to in the Chinese records as wuman (black barbarians) and baiman (white barbarians). While the former exclusively designated the Yi groups in central Yunnan, the latter referred to the minority groups inhabiting the border region of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, including some of the Yi tribes. During these centuries two independent kingdoms, Nanzhao (739–902 CE) and Dali (902–1253), ruled Yunnan, organized by the Yi and other minority peoples. Under the reign of these authorities, a distinct Yi culture—including music, dance, ancestral worship, and architectural, culinary, and clothing styles—developed from Yi tribal traditions and from contact with the cultures of neighboring groups.

The Mongols invaded southern China in 1253 and destroyed the Dali kingdom. After conquering the region, the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) extended its administration to the Yi areas through a system of tusi (local chiefs). By pledging loyalty to the central government, the Yi local chiefs were allowed to govern their realms. During the Mongol period, the Yi people were referred to as luoluo (barbarians). Malaria and other epidemic diseases spread to the Yi areas and led to a loss of population and a setback to Yi socioeconomic development.

To consolidate its political control of Yunnan, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in the late fifteenth century decided to substitute for the tusi system a new policy whereby locals were replaced by Han Chinese officials. The process of replacing locals was not completed until the 1730s during the reign of the emperor Yongzheng of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), and in most areas the Yi chiefs were powerful enough to maintain their rule and defy the penetration of the Chinese central government at least until the end of Republican China (1949).

The Modern Era

During the early period of the People’s Republic of China, the government made efforts to redefine Yi nationality. After bringing the six branches of the Yi peoples together, the government changed their name from the barbarian term yi to Yi, a different Chinese word, with connotations of respect. Beginning with the founding of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in 1952, the government established a total of fifteen Yi independent prefectures and counties. Viewing the Yi as the only existing slave society in the world, the government implemented democratic reforms in the Yi areas between 1956 and 1958 and abolished slavery. Under the policy of the equality of all nationalities, the government trained many Yi cadres and extended its political administration into the Yi areas through these cadres. But the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought chaos to all the Yi communities. Traditional Yi customs and religion became the targets of political campaigns, and former local chiefs and priests were scorned or even prosecuted.

With the beginning of reform in 1979, the government reassured the Yi of their rights and privileges as a minority nationality and promoted their equality more in terms of economic development. Since then, the Yi communities have made progress in agricultural economy, education, and health care, and many of the Yi people have become modern workers employed in the tin and coal mines in Yunnan and Guizhou. Yi trade with the outside world has developed, and modern railroads, highways, and communications have been extended through the Yi areas. Despite these developments the Yi societies, disadvantaged by their geographic locations in remote mountains, are still poor in economic terms and are far behind the Han Chinese areas.


The Yi have a long and rich cultural history. Much traditional literature is written in the distinctive script used for the old Yi language. Folk tales, epics, and songs have also been passed down orally. Yi traditional medicine has a rich variety of resources—such as baiyao, a white medical powder for treating hemorrhage, wounds, bruises, and similar ailments—which are widely used by all Chinese. Yi religion, based on ancestor worship and a belief in many gods, has been revived in recent years after its practices were prohibited in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yi people speak the Yi language, a linguistic branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family, which has six sets of major dialects and many more local dialects that are not always mutually intelligible. One million members of the Yi nationality do not speak the Yi language at all. In 1975 the Chinese government attempted to formalize a unified Yi language by defining 819 standard Yi words, but the effort has not been as successful as hoped, as isolation and language barriers have prevented the Yi from establishing a commonly shared ethnic identity. The development of their independent power and the modernization of their econ
omy and society await the future.

Further Reading

Yi Mouyuan. (2007). Yizu shiyao ???? [A brief history of Yi nationality]. Beijing: Social Science Literature Press.

Li Shaoming & Feng Min. (1996). Yizu ?? [Yi nationality]. Beijing: The National Minority Press.

Harrell, S. (Ed.). (2001). Perspectives on the Yi of southwest China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ma Yin. (1989). China’s minority nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.

Source: Chen, Yixin. (2009). Yi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2571–2573. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yi clothing styles developed from the tribe’s own traditions and from exposure to the cultures of neighboring minority groups. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Yi (Yízú ??)|Yízú ?? (Yi)

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