The Yi minority of Yunnan



The Yi (彝族) are one of the largest minorities in China, with a total population of about 7,800,000 (in 2000), distributed in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou. The Yi engages in agriculture and animals husbandry, they are also good at arts and crafts including lacquer painting, embroidery, silverworks, carving etc.

Language and writing

Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese group of the Sino-Tibetan family. This group includes 6 major types of dialects. They do not always understand each other but the structure is common. Most Yi speak Chinese. Since the 13th century there exists a syllabic writing Yi, called Bimo.

They create their own written words; there are around 1000 characters in common uses among the Yi minority.


The Yi have long occupied the area of ​​the Liangshan Mountains, a region that the Han did not frequent. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols conquered this region and imposed their mode of operation on the Yi, that is to say the system of fiefs and hereditary chiefs subject to the empire. In the seventeenth century, Yunnan is attached to China and the power of the hereditary chiefs is completely removed in favor of that of the landowners. At the end of the 19th century, rebellions opposed the French invasion and the construction of a railway line in Yunnan. After the opium war, the Yi region is seriously affected by the effects of war and opium. In the early 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army broke into the Yi region, which had spent more than a decade without violent intrusions. Slavery was abolished in 1956. Until the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party had little influence, then the region was taken over by the central government.


Yi minority has many different branches; everywhere has their specific clothing features. Yi women in general wear embroidered clothes, matched with black head cloth, earrings and some silverworks. Except the Yi from Liangshan Mountain area, most of the others wear long pants instead of skirts. In Yunnan, single girls can be defined from their colorful, cockscomb-shaped hat bordered with large amount of silver ornaments. During the past, the Yis who lived in the mountain area, no matter boys and girls, they all used to wear the knee-length sheepskin cape. Yi girls who are below 15 have to comb their hair as one single braid. After girls are over 15, they hold a ceremony to announce themselves officially to be an adult. One of the customs is to change their single braid into two, wear the colorful embroidered head cloth and twinkling silver eardrops.
Almost all of the Yi women are proficient in embroidery. They learn all kinds of embroidery, cross-stitch and applique skills from mothers since their childhood. Seniors of Yi minority usually pay great attentions on the girls’ embroidery craftsmanship. As long as the girl didn’t make a good job of the embroidery, no matter how pretty she is, it’s still difficult for her to find husband. That’s probably one of the reasons why their clothing is embroidered with various patterns and each of those is almost like a piece of exquisite art.


Their religion is mostly ancestor worship, with Taoist and Buddhist influences. The bimo shaman transmits Yi culture, divinates, heals diseases, conjures disasters, and makes offerings to ancestors. The Sunni shaman practices the exorcist trance to drive out demons and calamities.

Yi Festivities and Festivals in Yunnan

There are many different traditional festivals happened in Yi minority. Some of the main festivals include “Year of the tenth month”, Torch festival and some other regional festivals and activities for sacrifice to Gods and ancestors. “Year of the tenth month” hold at the most auspicious day within the first ten-day period of every tenth lunar month. It last around 5-6 days and followed the customs the Yi minority people have to offer pigs, lambs, or cattle for sacrifices. At that moment, Yi people dress up their best costumes for the party, visit and present some gifts to their relatives and friends.

  • The Torch Festival, which takes place on the 24th day of the 6th lunar month: The Torch festival is the most ceremonious festival for the Yi minority people. It happened on the 24th to 25th in every sixth lunar month. People gather together to worship gods and ancestors by sacrifice cattle or lambs. During the feast, they all bless to have the best harvest in the future. The Torch festival last for 3 days, on the first day all the family members gather for the celebration, while the last 2 days they join the public activities include wrestling, horse-racing, bull-fighting, dragon-boat racing and tug of war etc. then conclude with the grand bonfire evening party.
  • The assembly of Peace, to practice exorcism and to ward off calamities.
  • To sacrificial the Dragon is another important event for the Yi minority. Yi people choose the one of the “Dragon day” in every second to forth lunar month to do the celebration. Villagers gather and bring their own rice and salt then sit down under the dragon tree to make a collective worship. In Yunnan, the Yi minority in general choose the first “Dragon day” in the first lunar month to be the ceremony. After the celebration, everybody sit on the floor and share their food to conclude the ceremony.

Other Festivities in Guangxi

  • Forest Protection Day, 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month
  • Bird Festival, the 6th day of the 6th month
  • Harvest Festival and Blackfaces Day, the 23rd day of the eighth month

Marriage customs

The Yi are monogamous and live in a patriarchal family. The marriage is between 9 and 19 years old. Weddings are arranged by a matchmaker. Traditions can be different in different districts.

Other minorities in Yunnan

The Bai of Dali

The Naxi of Lijiang

The Hani of South Yunnan