Yi people (own name in the Liangshan dialect: ꆈꌠ,
official transcription: Nuosu (諾蘇), ; ; 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
The Yi speak Yi
, a Tibeto-Burman
language closely related to
, which is written in the
The Chinese government has grouped the Nisu
, and other
peoples speaking more than six distinct languages with many
dialects into a single group called the Yi . 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
- 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 彝 or 夷) 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 (Chinese 濮). 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
/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
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
Yunnan, some of the Yi have been influenced by Buddhism through the Han culture.
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
, Janet Broomhall, Ruth Dix and Joan Wales
of the China Inland Mission
. According to
missionary organization OMF
, 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.
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
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. 
A Yi woman in traditional dress
Some scholars consider 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
migrated from Southeastern Tibet through
Sichuan and into 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
the Yi in Liangshan and northwestern Yunnan practiced a
complicated form of slavery.
were split into the nuohuo
or Black Yi (nobles),
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.
present days, principal part of Yi people lives in Liangshan of
Sichuan and Chuxiong and Honghe of
In this area, the Yuanmou
(Homo erectus yuanmouensis) has been discovered, that can
be 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, a lot of artifacts
of Neolithic has 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
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.
In the Han dynasty
, the central
sovereign of China conquered the valley of Anning River, which is a
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
. In 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
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
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
with frequent wars against the invading nomads from
the north and lost its control of Yi and Yi area.
Although the Sui dynasty
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.
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
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
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
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 is the son of King
Piluoge, Tang dynasty had performed three expeditions against
Nanzhao to conquer it but with 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
territory of Nanzhao. Most Yi of that time is under the ruling of
Dali. Dali’s sovereign existed for 316 years parallel to Song dynasty
of central China, until 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.
Khan included Dali into his domain of Yuan dynasty together with Tibet.
From Yuan dynasty
onwards, Yi people together with their area have been 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 Yi 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 under
the ruling of Mongolian
emperor, the Yi
still had autonomy in Yuan dynasty. The gulf between aristocrats
and the common people had been enhanced.
dynasty, the Chinese emperor had expedited its cultural
assimilation policy in south western China.
spread the policy of Gai Tu Gui Liu (Chinese: 改土归流). Governing
power of a lot Yi feudal lords had been expropriated by successors
of officials assigned by the central government. With the progress
of Gai Tu Gui Liu, the Yi area has been dismembered into a lot of
communities, big or small, and it was difficult for the communities
to communicate with each other as there were Han area ruling by
officials between communities.
Kangxi Emperor of Qing dynasty defeated Wu Sangui and
took over the land of Yunnan and established a province
When the Manchu
became the Viceroy of Yunnan and Guizhou
during the era of Yongzheng
, the policy of Gai Tu Gui Liu and cultural assimilation
against Yi were enhanced. Yi lived near Kunming were even forced to
change their convention of traditional cremation
policy triggered off rebellions of Yi people but all the rebellions
had been suppressed by Qing dynasty.
After Opium Wars
, a lot of Christian
missioners from France and UK have been to Yi area. Although some
missioners believed that Yi of some areas such as Liangshan was not
under the ruling of Qing dynasty and should be independent
kingdoms, most aristocrats insisted that Yi is a part of China
despite of their resentment against Manchu and Han’s ruling.
After the establishment of the PRC, several Yi autonomous
administrative districts of prefecture or county level have been
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
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.
in Yunnan, Guizhou and
Guangxi know the Han (standard Chinese or Mandarin)
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
The Yi play a number of traditional musical instruments, including
large plucked and bowed string instruments,
as well as wind instruments called
List of Yi sub-groups
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
||Approximate total population
- Southern Nasu
- A Che
- Southern Gaisu
- Southeastern Lolo
- Dayao Lipo
- Central Niesu
- Eastern Nasu
- Panxian Nasu
- Wusa Nasu
- Shuixi Nosu
- Wuding Lipo
- Mangbu Nosu
- Eastern Gepo
- Xiaohei Neisu
- Dahei Neisu
- Eastern Samadu
- Mishaba Laluo
- Western Lolo
- Xinping Lalu
- Yangliu Lalu
- Jiantou Laluo
- Western Samadu
- Western Gepo
- Xuzhang Lalu
- Western Gaisu
- Shengba Nosu
- Yinuo Nosu
- Xiaoliangshan Nosu
- Butuo Nosu
- Tianba Nosu
- Bai Yi
- Northern Awu
- Michi (Miqie)
- Jinghong Nasu
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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
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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
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Frontiers. The History of the History of the Yi.
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).
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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