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    “Multi-ethnic province of Yunnan”


    Yunnan is a multi-ethnic province in China. There are 26 minority groups living in Yunnan. 15 of which are indigenous to the province. The colorful ethnic costumes and traditional arts present a magnificent picture of diversity. See the map of Yunnan.


    The Bai Ethnic minority has a population of nearly 2 million people. The Bai people live mainly in Dali, the Bai Autonomous County of Yunnan province.

    Their language derives from the Zang-Mian Austronesian family of Sino-Tibetan phylum but with the character set of the Han people as their written form of language.

    The Bai people are masters of artistic creativity including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and other craft techniques such as lacquer work. The great Three Pagodas in Dali, having stood since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and resembling the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian are excellent examples of Bai creativity and skill. Contemporarily, their dance and music spread among the Han people after becoming accepted as part of the court entertainment. In the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368–1644) Dynasties, the majority of the skilled lacquer artisans were selected from Yunnan Province.

    Dali has some special local products; the most famous products are Tuo Cha, woodcarving and batik. The name ”Tuo Cha” indicates the shape of the pressed tea. After steamed and pressed the tea became as big as a Chinese Moon Cake. Yunnan people use the word “Tuo” for things, which look like a cake, so when this kind of tea appeared in the market it was given the name “Tuo Cha” (Cha is tea in Chinese). Bai people also have a special way to drink tea, called “San Dao Cha – Yi ku, Er tian, San hui wei”.  When they drink tea, they always drink three cups of tea and each cup develops a different taste – the first cup of tea is bitter (Yi ku), the second one is sweet (Er tian), and the third one is a complex taste (San hui wei). It reminds people that the life is not easy – first you must experience hard times and after that you can have good life.

    Sharp, cold and spicy flavors are preferred by the Bai, so cured ham or fish eaten with rice or flour wheat noodles form a large part of their diet; though some people in the mountains eat corn as a staple food.

    Although the Bai people believe in Buddhism, they also respectfully worship their village god (‘Benzhu’), a Nature god, the Prince of the Nanzhao regime, or even a hero of folklore.

    The grandest festival of the Bai people is the March Fair, held annually at the foot of Mt. Cangshan in Dali between the 15th and the 21st day of the third lunar month. The March Fair is also named Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) Fair. According to legend, in the Kingdom of Nanzhao, Goddess of Mercy would give a sermon on March 15th of the lunar calendar. Thus, at this period, local devotees to the Buddha would put up a shed and chant sutras, worshipping the Goddess of Mercy. At that time, March Street became a temple fair for giving sermon and worshipping. As Dali enjoyed convenient transportation and there were a large number of devotees to the Buddha in ancient Yunnan, the temple fair gradually become the biggest fair for trade, sports activities, performance and gathering in West Yunnan.

    Another important festival is the Torch Festival, held on the 25th day of the sixth lunar month to bless the people with both health and a good harvest. On that evening, the countryside is decorated with banners with auspicious words written upon them. Villagers will light torches in front of their gates, then walk around in the fields while holding yet more torches in order to drive insects away.

    See the image of Bai lady.


    The population of the Dai ethnic group in Yunnan is more than 1 million people. They live in the southern part of Yunnan Province, mainly in the Xishuangbanna region. Local produce includes rice, sugar cane, coffee, hemp, rubber, camphor and a wide variety of fruits. This region is home to China’s famous Pu’er tea. The Dai people have a rich, colorful culture. Dai historical documents include a variety of literary works including poetry, legends, stories, fables, and children’s tales.

    Their language belongs to the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong group of Sino-Tibetan languages. The written language was derived from Devanagari. It is written from left to right, does not have distinct letter cases, and is recognisable by a horizontal line that runs along the top of full letters.

    Their religion is Southern Buddhism, which was adopted during the 6th to 8th centuries and had a profound influence on their politics, economy, culture and arts. Religious activities are so common that most 8 to 10-year-old boys, in particular in Xishuangbanna, are sent to temples where they learn sutras for one to five years. They then leave the temple and spend their lives as secularized monks.

    They are very/talented at singing and dancing. Their achievements in music are well-known among all the ethnic groups. Their folk and traditional musical instruments include the elephant-foot drum, bronze gong, clarinet, and hulusi.

    Jinghong is the Capital of Xishuangbanna. The ancient name was Jingyong: “yong” means peacocks, i.e. “the city of peacocks”. In ancient time when the Dai people migrated to Jinghong, there were a lot of peacocks in the place; the Chief told his tribesmen that peacocks were auspicious birds; no one was allowed to kill peacocks; more, all his tribesmen must love and protect peacocks. Therefore, peacocks became more and more, and the name of the place also became “Jingyong”. The people in the neighboring Laos, Burma and Thailand are not familiar with the name Jinghong, but if you mention Jingyong to them, most of them know the name and place is the home of the peacock, which the Dai people revere as a symbol of good fortune, happiness, beauty and kindness. Thus the Peacock Dance is their most popular folk dance. Performers in clothes with peacock patterns imitate peacocks with lively, flexible and graceful movements in a dance that is a popular part of the Water-splashing Festival.

    The Elephant-foot drum dance is another well-known dance for men. The elephant-foot drum is a unique instrument made of carved mango or ceiba tree covered with cowhide, and looks just like an elephant foot. The drum can be long, medium-sized, or short. The dance performed with a long drum appears very graceful, with the medium-sized drum; it is vigorous with broad, sweeping movements; and with the short one, flexible and lively.

    The architecture of the Dai region is distinctive, recognized easily and used especially for the Dai-style temples, bamboo bridges and houses. The temples combine the styles of South Asian and Chinese culture and can be shaped like pavilions, thrones, bells, and so on. Bamboo houses are designed, based on local conditions. Made entirely of bamboo, the houses have a clean, light and well-ventilated design of two floors – downstairs for livestock and upstairs for people.

    Glutinous rice and hot and sour dishes are favorite dishes of the Dai. A famous dish is ‘Bamboo Rice’, made by putting clean rice into a bamboo tube, adding water and soaking for 7 or 8 hours. The mouth of tube is then sealed with a banana leaf and the whole thing is roasted for about 12 minutes. The resulting soft, delicate rice emits a delicious bamboo fragrance and is a choice offering for guests.

    Their important festivals are the Water-splashing Festival, the Door-closing Festival and the Door-opening Festival, all of which are related to Buddhism. The Water-splashing Festival is the New Year of the Dai ethnic minority people. On the 24th to 26th day of the sixth month of the Dai calendar, people engage in traditional activities such as water-splashing and dragon-boat racing, hoping to pacify evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

    The Door-opening and Door-closing Festivals are the two longest and grandest periods–one in mid-June and the other in mid-September. People worship Buddha by sacrificing food, flowers, sutra, clothes and other wealth. They also take advantage of the holidays to preach Buddhist teachings and have a good time.

    See the image of Dai lady.


    The Lahu ethnic minority has a population of around 450,000. Most of them are scattered throughout the Lancangjiang Lahu Autonomous County, Menglian, Shuangjiang Autonomous County, with others in the Simao, Lincang and Xishuangbanna Prefectures. It is said that the Lahu have been living in these regions since the 18th century.

    Traditionally they live in houses built on stilts, with the space below reserved for domestic animals. Lahu men wear collarless jackets buttoned on the right side, long baggy trousers, and a black turban. The women wear long robes slit along the legs at the sides. Around the collar and slits are sewn broad strips of colored cloth with beautiful embroidered patterns and studded with silver ornaments.

    Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burman group of the Sina-Tibetan phylum. In 1957 a more unified form of written characters was adopted, based on early forms.

    Lahu, in their language, means ‘to roast the meat of the tiger’. It indicates that this ethnic group was quite good at hunting.

    Most people believe in Mahayana (one of the major schools of Buddhism, teaching social concern and universal salvation) as well as the group’s original religion animism where they believe that everything in the world has its spirit.

    They normally cook in bamboo containers, which can both retain the pristine flavor of materials and add the fragrance of the fresh bamboo. They also like to make tea in bamboo wares. Through frying, pressing and baking, when the tea is taken out and steeped, it smells extremely distinctive.

    In their literature, there are many poems handed down orally. According to those, they are confident that their ancestors were born from a cucurbit – a climbing or trailing plant of the gourd family with large, fleshy, tough-skinned or hard-skinned fruits, e.g. the cucumber, watermelon, or pumpkin. The influence of this belief can be seen in their musical instruments. Many musical instruments are formed from cucurbits. The Lusheng, a wind instrument constructed from bamboo and a gourd, is their favorite.

    The Spring Festival is regarded as the grandest days, which can be divided into the great year and the lesser year. The great year, from the 1st – 4th days of the first lunar month, is celebrated especially for women and the lesser year from the 9th – 11th day, for men. The ‘full year’ indicates the 12th day of that month and is celebrated by all the people. This is derived from an old custom. Long ago, the men hunted afar and could not arrive home by the start of the New Year. When they returned, women would celebrate the New Year again with them.

    On the first day, they hurry to carry the first barrel of ‘new water’ that is the token of happiness, then worship their ancestors, and feed oxen with tender grass; on the third day, they visit each other with gifts of food, singing and dancing; after the ‘full year’ they hold various activities like swinging and playing a game called the Peg-Top attempting to keep a spinning top in motion the longest. These celebrations will last till the fifteenth day.

    See images of the old Lahu lady, Lahu villagers and Lahu granny with children.


    The Naxi Ethnic minority lives mostly in the Naxi Autonomous County in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, and the rest live in Sichuan Province and Tibet. Their population is around 300,000. In the name Naxi, Na means senior and honored and Xi means people.

    Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan phylum. In the past, they used a pictographic language called ‘Dongba’ and another called ‘Geba’. In 1957, they designed characters based on the Latin alphabet and now most can write in Chinese. The Dongba Scripture (or Dongba Jing) that their ancestors left has recorded all facets of the Naxi life and is highly valued for posterity as a means of studying their character and history.

    Before the foundation of modern China in 1949, most of the people held the faiths of Dongba Jiao, believing that all things have spirits and those spirits could never die. When they encountered significant events such as marriage, death, festivals, or disasters, they would invite a wizard to chant. Although Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity have been taught there, few Naxi people turned to those religions.

    They live on proceeds from farming, stockbreeding and handicrafts. Reaches of the Jinshajiang River are abundant in botanical resources such as trees and medicinal herbs. The Lijiang horse has also enjoyed the reputation for years as one of the ‘Three treasures of Lijiang’, which were presented to the official courts, because of its ability to transport goods in mountainous area.

    Their breakfast is simple and usually consists of steamed bread, but lunch and supper are often more sumptuous. They like to pickle pork. Their pickled pork is famous for lasting several years.

    Based on the lunar calendar, the main Naxi festivals are Spring Festival, Pure Brightness Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and Torch Festival. Generally, these festivals are celebrated with worship and sacrificial activities.

    See the image of the Naxi old lady.


    The Yi people are one of the ancient national groups of Yunnan and have a population of more than 4 million. They typically lived in remote mountain areas and their houses were traditionally made of wood timbers. There are many different Yi groups, each with their own dialect and traditions. The Yi love to sing and dance and they play a number of traditional musical instruments, including large string instruments, which are plucked or bowed as well as wind instruments called Bawu (巴乌) and Mabu (马布).

    Various beliefs are treasured, such as the belief of the spirit, where they believe that all things, living (trees, animals) and non-living (rocks, rivers) have a spirit. Ancestor worship and the adoration of nature, along with the cherishing of Catholicism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Amongst all these beliefs, the power of the spirit is regarded as the most magical. Some heirlooms left to the Yi people by their ancestors are endowed with magic, which they believe can bring good fortune to their owners. Therefore, these highly valued possessions are carefully kept and passed down through generations.

    Diets vary according to different regional conditions. However, because most of the Yi live in mountainous areas, buckwheat, corn, potatoes and beans are suitable for planting and are regarded as their staple foods. Some of the ethnic groups do eat rice as their staple food. Pork, mutton, and beef are the main meats consumed. As for beverages, tea and wines made from rice or corn are regarded as the most superior ones to serve to honored guests.

    For special occasions, men and women prefer to sit in a circle and pass a cup of rice wine from person to person, drinking one by one, without consuming any food. During festivals, numerous kinds of wines can be seen and tasted while some others play flutes or sing and dance.

    The Yi are skilled at painting, sculpture, embroidery, and drawing with lacquer. The women are very adept at embroidery. We can admire and appreciate their skills on their beautiful waistbands, handkerchiefs, and hanging strips. The women’s reputations are greatly influenced by their level of embroidery competence. A Yi woman’s status is greatly influenced by her level of embroidery competence.

    Women usually wear clothes embroidered with beautiful flowers – long trousers with exquisite lace or skirts with numerous, tiny pleats.

    Men like to wear black, narrow sleeved clothes tunic tops, and loose black pants. Both men and women wear triangular head scarves on their heads – the women’s are embroidered with beautiful pictures.

    Traditional festivals include the Torch and Chahua festivals. The Torch Festival is the grandest traditional festival, held on the 24th day of the lunar month of June. It is held to celebrate the victory of a rebellion against a tyrannical landlord. Lasting three days, families assemble together wearing traditional Yi clothes and enjoy themselves holding rich and colorful activities – wrestling, horse racing, bull fighting, tug-of-wars and so on. When night comes, large bonfires are lit and people sit around, singing and dancing for the whole night.

    The Chahua festival is another characteristic festival, which is held to commemorate the hero, Mi Yinu, who helped the Yi people overcome the tyrannical ruler. When the Maying flowers blossom, people will wear them in their hair or present them to each other and sing to their heart’s content to celebrate their happy life.

    Another festival celebrated by the Yi People is the Saichuan festival (a festival during which people dress in beautiful clothes and enter into fashion competitions.)

    See images of the Yi ladies working.


    The population of the Lisu people in Yunnan is more than 600,000. They have their own distinct language. The Lisu ethnic minority mainly inhabit in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, with a few in other cities within Yunnan and Sichuan. According to their clan history, they had close ties with the Yi and Naxi ethnic minorities.

    Their language belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibentan phylum. There have been three distinct forms of writing, with the last created in 1957 based on the Latin alphabet, which is widely used now.

    The Lisu believed in the existence of gods and totem; but in the late 19th century some turned to the Christian faiths through the preaching of missionaries in China.

    Their staple food is corn, potatoes and buckwheat. They are a warm and open people. No matter how acquainted a guest is, Lisu hosts will always treat them well, offering the most delicious food and wine which is served quite freely and with an elaborate etiquette.

    The costumes of the Lisu women are very beautiful. They like to decorate their clothes and hair with pearls, coral, shells and silver rings. When singing and dancing during festivals, their jewelry and adornments add more to the sense of awe inspiring beauty. According to the color and region, clothing is divided into three groups: the white, the black and the Lisu flower embroidery. Girls at the age of thirteen or fourteen will attend a coming of age ceremony, held by the eldest women in her family. Only after that, can they can wear the beautiful decorated adult skirts and hair decorations, and take part in conversations with the adult women.

    The grandest festivals are the Kuoshi Festival held on the first day of the lunar New Year, followed by the Zaotang Festival, and the most attractive Knife Pole Festival.

    The Knife-Pole Festival expresses good wishes to everyone of the Lisu. A phrase describing bravery in China goes like this, “climbing the Knife Mountain and diving into the Fire Sea” and the Knife-Pole Festival is a vivid depiction of this. On the eve of the festival, a grand bonfire is set alight with people dancing around it, later, some of the bolder men leap in the fire, extinguishing it barefooted. It is widely believed that through this act all manner of disasters will be averted.

    In the middle of the 2nd day of the second lunar month, the other activity, which represents ‘climbing the Knife Mountain’ is the highlight of the festival and attracts numerous spectators. 20-meter-high poles, each affixed with 72 razor sharp knives are erected. After drinking a cup of wine, the warriors begin to ascend the pole via the sharpened blades. Upon reaching to the top, they are rewarded with impassioned applauses, whilst they light firecrackers and throw small red flags to the crowds, showering good luck upon everyone. The remainder of the day is for the young, throwing leather pouches with poems to each other to show love. Nowadays, climbing poles via knives as rungs is recognized as the traditional sport of the Lisu people.

    See images of the Yang Hui Fen working lady and Yang Hui Fen lady.


    There are more than 1 million Miao people in Yunnan. They live mainly in the mountain areas, working as farmers. They are divided into several people groups like the Yi minority. The women are easily recognized by their pleated skirts or embroidered skirts. The women are skilled at spinning and wax dying.

    Their language, which belongs to the Miao-Yao group of the Sino-Tibetan phylum, has developed into three dialects: western Hunan Province, eastern Guizhou Province and ChuanQianDian (Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan). The Miao have been writing their language based on Latin alphabet, since 1956.

    They believe that everything in nature has a spirit, and these spirits in combination are mighty enough to control their lives. Each time there is a disaster, the Miao will invite a wizard to perform ceremonies designed to drive out the devil ghost. They worship their ancestors so much that memorial ceremonies are very grand. Sacrifices such as wine, meat, and glutinous rice are costly. Some also believe in Catholicism or other Christian religions.

    The staple foods in the area of our project are corn, potatoes and beans. Other dishes enjoyed are meat and acidic soups. Pickled vegetables, hot seasonings and home-made wine are common at the table. Glutinous rice is a must during festivals and celebrations.

    The Miao are very skilled at handicrafts, such as embroidering, weaving, paper-cutting, batik, and jewelry casting. The Miao embroidery and silver jewelry are delicate and beautiful. From hats, collars, and cuffs to skirts and baby carriers, the patterns on their clothes are extremely colorful, complicated but with clean lines. Girls of around seven will learn embroidering from their mothers and sisters or other relatives so by the time they are teenagers, they are quite deft.

    See images of the Miao children, Miao festival, Miao ladies and Young Miao girl.


    The Wa Ethnic minority has a population of around 400,000 people. They live primarily in the counties of Ximeng, Cangyuan and Menglian in Yunnan Province. Most of the Wa villages are built on hilltops or slopes. Before 1949, except for some parts of the area where an alphabetic script was used, the Wa people had no written language. They kept records and accounting or passed messages with material objects or by engraving bamboo strips.

    Years ago, they believed in the power of natural things and thought all things had spirits, including for example water, mountain, and wood. The mightiest god was called ‘Muyiji’, and his five sons were the ancestors of the Wa. In recent years, some of the Wa have become followers of Buddhism and Christianity.

    They live mainly from agriculture. The staple of their diet is rice, and they like to chew betel nuts and drink wine. The food is prepared with spicy flavors. They regard wine as a necessity when they host guests or their elders. During festivals, young men will toast girls with a special wine that is held in a bamboo tube, and girls will drink the wine through a straw.

    The Wa favors the colors red and black, so their clothes are usually black with red decorations. Men’s coat and trousers are short and broad, they like to carry a knife; wear a bamboo necklace and they all like to walk bare-footed. Women’s clothes are more beautiful. They wear necklaces and bracelets, most of which are made of bamboo or silver. Their ear rings are very distinctive because of their style and complex design incorporating shining silver rings with bird bones and shells. As the Wa women love very long hair, they incorporate their hair into their dances, which highlights their charm and attraction.

    Every time there is great event or festival, the Wa people will hold the Piaoniu ceremony. In this ceremony, they kill an ox; divide its meat amongst all the families for sacrifice to their ancestors. The ox bone is given to the host of the ceremony and symbolizes wealth. This ceremony is symbolic of their wish for peace and great harvest.

    See images of the Young Wa ladies, Wa lady with her baby and Wa man, Old Wa lady.