10 Minorities in Yunnan You Should Know
Yunnan is known for its ethnic diversity. China boasts 56 recognized ethnic groups, while Yunnan is home to 25 of them and 38% of the province's population is contributed by minorities. Among 25 ethnic groups, Yi is blessed with the biggest population of over 5 million, while the Dulong is the smallest settlement with only 4, 000 inhabitants. Most of the ethnic minorities reside in the hilly areas or river valleys, holding their distinctive traditional costumes, languages, dialects, building styles and customs. Endless festivals throughout the year is the highlight of their ethnic culture. Therefore, if you decide to travel Yunnan, you’d better not miss the chance to experience the diverse customs and events of the tribal people. What follows is a brief introduction to 10 of the minority groups every traveler to Yunnan should know.
Mainly inhabiting in the rural areas of Ailao Mountains by Honghe River, Hani is a typical minority living on rice-farming in Yunnan Plateau. As one of the most creative and industrial ethnicities in China, Hani people has shaped the world's most wonderful Yuanyang rice terrace out of steep mountains, and kept a true idyllic life for centuries in their mushroom-shaped thatched houses. In every lunar February and October, Hani people will hold a grand Long-Table Banquet. All families of the village would get dressed in their costumes and contribute their homemade gourmets to the world's longest dining tables, sharing their food and blessings.
The majority of Dai group lives in Xishuangbanna in south and Dehong in West Yunnan. Their inhabitation belongs to tropical and subtropical areas endowed with warm climate and dense rainforest. Their bamboo houses and traditional costumes like short-sleeved shirts and tube skirts fully display the geographical features. Dai people take peacock and elephant as their mascot animals, and they believe in Theravada Buddhism. Near South Asian countries, many Dai people speak Thai and Lao. Besides, Dai people get used to living by the watery regions as they stress on hygiene and cleanness. Their biggest Water-Splashing Festival is definitely a carnival on bathing, which is viewed as a way to wash away the bad luck.
Generations of Mosuo people mainly live by the bewitching Lugu Lake at the junction of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Actually, they are a small branch of Naxi group, with their own national language. Nicknamed the Kingdom of Women, the rural Lugu Lake still retains the world’s oldest maternal family form in such a developed human society of 21st century. In matrilineal society, mothers and grandmothers have supreme positions in the households, and they are the final decision-makers for big affairs. Walking Marriage is the most representative marriage custom of Mosuo people. They could fall in and out of love freely, not constrained by legal obligation, while the children would be raised up and kept by their mothers for a lifetime. Therefore, every member of the family is a descendant of the mother or grandmother.
Naxi is a tribe with far-reaching history and rich cultural traditions, mainly dwelling in and around Lijiang Old Town. They worship the nature, and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is their spiritual holy place. As early as more than a thousand years ago, Naxi people had created their own mysterious Dongba culture and hieroglyphics that have been still used today. Naxi people had begun to build magnificent tile-roofed houses and courtyards since Ming Dynasty, while the UNESCO-listed Lijiang Old Town just mirrors the essence of the architectural art of Naxi group, which learns widely from Han and Tibetan architecture styles. Besides, Naxi people fly their own colors in literature and art including poetry, painting, sculpture, music and dance. The renowned mural paintings in Baisha Village is exactly the product of the rich culture of Naxi nationality in Ming Dynasty, demonstrating the combination of various religions and multi-ethnic painting techniques.
Bai nationality mainly lives in Dali Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan. Bai in Chinese refers to white which is the favorite color of Bai tribe, so they are fond of dressing in white clothes. Unlike other regions in China, Bai people love to drink roasted tea, and the three-course tea added with pepper and honey is their best offer to the most honored guests. The elegant and quaint folk houses are a significant part of Bai minority’s culture, while the Xizhou in Dali’s outskirts stands out by housing a cluster of well-preserved Bai-style residences featuring curled-up eaves, richly painted roofs and carved gate towers as well as florid screen walls. Moreover, Bai people are gifted with a rare intangible heritage, tie-dying. Zhoucheng inhabited by 1,500 families are China's largest Bai settlement, which is also the best place to witness the tie-dying making.
Tibetans have always been the most mysterious and characteristic minority in the minds of the outsiders around the world. However, in Yunnan one could meet the most authentic Tibetans without going to Tibet. Diqing is the only Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan Province, and those Tibetans are descendants of ancient nomadic people in northwest of China. Just like Tibetans in Tibet, they believe in Tibetan Buddhism and feed on highland barley and buttered tea. Songzanlin Monastery and Meili Snow Mountain are the spiritual centers of the locals. On the rugged mountain road around the mountain, there are still many Tibetans on their traditional way of prostration to fulfill the pilgrimage. The Dukezong Old Town in Shangri-La is a well-known habitation of Tibetans, where people enjoy a primitive lifestyle living in their wooden houses.
As one of the oldest and most longevous ethnic minorities in China, Yao nationality in Yunnan Province is mainly distributed in the Hekou Yao Autonomous County and Wenshan Autonomous Prefecture. As a mountain-dwelling group, Yao people usually establish villages in the dense forests or by a river valley. Thus they achieve rich experience in Chinese herbal medication. Parted by high mountains, Yao develops a variety of titles and branches because of their different costumes, dialects, customs and beliefs. For example, the Yao people living in Wenshan are named Blue Indigo Yao because of their indigo planting history and their blue clothes, while Yao tribe in Honghe Region is called Red-Head Yao as they use red threads to tie up their hair.
Chuxiong and Honghe Yi Autonomous Prefecture are two most densely populated areas of Yi people in Yunnan. Yi people have their own language and writing characters, and their ten-month solar calendar can be compared with the famous Mayan civilization. They hold tigers, black color, fire and martial arts in esteem, which are also four distinctive features of Yi culture. The Torch Festival held on the 24th day of the lunar June is a traditional practice in the Yi region, and its origin has a direct relation with the natural worship of fire. Fire is the symbol of Yi people's pursuit of light, since fire can repel insects to protect crops. Whenever there is a wedding, harvest or festival, the Yi ethnic group in Yunnan would sing and dance around a bonfire, and their foot taping dance in circles becomes one of the most popular folk dancing forms in many parts of China.
Mostly scattered in the Xingmeng Village in Tonghai Country, the Mongols are mainly descendants of Mongolian army during Kublai's southern expedition to Central Plains in Yuan Dynasty. Although those Mongols absorbs a lot of Han culture in their living habits and beliefs, while, as an independent nation, the nomads on the Yunnan plateau still maintain many ethnic customs and celebrations. They still hold the traditional gala of Nadam Fair. The competitions in horse racing and wrestling are replaced by dragon and lion dances as well as art performances, showing the free spirit and unrestrained nature of nomadic people.
Over 80 percent of Yunnan's Zhuang group are settled in southeastern Wenshan Prefecture. The Bamei Village reputed as the Last Utopia is just a heavenly escape resided by Zhuang people who lead a secluded life from outside world. Because the only way into the village is to row a boat through an underground river cave. Women of Zhuang Minority is apt at weaving brocades famous for gorgeous patterns, and their shoes, hats and bellybands are all embroidered with vivid images of the flowers, birds, and animals. On the third day of third lunar month, there will be a grand folk fair attended by young people from neighboring villages. Men and women would sing in antiphonal style for competition, and take advantage this opportunity to find their lifetime soul mates.