Rediscovering My Ethnic Identity in Far-Flung Sichuan
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2017-10-04 09:50:56

Making small talk at parties is often awkward, but so is shunning my identity around new people. These days, I tell often-bemused new acquaintances that I’m Yi Chinese. I say so not in the hope that my mixed ethnicity will sound exotic — I am technically part Yi, part Han — but to inform them of a culture that’s slowly disappearing.

The Yi are one of 55 officially recognized minority groups in China, and more than 8 million Yi people live in the country’s southwest and parts of Vietnam. People in China have probably seen our colorful costumes on TV, or have visited a so-called minority village somewhere in the southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, or Guizhou that showcases stereotypical Yi culture. Though there are twice as many of us as there are Tibetans, our traditions remain largely unknown to the outside world, our stories untold, our culture unnoticed.

I say “our” with some apprehension, because though I am Yi by blood, until recently I, too, was guilty of neglecting my own culture. Back in May, I finally decided to visit Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, where the largest population of ethnic Yi reside, hoping to learn more about my people. Liangshan, for the most part, is conspicuously empty of tourists.

Getting up to the mountains was the first hurdle. Over the phone, my Han driver asked warily if there were any other Yi people hitching a ride. “I don't like having Yi men in my car,” he said. “They drink and sing all the way, and they smell funny.” I reassured him that I’d behave myself, bristling at my experience of the region’s distinct ethnic tension. Weeks before our arrival, the prefectural capital, Xichang, saw hundreds of Yi protesters after one restaurant put out a job advertisement that read: “No Yi applicants.”

The Yi’s historical territory was incorporated into China in 1956. Before then, the Yi lived as a slave society divided into strict castes: The so-called Black Yi — the nobility — were served by commoners known as the White Yi, who were not officially slaves but still had little social mobility. Below them were the Ajia and Xiaxi slave castes.

Locals are still proud of their culture, but they are also envious. They want to get rich. They want pop music. They want, in short, to be like the Han.

Going from a slave society to a socialist one brought about changes that can still be felt today. For example, Yi people often consult a bimo — a shaman — when they are sick, believing that they can be healed by exorcisms. In addition, many choose to marry within their caste; the Black Yi rarely marry White Yi. Most people also refuse to settle grievances through the proper legal channels; instead, they hire local “judges” known as degu.

My effort to understand my culture started with a crash course in shamanism, the indigenous religion of the Yi people. Shamans are masters of the Yi language and scripture, performing rituals and playing a major role in daily life through healing ceremonies, exorcisms, blessings, and divination.

The Meigu County Cultural Center for Bimo Studies, located in the northeast of Liangshan, is supposedly a museum — but it’s a bit of a stretch to call it that. When I arrived, the building was locked; finding someone to open the door took several hours. Inside was a single room filled with straw dolls of different shapes and sizes, all covered with a thick layer of dust. Random photos and long paragraphs of dry academic writing lined the walls, explaining the history of Yi shamanism.

Meigu’s run-down old museum is a microcosm of the marginalization of Yi culture. These days, few academics are interested in the static, monolithic traditions of our elders, even though certain practices date back 2,000 years. Local communities, too, have lost interest in their own cultural traditions; to the generations brought up after the advent of Chinese socialism, the old ways are primitive and outdated.

Students read textbooks written in Yi at a primary school in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, May 22, 2017. Courtesy of Jin Ni

Students read textbooks written in Yi at a primary school in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, May 22, 2017. Courtesy of Jin Ni

I didn’t have to go far to find more popular cultural events, though. In the town square in Meigu, a crowd of locals stood watching a band sing Mandarin karaoke songs and perform magic tricks. For them, this kind of performance felt sophisticated; it’s what you find in other small Chinese cities, and inhabitants of this far-flung ethnic enclave also wanted to be a part of that excitement. Yet this vaunting of Han culture too often comes at the expense of what is consummately Yi. Locals are still proud of their culture, but they are also envious of the nation’s Han-dominated social development: They want to get rich. They want pop music. They want, in short, to be like the Han.

In Zhaojue County, located south of Meigu, I met an old lady who sold chaerwa, hand-sewn woolen poncho-like mantles worn by men. “There are so few of us in this business these days,” she told me. “Now, there are fancy machines the Han people brought over. They can sew things so fast, so you can make more ponchos and more money. I keep doing it my way though, because it’s not the same — you can tell immediately that it’s machine-sewn. It has no soul.”

Liangshan is starting to develop local tourism, but reality is never the all-singing, all-dancing theme park they want the world to see.

Other practitioners of Yi culture try to strike a fine balance between embracing tradition and modernity. Shama Muwu is a Yi comedian I met in Zhaojue. “We can’t just keep doing the same thing and not innovate, or we’ll lose our audience, we’ll lose our market, and we’ll lose our culture,” he said.

As one of the very few comedians who perform in the Yi language, he needs to be creative to compete against all the mainstream Chinese entertainment shows. Thus far, he’s achieved modest success in the Liangshan region: “Everyone here knows my name,” he said. “Tell them you are my friend, and you’ll be treated well in Liangshan.”

Local music is one of the most successful examples of the preservation of Yi culture. In recent years, many of Liangshan’s recording artists have helped popularize Yi music, often combining traditional instruments with pop music sensibilities. Singer-songwriter Moxi Zishi wrote a popular song titled “Ajielo” — or “Fear Not” — that made Yi ethnic music popular among young Chinese. A couple other Yi bands and musicians, such as the band Mountain Eagle, have also made it into the mainstream music market, gaining hordes of fans across China.

Liangshan is starting to develop local tourism, building up heritage villages in the area to showcase the Yi culture, but reality is never the all-singing, all-dancing theme park they want the world to see. During my two weeks there, I made new friends, started learning the language, and set the wheels in motion for long-term projects that will help children to continue their education and help communities to figure out the future for their culture. Despite all of this, I still feel that my journey to rediscover my Yi heritage has barely begun.

Editor: Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A girl of the Yi ethnic group wears traditional dress in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, May 21, 2017. Courtesy of Jin Ni)