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Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers

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China cultural Encounters Ethn

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The History ofthe History ofthe Yi Stevan Harrell YI AS AN ETHNIC CATEGORY The question "Who are the Yi?" was much more puzzling to me, a neophyte in Yi studies, than it seemed to have been to most Chinese writing on the subject either before or after 1949. The Chinese, in fact, be they scholars or ordinary southwestern peasants, seem to have always known who the Yi were or, before 1949, who the Lolo were.' But to me the answer was not an entirely obvious one. There was, to begin with, considerable diversity within that group ofapproximately six and a half million people defined as Yi by the Chinese People's Government.2 For example, I knew that they spoke languages that, while fairly closely related to each other, were by no stretch ofthe aural imagination mutually comprehensible. Yiyu jianzhi (A short account of Yi languages) gives figures of anywhere from 20 to 42 percent shared vocabulary between the Northern Dialect standard (Xide accent ) and examples of the other five regional dialects of Yi (Chen Shilin et al. 1984:178). The fact that, after studying the Nuosu language ofLiangshan (Northern Dialect, in the official classification), I could in fact converse in that tongue, but could understand nothing of the Lipuo (Central Yi) language of north-central Yunnan, confirmed in practice what I had learned in theory. And when the Lipuo people told me they could understand Lisu (the language of a non-Yi ethnic group) pretty well, but could make no sense of Nuosu,l I began to wonder how the Chinese government structured its ethnic categories. I. There have been a number of names for these people in the Chinese language. Before 1949, the most common were Luoluo (usually spelled Lola in Western languages ), Manzi iif' , Yiren ~ , and Yijia JIl~ . Western and Chinese authors alike tell us that the people themselves much preferred the latter two nanles, considering the former two to be insulting (Lietard 191P; Lin 1961:2; Mueller 1913:39). 2. For a general account ofthe official position, see Guojia Minwei (1984:296-318). 3. This is confirmed by Bradley (1979) who places Lipuo (he spells it Lipo) and Lisu in the Central Loloish subgroup, but Nuosu in the Northern Loloish subgroup. See also my article "Linguistics and Hegemony in China" (1993). A N c •\X' u din g. C h U:l. I () n g.. K.u n min g 'Lunan Y U N NAN 50 100km VIETNAM MAP 2. Yi areas of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou Cultural diversity was similarly puzzling. The Yi of Yunnan (outside the northwestern corner of the province, anyway), while showing considerable diversity among themselves, still seem to possess some traits in common, such as lowland agriculture, Han-style housing , and patrilocal marriage. But their society is structured on very THE HISTORY OF THE HISTORY OF THE YI different principles from that of the Nuosu, or Liangshan Yi, who have neolocal marriage, a highly developed patriclan system, and a structure of social levels (called castes, classes, or strata by various authorities), and who are strictly ranked and stratum-endogamous. And the Yi ofGuizhou and northeastern Yunnan seem to have a still different structure. Some Yi have writing and some do not; those who do use similar scripts, but why are those who lack writing classed with Yi and not with Lisu or Hani, other minzu that are closely related in certain ways but have no writing system1 And then there are the disputed cases. The Sani of Lunan and Luliang counties, the folks who sell "beautiful bags" around the stone forest and in downtown Kunming, embroider their needlework with the designation Sani Zu, or Sani minzu, not Yi zu. Some of them now claim that they are not in fact Yi (see Swain, this volume). I had the opportunity myselfto stay briefly with a group of people in Panzhihua City, southern Sichuan, who call themselves Shuitian zu (Rice-field people), though the government classifies them as a branch ofYi. They have no desire to be associated with the people they themselves consider Yi, that is the Nuosu of the surrounding hills, whom the Shuitian consider to be wild and uncouth barbarians (Harrell 1990). Other foreign observers also have wondered about the boundaries of the Yi category, or drawn them differently from the way they have been officially drawn by the authorities. Lietard, for example , the most meticulous and unbaised of the early observers of the Yi, includes in his list of...

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