For centuries, the Yi people have been surviving in the remote mountainous regions of China.
In relative isolation, they have developed their own language, costumes and customs. Unfortunately, their detachment has also left them vulnerable to poverty, famine and the ever-encroaching reach of commercialism on their land. Exacerbated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a disaster that killed
69,000 people, the Yi are struggling to rebuild their world as it has always been.Traveling deep in Yi territories is a trip back in time. The “last mile” is seldom as described, often restricted, but rewarding when you reach the “heart of the Yi” culture. The parents are hard at work, cultivating the land for subsistence. The young split their time between morning school, helping with daily chores, and taking care of their infant siblings. The nightly activities are basic as many of the homes have little to no electricity. But the lure of comfort in form of new homes and modern amenities has the Yi fiercely resists as they want to protect their homeland and authenticity.
These images are a glimpse into the heart of the Yi. They showcase their daily joys and struggles not by embellishing them, but by showing them exactly as they are. Yes, their customs and way of life are antiquated, but their instinct of survival and resistance to change is commanding and full of hope. The Yi remind us that our own struggles are but a heartbeat away. If we’re not more aware, it won’t be long until we ask, “Are we Yi in our own world?” [
Visiting the Yi region feels like stepping centuries back in time when mere survival was life’s greatest challenge. Intense manual labor fills most of the villagers’ day. Seasonal weather is becoming unpredictable and natural catastrophes can wipe out an entire region. Working hard each day is a necessity as every day counts.This older man made five trips that day, not just for his household but also for his aging neighbor. He walked over 20 miles, carrying over 200 lbs.
The Chinese zodiac consists of a twelve-year cycle, each year being associated with a certain creature. The order was determined in the so-called Great Race, where each species had to complete a contest of running and racing across a river. The horse is featured as the seventh in the cycle. Without horses, the Yi region would fall even further back in time. This Old Sage stopped and asked about my experience in his remote village. It was not a typical curiosity conversation, but rather a heart-felt welcoming.
Over the years, the total length of highways in the region has increased from a few miles to close to 8,000 miles. But a lot of the roads are still unpaved and accessed mostly by horse-drawn carts. While there were only 18 push carts in the whole area before 1949, the number of vehicles in 1981 reached 11,000, of which 5,000 were motor vehicles.
I had been traveling on a rough road for miles when I saw these two young girls at work. They were carrying buckets of water from a stream to their house, as it has no running water. They were not smiling, but they knew that their role was critical to the wellbeing of the family. Traveling through the Yi territories helped me better understand the Chinese government’s well-publicized drive to eradicate absolute poverty by 2020.
For many centuries, barter was the form of trading among the Yi people. Goods for exchange included livestock and grain. Salt, cloth, hardware, needles and threads, and other daily necessities were available only in places where Yi and Han Chinese lived together. This local farmer has been selling his livestock for decades. He cherishes the downtime when he can share a smoke with his friends. Business is survival, but friends are life.
At eight years old, she seems to have already gone through a full cycle of life. She takes care of all her siblings when her parents are working the field. She is the go-to person in this one street village, as other kids look at her for direction. Her exterior demeanor shows toughness, but the inside is tender and warm. On a subsequent trip I shared images with her and she thanked me with a big smile and laughter with her friends.
At first, this family was resisting our presence. The two girls had just carried water to the house and the young boy was already eating. Rice production is limited. Most poor Yi peasants live on acorns, banana roots, celery, flowers, and wild herbs all year round. After we struck up a conversation through the young girls (the grandmother spoke only the Yi dialect), they invited us inside their house. The moisture and piercing cold were forgotten as they welcomed us with open arms and hot drinks around their traditional fireplace.
Day-to-day tasks and chores are segregated: for instance, spinning and weaving are strictly female activities, while felting is deemed to be a trade that can only be performed by men. But one of the favorite activities for anybody is to take care of the children. The grandfather was playing with his grand kid, waiting for the siblings to get out of school. Their home was located 1 hour away by horse carriage.
In the past, there were no professional doctors, and the only way to avert and cure diseases was to pray. Now there are hospitals and clinics in all counties. Serious epidemic diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, leprosy, malaria, and cholera have either been brought under control or wiped out for the most part. The joy of a smoke overshadows their struggles.
Despite having invented gunpowder in the 9th century, Chinese culture has no history of glorifying gunslingers. Swords have always been the weapon of choice in Chinese folklore. With so few firearms in Chinese culture, the emergence of toy guns, a growing phenomenon, is all the more inexplicable. The young boy was determined to flag me down. When he got closer, I reciprocated with my fingers as a made up gun. Everybody started to laugh.
These young Yi girls have moved away from the region to get educated and earn a living. They would not miss performing annually at the Torch festival and bonding with their friends. Their hearts are still well entrenched in their traditional culture. An ancient poem describing the festival centuries ago goes: “The mountain seems wrapped by rosy cloud; Uneven torches move back and forth with people which are like ten thousand of lotus flowers blossoming in mirage, and stars all over the sky fall down to the human world.”
The Yi Torch festival features courtship rituals, music, dancing around huge bonfires, and bloodless bullfights. After sunset, people light torches to worship the gods. The origin of the festival is related to ancestors’ worshipping of fire, which is believed to have the power to repel insects, ward off evils, and protect the growth of crops. The sound of plucked traditional stringed musical instruments added to the magic of the moment.
Patriarchal and monogamous families are the basic units of the clans in the Yi territories. When a young man gets married, he builds his own family by receiving part of his parents’ property. The tradition of pre-arranged weddings by the parents is fading, as well as the bride’s family asking for heavy betrothal gifts. This boy as a long way to go, but he is first in line to inherit his parents’ home.
This is her daily grind. Her business acumen helped her upgrade her store from an open-ground market to a fixed covered structure. Pigs are raised for food and consumed at special events, such as weddings and festivals. After someone dies, a pig or sheep is sacrificed at the doorway to maintain a relationship with the deceased spirit. They believe that spirits cause illness, poor harvests, and other misfortunes and inhabit all material things.
Most Yi houses are low mud-and-wood structures without windows and are dark and damp. Ordinary Yi houses have double-leveled roofs covered with small wooden planks on which stones are laid. Interior decoration is simple and crude, with little furniture and very few utensils, except for a fireplace consisting of three stones. The government offered to build him a new house, which at first he resisted. His son convinced him otherwise and construction was already under way. The future modern structure will host the extended family to the joy of all.
The Torch Festival and Yi New Year are celebrated by the largest number of Yi. Competitions are fierce to declare the best rider among other events. Racing bareback in a made-up stadium, the riders go through elimination rounds before competing in the final. The large crowd cheers loudly, especially when the lead rider is about to lap the last rider. The winner of this race ended up being the youngest rider, shown in the front.
Men and women, when going outdoors, wear a kind of dark cape made of wool and hemmed with long tassels reaching to the knee. In wintertime, they line their capes with felt. This farmer seemed to be a resource for knowledge, as the younger farmers stopped by his side for advice. Very unassuming, he gladly obliged, keeping a watchful eye on his cows. Tobacco seemed to have been the trade currency for advice.
The seriousness of survival can be seen in the face of this boy. Life will be full of challenges. He will first learn the Yi dialect and supplement it with Mandarin when educated. He will become an adult at a very young age, when he has to take care of his siblings. He will either continue the family farming tradition or leave to make a living in the larger cities. Whatever he faces, he will make the best of it. Now he is just a boy playing by himself with his favorite toy – a ball.
Traveling thru Yi territory puts in perspective what is really needed to live, and in most cases what it takes to survive. They have very few clothes, sometimes barely more than one set. They travel on foot for miles to reach the local convenience store or the monthly market. Their daily routine rarely deviates, even when they are sick, as weather is a constant threat to their livelihood. They have very little, but they have heart.