China’s southwestern province of Yunnan drips with colors: deep blue high-altitude skies, green forests, red soil, turquoise streams and piebald cliffs. Seasonal changes enhance these with spring and summer flowers and the brilliant yellows and crimsons of autumn. This splendid environment has influenced the traditional taste in clothing. Most of the costumes of the province’s 24 minority nationalities deploy bright, strong colors, with embroidery patterns inspired by nature. Exemplifying the indigenous zest for color and imaginative stitch work is a little-known ethnic group called the Huayao Yi.
|Huayao Yi girl, Shaochong district
Although the Yi are scattered across most of Yunnan, very few of them come into contact with either foreign or domestic tourists. Yi villages are generally off the beaten track, in high mountain settings or on secluded plateaus only recently connected by roads to urban commercial areas. The average traveler sees them at the Stone Forest, catches glimpses around Dali and spots them in Ninglang County en route to visiting the Mosuo of Lugu Lake. Yet the Yi are as approachable as anyone else in the friendly province of Yunnan and it’s easy enough to find out which branch appeals to one’s taste. Nowadays you can browse Yi photos on the internet, while in the past century you simply thumbed through the big pictorial books published in Kunming and decided from the photos. That’s how I discovered the Huayao Yi.
The Huayao Yi inhabit a rolling plateau, about 2000 meters high, in the northern part of Shiping County, off the road to Tonghai, around six or seven hours ride south of Kunming. Ethnologists say they are a splinter group that broke off from a bigger Yi tribe further north. But the Huayao Yi claim that they have lived in these hills for over 3000 years, descendants of people saved by the hero Ah Lu. He appeared on the scene in the wake of a great natural disaster that ravaged the mountains, while overhead nine fierce suns burned up anything trying to grow. Upon the advice of the elders, Ah Lu drank all the ”Righteous Spirit” waters of the mountain, then with his bow and arrow shot eight suns out of the sky. The Yi revived and prospered.
|the characteristic flat roofs of a Huayao Yi village
Yet a Huayao Yi village is easily distinguishable from a Han settlement, for the flat roofs of the houses identify it from a distance. Yi houses are two-story, quadrangular compounds. A small square courtyard lies behind the entrance, with the kitchen off to the right and storerooms on the left. Sleeping quarters are above. The open room behind the courtyard contains the family altar and is also used for dining and for receiving guests. The flat roofs are for drying crops such as rice, wheat and maize, while tobacco—the area’s major cash crop—they cure in a tall square building separate from the compound.
The Yis’ most extraordinary difference from the Han, however, is in their traditional apparel. The Han people in this area historically favored dull shades of blue or grey. Huayao Yi women present a scintillating contrast, with the accent on bold red. Indeed, their very name reflects their taste in decoration. Huayao in Chinese means “flowery waist,” for these Yi believe a woman’s hips and waist to be the most attractive zone on the body, and so pay much attention, especially at festivals, in adorning that area.
|Yi of the"flowery waist"
|Huayao girl embroidering
|Huayao girls en route to a festival
|Huayao mother and child
The girls’ carefully crafted costumes are not worn often, being reserved for special occasions such as weddings and festivals, though some still dress up on market days. Married women, however, as well as the older generation, still by and large favor traditional Yi clothing. But one shouldn’t assume that the younger generation’s reluctance to dress their best for fieldwork indicates the erosion of traditional culture. On the contrary the Huayao Yi, like most of Yunnan’s minorities, are enjoying a revival of traditional culture and ethnic pride. Today’s teenage girls are better artisans than their mothers and know more old Yi songs than their grandmothers. Prosperous families deck out their children in Huayao Yi clothing, which is far more expensive than the modern alternative, and tote their babies in large cloth carriers featuring an explosion of embroidery. And Shaochong district’s Cultural Center actively promotes local music and dance, as well as inter-village festival participation.
|departing from Shaochong on market day
|a Huayao Yi family at dinner
|traditional shoes in vegetable-dyed colors
|advertising their traditional skill
Chinese movie watchers have become a little familiar with the Huayao Yi this past decade thanks to the success of the film Huayao Bride, produced by a provincial company and shot in a traditional Huayao village near Shaochong. The plot revolved around the complications of a Yi custom that newlyweds must keep separated from each other for one full year. The bride, a pretty and vivacious, spunky girl, wants to join a dragon dance team that will compete in Jilongjie, but the husband is also involved in the dances. Since they are not supposed to associate with each other, problems arise. Huayao Bride’s national success led to two sequels.
|Huayao Yi singer Li Fenglin
|Huayao dance performance
I thought of her as “the Sad-eyed Lady of the Highlands” for her mournful, quivering voice, now soft, now strong, suggestive of the deepest feelings. She sang in the Yi language, ballads of Yi ancestors, tunes of unrequited love and songs of her beloved homeland. Even without knowing the words any listener would be haunted by Li’s voice, as it reverberates in the back of the mind, stirring a hundred sentiments, long after the performance ends.
Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
What kind of bird is flying?
A small, golden bird is flying
Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
What kind of bird is flying?
A small, silver bird is flying
And the place where the golden bird
And the silver bird are flying
Is my own beautiful, charming homeland
My home—the Yi village
|Huayao Yi girl in her best ethnic style
* * *