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Yi women and children
Hill tribe is a term long used by British and American travelers and colonial authorities in South Asia and Southeast Asia to describe indigenous groups that inhabit highland areas. The term is not liked by anthropologists because it has racial overtones (Why for example are the Swiss and Scotts not referred to as hill tribes?), plus it catalogues a variety of diverse groups into a single category and minimizes their differences and downplays the things that make them unique or even extraordinary. The preferred term is ethnic minority, or simply minority.

In most cases hill tribes are defined as indigenous communities that live at an elevation above 1,000 meters. Tribes tend to be groups that occupy a certain geographical area and marry within the group. They often have their own language and their own distinct material culture.

Hill tribe members have traditionally been regarded as animists but there are many examples of hill tribe members who are Buddhist and Christian. And while most have traditionally been agriculturists there are also examples of ones who are pastoralists and artisans.

Rather than mingling with the lowland people, the hill tribes have preferred to keep to themselves by living in small villages nestled in mountains that were once covered with dense forests. In many cases, the hills tribes consider themselves to be politically independent from the government of the country they reside in, and the land they live on to be separate states.

Websites and Sources: Book: Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984

Hill Tribes and Minorities of Southeast Asia

The ethnic minorities referred to here as hill tribes reside primarily in the remote mountains and hills of northern Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), southern China, Laos, western Vietnam, and Cambodia. There are several dozen different tribes and sub-tribes. The ones that have traditionally grown opium in the "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Laos and northern Thailand are perhaps the most well-known.

No one is exactly sure where most of the hill tribes came from: many had no written language until recently; and their languages, religion, customs and style of dress are often quite different from other groups near them. For the most part they are regarded as being ethnically different from the people in the lowlands and have lived for centuries beyond the reach of any centralized government.

Hill tribes are popular with tourists because of their fascinating and unique customs, styles of dress, architecture and crafts. Some tribes wear their traditional costumes all the time. Others only wear them during important festivals or events such as weddings and funerals. Yet others throw them on when tourists show up. Their festivals are often colorful and aspects of their daily life and religion are quite alien and interesting to Westerners and Chinese

Paduang woman in Myanmar

The mountainous region occupied by the hill tribes extends for 1500 miles between the Himalayas to the South China Sea. It is region of mountains, forests and areas cleared for agriculture. The climate is tropical with distinct wet and dry seasons. The lowlands are occupied by tropical rain forests and land used mainly for growing wet rice. At about 1,000 meters, where many tribes live, deciduous forest give way to pine forests. Transportation in the lowlands has traditionally been along river valleys, which run mostly north to south between north-and-south-running mountain ranges. In the highlands people get around on foot paths.

In Myanmar, ethnic minorities account for a 20 percent of the population and live on 50 percent the land. In Laos, they make up 50 percent of the population and occupy 80 percent of the land. In Vietnam where they are known as "Montagnards" (French for "Mountaineers") they account for 15 percent of the population and occupy more than two thirds of the land.

Some tribes in China and Myanmar live in recognized semi-autonomous states and others, especially in Laos and Myanmar, have members who have taken up arms and formed pro-independence rebel groups. The governments in Thailand and Myanmar and other Asian nations have also tried to convince the opium-growing tribes that it is more advantageous for them to live in semi-permanent settlements, growing cash crops like coffee and strawberries, than it is to move from place to place, raising opium.

South and Southwest China

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou together with western Hunan are ethnically diverse, although Han Chinese are clearly in' the majority. In Yunnan and Guizhou the minority populations are 32 percent and 26 percent, respectively, though they are under 4 percent in Sichuan. At least twenty-six different minority groups can be found in Yunnan. Among the largest are the Miao, Yi, Dong, Tujia, Hani, Dai, Tibetans, and Lisu. Much of the area was formerly part of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Until recent times, several important urban centers were predominantly populated by non-Han peoples-for example, Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

The climate generally ranges from cool temperate to tropical, depending on elevation and latitude. Much of the area is rugged mountains and plateaus, which rise westward toward Tibet. It is mainly minority groups who inhabit the mountains and high plateaus above 1,200 meters. Han populations are concentrated on the plains and at lower altitudes near sources ofwater for irrigation. However, irrigation farming and wet-rice agriculture are also found among some ofthe minorities, particularly the Dai, Bai, and Naxi.

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In recent years, cash crops have been encouraged by the state, particularly tobacco, rubber, sugar, tea, coffee, and tropical fruits in the most southern areas. Until the 1950s, slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced in the uplands, where the population depended on oats, buckwheat, potatoes, maize, and other “rough" grains supplemented by hunting and forest gathering. Northern Yunnan has become a major forestry area. Diminishing tracts of mountain pasture in northern Yunnan and eastern Sichuan are still utilized by Yi and Miao pastoralists. Despite the existence ofrich natural resources, road and rail transportation and telecommunications remain underdeveloped over most of this region. Only the Sichuan Basin, highly industrialized, rich in energy sources and mineral resources, and linked by rail and river to the Yangtze, matches inner China's productivity and wealth. There is a wide gap in living standards between Sichuan and the rest of the region and between the Han and the other nationalities within the region.

The Maritime South is a large region that includes southern Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi provinces. It is linguistically very diverse, and in some sections there are large minority populations particularly in Guangxi, where minority peoples account for almost 40 percent of the total. Some scholars would divide the region into a northern tea-and-rice area and a southern double-cropping rice area. However, cropping, population density, urbanization, and communications depend on altitude: much of the region is mountainous, and temperatures and soil quality vary. Yao, She, Li, and Zhuang generally live in uplands areas unsuitable for Han methods of farming.

Minorities in Southern China

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Wa sacrifice
Southeast China is home to numerous minorities, many of them hill tribes similar to those found in nearby Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the minorities live in Yunnan, a province along the border of Burma and Laos, and Guangxi Province, which has two autonomous regions within it for minorities. The largest minorities in this part of China are the Yi, who number in the millions and live primarily in Yunnan province, and the Miao, who number more than 5 million and live mainly in Guangxi Province. Among the smallest minorities are the Drung (5,000 members), the Jinuos (12,000), and the Pumis (24,000). These minorities, which live in Yunnan, are treated like "exotic pets" by the Han Chinese who find their customs and habits amusing and gawk at them as if they were animals in a zoo.

Minorities that live in Guangxi Province include Dong, Jing (also found in Vietnam), Yi, Maonan, Miao, Miaai, Mulam, Mulao, Tujia, Yao (mein), and Zhuang, Minorities that live in Guizhou province include the Miao, Bouyei, Dong, Yi, Shui, Hui, Zhuang, Bai, Tujiao and Gelao. These tribes celebrate over a 1,000 festivals a year.

Books: “An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China” by James S. Olson, Greenwood Press, 1998; “Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China” by Stevan Harrell, University of Washington Press, 2002; The Exploration of Yunnan by Jim Goodman.

Southern China Ethnic Groups (mostly Guizhou and Guangxi) (size ranking of China's 55 minorities, ethnic group: population in 2010, 2000 and 1990):
2) Zhuang: 16,926,381 (1.27 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 16,187,163 in 2000; 15,489,630 in 1990.
6) Miao: 9,426,007 (0.7072 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 8,945,538 in 2000; 7,398,035 in 1990.
11) Dong: 2,879,974 (0.2161 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 2,962,911 in 2000; 2,514,014 in 1990.
13) Yao: 2,796,003 (0.2098 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 2,638,878 in 2000; 2,134,013 in 1990.
17) Li: 1,463,064 (0.1098 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 1,248,022 in 2000; 1,110,900 in 1990.
20) She: 708,651 (0.0532 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 710,039 in 2000; 630,378 in 1990.
23) Gelao: 550,746 (0.0413 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 579,744 in 2000; 437,997 in 1990.
26) Sui: 411,847 (0.0309 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 407,000 in 2000; 345,993 in 1990.
30) Mulao: 216,257 (0.0162 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 207,464 in 2000; 159,328 in 1990.
37) Maonan: 101,192 (0.0076 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 107,184 in 2000; 71,968 in 1990.
43) Gin: 28,199 (0.0021 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 22,584 in 2000; 18,915 in 1990.
54) Gaoshan (Taiwan): 4,009 (0.0003 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 4,488 in 2000; 2,909 in 1990.

Minorities in Southern Yunnan

Deang in the early 1900s

Yunnan province is home to a third of all the ethnic minorities in China. Some groups originated from the region; others are believed to have come from the outside. The Bai people are believed to have lived in their homeland for 3,000 years. Archeological excavation in Kunming have unearthed 2000-year old weapons, drums, paintings and silver, jade and turquoise jewelry The 26 registered minorities in the Yunnan Province include the Achang, Bai, Benglong, Bonan, Bulang, Dai, De'ang, Drung, Dulong. Hani (Akha), Hui, Jinuo, Jingpo (Kachin in Burma), Lahu, Lisu, Miao (Hmong), Mongols, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, She, Tibetans, Wa, Yao, Yi, and Zhuang,

Southwest China (mostly western Yunnan) (size ranking of China's 55 minorities, ethnic group: population in 2010, 2000 and 1990)
12) Bouyei: 2,870,034 (0.2153 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 2,973,217 in 2000; 2,545,059 in 1990.
16) Hani: 1,660,932 (0.1246 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 1,440,029 in 2000; 1,253,952 in 1990.
19) Dai: 1,261,311 (0.0946 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 1,159,231 in 2000; 1,025,128 in 1990.
21) Lisu: 702,839 (0.0527 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 635,101 in 2000; 574,856 in 1990.
24) Lahu: 485,966 (0.0365 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 453,765 in 2000; 411,476 in 1990.
25) Wa (Va): 429,709 (0.0322 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 396,709 in 2000; 351,974 in 1990.
33) Jingpo:147,828 (0.0111 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 132,158 in 2000; 119,209 in 1990.
36) Blang: 119,639 (0.0090 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 91,891 in 2000; 82,280 in 1990.
39) Pumi: 42,861 (0.0032 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 33,628 in 2000; 29,657 in 1990.
40) Achang: 39,555 (0.0030 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 33,954 in 2000; 27,708 in 1990.
44) Jino: 23,143 (0.0017 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 20,899 in 2000; 18,021 in 1990.
45) De'ang: 20,556 (0.0015 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 17,935 in 2000; 15,462 in 1990.

Minorities in Northern Yunnan and Sichuan

Central, Southern, Western China (mostly northern Yunnan and Sichuan) (size ranking of China's 55 minorities, ethnic group: population in 2010, 2000 and 1990):
7) Yi: 8,714,393 (0.6538 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 7,765,858 in 2000; 6,572,173 in 1990.
8) Tujia: 8,353,912 (0.6268 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 8,037,014 in 2000; 5,704,223 in 1990.
14) Bai: 1,933,510 (0.1451 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 1,861,895 in 2000; 1,594,827 in 1990.
27) Naxi: 326,295 (0.0245 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 309,477 in 2000; 278,009 in 1990.
28) Qiang: 309,576 (0.0232 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 306,476 in 2000; 198,252 in 1990.
41) Nu: 37,523 (0.0028 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 28,770 in 2000; 27,123 in 1990.
52) Derung (Dulong): 6,930 (0.0005 percent of China’s population) in 2010; 7,431 in 2000; 5,816 in 1990.

YI CULTURE AND LIFE See Separate Article factsanddetails.com ;
NAXI LIFE, MARRIAGE, FOOD AND HOUSES factsanddetails.com ;
MOSUO MINORITY factsanddetails.com ;
QIANG LIFE AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com ;
SHE MINORITY factsanddetails.com ;
BAI MINORITY CULTURE AND LIFE factsanddetails.com;



Early History of Minorities in Southern China

Some ethnic minorities have been where they are for a considerable length of time. Most migrated from somewhere else. Some originated in China. Others came from Tibet. Much of what is known about their past has been ascertained through studies of their languages, oral history, myths and Chinese records. The discovery of a huge new 3,000-year-old neolithic site in Yunnan Province was announced in July 2008. Covering an area of four square kilometers, it is one of the largest Neolithic sites ever found. Thousands of artifacts and wooden poles have been unearthed. The poles, found 4.6 meters underground, were supports for buildings.

Some groups were primarily hunters and gathers in the early stages of their development and adapted to agriculture relatively late and then practiced relatively primitive slash and burn agriculture rather than more sophisticated, irrigated, wet-land, rice agriculture. Agriculture was made easier with the introduction of Irish potatoes and maize in the 16th century and the adoption of high-altitude-cool-weather crops like buckwheat, barley, and oats

A late Zhou dynasty historian wrote: "the people of those five regions — the Middle states and the Jung, Yi, and other wild tribes around them — all had their severe natures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without it being cooked." The same historian also described tribes to the south, west and north that tattooed their foreheads, turned their feet inward, wore skins, and lived in caves.

Some anthropologists believe the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu and Lahu descended from the Tibetan highlands in the second century B.C. after some of them lost their ability to deal with the harsh cold. The Lahu are believed to be related to the Qiang and are one of the first ethnic groups to be chronicled in the Chinese historical record. They were referred to in the 12th century B.C. and originated from the western plains near the mountains in Gansu where the Qiang lived. The Qiang gave birth to the Lolos, a tribe which once had a number of independent kingdoms in the eastern Tibet and the Sichuan region of China.[Source: Anthony R. Walker, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

The Lolos until about a century ago was the primary name of the Yi. The Yi share a common ancestry with the Bai, Naxi, Lahu and Lisu and appeared around present-day Kunming around the 2nd century B.C. The ancestors of the Yi were known as the Qiang, one of the groups in China that is different from but also gave birth to the current minority known as the Qiang that live near the Yi.

Yue, Qiang and the Bo People

Many ethnic groups in southern China and Southeast Asia are believed to have descended originally from the Qiang. A very old nationality, the Qiang were one of the first ethnic groups to be chronicled to in the Chinese historical record. Possibly the indigenous people of China, they were referred to in the 12th century B.C. by the Zhou, who originated from the western plains near the mountains in Gansu where the Qiang lived. The Zhou identified the Qiang as allies and the two groups were very similar and may have exchanged women. During this period, there seems to have little been differentiation between between lowlanders and mountain people. It was not until the sixth century B.C.,, with the spread of intensive agriculture in the east, that the two cultures began to become more distinct. [Source: Gerald A. Huntley, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The ancient Qiang originally lived in the north and northwest of present-day China in what is now Shanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai and were primarily herders and nomads. Beginning around 4,000-5,000 years ago, a part of the Qiang population migrated in successive waves toward southwest China, mixed with the native peoples, and finally settled in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. After settling, the Yi became farmers, a process that finished during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C-.A.D. 8). From this time onwards they were known as the Yi. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Several groups in southern China, including the Dong, are believed to have descended from the Baiyue or Yue, a group of people in that lived in south China in ancient times at least as far back as the the Qin (221–206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.– A.D. 220) dynasties. The term "Yue" has historically been used in a broad and general way by the ancient Chinese to refer to a number of ethnic groups that were otherwise difficult to categorize. Similarly, the ancient Greeks used the term "Keltai" (source of the term "Celt") to refer to various peoples and tribes that lived in a wide area of present-day Europe. Some scholars believe that the original Yue people who branched out along a northerly route that would lead them into present-day China are in fact forebears to the Han Chinese. The Cantonese language is also called the Yue language. A similar group, forebears of the present-day Tai (alternatively "Thai") folk of Thailand, branched southward. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Yet others are believed to have originated from the Ba and Bo People The Bo were an ethnic minority people living astride the borders of modern day Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. There they created a brilliant culture as early as 3,000 years ago. The ancestors of the Bo helped the Western Zhou (c.1100 771 B.C.) to overthrow the ruling Yin at the end of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 1100 B.C.) . [Source: Li

The Miao and Hmong have a very long history. Their legends claim that they lived along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys as early as 5,000 years ago. Later they migrated to the forests and mountains of southwest China. There they mostly lived in Guizhou Province. It is believed that the ancestors of Miao may have been part of the Three South people (an ancient nationality) that evolved from the Zong people of the Zhou Dynasty. During the Qin and Han Dynasties (approximately 200 B.C. to A.D. 200), they mainly occupied Western Hunan and Eastern Guizhou Provinces and gradually moved and spread throughout the mountainous areas in Southwestern China. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Origin and Migrations of Tai People

The Dai People of China, Thai people of Thailand and the Lao of Laos are part of the larger Tai ethnolinguistic peoples found in Southeast Asia and southern China. Their languages are languages are classified as part of the Tai–Kadai family of languages. The majority of them are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Other Tai people include the Shan in Myanmar and the Lao in Laos. Each group speaks its own Tai language or dialect and has customs and characteristics unique to the region they live in. Almost all Tai people are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.

The forebears of the modern Thai, Dai and Lao were Tai-speaking people living south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) on the mountainous plateau of what is now the Chinese province of Yunnan. Early Chinese records (the first recorded Chinese reference to the Tai is dated sixth century B.C.) document the Tai cultivating wetland rice in valley and lowland areas. During the first millennium A.D., before the emergence of formal states governed by Tai-speaking elites, these people lived in scattered villages drawn together into muang, or principalities. Each muang was governed by a chao, or lord, who ruled by virtue of personal qualities and a network of patron-client relationships. Often the constituent villages of a muang would band together to defend their lands from more powerful neighboring peoples, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic and their original homeland a matter of academic debate. While most scholars favour a region vaguely stretching from Guangxi in southern China to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, a more radical theory says the Thais descended from an ocean-based civilisation in the western Pacific. The oceanic proponents trace the development of symbols and myths in Thai art and culture to arrive at their conclusions. This vast, non-unified zone of Austro-Thai influence spread all over Southeast Asia at various times. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Nanzhao Kingdom

In the A.D. sixth and seventh century, the area around Dali developed very quickly. The tribes inhabiting the Erhai Basin joined together to create political entities that become to be known as the Six Zhaos (Kingdoms). Among them was the Mengshe zhao—also called Nanzhao for being the southerner of these kingdoms. Established by Xinuolou in 649 in the present city of Weishan, it became the most powerful of these kingdoms. By 737 the other five zhaos were under the rule of Piluoge, who is considered the founder of the Nanzhao Kingdom. [Source: Ethnic China]

In the 8th century, six principalities unified to create the powerful Nanzhao kingdom, whose capital was in Dali. It ruled Yunnan for 247 years and ten of its 13 kings were granted titles by the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The Nanzhao Kingdom was led by ancestors of the Yi and Bai ethnic groups. King Piluoge, was called King of Yunnan. The Kingdom of Nanzhao was the most powerful political structure in the south of China from 8th to 10th century. It served as both a buffer zone between China and Tibet and became an important trade link between China and Southeast Asia, a beachhead for Theravada Buddhism in southern China. *\

On the Nanzhao kingdom, Samuel R. Clarke wrote in “Among the Tribes of South-west China” in 1911: “ There is a history of that kingdom, in two volumes, published in Chinese at Yunnan: we have seen this work, but have had no opportunity of reading it. That kingdom was formed by the amalgamation of six Chao tribes, and hence called the Nan-chao or Southern Chao, and these were Shan tribes. With the extinction of that kingdom, Yunnan was made a province and incorporated in the Chinese Empire, whereas up till that time it was only an occasional possession. Many of those people still remain in southern Yunnan, but many of them have moved to the east and farther south. [Source:“Among the Tribes of South-west China” by Samuel R. Clarke (China Inland Mission, 1911)]

Chinese historians say the Nanzhao Kingdom was ruled by a Yi aristocratic elite, whose subjects were mostly Bai. Under the Nanzhao, the Cangshan canal was built, allowing the irrigation of thousands of hectares land. Agriculture prospered the arts and the culture flourished. The kings of Nanzhao Kingdom expanded and took control of most of the present day Yunnan Province and reached into Vietnam, Laos, Burma and the southern part of Sichuan Province. Nanzhao rulers made shrewd alliances with Tibetans and Chinese at a time when the Chinese Tang Dynasty struggled against the first Tibetan kingdom.

According to the Chinese government: “ Slaves were used to do heavy labor, while "free" peasants were subject to heavy taxation and forced to render various services including conscription into the army. Some of them, who lost their land, were made slaves. Nanzhao regime rulers cruelly oppressed the slaves and mercilessly plundered other ethnic nationalities through warfare. Productivity was thus seriously harmed. This caused slave rebellions and uprisings. The Nanzhao Kingdom ended in a bloody palace coup in 902. [Source: China.org]

Dali Kingdom

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, ”Later, Nanzhao was replaced by Dali, which acknowledged allegiance to the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and ruled Yunnan for more than 300 years. In 1253, the Mongolian aristocrats conquered Dali. Before long, the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) set up a system appointing Bai headmen under the jurisdiction of the former royal court of the Dali Kingdom. In the following centuries, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Mongolians, and Manchus moved from the central provinces into the areas of Yunnan inhabited by the Bai. There was much cross-cultural exchange and intermarriage. Chinese culture exerted a strong influence on the Bai. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Duan Siping established the Dali Kingdom in 937. It quickly occupied the space left vacant by its predecessor and filled the void with Buddhism-infused culture that thrived relatively unhindered due to the decline of Tibet’s power and the fact that the Chinese Song Dynasty was preoccupied battling its northern enemies. There is also debate over the ethnic composition of Dali Kingdom leadership. While Chinese historians agree it was a mainly Bai kingdom, Thailand's historians suggest that the ancestors of the Dai were the ruler of this kingdom. Six centuries of Nanzhao-Dali rule came to end when the Mongol-Chinese armies of Kublai Khan conquered Sichuan and the Dali Kingdom. Dali was not sacked and the Bai were not punished—a fate that befell many states conquered by the Mongols. The Duan royal family ruled their former territories under the Mongol government with some of them enduring until the 20th century. [Source: Ethnic China]

According to Chinese government: The Dali kingdom “adopted a series of measures such as abolishing exorbitant taxes and removing conservative ministers. As a result, social productivity was restored. The kingdom lasted for over 300 years (937-1253) as a tributary to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) court. It sent war-horses, handicrafts and precious medicines to the court, and in return received science and technology, as well as books in the Han language. Economic and cultural exchanges with the Hans contributed greatly to the development of this border area. The kingdom was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) rule was established there. [Source: China.org]

Marco Polo in Yunnan

Of his travels in Yunnan, Marco Polo wrote about local religious customs, shamanistic healing practices and the use of cowrie shells and salt as money, all of which have been verified by scholars. He also wrote about a giant snake with legs and a mouth "so large that it could well swallow a man." Some believe he was referring to crocodiles that lived in the region or to a local legend of a giant man-eating snake.

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Marco Polo
Marco Polo described people in Yunnanwith tattoos and gold-sheathed teeth. The tattoos were applied, he wrote, using "five needles joined together...they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff." The Dai that live in the area he visited have gold teeth and tattoos like those he described. Marco Polo also wrote "people are accustomed to eat the raw flesh of fowls, sheep, oxen and buffalo...the poorer sorts only dip it in a sauce of garlic mixed with good spice...they eat it as well as we do the cooked. The Bai people around Dali eat the same way today.

Describing the Yunnan city of Kunming in the 13th century, when it was under the rule of the Kingdom of Dali, Marco Polo wrote: "In it are found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population, consisting of idolaters, Nestorian Christians and Saracens or Mohametans...The land is fertile in rice and wheat...For money they employ the white porcelain shell, found in the sea, and which they also wear as ornaments around their necks.” He also said, “The natives do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connection with their wives, providing the act is voluntary on the woman's part "

Tusi System and Sites

In imperial times many of the larger, more powerful ethnic groups such as the Dai operated under the tusi system in which local leaders (called “tusis”) were given charters and tacit approval by the Chinese government to govern in return for nominal recognition of imperial authority. The tusi system was a sort of state authorized feudal system in which peasants came under control of tusi landlords and were required to pay them half their harvest as taxes. The system survived for centuries and in some cases was used as an excuse by the powerful groups to subjugate less powerful ones.

Tusi, often translated as "headmen" or "chieftains", were hereditary tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan (960–1279), Ming (1271-1368), and Qing dynasties (1368-1644) of China. Tusi were located primarily in Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, the Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan, and the Enshi Prefecture of Hubei. Tusi also existed in the historical dependencies of China in what is today northern Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and northern Thailand. Starting in Ming dynasty China began replacing many of the native chiefs in the tusi system with Han Chinese officials (See Ming and Qing Eras Below). [Source: Wikipedia]

Tusi Sites were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. According to UNESCO: “Located in the mountainous areas of southwest China, this property encompasses remains of several tribal domains whose chiefs were appointed by the central government as ‘Tusi’, hereditary rulers from the 13th to the early 20thcentury. The Tusi system arose from the ethnic minorities’ dynastic systems of government dating back to the 3rd century B.C.. Its purpose was to unify national administration, while allowing ethnic minorities to retain their customs and way of life. The sites of Laosicheng (50 kilometers west-southwest of Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province ), Tangya (Xianfeng County, Hubei Province) and Hailongtun Fortress (Gaoping Town, Zunyi City, Guizhou Province) that make up the site bear exceptional testimony to this form of governance, which derived from the Chinese civilization of the Yuan and Ming periods. [Source: UNESCO]

Distributed around the mountainous areas of southwest China are the remains of tribal domains whose leaders were appointed by the central government as ‘Tusi’, hereditary rulers of their regions from the 13th to the early 20th century. This system of administrative government was aimed at unifying national administration while simultaneously allowing ethnic minorities to retain their customs and way of life. The three sites of Laosicheng, Tangya and the Hailongtun Fortress combine as a serial property to represent this system of governance. The archaeological sites and standing remains of Laosicheng Tusi Domain and Hailongtun Fortress represent domains of highest ranking Tusi; the Memorial Archway and remains of the Administration Area, boundary walls, drainage ditches and tombs at Tangya Tusi Domain represent the domain of a lower ranked Tusi. Their combinations of local ethnic and central Chinese features exhibit an interchange of values and testify to imperial Chinese administrative methods, while retaining their association with the living cultural traditions of the ethnic minority groups represented by the cultural traditions and practices of the Tujia communities at Laosicheng.

“ Tusi sites of Laosicheng, Tangya and the Hailongtun Fortress clearly exhibit the interchange of human values between local ethnic cultures of Southwest China, and national identity expressed through the structures of the central government.” They “ are evidence of the Tusi system of governance in the Southwestern region of China and thus bear exceptional testimony to this form of governance which derived from earlier systems of ethnic minority administration in China, and to the Chinese civilisation in the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods.”

Minorities in Southern China During the Ming and Qing Dynasty

Hill Tribe Migrations

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) indigenous peoples resisted colonization by Han Chinese and other peoples and were sometimes joined by descendants of earlier waves of settlers. Starting in Ming dynasty China began replacing many of the native chiefs in the tusi system with Han Chinese officials, a policy that was continued under the Qing dynasty. Many minorities came under direct Chinese control. Some were under the control of a Chinese magistrate and a native leader. After the Ming armies drove out the Mongols in the 14th century, many Chinese moved into the Dali area and intermarried with the Bai. In 1874, a Hui Muslim named Du Wenxiu united the Bai, Naxi, Yi and Dai in a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was brutally put down in 1892. Missionaries arrived when the Burma Road was constructed nearby in 1937-38. In the 1950s, numerous autonomous region. counties and districts were created for ethnic minorities in China by the Communist government. The Chinese government has criticized hill tribes in southern China for providing their own with "poor education quality" and said that "the temptations of modern life have failed to lure these Miao out of their dark, unhealthy cave."

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Ming histories record 218 “tribal" uprisings in Guangxi alone, 91 in Guizhou (which included portions of Yunnan), and 52 in Guangdong. The peoples of that area (ancestral to the present-day Yao, Miao, Zhuang, Gelao, and a number of smaller groups) were either assimilated, decimated, or forced to retreat to higher elevations or westward; some populations began the migration to present-day Vietnam and Thailand. The Han-settled areas were organized into the same administrative units as prevailed elsewhere in China, governed by appointed bureaucrats. The surviving non-Han peoples were uneasily brought into that structure or, in areas where they still outnumbered the Han, were controlled by indirect rule under hereditary landed officials (tumu or tusi) initially drawn from the indigenous elites. As long as the rulers of these quasi-fiefdoms kept the peace and paid taxes and tribute to the state, they had a free hand in administering local law and exacting rents and labor service for their own advancement. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Imperial China "expanded central-government control to Taiwan relatively easily, but Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, and the northwest continued to be problematic. In the southwest, there were wide-scale “Miao Rebellions," a generic term for all indigenous uprisings in the area. There were major rebellions in the 1670s, the 1680s, and again in the late 1730s. Qing records list some 350 uprisings in Guizhou between 1796 and 1911, and this number may be an undercount. No sooner had the state established firmer control over the minority peoples of the southwest then they faced the armed uprisings of Muslim ethnic and religious movements in Shaanxi and Gansu (1862-1875), and the “Panthay" Muslim Rebellion in Yunnan (1856-1873), which had set up its capital in Dali. Even after the status of Xinjiang was changed from a military colony to a province in 1884, Muslim resistance continued until the end of the dynasty.

In late Qing, the Han too were in rebellion: the Taiping Rebellion, which began among the Hakka in Guangxi and Guangdong, held most of southeast China during the 1850s and 1860s and extended its influence into Guizhou and Sichuan. The Nien Rebellion in the same period dominated in the area north of the Huai River.What seems to have kept the Qing in power throughout was a firm alliance of interest with the Han literati-elites who filled the bureaucratic posts of empire. In time, the Qing emperors out-Confucianized the Chinese themselves, adopting and encouraging traditional Chinese political and social thought based on the Confucian canon and assimilating to Chinese cultural styles. One might even say that they identified with the Han in viewing all other ethnic groups as “barbarians."

Migrations of Yao and Miao-Hmong into Southeast Asia

The ancient Yao people lived in the fertile Dongting Lake and Poyang lake areas in what is now Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces. Because of pressures from the Han Chinese, they were forced to move southward, from the plain areas to the hills and ultimately ended up in the desolate and uninhibited mountains and forests, where infertile soil forced them to clear the mountains by burning them and practice extensive cultivation, yielding only a slight harvest. After a period of time, nutrients in the the soils were consumed and in order to survive they had to move again and clear new lands. ~

Historically, Yao people mainly moved southwest. They first moved to Guangxi and Guangdong and then further southwest to Guizhou and Yunnan. Today most of Yao people in Yunnan can be traced back to Guangdong and Guangxi origins. Some of Yao people in Mengla, Xishuangbanna moved to the northern mountainous areas in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. ~

The Yao reached Vietnam, as early as the eleventh century to escape from the imperial Chinese administration and to find new hill farmlands. Major movements of Yao further south, outside of China into Southeast Asia, probably began during the 19th century, stimulated by the expansion of the opium trade and the Qing-Manchu government’s reprisals against hill peoples in the aftermath of the Taiping, the Panthay, and other rebellions which wracked southern China in that period. From Laos, some Yao entered the Nam Tha and Chiang Rai areas and what is now Phayao Province of Thailand in the late 19th century, and greater numbers arrived after World War II, with most settling in Chiang Rai. Books written in the 1960s mentioned some 130 Yao living in Kiang Tung of Shan State in Burma (Myanmar). [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal]

In the early 19th century the Miao began migrating into Southeast Asia and Hainan Island (Chinese territory off coast of Vietnam) after they were forced off their homelands in the Chinese forests by the Chinese and pressured into assimilating and adopting the Chinese language. Later they migrated southward and settled in the mountains in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, where they raised live stock and grew rice and other crops. [Sources: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988; W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

In some cases their migrations have been as much as vertical — from the lowlands into the highlands — as horizontal across Asia. An old Miao saying goes: "Birds nest in trees, fish swim in rivers, Miao live in mountains." Depending on the terrain, the settled farming cited in Miao historical myths gave way to shifting slash-and-burn agriculture, facilitated by the introduction of the Irish potato and maize in the sixteenth century, and the adoption of high-altitude/cool-weather crops like barley, buckwheat, and oats. Farming was supplemented by forest hunting, fishing, gathering, and pastoralism.

Image Sources: Nolls China website; Johomaps, trip.org, San Francisco Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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