The Yi People and Language

The Yi People

The people known in Chinese as the Yi 彝, and in English as the Lolo, are one of the most numerous minority nationalities in China, comprising about 6.5 million people according to the 1990 census.

The largest concentration of Yi people (nearly a quarter of the entire Yi population) is to be found in the mountainous Liangshan 凉山 ("Cool Mountain") region of Southern Sichuan and adjoining parts of Northern Yunnan and Western Guizhou. Before the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 the Yi people in this area, who call themselves the Nuosu ꆈꌠ, led a largely independant existence, and for centuries Chinese control over the area had been nominal. The area of Southern Sichuan inhabited by the Yi people, around the city of Xichang 西昌, is now designated as the Liangshan Yi Nationality Autonomous Region 凉山彝族自治州.

The remainder of the Yi population, who variously call themselves the Sani, Axi or Misapo, is scattered in isolated pockets across Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in the south-west of China, as well as in Vietnam and Myanmar. These populations lack the social cohesion and cultural unity of the Liangshan population, and generally co-exist with other minority nationalities.

Traditional Yi society was caste based. At the top of the social hierarchy were the "Black Yi" (so-called from the colour of their clothing), who are believed to be the descendants of the earliest Yi people. Subservant to the Black Yi aristocracy are the so-called "White Yi", who are believed to be descended from non-Yi slaves.

The Yi Language

The Yi 彝 language, also known historically as Lolo, belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family of the Sino-Tibetan phylum, and is spoken by between 4 and 5 million people in south-west China (provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi).

The Yi language is divided into six major dialects by Chinese linguists :

  1. Northern dialect : South-western Sichuan (principally the Liangshan Yi Nationality Autonomous Region 凉山彝族自治州), and Northern Yunnan; typified by the speech of Xide 喜德 district in Sichuan.
  2. Western dialect : Western Yunnan; typified by the speech of Nanjian Yi Nationality Autonomous District 南涧彝族自治县.
  3. Central dialect : Southern Central Yunnan; typified by the speech of Nanhua 南华 district.
  4. Southern dialect : Southern Yunnan; typified by the speech of Mojiang 墨江 district.
  5. South-Eastern dialect : South-eastern and Eastern Yunnan; typified by the speech of Mile 弥勒 district.
  6. Eastern dialect : North-eastern Yunnan, Southern Sichuan, Western Guizhou, and Western Guangxi; typified by the speech of Dafang 大方 district in Guizhou.

As may be expected with a population that is widely dispersed across mountainous terrain, the dialects of Yi vary considerably, and are generally not mutually intelligible.

The Northern dialect, with some 1.6 million speakers, is the largest and linguistically most coherant of these dialects. As the heartland of the Northern dialect are the Greater and Lesser Liangshan 凉山 Mountains of Southern Sichuan and neighbouring parts of Yunnan and Guizhou this dialect is commonly known as the Liangshan Yi dialect.

600 Phrases in the Liangshan Yi Dialect | Yi Script | Unicode Encoding of the Yi Script | Yi Phonetic Alphabet | Dictionary of Liangshan Yi

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