IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


19-23 June 1998
Trier, Germany

Second International Conference on Yi Studies

Under the title 'Processes of Social Change, Rising Ethnic Identity, and Ethnicity among the Yi Nationality in China' the conference brought together more than forty scholars from China, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the US. The majority were scholars from among the Yi themselves. Twenty-nine papers were presented, all in Chinese. The conference was sponsored by the German Research Association (DFG).

By Thomas Heberer

The conference started with the issue of ethnic identification and definition. Stevan Harrell (University of Washington) illustrated the complexity of the term minzu (nationality) in China. The Yala for example, a group of people in Miyi county (Sichuan), are classified as a component of the Yi nationality, even though they do not recognize any kinship between themselves and the local Nuosu branch of the Yi. They are components of the same minzu, but they are two different ethnic groups and neither group will marry the other. Therefore there is a difference between the objective characteristics of a group set by the state (nationality or minzu) and the subjective consciousness of that group (ethnic group).

Pan Jiao (Central University of Nationalities, Beijing) argued that the ethnoscape in China seems to have confirmed the thesis that ethnicity is created by the nation-state. Although the diversity within the Yi is tremendous, the designation of Yi nationality seems to have been accepted by the Yi population. This is not only because they have no choice, pertinently they are aware of the advantages of forming a larger nationality in any political and economic bargaining with the state.
Wugashinuimo Louwu (University of Michigan) compared narratives from the classics of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi and concluded that even though 'Yi' is a constructed term, the majority of the 'Yi' population share many cultural elements and a common consciousness.
Charles F. McKhann (Whitman College, USA) criticized the concept that ethnicity in China is fundamentally a bipolar structure, in which all minorities are opposed to the majority Han. Suprisingly little has been done to address the issue of relations between minorities in the peripheral areas. If one takes Han cultural practices as the gauge of civilization, then there is much to be said for this model, for it accurately reflects a certain kind of historical change - Sinicization. But the model breaks down, if one considers other external sources of culture change, namely the influence of neighbouring minority ethnic groups.
Several paper presenters discussed the revival of traditional local practices. Shaha Gatse (Cultural Centre for Bimo Studies at Meigu County, Sichuan) argued that bimo (traditional priests and healers) were the core of Yi identity, as the Yi as a nationality possess no common language, customs or blood relations. Bamo Ayi (Central University of Nationalities, Beijing) pointed out that the number of bimo is growing both in both rural and in urban areas. Bimo are not only intermediaries between men, ghosts, and ancestors, but also between men, between clans, and between men and nature. The ethics of the bimo are by no means only traditional. Bimo are also models for a modern system of ethics and education. Benoit Vermander (Ricci Institute for Chinese Studies, Taipei) argued that the religion of the Nosu (Liangshan Yi) is not a 'primitive' one, but the result of a profound and continuous historical evolution which has not stopped yet. There is no homogeneous religion, but we can identify a 'world vision' that is proper to Nosu religion.
On the topic of the historiography of the Yi various questions were asked: is there one history of the Yi people or are there several histories (as He Yaohua, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences claimed), have the Yi as a nationality existed since the Zhou dynasty or are they the descendants of various people who have merged together throughout history? And what is the difference between the Yi history imagined by the Chinese state and the historical perception of various Yi groups and social strata within the Yi?
Ann Maxwell Hill (Dickinson College, USA) argued that the Yi in Xiao Liangshan were not a slave society, if we mean by that term a society where the mode of production was based on the slave-master relationship. Nuosu society bore little resemblance to economies that relied significantly on slave labour. Slavery was indeed the main institution through which outsiders became Nuosu. Nuosu consciousness of slavery was also a window on social stratification. Ma Erzi (Institute of Ethnic Studies of Liangshan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan) claimed that there was no term for 'slave' in the Yi language but that instead there were different words for specific situations and that therefore the English and Chinese terms for 'slave' would not correspond to the Yi terms and would thus present a wrong imagination of traditional Yi society.
Issues of language education were addressed by Huang Jianmin (Central University of Nationalities, Beijing) who considers Yi scripts and literature to be important factors in the identification and identity of the Yi. Halina Wasilewska (Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan, Poland) spoke about the Yi writing system and its multiple presentations. Generally speaking, fewer and fewer Yi are interested in bilingual education, and prefer education in Han Chinese, but there are different local developments. In Lunan county only very few people are interested that their children learn Yi language, as most have already turned to Han language, whereas in Liangshan only a few people understand Han Chinese and therefore have a deep interest in their children receiving a bilingual education. As Thomas Heberer (University of Duisburg, Germany) pointed out, there is still a considerable inequality in terms of minority languages, as access to higher education, employment, and professional career depends on mastering the Han language and not on mastering minority languages. This also has a material foundation and could change under specific conditions, e.g. with the development of an economy in the non-state sector based on ethnic group, with the emergence of a system of higher learning for non-Han nationalities or even with modernization processes that may lead to the revival of minority languages.
After the First International Yi Conference in Seattle 1995 (organized by Stevan Harrell) and the second one in Trier (by Thomas Heberer), the third will be held in September 2000 in Lunan Yi Autonomous County in China.
For more information please contact: Prof. Thomas Heberer,Institute of East Asian Studies/Political Science, Gerhard-Mercator University, 47048 Duisburg, Germany, tel: +49-203-379 3728, fax: +49-203-379 3729, e-mail: heberer@uni-duisburg.de.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia