A culture with its own costumes, calendar

Wang Yuan
In Yunnan Province, a town recreates the history and lifestyle of China's sixth-largest ethnic minority. It's all a bit touristy but worth a short stop.
Wang Yuan
SSI ļʱ

Kunming and Dali are typically on the itineraries of people visiting the southwestern province of Yunnan. Lying on the main road between the two cities is Yiren Ancient Town, an emerging tourist destination in its own right.

Yiren literally means “Yi people,” and that sums up the whole point of a town that isn’t ancient at all. It was built in 2005 to showcase China’s sixth-largest ethnic minority.

The Yi people trace their culture back thousands of years. They have their own language and even their own calendar.

The town was originally part of Dejiang City, which dated back to Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) but fell into ruin. The buildings in the new town were designed on the architectural style of the dynasty, with grey brick, black tiles and pointed cornices.

Roaming the town today, visitors do have to endure some commercial overkill if they want to explore Yi culture.

A culture with its own costumes, calendar

A marketplace typical of a Yi community 

One of the highlights in the town is the Yi Tribe area, where traditional residences of the Yi people are displayed. A typical home comprises a three-story building with a courtyard, conveying the traditional concepts of order, respect and filial piety in family relationships.

Three types of Yi houses are in the tribe.

The Girls’ House is a spot for young people to date and chat. In some regions of China where the Yi live, dating isn’t allowed at home, hence the need for meeting places.

Bimo’s House and Suni’s House are residences for priests. Bimo is the highest order of priesthood, responsible for praying, divination and copying ancient texts. Suni are the authorized wizards of the tribe, responsible for performing rituals such as demon exorcism.

The 13th bimo, Lu Chengxiong, is often invited to festive celebrations in the town, symbolizing the new town’s acknowledged inclusion in the Yi tribe and culture.

Festive events are a drawing card for the town. The most significant is the Firebrand Festival, which falls in June on the lunar calendar. Lasting for three days, the festival displays the complex fire worship rituals of the ancient Yi. Families light torches in front of their houses throughout the three nights to dispel evil spirits.

The festival also includes horse racing, wrestling, archery, bullfighting, dancing and singing performances and beauty contests. Those who don’t visit during the actual festival can sample its excitement all year around. Every evening, torches are lit in the town and a bonfire party, the traditional finale of the festival, is held. Visitors are invited to join the locals in singing and dancing around the bonfire.

A culture with its own costumes, calendar
Xinhua / Xinhua

The bonfire party recreates the highlight of the Firebrand Festival.

Local food specialties are also part of the Yiren experience.

Snack stands on the street selling mutton soup and kebabs hang slaughtered goats on their stalls to show visitors how fresh the meat is. Rice cake stands offer a local specialty — half white, half purple — made from black sticky rice and then steamed.

The Long Banquet is a setting for people who prefer more formal meals. This New Year’s feast for the Yi people is available every day.

The traditional “eight bowls” of dishes are served at the banquet. Chicken and fish are placed in the center of the table, surrounded by pork, tofu, egg rolls, fungi and vegetables.

A show entitled “Love Song of the Yi” is performed at the banquet, observing the ancient tradition of combining food, dancing and acrobatics.

A culture with its own costumes, calendar

Performers entertain at the Long Banquet, which features traditional fare.

Naturally, souvenir shops are ubiquitous in the town. They line the 2-kilometer-long main street, selling Yi folk costumes, embroidery and jade accessories.

One of the most popular stores, called Yi’s Commune, or Yiren Gongshe, is usually packed with crowds.

Souvenir buying aside, a bit of window shopping amid street artists showing off their talents is a nice way to soak up the local atmosphere.

“Although the town might not be as gorgeous as other places in the country, it expresses the Shangri-La of another culture, which impresses people with its unique beauty,” according to Inner Peace on the travel service site mafengwo.cn.

If you go

There are direct flights and high-speed trains linking Shanghai and the Yunnan capital Kunming. Visitors can catch a train from Kunming to Chuxiong, or take the No. 5 Bus on Zixi Avenue.

Admission: The town is free to enter, but the Yi Tribe area charges between 120 yuan (US$17.70) and 200 yuan per person. The admission includes the bonfire party and the Long Banquet. The price varies according to banquet seating.

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