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>  News Releases >   2005 >   September

Dartmouth brings artists from China's Yunnan Province

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 09/15/05 • Contact Sue Knapp (603) 646-3661

A Naxi performer.
A Naxi performer. Credit: Margaret Lawrence, Hopkins Center.
Background Information

Yunnan Province, known for its spectacular beauty, lofty mountains and diverse ethnic groups, is a frontier region in the southwest of China. It is China's eighth largest province. At approximately 244,800 square miles, it is a little smaller than the state of Texas. One of the world's longest rivers, the Mekong, passes through Yunnan. It has long been a gateway from China to other Southeast Asian countries. In the region, distinct lifestyles, customs, religious beliefs, and social structures of different ethnic groups have developed. Each group has its own colorful costumes, crafts, dances, music and songs. Today, many of the ancient traditions are compromised due to economic development and tourism. These changes are uprooting Yunnan's social and economic structures, which threatens the cultural heritage of the many ethnic minorities in the province.

About the Dai, Naxi, WA and Yi Ethnic Minority Groups

Dai- The Dai historical records can be traced back to 1 B.C.E.; the current population of Dai throughout Yunnan is over one million. The name "Dai" means "peace and freedom loving." The Dai take part in animistic worship by offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors with temples and pagodas in every village. They worship water and regard it a symbol of beauty, purity and happiness. The Dai, who enjoy a fertile environment, produce rice, sugar, tea, hemp, and fruits. It is said that they were the first to plant rice and to use a furrow to plow. Their tropical surroundings have fostered the Dai people's love of singing and dancing. Hulusi, a gourd flute which produces a hauntingly beautiful sound, is the main Dai musical instrument. Today, Dai mountain villages on the Lancang-Mekong river route with four national ports are some of the most important channels between Yunnan and Southeast Asia. The unique traditional culture of the Dai communities and the rich and rare nature of the ecology of the region are major attractions drawing large numbers of tourists from China and abroad.

Naxi- The Naxi has a population of 300,000 people who are concentrated in northwestern Yunnan. The Naxi were traditionally farmers and herders, and engaged in the long-distance yak and mule caravan trade between Yunnan and Tibet. Many of their folk arts-especially singing-reflect their pastoral and agricultural lifestyle. The Naxi are best known for two unusual cultural features. The western Naxi have a ritual specialist called a dongba, who chants and dances his elaborate rituals using texts written in a unique pictographic script. It is the only script of its kind in use in the world today. The eastern Moso/Naze are famous for a kind of marriage custom in which men visit their girlfriends by night, return to their households during the day, and any resulting children are raised in the children's mother's home. This kind of relationship promotes a relatively high degree of gender equity in Moso society, for both man and woman are free to break relationships off at any time and to maintain multiple relationships simultaneously.

A Yi performer.
A Yi performer. Credit: Margaret Lawrence, Hopkins Center.

Wa- According to historical records, the Wa people are the descendants of the Baipu people who lived before the Qin period (221 BC- 26 BC). Wa people did not have a written language. Instead, they kept records and accounts or passed messages to each other using material objects or by engraving bamboo strips. Message transferring using objects such as sugarcane, bananas and salt could signify friendship, chili meant anger and cock feathers denoted urgency. In 1957, an alphabetic script was created. The Wa people in Yunnan are concentrated in the southwest corner of Yunnan on the border of Burma (now known as Myanmar) surrounded by mountainous ridges, some three and a half miles above sea level. The total population of the Wa nationality in China is 351,000. They live in two-storied bamboo structures often built on mountain slopes. In the past, the Wa people worshipped nature. Today, some Wa people Christianity and others Buddhism.

Yi- With a population of more than eight million with more than five million concentrated in Yunnan, the Yi nationality is the largest ethnic minority in China, with over 50 subgroups. Yi history spans centuries. The name Yi was bestowed by the Chinese government in the 1950s. The Yi have their own language, belonging to the Yi Group of the Tibeto-Burman Branch of Sino-Tibetan Language Family. Yi writing, one of the earliest syllabic scripts in China, was formed in the 13th century and is still used today, along with a modern standardized writing system. The religion is animistic or shamanistic and involves the worshiping of natural and ancestral gods. The clothing of the Yi groups is colorful. Music and dance are an important part of Yi people's lives; they commonly greet people with songs while courtship is often expressed through song and dance.

More Information

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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