Losing Home: The Yi People and Environment in the Liangshan Region

by Zhen Wang

Liangshan (凉山) is a mountainous region of 60,423 square km2 that occupies much of the southern part of Sichuan province, on the border with Yunnan province. It has the largest population of ethnic Yi nationally, totaling nearly 50% of the 4.5 million inhabitants in 2010. In recognition of the large percentage of ethnic minorities, Liangshan is designated as an autonomous prefecture and directly controls 1 county-level city and 16 counties.

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© Fei Tian (田飞) 2016. Anning River

My research project “The Changing Landscape of Ethnic Minority Villages in Southwest China” began in November 2014, and since July 2016 it has been sponsored by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of the People’s Republic of China. In November 2016, our research team visited 21 families in 7 villages across 4 townships and 1 county. The area covered was from Anning River Valley (安宁河), the largest river in the Liangshan area, to the mountainous Dafengding Nature Reserve (大封顶自然保护区), an important panda habitat. The reserve can only be accessed for a few months each summer before it is once again blocked by heavy snow.

China is an ethnically diverse country, with 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities living alongside the majority Han, who make up more than 90% of the nation’s population. The Yi (彝族) is the sixth-largest ethnic minority, with a population of around 8.7 million (2010), and is one of the most ancient ethnic groups, dating back over 3,000 years. Historically, most Yi people lived scattered in less developed mountainous areas, while others lived in the flatlands or valleys. This was an idyllic setting, in many ways: beautiful scenery, a pleasant climate, and an abundance of natural resources that allowed for a lifestyle in harmony with nature and rich culture to develop. Evidence of their strong connection to place, the Yi developed their own religion, called Bimoism (毕摩教), which deified gods of nature as well as their ancestors. Even today, the ancestor worship ceremony (祭祖) is their most important religious practice. The entire extended family gathers, and in many cases sacrifices all their possessions.

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© Junhui Xiang (向隽惠) 2011. The Yi ancestor worship ceremony.

Ironically, the same remote conditions that favored the development of the distinct Yi culture are also the source of difficulties for the Yi people in everyday life. It affects their living conditions: there is a lack of infrastructure, basic sanitary facilities, adequate health care, and rehabilitation services. Their houses even still lack private toilets and bathrooms. In many cases livestock share the living space with people, and so the Yi are accustomed to putting their crude toilet within the livestock pens. In addition, it is even difficult for the Yi to earn a living from farming, because of the low output of their traditional cultivation methods, their remote location, and the cost of transporting crops to market.

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© Fei Tian (田飞) 2016. Women have become the main laborers in most Yi villages in the Liangshan mountains.

Work opportunities in the villages keep decreasing. People, especially young men, tend to leave for cities and towns to make their living and try to settle there. Only women, children, and the elderly remain in the villages. The loss of the labor population has resulted in the abandonment of farmland, derelict rural houses, and destitute villages. Outmigration has created “hollow villages” (空心村), in which the population of longstanding villages has moved away and left the village abandoned. Another serious difficulty is education: because of the low wages and the poor living and working conditions, the number of village schoolteachers continuously declines, as well as the number of schools. Therefore it is difficult for the Yi to get a good education, from elementary education, vocational education, to continuing education. Moreover, because of a large number of children per family (China’s one-child policy does not apply to minorities) it is hard for Yi families to afford to educate all their children; most families only send one or two children to school, and normally the boys have priority. The geographical remoteness, lack of education, and poverty reinforce each other, with the result that these regions have historically been the poorest in China.

For decades, the Chinese government has issued poverty relief policies and dedicated huge sums of money to improving rural infrastructure. To reach the aim of eliminating poverty by 2020, China’s central government led by President Xi Jinping recently created a massive national project called “targeted poverty alleviation” (精准扶贫). This includes ten key elements: village roads (村级道路畅通), drinking water safety (饮水安全), electricity supply (电力保障), restoration of dilapidated housing (危房改造), increasing income (特色产业增收), rural tourism (乡村旅游扶贫), education (教育), health and family planning (卫生和计划生育), cultural development (文化建设), and constructing an information network for poor villages (贫困村信息化). Since this program launched in 2015, the development of rural areas has been a priority for the central government. In addition, because of a worrying economic slowdown in urban areas, China’s rural areas have assumed new significance at present.

Our research team wished to find out about the implementation of this project: What has been done so far and are these works achieving their aims? Have the situations in these impoverished areas improved as the state had hoped? During our field research in the Liangshan region, we found that the major approach to improve underdeveloped village people’s living conditions in this project actually consisted of investigating and building new, cheap houses that villagers can buy. In the areas we visited, the changes experienced by individual villages have been quite varied, depending largely on the village’s accessibility and contact with the modern world. The most isolated villages, as well as particularly vulnerable groups, are unaware of the benefits they are entitled to, and clearly have the fewest opportunities to improve their livelihoods. Furthermore, within villages, civic leaders distribute the money and benefits, often to families with whom they have closer social ties and relationships; this was a more important factor than whether the village was in the mountains or the flatlands. With social inequality a common phenomenon in remote Chinese mountain villages, the people who really need aid are often the last to benefit from the nation’s strong economic growth.

© Zhe Cheng (成喆) 2016. This traditional Yi family sees a drone for the first time.

Although our field research revealed a situation that is not as good as we had hoped, there is also reason for optimism: we found that not only the government, but also individuals, investors, and NGOs have paid more and more attention to and shown interest in these impoverished rural areas in a variety of ways. For example, increasing numbers of specialists, such as architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and environmental advocates, have jumped into rural revitalization projects as volunteers to help build the “New Socialist Countryside” (社会主义新农村). And more sustainably, people are attempting to find and link useful resources and build up business chains with the aim of creating job opportunities for local people and increasing their income. For example, during our fieldwork in the Liangshan region, we met two agricultural product traders, Mr. Xi Zeng (曾玺) and Mr. Ran Zhang (张然); they are business partners who are working together to set up sale chains based on the Internet of Things that would make it possible sell local bio-agricultural products to buyers throughout China. Our interviews with them made it clear that it is not easy to manage systems that include the entire production and commodity chain, from cultivation, collection, and transportation to the urban market. Nonetheless, in terms of the benefits from the government’s efforts to create rural modernization through specific financial and material interventions, we believe that the minority areas in Southwest China will have a bright future.

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