Yunnan has the highest number of ethnic groups among all provinces in China, hosting 25 of the 56 nationally recognized ethnic minorities, 28% of the province’s population belongs to one of these minorities. The most common are the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Mosuo, Hani, Dai, and Tibetan.

One of the things that make Yunnan so unique is that many of these groups settled in a localized area, so traveling from city to city still means encountering completely different cultures in each place.

Ethnic Minorities in Yunnan

Bai

The Bai population is numbered at nearly 1.5 million people, making it one of Yunnan Province and China’s largest minorities. The remarkably fertile Dali valley, home to the Bai for more than 1000 years, has been a key to economic success, as the Bai are among the most prosperous of China’s ethnic minorities. Surplus farming along the plain, fishing and material transport industries on the Erhai Lake all play a role in the comfortable existence of the Bai in the Erhai Valley.

For many ethnic minorities in Yunnan, markets serve as a bustling center for daily life where they can shop for food and clothing as well as socialize

Bai Market in Dali

Dai

The Dai are the main ethnic minority of Xishuangbanna, the southern region of Yunnan. Their lush tropical homeland contributes to an appetizing range of cuisine, incorporating sweet fruits, mint, and many other locally grown items into stir fried dishes. Both bamboo rice and sticky pineapple rice are local favorites.

The Dai people are devout followers of Buddhism, and their temples resemble those of other Buddhists in Southeast Asia more than the rest of China.

Naxi

The Naxi people reside in many parts of Yunnan, but most famously occupy the area in and around Lijiang.  The Naxi have a vibrant culture, and their language is the last remaining pictographic language still in use today. The writing system is beautiful and unique, but very difficult to learn, making it increasingly obsolete.

Naxi musicians perform their traditional music, which has survived for centuries and features Chinese instruments such as the pipa, erhu, flute and percussion

Naxi musicians perform their traditional music

It is easy to pick out the Naxi residents in Lijiang due to their characteristic blue clothing and song and dance displays in the town center. Visitors can still watch a performance of Lijiang’s Naxi Orchestra, who still play traditional music that dates back hundreds of years, surviving the turbulence of the 20th Century and Cultural Revolution.

Yi

The Yi, often described as clinging to the steep faces of Yunnan and Sichuan’s mountainsides, remain one of China’s most mysterious and diverse nationalities.  One of China’s largest minorities, almost 7 million Yi people are spread across Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in China’s southwest.

Yi women, colorful clothing, headdresses

Yi women are well known for their colorful clothing and elaborate headdresses

The Yi are well known within China for a feudal system that was practiced all the way up until Communist Party reforms went into effect in the 1950s.  A dominating class, known as the Black Yi, controlled the three castes below them, the bottom two of which were treated as slaves.  Below the Black Yi, the White Yi were not slaves, but were still controlled by the Black Yi.  Within China the Yi are historically regarded as fierce warriors, well known for their anti-imperialist resistance in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mosuo

The Mosuo tribe is a minority in Yunnan whose last traces are found around Lugu Lake in northern Yunnan.  What is most notable about them is their matrilineal tradition, whereby Mosuo women control property rights and manage the household.  Fathers do not live with their children.  Instead they return to the house of their mother each night.  Anyone even remotely familiar with the Mosuo has heard of evocative and alluring myths concerning the alleged promiscuity of Mosuo women.  However, these pervasive misconceptions only serve to motivate the Mosuo today, as guests are welcomed into their secluded homeland in an effort to display their true culture and exhibit a tradition of hospitality.

Hani

The Hani are an ethnic minority who, like the Naxi , are believed to descend from the Qiang people that migrated from the Tibetan plateau prior to the 3rd Century AD.  The Hani primarily live in the mountainous areas of southeast Yunnan.  Like many other ethnic minorities in China, the Hani can be identified by their unique and colorful attire. The Hanis prefer clothing made of home-spun dark blue cloth. Men wear front-buttoned jackets and trousers, and black or white turbans. Women have collarless, front-buttoned blouses with the cuffs and trouser legs laced. Women in general like to wear earrings, silver rings and necklaces.