Yi, the Chinese mountain tribe | VPRO World Stories

It’s the duty of every Chinese citizen to contribute to the Chinese Dream of becoming the world’s most powerful country and restoring the nation’s glory But what do Chinese people dream of, while the country is changing so fast? With my camera, I travel across China looking for Chinese Dreams Chinese Dreams I’ve arrived in Liangshan, a mountain range in Southwest China and one of the most beautiful and remote parts of the country This area used to be very hard to reach Only in the last 70 years, since the founding of the People’s Republic Han Chinese have moved here Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in China Nine out of ten Chinese are Han Chinese But officially, there are 56 different ethnic minorities in China For ages, these mountains have been home to one of those groups, the Yi Xi and the Yi episode 2 How are you? Do you know who he is? Him over there ‘President Xi is coming to the Daliang Mountains.’ ‘This gives the Yi a warm feeling.’ Is that true? – Maybe What did you say? Do you know who he is? Can you understand me? Do you understand Han Chinese? I don’t understand you – You don’t understand me? These Chinese people don’t speak Chinese. That’s very difficult Hello Hey, come here for a second Do you speak Han Chinese? – Yes I’ve noticed that a lot of elderly people don’t speak Han Chinese That’s right I have the feeling that the Yi and the Han Chinese are very different We’re the same – The same? But you look different – That’s true, yes It is, isn’t it? Han Chinese look different than we, the Yi Who are those people over there? They’re here to buy this truck Is it yours? – Yes, it’s mine You want to sell it? – Yes Why? – Because I don’t have any business The economy isn’t doing well? I want to get rid of it and stop being a driver Are you going to haggle now? Good luck Don’t sell it too cheaply A few days ago, a young Yi man offered me 15,000 euros but I didn’t sell it to him We can’t have the back being this high That wasn’t there before It was put on only a few days ago I had it put on for 50 euros, so you can cover it with a tarpaulin You think you’ll be selling it today?

No, their offer was too low So the sale won’t go through? – No Their offer was really too low? – Yes Why do you want to sell it? – I don’t get any cargo anymore The economy isn’t doing well here? – No So what are your plans for the future? I can drive for others – For others? Otherwise I’ll have to find a job Will you have to go job hunting in a bigger city? Where will you go? I’ll see when I’m there. I’ll go somewhere where they offer me a good job But if you work somewhere else, you can’t live at home anymore Then I can only come home once a year, to celebrate Chinese New Year Where does your family live? – Over there Won’t they mind if you leave? – You still have to make a living The nearly ten million Yi in China have an eventful history For a long time, they lived in a slave society and during the Cultural Revolution, under Mao they were denounced, just like other ethnic minorities But in recent years, this area has been changing rapidly This is due to current president Xi Jinping’s crusade It’s his ambition to eradicate poverty in all of China by 2020 targeted poverty reduction But what does this mean for the Yi? And what is the price of this progress? It’s like we’re the first Westerners here It’s really an event Do you have water? And green tea? – Yes, we do Are you Yi or Han Chinese? – Han Why do you, as a Han Chinese, live in a Yi area? This is a mixed area Most people who live here are Yi A mixed area, then How do the Han and Yi get along as neighbours? They live in the mountains, where there’s a lack of water, and poor sanitation Their children don’t get a good education That’s why they’re different from us here They aren’t civilised? – Sometimes they aren’t That’s the reason If your son or daughter ended up in a relationship with a Yi, would you object? Absolutely not But their way of life is so different, it wouldn’t happen anyway But the Yi who live down here do send their children to school There are schools in the mountains, but not all the children go there How can you develop yourself without education or knowledge? Do you speak Han Chinese? – I don’t understand

How are you? Do you live here? – Yes Are these new houses? – Yes, they were built by the government Do you prefer a mud hut or a new house? The new houses are pretty nice but we’re simply used to those mud huts What’s life like around here today, compared to how it used to be? It’s much better now than in the past Can I see your house? – Of course Where is it? – That way Please come in – Okay This is our kitchen The bedroom is over there Have a look in the kitchen – Pretty spacious No, it’s not that big What was your previous house like? – A bit smaller than this one This is a traditional Yi kitchen, without tables or chairs Is this tradition important to you? In our kitchens, we have one large pan and we eat around the fire That’s our custom and we don’t want to change that In the past, the cows were stabled inside people’s homes so also where the cooking took place Life must be tough here Slowly, things are changing Indeed Shall I make a fire to get warm? – No need To roast potatoes? – No, thank you Your Chinese is very good – It’s not that good Can I see the other rooms as well? – Sure This is nothing like a mud hut True, but we feel very comfortable There’s more comfort here President Xi – He’s our president, yes I used to be afraid of Han people I was afraid that they were out to harm us But now it’s different Now we have to move with the times as well Our life is changing, also how we think about Han people Now we believe that the Han Chinese have our best interest in mind Also in the past they actually meant well That’s how we think about it now, but in the past we weren’t as positive In the past, we only worked as farmers We knew nothing of the world We never thought far ahead We didn’t look at ourselves and we didn’t think about the future We used to think that way, but we have changed Looking back on it now, our ideas were actually very backward Really? What’s this? Are your children studying hard to learn Han Chinese? Yes – Really? Chinese history Those are my children’s books – Your children’s? Can you read this? – No, I can’t Which school do you go to? – The one down here We do our best to learn Han Chinese I told my children they should do the same When I think of the next generation it’s good for their career if they learn Han Chinese

Our children should have a better life than us Our generation has learned nothing That’s why we have no future How old are you? I’m thirteen – How old? Thirteen? What would you rather speak, Han Chinese or Yi? I’d rather learn Yi But they don’t teach us that in school – They don’t? I don’t understand what your mother is saying She wants to cook for you – No need, it’s okay Thank you better housing leads to better lives There’s another huge billboard with propaganda on it I’ve seen a lot of them since I got here Nowhere else in China I’ve seen as much propaganda as here This sign says: The belief in spirits should be banished and replaced by good, healthy customs This makes me wonder how the people who still believe in spirits are affected The Yi are animists They believe in spirits of humans, animals, plants and mountains Therefore, rituals are an important part of daily life They’re performed by a specially designated person, known as a bimo Hello There you are I’m Ruben I’m Riga My name is Lainbo Riga Come in, have a seat – Thank you You’re welcome Have a seat over here So you’ve come Thanks for coming This is Lainbo Yiji That’s his name He’s my father – Your father? What’s this? – Bimoist scriptures What does it say? Have a look. It’s about health – But I can’t read Yi This is all for the bimo Your mother isn’t well? She has pain in her back and shoulders We’ll practise magic for her Does she have arthritis? – Yes But traditional Han Chinese medicine simply doesn’t work Can you explain something to me about Yi culture?

What exactly is the function of bimoism? – Bimoism? In our culture, bimoism provides protection and good health It protects us from evil We believe that this ritual has existed since time immemorial This ritual already existed before there were doctors and hospitals It’s passed down from generation to generation Is it an old tradition? Very old – How old? Bimoism has been around for more than 6,000 years It’s been around for many generations, and now it’s up to us. It’s on my shoulders Aren’t you afraid the government will ban bimo culture and exorcism? If the government says spirits don’t exist we won’t do anything involving spirits We only do what’s allowed But you can’t practise it the way you want – We can, just nothing involving spirits This ritual is without spirits – You can’t mention them Spirits don’t exist But if it were banned, you wouldn’t be happy about that Without the government we wouldn’t have this new China That’s why we should listen to our government Can he remember if he was allowed to practise rituals under Mao? It wasn’t allowed back then It was forbidden We couldn’t even keep these scriptures in our homes Really? – We hid them in the mountains After the Mao era, when the reforms came, we brought them back out The bimo might say spirits can’t exist anymore but I have a strong impression that I’ve just witnessed the exorcism of evil spirits The young bimo invites me to attend another ritual the next morning in his new house in the next village Where does bimo Lainbo live? He lives over there – There? Thank you Lainbo? – Come on in

Here I am – Hello, welcome Here I am. How are you? – Fine Have a seat – Thank you Your house looks nice – No, not at all He’s my nephew. I’m his uncle – His uncle? Here in Puge, in the entire county, I’m a kind of chieftain Really? – In Puge, I’m the chief of the Lainbo tribe Nice to meet you – Thank you Thank you – You’re welcome, have a seat In China, there are a few important traditions And there are a lot of ethnic minorities in China We have fifty – 56, right? No, there are only 51 in total – How come? The Hala, the Ganma the Wuni, the Chishe and the Nibu Those five minorities don’t have any offspring anymore Why don’t they have any offspring anymore? Or have they been assimilated in Han culture? No, no assimilation But they don’t pass down their culture and rituals like we do Like this ritual here What’s your impression of President Xi? – I have an impression of him At least he came to Zhaojue County, to the Daliang Mountains He shook hands with the poorest man That made a huge impression on me I think we should do something in return I was tremendously moved by it It took away a lot of my reservations, you know Is this a sensitive subject? – A little bit, yes This is about the relationship between the Yi and the state Do you know our history? In the past, people with our background, chieftains, landowners and rich farmers didn’t have the right to find a job Have you heard of Mao Zedong? – I have, yes During the Mao era, my father was publicly shamed every day When I was three years old, they let him freeze to death Really? – Yes, so how can I love Mao Zedong? Then you can’t love him, no – Wait, I’m saying all the wrong things I’m glad to have met you – Likewise Poor rooster We do what President Xi says: All evil must disappear What a day A bimo who can make a dead rooster crow and his traumatised uncle who criticises Mao I’m shocked by his openness, because in today’s China, people rarely talk

about the scars left by the Cultural Revolution and how the government restricts the freedom of ethnic minorities I return to the village up in the mountains to visit the man in his new house and walk his son to the village school I’m back Good morning How are you? – Fine Is it far to your school? Is it far? – No, not so far Let’s go then – Thanks You walk pretty fast – Not at all Are you worried you’ll be late? We won’t be late Is your teacher strict? – No And if you do something wrong? – Then she is What does she do then? If we make mistakes, she beats us and shouts She really beats you and shouts at you? – Yes And then? – That’s all That’s all? Does it hurt? No, not really What do you want to be later? What do you dream of? I want to be a soldier and join the commandos Really? – Yes Why? – The commandos are super tough Super tough? – Yes And what exactly do the commandos do? They catch bad guys Come here Who is she? Your teacher? – No, she looks after us She looks after you? Does she look after you? – Yes Was she railing at you? Yes – What did she say to you? She asked us to go there What is she talking about? Go on, the headmaster is about to take the roll call We have to go that way We have to go up there? – Yes It seems it’s not so easy to visit a school in this area What’s going on? The headmaster is about to take the roll call The gate is locked pretty tightly now We have to go up there? – Yes Shall I follow you? – Yes Maybe we have to visit the government office first And now we wait? – Yes But why? – No idea, but we can’t enter right now We can’t enter? – No We’re not allowed to film inside? – No Do they have to do something first, like tidying or cleaning? They do? – Yes No problem They take it very seriously though – Yes Are you nervous? – Yes What are you scared of? – The headmaster What, your headmaster? – Yes Why? I’m bringing you to school I’ll get into trouble for that Will it cause you problems? – Yes I’m sure it won’t be a problem Why are you hiding there?

Hurry up, come to school Okay – And don’t bring him with you Just wait here, I’m going to school I can’t come along with you? He’s just visiting. I can’t help it either – So cute He can’t come along, you hear It was his idea He’s scared he’ll get into trouble with the headmaster for bringing us Are you the headmaster? Are you from here? – Yes Are you Yi? – Yes I’ve found him again Can I enter? – Yes Here I am The good students are in the front and the naughty ones in the back? No That little boy in the back, is he a good student? The one in the back? – Yes Compared to the rest, he’s not so bad Is he naughty? – A little bit, yes Write your name on it Read the questions carefully before you answer them Only answer a question if you understand it And try to write neatly But do it yourself No cheating Head up, that’s bad for your eyes Are you Han Chinese? – I am, yes What was your first impression here? When I first came here, I thought the building was run-down If it was raining outside, it would be trickling inside as well Had it been up to me, I would have immediately left again Really? And then what happened? I kind of got used to this state of disrepair And in 2015, the school was completely renovated Is teaching Chinese to ethnic minorities a form of assimilation? I think it is. By learning Chinese they acquire more knowledge and they can also learn better hygiene, for example In the mountains, the sanitation used to be very bad Through knowledge, they become aware of hygiene plus they transfer this knowledge to the people around them Many students already start working when they’re only 13 or 14 That young? – Yes Now that they come to school for an education they have a chance at a better standard of living More and more Yi parents think education is important At least it offers them a chance for improvement Do you think the development in this region will eventually cause Yi culture to disappear? Yi culture? No, I’m not worried about that They’re learning Han Chinese, but that won’t make them forget their own culture The next one or two generations they won’t forget their Yi culture But it’s hard to say how things will go after that, with all this development You don’t know – Who’s to say? Attention Let’s summarise last week’s subjects

In terms of personal hygiene, you’re doing better than last week The girls managed to keep their dormitory very clean But the boys’ beds aren’t tidy enough yet Before you go to bed, don’t forget to wash your hands, your feet and your face It’s almost summer There’s a strange smell in the dormitory So pay attention to your personal hygiene I hope you’ll do something about that this week Did you hear me? – Yes arise, ye who refuse to be slaves with our flesh and blood let us build a new Great Wall as China faces its greatest peril from each one the urgent call to action comes forth arise, arise, arise millions of but one heart braving the enemies’ fire march on braving the enemies’ fire march on, march on, march on Study well, and you’ll make progress – Yes Thank you The national anthem still needs some practice It might look harmless, but what I’ve seen in this region sets me thinking Economically, the Yi are better off than ever And education connects the Yi children with China and the world for the first time But this progress means that their age-old culture, language and identity may be lost Then these misty mountains will lose their magic, and that is irreversible