Southern Sichuan, western Guizhou, and the Yunnanese mountains are the abode of the Tibeto-Burman Yi, the seventh most numerous of the PRC’s minority nationalities – and, for a time, the most outstandingly romanticized. One shouldn’t be surprised: a “martial race” of herder-warriors, a scornfully endogamous ruling caste, the living metaphor of colored bone* – these must have been like hygroscopic flares into the warm cloud cover of the turn-of-the-century Western mind. A fascinating segment from S. Robert Ramsey’s 1987 The Languages of China (250-252):
One of the most distinctive peoples in all of China, the Yi first caught the imagination of the West when reports of their existence filtered out of China around the turn of the century. In the almost inaccessible wilds of southwestern China, some said, a “blood-proud caste” of tall and noble warriors “fought, rode, herded horses, and ruled … a stratum of underlings and slaves.”
Exaggerated descriptions of their “Caucasoid features” and stories of sacred books, written in a strange pictographic [sic] script and reportedly containing the arcane secrets of the ruling caste, added to the mystique. In Europe, preparations were made to investigate and expeditions were organized. Unfortunately for such Western ambitions, however, the region was almost impossible to penetrate from the outside since the Yi still had not been pacified by the Chinese.
No one—and especially not the Chinese government toward which the Yi were extremely hostile—could guarantee safe passage through the areas controlled by Yi clans. Yet, in spite of the obvious dangers, Western explorers continued to be fascinated by southwestern China. One of these explorers, a British adventurer named Donald Brooke, set out in 1909 to explore the Cool Mountain area of Southern Sichuan, the stronghold of the Independent Yi. No sooner had he and his entourage of a dozen or so crossed into Yi territory than they were attacked. In the battle that ensued, Brooke himself was killed and all of his followers were captured and made into slaves. […]
For at least two thousand years the Yi have held their own against domination by the Chinese. Chinese annals since the beginning of the Christian era have described the Yi, under a variety of names, as being masters of the highlands where they still live to this day. In fact, over this time the Yi have actually expanded their range eastward into Guizhou. […]
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