Introducing the Ersu


The Ersu are one of the less known indigenous peoples of China. In spite of having a well differentiated culture, with some really surprising features; an individual language divided in several dialects; a clearly defined history, and sharing common characteristics with peoples of scarce population linguistically related with them.
They inhabit the mountainous west of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, an area of stiff mountains that impede the communication. Officially considered Tibetans, their language and culture shows special features that make them a differentiated ethnic group.

Their culture is not quite homogeneous. In fact, in some places they are considered Tibetan (Zangzu) and in other places, Lisu. Usually are considered Tibetan those who live near Tibetan communities, having received their cultural influences. Are considered Lisu those who have received more Lisu influences.

Their population is more than 21,000 people (1). They live widely dispersed in their inhospitable environment. For this reason is very difficult to know if all the Ersu think that themselves are part of the same ethnic entity, or they only have as reference their own auto denomination.

According to Sun Hongkai (2), in every place they inhabit, they call themselves in a different way.

a) Ersu, in the area of Ganluo, Weixi and Manyuan counties of Liangshan Prefecture. Sometimes they call themselves Buersi or Buersi ersu.
b) Duoxu, east of Manning County.
c) Lusu, in Shimian County.
d) Lisu, in Jinlong, Muli and west of Manyuan counties.

All these names mean "white men" in their different dialects.

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristics in their culture are:

1. The cult to the white stone: a mysterious cult ubiquitous in the region, shared with other peoples related with them, who speak languages who belong also to Qiangic Branch of the Tibetan Burmese Family.
2. The culture of the towers, studied by Sun Hongkai (3). These towers are big stone constructions that relate them again with other peoples who speak Qiangic languages.
3. A unique pictographic script that according to Li Jingsheng (4) could be related in their origin with the pictographic script of the Naxi Dongba, in which the color seems to play an outstanding function.
4. Some religious specialists called Shaba that use these pictograms.

Their language belongs to the Qiangic Branch of the Tibetan Burmese Family. This branch has been scarcely studied, as the cultures of the peoples who speak their languages.

According to Sun (2) their language has three main dialects:
a) Ersu. Used by the Ersu and Lusu branches, with 13,000 speakers.
b) Duoxu, with about 3,000 speakers.
c) Lisu, with about 4,000 speakers.

(1) Anonymous. - Sichuan zangzu renkou (Tibetan population in Sichuan). Beijing. 1994
(2) Sun Hongkai. - Languages of the ethnic corridor of west of Sichuan. In "Researches on the Minorities of the Southwest" (Xinan Minzu Yanjiu). Sichuan Nationalities Press. Chengdu. 1983
(3) Sun Hongkai. - Shi lun "Qionglong" wenhua yu qiang yu zhi yuyan. (Preliminary discussions on the culture of the turrets and the languages of Qiangic Branch). In "Researches on the Nationalities" (Minzu Yanjiu). 1986 - 2
(4) Li Jingsheng.- Naxi Dongba wen de chuangzhi ji qita. In Dongba wenhua yanjiu suo lunwen xuanji (Chosen Articles of the Department of Researches of the Dongba Culture). Yunnan Nationalities Press. Kunming. 2003

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