Description of the Pumi.- Caspian James


Population and distribution

The Pumi population was 33,600 as of the 2000 census (6). In Yunnan they inhabit the mountainous north-western regions of Lanping Bai and Pumi autonomous county, Ninglang Yi autonomous county, Lijiang Naxi autonomous county, and Weixi and Yongsheng counties (10). In these regions they are surrounded by, and live alongside, Nuosu, Han, Bai, Naxi and Miao minorities. In addition an even larger number of ethnic Pumi live in Muli Zang autonomous county and Yanyuan county in Sichuan, however here they are classified as Tibetans (or 'Zang') rather than Pumi (10).


Other names that the Pumi are known by include Prmi10, P'umi, Pimi, Primmi, Pruumi, P'ömi and P'rome (7).


The Pumi language belongs to the Qiangic branch of the Tibeto-Burman sub-family of Sino-Tibetan. The total number of active speakers is estimated to be around 50,000 (11). At present it has no written form but there is evidence that it may have had a one in the nineteenth century using a Tibetan script. Variation in the spoken language can be roughly divided into Northern and Southern dialects, with intelligibility between the two being difficult (7). Depending on where they live, Pumi are usually also able to speak Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan, Lisu, Bai, Naxi, or Yi (7).


The history of the Pumi is hard to untangle from the history of the broader group of the speakers of Qiangic languages. The origin of these people is generally agreed to be as nomadic herdsmen on Qinghai-Tibet plateau (3). By the later Han dynasty they had migrated south to Sichuan and north-western Yunnan. Before the ethnic identification project it is also possible that the Pumi may not have had a separate name or been distinguished by others as a separate group. In fact, in early twentieth century Chinese sources the Pumi, along with Tibetans, were known as 'Xifan' (or 'Western Barbarians), and were identified with Tibet because of religion10. Consequently in the ethnic identification project all Xifan, apart from the Qiang in Sichuan, and the Pumi in Yunnan were identified as Tibetans.

Why the Pumi in Yunnan were not identified as Tibetans in the ethnic identification project was the responsibility of a Pumi man from Ninglang County, Mr Hu Wanqing. He was called to Beijing by Zhou Enlai in 1957 or 58 and asked whether the Ninglang people were Xifan or Zang (Tibetans). Mr Hu said they were Xifan but preferred to be called their own name; 'Pumi'. Subsequently teams were sent from Beijing to conform this, and the Pumi minzu (minority) was recognised in 1960 (10).


The religions practised by the Pumi are the Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism and their own indigenous Dingba, or Hangue, religion. Both the religious show a great variation in adherence over the area inhabited by the Pumi.

Practising Buddhists inhabit the area around Lugu Lake in Ninglang county. The homes of the Pumi in this region contain altars for the worship of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and sons are often sent to local monasteries to become monks. For instance new Pumi (as well as Mosuo) monks are trained at the large monastery in Yongning, a town in northern Ninglang county. Buddhists priests in this area are often called upon for funerals, ancestral rites, and various other rituals (10).

The Dingba, or Hangue, religion is similar to other folk traditions in the area; the Ddobaq of the Naxi and the Ndaba of the Mosuo have similar beliefs and practices. The Dingba religion is separate from the Buddhism practiced by the Pumi and consists of various folk beliefs and ritual offerings to ancestors and nature spirits10. In the past it had religious texts written in a Tibetan script, however these are not widely read or understood now. Amongst the Pumi in Yunnan these religious traditions are more prominent in the southern part of Ninglang county.

Celebrations and Festivals

The biggest festival in the Pumi calendar occurs on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar month. This festival is in honour of the mountain god Suoguonaba, who resides on a hill near to Lugu lake. On the morning of the festival all Pumi must hike up the mountain, and those who are unable must give a barley cake to someone to represent them. It is believed that bad karma and evil spirits cling to these cakes, and that by laying them at Suoguonaba's altar those who cannot go are protected and bad fortune is warded off (3).

Like the Mosuo, the Pumi also venerate the Goddess Ganmo, who is incarnated in Lion mountain. On the 25th day of the 7th Lunar month, both these groups celebrate the festival Zhuanshanjie, where they hike to Ganmo's shrine on Lion Mountain. Here horns are blown and prayer flags are laid down, before picnics are had on the grass. In the evening, after returning home, they celebrate with song and dance around a communal bonfire (11).


Pumi society has been traditionally organised into exogamous clans with marriages arranged by the parents occurring between cross-cousins. However nowadays there is great spatial variation in marriage patterns; intermarriage with other ethnic groups may be the norm in some areas, whilst never occurring in others. However in most areas marriage is patrilocal and men inherit the property (5).

This is in contrast to the area around Lugu lake and Yongning where the Pumi seem to have adopted the originally Mosuo practice of the 'walking marriage' (10). Here the husband visits his wife's home at night but returns to his maternal home in the day to work the family's land. There is no specific ceremony for this arrangement, and it may end anytime according to the husband's or wife's decision (3). Furthermore where Pumi live alongside Mosuo there tends to be free intermarriage between the two groups (10).


Women's dress is a pervasive way of distinguishing ethnic groups in South-West China. However, day to day Pumi women tend to wear ordinary Chinese rural dress, no different to that worn by Han women for instance. It is only during occasions where displays of ethnicity become important that traditional costume is worn10. In Ninglang county this traditional costume is very similar to that of the local Mosuo and Naxi, and consists of "a long pleated skirt of a single colour (usually back, blue or gray), over which they tie a rectangular apron with an embroidered edge. They top this with a wide belt, usually red, of homespun hemp; wear a wool or felt vest closed with frog-buttons in front; and wrap their head in a turban of black cloth, or in the case of young women on festive occasions, sometimes multicoloured yarn. This outfit is embellished with silver or other jewellery."(10)


Pumi housing is generally wooden and on two levels. The lower level is reserved for animals and the upper for people. On one side of the upper level are the bedrooms and on the other side is a large main room with the central fireplace and possibly a Buddhist shrine. It is this room that most of the family activities take place (4).

Food and Drink

Many Pumi are farmers and maize is their principle grain and staple food. In addition they also grow highland barley, wheat, and vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, eggplant and potatoes (3). Wine, which is used for ritual offerings, is also produced along with tobacco and tea. A famous food of the Pumi is called 'Pipa meat', and consists of "salted pork wrapped in pork skin in the shape of a 'Pipa', a plucked string Chinese instrument with a fretted fingerboard"(4).


Are the Pumi really a distinct ethnic group? Stevan Harrell (10) presents some doubts; he shows how the factors of culture, history and kinship present a somewhat fuzzy picture. As we have seen the history of Pumi as a group is difficult to separate from that of the other speakers of Qiangic languages, and it is only after 1960 that the Pumi in Yunnan came into existence as an 'ethnic group'. Moreover the Pumi resident in Sichuan are not even classed as 'Pumi' in the official ethnic code, but as 'Tibetans'. As we have also seen cultural markers such as dress, housing, and marriage frequently serve to unite, rather than distinguish, the Pumi with neighbouring groups. For instance the traditional dress of the Pumi is indistinguishable from that of the local Naxi and Mosuo, and the same is often true of housing styles. Apart from the Pumi language (which has a great spatial variation in the ability of Pumi to speak it) there seem to be little definitive markers that are able to distinguish the Pumi from other groups that live alongside them.

1. The Selective Recognition of Tibetan Influence in the Lesser Liangshan by Stevan Harrell, University of Washington









10. Ways of being ethnic in southwest china by Stevan Harrell


12. The Exploration of Yunnan by Jim Goodman

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