The Pumi of Yunnan and Sichuan


The Pumi (English transliteration of Chinese pinyin) are also known as Prmi or Primi in western texts. In the past they were known as Xifang. "Pumi" is not Pumi language, but a Chinese word related to the way they know themselves: Puyingmi, Peimi or Purimi. All these names mean "the white people".

The Pumi population reached 33,600 in 2000, according to this year official census, but as some of the Pumi in Sichuan province are considered Tibetans, there will be between 25.000 and 50.000 more Pumi, living in Sichuan. They are scattered in a wide area of mountains in northwest Yunnan and along the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. (1) Most of the Pumi who live in Sichuan are officially classified as Zang or Tibetan, but as Stevan Harrell shows (2), they are "culturally and linguistically the same people", and their different classification only a government affair.

In Sichuan Province
1. In the southwest part of Liangshan Prefecture, in Yanyuan and Muli Counties.
2. In Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Jiulong County.

In Yunnan Province, the Pumi concentrate mainly:
1. In Lijiang Prefecture, Ninlang, Yongsheng and Lijiang Counties.
2. In Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. In Weixi Lisu Autonomous County.
3. In Nujiang Lisu and Nu Prefecture. In Lanping Bai and Pumi Autonomous County.

If we observe Pumi situation in a map, we can discover that they have not a compact territory for them, but their villages are "small and widely dispersed. Most of them have scarce contact with others, governing themselves in their mountains", mixed with villages of Moso, Tibetan, Naxi and other peoples. This make for the existence of significant cultural and linguistic differences among the Pumi that live in different places.

The Pumi language belongs to the Qiangic branch of the Tibetan-Burmese linguistic group.

Some linguists have doubts about the really meaning of Pumi language. Most conservative writers estimate that it is divided in two main dialects: North and South dialect; with enough differences between them as to make impossible the communication. These dialects have also local variations, sometimes very important. (3)

James S. Olson (4) writes:

"It is divided in three dialects, and Pumi ethnic identity is related more to membership in a dialect group than to any generic Pumi membership. They identify themselves by dialect, not by being Pumi. In this sense, some ethnologists prefer to divide Pumis in three separate ethnic groups. The three Pumi languages are Phzomi, Phzome and Tshomi."

More recent studies (5) show more than seven dialects spoken by the Pumi of different places.

In some areas the Pumi shamans have a kind of pictograms who use in their religious ceremonies.

They use also both the Tibetan and Chinese writing; Tibetan for their religious activities; and Chinese for administrative ones.

(1) Dai Qingxia.- A Tibeto-Burmese Lexicon. Central Nationalities Press. Beijing. 1992.
(2) Harrell, Stevan.- Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China. Univ. of Washington Press. 2002
(3) Pumi yu jianzhi. Nationalities Press. 1983
(4) Olson, James S.- An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China. Greenwood Press. 1998
(5) Lu Shaozun.- Pumi yu fangyan yanjiu (Researches on Pumi dialects). Nationalities Press. Beijing. 2001

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