The identity of the Sani


The Sani are about 40,000 people concentrated mainly in the Guishan mountains of Lunan County, now known as Shilin (Stone Forest) County, 80 km from Kunming.

The Sani are one of the most well known ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, perhaps in the whole China, however they still have not been recognized as a national minority. They are considered a branch of the Yi.

Perhaps their first wave of fame was due to their geographical location, near Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, and to the labyrinthine karst formations of the Stone Forest. The Sani have also preserved intact a great part of their traditional culture. Their peaceful character made the Sani one of the first peoples of the Yi family to attract the curiosity of early anthropologists, such as the French Paul Vial in the first years of the 20th century or the Chinese Ma Xueliang before the Revolution.

They experienced their second wave of popularity after the Revolution, with the diffusion throughout in China of the story of Ashima, and the movie based on it, released in 1964. Although Ashima is not a true work of Sani literature, the topic, a young girl abducted by a landowner to prevent her from marrying her lover, who is killed afterwards, was most appropriate in those times of revolutionary fervor. Soon all Chinese knew of the existence of a people that kept the memory of their heroine Ashima (1) and that communicate their love by means of song.

The third wave, the most recent, has arrived with the development of tourism in Yunnan Province. Yunnan has become a favorite destination for domestic and foreign travelers by promoting its ethnic and natural diversity and beauty. Here again, the Stone Forest of Lunan, the home of the Sani, has become an essential tourist attraction for all who visit Kunming. A visit to the Stone Forest includes a show in which the most outstanding characteristics of Sani culture are depicted. In this show the word "Yi", as they are officially considered, does not even appear.

In fact, most of the Sani do not even know that the government considers them Yi. The Sani are the Sani to everyone, although they are officially referred to as Yi. Some people have said that the Sani feel confused when someone calls their attention to the fact that on their hukou (identification card) under the "nationality" line, is written the name "Yi".

In the official report of the commission that studied the ethnic identification of the indigenous peoples of Yunnan (2), they use the following arguments to demonstrate that the Sani are only a branch of the Yi:

1. That their language is only a Yi dialect. The truth is that there does not exist a Yi language as such, but even in the limited linguistic policy of China it is considered that the Yi peoples speak six different languages. Their writing is similar, but not identical.

2. That the Sani calls themselves "Nir", very similar to the "Nosou" of the Yi of Liangshan. But there are peoples with an even more similar self-identification to them, such as the Nusu (a branch of the Nuzu), and the Na (the name by which the Moso refer to themselves).

3. A series of cultural characteristics are common, not only to the Yi and the Sani, but to many other peoples of Yunnan, such as :

a) Enjoying sexual freedom before marriage.
b) The uncle's preference for marrying his niece to his son.
c) Vestiges of clan structure in their society.
d) The celebration of the Torch Festival.
e) Funeral by cremation
f) Belief in numerous spirits of nature
g) Existence of shamans called "bimos", and other religious specialists.

Most of these cultural characteristics are common to many of the peoples who speak languages of the Tibeto-Burman family.

(1) There are at least two English translations of "Ashima", one published by the Yunnan Nationalities Press (2000) and another by China Literature Press (2000).

(2) "Yunnan sheng minzu shibie baogao" (Report on the identification of the nationalities of Yunnan). In Yunnan shaoshu minzu shehui lishi diaocha ziliao huibian 3 (Materials on the investigations into the history and society of the national minorities of Yunnan, volume 3). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press. 1987.

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