The Zijun Yi: heirs of an old Kingdom

 

Yunnan was the last of the provinces conquered to the Chinese empire. The Chinese rule on Yunnan began with the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in 1271. Hardly 18 years before, the last of the independent states of Yunnan, Dali Kingdom, had succumbed before the Mongolian warriors.

The Conquest of the South however, didn't begin until the first years of the 15th century, with the Ming dynasty, and it was a slower and less brutal process that the Conquest of the West that took place in North America centuries later. Thanks to it, many indigenous populations had time to adapt themselves to a coexistence with the Chinese colonists, to establish patterns of political, military or cultural resistance, or to move toward more inaccessible, inhospitable or poorer regions. The result is a rich ethnic panorama in Southwest China, where the descendants of the invaders and those of the invaded have already forgotten the origin of their enmity, cohabiting as neighbors during generations.

Only a detailed historical and ethnological investigation will allow us to have an idea of the real composition of this rich panorama.

Few years ago, the scholar of Yi origin, Bai Xingfa (1) got the attention of the scientific community with the discovery of a people, considered as a branch of the Yi, who are possibly the descendants of one of the less-known political entities of Yunnan in the 11th and 12th centuries: the Kingdom of Ziqi.

The Zijun or Shamudai, as are called nowadays, are about 20.000 people living in the banks of Dianchi Lake, inside Kunming municipality, in the area of Guandu.

According to the Chinese historical records, the central part of Yunnan was populated at the beginning of the Tang dynasty for some peoples commonly denominated as Wumang. At the end of the same dynasty, the Chinese, aware of the ethnic diversity of this region, said that it was inhabited by 36 tribes; most of them believed to be the ancestors of the different branches of the Yi. One of these 36 tribes, the Xiemotu, at the beginning of the 11th century, liberated from the hegemonic power of Dali Kingdom, which dominated the county of Yunnan in those years, establishing the Ziqi Kingdom.

We don't know many things about this Kingdom. It is thought that it reached a quick political and commercial development, exporting to their neighbors, horses and cloths. Neither the origin of its decadence is known, the lack of political will possibly caused its fall, being dispersed the peoples that composed it. One of these emigrated toward the banks of Dianchi Lake, where they are living today.

The name of this Ziqi Kingdom maintains a great resemblance, in the local dialect, with the denomination of the Zijun themselves. The other name for which they are known, Shamudai or Samadu, has been used with small variations, to denominate them for more than 800 years. During the Yuan dynasty they were called Ximodu, and during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Samodu.

In a good number of historical documents the Zijun are described in their present localization. It is said that they even had their own writing, used for their priests or Xibo in the sacred ceremonies.

In the last 200 years, the Han Chinese settled down in that region. The cultural crash produced a weakening of the Zijun culture. The discrimination suffered at the hands of the new arrived caused many people to abandon his language, dress and customs gradually. Now, there are people using their vernacular language only in a couple of counties.

Almost all their customs have disappeared equally, leaving only some vestiges in the most important ceremonies and in their traditional festivals.
Their wedding has some special characteristics:

- Always it is celebrated at night.
- They only marry people of different surname.
- The husband had to pay an amount of cash as dowry to the wife's family.
-The men stay in the parents' house until their death.


Most of their festivals have also disappeared. Nowadays they only make celebrations at the Torch Festival and the Lanterns Festival.

(1) Bai Xingfa. - Yi zu zijun ren of zuyuan ji qita (The origin of the Zijun Yi). In Yixue yanjiu, 2 (p. 13-15). Kunming. 1998

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