People of Yunnan: A Little Great World of Worlds

Written By Maria Giglio

Once upon a time in Southwest China, three brothers were born. As they grew up, it was clear that the boys were so different, that they also spoke different languages: Bai, Tibetan and Naxi.  Each brother then decided to settle in a different area between Tibet and Yunnan. This fascinating ancient legend about the birth of Southwestern Chinese culture is only a taster of the immense diversity to characterize the region.

Did you know?

Probably you already know that China is known for its high population density. Not everyone knows, however, that unlike many other huge Countries like the United States or Canada, Chinese territory is also very rich in cultural diversity. The whole land counts as many as 56 recognized minorities in China. Interestingly, almost half of them are concentrated within the Yunnan Province in Southwest China. Curious to know who they are? There are at least 25 communities inhabiting the Yunnan territory: Achang, Bai, Bulang, Buyi, Dai, De’ang, Dulong, Hani, Hui, Jingpo, Jinuo, Lahu, Lisu, Miao, Mongolian, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Sani, Shui, Tibetan, Wa, Yao, Yi and Zhuang.

The map below shows the territory of Yunnan, divided by ethnic groups.

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Despite the alarming level of poverty spread across the territory, Yunnan people are renowned by locals and international tourists for their extreme hospitality, courtesy, natural cheerful spirit and vitality. Each different group has its own rich cultural heritage and proudly showcases it through colorful traditional attires, arts and crafts passed down across generations.

We at Interact China celebrate diversity and worship oriental beauty. We exist to support the people of Yunnan to move from poverty to prosperity cooperating with local artists to promote their products worldwide! Keep reading to get to know where our partners come from!


Dai or (Thai) people live in the Southern area of the Yunnan. As the name suggests, they are strictly related to their Thai (and Laos) neighbors.

Dai communities count as many as 1,000,000 people. This means that there is a lot of infra-group diversity, including language and custom, although all sub-groups share a common script which is completely different from national Chinese.

Dai culture is full of vitality and fun: one of the most important celebrations is the “Water Splashing Festival” recurring during the Dai New Year. What is the main activity of the ongoing celebrations? Well, you can see yourself..

Traditional attire for women include tight-sleeved short dresses to exalt the feminine figure. Especially in Xishuangbanna region, there is a preponderance of bright colors such as light green, pink and light blue. Here are two examples of our Dai products:


Hani people occupy a large portion of Southeast Yunnan. They have a long lasting tradition of artistic skills, especially textile art which they use as a way to express individual identity and personality.

Hani people especially give out their creativity through stitching and weaving. The recurring abstracted geometries suggest that a language hides through textiles. Below there is a taster of our collection of Hani bags: can you guess what these patterns tell?

Unlike many groups, Hani people love black and dark blue: they extract pigments from local Indigo plant. This doesn’t mean that they have a mournful spirit: usually dark backgrounds come with lots of colurful decorations.


The Lahu people inhabit the Southern areas of the province. Still today, Lahu enjoy a very natural lifestyle. Animistic religion is still very diffused across the different sub-groups of this population.

Fun fact: legend says that the founding father of Lahu culture was a man who had been fed and raised by dogs since his birth.

As a result of this Lahu version of Romulus and Remus Roman legend, people of this tribe worship dogs as their ancestral protectors and tribute them in their arts and crafts. Usually the dog is represented with a triangle, like in these Lahu bags from our collection. Aren’t they a piece of art?


Lisu people live in the North-western border of Yunnan close to Burma.  

These lively people too live in very natural environments and practice animistic religion. As a result, their art features a distinctively primitive character. A joy to the eyes of color-lovers. Lisu love to show off their creativity wearing bold vibrant outfits.

A truly social community, Lisu use clothing and accessories to attract one another and get together. For example, young men usually craft extravagant bags like the one below for courting. The more the tassels and pompoms, the merrier! This one makes a long way to the top…


Miao Hmong people constitute the largest minority group in China, amounting to as many as 9,426,007 people only in the Yunnan province. An originally nomadic people, large communities of Miao also inhabit neighbor regions of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

With over 5,000 years of history, Miao people can boast of an incredible infra-group diversity, although their artistic skills as featured in their impressive apparel can be considered a common feature. Miao people are worldly renowned for their textiles and rich, heavy jewelry which they proudly wear as expression of identity and history.

The making of incredibly elaborate silver jewelry such as the above horn headdresses not only reveals a high level of creativity but also an exceptional crafting technique. I dare you to find anything similar elsewhere! We are proud to offer you a huge variety of products from these incredible artists and lovely people. I didn’t know where to start, so visit our website for a full experience! 🙂

Miao silver art originates in the originally nomadic nature of the tribe. Silver jewelry was crafted from from melted coins to be carried around more easily when travelling. It was also used as dowry for marriage and more generally to express the family social status. Today, the Chinese government supports the preservation of Miao traditional silversmithing (accredited as National Cultural Heritage in 2006) yearly supplying special stocks of silver to Miao communities.


As the name suggest, Chinese Tibetan people occupy the north-western border of Yunnan, close to Tibet. Settled in the cold and windy mountains of the Tibetan plateau, these people live in harsh and isolated conditions, but are nonetheless cheerful.

Considerably influenced by Buddhist tradition, Tibetan people enjoy a modest lifestyle in deep connection with nature and spirituality.

The spiritual dimension of Tibetan culture reflects in their arts and crafts, entrenched with deep symbolic meaning. For example, many Tibetan jewels are made with Dzi, a local patterned black and white gemstone which is said to influence energy flux. Our Tibetan jewels keep it classic with turquoise and coral, acknowledged for their healing purposes:


Finally, the Yi people inhabit the remote mountains of northern Yunnan, even though the largest representation lives in Sichuan Province.

A peaceful people living in contact with nature, Yi are known for their incredible embroidery skills, which are full part of their cultural heritage and daily attire.

Yi people like to express their wishes for a better and wealthier life through their colorful attire. Despite the hardship of life living conditions, Yi textiles such as this lovely bag below are a full statement of joy. Can’t you feel some good vibes?

If you enjoyed this article, help us grow! We strive to make the lives of these communities better by creating opportunities for their social and economic development. Shop our articles and visit us soon!

About Interact China 


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”  

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste. 

So far we carry 3000+ goods covering Ladies Fashion via, Kungfu Fashion, Home Furnishings, Babies & Kids, Painting Arts, Textile Arts, Carving Arts, Tribal Jewelry Art, Wall Masks and Musical Instruments. Our team speak English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and serve customers worldwide with passion and hearts. 


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Naxi Nakhi People

Naxi Nakhi are an ethnic group inhabit at the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province, as well as the southwestern part of Sichuan Province in southwest China.



Dongba people

The Naxi Nakhi are believed to be the descendants of the nomadic Qiang, an ethnic group inhabiting Tibetan plateau since ancient times. During the Sui (581CE-618 CE) and Tang (618CE-907 CE) dynasties, the Naxi Nakhi were known as the Mosha-yi, or the Moxie-yi. Only after communist rule in China did they call themselves Naxi Nakhi, which means “people who worship black things “.




Dongba people

Before 1949, most Naxi Nakhi people were followers of the “Dongba” religion, which was a form of Shamanism. Sorcerers, called “Dongba,” were invited to chant scriptures at weddings, funerals, the New Year Day and other festivals. With the influence of both Han Chinese and Tibetan culture, some of the Naxi Nakhi were followers of Lamaism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity




Dongba People

Naxi language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family. More than 1,000 years ago, the Naxi people had already created pictographic characters called the “Dongba” script and a syllabic writing known as the “Geba” script. With these scripts they recorded a lot of beautiful folklore, legends, poems and religious classics. However, they were difficult to master, and in 1957 the government helped the Naxi design an alphabetic script. Over the past few hundred years, as the Naxi people have come into closer contact with the people in other parts of China politically, economically and culturally, the oral and written Chinese has become an important means of communication in Naxi society.




Dongba People

Naxi Nakhi Woman Costume in Lijiang
Dongba People

The Naxi Nakhi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns accompanied by jackets and long trousers, tied with richly decorated belts at the waist. They often wear sheep skin slung over the shoulder, on which are seven stars exquisitely embroidered, with sun and moon symbols, one on each side. This reflects the Naxis’ admiration for diligence — “people start working early in the morning and do not stop until late in the evening.” Women in Ninglang County wear short jackets and long skirts reaching the ground, with many folds. They wrap large black cotton turbans around their heads and wear big silver earrings. Men’s garments are similar to those of the Han people.




Dongba People

The monogamous family was the main type of Naxi family. Young people’s marriages were all arranged by their parents.

Dongba People

Cremation has been a tradition since ancient times, although burial was adopted in certain Naxi Nakhi areas during the late Qing Dynasty (1644CE- 1912CE). It was common in the past to chant scriptures at the funeral ceremony to expiate the sins of the dead.





Naxi Nakhi Dongjing Musicians in Lijiang
Dongba People Dongba People

Dongba People

Naxi Nakhi culture is largely a mixture of Tibetan and Han Chinese influences, with some indigenous elements. Especially in the case of their musical scores, it acts as the foundation of the Naxi Nakhi literature.

Naxi Nakhi music is 500 years old, and it has developed its own unique style and traits. There are three main styles: Baisha, Dongjing, and Huangjing, all using traditional Chinese instruments. The most common musical instruments are flutes, reed pipes and wind-string instruments. The Naxis are fond of singing and dancing, especially at weddings and funerals. The most popular songs are descriptive and short. They are sung at very high pitch and with strong rhythms, to the accompaniment of simple dances.


Art and Architecture


Dongba People

Naxi architecture, sculpture and painting have reached fairly high standards. Absorbing architectural styles of the Han and the Tibetan, the houses of the Naxi Nakhi are built in a unique vernacular style of one courtyard with five skylights, which have a crude and simple appearance, but with elaborate and delicate patterns on casements and doors. The ancient Naxi Nakhi town of Lijiang is now a major tourist destination.

Dongba People

The temples, though looking very staid and ordinary from the outside, are decorated on the interior with carvings on poles, arches and idols of gods. The decorations include depictions of episodes from epics, dancers, warriors, animals and birds, and flowers. The mural paintings depict Dongba gods, and are derived from Tibetan styles.




Dongba People Dongba People

The traditional festivals include the “Farm-Tool Fair” in January, “God of the Rain Festival” in March, and “Mule and Horse Fair” in July. There are also the Lunar New Year, the Pure Brightness Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Torch Festival — all being the same as those of the Hans.

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Dai Ethnic Tribe, Home of Peacock


Population and Location


The Dai are one of the 55 ethnic groups of China. The name Dai, meaning free people, has been officially used since 1953 to replace “Tai” or “Thai.”

There are about 1.5 million Dai in China. Most of the Dai live in the Xishuangbanna and Dehong Dai-Jingpo autonomous prefectures in southern Yunnan province of China. Musical Instruments




The Dai language belongs to the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong group of Sino-Tibetan languages. The written language was derived from Devanagari and differs from region to region.


Livelihood and Housing


Musical Instruments
Most Dai grow rice. They also raise livestock, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, rubber, fruit, camphor, coffee, sisal hemp and vegetables. Local industry and craftsmanship includes embroidery, weaving, musical instruments and bamboo ware. Jade and drugs are traded illegally in this region.

Most Dai live in valleys and bamboos houses built on stilts. They live on the top floor; the lower floor is for domestic animals, and balconies are used for friend visiting.


Dating and Marriage


Musical Instruments
Dai are famous for their dating and marriage customs. Teenage girls traditionally have a room away from their parents so she can meet her lover. A girl shows her interest in a young man through singing and a young man would play Hulusi to express his love to the girl.

On the wedding, the parents tie a silk thread in the hands of bride and bridegroom to pray for a good future and bless they can love each other all their life.

The Dai community is so close knitted that traditionally they do not use family names, believing that they are all of the same family.




The Dais have a rich and colorful culture. They have their own calendar, which started in 638AD. There are books in Dai script for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Dai historical documents carry a rich variety of literary works covering poetry, legends, stories, fables and children’s tales.




Musical Instruments
Their achievements in music are well-known among all the ethnic groups. They love singing and dancing, accompanied by their native musical instruments. Their folk and traditional musical instruments include bronze drum and Hulusi. Peacock dance is their most popular folk dance.




Musical Instruments
The Dai religion is Theravada Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism was introduced into the Dai region more than a thousand years ago. The Dai also take part in animistic worship by offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors. In actuality, the Dai are perhaps more animistic than Buddhist.

In the mind of the Dai people, the “Holy Bird” peacock is a symbol of happiness and auspiciousness, and thereby is a common role in numerous folk legends.

There were many Buddhist temples in the countryside, and it was a common practice, especially in Xishuangbanna, to send young boys to the temples to learn to read and write and chant scriptures, as a form of schooling. Some of them became monks, while most of them returned to secular life.




Musical Instruments
Important Dai festivals are the Water-splashing Festival, the Door-closing Festival and the Door-opening Festival, all of which are related to Buddhism. The Water-splashing Festival is the New Year of the Dai ethnic minority. On the 24th to 26th day of the sixth month of the Dai calendar, people engage in traditional activities such as water-splashing and dragon-boating, hoping to pacify evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

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White Bai Ethnic Tribe

The Bai is one of the 56 ethnic tirbes of China. Bai People regards white color with high esteem and they call themselves Baizi, Baini or Baihuo, meaning white people. In 1956, they were named the Bai Nationality by Chinese Authorities.




Bai Ethnic
The Bai ethnic group has a population of around 2 million, 80 percent of which live in the Bai Autonomous County west of Yunnan Province. Only a small part of their community are scattered in Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan Provinces.




The Bai speak a language related to the Yi branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese group of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. The language contains a large number of Chinese words due to the long contact with the majority Chinese ethnic group, Han Chinese.




Bai Ethnic
The area round Lake Erhai in the autonomous prefecture is blessed with a mild climate and fertile land yielding two crops a year. Here, the main crops are rice, winter wheat, beans, millet, cotton, rape, sugar-cane and tobacco. The forests have valuable stocks of timber, herbs of medicinal value and rare animals. Mt. Diancang by Lake Erhai contains a rich deposit of the famous Yunnan marble, which is basically pure white with veins of red, light blue, green and milky yellow. It is treasured as building material as well as for carving.




Bai Ethnic
The color white is favored by both men and women of the Bai ethnic group when it comes to clothing. The Bai ethnic dresses are mostly light in color, forming stark contrast with dark colors that are used as a complement. The dresses, with strongly contrasted yet perfectly matched colors, are adorned with elaborate cross-stitch embroidery. Most dresses are edged with lace. They may be intricately decorated, yet looking quite orderly.


Local Houses


Bai Ethnic The houses of the Bai people fall into three categories, according to the material, decorations, and furnishings. The three categories are: bamboo sawali house and thatched cottage, wooden house, and house with tiled roof. This division reflects the different economic levels and the different geographical environments.


Arts and Crafts


Bai Ethnic Bai Ethnic
The Bai people are masters of artistic creativity including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and other craft techniques such as lacquer work. Contemporarily, their dance and music spread among the Han people after becoming accepted as part of the court entertainment.




Bai Ethnic
Although the Bai people believe in Buddhism, they also worship their village god, Benzhu, Nature of God, the Prince of the Nanzhao regime, or even a hero of folklore.




Bai Ethnic Bai Ethnic
The main festivals of the Bai include the March Fair, worship gathering in three temples, the Torch Festival, the Folk Song Singing Festival at Shibaoshan Mountain, and Protecting Immortal’s Day. Among them the two most important festivals are March Fair and Torch Festival.

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Colorful People, Colorful Culture




The Miao Hmong ethnic minority has a population of over 8 million, larger than most minority groups in China. They are widely scattered and normally living in clustered groups of small villages.

Miao People 8




Linguistically the Miao belong to the Miao-Yao branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Miao have their own languages consisting of 30-40 dialects, which make it hard for them to understand those of other tribes. But nowadays most Miao young can speak Mandarin Chinese. They had no written scripts until year 1957, when a Romanization system was created. Because of the lack of written language, history and tradition was passed down in the form of songs, dances and clothing.




The Miao are engaged in agriculture, with hunting as supplement. Major crops include paddy rice, maize, rape, ramie, oil-tea camellia and tung tree. The weather is mild with generous rainfall and the land is rich in medical herbs such as Panax notoginseng and Gastrodia elata.


Living Condition


As an old Miao saying says: “Birds nest in trees, fish swim in rivers, Miao live in mountains.” Miao live in mountainous areas. A typical Miao village contains 100 to 200 households, with smaller village of 10 and big village of over 1000 households.

Miao People 9 Miao People 10

Miao build their house on deep mountain slopes at the foot hill and next to rivers. It has three storeys. The first storey is for raising domestic animals and fowls and storing firewood and farm tools. The second storey is living room, outside of which is a balcony. The third storey is bed room.

Miao People 11 Miao People 12




Miao People 13 Miao family is monogamous. Aged parents are supported by their youngest son. Property is passed down to men, but women have the most power in the family. Marriages are usually arranged by parents, but unmarried young men and women have the freedom to court. If a couple is attracted to each other, they exchange love tokens but they must still need parents’ approval before marry. For the first three years of marriage, the bride lives with her own family. She lives with her husband only during holidays and at certain other times. If she gets pregnant, she moves to her husband’s house. Like other ethnic groups, Miao are not under China’s one child policy.




By Chinese government, children have nine year compulsory education. However, some parents do not believe in educating girls. Many girls drop out of schools when they are teenagers. As many as 95 percent of Miao women cannot read or write.


Cultural Heritage


Miao People 14 The friendly Miao are well known for their hospitality. They always keep their house open for guests and greet them with wine and songs. Guests are greeted outdoors and they are invited to drink, eat, and sing.

Miao love singing and dancing and are famous for love songs and wine toasting songs. Lusheng is their favorite musical instrument. Other instruments like copper drum and Suona are also very popular.




Miao people are skilled at handicrafts such as embroidery, weaving, paper-cutting, batik, and jewelry casting. Miao embroidery and silver jewelry are delicate and beautiful. The patterns on their clothes are extremely colorful and with great details.


Religion and Festival


Miao believe in animals and worship nature and ancestors. They hold that everything has its own spirit, including sun, moon, cave, bridge, plants and even huge stones. So they host many ritual activities to express their reverence and respect to nature and their ancestors. Many of them are passed down and become the festivals today.

There are many festivals like Miao New Year, Harvest Tasting, sister festival, Lusheng Festival and Dragon Boat Festival. There’re lots of activities on these festivals, singing, dancing, horse racing, bullfight, rooster fight, knife-pole climbing and swinging.


Social Problems


Since Miao are isolated from modern world and living in remote mountainous villages, they face many problems of poverty. With the increasing number of young generation migrating to big cities, the lack of labor and preservation of their own culture is facing great challenge.

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A Nation Suffered Far Too Long

The Miao are people of one of China’s 55 ethnic tribes, whose homeland is in the mountainous regions of southern China mainly provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei and Guangxi. The group is believed to have a history of more than 5000 years, longer than that of Han Chinese the largest ethnic people of China.


Terms — Miao and Hmong


Miao also called as Hmong and two terms are both used to refer to this aboriginal people of China. Outside China they live in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, due to migrations starting in the 18th century, and also in the United States, French Guyana and Australia, as a result of recent migrations in the aftermath of the Indochinese wars.

Some people think “Miao” is a term for “barbarians”, while “Hmong” means “free men.” In fact, “Miao” in Chinese doesn’t mean “barbarians”. This is a common misunderstanding that many Hmong-Americans have. “Miao” in Chinese literally means “sprout”, “young plant” or “sprouting seed”. In fact, the term implies Miao as a nation grow as strong as plants and sprouting seeds. It is a very honorable name and refers to people of the earliest civilization while other tribes were still unknown in China.


Legend about the origin of Miao


By history, Chiyou is Miao’s ancestor, leader of the Jiuli Tribe. He fought with the Huaxia Tribe led by Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) and Yandi (Yan Emperor), ancestors of Han Chinese. The battle was said to take place in 26th century BC in Zhuolu (border between present Hebei and Liaoning provinces) and was to fight for the control over Yellow River valley. Chiyou was defeated and with the further attack of Huaxia Tribe, he led the Jiuli Tribe to move down to south China, which started Miao’s history of immigrating.


Long-Time Migration


Miao 1 Miao ancestors began to settle down in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River during the Shang and Zhou dynasty (7th century BC to 256 BC). As early as the Qin and Han dynasty (221 BC to 220 AD), Miao lived in the western part of present day Hunan and the eastern part of present day Guizhou provinces. The term Miao was began to use in Tang and Song period (AD. 618-1279).

In the 3rd century AD, Miao went west to present day northwest Guizhou and south Sichuan along the Wujiang River. In the 5th century, some Miao groups moved to east Sichuan and west Guizhou. In the 9th century, some went to Yunnan. In the 16th century, some settled in Hainan province, the most southern part of China.

Military attacks in the 18th and 19th century, some even migrated across China border into Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Burma and western countries.

As a result of these large-scale migrations over centuries Miao Hmong are widely located. Altogether there are approximately 8 million Miao Hmong people. They speak 30-40 mutually unintelligible dialects and they have wide differences in customs and clothes.

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