Bai, Dai, Yi, Miao, Naxi, Wa. Words we weren’t familiar with until we reached Yunnan, a southern province of China that borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. These are the names of just some of the ethnic minorities in this diverse and colourful province. In a tiny corner of one of the largest nations on earth, can be found half of all the recognised ethnic groupings in the country.
How many ethnic minorities are there in China? Fifty-six, according to the Chinese government, though that number is contestable. When the current regime took power in 1949 it promised that minority-dominated areas would have some degree of autonomy, so it was necessary to find out what the ethnic make-up of China was. A survey found more than 400 peoples, far too many to each have the promised representation in the country’s new legislature. So, back to the drawing board. A tighter definition of ethnicity produced the figure of 38, which was expanded to 56 in the 1970s. It hasn’t changed since. Quite a few of the groups not included in the 56 are still trying to stake their claim. Who should recognise an ethnic group – the people themselves or the central government?
But even out of the 56 officially counted, nearly half, 25 in fact, can be found in the province we explored first on our China’s Borderlands tour. And this isn’t some re-invented story about cultural origins. These people live in quite distinctive ways, with their own language, culture, clothing, cuisine and religion. Some of them are quite exceptional. The Yi practise shamanism. The pictogram language of the Naxi is the only living language of its type – rather like the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. The Dai come from the very south of the province, and have strong links with Thailand. The Miao are known as Hmong elsewhere, and are a hill tribe that also lives in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. People wear their distinctive clothing quite unselfconsciously, as part of everyday life and definitely not just for the tourists.
If you ever want to be disabused of the notion that there is such as thing as Chinese culture, food, language or belief system, come to Yunnan. Be prepared to be amazed, as we have been.