When I first learnt about the Yi (彝) people, I was deeply attracted by their wide variety of traditional costumes. There are about eight million Yi spread over the vast region of southwest China. Through out the course of history, each ethnic sub-group of Yi or each locality has developed its very own style. Costumes have become an important and integral element of the Yi civilisation.
Based on geographical regions, ethnologists have categorised the countless variety of Yi costumes into six main genres: Liangshan (凉山), Wumengshan (乌蒙山), Red River (红河), Southeast Yunnan (滇东南), West Yunnan (滇西) and Chuxiong (楚雄). Under these genres there are numerous styles.
The study of Yi costumes is a complex and laboured process. It is nearly impossible for an individual to examine every style created by this ethnic group. This web page documents my observation of Yi costumes during my two-day visit in April 2008, to the Daliangshan (大凉山) region in southern Sichuan Province, in particular, the counties of Butuo (布拖) and Zhaojue (昭觉).
One of the most charming characteristics of Langshan Yi costumes is the exquisite pleated skirts worn by women of all ages. Coupled with Liangshan women's graceful walking demeanour, these skirts sway in an extraordinary elegant manner. The Liangshan pleated skirts come with two primary colours – blue and white (sometimes can be purple or green) - and complemented by red or black colour bands.
If the pleated skirts are not unique to the Liangshan Yi, the traditional charwas
(felt mentles/vests/cloaks) in Liangshan are certainly not seen else where in the world. They are made of coarse wool, in deep royal blue, without button and somewhat resemble a medieval body armor. They usually hang over a woman's shoulder, shielding out wind, and keeping the body warm. But the main function of the charwa
is to provide improvised sitting pads, for the people in this region always prefer sitting on the ground
Every Yi female, married or otherwise, wear a felt cap in sombre colour. Such head gear can also be seen in other ethnic groups such as Naxi (纳西) in northwest Yunnan.
Neck is considered by ethnic Yi as the most beautiful part of a female body. Thus the decoration of the neck is of the most importance. During holidays or market days, Yi women often wear silver collars with extremely intricate craftsmenship. The height of the collars visually amplifies the length of the necks. As an expression of wealth, silver is also used for ear rings, bracelets, and ornaments on the blouses.
Market days are usually held every five or ten days in Yi communes and towns. As equally important as economic activities, these are essentially social events and fashion shows for the Yi. Whether or not they have any business to do with, market-going is the finest excuse for the young women to display their best outfits to the crowd. They walk several abreast down the street, everyone is as pround as a super-model on the fashion runway. For those who are interested in genuine Liangshan Yi costumes, the best places for the observation are the counties of Butuo (布拖), Zhaojue (昭觉), Meigu (美姑), Leibo (雷波) and Jinyang (金阳) in Sichuan Province.