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Festival Sequel 3: Yunnan Colors

Imagine hundreds of villagers in forested mountains, all dressed in their Sunday best, with embroidered ethnic costumes in hundreds of different colors and patterns...

That’s the event, we had the privilege to participate in last month: the Yi Costume Competition in Santai Village, Chuxiong county.

Al tough there were a few Chinese tourists, we were the only foreigners, the rest was just hundreds and hundreds of local Yi people, coming down from the surrounding mountain villages for this festival, by foot, by car, by donkey, or motorbike...

The first event of the day was the opening ceremony, with free-flowing local alcohol, strange traditional instruments making not-so-melodious sounds, songs, dances and of course stunning colorful clothes.

Yi women from this region embroider everything, not only clothes, belts and hats, but also their bags, shoes and even the soles of their shoes. The colorful patterns usually involve flowers, animals and symbols.

During several days, we enjoyed singing and dancing performances, intricate costumes parading through the streets, markets selling bits and pieces of Yi costumes, many many snacks, barbecues, a local fair and lots of bitter alcohol...

Like many ethnic minorities in Yunnan, local people like ingest big bowls of scorching home-brewed alcohol and like to share them with everyone. When you visit Yi people, they will sing for you and make you drink. Don’t bother refusing, if you don’t drink, they will not stop singing. The lively tune goes like this: “Alaobiao brings alcohol, Abiaomei brings alcohol; It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, you have to drink; If you like it, you have to drink; If you don’t like you, you have to drink; Doesn’t matter if you like it or not, you have to drink anyway!” (You can listen to it HERE). Only when you have drunk with them will they consider you their friend and welcome you with open arms.

In the evening, after the official shows were done, everyone gathered in big circles around bonfires to dance hand in hand, deep into the night. Yi people are very festive and passionate people. Even in Kunming parks and on sidewalks, you can see Yi people dancing, and playing music around a big speaker every night.

A highlight of our stay were the buckwheat pancakes we bought from a nice grandmother. She told us that because of the altitude, Yi people did not cultivate rice, and thus buckwheat was a very important staple food for them. The homemade yellow pancakes tasted slightly bitter, but had a rich, nutritious taste.

We experienced this amazing festival and saw lots of astonishing costumes, but it was not until we came back to Kunming that we learn the true meaning of this event: In ancient times, before cellphones, electricity and roads, people lived in remote villages, separated by mountains, forests and ravines. Young boys and girls from different villages didn’t have much chance to meet and find love. The best way for girls to show their charm was by wearing beautiful clothes. To make a complete Yi costume, Girls needed one or two years to embroider the whole thing. Therefore, wearing many clothes, with beautiful intricate patterns, is a way of showing off your skills and willingness to work hard, and thus proving you are a good future bride.

Do you want to see the beautiful and varied costumes of the Yi people ? Yunnan has many different Yi  in several places and regions, each with different costumes and customs. Werever you are, the costumes will all be extremely colorful and intricate. Compare the Yi from the fairy-tale-like Stone Forest, to the multicolored Yi of the Yuanyang Rice Terraces, or the Yi in green costumes you can find in Dali Old Town...