Chinese Festivals: The Torch Festival of the Yi People

When visiting a foreign country, one of the best things you can do is get to know the culture and history of the local people. A great way to do this is to get in with local customs, traditions, and festivals. Doing so can be highly satisfying and inspirational! In China, one of the most worth seeing festivals is the Torch Festival (or Fire Festival) of the Yi people. Falling between the 24th to the 26th day of the sixth lunar month in the year, this festival takes place in southwestern China and is a event that the Yi people of China treasure.

Yi

What is this festival, how did it start, and who are the people that make it happen every year?

Who Are the Yi People?

The Yi are a minority group in China who mostly populate the hills and valleys of the Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces in southwestern China. They are people rich with culture and tradition that has been passed down for centuries. These skilled craftsmen have inherited a knack for sculpture, drawing, painting and embroidery. Shown off in the typical clothing of the women, whose dresses are decorated with embroidered flowers and whose traditional head-handkerchiefs feature embroidered pictures of delicate beauty.

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FireAccording to the legend, the Yi people trace their ancestry to Apu Dumu, who had three wives, who each bore him two sons. In this legend, the oldest two sons conquered the inhabitants of Yunnan and settled there, the youngest two were defeated and ended up westward in Guizhou, and the other two set up their tribes in Liangshan.

Yi People in History

Aside from the legend, the Yi people have been involved in Chinese history since the Han Dynasty. Throughout the centuries, this minority group has been overthrown and persecuted for their traditional ways. This was especially true under the Qing Dynasty, when some of the Yi were forced to abandon such traditional customs as cremation and instead perform burials.

In 1955, the Yi shared in a large revolt against the Communist party, leading to thousands of deaths. After the People’s Republic of China was established, many autonomous administrative districts of the prefecture were set up for the Yi in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou.

So where in this troubled yet fascinating history began the Torch Festival, and what does it mean for the Yi people?

The Torch Festival: Fire, Music and Love under the Stars

The origins of this fascinating celebration are a bit unclear. According to some scholars, this festival was one of the two yearly Star Returning Festivals. Other legends say the Torch Festival include the idea of offering sacrifices to deities and scaring away spirits, as well as the wish for a good harvest.  However, one of the most popular stories is the legend of Atilaba. This fantastical wrestler supposedly drove away a plague of locusts by using torches that he made from pine trees. Thus the Torch Festival is to celebrate this victory.

Festival traditions

As part of the festival, torches are set up in front of every household. The idea is that these torches will drive away bad luck. A giant bonfire is also set up in the center of the town, and the people gather together to celebrate. All are dressed in their Yi garb, and they will perform traditional dances. Instruments are also brought out and music continues all through the night. The celebration is loud and joyous, a melody brought together by the entire town.

During this time, it is typical for young men and women to search for a potential marriage mate. When a young man finds a girl that he likes, he will steal the embroidered belt that she wears. This is drawn from an ancient tradition of bridegrooms pretending to kidnap their brides. If the young woman is interested in him, then they will begin a relationship. If she’s not interested then she would put on another belt and the young man is left with the one he stole as a token of her rejection.

fireworks

Traditional performances are carried on throughout the night. During the Torch Festival the fires rage on, the music gets louder, and fireworks light up the sky. The atmosphere of joy and celebration is easy to get caught up in.  Make sure to include this beautiful and cheerful festival in your travel plans to China.

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Cez Krol

Travel blogger at eTramping
Cez lives in China like a local for the past 4 years. Apart from speaking the language, he loves to discover more about this unique country of extreme contrasts. He shares his China experiences here at Sublime China and on his blog eTramping, so go and check out what's out there for you in China.
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