2010 Student-Faculty Fellows: Willamette University

Shamanic Rituals and Symbols in Yi Folk Culture

Mentor: Sijuan Zhou
Students: Kali Bonife, Morgan Faricy, Audrey Hirschberger, Heather Hurlburt, Matthew Satterthwaite


Project Abstract

The Willamette research group spent three weeks in the Chengdu and Daliangshan region of Sichuan province, China to study Yi folk culture. The group documented four bimo, suni/muni rituals, two torch festivals, one funeral ceremony and one session of demonstrations on ritual setting and the preparation of various ritual tools and figurines for use in rituals. We also attended a scholarly conference and conducted interviews among various groups of local people. Preliminary findings of the group include the following: 1) There are basic shared ritual elements in all the events we studied. The bimo, suni and muni officiate at the ceremonies. They share certain common characteristics even though they are considered different people. 2) Shamanic beliefs greatly affect local perceptions about agriculture and hunting. 3) The local music and instruments have strong ties to local traditions, but they are clearly separated from ritual chanting and tools related to this. 4) Local artistic designs, as reflected in costumes and artifacts, have strong identity ties to the Yi culture and community. 5) Traditional ceremonies for the rites of passage, such as funeral ceremonies, are closely linked to Yi culture and provide a unique window to understanding the Yi. Living within the realm of China where the Yi language is the primary one spoken proved to be a challenge, but well worth it. The chance to personally witness on several occasions the role of shaman in Yi society and their ritual performances was highly illuminating.

Kali Bonife

The focus of my research is shamanic funeral rituals and practices among the Yi people. I began my study by visiting museums, such as the one at San Xing Dui, looking for artifacts and seeking to gain a better understanding of the history of Southwest China. Our group met with and interviewed many scholars in the area who are conversant in Yi customs, ritual, and more particularly, shamanic riturals. Bimo, suni and muni conduct ritual ceremonies. The bimo plays the significant role of taking the body of a deceased person up to the mountain for cremation. Specific texts and sacrifices are used in the ceremony, which if successfully conducted will send a deceased person’s soul back to its ancestral home; if not, the ghost may linger on and torment a family for years. Ceremonies differ dependent on the cause of death.

Morgan Faricy

My research centers upon Yi religious ritual. One of the distinctions of the Yi people is their use even in modern times of religious experts or shaman, which in the West are generally identified with animism and with a “technique of ecstasy.” In Yi society, shaman are mediums between the spirit world and the human world, and serve the community by helping to heal people, guide lost souls, appease spirits, and so forth. We discovered that there are two different groups of religious experts: the bimos are one and the sunis and munis are the other. My research will describe three ritual performances, each performed by either a bimo, a suni, or a muni. It will then seek to ascertain the commonalities in the structure and symbolism of each, and explore whether or not bimos are what Western scholars would consider a bimo to be a shaman.

Audrey Hirschberger

My research focuses on the art and costume of the Yi minority of Liangshan, China and how the identity of the people and their heritage is portrayed through this craftsmanship. In the Xide area, which is an area where clothing worn by the Yi is considered “standard”, I studied the style of Yi clothing, and, in the Meigu and Gan Luo areas of Liangshan, I studied the textile arts. I intend to study the symbolism within clothing and on painted lacquer ware to discover how clothing defines a person’s age, status, wealth, gender, location, wisdom, and individuality. For instance, hats worn by persons denote age, motherhood, manhood, weddings, job description, the region one is from, and so forth. There are over 300 types of unique ethnic costumes within the Yi minority, so this study will only scratch the surface.

Heather Hurlburt

My research focuses upon traditional musical instruments and shamanic ritual tools in Yi culture. The instruments I studied include the mouth harp, moon lute, panpipe gourd, end-blown flute, and a straight flute. The shamanic instruments and tools used during rituals include a drum with a drumstick and ribbons, the fan, bell, and the vy tu that the bimo uses. The mouth harp and the moon lute are the most commonly used instruments that villagers and musicians play today. Playing them is learned while one is still young, and music continues to be integrated throughout one’s life.

Matthew Satterthwaite

My study focuses upon the sustainability of Yi agricultural practices, given the realization that the Yi have lived on and farmed the same tracts of land for thousands of years. To determine Yi views on environmental sustainability, especially those related to agricultural practices, water quality, lumber, and wildlife, I conducted a poll of Yi persons about such issues. I discovered a surprising difference between the views of urban Yi and those living in rural areas. It is clear that rural Yi maintain a strong connection to their shamanic roots and environmental sustainability.