The Yi ethnic group lives mainly in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. The Yi language belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family and has six dialects. Yi characters, as the earliest syllabic script in China, were formed in the 13th century and more than 1,000 of them are still commonly used today. The Yi people used to believe in many gods and worshiped ancestors. In Yunnan and Guizhou, many Yi people accept the influence of Buddhism and Taoism.
The Yi people have many traditional festivals, of which the Torch Festival is the grandest and the most important. The Torch Festival, also known as the “Xinghui (return of the stars) Festival”, is dubbed as the “Carnival of the Orient“.
The festival has several origins according to different legends. A popular legend is about a wrestling contest between an ancient Yi hero and a god on the 24th of the sixth lunar month. Both of them had great strength but finally, the Yi hero wrestled and killed the god, leaving another god very angry. In revenge, the god sent locusts in immense swarms onto the earth and ate up almost all the corps in three days and three nights. The Yi people had to hold aloft torches together to drive locusts away. From then on, Yi people light torches on that day with intentions to kill harmful insects and ensure a bumper harvest.
Usually, Yi people start preparation for the arrival of the Torch Festival one month in advance. Children wander around hills and wild fields, picking up dry, long and straight wormwoods for torch making. In the Liang Mountain area, Yi people usually only use wormwood to make torches instead of bamboo shoots or pine branches, since they believe wormwood can help eliminate the evils. The number of torches prepared depends on how many members there are in the family. Usually, they will prepare three torches for one person, and of course, everyone wishes to have more and longer torches.
At the time, parents need to prepare the food for sacrificial rites and holiday clothes for every family member. Girls need to get colorful turban and skirts in read. Some girls are even busy with making Yi-style suits, waistbands or embroidered wallets for their lovers. Young men also buy silver earrings, blue capes or yellow umbrellas for girls they have fallen in love with. Every household purchases a large quantity of festival food including wine, sweets, noodle and fruit, while the whole village as a whole will purchase one cow or several cows and kill them during the festival as sacrifices for the Fire God.
Finally, the day of the 24th of the sixth lunar month arrives. The Yi people first clean their houses in the morning. Then, everyone dresses in holiday best. Women are busy at cooking; men are busy at cow killing and beef distribution. The Yi people believe that eating beef on that day will bring them good luck and peaceful life throughout the whole coming year.
In the daytime, the Yi people watch wrestling, horse race, bullfight and other performances. When night falls, the Yi people will have a grand family dinner, and worship their ancestors and gods. Then the torch parade begins. Men and women of all ages hold torches aloft, shout auspicious words and walk around their houses and fields. Torches wind like so many flying fire dragons in the hills, illuminating fields and villages.
What’s more, all the villagers, in their holiday best, will gather at the main festival site, putting their torches together to make a big bonfire. Their bonfire party usually lasts till the next morning, young Yi men blowing flutes, plucking moon-shaped instruments and three-stringed guitars while dancing; young women dancing to the rhythm, clapping their hands. Shouts of joy together with the sound of the gongs and drums make a sea of rejoicing.
Many other ethnic groups including Bai, Naxi, Hani, Lahu and Pumi also celebrate the Torch Festival.