Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Yi Peoples

Shun-Sheng Ling wrote: "During ancient times the majority of the inhabitants of the Pacific coast of China belonged to the East Yi. The East Yi people in accordance with the results of our research consisted chiefly of peoples from Polynesia and Micronesia".

Pointing more toward Taiwan and the Philippines, the late Harvard historian Kwang-chih Chang agreed that Austronesian presence in early coastal China was likely.

The "East Yi" (Dong Yi) are the Yi peoples who lived in Shandong and Henan as described in Chinese literature. The Yi to the south were known as Nan Yi and those to the north as Bei Yi.

Chinese literature describes the Yi as "maritime" people who built large ships. Eventually the name Yi became synonomous with the sea itself.

The Yi peoples are normally associated with Dawenkou, Lungshan, Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures. These people practiced tooth removal and head deformation, and built their homes on piles (stilts), all common features of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Dawenkou showed the first signs of significant social stratification in China. Elite burials became increasingly common and elaborate toward the latter Dawenkou period. By the time that Dawenkou transitioned to its daughter Lungshan culture in Shandong, signs of extreme hierarchy were present to include, at times, funerary human sacrifice.

In the Lungshan period we see the rise of forts with rammed earth walls. This has been interpreted as possibly signaling an increase in clan warfare and the consequent need for protection.

Chinese texts make it clear that the Yi people were considered foreign in comparison to the Hua folk of the Upper Yellow River region. In latter times, the term "Dong Yi" came to exclusively mean foreigners and no longer applied to Shandong province.

However, during the earliest times, the Yi people were very important in the formation of Chinese culture and civilization.

The Dawenkou Pottery Inscriptions may have faciliated communication and trade between people who spoke different languages. These characters were pictographic in nature and thus would have facilitated cross-cultural communication.

As noted earlier there is extensive evidence of long-distance trade particularly that involving jade and nephrite originating in the Yangtze region (Liangzhu culture).

During the Lungshan period, we see the increasing use of clan emblems. By studying these symbols we can see that some clans were able to extend their range considerably. Sometime around 5500 years ago things started heating up in this region. If the war had not started yet, it was about to begin.

Paul Kekai Manansala