Table of Contents
Discovering Yuanyang’s Rich History: A Look at the County’s Fascinating Recent Past Through Rare Photographs
Yuanyang Rice Terraces: The Hani and Yi people are the creators of the monumental rice terraced mountains which have made Yuanyang famous.
Yuanyang County (元阳县) is located in Honghe Prefecture in southeastern Yunnan province, along the Honghe (Red River). The prefecture is predominantly populated by a number of ethnic minorities such as Yizu, Hani, Dai from the valleys, Miao and Zhuang.
Yuanyang is a renowned tourist destination, especially among photographers, owing to its vast expanses of mountainous terrain that have been expertly transformed into beautiful terraced rice paddies over the past 1300 years. These stunning terraces, which are a tribute to the ingenuity of the Hani people, have made Yuanyang a popular destination for tourists worldwide. The Hani people, along with the Yi people, are the original inhabitants of this region, and their languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman group. The Hani and Yi communities have long been responsible for creating these monumental rice terraced mountains, which have now become a hallmark of Yuanyang’s breathtaking beauty.
In 2002, photographer Matteo Damiani captured a collection of images that captured the life in China. His photographs offered a rare glimpse into the country’s rich cultural heritage and stunning natural landscapes. Through his lens, he captured the vibrant colors, intricate details, and unique nuances of China’s diverse communities, from the bustling city streets to the serene countryside.
Ethnic groups from surrounding villages come to the city twice a week to sell their products and buy fabrics for their robes. The market days transform the streets of Yuanyang into a colorful carnival with vendors selling all kinds of wares, including fabrics, ribbons, and lavishly embroidered cloth. The Yi and Hani people wear garishly colored dresses and dark-colored velvety tunics, respectively, with intricate ornaments and embroidery. The making of each robe can take up to a year. The Hani are skilled in constructing terraces for rice fields, which are designed to protect the shoots from insects, birds, and strong winds. The location of villages is carefully chosen for the ecosystem they form with the forests and streams. The Yi people live in two-story houses, with the kitchen and stable on the ground floor and the living room on the second floor. At dawn, adults prepare their work tools and head to the fields.
The Hani minority group is renowned for their impressive terracing skills, which they have been practicing for hundreds of years. They have carved entire mountains into a series of rice paddies that are often described as “the stairs to heaven.” The terraces are designed in such a way that they protect the rice shoots from insects, birds, and strong winds. The construction of these terraces is passed down from generation to generation, and the Hani people take great pride in their architectural heritage.
In addition to their terracing skills, the Hani are also known for their exquisite textiles, which are produced by the women of the community. The women often spend months working on their traditional clothing, which is adorned with intricate embroidery and ornamental details. The dresses of Hani women are especially unique, with a wide collar composed of ornaments of lace, ribbons with flower themes, and a wide train, covering the dark pants with ribbons at the end and resembling the tails of roosters and peacocks, richly embroidered with geometric patterns. The women also wear a black headdress with colorful mends, which is sometimes wrapped in fuchsia and white fringed cloth to protect it from damage. Hani women who are married often wear a large pointed black hat to signify their status.
The Hani have a rich cultural heritage that has been passed down through oral tradition for generations. Due to their lack of a written language, the Hani have a large collection of myths, legends, fairy tales, and songs that serve as a way to pass down their traditions from one generation to the next. The Hani people are polytheistic and celebrate ancestor worship, and on important holidays they sacrifice an ox and celebrate until dawn.
The Hani people mostly live in Yunnan, although there are also some small communities that live across the nearby Laotian border. The Hani are believed to be of Tibetan-Burmese origin, and they likely migrated from the Qinghai highlands many years ago. Despite the challenges that the Hani people have faced over the years, they have managed to maintain their unique cultural identity and continue to be an integral part of the diverse ethnic tapestry that makes up China.
The Yi Ethnic Group
The Yi ethnic group is a diverse and widespread minority that resides in southern China, Vietnam, and Thailand. With 8 million people, the Yi is the seventh-largest minority group among the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. The term “Yi” is used to encompass a range of different ethnic groups who share the same Tibetan-Burmese ancestry, including the Nisu, Sani, Nasu, Axi, Lolopo, and Pu, all of which display strong linguistic diversity.
The majority of the Yi people are engaged in traditional practices such as cattle raising, cultivation, and hunting. As animists, the Yi believe in the spirits of ancestors, rocks, wind, forests, and other natural elements. Shamanism and Taoism have also greatly influenced Yi culture, and magic plays an important role in everyday life. The practice of magic can take various forms, such as healing, exorcism, rain chants, curses, and divination.
Like many ethnic groups, the Yi people have their own unique traditions, including colorful clothing and intricate music and dance. The women of the Yi are particularly known for their intricate embroidery and weaving, which can take months to complete. The Yi also have their own language, which is not mutually intelligible with other languages spoken in the region.
Despite their rich cultural heritage, the Yi people have faced significant challenges in modern times, including marginalization, poverty, and discrimination. Efforts are being made to preserve and promote Yi culture, including through the establishment of cultural centers and the revival of traditional practices.
Yuanyang terrace fields map
Photos: Matteo Damiani
Video: Dominique Musorrafiti, Matteo Damiani
Topic: Traditional clothing and customs of the Hani and Yi minorities in Yuanyang, China, Cultural heritage of Yuanyang’s Hani and Yi minorities captured in vintage photographs, Exploring the ancient terraced fields and unique traditions of Hani and Yi ethnic groups in Yuanyang