Left Foot Dance of the Yi Posted on 22 Oct 04:01

The Yi people are one of the most diverse ethnic groups within China, spread out over three provinces and encompassing at least six mutually unintelligible language groups. The musical practices of the various Yi groups are equally diverse. If you follow the Tea Horse Youtube channel, you’ve already heard the music of the Sani people, a relatively small and isolated Yi sub-group from the Stone Forest region of Yunnan.

 Today we will shift focus to the Yi people of Chuxiong Prefecture. With a total Yi population of over one million, Chuxiong is the one of the largest concentrations of Yi, second only to the Liangshan region of southern Sichuan. As such, the Yi traditions of Chuxiong can be said to be somewhat more representative of the core Yi culture, even though the prefecture still encompasses a wide variety of local traditions.

 One of the best-known musical styles within Chuxiong is the Left Foot Dance of Mouding County. Its lively melodies and relatively easy to learn dance steps have helped to popularize it, particularly in the larger cities of Yunnan Province where it is not uncommon to see people of all ethnicities dancing in public squares to prerecorded versions of these traditional melodies. In Yunnan’s capital of Kunming there are enough transplants from Mouding County to support traditional public dances with live musical accompaniment. You can see one such musical gathering in the video below, taken at Green Lake Park in Kunming.



 In addition to the erhu 二胡 and jinghu 京胡, bowed instruments found throughout China, the Left Foot Dance makes use of one of the most characteristic Yi instruments: the xianzi 弦子 (if you don’t know how to pronounce Mandarin, try saying “shyen-zuh,” stress on the first syllable).

The Mouding xianzi is a short-necked octagonal lute strung with two double courses of nylon strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths, colorfully decorated, with a dragon’s head adorning the headstock. The xianzi bears obvious resemblance to other Chinese instruments, most notably the yueqin. In fact, in Sichuan Province the yueqin and xianzi are essentially the same instrument. In Yunnan, however, the xianzi has evolved into numerous local variants, almost all of them colorful and fairly distinct from the standard Chinese yueqin. For this reason, I will use the term xianzi to refer to instruments that have a large number of features distinctive to Yunnan’s Yi ethnic communities, even though the terms yueqin and xianzi are sometimes used interchangeably. In addition to the dragon headstock and colorful designs, the xianzi often has a narrower neck and rosette sound holes absent on the yueqin. The xianzi from Mouding is easily recognized from its octagonal shape and bright, almost fluorescent, designs painted on a white background.

Mouding xianzi with the characteristic color-scheme, octagonal body, and dragon head headstock.

The typical yueqin found throughout China.

The xianzi is strummed with a pick. More advanced players will pick the melodies, but often the xianzi is simply used as accompaniment, with the open strings strummed on the downbeats. From a musical perspective, this makes the Left Foot Dance highly inclusive, as a beginning xianzi player is easily integrated into the circle without disrupting the flow of the melody, which is mostly carried by the bowed jinghu and erhu.

The Dance

Throughout Yi culture, music and dance are closely linked. In some areas, nearly every piece of music has specific dance steps that go with it. Within the Left Foot Dance tradition, this proliferation of dances is simplified greatly. Generally speaking, you only see two moves: a side step and a kick. Exactly where the kicks and steps fall is unique to each melody.

Below are two more videos of the Left Foot Dance (recorded on my cell phone, please excuse image and sound quality). By comparing the patterns of steps and kicks you’ll get an idea of how the dance varies from piece to piece.


 Tradition and Contemporary Cultural Relevance

The Left Foot Dance is a living tradition which continues to evolve. New arrangements are written (often for recorded electronic versions), and new instruments enter the tradition – note the kick drum and baritone xianzi in the first video. Even the colorful embroidered clothing worn by dancers is constantly altered by new trends – note the polyester bell-bottoms. Moreover, the tradition seems to remain a relevant part of Yi community life, despite the competition from modern entertainment that is a threat to so much traditional music and dance around the world. As you can see, the weekly dance circle seen in these videos is eagerly attended by young and old alike.

 The staying power of the Left Foot Dance is also attested to by its crossover into guangchang wu (广场舞), eclectic dances to recorded music held in public squares and parks throughout China and primarily attended by urban retirees. The tradition has received further recognition through a folk-rock rendition of some Left Foot Dance melodies recorded by the band Shanren (山人乐队), Yunnan’s best know folk-rock export.

 The diversity of Yi musical traditions makes it impossible to gain an understanding of Yi music by focusing on a single tradition. Nonetheless, we hope these videos can convey the integral relationship between Yi music and dance, and the vitality of Yi musical culture. As we continue our musical explorations in Yunnan, we will gradually stitch together patchwork of musical impressions that will give our viewers an understanding of the rich musical heritage of this region.

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Clothing of the Yi ethnic group in Xiaocun village Posted on 1 Sep 21:28

Traditional dress for women, including an example of the hat that signifies unmarried status, and an Yi shaman, or Bimo.
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Community Dancing of the Yi Ethnic Group Posted on 30 Aug 05:27

One of the highlights of my recent visit to Xiaocun village was taking part in community dances. The steps varied with each dance, but everyone always held hands in a circle and moved slowly around the fire. The grips also changed with each dance, fingerers interlocked for some, hands clasped for others, and sometimes the dancers just hooked their pinky fingers! The video shows one of the most energetic dances. Be sure to watch to the end so you can see the distinctive hats and dresses of the women.


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Torch Festival Posted on 24 Aug 20:53

Tea Horse is in the middle of an action-packed month! From Aug 6-11 I was in a small Yi minority village in the mountains to celebrate Torch Festival (火把节) and attend a forum on the preservation of traditional culture. Then, from Aug 17-22 I supported Compass World Arts for their world music workshop in Xizhou, a well-preserved old town not too far from my home in Dali. In addition to be being incredibly fun, both activities were helpful in establishing the kinds of partnerships I need to keep Tea Horse moving forward. Now, here at the end of the month, I find myself exploring Northern Laos, searching for (and finding) hand-crafted textile traditions among the hill tribes of Luang Namtha province. So much to get caught up on! For this post I will be focusing on the time I spent in the Yi minority village, Xiaocun (小村)but expect reports on the music workshop and Laos to follow in later posts.

The village of Xiaocun drew my attention because it has chosen a unique path of development, thanks in part to the efforts of Wuli, a visionary young man I met recently at a street art festival. Wuli is a native of Xiaocun, but after having spent his 20’s in Beijing, he has finally returned to his isolated hometown with a unique message. He has convinced his fellow villagers that they need to chart a course of development that can improve livelihoods, while avoiding the pitfalls of overdevelopment, excessive tourism, and the breakdown of traditional culture as seen in tourist hotspots like Lijiang, and increasingly, Dali. At the same time, he wants his village to open up to the right kinds of outside culture: things that will broaden understanding and tolerance, while also helping people to maintain a sense of pride concerning their own cultural heritage. Thankfully there are many other villages in China and throughout Asia who are working on sensible paths of development, but I’ve never before seen a village choose this path so early. Xiaocun may have only 60 households, and not a single toilet, but it has vision and determination to spare!

A typical home in Xiaocun.

The homes of the village are spread out through the valley, rather than concentrated in a single location.

Wuli’s work in Xiaocun includes setting up a business to collect, package, and sell local food products (honey and wild mushrooms), and establishing an ecologically-sound fish breeding pool on the stream through the village. On the cultural front, Wuli hopes to re-establish music, textile, and religious traditions in the village by inviting experts from more populated Yi centers in southern Sichuan Province to spend time in the village. He has already convinced an Yi shaman, or Bimo (毕摩) to relocate to Xiaocun to help maintain their animist faith.


Mushroom hunting with Wuli, visionary, entrepreneur, and Xiaocun native.

Through the forum I was able to meet a young Yi painter and poet, Jike Bu, also from Sourthern Sichuan, who was quite knowledgable about Yi textiles. Jike is already working on turning traditional Yi embroidery into bags, totes, and iPad cases, and she was very happy to work with me on sourcing textiles for my straps. I hope you all agree the traditional embroidered strips seen in the pictures below would make fantastic guitar straps!


The Yi people use these appliqué strips to decorate clothing. For our straps we hope to use similar designs in hand-woven cotton fabrics rather than machine fabrics.

The forum participants enjoyed living and eating in local homes, took part in community dances, and witnessed the dramatic procession of torches on night of Torch Festival. The festival memorializes the semi-mythical vanquishing of a plague of insects by having everyone in the village brandish torches and form a wall of fire to drive the insects out. While its origins lie with the Yi people, torch festival is now celebrated by a variety of ethnic groups in Yunnan province.

Sorry for the horrible sound issues, but I hope the images still convey the excitement of the torch procession. After circling the fire a number of times, the torch bearers marched through the village.

 By the end of the weekend, forum participants and local villagers had discussed plans for a number of projects: promoting the villages products online and in overseas markets, setting up embroidery workshops, bringing outside musicians to play live music for traditional dances (currently danced to recorded music), and improving sanitation to make the town more attractive for cultural tourism and homestays.

Clearly, it was a productive weekend, but the most beautiful part was that all of these wonderful ideas arose spontaneously from our casual interactions at the forum. In fact, in the strictest sense there was no forum! Attendees and villagers freely mingled: no lectures, no panels, no topics enforced. Our discussions were driven by the mutual interests and passions shared by the forum attendees and the local people. This was all in keeping with Wuli’s belief that meaningful change comes about through the self-organizing capacities of willing and engaged participants. Because Wuli is such a dynamic individual I hope to conduct an interview with him in the future to share his vision for approaching the problems of cultural preservation and development. Say tuned for that, and for further updates as I develop guitar straps from the textiles of the Yi people.

Parting shot: my little helper in Xiaocun.

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