White Pearl Logo The NuJiang River Project
People of the Nujiang Region

Who Lives There

Ox Tour Information

Yunnan Province, a strategically located province of southwestern China, is a land of diversity, with 24 of 55 nationalities besides the Han: Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai, Miao, Lisu (LiZu) Hui, Lahu, Wa, Zaxi, Jongpo, Yao, Tibetan, Bulang, Achang, Nu, Pumi, Drung, Jinuo, Shui, Mongolian, Buyi, and De'ang. The Yi are the largest with a population just in Yunnan of 3.35 million, and the smallest is the Drung. These peoples, the original inhabitants, still have their own distinctive language, customs, and festivals, and share a long mostly peaceful history amongst themselves, but numerous foreign invasions. Three among them - Bai, Tibetan, and Mongolian - had short dominions over the area, related to their separate empires. Continuous Han control has lasted only for the last few centuries, based in Kunming City, the capital of Yunnan, a Chinese outpost in the western frontier established 2,000 years ago. The peoples who live in Nu Jiang are some of the most isolated of the original inhabitants, hemmed in by continuous mountains that form the Burmese-Chinese border.

Seven minority Nationalities live in the vicinity of the Upper Nu (Salween) River.

The Nu Zu People of Yunnan Province, China

One of China's smallest minority Nationalities - around 23,000 Nu Zu live mainly in the Gongshan, Bijiang, and Fugong Counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture within the magnificent NuJiang Gorge. A few live across the eastern peaks of Hengduan Mountains in Lanping County of Nujiang Lisu Prefecture and a few live in Weixi County of the neighboring Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Their land is one of steep ravine valleys and high mountains, with 3 climate zones - subtropical, temperate, and subalpine. Three great rivers - Dulong, Nu, and Lancang (Mekong) - flow north to south through Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, separated by four mountains - Gaoligongshan, Biluoxueshan, Dandanglicashan and Yunlingshan - lining up west to east. The prefecture has 449.5 kilometers of boundary contiguous with Burma.

Livelihood of the Nu Zu

Most of the Nu live in small communities interspaced with Li Zu communities above the river on tablelands halfway up the mountains, or just above high water perched above the dirt road. There is good reason since the Nu River rages up to 180,000 cubic feet per second in the rainy season and massive slides occur. However, the tablelands also line the gentler gradients of the Nu River and provide the best agricultural land. Any damming of the river would significantly reduce the people's farmland. They live by subsistence farming, major crops being maize, buckwheat, barley, Tibetan barley, potatoes, yams, beans, and corn. They supplement farming by hunting with crossbow and small traps and fishing from two-man flat boats.

Customs of the Nu Zu

Like many of China's true minorities (the government also lists the Han pop. 1 billion as a minority nationality), the Nu women, not the men, are known for creating distinction in their tribe and clan, through their unusual fine tailored clothes. The "headdress" in particular is exquisitely detailed. Chipped shells linked with skin for headbands with a line of pendants decorated with coral or colorful glass beads across the forehead is a common pattern. The weaving of hemp and linen cloth is also a fine art of the Nu women.

Nu Wedding Anniversary Rite
(The "Dimuwa")

The Dimuwa is conducted on the wedding anniversary of a couple long and harmoniously married. Only those older couples who have lived for 20-50 years affectionately, without fighting are qualified. The husband and wife become a bridegroom and bride once again, wearing their best, she wearing her wedding day silver breast ornament.

© Shen Che
They will go through a priest led marriage ceremony again, attended on this occasion by their children, here a boy and baby. After the priest has performed the rites, all toast to their even happier future life together, with a large thick bamboo tube filled with Gudu wine. Everyone will enjoy local foods like Gudufan, a sweet corn paste, and buckwheat flour Baba. Their tiny house will reverberate with singing and dancing of a hundred wellwishers until dawn.

Li Zu (Lisu) Nationality

Women of the Li Zu (Lisu) Minority
Nationality of China.

© Shen Che

The Li Zu population numbers around 480,000 and mostly lives in Yunnan, Sichuan Provinces but also in Burma and Laos. The Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture is their political base in China. They live in small communities in co-existence with the Han (Chinese), and Nu, Bai, Yi and Naxi nationalities. The Li Zu in the Nu River valley are divided into family clans similar to the practice of Hopi and Zuni Tribes in America, with names such as Tiger, Bear, Monkey, Snake, Sheep, Chicken, Bird, Fish, Mouse, Bee, Buckwheat, Bamboo, Teak, Frost and Fire. They share with the Nu and others of the Nujiang area similar livelihood and their language also belongs to the same Chinese-Tibetan language family. Because the colors of traditional clothing are different in different areas, the groups are known as the White, Black, and Colorful Li Zu. The latter group wears bright blue blouses, colorful aprons, and bead and sea shell decorated hairbands.

The Merry Nationality's Harvest Festival

The Li Zu will be celebrating their autumn "Harvest Festival" during the Ox Tour. They will exchange gifts of pork and wine and sing and dance until dawn on the beautiful white sand beaches of the Nu River. If the young women spot an attractive bachelor they fancy, they may drag him off to bury him in the sand, only temporarily of course.

The Li Zu live by two popular sayings, "As salt is indispensible to life; so is singing," and "None except the dead should be deprived of the mirth of life." Li Zu even use singing in settlement of disputes. Their enjoyment in excess of their fermented sorghum mash liquor is an honorable act; no one can leave a host house sober.


Drung Nationality

   © Yunnan People's Pub. Kunming
   © Zhaohua Pub. House, Beijing



With only 4,600 numbers to protest, the Drung's serene homeland is threatened by increased clearcutting on the Dulong River.

The Drung people live in the Dulong River Valley and in the Gongshan, Dulong and Nu autonomous counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture. The Dulong River is west of the Nu River high up in the Burma border mountains. The Nujiang Preservation Project began its 1996 River Expedition at the Drong county seat of BingZhongLuo. Having a population of only 4,600, they are one of China's smallest nationalities. Their home is one of high river valleys of the Nu River and the Dulong River, which rises in Tibet, flows 150 km between Mt. Gaoligong (5,00 m.) and Mt. Dandanglika (4,000 m.), and then into Burma. The Drung have lived in harmony for centuries with their river. The Dulong has watered their farms and given them fish. The Drung are unique among the other nationalities in that the women wear tattoes traditionally, with designs according to their clans along the river. People in the upper reaches have comingled with the Tibetans, as have the lower people with the LiZu, so that their traditional dress has been influenced. This people have long been known for their preferred isolation from the outside world. They have fame for defeating a British military expedition out of Burma in 1913, and for being inhospitable in the 80's to tourists wandering into Drung territory. One of the state natural preserves is now sited on Mt. Gaoligong, which makes it crucial for the Drung to develop some modest tourism to offset this loss of traditional hunting grounds. Increased clearcutting will decrease species habitat and deteriorate the pristine waters of the Dulong River.

Sacrifice of the Ox to Heaven

This Ox ceremony is observed traditionally only once a year as part of the spring festival. All of the Drung villagers come to these Rites. The bull, raised for 7-8 years solely for this sacrifice, is first draped with the Drung carpet and bead strings. Then it is led six times around the owner's house while villagers cast barnyard grass seed over its body. After it is tethered, the people drink wine and dance as the adult men beat gongs at a slow tempo.

Both pictures © Shen Che
Two old men take positions with a cup of wine in one hand and a poisonous bamboo "stunning rod" in the other. After the ceremonial drink of wine, they pierce the bull's chest from both sides. An ear lobe is cut off and impaled on a twig to be passed over the bull's body as prayers are recited. All of the meat is distributed to villagers and the head given to the owner of the bull. The finale Dance of these Rites may last for several days.


Pumi Nationality

Pumi people number only around 25,000, and mainly live in northern Yunnan and western Sichuan. They migrated from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau where they were horse and yak breeders, and now are mostly farmers. The largest concentration of Pumi is in the Lancang (Mekong) River valleys and eastern flank of the Hengduan Mountains. Pumi often share characteristics in tailoring clothing and headgear styles with other groups with whom they live, like Naxi and Yi peoples.


Tibetan Nationality

Girl of the Tibetan Minority Nationality of China.

© Yunnan People's Pub., Kunming

Tibetan people are the best, and often only, known minority Nationality of China. Tibet has been a popular destination for centuries. Even Sherlock Holmes traveled to Tibet for enlightenment. The 4 million Tibetans live not only in their autonomous region, but have autonomous prefectures and counties in 7 provinces, including Yunnan. Theirs is a long and elaborate history exhaustively studied. The Tibetans of the Nu Jiang Hengduan Mountains are horsemen and women, and had been the only carriers of goods between the Nu Jiang valleys and the upper mountain communities for centuries, until the new road put them out of business. Some Tibetan caravans still travel north along the roadless Nu Jiang of Tibet. The NuJiang 1996 River Expedition launched its kayaks and rafts at the end of the civilized road and the beginning of that ancient Tibetan path north. Tibetan tailoring is among the most sophisticated and varied, with many distinctive styles in accordance with natural conditions, pastoral or farming life style, and social positions. Women wear rings mounted with coral and gems, on the left arm a wrist armlet, and on the right, a bracelet of strung seashells, for with them they will not miss the way after death.


Yi Nationality

Yi have the largest population (6 million) and longest political history of the southwestern nationalities, originally settling in Yunnan during the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 24). 3 million Yi live in Yunnan, mostly in the vicinity of the Jinsha (Upper Yangtze) River. The Yi were the majority nationality during the Kingdom of Nanzhao, ruling the area with the Bai and Naxi. They also have a long history of rebelling against foreign imperialists and Han emperors. But one of the Red Army's most famous commanders - Luo Binghui - was Yi, as is one of the only female river runners of China, Ji fu a Sha, who says her soldier father inspired her to run the Yangtze River in 1986. Rooster cocks are held in reverence by Yi people due to the legend of a girl who saved her village from an evil spirit with a crowing cock; and thus a cockstail jacket long in back and short in front, as well as the cockscomb style hat, are popular with young girls in Yunnan. A branch of the Yi nationality is the Sani people, who live only in the Stone Forest near Kunming. Their turbans of rainbow colors - symbol of faithful love - are famous, and also based on a legend. A beautiful girl refused to marry a local chief instead of her handsome hunter, who was killed by a boar. While the local chief's men were burning her lover's body, she jumped into the flames, leaving two pieces of her clothes in the bad guys' hands. Two colorful clouds came from the flames, formed rain clouds, and drowned the bad guys. Then, a beautiful rainbow appeared. Young Sani girls' turbans of rainbow colors also have two embroidered triangles to remember their ancestor's faithful love.


Bai Nationality

The Bais of Yunnan are around one million in population with roots dating back to the Neolithic Age in the Erhai Lake region, their ancestral home now incorporated as the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Dali has long been known to tourists as the "little Switzerland" of China, with its clear cold lake and snow capped peak, and in China as the "scented wonderland" because of its many monasteries and temples. The Bai culture is one of the richest historically in the China mainland, with inventions and advances in meteorology, astronomy, calendar, architecture, medical science, literature, music, dancing, carving and painting. Their Kingdom of Nanzhao lasted 250 years, a regime of slaveholders, which was overthrown, and followed by the Kingdom of Dali. Dali controlled the area as a tributary of the Song Dynasty, until the Mongolians conquered Dali. The Bai citizens of Nujiang mountains no doubt are immigrants from their homeland just next door, and practice the communal farming setup of other Nujiang peoples, with few ambitions of their ancestor kings. Bai people have continued their success story with the development of the town of Dali into one of China's most successful tourist destinations. NuJiang River Project tours begin and end at Dali.


Ox Tour


To celebrate the continuing preservation of the indigenous cultures of the Nu Jiang Region.


To travel up the Nu River and over Gaoligong Mountain to the Dulong River.


To meet the minorities and to record their customs and traditions, dance and art, festivals and ways of life. The itinerary will include ceremonies like the Ox Sacrifice to Heaven, the Nu Wedding Anniversary, and the Lisu Harvest Festival.

Schedule, Fee, and Itinerary Information:

Contact White Pearl for details. Tours are scheduled every year during the dry season October-April.

This tour will be a First. It was planned for the year of the Ox (1997) to follow the 1996 River Expedition, but was postponed. It takes its theme from the Drung People's Ox Ceremony. Whereas the 1996 expedition focused on the river, its preservation, and environmental river-running, the Ox Tour focuses on the people who live in harmony with their environment on the Nu and Dulong Rivers and the preservation of their cultures.

Once again, most of the tour's budget will go directly to the local people and groups who preserve - in this case - the cultures, traditions, arts, and languages. Because of its delay the Ox Tour may work in conjunction with the Tiger Tour at points along the Nu and Dulong Rivers.


Jasmine Pass (3700 m.)
© Shen Che

Individuals who are experts by vocation or avocation in the following areas are invited to submit resumes with copy of passport ID page:

Ethnology, including art and music, sociology, anthropology, photography, linguistics.

Although the tour is mostly a road trip, you must be physically fit with experience in traveling under rigorous and demanding conditions. Background checks and liability waivers will be required due to the "closed to (ordinary) foreigners" border regulations and inaccessible remoteness of the area.


See 1996 Field Report 2 and Field Report 3 for other pictures and travel information.

Sources and References

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