The Ethnic Minorities of Yunnan vol.1

The Tibetan, Miao and Bai people of Yunnan Province

Yunnan is unique in China, historically remote from the Chinese Empire and home to 24 ethnic minorities. Bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, as well as the rest of mainland China through Sichaun, Ghuizhou and Guanxi, its culture today is influenced by neighbours both foreign and domestic.

On our last trip to Yunnan we were fortunate enough to interact with Kham Tibetans, Bai and Miao people, all of whom reside in the North and Northwest of the province. Although there are many other ethnic minorities in this region whom we hope to meet in the future, this post will explain a little of the culture of these three ethnic groups.

Kham Tibetans


Tibet is traditionally split into three regions; U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham. Due to the long history of this region, these three do not fit neatly inside the provinces of modern China and their peoples inhabit not only the current province of Xizang but various areas in other provinces. In Yunnan, it is the people from Kham, known as Khampa who reside in the very north of the province. The most famous Khampa town is Zhongdian,  re-named Shangri-La by the Chinese government in 1998 in an effort to boost tourism.  Shangri-La is in Diqing prefecture and the Khampa who live there number approximately 130,000 accounting for a third of the population. Traditional Tibetan houses in the region are large, two storey wooden buildings with a central courtyard. The second floor is used for living quarters while livestock (mostly yaks and cows) live underneath with other animals living in the courtyard. Khampa Tibetans are known for their bravery, independent attitude and outgoing nature.

This area of Yunnan is above 3000m and gets very cold in the winter and in the summer can be very wet due to the monsoon rains which the people rely on for their crops, of which barley is the staple and from which they also make beer. This is the only area in Yunnan where Yaks reside as they prefer to live at altitudes above 2000m, the Yak is used for its meat, wool, and milk. The milk is used to make cheese and butter, the latter of which is used to flavour tea. The majority of Khampa Tibetans follow Tibetan Buddhism, although in some places there is still a big influence from Bon, the older Tibetan animist Religion.

In Shangri La, you will see plenty of people selling traditional black pottery. A famous centre for this is Nixi village to the north of Shangri La. This functional pottery is used today for cooking, brewing yak butter tea and for decoration. It’s also possible to see local women weaving on traditional looms. Farmers in the region rely on Yaks as beasts of burden but also use their wool to create wonderfully soft textiles, easily on a par with cashmere. Another form of art in the region is the painting of Thangkas, extremely detailed Buddhist religious paintings which can take months to complete.



The Bai are Yunnan’s second most populous people, numbering over 2 million and can be found primarily in the areas surrounding Dali. Bai in Chinese means white and this is a theory as to the meaning of their name. Bai people often wear white clothing and white is a colour held in high esteem by them, unlike the rest of China where it is often associated with death.

Bai women all tend to wear a headdress decorated differently according to the specific area from which they originate. Bai women from Zhoucheng, for example often wear a small piece of tie-dyed fabric attached to their headdress.

They are thought to have their roots in the Nanzhou and Dali kingdoms which held sway over this region between the 8th and 13th Centuries. At one point the Nanzhao kingdom included large areas of modern day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma and was succeeded by the smaller Dali kingdom which was finally defeated and assimilated by a Mongol invasion led by Kublai Khan, ruler of the Yuan Dynasty.

Dali is very much the cultural and historical centre for Bai people and is a very fine example of an old Chinese city. The architecture is unmistakeably Bai, with flared multi layered eaves adorned with beautiful paintings. Most homes are accessed by a main gate which leads into a garden courtyard with the living quarters reached by passing through to the other side of the courtyard. Dali is situated on the West shore of Erhai lake (Ear lake) which in turn is surrounded by smaller Bai towns and villages.

Bai people are well known as skilled artisans and builders. They are famous for their wood carving, which adorns traditional Bai door panels and also for tie-dye.  Zhoucheng, near Dali, is the centre for tie-dye while Jianchuan is where the best woodcarvers can be found. Bai fishermen still use cormorants to fish with on Erhai although these days this is mostly for the benefit of the hordes of Chinese tourists who now throng Dali’s streets.

We were fortunate enough to be in Shaxi, a small Bai town, as they celebrated their torch festival this year. Please check out the photos and more information here.



The Miao are one of the most numerous ethnic minorities in China, with approximately 8 million people making up the group. They are spread throughout Southern China with the vast majority living in Guizhou. They are thought to have spread from Central China into the South West in legendary times, but whatever the case they are certainly amongst China’s oldest ethnic groups. In Yunnan they are found in various areas and Yunnan holds the third largest population of Miao in China.

The Miao can also be found in other countries in South East Asia including Laos, Burma and Thailand, where they are known as Hmong. In fact, the term Miao could at one time be used to describe various different people and it is only recently that the term has come to mean the Miao as they are known in China today.

They live predominantly along river valleys and grow rice, corn and pine trees which are used as timber for their distinctive wooden houses. Miao women are very well known for the elaborately embroidered jackets and baby carriers. There are so many sub-groups of Miao that is hard to summarise their appearance in one fell swoop and their styles of dress are seemingly endlessly varied. Another way of distinguishing different sub-groups of Miao people are the various ways in which they style their hair and the different headdresses they utilise to keep it all neat. As well as their skill at embroidery they are very well known as workers of silver which they use decoratively in beautiful necklaces and bangles.

As with the other groups mentioned here, in modern Yunnan it is predominantly the women who still wear traditional clothing, the men having opted in many cases for more modern attire.

It can be hard to find areas of China in which traditional culture and architecture has been preserved as well as it is Yunnan. As China modernises, modern cities of glass and steel replace the landscapes many people associate with the country but in Yunnan the past and present seem to co-exist more harmoniously. We think this is in large part due to the colourful and varied minority people who live south of the clouds.

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