Nosu-Yi of China

The Nosu of Southwestern China dance and sing around a bonfire in their torchlit fields late into the evening to celebrate harvest. Legend says that a strong man from earth beat a strong man from heaven in a wrestling match. The man from heaven retaliated by sending swarms of locusts to destroy the crops in the village. The Nosu saved their fields by lighting torches to drive out the pests.


Known as Yi in Mandarin Chinese, but as Nosu in their own language, they are one of the 55 minority people groups of mainland China. Although the Nosu have many sub-groups, they, along with several other groups, fall under the Chinese government's category of Yi. The Nosu probably have Aryan or Tibetan origin. They have some Caucasian features, yet their use of felt and some herding techniques point to Mongol heritage; while barefootedness and use of poison arrows are related to peoples further south.


The Nosu language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language group and is comprised of at least six dialects. The Nosu written language is a pictographic syllabic script of 800 symbols, which was standardized in 1974, and is taught in all Nosu primary schools in Daliangshan.


There are about 3 million Nosu, of which there are seven sub-groups.


The largest concentration of Nosu (more than 1 million) live in Sichuan province but can also be found in Yunnan and Tibet. Their ancestors settled in these southwest mountains to find freedom during the reign of Genghis Khan.


Nosu clothing varies from place to place, but generally is distinguished by bright splashes of color, embroidery and hats. The name Nosu means "black people." The Nosu are fairly tall with aquiline features and an air of nobility despite their obvious poverty. Clothing tells of marital state, age and social rank. Until the 1950s their caste system ran virtually independent from government control. As roads and transportation have invaded the native Nosu areas, the caste system was gradually done away with. Genealogy and clan loyalty are still prime virtues and marriages remain within the clan.

A Nosu doctor from Sichuan said, “If China is a ‘third-world nation’ then the Nosu must be the third world of the third world.” Spiritual and economic hardship are part of Nosu life, yet smiles come easily and there is always time to sit and chat.


This agricultural people raise corn, potatoes, buckwheat, sheep and goats. Buckwheat cakes and potatoes, not rice, are the staple food. Men shepherd the sheep while women work the fields.


The Nosu are animists, with elements of Daoism, shamanism and fetishism. Shamans/medicine men are known as “bimo.” Bimo officiate at births, funerals and weddings. You will often see them along the street consulting ancient scripts. In order to preserve this heritage and promote tourism, the local government helped construct a museum to house ancient artifacts. In Yunnan, some of the Nosu have been influenced by Buddhism through the Han culture. The Nosu believe in numerous evil spirits. They believe that spirits cause illness, poor harvests and other misfortunes and inhabit all material things. The Nosu also believe in multiple souls. At death, one soul remains to watch the grave while the other is eventually reincarnated into some living form.


The exact number of Nosu Christians is not known. In 1991 it was reported that there were as many as 150,000 Nosu Christians in Yunnan Province, especially in Luquan County where there are more than 20 churches. In the neighboring province of Sichuan, however, most Nosu in the Daliangshan Mountains remain totally unevangelized. In 1997 there was a report of 2,000 Nosu coming to Christ in Sichuan province at one time. In 2000 there was believed to be about 20,000 Nosu believers. The Nosu have no Bible, radio broadcasts or the Jesus film in their own language.