The Lisu Ethnic Group of Western Yunnan, China
The 910,000 Lisu people of China mainly live along the border of Burma in Yunnan Province in southern China. They are known for their long festival days and for dancing and playing native instruments, and their traditional homeland is part of the spectacular Yunnan Three Parallel Rivers National Park.
Tourists like to see the natural beauty, hike around, visit their towns and tribal villages, eat their cuisine, watch and participate in their long festivals, and experience their lifestyles.
Where the Lisu Live in China
More than half of the approximately 1.5 million Lisu (or Lesuo, Lusu, Yobin) in the world live in China. Most of those in China live in Yunnan Province. They are concentrated on the western side of Yunnan around Nujiang city along the Myanmar (Burma) border near the Salween River (locally known as the Nujiang: 'Raging River'). They reside in the Fugong, Bijang, Gongshan and Lushui areas of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in western Yunnan Province.
Tourism: Many reside in several touristy areas of Yunnan including Dehong, Tengchong, and Lijiang and the rugged valleys and mountains of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park. In Lijiang, one of their original areas, they now live is dispersed homesteads in the mountains around Lijiang.
The rest are scattered in other counties in Yunnan Province and in the Xichang and Yanbian counties in Sichuan Province.
Significant numbers of Lisu have migrated southward out of China during the last century. About 600,000 live in Burma, and another 50,000 or so people compose one of the mountain tribes of northern Thailand.
Nujiang Is Good For Ethnic Touring
Nujiang is a part of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park where three great rivers of Asia, the Salween, Yangtse, and Mekong come close together amid rugged gorges and mountains.
In western Yunnan, their remoteness on the edge of China amid rugged valleys protected them so that they could develop their culture uniquely. Tourists and photographers who make their way there love to stay on the mountainsides covered with forests and hike amid the spectacular natural beauty.
More than 40 percent of the people in Nujiang are Lisu, and more than 20 percent of the people are Bai. There are also small numbers of other minorities.
Lisu Origins and History
The Lisu have an interesting history. It is believed that they, like the related Hani and Yi, were part of the Qiang people in West China. Like the ancestors of the Yi and Hani, they left Tibet and moved down to the lower elevations of Yunnan and surrounding regions.
The word Lisu means "come-down people," and historians think that their ancestors had a kingdom in Tibet in the 10th century and migrated to the lowland areas around the the Salween River.
The Yi created a large empire called the Nanzhao Empire in the Yunnan region during the Tang Dynasty era (618–907) era. They grew rich from the Tea Horse Road trade between the Tang, the Tibetans, and the southern countries because southern Yunnan is an excellent tea growing region famous for brick tea and highly prized Pu'er tea. As part of the empire, the Lisu participated in the trade.
Then the Bai people rebelled against the Nanzhao rulers and started the Kingdom of Dali (937–1253) that ruled the area. From the Bai descended the Naxi in Lijiang and other groups.
Later History after 1600
However, the Naxi were oppressive rulers of the Lijiang area during the 1600s, so the Lisus there started to migrate to settle in the Nujiang region. This common history and ancestry is why the Lisu, Yi, Bai, Naxi, Musuo and other ethnic groups of Yunnan speak related languages.
During the late 1800s, more Lisu started moving into Burma. Then some thousands of Lisu from Burma migrated to Thailand in the early 20th century and settled in the mountains.
Lisu Food and Livelihood
The Lisu people inhabit mountainous areas that are largely covered with dense forests. The Lisu were good hunters, and they hunted for meat. They also kept animals. They were traditionally slash and burn agriculturalists. This meant that they would cut down and burn patches of jungle or forests in the high mountains and plant their crops.
Now, agriculture and animal husbandry are their main economic activities. They grow wheat, corn, buckwheat, sorghum, beans, and a variety of vegetables. But agriculture is becoming more difficult due to erosion.
They like to drink much tea. To earn cash, some of them grow and sell tea and fruit.
The Lisu are a fairly poor people. In general, they like to dress in colorful clothing, and since they are widely dispersed, the clothing in different regions differs much.
Some like to layer cloth of various colors to make their clothes. They used to mainly make their own cloth, but now they buy their cloth. Some tribal women wear unusually large and broad hats that are shaped like discs. From these discs, they dangle yarn, tassels, and silver bangles. Some men wear baggy blue trousers and jackets decorated with silver.
In the past, the Lisu people worshiped many gods and objects in nature, and each Lisu house had an ancestral altar to worship ancestors. In each village, there was a shrine. They had a fear of demons and tried to appease or exorcise them, and they feared possession by spirits and weretigers (phi pheu) and vampires (phu seu).
But starting about 100 years ago, the Lisu in China have rapidly become Christian. People believe that their mass conversion was due in part to their ancient belief in a supreme god of healing that matched the Christian God.
Now about 80% of the Lisu in China are Christian. About 40% of the Christians are Catholic and the rest are independent. The remaining 20% may be irreligious or have a traditional religion.
Arrow shooting: A fairly dangerous old custom involves bows and crossbows. Young Lisu would try to shoot eggs off the heads of their girlfriends. This was quite a dangerous custom, and if a man felt unsure about his marksmanship, he would aim wide.
Gambling: Before Christianity came, the men were keen gamblers. Many men were known to gamble everything and even their families and themselves into slavery. Gambling was a destructive problem.
Marriage: Most marriages are monogamous. To marry, a man must pay a bride price or do service for the woman's father or family. Young people have some freedom in choosing their partners, but they can not marry close relatives.
Lisu villages and houses are normally located in the 3,000 to 6,000 feet level above valleys where Han Chinese or other ethnic people live. They like to build close to a source of water if they can for washing, cooking, agriculture and etc. They may use bamboo pipes to bring in water.
Unlike nearby ethnic groups, the Lisu build quite simply. This is possibly due to their tradition of moving from place to place as they did their slash and burn agriculture. Also, unlike in the lowlands prone to flooding, the Lisu usually don't need to build on stilts or platforms. The climate isn't very severe, so the walls didn't need to be thick.
So they built on the ground, had dirt floors, and simple bamboo and thatch walls. They made roofs of thatched grass or other materials. In the Lijiang area, the houses are spread out over a big area quite a distance from each other since each family had their own plot of their. But in other areas, they live in small villages of less than 100 houses.
Festivals of the Lisu Ethnic People
Dao Gan Festival
The Dao Gan Festival is a uniquely Lisu festival. Held in Tengchong and Longling counties, it commemorates an offical named Wang Ji, a Ming official, who helped to train the Lisu in warfare techniques and defend themselves from invaders. He also taught them agricultural techniques.
In this festival, some Lisu participate in fire walking. They walk barefoot over hot burning coals, There are also performances of passing through fire called “xia huohai” or “entering the fire-sea.” Some Lisu men do sword climbing or “shang daoshan” (“ascending the sword mountain”).
Barefoot and barehanded, they compete to climb up ladders made of knives attached to bamboo poles. They perform acrobatics on these.
Like other related ethnic groups, many Lisu also participate in the Torch Festival. Like the Yi Torch Festival and the Naxi Torch Festival, this festival honors a woman who was said to have jumped into a fire and burned to death rather than marry a despot who was trying to force her to marry him. They carry torches and big bonfires in front of their houses.
Christmas and Easter
Surprisingly, the Lisu's main festivals are Christmas and Easter. These festivals last four or five days each. They celebrate these in a traditional tribal way by having village gatherings where various villages meet in a bigger village and thousands of people eat meals together, sing Christian songs together, and listen to oration. They may play traditional instruments and dance traditionally.
Christmas is a major holiday (unlike Christmas in China in general), and the festival is usually between December 23 to 27. Christmas party invitation letters are usually sent out in October to the Lisu in the area. Those attending bring blankets, rice and money and stay in the homes of the guest village. In some places, the gathering may include people from as many as 50 different villages.
Nujiang Area Transportation
Buses and Airlines
There are no trains to this rugged region. The buses from Kunming to Liuku Town take about 13 hours to cover the distance, and once there, to get into the various river valleys and high mountain villages, it is best to use private transport and driver.
So we can arrange for private vehicles so you can get there quickly and travel around to the various villages to meet the people.
Air flights: Note that Baoshan Airport is a small domestic airport south of Nujiang with flights from Beijing, Kunming and some other Chinese cities. Once there however, it is a 2 hour drive by vehicle to Liuku. Then it is a further ride north to interesting places in the mountains further north.
Personal Drivers, Vehicles, and Our Local Expert Guides
Having a local guide and interpreter is important for helping you find the best places for you to discover and for communication. We can take you to visit with families and arrange for acc ommodations and native-style meals. We do the facilitation leaving you to do the exploration and enjoyment.
Our guides can also help with purchasing teas and local crafts and gifts. Our guides and drivers can also bring you to isolated villages in the rugged mountains, and we can be your guides walking to the villages. We can help arrange your stay in native villager's houses.
Visiting Yunnan and the Lisu with Us
Tengchong is one of the top places to visit on a journey along the old Tea Horse Road, and Lisu live there along with several other ethnic groups. If you like spas, you'll appreciate the hot springs in Tengchong that reach boiling point. The Geothermal Scenic Area hot springs received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.
We can take you to visit the Three Parallel Rivers area, and while in the area, you might also want to travel around in western and southern Yunnan to visit nearby ethnic attractions of the Hani and their ethnically close relatives the Yi.
Ethnic Peoples and Hiking Tours
Here are sample itineraries for you to consider if you wish to see the Lisu while you see other regional highlights as well.
- 6-Day Yunnan Ethnic Minorities Tour — We can modify this to explore Hani regions as long as you wish.
- 5-Day Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike and Tour — We can modify this tour to include visiting the Lisu and hiking in the Three Parallel Rivers gorges region. Or contact us to tailor-make your own tour.
According to where you want to go and what you want to do (in the Lisu regions), we can design a trip you'll enjoy. Send us your ideas. You'll receive a response within 24 hours. Inquiries are free.