The Hani people are one of the 56 ethnic minority groups officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China. They are also one of the 54 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Vietnamese government.
Most of the 1,660,932 Hanis live in the valleys between the Yuanjiang and Lancang rivers, that is, the vast area between the Ailao and Mengle mountains in southern Yunnan Province. Others dwell in Mojiang, Jiangcheng, Pu’er, Lancang, and Zhenyuan counties in Simao Prefecture; in Xishuangbanna’s Menghai, Jinghong and Mengla counties; in Yuanjiang and Xinping, Yuxi Prefecture, and (a small number) in Eshan, Jianshui, Jingdong and Jinggu counties.
Historical records indicate that a tribal people called the “Heyis” were active south of the Dadu River in the 3rd century B.C. These were possibly the ancestors of the Hanis of today. According to the records, some of them had moved to the area of the Lancang River between the 4th and 8th centuries. Local chieftains then paid tribute to the Tang court and in return, they were included on the list of officials and subjects of the dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) established a prefecture to rule the Hanis and other minorities in Yunnan. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) exercised its rule through local chieftains, who were granted official posts. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court officials replaced the chieftains.
The social development of the Hanis was uneven in different areas before 1949 in 1949. Those in contact with the Hans were more developed economically and culturally. The feudal landlord economy was dominant during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Productivity was more or less on the Han level but the peasants were exploited harshly by the landlords who seized large tracts of fertile land.
The situation in Jinghong, Menglong, and Xiding was different. Vestiges of primitive communal land ownership still remained. There, a majority of the land was public property. Commune members owned paddy fields and tea plantations and could reclaim and cultivate the communal land. However, private land ownership was fairly developed in Menghai, Mengsong and Mengla counties. Landlords and rich peasants possessed most of the arable land there, as well as the tea plantations, forests, and wasteland. Poor peasants were subjected to exploitation in various forms.
In counties like Honghe, Yuanyang, Luchun, Jinping, and Jiangcheng, the economy was in a sort of transition from primitive economy to the feudal landlord economy. Peasants were burdened by exorbitant taxes and levies enforced by the chieftains, who were both landowners and political rulers.
In the Ailao Mountain, the Hanis were impoverished and suffered under various forms of exploitation. In one village, which had some 150 households 50 years ago, only 17 families were left at the time of liberation due to famine and disease.
Development Since 1949
The Honghe Hani-Yi Autonomous Prefecture was set up in 1957 as a merger of the earlier Honghe Hani Autonomous Prefecture and Mengzi Prefecture. Meanwhile, a number of autonomous counties were established. Democratic reforms, with land reform as the central task, were started in 1952 and completed within five years. Land reform brought about profound changes in the relations of production: The peasants became the masters of their own land, their living standards improved, unity among different nationalities was further strengthened, and social order in this border area was enhanced. Land reform was followed by the socialist transformation of agriculture.
Many farmland capital construction works have been carried out since 1949. These include opening up terraced land, changing dry land into paddy fields, building reservoirs and expanding irrigated acreage. More than 700 small hydroelectric power stations have been put up throughout the Hani areas, supplying electricity to 70 percent of the townships, and farm mechanization is on the rise. The post-liberation years have also seen marked development in forestry, livestock breeding, sideline occupations and fishing.
Industrial enterprises which have sprung up after 1949 cover metallurgy, mining, machine-building, chemicals, cement, textiles, plastics, cigarettes and food processing. In Honghe Prefecture alone, 400 state- and collective-run factories are in operation. A highway network, with Kunming to Daluo, Gejiu to Jinping, and from Simao to Jiangcheng. Department stores now supply cheap salt, which used to be in short supply, and other daily necessities, bringing most of the comforts of modern life to the Hani people.
Natural Environment and Resources
The areas inhabited by the Hanis have rich natural resources. Beneath the ground are deposits of tin, copper, iron, nickel, and other minerals. Growing on the rolling Ailao Mountains are pine, cypress, palm, tung oil and camphor trees, and the forests abound in animals such as tigers, leopards, bears, monkeys, peacocks, parrots, and pheasants. Being subtropical, the land is fertile and the rainfall plentiful, ideal for growing rice, millet, cotton, peanuts, indigo, and tea. Xishuangbanna’s Nanru Hills is one of the country’s major producers of the famous Pu’er tea.
The Hani language belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese language group of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. Having no script of their own before 1949, the Hanis kept records by carving notches on sticks. In 1957, the central government helped them to create a script based on the Roman alphabet.
The Hanis prefer clothing made of home-spun dark blue cloth. Men wear front-buttoned jackets and trousers, and black or white cloth turbans. Women have collarless, front-buttoned blouses with the cuffs and trouser legs laced. Hanis in Xishuangbanna wears jackets buttoned on the right side and decorated with silver ornaments. They wear black turbans. Women there, as well as in the Lancang area, wear skirts, round caps, and strings of silver ornaments. Both men and women wear leggings. In Mojiang, Yuanjiang, and Jiangcheng, some women wear long, pleated or narrow skirts, while others have knee-length trousers with embroidered girdles. Women like to wear earrings, silver rings, and necklaces as well. Married and unmarried women wear different hairstyles.
Marriage and Family
The Hanis are monogamous. Before 1949, a man was allowed to have a concubine if the wife had born him no son after some years of marriage. However, he was not supposed to forsake his original wife to remarry. Marriages are mostly arranged by the parents.
The Hanis in Mojiang and Biyue have a very interesting custom for settling an engagement. The parents of both the girl and boy involved should walk some distance together, and so long as they meet no animals the engagement can go ahead.
A son’s name begins with the last one or two words of his father’s name in order to keep the family line going. This practice has been handed down for as many as 55 generations in some families.
The Hani people are polytheists and ancestor worshippers. Rituals are regularly held to worship the Gods of Heaven, Earth, the Dragon Tree and their village, as well as their family patron gods. Believing they are protected by the God of the village gate, the Hanis in Xishuangbanna also hold ceremonies to pay respects to this deity. A shaman presides over the rites, at which sacrifices of cattle are offered.
There are days devoted to animals, such as Sheep Day, on which sacrifices are made. On days when someone dies, a wild animal comes into the village, a dog climbs onto the roof of a house, or a fire breaks out, people would be called to stop working and hold ceremonies to avert misfortune.
The Hani people celebrate their New Year in October, as their lunar calendar begins in that month. During the weeklong festivities, pigs are slaughtered and special glutinous rice balls are prepared. Relatives and friends visit each other, go-betweens are busy making matches, and married women go to see their parents. They also celebrate the June Festival, which falls on the 24th of that month. This is a happy occasion, especially for the young people. They sing, dance, play on swings and hold wrestling contests. At night, people in some places, light pine torches while beating drums and gongs to expel evil spirits and disease. Like their Han neighbors, the Hanis who live in the Honghe area celebrates the Spring, Dragon Boat, and Moon festivals.
Culture and Art
Legends, fairy tales, poetry, stories, fables, ballads, proverbs, mythology, and riddles form Hani oral literature. The Hanis are good singers and dancers. They use three- and four-stringed instruments, flutes, and gourd-shaped wind instruments. Popular dances include the “Hand Clapping” and “Fan” dances. The “Dongpocuo” dance popular in Xishuangbanna is a typical Hani dance; it is vigorous, graceful and rhythmic.