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Talking about the Yi Traditional Festivals in the Ten Month Solar Calendar
Publication time:2020-02-25  | Author:Salong Laoban etc.

[Abstract] Yi people have been living in the southwestern region of China since ancient times.  They have a long history and a splendid culture. There are more than 8 million Yi people in the country.  It is one of the ethnic-minorities that is still using its own independent language, written language and solar-calendar system in China.  As an ancient and long standing calendar, the Yi Ten-months solar-calendar has its own significant features and wide range of influence upon the daily living of the Yi. It is widely used in the Yi people's current activities, daily lives, Yi Bimo’s culture, Yi proverbs, folk festivals and other aspects of life.  It is especially commonly used in weddings and funerals, festivals and Bimo’s ritual activities etc.  In order to prove its long-history, accuracy, uniqueness, practicability and scientific validity, this paper takes the contents of the Yi Bimo’s texts in the Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, the traditional Yi New Year Festival and Torch Festival for examples to explore the contents and characters of Yi ten-months solar calendar in the Yi Bimo’s religious texts and the extent of it’s influence in traditional folklore activities. 

 [Key words] Yi people, ten-month solar calendar, traditional festivals


In the eastern hemisphere, there is a long history of ethnic minorities.  The Yi people have a population of more than 8 million in China. They call themselves “Ni” (尼).  Other people have called them “Yi” (夷) historically.  Until 1950 of the 20th century, this ethnic minority group was called “Yizu” (彝族).  The “Ni” people have been living around 30o latitude north, dwelling in the Yangtze River basin.  Looking at the data from archeology, more than 31 locations of paleo-anthropological fossils have been found in the Yangtze River basin.  Among them 9 locations belonged to the Homo erectus, 4 locations belonged to the early Homo sapiens, and 18 locations are designated as having belonged to late Homo sapiens.  For example, the Wushan people of Chongqing lived two million years ago, the Yuanmou ape man in the Yunnan Province lived 1.7 million years ago, the Panxian people of the Guizhou Province lived 2600 thousand years ago, the early Homo sapiens of Tongxing lived 2000 thousand years ago, the late Homo sapiens Lijiang people lived 100,000 years to 50,000 years ago, the Kunming people lived 300,000 years ago, the Zhaotong people lived 50,000 years ago, and the Ziyang people of the Sichuan Province lived 35,000 years ago. A large amount from the bronze civilization of 5,000 years ago has been found in Sanxingdui, Guanghan, and Sichuan. These archaeological discoveries have a very close relationship with the “Ni” (尼). 

Sima Qian, one of the famous historiographers of the Xihan Dynasty (202 BC – 8 AC) said in chapter 56 of volume 116 of his "Collected Biographies of the Southwest ": "There are so many monarchies in the Southwest that they need to be counted by the 10s, among them the “Yelang” (夜郎) who were the most powerful force.  To the west the Yelang and the monarchies of the “Feimo Yi” were so many that they need to be counted by the 10s as well, among them the “Dian” (滇) monarchy was the most powerful. To the north the Dian had so many monarchies that they need to be counted by the 10s as well. Among them “Qiongdu” (邛都) was the most powerful. People in these Yi areas preferred the hair-style of buns, had cultivated fields, and lived together in towns and villages.  Outside of their area the people from the west, from Tonshi to the east extending to the north were called the “Sui” and “Kunming” (昆明), these Yi people all knit their hair into braids.  They did not have a fixed place to live, and didn’t have a headman to govern over them. They migrated with grazing animals aimlessly. Their sphere of activity covered a few thousands kilometers. Among the Sui to the northeast there were so many monarchies that they need to be counted by the 10s also.  Among them “Xi” (徙) and “Zuo” (笮) were more powerful than the others.  From the “Zuo” (笮) to the northeast, there were so many monarchies that they need to be counted by the 10s as well. Among them “Mang” (駹) was the most powerful. Some of them were native people, and some of them were migrating people.  They were all living in the western part of “Shujun” (蜀郡).  From the “Mang” (駹) to the north-east, there were so many monarchies that they need to be counted by the 10s. Among them the “Baima” (白马) was the most powerful one. They were all the same as the “Di” (氐) people.  These were barbarians who live to the southwest of both “Ba” (巴) and “Shu” (蜀) country.” Above mentioned are descriptions made by Simaqian, a historian, writer of literature and thinker of the Xihan Dynasty, about the Yi people who lived in the southwest of China. He used six tens to describe the Yi people who governed that area. He identified the “夜郎、滇、邛都、都、冉駹、白马” as the six monarchies that were the most powerful in each of the Yi areas at that time. Why did Simaqian use ‘ten’ as the round number for the southwest Yi? It must be related with the Yi people’s ten-month solar calendar. For the Yi, the ten-month solar calendar not only has a name for each of the ten months, it also has ten “lucky spirits” (ꈌꀕ) and also uses ten names to be combined with other calendar terms. For example the Yi people have ten directional names, ten lucky spirit names, ten lucky days and ten kujuo days. In practice the Yi people have a decimal system to calculate the year, month and day. At that time ten was the largest number in the Yi area, and there was an Yi proverb which said, “Ten is the number most frequently used and after that five is most frequently used.” I think this is the reason why Simaqian used tens to describe Yi monarchies at that time. 

Of course when there was a calendar there must be a set of characters to describe it.  Traditional Yi written characters have had a history as long as Chinese characters.  It is the native characters of the ancient Yi language called the “ꅇꂷꁱꂷ” which means “language and characters”. There are countless books of the classical ancient Yi characters. There are 87,046 Yi characters. In the Yi language “ꁱꂷ” means a script which developed from grass, fire, clay, stone and ink images.  It was expanded to describe bundled grass, tied knots, burned lines, image portraits, cliff paintings, and later carved symbols.  The Yi people used their own characters to record their history.  For example, in the “Yi History Book” (ꅺꊈꄯꒉ), it records the whole process of the ape’s development into a human and its genealogy.  Looking at what was recorded in "Collected Biographies of the Southwest" we can find in the Xihan Dynasty, that there were many local monarchies in southwest China. In the General History of the Chinese Yi there is the of record “Shisuo Nineng, Gouge, Ludou, Shidi, Shisai and Mijue monarchy” which were not recorded in the "Collected Biographies of Southwest " by Simaqian.  People are all alike - they unify the written-language and calendar after the establishment of the country. 

As far as the calendar is concerned, the “Yi History Book” (ꅺꊈꄯꒉ) shows that the Yi calendar was widely used during Jr Ge A Lyr’s age. For example, it says that Jr Ge A Lyr was born in the year of the dragon, the month of the dragon, the day of the dragon and the hour of the dragon, and his mother’s age was in the direction of the dragon when he was born, so he was named as Jr Ge A Lyr (Son of the Dragon) [③] (P.24). In the Jinyang Yi Bimo’s book it records the genealogy of Jr Ge A Lyr as “Tejiani, Nibuyou, Bulumo, Mowudu, Duoequ, Equhou, Houahei, Heiageliang and Gelinag” etc. We can see that Jr Ge A Lyr is a human and not a god from his genealogy. [④] (P.17)  The “Yi History Book” (ꅺꊈꄯꒉ) recorded the date of the flood as, “On the day of the ox the clouds covered the sky. On the day of the tiger lighting began to fall. On the day of the rabbit it began to rain.  On the day of the dragon there was torrential rain.  On the day of the snake the flood began to rise. On the day of the horse the flood covered over the whole earth, and the water rose up to the sky. On the day of the sheep the otter ate pine needles (he was so hungry). On the day of the hen the hen had sat on her eggs for 21 days, the chicks broke out of their shells, and the door on top of the wooden closet bed was opened.” (⑤) (P.41)  When did the Yi people start to use the Yi ten-month solar calendar?  I believe that the Yi calendar was created during this long process, and appeared after a long period of history based on their daily lives and efforts to search for knowledge.  They observed the universal-natural laws, summarized their scientific learning experience, and slowly accumulated their ancient wisdom into today’s Yi astronomy and calendar.

Yi people name their own ten-month solar calendar as the “Ten Month Solar Calendar” (ꊰꆨꈨꈎ).  It says that, “Three rounds is a month, and ten months is a year.”  The “Yi New Year Festival” (ꇗꊖ) marks the completion of a year. It determines solar-eclipse and lunar-eclipse days according to the calendar proverb, “Every 4 years add the leap year day, every one hundred years reduce by one day, and every four hundred years add one day.”  One year is divided into two black and white semicircles, as there are two major festivals.  They are the Yi New Year Festival (ꈎꏅ), which is a daytime holiday and the Yi Torch Festival (ꄔꊒ), which is a nighttime holiday.  The Yi New Year Festival and the Yi Torch Festival are the two most important Yi traditional festivals, which relate to religious worship with black and white colors.

The Yi Ten Month Solar Calendar

he Yi ten month solar calendar culture is a calendar of 36 days which make up a month, ten months make up a year plus 5 to 6 days for the "New Year Days".  The annual lunar New Year days are 5 days.  Every 3 to 4 years, the New Year days are 6 days, with an average of 365.22422 days per year.  It is based on observing the sun’s position.  When the sun’s position reaches the most southern point it is the “winter solstice” (ꁮꈪ).  When the sun’s position reaches the most northern point it is called “summer-solstice” (ꁮꏮ).  This decides the dates of the two Yi traditional festivals, by observing the Big Dipper's bucket toward the south or toward the north as an object of reference.

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Figure 1: ten-month calendar figure 2: year figure 3: Earth (ꄲꏿ)

Earth (ꄲꏿ)

The ancient Yi language called earth “ꄲ” means white, and the ancient Yi language called it “ꃅꐎꀿ” which means, “the white sky is the father”, and it refers to the daytime.  “ꏿ” means black, and the ancient Yi called it “ꊖꆈꃀ” which means, “the black earth is the mother,” and it refers to the nighttime.  The state of having two kinds of colors, white and black moving and changing on the same object is called the “ꄲꏿ” culture.  In the ancient Yi language the sun is called “ꈨ”.  The Yi calendar is calculated by the movement of the sun, and the earth’s orbit “ꈎ”, so it is called the ten month solar calendar. 

Year (ꈎ)

Year is “ꈎ” in the Yi language, and the word “ꈎ” has four different meanings: ① years, ② bending, curling, ③ bringing back the livestock, and ④ deduction, detaining.  These are all called  "ꈎ". [2] (p. 1234) According to the meanings of ② ③ and ④, “ꈎ” has both an active and a passive voice.  It means that straight things bend themselves or are bent into a half turn.  In ancient Yi, “ꈎ” refers to “ꄲꏿ” or “earth”. [3](p.336)  Also, the track of one revolution of the earth around the sun is called “ꈎ” in the Yi language.

The length of a year is well known among the Yi people too.  There is an Yi proverb which says, “There are 360 days in a year. The sunlight turns on the 360th day. There are 720 male and female dinners in a year, and after 5 days, and 10 meals it will be the new year.”  It implies that one year is 360 days, and the other 5 days are for the New Year Festival Days.  One full year is 365 days. 

Season (ꇗꊖ)

According to the present Bimo’s scripture of the northern dialect of the Yi language and, “An Explanation to the Classical Book of Bimo’s”, the Yi calendar calculates seasons by five elements, “wood, fire, earth, copper, and water.”  These five elements were called “ꇗꊖ”, which were the “five seasons” in ancient Yi books.  Dividing the 360 days equally into five portions, each portion is a season and there are 72 days in each portion. Therefore each season has 72 days.  The starting point of each year is from the tiger hour (cock crow) of the last night of the Yi New Year Festival, (the day of sending off grandpa).   The five elements “wood, fire, earth, copper and water” were used to calculate the seasons by turn.  Later the five big stars in the sky were called “wood star, fire star, earth star, copper star, and water star”.  They became the name of the Yi five seasons; “wood star season, fire star season, earth star season, copper star season, and water star season”

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Figure 4: pictures of five seasons

Month (ꆪ)

The months of the Yi ten month solar calendar are named as male and female of the five seasons.  For example: male wood month, female wood month, male fire month, female fire month, male earth month, female earth month, male copper month, female copper month, male water month, and female water month. The ten months are called“Month” (ꈌꀕ) for short. [6] (p.123-240) 

The number of days in each month are equal as well. Three rounds of twelve animal names make up a month. Three rounds is a month for short, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The ten-month solar calendar (ꆪꊰꆩꏮ) returns to zero after ten months.

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As we can see from table 1 above, (ꆪꊰꆩꏮ) returns to zero after ten months, there are 10 months per year and the calendar is calculated as a cycle of 12 years which is 120 months. In the arrangement of the twelve animals, the month of the eleventh month is the month of the first month of the second year.  Among them, from the snake to the chicken is ten years, from the rabbit to the sheep is ten years, from the cattle to begin the snake is ten years, from the pig to the rabbit is ten years, from the chicken to the cattle is ten years, from the sheep to the pig is ten years. They are all ten months. 

Day (ꑍ)

The ancestors of the Yi brought the wild animals from being wild to becoming domesticated livestock or poultry.  After the wild animals were domesticated into livestock or poultry, the ancient Yi language called them “domesticated animals” (ꃅ).

For example, if a wild monkey is domesticated into a pet and if it listens to the owner's orders, the Yi people call it “domesticated monkey” (ꑙꃅ).  If a tiger is domesticated into a pet and if it listens to it’s owner's orders, the Yi people call it “domesticated tiger” (ꆿꃅ). If a wild pheasant is domesticated into poultry, the Yi call it “domesticated pheasant” (ꎼꃅ).  If a golden pheasant is domesticated into poultry, the Yi call it “domesticated golden pheasant” (ꉐꃅ), and so on. The “Yi History Book” (ꅺꊈꄯꒉ) shows that “The nightingales who have been raised by Shr She were like chickens, after Shr She terminated. The nightingale just sadly cooed at Shr She’s passing.The monkey-man Jju Zy’s son Ge Wo had nine sons had Ge Wo whobecame the ninth generation, Ge Wo didn’t yet pray, Ge Wo didn’t yet make any sacrifices, Ge Wo terminated after nine generations. The tiger had been Ge Wo’s dog. After Ge Wo terminated, the tiger just wandered about.”

The ancient Yi people trained a lot of wild animals to become livestock and poultry.  The Yi people could tell the different hour of the day and night according to the rules of work and rest of these animals, from which they selected 12 animals: the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, chicken, dog, pig, rat, and ox. They named the days according to these animals’ corresponding order, and then called these days as “day” (ꃅꑍ).  The Yi called one round of the animals as “one round” (ꋍꄡ), two rounds of the animals as “two rounds” (ꑍꄡ), three rounds of the animals as “three rounds” (ꌕꄡ) and there is a Yi proverb that says, “one month is three rounds of the animals’ names” (ꋍꆪꃅꌕꄡ).  This system has been used from the ancient to the present. 

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Figure 5: the picture of twelve animals’ 

Hour (ꄡ)

The Yi divided the day and night into twelve time periods, using the cock crowing in the morning as the tiger time, the starting point of day and the chewing the cud of the cow as the ending of the day. For example, the time when the cock crows is the tiger hour, the dawn is the rabbit hour, sunrise is the dragon hour, the time of going to pasture is the snake hour, midday is the horse hour, when the sun is to west it is the goat hour, sunset is the monkey hour, dusk is the chicken hour, the time of going to sleep is the dog hour, the stillness of the night is the pig hour, midnight is the rat hour, chewing the cud is the cow hour.  Then divided each hour into male and female two hours.  It’s just like today’s Beijing time. 

Today the time when the Yi bride starts from her parent’s home until the time when she gets into the bridal chamber is calculated by the hour of the Yi solar calendar too.

 Table two:  The corresponding time between the Yi solar calendar and Beijing time

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In summarizing the above, the Yi ten month solar calendar measures the Earth’s movement in its orbit and calls it “year” (ꈎ), and decides the year according to the Earth’s movement on its orbit.  It observes the great dipper and the five stars’ position to decide the seasons. The Yi calendar is not based on when the moon is full or the beginning of the month but is based on the movement of the earth around the sun as a “join the circle together, a full year” (ꈭꏓ).  One “ꈎ” is 360 days, “ꄲꏿ” itself is 5 days, so one “join the circle together, a full year” (ꈭꏓ) is 365 days.  It is called “one circle of the days” (ꈎꇁꃅꈭꏓ) too. 

The Two Big Yi Traditional Festivals 

It is well known that The Yi people have two big traditional festivals, which are the Yi New Year Festival and the Torch Festival.  There is an Yi proverb that relates with the two traditional festivals which says, “celebrate the New Year at the end of the year; celebrate the Torch Festival at the end of the month” (ꈎꈤꇁꆏꏅ,ꆪꈤꇁꆏꊒ).  On the Yi solar calendar, there are 360 days in a year. One “join the circle together, a full year” (ꈭꏓ) is 365 days. There is a 5 day error between one year and one “ꈭꏓ”. To understand where the 5 days come from, we need to talk further about the custom of Yi New Year Festival. 

The Yi New Year Festival 

One of the Yi New Year Festival songs goes like this: “Counting the days of the year to feed the festival pig, there are 360 days in a year.  If you do not feed the pig one meal well, the belly of the pig will thin down.  The pig likes to graze in watered pastures.  The pig will be fat only after feeding it for a full year.  Grandpa is happy to see it fat.  Count the days left to make the wine.  Count the days left to cut the firewood.  Count the nights left to collect dry ferns to burn the pig.  Count the nights left to pick up the stones needed during the festival.”   We can see from the song that the Yi people have to feed the festival pig, cut firewood, collect dry ferns, pick up stones etc.  Even today the Yi people have the custom of piling up firewood, keeping the fire alive during the festival, not sweeping the house, steaming burned stones to clean up the festival’s utensils, and make festival wine, etc.

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Figure 6 Pictures of Yi New Year customs

We can see from the above table that what the Yi people are piling up before the New Year Festival is wood, what they keep burning is fire, what they do not sweep is earth, what they burn is stone (copper), and what they are making is wine (water).  These are all according to the five elements of the Yi solar calendar: using the combination of wood, fire, earth, copper and water to celebrate it.  When looking at the custom of the Festival, the Yi people look at 1) the pig’s gallbladder, 2) the pig’s heart, 3) the pig’s spleen, 4) the amount of fat on the pig, and 5) the pig’s bladder to divine the future.  According to the Yi theory of medicine, 1) the gall is the wood, 2) the heart is the fire, 3) the spleen is the earth; 4) the fat-oil is copper, and 5) the bladder is water. This is according to the Yi calendar’s five elements too. 

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Figure 7: The Customary Map of the Yi Calendar Year

In the section regarding the use of the “hour” in the Yi ten-month solar calendar system I discussed that the beginning of one Yi calendar year started from the time of the tiger. Today the Yi New Year Festival begins from the wood piling before the cock crows.  There are three days in the middle, and the last day, the sending off of grandfather day is finished before dusk.  Therefore it is celebrated for 5 days according to the five elements of wood, fire, earth, copper and water. 

(As shown in Table 3)

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In summary, no matter whether the days are figured according to the custom of the Yi New Year Festival, or just according to tradition, or according to the real length of the Yi New Year Festival, they are all 5 days.  Therefore, there is a very ancient Yi proverb that goes like this, “Celebrate the New Year at the end of the year” (ꈎꈤꇁꆏꏅ) which refers to the time when the spirits of the deceased ancestors were sent off from the previous New Year to the time of the cows chewing it’s cud of the upcoming 360th day.  Until then the sun almost has finished one revolution, but hasn’t finished it yet, and it is not yet the time for one “complete circle for a full year” (ꈭꏓ).  So the Yi people start celebrating the New Year from that time, that is to say from the Yi New Year which starts from the 361st day until the cock crows.  The time of the tiger (or the beginning of the new year) is from the 365th day and counting.  The Yi calendar calls these 5 days “the rest of the year”, and they represent the five elements of the earth itself. 

The Torch Festival (ꄔꊒ)

The Yi New Year Festival and the Yi Torch Festival are the two big Yi traditional festivals.  They are just like a pair of eyes that can’t be separated.  There is an ancient Yi proverb which says, “Celebrate the New Year Festival at the end of the year; celebrate the Torch Festival at the end of the month” (ꈎꈤꇁꆏꏅ,ꆪꈤꇁꆏꊒ).  It connects the two festivals together.  The Yi people calculate the date of the two festivals according to “winter solstice” (ꁮꈪ) and “summer solstice” (ꁮꏮ) of the Yi ten month solar calendar. 

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In other words, the date of the Yi New Year Festival and the Yi Torch Festival is calculated as follows: while “earth” (ꄲꏿ) revolves around the sun by it’s “orbit” (ꈎ), when the sunlight shines directly at the Tropic of Cancer, the day at the Arctic Circle is the longest and the night is the shortest.  This day is called “summer-solstice” (ꁮꏮ) in the Yi solar calendar, that day is the day of the “Yi Torch Festival” (ꄔꊒ).  When the sunlight shines directly at the Tropic of Capricorn, the day at the Arctic Circle is the shortest and the night is the longest.  It is called “winter solstice” (ꁮꈪ) on the Yi calendar, that day is the day of the “Yi New Year Festival” (ꈎꏅ) on the Yi calendar.  The Yi New Year Festival is a festival that is celebrated in the daytime.  Activities are held during the daytime, and at night people sing New Year songs.

However the Yi Torch Festival is a festival that is celebrated at nighttime.  That is to say the Yi New Year Festival is a daytime (white) festival and the Yi Torch Festival is a nighttime (black) festival.  The reason why Yi people celebrate YNYF first and then YTF is that Yi people thought the “earth” (ꄲꏿ) circled around the sun by it’s “orbit” (ꈎ) into a black semicircle and a white semicircle.

In the Yi Bimo culture the white semicircle is called “the white sky is father” (ꃅꐎꀿ) and the black semicircle is called “the black earth is mother” (ꊖꆈꃀ).  ‘ꃅꐎꀿ’ and ‘ꊖꆈꃀ’ together are called in Yi the “earth” (ꄲꏿ) culture. It means one circle with a white semicircle and a black semicircle.  While the “earth” (ꄲꏿ) finishes circling the two semicircles it is the time to celebrate YNYF. When it is circling from black semicircle to the white semicircle it is the time to celebrate YTF.  Everything is made up of male and female, and the festival is not an exception either.  The YTF is a male festival and the YNYF is a female festival. So the experts on folklore call it the Yi people’s male and female view of all things on earth.  YNYF and YTF are two relative festivals.  

Conclusion

“ꇗꊖ” in the ancient Yi written-language book is the five seasons of the Yi ten-month solar calendar. Ten “ꈌꀕ” are the months’ names of the Yi calendar culture. Ten “ꈐꐡ” is the method of accounting for the months. Ten-directions are the direction of the Yi-calendar. There is a decimal system to calculate the year, month, day and hour. The Ten “blessing spirit” (ꐰꇑ) is the Yi ten-month solar calendar in practice. There is an Yi proverb which says: “If you do not listen to your father’s advice, you will meet ten times the trouble. If you do not listen do your mother’s advice, you will face five times the trouble” (ꀿꅇꀋꃅꊰꇉꏷ, ꃀꅇꀋꃅꉬꇉꈴ).  “Ten is the largest and then five” (ꊰꄷꊰ, ꉬꄹꉬ).  “There are 360 days in a year, and there are 720 male and female meals in a year” (ꃅꑍꃅꉖꌕꉐꃘꊰꑋ, ꍪꀮꍫꂾꏃꉐꑋꊏꐚ).  “Three rounds is a month, one round is bad, another round will be good.” (ꋍꆪꃄꌕꄡ, ꋍꄣꀋꎔꋍꄣꎔ).  “Celebrate the YNYF at the end of the year, celebrate the YTF at the end of the month” (ꈎꈤꇀꆏꏅ, ꆪꈤꇀꆏꊒ), etc.  These proverbs have been compiled over the many years through the culture of using the ten-month solar calendar. 

Over it’s long history, the Chinese nation has used their own wisdom and creativity to create a rich and broad cultural heritage and to form it’s own unique civilized system, radiating splendor in the eastern part of the world. This system contains colorful cultural content. The calendar-culture is one of them. The culture of the Yi solar calendar has been used by the Yi people in their production and in their daily lives from a very long time ago. 

Written by Salong Laoban,anguage Committee of Zhaojue County, Liangshan, Sichuan, China

Translated by Jipo Ayu,Yi Language Department of Xichang College, Xichang, Sichuan, China

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