Endangered Archives

EAP217: Digitisation of Yi archives in south dialect in Yunnan, China

Dr Jian Xu, Sun Yat-sen University
2008 award - Major project
£48,880 for 18 months

Archival partner: Archives of Yunnan Provincial Administrative Office of Minorities Classics, University Library of Sun Yat-sen University

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Project Overview

This project will digitise endangered archival material written in the south dialect of the indigenous Yi language in Yunnan, China. All the materials covered by this project have survived various destructions in the past century but still remain in unsatisfactory conditions. The archival materials come from several counties in south Yunnan, namely Xinping, Yuanyang, Jianshui and Mengzi. Besides these tiny private collections, the largest collection has been established by the Yunnan provincial administrative office of minority classics in Kunming. Amongst more than 4,000 surviving volumes of Yi texts, there are about 800 volumes written in the south dialect. This project will digitize the entire collection of 400 volumes in the public collection in Kunming and another 200 volumes from various public and private collections in the counties mentioned above.

The Yi archives are the most important and irreplaceable materials for research on the indigenous Yi people in Southwest China. They are the only available texts written in the Yi language and character, which stands for an uninterrupted indigenous writing tradition for six centuries but now is endangered as well. The Yi archives cover a wide range of topics including calendar, epic, history, medicine, philosophy, ritual, geography, literature and music. This material written in the Yi language is not available in either Chinese or another script.

For understanding the Yi people in Southwest China and Southeast Asia, the archival materials in the Yi language are very crucial in that they are the only aboriginal written sources. The Yi archives are written by the aboriginal priests and literati bimo and represent the entire range of the traditional knowledge of the Yi people, they are therefore known as the Yi's encyclopaedia. The Yi language is divided into six dialects, each one differing dramatically from the others. Written archives are found in four dialects. The Yi archives in the south dialect are significant specifically in understanding the cultural heritage and tradition in south Yunnan.

Most of the Yi archival materials under this project are in script. The earliest Yi script in the south dialect is dated to the early 19th century, but the majority of the archives are in the range from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. One major feature of the Yi scripts in the south dialect distinguishing themselves from those written in other dialects is that many of them have unique and beautiful illustrations, painted in bright mineral pigments. The oral tradition is presently preserved in some villages in Xinping and Yuanyang county.

Most of the Yi archives in the south dialect have been destroyed in the past half century. A further threat to the Yi archives in recent years is smuggling and the illegal trading market. In addition, the physical feature of Yi archives as paper scripts reminds us the threat of deterioration.

The material at the archive of the Yunnan provincial administrative office of minority classics is stored in minimum preservation conditions: the archive is not equipped with any facilities to preserve the scripts, no positive action, such as mounting or moisture-resistance processing, has been taken and even the storage space is not large enough. The situation for the county archives with Yi scripts is even worse. The private collections come from a dozen bimo priests and normally the scripts are stored in the attic above the kitchen and open to unfavourable environmental conditions. A script in this condition normally can't last for 40 years. Moreover, scripts easily disappear if there is no successor in a bimo family when the old priest passes away.

An outcome from this project will be the creation of a database of digital images of the archives. The most endangered scripts in the private collections will be relocated to the public collection in the Yunnan provincial administrative office of minority classics. The master copies of the entire archives will be stored at both the University Library of Sun Yat-sen University and the Archives of Yunnan provincial administrative office of minority classics.

Project Outcome

This project fully achieved the objectives stated in the proposal and surveyed endangered Yi manuscripts in the south dialect in both public and private collections, and digitised nearly 600 volumes of Yi manuscripts from the public collection in Kunming and private collections in Xinping, Yuanyang and Mengzi, dating from the 18th to the early 20th century.

The endangered archival materials are kept by their owners in their original locations. The public collection are stored at the archives of the Yunnan Provincial Administrative Office of Minorities Classics, but their physical preservation condition really remains unchanged. The private collections are stored in cabinets or cases in the houses of their owners without any preservation facilities. Neither the public nor the private collections are accessible for the public, the former by law and the latter for religious reasons.

The surrogate digital collections have been deposited at both the Yunnan Provincial Administrative Office of Minorities Classics and Sun Yat-sen University. At Sun Yat-sen University, copies are kept by the University Library and by the Institute of Historical Anthropology. A copy is also deposited with the British Library.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP217/1 Yi Manuscripts temporarily in the custody of antique dealers from Xinping and Mengzi [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/2 Yi manuscripts temporarily in the custody of antique dealers from Yuanyang [Mid 18th century]
  • EAP217/3 Bai Zhengfu Collection of Yi Manuscripts [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/4 Fang Zhengrong Collection of Yi Manuscripts [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/5 Huang Family Collection of Yi Manuscripts [18th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/6 Li Jiaqiang Collection of Yi Manuscripts [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/7 Li Jiaxiang Collection of Yi Manuscripts [20th century]
  • EAP217/8 Li Liangwen Collection of Yi Manuscripts [Early 19th century]
  • EAP217/9 Li Shaoli Collection of Yi Manuscripts [20th century]
  • EAP217/10 Li Youcai Collection of Yi Manuscripts [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/11 Li Yuguang Collection of Yi Manuscripts [20th century]
  • EAP217/12 Pu Yuchang Collection of Yi Manuscripts [19th century-20th century]
  • EAP217/13 Yang Zhengguang Collection of Yi Manuscripts [c 19th century]
  • EAP217/14 Yi Manuscripts Collection at the Yunnan Provincial Administration Office of Minority Classics [18th century-20th century]