Preservation and digitisation of Yi archives in public and private collections in Yunnan, China (EAP081)

Aims and objectives

The Yi archives refer to books and documents written in Yi language, the native language of an ethnic group located in Southwest China and parts of Southeast Asia. As a writing tradition in the peripheral area, Yi archives have been historically ignored and annihilated by the mainstream Han culture. Social revolutions in the past half century brought large-scale deconstruction of both the archives and the Yi language. The tiny survival collections in Yunnan, either public or private, are now facing further serious preservation conditions due to lack of necessary fund and effective means. Preservation of the Yi archives in Yunnan before they disappear forever is the focus of this project.

The unsurpassable significance of the Yi archives for the study of Yi people and Yi culture exists in that they are the only available written resource in the native Yi language, in addition to their extraordinary richness in contents. The Yi language, first appearing in the 14th century, had been actively spoken and written among aboriginal people until the sharply social changes in the middle 20th century. All of the Yi archives are written, kept and disseminated by bimo, the ritual priests, scribes and intellectuals in the traditional Yi society. The Yi archives are therefore also referred to as the Bimo Sutra. Since they cover epic, chronology, philosophy, politics, history, ritual, geography, calendar, divination, literature, music and more, the archives are regarded as the encyclopaedia of Yi people.

The Yi archives gradually became endangered in the 20th century and the deconstruction process has even accelerated in past decades. First of all, the Yi language itself has become an endangered or extinct language since the mid 20th century, resulted from increasingly contacts with Chinese during the modernization process. Most of Yi people have adopted Chinese as their first or the only language. The native Yi language is preserved only in distant or isolated locations. Secondly, as the writer, keeper and educator, bimo were deprived of the rights of writing and teaching due to ideological conflicts, and the native knowledge tradition of Yi people was terminated in the 1960s and 1970s. The Yi archives developed over six centuries was brought to an end. Although bimo have been partly allowed to restore their religious activities since the 1980s, the writing tradition has never been restored. Third, the physical characteristics of books and documents as woodblock printing or handwriting on rice paper determines that their life cycle is very short, especially when the preservation condition is far from ideal.

Due to neglect, poverty and incapability in archival preservation of the native Yi people, and ignorance and annihilation by zealous revolutionists, the size of the Yi archives shrank dramatically in the middle and late 20th century. A recent preliminary investigation shows that only about 4,000 volumes survive in the world.

Of the surviving Yi archives, the largest public collection and most of private collections are preserved in Yunnan, especially in the Chuxiong Autonomous Prefecture of Yi People. Besides 1,400 volumes in public collections formed since the 1980s, another 900 volumes are estimated to be held by private parties, especially by descendants of bimo families. However, in regards to both preservation and readiness for academic purpose, the Yi archives in Yunnan need the most urgent attention. There hasn't been any positive treatment applied to prevent the aging and mildew process, nor has any image conversion work been done, nor has any material been published before. Our pilot investigation shows that only around 40 volumes in the public collection are mounted, and most books are even unaffordable to be stored in desirable spaces. Written on perishable rice paper in fading mineral pigment, Yi documents will be illegible in several years' time if no preservative action is taken immediately. Neglect resulting from poverty will lead to fatal disaster to the archives.

In the proposed project, the two major tasks are: (1) a thorough registration of Yi archival collections before they disappear silently, and (2) the digitisation and indexing of all available public and private archives. In the former, since the private collections are not as stable as the public, the project will pay extra attentions to the private collections, in order to keep an updated and complete record of the available Yi archives. The Institute of Studies on Yi Culture, the owner of the largest Yi archives in the world, has eagerly expressed the willingness to join the project. The Bureau of Cultural Affairs is also providing access to small public collections of Yi archives in Wuding, Shuangbai and other counties. Relocation is not included in this stage, but will be pursued later by searching matching funds from the local government.


This project has fully achieved its stated objectives:

A thorough investigation of endangered Yi archives in Chuxiong, Dali, Kunming, Yuxi and Honghe was undertaken and a detailed field report and preliminary research completed. An interdisciplinary and multimedia Yi archives was produced and the field reports and research monographs are planned to be published in a series on endangered archives supported by Sun Yat-sen University.

The Yi archives include:

  • Early prints, rubbings and manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 19th century. About 700 volumes containing 25,000 images are included.
  • Sound recordings of Yi archives in the Nanhua dialect where the written form of the Yi language has not been developed. The total length is up to 30 recording hours.
  • Video recordings of ritual performance of bimo in the 1990s, of about 10 recording hours.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: