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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

The Fire Festival of the Yi people

By Minjun Xu

August 4

The festival’s blazing torches are an iconic part of the Yi people’s ancient culture.

The festival’s blazing torches are an iconic part of the Yi people’s ancient culture.

Considered a Chinese National Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Fire Festival (also called the Torch Festival) is the most important festival on the Yi calendar, who live mainly in southwestern China.

Different ethnic groups set the festival on different dates. The Yi, whose celebration is the most famous, hold theirs on the 24th or 25th day of the sixth lunar month, which usually corresponds to the end of August on the Gregorian calendar.  Legend says the original festival commemorated the great wrestler Atilaba, who drove away a plague of locusts using torches made from pine trees. It has since developed into a three-day carnival with its own set events.

[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
The first day is called Duzai, which means “welcoming the fire” in the Yi language. People sacrifice sheep and cattle to their ancestors and the god of fire. Families prepare plenty of food and wine for a reunion dinner. At night, the neighborhood builds an altar together and starts a fire by striking a flint, after which the elders light torches. They pass them to their offspring, a symbolic act meant to dispel ghosts and spirits.

[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Peng Nian]
[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Peng Nian]
The second day, called Duge, is the climax of the festival. At dawn, participants wear traditional costumes and compete in activities that include horse racing, wrestling and archery.

[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
But the most important event is the beauty contest. Handsome boys and pretty girls said to resemble legendary figures are picked out by highly respected elders.

[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
The last day is called Dusha, which means “seeing off the fire”. Everyone holds a torch and gathers around the altar. A bimo(毕摩), a priest in the Yi religion, chants to worship the fire, and people wield their torches praying for happiness and a good harvest. All the torches are then thrown into a bonfire to symbolize the unity of the Yi people.

[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
[Image Credit: photostock.china.com.cn/Wei Wanzhong]
Dubbed “the Oriental Carnival”, the Fire Festival offers visitors a great opportunity to experience Yi culture and religion.

Tips: With the largest population of Yi people, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province is the best place to witness this grand festival.

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