The Jinuo (alternatively, Jino) ethnic minority, also known as the Youle folk due to their homeland in the Youle mountains, a sparsely-populated, densely-forested, mountainous region of Yunnan Province not far from Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, live in a number of small enclaves in and around the village of Jinuo in Jinghong County (but with some scattered about in Mengla and Menghai Counties), about 40 kilometers - as the crow flies - east-northeast of the city of Jinghong, capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.*
Mention of the Jinuo first appeared in Chinese historical annals during the 18th century, though their presence in Yunnan Province is believed to have predated their historical mention by several centuries. It is believed that the Jinuo may be descendants of the Qiang folk of present-day Sichuan Province who, it is commonly believed, are one of the original, once-populous and dominant peoples to inhabit China (in today's China, Qiang culture, with its oral-only language tradition, is in danger of disappearing) and who were thus forbears to a number of later peoples, including the Tibetans as well as a number of smaller present-day ethnic minorities of southwestern China, including possibly the Jinuo.
According to this theory, the Jinuo migrated into present-day Yunnan from Sichuan to the north, settling alongside the more dominant and much more numerous Dai folk, whom the Jinuo apparently served as vassals. The Junuo were for centuries mistakenly considered as a subgroup to the Dai. It was not until 1979 that the Chinese government officially recognized the Jinuo as a separate Chinese ethnic minority, China's latest, the 55th**, and numbering about 18,000 individuals (there are a number of Chinese ethnic minorities numbering fewer than 4,000 individuals).
The language of the Jinuo, which is oral only, is phonetically close to Yi and Burmese, being part of the Tibetan-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Jinuo never developed their own written language, and since they number so few individuals, the Chinese government did not feel compelled to develop a written language for the Jinuo, as, for example, it has done for the Dong ethnic minority. Instead, many Jinuo use Mandarin Chinese where a written language medium is required, just as many Jinuo, especially youth, use Mandarin Chinese as a second language. With the pressures of modernization mounting on the Jinuo, it is therefore doubtful whether the oral language tradition of the Jinuo will survive except as historical recordings to be preserved in museums as a cultural curiosity.
The Jinuo are farmer-hunter-gatherers. They plant tea (their trademark tea is the Puer "brand"), rice, maize, bananas, papayas, and even cotton. Jinuo men, however, remain at heart hunters, being proficient with poisoned arrows, traps, crossbows, and - today - rifles and shotguns. Besides providing meat, game also provides pelts to be used for clothing and as a trade item along with tea, cotton, and handmade rattan items. The Jinuo also gather nuts and wild fruits, as well as herbs.
Jinuo women, like women in most patriarchal societies (the Jinuo were matriarchal until about 300 years ago), dress much more conspicuously than do their male counterparts. Their dress includes: a white, pointed, cape-like hood, or cowl, that reaches the shoulders in back; a short, collarless, embroidered tunic made of cotton that buttons in front, and typically has horizontal stripes in eye-catchingly bright colors on the front and an embroidered image of the moon on the back; a wrap-around black skirt hemmed with a broad red-lace border; and leggings, or heavy stockings, that go from the ankle up to just below the knee.
Jinuo men wear a collarless, long-sleeve tunic similar in form to that worn by Jinuo women, except that the male's tunic is of white cotton with a band of narrow, horizontal stripes - usually in muted shades of brown and black - near the mid-section, and with similar but vertical stripes on either side of the front opening. There are also a couple of broad bands of narrow, horizontal stripes on the sleeves of the tunic, in the same color scheme as the stripes on the body of the tunic. The back of this tunic is either of the same motif as in front, or embroidered with an image representing the sun. Jinuo men wear knee-length, broad-legged trousers made of either flax or cotton, dyed black or blue.
Both Jinuo men and women go barefoot, and both men and women in Jinuo culture have large holes pierced in their earlobes, the larger the hole the more appealing. Jinuo women have also traditionally blackened their teeth with the sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), partly because blackened teeth in Jinuo women is considered a thing of beauty, and partly because the sap of the lacquer tree reduces the incidence of tooth decay.
However, it must be said that these particular customs are disappearing rapidly, especially among Jinuo youth, except that the traditional costume is of course standard dress at festivals.
The Jinuo are animists (animists believe that all things on earth have souls, or spirits, whereas non-animists distiguish between the animate, which can have a spirit, and the inanimate, which can't) and, like Taoists, worship their ancestors (the name Jinuo means "descendants of uncle", or "the ethnic group that respects its forbears"), whom, it is believed, can affect outcomes - for good or for worse - in the world of the living. The Jinuo are especially sun worshippers. The sun-drum is a sacred musical instrument in Jinuo culture. Each Jinuo village has two sun-drums, the Father Drum and the Mother Drum, which are the embodiment of the divine spirits and which therefore may not be handled except during sacred ceremonies, or festivals, where villagers pay homage to the divine spirits and entreat them to bless the Jinuo with a bountiful harvest, ward off disease, etc. The Sun-Drum Dance is performed during such ceremonies.
Temaoke Festival (literally "Iron-Forging Festival"), corresponding to New Year's Day in Western culture, is the most important of Jinuo festivals and is held over a three-day period, January 6th - 8th of the Gregorian (Western) calendar. The village men, decked out in their newest and best festival costumes, form a circle around a chosen water buffalo bull and - hunters that they are - launch javelins at the bull until the animal dies from a loss of blood, which seemingly barbaric ritual nonetheless pays homage to Jinuo ancestors whose very existence depended on killing these fierce animals with far more primitive weapons, and thus with the obvious risk to life and limb.
The meat is divided equitably amongst the households, after which the wives bring previously prepared food to the house of the head of the village, where the sun-drum ceremony will take place, and where the villagers, prior to the commencement of the singing and dancing that will carry on until daybreak, place sacrificial items ranging from rooster feathers to fresh flowers to iron hammers (one cannot underestimate the historical significance of iron to the Jinuo in the forging of agricultural implements as well as weapons) before the sacred sun-drum. The next day, the village blacksmith arrives at the home of the head of the village where he will be instructed to forge new agricultural implements for the villagers.
Other parts of the festival - which, as indicated, runs for three days - include a coming-of-age courtship ceremony for young men and women of age 15, and a coming-of-age career-choosing ceremony where young men choose a trade (they ask seasoned village craftsmen, though generally by pre-arrangement on the part of their fathers, if they may serve as apprentices under them). For the courtship ceremony, girls of age 15 change their hairdo to that of an adult and they receive many presents of clothes, kitchen utensils, etc., while for the career-choosing ceremony, boys of age 15 are given the tools they will need to ply the trade they have chosen. From this age onwards, young people may marry and take on any other adult obligations.
New Rice Festival
The New Rice Festival is a harvest festival, not unlike the Thanksgiving festival held in the U.S., to celebrate the ripening of rice, which usually falls during the 7th or 8th lunar month. Chickens are slaughtered and a feast is prepared - including rice dishes of course - where family and friends gather to sing and dance and to give thanks for the good luck that they have enjoyed during the previous year. It is not unusual for such feasts to last until daybreak the next day.
* To get to Jinuo from the city of Jinghong, however, one must travel to the city of Mengyang, about 34 kilometers NE of the city of Jinghong, then travel in a southeasterly direction a further 19 kilometers or so to Jinuo.
** Note that some count the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group in this tally, yielding 56 ethnic minorities, but it is more appropriate to consider the Han Chinese as the ethnic majority against which the ethnic minorities are contrasted.