Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China

By Stevan Harrell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
Education and Ethnicity
among the Liangshan Yi
Martin Schoenhals

Whether to assimilate or to separate is one of the most fundamental conflicts faced by members of ethnic groups, especially by members of small minority ethnic groups, upon whom the possibility of gaining access to wealth and power through assimilation asserts a strong pull in the assimilationist direction. Assimilation seems to offer not only access to wealth and power but also the pride that comes from being associated with, and becoming more like, the dominant segment of society. To attempt to assimilate, minority groups employ a variety of strategies, ranging from changes in dress, language, and custom to residing among and even intermarrying with the dominant group, participating in their social institutions, and attaining educational credentials that facilitate access to elite positions of power.

Yet while assimilation might buy power and prestige for those minority individuals who assimilate, it also, of course, comes at a cost. As the literature has documented, rejecting one's own cultural and social institutions in favor of those of the dominant group threatens the solidarity of those minority individuals who remain behind, sometimes leading them to feel a sense of betrayal by their upwardly mobile counterparts. Gradual loss of cultural heritage by the minority group because of those who leave it, and loss of those who reject its cultural ways, can give rise to increased feelings of alienation and inadequacy among minority group members.

One reaction to this process, and a means to challenge the dynamics of assimilation, is the affirmation by minority group members of their own culture, often through the conscious display and celebration of the icons of their

The Yi of Liangshan are called Nuosu in their own language and have a distinctive culture and social structure; this essay pertains to these people, and not to other Yi, such as those in Yunnan Province.

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