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Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China$

Stevan Harrell

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780520219885

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520219885.001.0001

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Names and Genealogies among the Nuosu of Liangshan

Names and Genealogies among the Nuosu of Liangshan

(p.81) Chapter 5 Names and Genealogies among the Nuosu of Liangshan
Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China

Ma Erzi

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter gives a thorough review of the Nuosu naming system. It shows how clan names, birth-order names, and personal names serve to place individuals into the matrix of social organization in which they will live their lives.

Keywords:   Nuosu naming system, clan names, social organization, birth-order names

The Yi of Liangshan, who call themselves Nuosu in their own language, have a complex system of clan, birth-order, and personal names; terms of address; and clan genealogies. Research into names and naming, using Yi and Han language written sources, personal knowledge, and even archaeological data, can open an important window to understanding Yi history. This is a huge subject, one that cannot be treated comprehensively in a short essay. Here I will simply offer a classification of the Nuosu system of clan names, the various methods of choosing personal names, terms of address, and the topic of genealogies.

The System of Family and Personal Names

The Nuosu system of names is made up of three levels of organization: clan names, birth-order names, and personal names.

Clan Names and Surnames

In Liangshan there are only a few tens of large clans, but the clan names belonging to these large clans are innumerable. Naturally there are a few clans that have an all-clan surname, with no branch surnames below them, such as the Jjike clan. In the long course of history, the Jjike clan has produced a great many branches, and its steps have expanded to cover the whole of Liangshan, but historically and presently it has only the one surname, Jjike. The great majority of clans are not like this, however, and many large clans have produced within them a large number of branches that, because of natural, geographic, and environmental changes, have themselves become clans. The (p.82) Hxiesse clan, for example, has given birth to over forty subordinate clans, such as Shama Qubi, Jjisse, Jjimu, Mgebbu, and Ayie. These clans have all developed branch surnames under the overall Hxiesse surname. In the most formal activities, people usually do not use the branch surname, and in marriages and funerals people use only the whole-clan surname. In ordinary life people use the branch surname.

The names of birds and other animals, and their characteristics, that once were used to identify tribes have provided one source for all-clan surnames. For example:

Pohle Ssenge: Pohle is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a bird's wings when taking off, and it represents a bird; ssenge refers to five sons, and the whole name means the five sons of the bird clan.

Mugu Sseggu: Mugu originally referred to a blue sky, but it was often suffixed by the term for eagle to denote “an eagle in the blue sky.” Sseggu refers to nine sons, and so the full name means the nine sons of the eagle clan.

Amo Sseggu: Amo means “invisible,” that is, flying very fast. It stands for a bird, and the full name denotes the nine sons of the flying bird clan.

Jjizze Sseshy: Jjizze means a wasp, clever and fierce. In Yi custom, it is not included in the category of insects, but rather in the category of winged creatures. Sseshy means seven sons, so the full name means the seven sons of the wasp clan. (There is another definition for jjizze: “noontime”; the story explaining this interpretation is too long to go into here.)

Hxiezzy Ssesuo: Hxiezzy means bird, and ssesuo means three sons, so this name means the three sons of the bird clan.

Bacha Sseshy: Bacha is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of an animal who is surprised and flees; this name denotes the seven sons of the animal clan.

Lahuo Sseshy: Lahuo is a gray tiger; this name means the seven sons of the gray tiger.

Asy Sseggu: Asy is the name of a particular kind of bird; this name means the nine sons of the bird clan.

In ancient times, when superior hunting weapons were not yet available, people had to rely on their quickness and bravery, and their catch was very small. Because of this, people disguised their arms as wings and walked as if flying. That some clans took their names from flying birds and running animals reflects their desire for such physical characteristics during a time of hunting and gathering. Branch clans evolved as the natural environment changed, developed as the forces of production developed, and chose appropriate (p.83) names for themselves. For example, after the Yi came into contact with the Han, they often took Han names but did not give up their original Yi names; instead they took either the sound or the meaning of the original surname to form the Han name. For example, the Ga clan of Meigu also is called by its Han surname, Ga (standard Chinese: Gan). Some Yi surnames, such as Shamaqubi, are made up of four syllables. For Han surnames, there are those who have chosen Sha, Ma, Qu, Bai, and Qiu, and thus one surname has developed into five. Surnames that translate the meaning of the original surname are usually the names of plants, such as Yyhle, which means “poplar tree.” When people with this surname adopted a Han surname, some of them chose Yang. Others of the Yyhle surname chose the sound of a syllable in the original surname instead: they chose He as their surname. Thus, choosing a surname was rather random. The Han names chosen are, however, used only in Han areas; in Yi areas people continue to use Yi surnames.

Birth-Order Names

In Yi names, the birth-order name is an intermediate name that stands between the clan name and the personal name. Men's and women's birth-order names are different, and traditionally were counted separately: the two sequences were not mixed together in the order.

This custom of birth-order names has been preserved intact in Tianba and other areas of GanluoCounty in Liangshan. The order goes like this:

Male Birth-Order Names

Female Birth-Order Names


First brother


First sister


Second brother


Second sister


Third brother


Third sister


Fourth brother


Fourth sister


Fifth brother


Fifth sister

The a in front of the mu syllable in the male names refers to the eldest son; the syllables that come after the mu, which expresses maleness, refer to the birth order. The a in the female birth-order names is a concise way of expressing femaleness, and the birth orders added after the a indicate second daughter, third daughter, and so on. If a child dies in any particular series of children, then his or her ordinal is not used again. If, for example, in a certain family there is a Munyi, a second brother, who dies, and a few years later another boy is born, then he is not placed according to the birth order of living brothers, but is called third brother, Muga, according to the order of brothers ever born to the family.

People in quite a few areas have destroyed this custom of birth-order naming by putting brothers and sisters together in ordering, and in fact the order (p.84) that is used is not always the proper one. But the birth-order names are still separated by sex. For example, if the eldest child in a particular family is a son, then his birth order is written Muyi; if the second child is a girl, then they name her Aga (second girl), not Ayi (first girl). Another sort of variation is to reserve the first or even the second birth-order name, start with the second or even the third name, and arrange the rest of the names from there. In addition, often when the difference between the birth-order names of males and females goes past the fifth sibling, the birth-order names are doubled—such as Gaga, Jiejie, Gege, Nyunyu, and so on—to express that the person is even lower in the birth order. Birth-order names also affect terms of address between people at different places in the birth order, which I will discuss below.

Personal Names

Usually Liangshan Yi personal names are chosen by adults not long after the child's birth, and the names chosen bear the stamp of the development of Nuosu society, culture, and religion. The Nuosu proverb “If you raise a son for a whole generation, don't choose an improper name” shows the importance of naming children; the names given to children express the hopes and aspirations of the elder generation for the younger. For this reason, from ancient times to today Nuosu names have reflected definite aspirations and a definite timeliness, and are more than just a system of terms of address. Classifying and categorizing some names in actual use will, like the prismatic effect of seeing the sun in a drop of water, give us a different perspective on many aspects of Nuosu society.

1. Names taken from domestic animals:


Sheep, black


Cattle foundation


Sheep, rich


Cattle, a hundred


Sheep, a hundred


Cattle, a thousand


Sheep lord


Cattle, many


Sheep spirit


Cattle, rich


Sheep, many


Cattle, strong


Cattle lord


Cattle, has

The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls' names.

2. Names that relate to slaves owned:


Slaves, many


Slave lord


Slaves, strong


Slaves, a hundred


Slaves, commander of


Slaves, a hundred


Slaves, origin of


Slaves, a lot of

(p.85) The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls' names.

3. Names taken from gold and silver:


Gold, a lot of


Gold lord


Gold leaf


Silver leaf


Gold lord


Silver lord


Gold digging


Silver leap


Gold bars


Silver, much


Gold flowers


Silver bars


Gold sand


Silver flowers


Gold, a hundred


Silver, a hundred


Gold origin


Silver foundation

A characteristic of names taken from livestock, slaves, or gold and silver is that after these nouns comes a descriptive or quantifying adjective, expressing the desire for even more of these things. Putting a verb after the noun expresses the hope of obtaining these things in the future. Using livestock as the root word for a name given to the next generation demonstrates that the Yi had entered the period of nomadic herding, and also that livestock had come to occupy a place in their consciousness. Having slaves as the root word for a name given to the next generation proclaimed the emergence of a Yi slave society; when gold and silver appeared in names, it demonstrated that Yi had already entered the period of metallurgy. Incorporating livestock, slaves, and precious metals into names clearly indicated some of the particular characteristics of Liangshan Yi society: its standard of wealth was generally determined by the quantities of slaves, precious metals, cattle, and sheep owned. If a family had a lot of slaves but no other wealth, people would still naturally count them as among the wealthy. In the same way, if they had a lot of gold and silver or a lot of cattle and sheep, this would also mark them as wealthy. Because of this, in Liangshan, slaves, stock, gold, and silver all belonged in the category of wealth. The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys’ names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls’ names.

4. Names taken from mountains, rivers, and plants:


Fir forest


Pine forest


Fir, a hundred


Pine, a hundred


Fir, strong


Pine, strong


Fir needles


Pine needles


Fir seeds


Pine nuts


Cliff, surrounding


Water rushing


Cliff, high


Water's edge


Mountain reared


Water, grand


Mountain content


Water, rich

(p.86) I believe that there is not a people anywhere that is disinterested in landscape and forest, but at the same time I do not believe that every people's expression of their love of landscape and forest is the same. Some like peach forests and mountains full of orchards best; some are most fond of magnificent, limitless forests; some prefer little brooks and creeks; others are particularly respectful of great torrents. The Nuosu think that it is best to live at the foot of great cliffs in endless forests of verdant pines and luxuriant firs; only there can they nurture even greater good fortune and happiness. A Nuosu song expresses this:

  • We come to raise sheep on the mountains behind our house;
  • the sheep are like massed clouds.
  • We come to the plains in front of our door to grow grain;
  • the piles of grain are like mountains.
  • We come to the stream at the side of the house to catch fish;
  • the fish are like piles of firewood.
The names recorded above are a particular expression of this kind of thinking. The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls' names.

5. Names taken from wild animals:


Eagle, black


Leopard, many


Eagle chick


Leopard lord


Eagle, big


Leopard, strong


Eagle wings


Leopard, raising


Eagle, a hundred


Leopard, yellow


Eagle flight


Leopard, large


Tiger foundation


Bear, black


Tiger's roar


Bear, big/bear mother


Tiger, many


Bear cub


Tiger, strong


Bear leaping


Tiger lord


Bear, big


Tiger tooth


Bear foundation


Tiger flower


Leopard, a hundred


Leopard, black

There are not many animal names that Nuosu like to take for their own; those commonly used are eagle, tiger, bear, and leopard, but many compounds (p.87) can be formed from these names. The eagle expresses intelligence, the bear daring, the tiger and leopard bravery. This demonstrates the martial spirit of this people and expresses the hope that in war their descendants will enter the fray against the enemy with the bravery of the tiger, the leopard, or the bear, and will be able to capture their prey and dodge arrows with the cleverness of the eagle. The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls’ names.

6. Names derived from religious occupations:




Bisse (apprentice)


Bimo's chant


Ceremonies, a hundred


Rich in ceremonies


Bimo companion




Susse (child of sunyi)

Nuosu call the priest a bimo; bimo usually understand astrology, history, and law and can read Yi language religious texts. Sunyi are shamans. Choosing one of these names indicates two things: the first is respect for the bimo and hope that one's descendants will inherit the bimo's profession. The second has to do with people who have had many children die as infants: they believe that evil spirits are afraid of bimo and sunyi, and that by bearing one of these names the child can avoid misfortune. The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls' names.

7. Names derived from compass directions:

















The Nuosu in Liangshan have a kind of passive astrological outlook. Believing that life, death, and prosperity are to a large extent predetermined by heaven, they look at the mother's age and the birth animal of the child and thus determine the astrological direction the child could be expected to take. Accordingly, they give the child a name based on one of the compass points, which correlate with the cycle of twelve animals, thinking that this will bring contentment and good fortune. At the end of the name can be added sse for boys' names and mo for girls' names.

(p.88) 8. Names derived from power:


Lord of power


Power, content


Power, great


Power, a hundred


Power leap


Power, great


Power, recorded


Power, a hundred

Putting a verb after the word power expresses the ability to exercise power; putting a quantifying or modifying adjective after the word expresses the greatness or breadth of the sphere of power. The appearance of this kind of name demonstrates respect for power in the society. The masculine suffix sse can be put after boys' names; the corresponding feminine mo can be used after girls' names.

9. Names derived from clans:


Clan lord


Clan included


Clan, a hundred


Clan foundation


Clan branch


Clan, big


Clan leap


Clan, surrounding


Clan grathers

The clan system of the Nuosu divides clan mates according to kin relationships into cy and vi. In general, those within seven generations are called cy, and after seven generations they are called vi. Intraclan marriage is strictly prohibited. Cyvi has become an enormous clan organization, but internally determined rules protect the equal status of every clan member. Nuosu say that, to a member of a clan, “It doesn't matter if you use a gold rod as a walking stick, or whether you use a wooden branch as a walking stick, your relative worth as a person is the same.” This kind of internal solidarity of the clan pervaded Liangshan in the days before Liberation. Internal solidarity was uniform, as was reciprocal aid in troubles and difficulties; externally clan members formed a united force against invasion by outside forces. A Nuosu proverb says:

  • That which you must rely on is the clan,
  • that which you must raise is livestock,
  • that which you must eat is grain.

10. Profane names:


Dog shit


Sheep shit


Dog skin


Pig shit




Chicken shit

People whose names are taken from animal skin or excrement almost always have been born after several elder brothers or sisters have died. Nuosu (p.89) think that children's deaths are nearly always due to haunting by ghosts. Since they also believe that ghosts dislike dog and livestock excrement, they put aside their disgust and choose a profane name in the hope that, even though the child will be disgusted at his or her name, he or she may be able to avoid death at the hands of evil spirits and live a long life. As in other cases, a sse can be added after a boy's name and a mo after a girl's.

11. Borrowed names:


Long hair




Red Army




Democratic Reforms


Surpass England


Catch Up to the United States






Cultural Revolution


National Day


Four Modernizations


Land to the Household


Exceeding the Birth Quota

These and other names are borrowed from the Han language, and when they are used as part of the Yi language, some people do not understand what is going on. All are either political slogans or historical events that have happened in Liangshan, and people with these names are usually those born at the same time as the events or when the slogans were current. At the ends of these names, sse or mo is added to differentiate boys' from girls' names.

12. Names from weights:

A child who is born weighing a certain number of jin can be given that number of jin as a name, as in, for example, Ngejisse, Five-jin son. At the end of the number, the suffix sse is added to a boy's name and mo to a girl's.

13. Other names:

Many people use geographic names to name children. This occurs in two kinds of situations. The first has no hidden meaning to it: a child who is born at a certain place can conveniently be given the name of that place as a personal name in commemoration. In the second case, choosing the place of birth as the personal name indicates that this is a child of that place whose father is unknown. One might also ridicule or show prejudice toward an illegitimate (p.90) child by giving it a name such as Potato, Buckwheat, Biscuit, Forest, or Basket, or a similar name. The suffix sse can be added to a boy's name and mo to a girl's.

In sum, the overall clan name and the branch clan name, along with the birth-order names, are the fixed portion of the system of naming; after a particular overall clan name becomes the name of a clan, it can, over the long course of history, spawn a lot of subordinate branch clan names; but all these branch clan names, as “little surnames,” are subordinate to the overall clan name, the “big surname.” In all of Liangshan society, the “big surname” is used in big contexts, and the “small surname” in small contexts, or the two are used together as a set. The birth-order names are fixed, though in some areas the order is no longer strictly followed.

In the case of the third level of the Nuosu system of naming—the personal name—if we compare the names used over the generations, as noted in the genealogies of various clans, as well as the names now in use among Nuosu people, we can easily discover that ever since the old days people have used this kind of name. If we investigate the repository of names, we can see roughly the general routes that Nuosu society has traveled: gradually evolving from a hunting and gathering to a nomadic pastoral society with an economy incorporating household slavery, in which money, slaves, and livestock occupied people's vision, to a society that is a peripheral part of the People's Republic of China. Nuosu names thus form a rough, simplified Nuosu history.

Terms of Address

A name is a term of address, and the three-level system of personal names examined here also forms the basis of a system of terms of address that clearly expresses the nature of hierarchy in personal relations in Nuosu society. For example, the full name of the late representative to the National People's Consultative Conference, Aho Lomusse, was Aho Vuga Lomusse. Aho is the name of his clan; Vuga shows that he is the second son, and Lomusse is his personal name. According to the rules, his grandfather's and father's generations, as well as elder brothers and cousins of his own clan, could directly call him Lomusse, but men and women of his own generation could only call him Vuga (second brother)—the birth-order name becomes a term of respect among his own generation. If people of the same generation called him Lomusse, it would be a serious discourtesy. (Naturally, expression of animosity is another matter.) The generation of his nephews would take the ga of his birth-order name and put an a in front of it, and call him Aga. The a put in front of the name is the a of abbo (father), so Aga means “second father.” (p.91) Classificatory sisters' sons would put an o in front and call him Oga, the o being a simplified way of saying onyi (mother's brother), and Oga thus meaning “second uncle.” People with no kinship relationship to him, if they were of an older generation, could call him by name, and people of an age not much older or younger than he could call him Vuga. People of a younger generation could borrow the terms of address of people who had kinship relations with him. People who had none of the above relations with him would call him Aho Suyyi or Aho Mosu, using general terms of respect for an older person.

The various terms of address for a woman are basically the same as those for a man. For example, in the case of a woman called Aho Aga Quvie, the older generation would call her by her name, Quvie, while men and women of her own generation in her own clan, as well as children of her mother's sisters, would call her by her birth-order name, Aga. Children of her mother's brother's family would add Assa in front of her name, calling her Assa Aga, meaning mother's brother's daughter. Nieces and nephews of the same clan would have to add a foz before her birth-order name and call her Baga, with the ba being a phonetically altered simplified version of abo, or “father's sister.” The children of her sisters, as well as the nephews' generation of her husband's clan, would put a ma in front of her name, calling her Maga, with ma a phonetically altered short version of amo, or mother, indicating a mother's sister. This term of address is related to the Nuosu marriage system, which is a preferential bilateral-cross-cousin marriage system, in which there is clan exogamy and prohibition of marriage with the classificatory mother's sister's children. So the terms of address used by mother's sister's children are the same as those used by members of her own clan.

To sum up, if a Nuosu person did not have a birth-order name, then there would be no way to express these kin relations. In the Liangshan Yi society, in which the clan corporation is the main structural form of society, terms of address have to fit with it, and the three-level system of naming—clan name, birth-order name, and personal name—realize it in a comprehensive way.

The So-called Yi Father-son Linked Name System

The idea that the Yi practice the system of father-son linked names has become a standard formulation that has made its way into a large number of authoritative reference works. On page 1495 of the Concise Ci Hai published by the Shanghai Dictionary Publishing House in 1979, it says, “Father-son linked name system (fuzi lianmingzhi Names and Genealogies among the Nuosu of Liangshan): A system of naming in which the name of the father and that of the son are linked over the generations. (p.92) In China it still exists in some of the areas inhabited by several minority nationalities, such as Yi, Naxi, Lisu, Hani, Wa, and Jingpho. For example, among the Yi of Liangshan in Sichuan, Boshy Mugu (the name of the grandfather)—Mugu jjiha (father)—Jjiha Vujjie (ego).” Wang Quangen, in his Huaxia mingming mianmian guan (An Overview of Personal Names among the Chinese), says,

In the system of father-son linked names practiced by the Yi, the sound of the last character of the father's name becomes the sound of the first character of the son's name; in the same way, the sound of the last character in the son's name is used as the sound of the first character in the grandson's name. In this way, as names repeat themselves and continue for generations, the great interlinked genealogies of clan names have formed. In order to express a Yi person's birthright in the kinship system, and that person's place in the society of the Yi, the complete name of a Yi person is formed of the clan name (the original name of a tribe), the branch clan name (the name of a clan), the father's name, and the person's own name—four parts. Take, for example, the name of the deputy to the fifth National People's Consultative Conference Aho Bbujji Jjiha Lomusse (already seventy years old at the time). In this name, Aho is the original name of an Aho tribe; Bbujji is the name of his clan, Jjiha is his father's name, and Lomusse is his personal name; linking them together, the name says: Lomusse the son of Jjiha of the Bbujji clan of the Aho tribe. Within the Bbujji clan he is just called Lomusse. Within the Aho tribe, he is called Jjiha Lomusse (father's name and his own name). (Wang Quangen 1985)

Until now, all books that have referred to the naming system of the Yi have said that the Yi strictly adhere to the father-son linked name system, and thus that a Yi name is composed of the four levels: clan name, grandfather's name, father's name, own name. This is incorrect, and since it touches on the systematic evaluation of Yi society and culture, it is quite important that the mistake be corrected.

Why have so many experts and scholars stated that the Yi system of names is the father-son linked name system? This is connected to the genealogical system of Nuosu clans, in which father's name and son's name are linked across the generations. In the case of Aho Ddezze, the genealogical order is: Zuluo—Jjiha—Lomusse—Shuogge: when one recites the genealogy, one ordinarily leaves out the clan name and the birth-order name and uses only the third level of the system to link names together. In order to make the recitation easier and prevent omissions, one can change this to a recitation in a linked fashion: Aho Ddezze—Ddezze Zuluo—Zuluo Jjiha—Jjiha Lomusse—Lomu Shuogge. The example given in the Ci Hai is just this sort of genealogy. In addition, when Liangshan Yi are at war or in a formal situation, in order to amplify their ancestors and exalt themselves they often link together a relatively famous grandfather's name, father's name, and own name in a single recitation; for this reason people have mistakenly concluded (p.93) that the Yi practice a father-son linked name system, and have seen this as an actual traditional pattern transmitted orally to today.

The Nuosu naming system thus provides us with insight into several facets of their society. The importance of clan organization is seen in the ubiquity of clan names and the pride of place taken by the clan name in the individual naming system. The importance of generational and age hierarchy is clearly reflected in the birth-order names and in the complex system of terms of address. And the economic and ecological bases of society are highly visible in the personal names people choose for their children.