This post is sponsored by Asiniuniu, Beijing's most unique Sichuan restaurant serving the distinctive cuisine of Sichuan’s Yi Minority. 

 

 

The sizzling, brightly hued Yi minority cuisine served at Asinuniu might be the first thing that grabs your attention at this Sichuan restaurant just south of Sanlitun, but it won’t take long for you to also notice the brightly-colored plates, bowls and utensils and the beautiful traditional threads worn by the staff members. 

This ornate clothing and cutlery is part of a storied tradition of Yi handicrafts, items of which are displayed for purchase on the landings of the restaurant’s second floor. Beneath these display cases in the far corner near Asinuniu’s forthcoming lounge area, rests rows of glass panes displaying fine handmade authentic Yi jewellery, which diners can also purchase. 

Below, we take a closer look at some of the most impressive Yi handicrafts, designs and artwork that make Asinuniu far more than just your typical Sichuan restaurant, but a window onto the culture and traditions of this fascinating Chinese ethnic minority group. 

 

 

Stitches in Time

Among the first items you’ll notice at Asiniuniu is the colorful eye-catching clothing worn by the staff and draped over mannequins on the landings of Asinuniu’s second floor. The brightest shades belong to the women’s dresses, a counterpoint to the dark slacks and snazzily solid colored shirts traditionally worn by the men. Yi women are especially renowned for their elaborate embroidery -- dresses are typically stitched with tree-branch patterns that wind their across the fabric. You can see examples of this intricate stitching, which can often take months to complete, in some of the garments displayed on the walls. Mao Wendong, an ethnically Yi waiter from Liangshan, explains that this pattern is called the “The Tree of Luckiness” that Yi people stitch onto their clothes to signify good fortune. 

The Yi use many other stitching motifs in their clothing. The Yi women of Liangshan, in particular, often wear trousers along with, or in lieu of dresses, so their stitching often stretches across their blouses. This embroidery is not only meant to be eye-catching but also sends a social signal: Yi girls who have not mastered sewing and stitching are said to have difficulty finding a husband regardless of her looks – which is good reason why Yi embroidery has evolved into such a meticulous fine art.

 

 

A Healthy Shine  

Aside from their gorgeous clothing, Yi women also don exquisite silver jewelry. These pieces are rarely studded with precious stones, but instead have more minimalist designs. Bracelets, for instance, are sturdy sleek bands and sometimes engraved with cross cutting lines or more shapely swerving patterns representing the fertile landscapes of Liangshan’s mountaintops. Yi necklaces are often more eye catching and made of wider, thin sections metal that cover the wearer like a breastplate. These are also engrained with line patterns similar to the bracelets. As with embroidery, Yi jewelry also serves a more practical social function: “Women wear silver jewelry because they believe it can signify their health,” explains Mao Wendong. “If the wearer is healthy, it is believed that the jewelry will shine brightly. But if you such ailments as arthritis the silver is believed to appear darker next to the skin.” 

 

 

A Solid Tradition

The plates, bowls, chopsticks ladles and cups that the Yi use to feast with are carefully hollowed out from blocks of hardwood. All of the food served at Asinuniu is served in these fine wooden ware, which can also be purchased. Jiliyige, another Yi waiter from Liangshan, says that each of these items is painted with a glossy coat of a trio of highly symbolic colors: black, yellow and red. “The black is a very serious color that represents honor. The yellow represents the wheat that our people harvest every year, and the red symbolizes our fiery passion.”

He adds that every Yi family has such a kitchen set of bowls, ladles, plates, chopsticks embalmed wit those three colors. These families purchase the kitchenware at shops where they can watch esteemed artists make them by hand. Jiliyige adds that anyone adept in those woodworking skills is “given a very high degree of honor and respect” in Yi society.

 

 

Pointed architecture

High above Asinuniu’s many intricate Yi features lying just beneath the restaurant’s roof is a long stretch of thick wooden rafters. Many of those beams jut downward at their ends, becoming fine points at the tip. Jiliyige says most Yi buildings were traditionally built on frameworks of these beams without a single nail being hammered into them. In ancient times the Yi people simply had no access to tools like hammers and nails, so they carved notches and grooves into their lumber instead – each section fit together like building blocks. Jili explains the fine points on these beams are meant to represent Yak horns, an animal that is not be common in Liangshan, but is often found in other regions where the Yi reside. You can try some delicious yak meat for yourself at the restaurant.

 

 

Noah's Ark, Yi Style, and the Origins of the Yi, Han and Tibetan People

Two of the most visually striking murals at Asinuniu were painted by Beijing art students who studied Yi folklore closely. On the far wall, opposite the entryway, is a colorful depiction of early Yi people engaging in a battle of wills against the Gods.

Strikingly similar to the tale of Noah’s Ark, this Yi legend tells of the last man on earth who had survived an apocalyptic flood wrought by a cruel god. The man was kind enough to save a dozen animals, which went on to become the twelve symbols in the Yi Zodiac. Seeing how lonely the man was after the flood, the creatures he saved decided to help him find a wife. They knew that the god’s daughter was beautiful, but also knew that the wrathful deity would never allow it. So they secretly arranged for a meeting between the two and the couple fell in love. When the god discovered this and tried to stop it, the animals worked to prevent him from interfering. 

The mural depicts a bird holding a snake in a beak. As the bird took flight, it dropped the snake near the god’s head and the serpent sank its poisonous fangs into the god. The bird then circled back and told the god that he would die without an antidote if he didn’t meddle with the daughter’s upcoming nuptials – a form of divine blackmail that apparently worked.

The god had no choice but to comply, and he soon set about unveiling a longer lasting form of vengeance. The daughter gave birth to the man’s triplets, but all three appeared to be deaf and dumb. The bird returned to the heavens, this time with a mouse in its talons. The rodent, upon hearing the god tell his wife that the man’s children will only be able to speak if they light fireworks during the Yi’s New Year, quickly went with the bird to pass along the news to the young couple, just in time for the triplets to light wicks for the festival. 

The fuses of the wicks fizzled and set off a thunderous series of echoes and booms like fireworks. During the first earsplitting explosion, one of the triplets shouted “ai you!” He grew up to be the ancestor of the Han people. The second triplet was so startled that he exclaimed “asgiu!” He eventually became the forefather of the Yi people. The last triplet bellowed “ani bagayou!” and he grew up to be the first of the Tibetan people. 

This trio anchor the center of the mural (pictured at top), and Mao says the moral of the story and the painting is how these three brothers, and their descendants, are all one big family. 

 

Photos by Uni You 


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