Liangshan is home to two million Nuosu people, a distinctive ethnic group within the larger Yi nationality. For nearly two thousand years, Nuosu lived independently of any government in the fastness of the Cool Mountains; early Europeans called them the Independent Lolo. Since 1956, Liangshan and the Nuosu people have been incorporated into the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, an administrative unit of Sichuan Province.
Nuosu society is based on clans–people inherit clan membership from their fathers. Clans are ranked–those with the “hardest bones,” (highest rank) form the Nzymo (lordly) and Nuoho (aristocratic) strata. Below them are the Quho, or free commoners (the majority of the society), and below them the people without clans, the mganjie (serfs) and gazy (slaves). Marriage between strata was forbidden. In 1956, the Communist Party abolished serfdom and slavery, but conservative people still take the status distinction seriously, especially in matters of marriage.
Nuosu written language dates back at least centuries, perhaps as long as two millennia, but because early books were not dated, it is impossible to know when the language originated. Historically, writing was the preserve of the bimo priesthood, who perform rituals for the living and the dead. In the twentieth century, the written language began to spread beyond the bimo, and starting in the 1970s the government made a standardized version of the language part of the regular school curriculum. But since about 2010 the pressures of the economy and China’s examination system have worked against language preservation. Cool Mountain’s trilingual programs at Zeyue and Jile Elementary Schools are part of an effort to preserve and develop this rich written heritage.
Most Nuosu communities have relied on a combination of farming, herding, and forestry for their livelihoods, and these are still the mainstay of the Nuosu economies today. But throughout the 1990s as China’s economy grew, more and more Nuosu began to migrate to the cities to work in construction, factories, or service industries. Education also began to spread at that time, but because of economic pressures and the cost of schooling, many children were forced to quit school during or after middle school and migrate to make money for their families. Cool Mountain’s scholarship program enabled many Yangjuan School graduates to continue to high school and college.