The dating festival of the Yi ethnic group

While many single men and women in China eschew the blind dates their relatives try to set them up with during Spring Festival, the young people of a remote village in southwest China’s Yunnan province are the exact opposite: they attend a local mass-dating event, following a tradition that dates back about 1,350 years.

For both its aesthetic and spiritual value, embroidery is still an important element in the lives of the Yi women. Saizhuang Jie (賽裝節), or the “costume competition festival,” is held in Yongren county, Yunnan’s Chuxiong Yi autonomous prefecture each year on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

It originated in Zhiju, a small mountainous village that is home to the Yi ethnic group (彝族/夷族), where girls learn embroidery from their childhood. The tradition is associated with the history of the area. According to local folklore, the first costume competition was held for two brothers who discovered fertile land while hunting and helped their tribe build today’s Zhiju.

The elderly in the village were keen to find the two heroes good wives, so they organized the competition after learning the brothers wished to marry girls dexterous in designing clothes with embroidered flowers. The festival showcases the beauty and talents of local women in addition to serving as a meeting place for young people.

On this special day, the women put on handmade costumes bearing delicate embroidery to attend an outdoor dance ceremony, described by locals as among the “oldest catwalks.” Young men also dress up and participate in the dance. Parents who wish to find their children a good partner are particularly observant during the ceremony.

But the day isn’t for the youth alone: people of all ages can join the dancing.  Li Yongfumo, 97, attended the festival with her family for the first time when she was 6. Like many other Zhiju women, she met her husband at the event when she turned 17.
She still attends the ceremony, this time with her great-granddaughter.