Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In recent historical times, most Yi people grew maize, potatoes, buckwheat, and oats as their staples. The maize and potatoes were late borrowings that rapidly became a major part of the diet: potatoes cooked in plain water (salt was scarce) were considered one of the better foods. In the Liangshan ranges and wherever else possible, livestock included cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, and chickens. Sheep and goats were the most numerous, raised for their meat and wool. The diet was supplemented by gathering acorns, roots, wild greens, and herbs year round, particularly among the poorer families, and by hunting and fishing. Farmland was prepared by the slash-and-burn method; lands were often left fallow for five to seven years after use. Little attention was given to seed selection, and use of animal manure was insufficient or unknown. Commercial activities were frequent in the areas inhabited by both Yi and Han, where markets were run by the Han merchants. Animal furs, lard, Chinese prickly ash, and various herbs were sold, as were opium and livestock. In the Liangshan area, trade was done by barter and exchange of goods, but elsewhere the coinage was used. From 1949, state-run shops have been introduced in the township centers and serve the rural areas. From the early 1980s, private merchants and peddlers have been encouraged by state policy and the local government.
Industrial Arts. Among the Yi, there were no full-time artisans. All families were engaged in agriculture and pastoral work, and various handicrafts were done during the slack seasons. These included ironwork, woodwork, stonework, masonry, silversmithing, and coppersmithing. The silver and copper were obtained through the market. Women wove cloth, tailored clothing, and did the decorative embroidery.
Division of Labor. Prior to the various reforms under the new socialist government, there was no marked division of labor by class even though the Yi were a stratified society, headed by a hereditary class of nobles (Black Yi), with a subordinate class of commoners (White Yi) and a lower class of slaves. These classes were endogamous, but members of all classes engaged in similar tasks in agriculture and pastoralism and in various handicrafts, which were part of the household economy. The division of labor by sex was more crucial: Men cleared the land and did the plowing, whereas women (and also children or aged men) did the sowing and cultivation of the crops. Men were responsible for most of the handicrafts save for the making of clothing, which was the responsibility of women. Before 1949, men were also engaged in hunting and in military pursuits. In the Liangshan area and elsewhere, the one clear specialist was the bimo, or "shaman/magician," who was held in high respect. He presided over many different kinds of religious ceremonies.
Land Tenure. Before Liberation, most of the land belonged to Black Yi landlord/slaveowner households, who accounted for about 5 percent of the total Yi society. These lands were rented to members of the White Yi group or use was granted to them in return for military service and loyalty. In parts of Yunnan and Guizhou, Yi landlords also drew tenants from other ethnic groups, particularly the Miao. After land reform in the early 1950s, all ownership of land was transferred to the state. As elsewhere in China, the Yi areas went through a series of different policies. Since the early 1980s, the contracting of land use to households has become widespread.