Located on the high altitude slopes in China's mountainous southwestern hinterlands, the Nuosu (Yi) have long been characterized by ethnologists in China as a slave society. In this essay I explore the appropriateness of the label with reference to the distinction, associated with the classicist Moses Finley in his studies of Greco-Roman society, between slave societies and societies with slaves (Finley 1983, 79–83). But my main purpose in focusing on Nuosu slavery, as we know it from the first half of the twentieth century, is to gain a better understanding of Nuosu identity. It makes sense to me that the process by which outsiders, that is, slaves brought in as captives, became insiders reveals a great deal about the constructs of the Nuosu ideology of common origins and identity and about how this transformation from alien to native worked in practice among people historically “remarkably resistant to acculturation,”with boundaries that remain to this day sharp, clear, and relatively impenetrable (Harrell 1995, 101, 104).

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