The nearly 15,000 Lesu live scattered about on the highest mountains of southern Chuxiong Prefecture and western Yuxi Prefecture, Yunnan Province. There are about 100 Lesu villages total. They are often referred to as "Shansu" or "mountain people" by the Chinese around them because they live on the tops of mountains.
The Lesu are thought to have originally been a tribe of the Sou People—a people whose earliest recorded existence dates back to the Han and Pu Dynasties (220 BC to 316 A.D). The Lesu were a tribe dubbed "Ma Long" by the Han. This tribe entered southern Yuxi during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) had spread north reaching into southern Chuxiong..
The Lesu do not consider themselves to be a part of a greater "Yi" nationality and neither do the Han Chinese who live near the Lesu. For example, when asked, what minorities are in the area, the Han Chinese reply, "Yi, Shansu, Lalu, Dai, Kucong, etc." —Shansu, of course, denoting the Lesu.
Although the Lesu are classified by Chinese linguists as speakers of a dialect of the "Southern Yi" language, their language is so very different from the other "Southern Yi" speakers around them that the two must use Chinese in order to communicate. The Lesu language is described as having completely different vowel shifts from the Pula language. It is quite likely, given such a sporadic distribution with such distances between clusters of Lesu villages, that there are a number of Lesu dialects.
The Lesu are perhaps the poorest of the "Yi" peoples and live but a bleak existence. Virtually every source that has something to say about them mentions that most Lesu live over 2,300 meters (7,546 ft.) above sea level. Knowing this, one understands how the Chinese came to call the Lesu "Shansu" or "Mountain People."
The Lesu could be more than one people or a people that contains two tribes. There seem to be two Lesu regions. This can be observed in two different festivals among the Lesu of different areas. The Lesu one area celebrate a festival called "Traditional Flower Fair" while those in another area celebrate a "Mountain Sacrifice Festival." The Flower fair of the first region is celebrated every 24th day of the 6th month (the same day as the torch festival among the Nisu and Nasu) and every 15th day of the 7th month of the Lunar calendar. The festival stems from an old "Romeo-and-Juliet-type" legend in which a Han and a Shansu (Lesu) fall in love. Their parents strongly disagree with the engagement, however, so one night the couple goes to the peak of a high mountain where the Shansu dances and sings. On that night the two commit suicide together. The festival is now held in their honor. The Lesu of both regions greatly revere the mountain god, but only those of the second region hold a yearly day of sacrifice in order to appease him. On the sacrifice day Lesu are forbidden to work in their fields for fear the mountain god will be offended. In one area all Lesu villages have a mountain god tree, and it is thought that all forces of nature have to do with the mountain god. The Lesu believe that the soul is eternal. They also believe the spirits of their ancestors can bless them and so try to choose a good burial spot for the deceased.
Alternate Names: Leisu, Shansu, Sansu, Chesu.