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Aini Ethnic Peoples Shells and Silver Stories

The Ainis, a branch of the Hani minority, are the most passionate about their dress of all the ethnic groups in the mountains of southern Yunnan Province, Southwest China. 

Our visit to the Aini villages, in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna, provided an insight into the Ainis' unique costumes and the transitions under way in their lives.

We knew that seashells would be the most welcome gifts for the Aini people, who have lived in the mountains for generations and never seen the ocean.

The pack of seashells we brought quickly helped us get involved with local life.

When we presented three seashells to our hostess, Api, in Pazhen Village, a smile appeared on her wrinkled face. To show her gratitude, she showed us the seashells she had kept for many years. Some of them were drilled and others remained intact.

Api told us the drilled pieces were once used as ornaments while the intact ones - called "Tongxi" - had been a form of currency long before silver and paper money were used.

The belts made of seashells and seeds of wild banana were the most impressive adornments we found in the Aini villages.

The belts are family heirlooms, passed from generation to generation. The patterns on the belts have different meanings - shells strung in pairs signify a family with sons, while those strung singly identify a family with daughters.

A son takes his father's family name to keep the family line alive.

The Aini people treasure seashells and believe they have magical powers.

"Seashells are different from other ornaments. When we die, we can leave all our belongings to our descendants except for the seashells," said Api.

It is said that when a man dies, he has to take with him three intact seashells to stop evil from eating his soul. If he does not have the complete pieces, he must take nine broken ones instead.

Sometimes the seashells are used as medicine by the Ainis, especially for children.

"In a word, they have become a must-have for each Aini family," concluded Api.

Over the past few decades, archaeologists have unearthed a large number of seashells in ancient tombs in Yunnan dating back to more than 2,000 years. Studies show these unearthed seashells were transported from the shore of the Pacific Ocean to Yunnan via the Honghe and the Mekong rivers.

Historical records also prove seashells were widely used as currency from about 700 BC to the 16th century.

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