LUO QIE SMILES serenely at the audience, her headdress jingling as she turns to the eight other Yi princesses selected for Liangshan's Torch Festival. 'This isn't the first time I've competed in Xichang,' she says. 'But this is the first time I've had the chance to meet so many important people and had the opportunity to make more out of myself.' This year's festival marked the first time Yi people from outside Sichuan province have participated in the various annual competitions, partly due to the efforts of Liangshan prefecture party secretary Wu Jingping. After taking office in January, Wu went on a tour of Yi areas throughout southwest China and visited cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. His efforts paid off. Yi delegations from Yunnan's Chuxiong and Lijiang counties, Guizhou's Anshun county and tiny remote counties such as Guangxi's Baisi visited the prefecture capital, Xichang, to represent their particular Yi culture and learn from each other. 'I came here to visit my roots and learn more about my people' says Qu Mazhang, a Yi dancer from Baisi county. 'I welcome any Yi to visit us. We have been treated so well by the Liangshan Yi and I want to return the favour.' The Liangshan Torch Festival, this year held in the second week of August, is part of a series of summer fire-worshipping events throughout southwest China. Torch festivals in Chuxiong, Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan province and in villages around Guizhou province attract tourists and backpackers, as well as thousands of local farmers, townspeople, officials and bored small town youth. It is a week-long celebration of Yi culture, with traditional dancing, singing, beauty contests, horse racing, wrestling and bullfighting and goatfighting - ending with the lighting of bonfires and a night-time torch parade. Each day, people stream towards Xichang's Liangshan Minority Stadium early and mill about taking pictures of the Yi minority delegations. 'Are you girls from Mei Gu county?' asks Zhu Yonggan, a Chengdu native on holiday, as he poses with two Yi girls. They nod back their answer. 'Mei Gu girls are the most beautiful in Liangshan,' he says. 'They're much taller than the others.' The Yi delegations seem casually unaware of the stares of thousands of locals, being kept at bay by police and soldiers. Decked out in dangling silver and gold, and clothes of blue, red, green and yellow, the Yi smile warmly at passers-by and pose patiently with bespectacled Han tourists and large, awkward foreigners. This year's was the biggest torch festival Liangshan has held, according to Dai Zixuan, a journalist with the local Liangshan Daily, and a stark contrast to last year's effort, organised by local officials. Twelve months ago, what was supposed to have been a fireworks display was just 10 minutes of firecrackers. The 'bullfights' pitted four tired, sagging old beasts against each other, while the goats nibbled the stadium's grass. The evening Yi Minority Culture Show consisted of a couple of hundred locals willing to pay the 70 yuan admission fee to watch a performance by Han dancers, while less affluent locals pressed up against the stadium gates for a free view. This year, the festival kicked off with hundreds of Yi dancers from all over the prefecture performing under the flashes of a spectacular 30-minute fireworks show. The dancers' robes reflected their home counties - purple, green and yellow flowing robes vied with red smoke streamers drifting down from the sky. Hundreds of Yi dancers and singers were in the city, many showing off their traditional costumes and handiwork. The week's events included a three-day beauty contest that produced Nine Great Beauties, including Luo, a Zhao Jue county native, who now has a chance to join China Southwest Airlines. Backstage, mothers and coaches apply make-up and offer advice to their young charges. One stunning 17-year-old from Mei Gu county, Ma Hei Ahyi, has participated in dozens of beauty contests all over Sichuan. She was the queen two years in a row in both Mei Gu and Pu Ge counties. 'I have to be back in Chengdu soon to start school and prepare for another pageant and some modelling work for an advertising company,' she says before turning back to a gang of admirers. The organisers made the wise decision to focus on Yi minority fashion, dancing and music in the city and leave the horse racing, wrestling and bullfighting to the experts in the countryside. Pu Ge county, about four hours from Xichang, is famous for its authentic, all-encompassing torch festival. During the day, thousands of Yi peasants come down from the hills to watch the bullfighting, goatfighting and horse races. Bulls costing anywhere from 800 yuan to 2,000 yuan snort impatiently while their horns are oiled for battle. Goats back up with their heads down and eyes on their opponent and then sprint at each other from 25 metres. The loser staggers, then wanders around in circles like a latter-day Mike Tyson, before being led off to the abuse of its owners. Boys barely as tall as their ponies hold on for dear life as they race around the track for the 1,000-yuan prize money. This year, a 15-year-old boy from Mei Gu county, Li Jige, rides his mount Malada to victory in the Pu Ge, Mei Gu and Zhao Jue county races. He coasts around the tracks, winning by huge margins. 'See how he takes the corners,' says policeman Ah Re, a Yi minority Zhao Jue county native. 'That boy can ride.' Later, a dragon's tail of torches winds its way up a mountain to the stadium ground, where an enormous bonfire waits to be encircled by dancers and revellers. Party secretary Wu lights the first bonfire, near the stadium in Xichang, the signal for scores of fires to be lit throughout the city as strangers spontaneously link hands, dancing and chanting in unison. Yi in traditional garb, portly officials, schoolkids, tourists and police join in. While soldiers march in single file and fire trucks put out a street bonfire, Xichang youth, both Han and Yi, join hands and dance in circles - interchanging traditional Yi dance steps with hip-hop break-dance moves, as kids commandeer a fountain in the city centre. Further along, Yi youth sing mountain songs and dance intricate steps as streetlamp speakers alternately blare out Yi, Han and disco dance tunes. The party goes on all night, ending in drunken groups clinking glasses and wolfing down barbecue food in the early hours. In years past, each county had its own festival, touting its individual talents - from the best at bullfighting to the most beautiful girls or the best fashion sense. This year, many counties still held their own, but also sent delegations to Xichang. 'This is a historical event for the Yi minority,' says Xiong Ji, a guide at the Xichang Minority Museum. 'For thousands of years, the Yi were divided along class and clan lines and were always at war with each other. This is the first time so many Yi from so many different areas have been brought together to celebrate the torch festival.' According to legend, god sent his son to Earth to instruct the Yi on how to live and worship. The Yi were indignant and sent their hero, Zi Ge Ah Liang, to kill the false prophet. Successful, Zi promptly turned into a plague of locusts that threatened to devour the entire countryside. In order to save themselves from the plague, the Yi put the torch to everything, thereby killing the locusts. Since then, the Yi have carried on the tradition of circling their towns and villages each year with torches and lighting bonfires. In time, the ceremony has become a festival that includes highlighting most aspects of Yi culture. 'Never before has there been such a national unified identity that spanned the southwest provinces of China,' says Xiong. 'Various theories on the origins of the Yi people, various local dialects and scripts and different interpretations of history kept the Yi divided.' What the Yi have in common is the torch festival. 'Slowly, through modernisation, the Yi have become more unified. This festival is a step in that direction.'