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The Yao ethnic group, with a population of 2.13 million, is mainly scattered in the mountain areas in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces.

Historically, these people have been known as Mian, Jinmen, Bunu, Lajia and Bingduoyou, etc. The Yao's ancestry can be traced back to the Wuling tribe that lived near Changsha (Hunan Province) during the Qin and Han periods. Sharing the same origins, the Yao have had a close relationship with the Miao ethnic group from ancient times. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Yao's forebears began to establish a kingdom along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. During the Sui Dynasty (581- 618), they separated from the Miao to become known as Moyao. It was during the Ming and Qing periods that the Yao ethnic group gradually migrated to Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and other provinces.

Actually, the Yao ethnic group consists of hundreds of smaller ethnic subgroups. It is estimated that are about 300 Yao subgroups living in China, with differing traditional costumes and dialects. Therefore, the Yao ethnic group has many names including Panyao, Shanziyao, Guoshanyao, Pindiyao and Baikuyao. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the name "Yao" was officially adopted.

The ethnic group has its own language which belongs to the Yao branch of Chinese-Tibetan phylum. Due to the dispersal over a wide area there are local dialects that show considerable variations. Some fifty per cent speak the Yao language but others use either Miao or Dong languages. As a result of close contacts with the Han and Zhuang people, many Yaos are also familiar with the Han and Zhuang languages. Yao does not appear in a written form, so there is a wide use of written Chinese.

Their occupations are dictated by the areas in which they live so most Yao people engage in agriculture. Others are engaged in the cultivation of sustainable forests or are hunters. They are also especially skilled in embroidery, weaving and dyeing.

Yao people have three meals per day. Rice, corn, sweet potato and murphies make up their staple food. Daily vegetables include soybean, radish, bamboo shoot, agaric and etc. Alcoholic drinks and tobacco are quite popular. For those who live in northern Guangxi province, "oil tea" is a kind of daily necessity and often serves as lunch on some occasions. There are dietary taboos that mean dog, cat and snake meat are forbidden. For those who observe the folk religion known as Miluotuo, meat from the sow and glede are prohibited.

The Yao people retain a unique style of costume and adornment with certain variations depending upon their residential location.

The men wear jackets that may be buttoned in the middle or to the left. The jacket is normally belted. There are various preferences when it comes to trousers. Some are long and are worn so that they touch the instep, while others are of a short, knee length style. These clothes will be either blue or black in color. However, in places such as Nandan County in Guangxi province, men often wear white knee length knickerbockers.
Compared with the clothing of their menfolk, the women have more variety. Beautiful embroidered patterns adorn their collars, cuffs and the bottoms of their long trousers. Some Yao women like to wear short collarless jackets together with pleated skirts of different colors and lengths. Some adopt knee-length upper clothes with buttons down the front, which are hitched up with a long belt, to go with short or long trousers.

Both the men and women cover their heads with a black or red scarf. Yao men have long hair. They will coil their hair up and wrap it with a piece of red, black or blue cloth and topped with several pheasant feathers. Some women wear knitted turbans of white cotton or wool. The turbans are tied in a great many different forms, including the pagoda, flat-top, helmet, curving-eaves and silver-hairpin styles. Yao women favor jewellery. They often decorate their upper clothes with a silver plate and wear silver bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and neck rings. Sometimes, even the men wear silver ornaments.

Yao people cherish a magnificent oral literary tradition. The content of their songs is very rich and some having been passed down from generation to generation. Yao people use the song to recount their history, tell legends about the creation of heaven and the earth, express their feelings, ask meaningful questions or tell humorous stories. Traditionally, young couples express their love for each other through songs. Singing has become an indispensable part of the Yao way of life.

In addition, Yao people also beat a long drum to celebrate a good harvest and worship their ancestors. Made of Yanzhi wood, these drums, measuring about 85 cm, are thin in the middle and stout on both ends. Some are decorated with flowers, birds, dragons and phoenix patterns and some have bells at the ends and in the middle. These long drums can take several forms, of these the Yellow Mud Drum is most famous. As its name implies, it is made by smearing yellow slurry onto its sides. Sonorous and mellow, when it is beaten, the sounds can be heard several miles away.

Besides these drums, gongs, the suona horn (a woodwind instrument) and a long waist drum, are all unique musical instruments of the Yao ethnic group.

The Yao worship a number of gods and highly venerate their ancestors, while some have adopted Chinese religions and customs.

Most of the Yao festivals relate to their religious practices. As with other aspects of their lives, there are local differences but there are common celebrations such as the Spring Festival, the Land God Festival, the Pure Brightness Festival, Danu Festival and Panwang Festival.


Called the "savage Wuling tribes" some 2,000 years ago, the Yao ancestors lived around Changsha, capital of today's Hunan Province. Two or three centuries later, they were renamed the "Moyao." One of China's foremost ancient poets, Du Fu (712-770), once wrote: "The Moyaos shoot wild geese; with bows made from mulberry trees."

As time went on, historical accounts about the Yaos increased, showing growing ties between the Yao and the Han people. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), agriculture and handicrafts developed considerably in the Yao areas, such that forged iron knives, indigo-dyed cloth and crossbow weaving machines became reputed Yao products. At that time, the Yaos in Hunan were raising cattle and using iron farm tools on fields rented from Han landlords.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), farm cattle and iron tools spread among the Yaos in Guangxi and Guangdong, who developed paddy fields and planted different kinds of crops on hillsides. They dug ditches and built troughs to draw water from springs for daily use and irrigation. Sideline occupations such as hunting, collecting medical herbs, making charcoal and weaving were pursued side by side with agriculture.

Before the founding of the People's Republic, the Yao economy could be divided into three types:

The first and most common type, with agriculture as the base and forestry and other sideline occupations affiliated, was concentrated in places blessed with fine natural conditions and the greatest influence of the Hans. Here farming methods and social relations very much resembled those of the Han and Zhuang ethnic groups.

The second type was centered on forestry, with agriculture as a sideline. A few landlords monopolized all the forests and hillside fields, while the foresters and farmers had to pay taxes and rents no matter whether they went ploughing, hunting or fishing, built their houses, buried their dead, collected wild fruits and herbs, drank from mountain streams or even walked on the mountains. When the poor opened up wasteland, for instance, they had to plant saplings between their crops. As soon as the saplings grew into trees, they were paid to the landlords as rent. These exactions caused many Yaos to be continually wandering from place to place.

The third type, engaged in by a tiny percentage of the Yao population, was the primitive "slash-and-burn" cultivation. Although most land was owned by Han and Zhuang landlords, the Yao farmers had some of their own. In such cases, the land belonged to ancient communes, each formed by less than 20 families descended from the same ancestor. The families in a commune worked together and shared the products equally.

The Yaos practiced an interesting form of primitive cooperation called "singing-while-digging." This can still be seen in Guangxi today. At times of spring ploughing, 20 to 30 households work together for one household after another until all their fields are ploughed and sown. While the group is working, a young man stands out in the fields, beating a drum and leading the singing. Everyone sings after him.

Today hunting remains an important part of Yao life. On the one hand, it provides them with a greater variety of food; on the other, it prevents their crops and forests from being damaged by too many wild animals. After hunting, the bag is divided equally among the hunters. Sometimes portions are given to the children carried on the elders' backs, but the hunter who caught the animal is awarded a double portion. Sometimes, part of the bag is put aside for the aged people back in the villages.

For nearly 1,000 years before this century, most Yaos were ruled by hereditary headmen. The headmen obeyed the central government, which was always dominated by the Han or other large ethnic groups. After the Kuomintang took power early in this century, it pursued a system similar to the previous one, which meant rule through puppet Yao headmen and "divide and rule." These policies incited endless conflicts among the Yaos and caused them a great deal of hardship. It was not until the birth of New China that the Yaos realized equality with other ethnic groups as well as among themselves.

Customs and Habits

The Yaos have such unique life styles that the various communities are quite different from each other. According to the Book of the Later Han Dynasty (25-220), the ancient Yaos "liked five-colored clothes." Later historical records said that the Yaos were "barefoot and colorfully dressed."

In modern times, the Yao costumes maintain their diversity. Men wear jackets buttond in the middle or to the left, and usually belted. Some men like trousers long enough to touch their insteps; some prefer shorts akin to knee breechs. Men's dress is mainly in blue or black. However, in places such as Nandan County in Guangxi, most men wear white knee-length knickerbockers. Men in Liannan County, Guangdong Province, mostly curl their long hair into a bun, which they wrap with a piece of red cloth and top with several pheasant feathers.

Women's dress varies more. Some Yao women fancy short collarless jackets, cloth belts and skirts either long or short; some choose knee-length jackets buttoned in the middle, belts with both ends drooping and either long or short slacks; some have their collars, sleeves and trouser legs embroidered with beautiful patterns. In addition to the silver medals decorating their jackets, many Yao women wear silver bracelets, earrings, necklets and hairpins.

Rice, corn, sweet potatoes and taros make up their staple food. Common vegetables include peppers, pumpkins and soybeans. Alcoholic drinks and tobacco are quite popular. In northern Guangxi, a daily necessity is "oily tea." The tealeaves are fried in oil, then boiled into a thick, salty soup and mixed with puffed rice or soybeans. The oily tea serves as lunch on some occasions. Another favorite dish is "pickled birds." The cleaned birds are blended with salt and rice flour, then sealed into airtight pots. Beef, mutton and other meat are also pickled this way and considered a banquet delicacy. Many Yaos think it taboo to eat dog meat. If they do eat it, they do the cooking outside the house.

A typical Yao house is a rectangular wood-and-bamboo structure with usually three rooms -- the sitting room in the middle, the bedrooms on both sides. A cooking stove is set in a corner of each bedroom. Some hillside houses are two-storied, the upper story being the sitting room and bedrooms, the lower story stables.

For those families who have a bathroom built next to the house, a bath in the evening is an everyday must, even in severe winters.

The Yaos have intriguing marriage customs. With antiphonal singing as a major means of courting, youngsters choose lovers by themselves and get married with the consent of the parents on both sides. However, the bridegroom's family used to have to pay a sizeable amount of silver dollars and pork as betrothal gifts to the bride's family. Some men who could not afford the gifts had to live and work in the bride's families and were often looked down upon.

In old Yao families, the mother's brothers had a decisive say in crucial family matters and enjoyed lots of other privileges. In several counties in Guangxi, for example, the daughters of the father's sisters were obliged to marry the sons of the mother's brothers. If other marriage partners were proposed the betrothal gifts had to be paid to the mother's brothers. This, perhaps, was a remnant of matrilineal society.

Festivals take place one after another in the Yao communities, at a rate of about once a month. Although festive customs alter from place to place, there are common celebrations such as the Spring Festival, the Land God Festival, the Pure Brightness Festival, "Danu" Festival and "Shuawang" Festival. The "Danu" Festival, celebrated in the Yao Autonomous County of Duan in Guangxi, is said to commemorate ancient battles. The "Shuawang" Festival, held every three or five years in the tenth month by the lunar calendar, provides the young people with a golden opportunity for courtship.

The Yaos worshipped a plethora of gods, and their ancestors. Their belief in "Panhu," the dog spirit, revealed a vestige of totemism. Yao communities used to hold lavish rites every few years to chant scriptures and offer sacrifices to their ancestors and gods. In some communities, a solemn ceremony was performed when a boy entered manhood. Legend has it that at the ceremony he had to jump from a three-meter-high platform, climb a pole tied with sharp knives, walk on hot bricks and dip a bare hand into boiling oil. Only after going through these tests could he get married and take part in formal social activities.

With growing scientific and cultural knowledge, the Yaos have, on their own initiative, discarded irrational customs and habits during recent decades, while preserving healthy ones.

The Yaos cherish a magnificent oral literary tradition. As mentioned above, singing forms an indispensable part of their life. When a group of people are opening up wasteland, one or two selected persons stand aside, beating drums and singing to enliven the work. Young males and females often sing in antiphonal tones all through the night. Extremely rich in content, some of the folk songs are beautiful love songs, others recount the history of the Yao people, add to the joyous atmosphere at weddings, synchronize working movements, tell legends about the creation of heaven and the earth, ask meaningful questions with each other or tell humorous stories. In many of them, the words have been passed down from generation to generation.

Besides drums, gongs and the suona horn (a woodwind instrument), the long waist drum, another traditional musical instrument, is unique to the Yaos. It was said to have been popular early in the Song Dynasty (1127-1279). The revived waist drum dance has been frequently performed both in China and abroad since the 1950s.

The Yaos are expert weavers, dyers and embroiderers. In the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D.220), they wove with fabrics made from tree bark and dyed it with grass seeds. In the Song Dynasty, they developed delicate designs dyed on white cloth with indigo and beeswax. The product became famous all over the country later.

Post-1949 Life

The Yaos have an age-old revolutionary tradition. As early as the Han Dynasty, they fought feudal imperial oppression. During the Tang and Song dynasties, they waged more rebellions against their Han rulers. Still later, in the 15 years from 1316 to 1331, they launched more than 40 uprisings. The largest revolt lasted for a century from 1371. The frightened Ming (1368-1644) emperors had to send three huge armies to conquer the rebels.

The famous Taiping Rebellion, led by Hong Xiuquan in the 1850s against the Qing (1644-1911) feudal bureaucrats, received effective support from the Yaos. Many Yao people joined the Taiping army and were known for their bravery.

The Yaos played an active role in China's new democratic revolution which finally led to the founding of the People's Republic. The Yao Autonomous County of Bama in Guangxi today used to be the base area of the 7th Red Army commanded by Deng Xiaoping in the 1930s.

Democratic reforms were carried out after 1949 according to the different characteristics of the three types of Yao economy. The reforms abolished the feudal exploitation system and enhanced the progress of agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and other forms of production.

Meanwhile, autonomous localities were gradually formed for the Yaos.

In August 1951, when a central government delegation visited Guangxi, it helped the local government set up Longsheng Autonomous County, the first one for the Yaos. From 1952 to 1963, eight Yao autonomous counties appeared, and over 200 autonomous townships covered smaller Yao communities. The policy of regional autonomy enabled the Yaos to be their own masters, ending the history of discrimination and starting an era of national equality and unity.

Local autonomous governments have made successful efforts to improve the people's lives. The Yao Autonomous County of Duan in Guangxi is a fine example. There the Yaos live in karst valleys. The soil is stony, erosive and dry. An old saying went that "the mountains start burning after three fine days; the valleys get flooded after a heavy rain." Now the saying is nothing more than history, as the government has helped remove the jeopardy of droughts and floods by building tunnels, dams and reservoirs.

Before 1949, the Yao area only had a few handicraft workshops. But now, there are many medium- and small-sized power plants and factories making farm machines, processing timber, and making chemicals and cement.

In the early 1950s, few Yao people had any education, but today, schools can be found in all villages. Almost every child of school age gets elementary and secondary education. Some elite students go on to colleges.

In the old days, the Yaos never knew such a thing as a hospital. As a result, pestilence haunted the region. Now, government-trained Yao doctors and nurses work in hospitals or clinics in every Yao county, township and village. Epidemics such as smallpox and cholera have been eliminated. With the people's health well protected, the Yao population has doubled since the founding of the People's Republic.

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