Alicia CAMPI

The Yao are noted for elaborately decorated turbans. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

The Yao are ethnic Chinese living mainly in high mountain valleys of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of south China. Although the Yao are linguistically diverse and have a rich oral literary tradition, they had no formal written language until 1982. Yao today are known as expert weavers, dyers, and singers, and their population has doubled since 1949.

The Yao Chinese, an ethnic group numbering nearly 3 million in the 2000 Chinese census, live in humid, subtropical, densely wooded mountain valleys 1,000–2,000 meters high in south China. Historically these people were known by at least thirty names, but the name “Yao” was adopted after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Seventy percent of the Yao people live in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and the rest in seven autonomous counties and more than two hundred small autonomous townships established from 1952 to 1963 in the provinces of Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Jiangxi. Another 470,000 Yao live in northern Vietnam.

The Yao spoken language traditionally is categorized as a subgroup of the Sino-Tibetan language family and is similar to the Miao language, although some Western linguists put it into its own new family. Some Yao people speak only Miao or Dong. The Yao have so much linguistic diversity that Yao from different areas cannot easily communicate with each other. Until recently they had no written language but kept records by making notches on wood or bamboo slips. However, a subgroup of twenty thousand Yao women in southern Hunan Province developed a unique system of writing based on rhomboid characters called “Nv Shu” (ant writing). In 1982 a universal writing system based on the Latin alphabet was created for the Yao people by the Guangxi Nationality Institute, approved by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and now is used extensively.

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) the Yao, called “Wuling” or “Wuxi” in Chinese histories, wove tree bark fabrics, lived around Changsha (today’s capital of Hunan Province), and began their migrations south into Vietnam and Thailand. Yao agriculture and distinctive handicrafts, such as iron knives and indigo-dyed cloth with delicate designs made in beeswax, developed during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Yao have been celebrated in history for their independent militancy. From 1316 to 1331 they participated in forty uprisings in the late Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). They revolted for one century against the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and participated in the Taiping Rebellion in the second half of the 1800s during the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Their communities were a base area for the Seventh Red Army commanded by politician Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in the 1930s during the Chinese civil war.

Today the Yao live in groups of ten to seventy households, ruled by hereditary headmen, in rectangular, reed thatch, peak-roofed huts. Usually the huts consist of three rooms, but some hillside houses are two-storied with the lower floor used to stable animals. The diverse Yao groups practice three types of mixed economies: hillside, irrigated agriculture and forestry; forestry-based hunting and gathering; and slash-and-burn agriculture based on communes of twenty families or fewer. In all economies hunting of boars, bears, and monkeys is important. The Yao are famous for “singing while digging” during spring planting when a young man in the fields beats a drum and leads the workers in song. Staple crops are rice, corn, sweet potatoes, and taro, usually prepared stewed or roasted. Homemade sweet wine, teas flavored with ginger or cassia, and tobacco products are popular. Among well-known Yao foods are an oily tea with tea leaves fried and boiled into a thick salty soup mixed with puffed rice or soybeans, pickled birds, insect pupae, and bacon meats. They eat many fresh fruits and dried or pickled vegetables such as pumpkins and peppers.

The Yao people’s traditional religion included nature and ancestor worship and belief in Panhu, the dog tribal totem. Many of their sacrificial ceremonies are based on medieval Chinese Daoism. Some Yao converted to Buddhism and later Christianity. They are expert weavers, dyers, and embroiderers. Clothes of the Yao differ according to region but are mainly made of dyed blue or black cloth with various brocaded geometric and stylized animal and plant designs on the sleeve cuffs and trouser legs. Men curl their hair into a bun wound with red or black cloth and decorated with long pheasant feathers. They wear collarless shirts, belted jackets, and either trousers wrapped at the ankle or knickers. Women wear highly embroidered trousers, short skirts, or pleated skirts with decorative silver jewelry and silver hair ornaments in their buns or chignons. Both sexes wear black or red scarves on their heads, sometimes wrapped into fantastic turbans. Headgear for boys and girls changes in style to signal the onset of adulthood. Boys undergo trials to mark passage into full manhood, such as walking on hot coals or bricks, jumping from a 3-meter-high tower, climbing a ladder of knives, and retrieving objects from hot oil.

The Yao have a rich oral literary tradition and are famous for their romantic and historical songs. They celebrate many festivals monthly and offer sacrifices, including those dedicated to their founding ancestor and to their grandmothers. They play bamboo flutes and sing and dance with drums. Certain gongs, suona horns, and long waist drums are unique to the Yao. Antiphonal singing is important in courtship rituals, and bridegrooms pay bride prices in silver bars. Couples choose their own partners but obtain their parents’ consent. The Yao still practice marriage by bride capture.

Since 1949 schools have been established in all villages, and small factories have been created for timber, cement, farm machinery, and chemical production. With the elimination of smallpox and cholera epidemics, the population of the Yao has doubled under the Chinese government.

Further Reading

Alberts, E. (2007). A history of Daoism and the Yao people of south China. Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press.

Faure, D. (2006). The Yao wars in mid-Ming and their impact on Yao ethnicity. In P. K. Crossley, H. F. Siu, & D. S. Sutton (Eds.), Empire at the margins—Culture, ethnicity and frontier in early modern China (pp. 171–189). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Campi, Alicia. (2009). Yao. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2563–2564. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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