¡¡¡¡The 579,357 Gelos
live in dispersed clusters of communities in about 20 counties in
western Guizhou Province, four counties of the Wenshan Zhuang-Miao
Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Yunnan Province and the Longlin
Multi-ethnic Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Only about a quarter of the Gelos still
speak the Gelo language belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan language
family. Yet, because of close contact with other ethnic groups,
their language has not remained pure -- even within counties. There
are Gelo-speaking people unable to converse with each other. For
this reason, the language of the Hans, or Chinese, has become their
common language, though many Gelos have learned three or four languages
from other people in their communities, including the Miaos, Yis
and Bouyeis. Living among other ethnic groups, the Gelos have become
largely assimilated to the majority Han customs.
How the Gelos Live
The Gelos' living quarters, like those
of their Han neighbors, usually consist of a central kitchen and
two bedrooms built on a hillside or at the foot of a mountain. Before
liberation, poor Gelos lived in mud, bamboo or stone houses, some
with thatched roofs. Landlords and wealthier peasants lived in houses
with wooden columns and thick stone slabs, with tile or stone roofs.
Now, nearly everyone lives in houses of wood.
Gelos continued to wear their ethnic
costumes until 30 or 40 years ago. Women wore very short jackets
with sleeves embroidered with patterns of fish scale. They wore
tight skirts divided into three sections, the middle one of red
wool and the upper and lower ones of black-and-white striped linen.
Gelo women also wore short, black sleeveless gowns which hung longer
in the back. Their shoes had pointed, upturned toes. Men wore front-buttoned
jackets, and both sexes wore long scarves.
In the mountain areas, the Gelos eat
mostly maize, while in the flatlands, they eat wheat, rice, millet
and sorghum. All the Gelos -- like many other Chinese -- love to
eat hot and sour dishes as well as glutinous rice cakes.
Before 1949, Gelo marriage customs
were feudal, with matches made by parents at childhood, regardless
of the desires of the children involved. As Gelos were so few and
so scattered, marriages were usually made among cousins. To celebrate
the marriage, the bride would walk with her relatives, carrying
an umbrella, to the groom's home, where they would live apart from
While funeral customs in most Gelo
communities are the same as in Han areas, singing and dancing still
marks funerals in a few places, such as Zunyi and Renhuai counties
in Guizhou. There, mourners dance in groups of three, one playing
a lusheng (reed pipe), one beating a bamboo pole, the third brandishing
a sword, and all singing as they dance. In other areas, mourners
sing in front of the coffin; family members of the deceased serve
wine in gratitude to them. In some places, a shaman who chooses
the time and place of burial recites scriptures at the grave. Animal
sacrifice usually accompanies the burial. Trees, rather than stones,
mark the grave.
Gelo folk literature consists of poetry,
stories and proverbs. Poems are of three, five or seven-character
lines. Most Gelo folk tales eulogize the intelligence, honesty,
diligence and bravery of the Gelo people, and satirize the upper
classes. Typical are "The Brave Girl" and "Deaf Elder
Brother and Blind Younger Brother Stealing Sheep." Gelo dances
are simple and graceful, accompanied by the erhu,
horizontal xiao, suona, gong, drum and other string and wind instruments.
"Flower Dragon" and "Bamboo-Strip
Egg" are two favorite Gelo games. "Flower Dragon,"
in fact, is a ball of woven bamboo, a little larger than a ping-pong
ball. Inside are bits of broken porcelain, coins and sandstones.
The game, especially popular in Zunyi and Renhuai, is played by
groups of pairs on hillsides. "Bamboo-Strip Egg" is also
a ball, larger and stuffed with rice straw. Two teams of three or
five throw and kick the ball, avoiding contact except with the hands
Most Gelo festivals echo Han traditions,
but some practices differ. At Spring Festival-- the Lunar New Year
-- Gelos offer a huge rice cake to their ancestors and after it
is made, it remains untouched for three days. In Guizhou's Anshun,
Puding and Zhenning, Gelo communities also celebrate the sixth day
of the sixth lunar month by sacrificing chickens and preparing wine
to bless the rice crop already in the fields.
The sixth day of the seventh lunar
month marks the second most important event of the year, a festival
of ancestor worship in Wozi and Gaoyang villages of Puding County.
Oxen, pigs and sheep are slaughtered for ritual sacrifices to ancestors.
On the first day of the tenth lunar
month, Gelos give their oxen a day of rest. This is the day of the
Ox King Buddha, and in some communities on this day oxen are honored
and fed special rice cakes.
Prior to liberation, Gelos had a number
of distinctive taboos. During Spring Festival, for example, they
did not allow themselves to sweep floors, carry water, cook food,
clean houses, plough, ride horses or pour water from their houses.
In some areas on other holidays, Gelos would not transplant rice
or build houses if they heard thunder.
Over the last 2,000 years or more,
Gelos have lived in many places in China. Bridges, graves, wells,
and even villages in Guizhou Province still bear Gelo names, even
where no Gelo still lives. The group's name dates back to the Ming
Dynasty (1368-1644). Before then, they were called the "Liaos."
Descended from the Yelang, the strongest tribe in the Han Dynasty's
Zangke Prefecture, the Liaos moved out of Zangke to Sichuan, where
they became subject to the feudal regime, between the third and
By the fifth century, the Liaos had
developed metal spears, shields and fishing tools and copper cooking
vessels. They could weave fine linen. At this time, the Liao people
elected their kings, who later became hereditary rulers. As with
other south-central minorities, the Gelos were ruled in the Yuan
and Ming periods (1271-1644) by appointed chiefs, who lost their
authority to the central court when the Qing Dynasty came to power.
Until 1949, most Gelos were farmers.
They grew rice, maize, wheat, sweet potatoes, and millet. Before
the founding of the People¡¯s Republic of China, Gelo farmers had
no irrigation or ways of storing water. As a result, their maize
output was only about 675 kg per hectare. Droughts inevitably brought
about devastating consequences. Side businesses, especially cork
production, bamboo weaving and making straw sandals were essential
to the Gelos for survival.
Before 1949, land mainly belonged to
landlords of other ethnic groups. In Pingzheng village of Zunyi
County, for example, landlords and rich peasants owned 50 per cent
of the land, even though they constituted only nine per cent of
the population. Rent was usually paid in kind and every year over
half of the harvest went for rent. Gelo farmers also had to pay
additional tributes as high as 200 per cent of a year's rent. In
western Guizhou, farmers not only paid in maize, opium, soybeans
and peppers, but they also had to work -- unpaid -- for 50-80 days