กกกกThe Yaos, with a population
of 2,637,421, live in mountain communities scattered over 130
counties in five south China provinces and one autonomous region.
About 70 per cent of them live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous
Region, the rest in Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Jiangxi
Historically, the Yaos have had at
least 30 names based on their ways of production, lifestyles, dresses
and adornments. The name "Yao" was officially adopted
after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
Half of the Yaos speak the Yao language
belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan language family, others use Miao
or Dong languages. As a result of close contacts with the Hans and
Zhuangs, many Yaos also have learned to speak Chinese or Zhuang
Before 1949, the Yaos did not have
a written language. Ancient Yaos kept records of important affairs
by carving notches on wood or bamboo slips. Later they used Chinese
characters. Hand-written copies of words of songs are on display
in the Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi. They are believed
to be relics of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Ancient stone tablets
engraved with Chinese characters can be found in a lot of Yao communities.
Most Yaos live in beautiful, humid
mountain valleys densely covered with pines, firs, Chinese firs,
Chinese cinnamons, tung oil trees, bamboos and tea bushes. The thickly
forested Jianghua Yao Autonomous County in Hunan is renowned as
the "home of Chinese firs." The places inhabited by the
Yaos also abound in indigo, edible funguses, bamboo shoots, sweet
grass, mushrooms, honey, dye yam, jute and medical herbs. The forests
are teeming with wild animals such as boars, bears, monkeys, muntjacs
and masked civets. Rich as they are in natural resources, the Yao
mountain areas are ideal for developing a diversified economy.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.