Yao of Thailand

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Yao of Thailand

ETHNONYMS: Iu Mian, Man, Mian


Identification. The people officially known as the "Yao" in Thailand call themselves "Mian" or "Iu Mian." Historically, the Chinese called them "Yao," which means "dog" or "savage." In Yao, the word mian means "people." In Laos and Vietnam the word man also means "people."

Location. At present, Yao villages can be found in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phayao, Lampang, Nan, Kamphaeng Phet, and Sukhothai in Thailand. Recently one village was also located in Tak Province. There has been a large-scale migration of the Yao from Chiang Rai Province to the south to find fertile land for farming; when the soil was exhausted they moved back and settled in Lampang. A number of the Yao who cultivated the land in the reserved forest were forced to settle in Kamphaeng Phet.

Demography. In 1986-1988 the Yao population in Thailand was officially placed at 36,140 persons, living in 4,814 households in 205 villages in 8 provinces: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Kamphaeng Phet, Sukhothai, and Tak. The most populous provinces are Chiang Rai and Phayao. The Yao population is rapidly increasing owing to a high birth rate and immigration. In 1972 there were only 19,990 Yao people living in 111 villages.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yao language is closely related to that of the Miao, both belonging to the Miao-Yao Pateng Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. Many Yao also speak Yunnanese or the closely related Mandarin Chinese; literacy in Chinese has long been found among them. In Thailand, the dialect spoken by the Yao of different regions is essentially the same, with the addition of some new words from Yunnanese and Thai. More men than women speak the Thai language, especially the northern Thai dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

About three-quarters of the Yao live in China, mostly in the southern provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan. The remainder are scattered through northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Books written thirty years ago mentioned some 130 Yao living in Kiang Tung of Shan State in Burma. It is reported that they have lived in the mountainous areas of China's Hunan province for at least 2,000 years and that they gradually moved southward, probably to Vietnam, as early as the eleventh century to escape from the imperial Chinese administration and to find new hill farmlands. From Laos, some Yao of the Nam Tha areas entered Nan and Chiang Rai provinces of Thailand in the late nineteenth century, and a greater number arrived after World War II.

Young described the Yao as industrious and friendly but shrewd businesspeople eager to trade and to improve their lot. They have considerable contact with their neighbors. Their villages are located among those of different peoples. In the past marriage with the Yunnanese was common; today marriage with other groups still occurs, particularly with Thai men. Since the Yao live at lower elevations than do the Miao and Lisu, their villages are more easily reached by plains-dwelling traders and missionaries. The Yao have frequent contact with the lowland markets, where they buy clothing. Only a few Yao have converted to Christianity. Close contact with Thai society has changed the Yao way of life.


Villages range in size from about SO to 300 persons. Compared to the households of the other groups Yao households are the largest, averaging 7.3 persons. Yao households in Tak, Phayao, and Lampang provinces are even larger, with an average of 10.4, 8.3, and 8.0 persons respectively. In the past, Yao lived in large villages supported by abundant primary forest land. Later, when the land was exhausted, they split the villages and formed smaller ones. The average village has twenty-one houses, fewer than among the Karen, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, and Miao. The traditional Yao house is of the rectangular type and uses the ground as the floor. The house is made of bamboo (only some parts, such as the poles, are made of solid wood) and has cylindrica- thatch roofing. Houses are arranged in a line facing the lower part of the mountain. Water is brought from the mountain slopes to the village via bamboo tubes. Since Yao are Thai citizens and it is now difficult to move as freely as they did in the past, they tend to settle permanently and construct their houses off the ground, with planked floors and tile or galvanized iron roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Dry-rice agriculture dominates the economy: 86.2 percent of Yao grow rice for domestic consumption. In the past maize was grown for family and animal consumption, and the opium poppy was the only cash crop. At present, with opium cultivation considered illegal and the traffic in opium effectively suppressed, most Yao have turned to maize as the cash crop. They also grow chilies, eggplants, and lettuce. Domestic animals include pigs, chickens, horses, and dogs.

Industrial Arts. Most villages have at least one blacksmith who can make farm tools such as knives, axes, and hoes. These tools are also traded between villages. The traditional costume of Yao women is very elaborate and usually embellished with colorful embroidery. Some kind of coat over loose trousers is most common and many hours are devoted to stitching intricate multicolored patterns over the coarse blue or black cotton of these garments. There is some degree of specialization by silversmiths.

Trade. Small stores are found in most villages. Some Yao families also have shops in towns. For commercial crops, lowland merchants come to Yao villages to purchase maize, cotton, and chilies.

Division of Labor. There is some division of labor by gender. Men clear the fields, hunt, butcher, build houses, and make traps. Women weed the fields, gather firewood and wild greens, and care for the animals (mainly hogs). Both sexes participate in planting and harvesting rice. Only men engage in ritual and political activities.

Land Tenure. Everyone living in a Yao village believes in the concept of communal ownership. The land around the village belongs to the village and is under the authorized management of the village headman. The persons who cleared the land have the right to cultivate it, and it will be theirs for as long as they stay in that village. If a man leaves the village, his kin in the village have a prior right to cultivate the land, subject to the headman's decision. If nobody in the village uses the land, outsiders may be asked to cultivate it. Since the Yao have come to live in permanent villages, about 97.2 percent of families own the land they work and very few rent land in the reserved forest.


Kin Groups and Descent. The extended family of three generations is the typical Yao family. Marriage is strictly exogamous with different clans. Traditionally the Yao group is patrilocal and patrilineal with a slight matrilineal tendency. The bride-price plays an important role in determining the residence of the couple after marriage. When the bride-price is paid in part, the residence may be virilocal and the balance is paid annually in labor. The husband may live with his parents-in-law during the agreed number of years corresponding to the number of silver ingots he has yet to pay. One year of service working with his parents-in-law is equivalent to one silver ingot. He can take his wife and his children to his parent's house when the payment is completed. When the man lives with his wife's parents, the affiliation of children born during that residence is matrilineal. The residence may be permanently matrilocal if the man is poor or if his wife is the only daughter; the latter situation can be modified by the adoption of another boy who will be the clan descendant. Adoption is in fact widely practiced. Although marriage is traditionally endogamous, intergroup marriage also exists. Polygamy is also acceptable, especially among rich families. A man will take a second wife if the first wife has no children and gives her consent.

Kinship Terminology. Yao kin terms distinguish among elder and younger relatives, and kin behavior is marked by respect for age. Yao bear a clan name for life but, although well disposed toward fellow members of the clan, they are not bound by the same obligations and restrictions that apply to members of their lineage, a much narrower grouping of those able to trace a genealogical connection in the patriline.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Premarital sexual experimentation is permitted and young people are expected to choose their own marriage partners, with advice from their elders. Fathers retain an intermediary to make arrangements; the couple's horoscopes are examined and, if these are compatible, the girl's parents are approached and the bride-price is discussed. Yao marriage ceremonies are formal, elaborate, and very expensive affairs. Their principal purpose is to transfer the girl, and her fertility, from her father's lineage to that of her husband.

Domestic Unit. The basic unit of Yao social organization is the extended family, a group of people living under the same roof. Most Yao households are made up of a couple, their unmarried children, and one or more married sons with their families. People who cook and eat meals and farm together are considered a family. The Yao prefer to live in an extended family, and under the same roof there may be many related families who help each other in agriculture. The families of the elder sons will eventually depart to build their own houses, leaving the younger son's family with the parents.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among the surviving sons, but the youngest son will receive the family homestead. Unmarried daughters also inherit a share.

Socialization. The Yao prefer boys over girls, but they love them equally. Infants and children are raised by both parents and by siblings. Physical punishment in child rearing is very rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is no single leader for all Yao groups in northern Thailand. Traditionally the village's headman or chief is the same person who established the village, and the members of his clan are numerous. In some areas, the headman of one village takes the leadership role for several villages as well as over the other groups. The position of the village headman is passed from father to son or to someone selected by the retired headman. Old people are highly respected, and they may form an elder council giving advice to the headman on domestic problems.

Political Organization. Under the Thai official administration, every Yao village is registered as an official hamlet (muban ) or classified as part of an official hamlet. The village headman may be elected, if qualified, to the position of Phy Chuai Phuyai Ban under the lowland Thai Phy Yai Ban. Or he may be elected to be Phuyai Ban if his village is officially registered as a hamlet. He administers the affairs of the community under the supervision of the commune (tambon ) and district office (amphur ).

Social Control. A number of taboos are strictly observed by both men and women. Behavioral rules are also respected by younger people when dealing with older people. Traditionally the Yao avoid conflict among themselves. Conflicts are resolved by the headman, assisted ritually by the religious practitioner. Fines are also used in recompense.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Evidence for the centuries of Yao association with Chinese civilization is most clearly seen in their religious beliefs and practices. There is a cult of the ancestors. They celebrate the lunar New Year. They also have a pantheon of spirits believed to have an influence on human beings. The Yao recognize eighteen principal deities whose finely painted portraits they preserve on scrolls. These are usually kept rolled up on the spirit altars in their houses and are displayed on important ritual occasions. Most of these are believed to derive from Chinese deities, the Jade Emperor, the Three Celestial Ones, the earth god, Tichu, and even the deified Lao Tzu. In Thailand, some Yao have converted to Christianity. Like the Chinese, Yao propitiate a host of minor supernaturals, gods, deceased heroes, and even spirits of natural phenomena. Considerable attention is paid to evil spirits in exorcistic and propitiatory rites, which are carried out on such occasions as harvest or when there is illness.

Religious Practitioners. The position of priest-exorcist is important in Yao society. Although these practitioners are skilled at divining with chicken bones and bamboo sticks, their real power lies in their knowledge of incantations taken from books written in Chinese characters. During their teens boys are given special instruction in this art and they may become shamans when they grow up. Yao shamans are called in on occasions of illness and also officiate in various village ceremonies. These shamans are of crucial importance to the maintenance of harmony between the world of the living and the supernatural world beyond.

Ceremonies. Boys between 12 and 20 years of age go through a coming-of-age ceremony lasting several days. There are communal rites as well as an individual rite. The ceremonies performed in honor of the village guardian spirit and the mountain guardian spirit are activities shared by the whole village. The individual ceremonies include the Souls calling ceremony, the initiation ceremonies, and all kinds of merit-making ceremonies. The older generation invests in merit-making ceremonies and marriage on behalf of the younger, expecting recompense before or after death. Prosperity and health attend the living who make offerings to and merit for their forebears, while illness and misfortune are often attributed to dissatisfied ancestors.

Arts. Singing is very popular among the Yao, but dancing is never seen. Songs have been recorded in books. Traditional musical instruments such as the gong, clappers, drums, and cymbals are used only for ritual purposes.

Medicine. The properties of herbs are widely understood by the Yao; plants are used to cure sickness and especially to restore a woman to health after she gives birth. Because Yao believe that most illnesses are caused by evil or malevolent ghosts and spirits, however, most curing rites are exorcistic in nature. Illness is thought to be the result of soul loss; the function of the shaman is to placate the ghost responsible for this condition, thus restoring the patient to health. The rituals performed usually involve blood sacrifice and the burning of strips of paper on which the names of offending spirits are written. Ceremonial instruments are sacred knives, bells, and sticks.

Death and Afterlife. Death is always announced by gunshot. The indigenous method of disposing of the corpse is cremation. The body is washed, dressed, and placed in a wooden coffin in front of the altar, with the funeral usually lasting for two to three days after death. The Yao in Thailand usually cremate their dead. The burial place for the ashes is selected by the shaman after consulting the sacred book on burials. Some old people may select their own burial place before death. Periodic ceremonies are held for the souls of deceased ancestors one year after death; their purpose is to purify the souls, enabling them to ascend into the spirit world.


Chob Kacha-ananda (1977). "Étude ethnographique du groupe ethnique Yao en Thailand du Nord." Doctoral dissertation, Université de Paris.

Kandre, Peter (1965). Autonomy and Integration of Social Systems: The lu Mien ("Yao" or "Man" ) Mountain Population and Their Neighbours. Göteborg: n.p.

LeBar, Frank M., Gerald C. Hickey, and John K. Musgrave, eds. (1964). "Thailand Yao." In Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, 91-93. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Lemoine, Jacques (1982). Yao Ceremonial Paintings. Bangkok: White Lotus.

Shiratori, Yoshiro (1978). Tōnan Ajia sanchi minzokushi: Yao to sono rinsetsu shoshuzoku: Jōchi Daigaku Sheihoku Tai Rekishi Bunka Chōsadan hōkoku (Ethnography of the Hill-Tribes of Southeast Asia ...) . Tokyo: Kōdansha.

Takemura, Takuji (1975). Clan Organization and Merit-Making Systems of the Yao, Northern Thailand. Report submitted to Thailand NRC, Bangkok.

Takemura, Takuji (1978). An Ethnography of the Yao Religious Life in Northern Thailand. Osaka.

Young, Gordon Oliver (1961). The Hilltribes of Thailand: A Socio-Ethnological Report. Bangkok: Government of Thailand.