ETHNONYMS: Ajawa, Ayao, Mujao, Wahiao, Wayao
Identification and Location. The Yao live mainly in three countries: Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania. They are part of the Bantu-speaking population of East and Central Africa and are believed to have radiated outward from a homeland in the hilly region of northeastern Mozambique. Somewhere in what is now the Niassa Province of Mozambique, to the east of Lake Malawi in the mountainous area between the Lujenda and Luchelingo rivers, there is said to be a hill named Yao (the word is the plural form of a noun meaning "treeless hill"). It is from this region that the Yao, who took their ethnonym from this place of origin, moved in a series of migrations beginning in the eighteenth century to their areas of later settlement. They now live in a broad band stretching from the Shire Highlands in southern Malawi through the hills of Mozambique, to the east of Lake Malawi, and into the southern part of Tanzania, on the southeastern edges of the Great Rift Valley.
Demography . It is difficult to estimate the total number of Yao because of the lack of census data from all three countries on ethnic or linguistic affiliation in the postcolonial era. The proportion of the total population of Malawi (or Nyasaland, as it was previously known) who self-identified as Yao remained at around 15 percent during the colonial era. The population of the entire country was around 11 million in the year 2000, and so, assuming no major changes in the proportion of Yao since 1945 (the last census to include ethnic affiliation), as many as 1,650,000 persons in Malawi could be Yao. There were never large numbers of Yao in Tanzania, and since the civil war in postindependence Mozambique has made it difficult to arrive at accurate estimates of the population of ethnic groups in that country, it is perhaps best to assume that the total number of Yao in the year 2000 was between 1.5 and 2.5 million.
Linguistic Affiliation . The Yao language was classified as P.21 in a Yao group that includes Mwera, Makonde, Ndonde, and Mavia. This group forms part of the Eastern Bantu languages in Guthrie's widely accepted classification of the Bantu languages.
European missionaries, who were the first to record and study the language, found Yao to be dissimilar from many of the surrounding languages. They also found that by comparison with some of the other languages in the region, there was very little variation in dialect: The Yao spoken near Lake Malawi differed very little from that spoken near the East African coast. They concluded that this resulted from the disposition of the Yao to travel, bringing all the parts of the group into frequent contact. This view was supported by linguistic research conducted around 1960.
The lack of variation in the Yao language may have been partly due to the fondness for travel of its speakers, although it could also indicate that their dispersal from their homeland was relatively recent. It is possible that by the conclusion of the twentieth century there was more perceived variation among speakers of the language, which may have to do with a further time lapse and the difficulty of crossing international borders.
History and Cultural Relations
The story of the Yao begins with a hill. This hill is the home of the tribe and its place of origin, and it is the beginning of Yao history in more than one sense. Nothing is known of the people who came to be known as the Yao before their dispersal from the hill. The story of the hill and of an early state of tribal integrity is an important component of the identity of the Yao.
There is a tendency to speak of the hill Yao in a matter-of-fact way, as though there really were such a hill in northern Mozambique, but there is no record of any European traveler or missionary having identified the hill.
The word yao is a plural form of chao, a treeless place, usually a hill. However, the word chao is not used to describe the hill that is the home of the tribe—it is the plural form that is used in this context. Therefore, the hill Yao may in fact be more than one hill. The hill from which the Yao take their name thus is neither a real hill nor a merely mythical entity. The moment it is approached, it dissolves into the myriad of hills and mountains in the region. It seems likely that the term "Yao" simply means "hill people"—those who come from the hills.
The history of the Yao in the sense of a narrative of events can be reconstructed only after their dispersal from the hill. There are ten subtribes or sections of the Yao, each of which took its name from the place to which it moved after the dispersal from the hill Yao. The movements and transformations of these groups can be traced in the records of travelers and missionaries as well as in Yao accounts.
At the end of the eighteenth century the Yao emerged as the main means of the transport of goods between the interior of East Central Africa and the coast. By the early nineteenth century there was a well-established trade in ivory and slaves between the Yao and the East African coast at Kilwa. There is, however, little indication of the situation of the Yao in the interior until the arrival of David Livingstone. He encountered the Yao first as slave raiders on the upper Shire River in the course of the Zambesi expedition of 1859, but his most illuminating descriptions of the Yao come from the journals of his trip up the Rovuma in 1866. On that journey he passed through several Yao chiefdoms and with the assistance of two Yao boys was able to collect a great deal of information about the people he saw. Coming toward Mwembe, the town of one of the most powerful Yao slaving chiefs, Livingstone found that the trade with the coast was so well established that it was difficult to interest the people in his goods.
The Yao chiefs who participated in the slave trade turned their attention to the Nyanja to the south of Lake Malawi around the middle of the nineteenth century. The parties of Yao slavers Livingstone had met in 1859 were the vanguard of a general movement of the Yao southwest toward the Shire Highlands. Sometimes fugitives, sometimes raiders, groups of Yao were moving into what is now southern Malawi in a large-scale invasion.
The dominance of the Yao in this region was due to their contact with the coast, involvement in the slave trade, and access to and skill in using firearms. It is apparent that by the middle of the nineteenth century the Yao were organized into autonomous chiefdoms, some of which were stronger in a military sense than others and all of which were quite mobile. However, it is not clear how long this state of affairs had persisted. It has been suggested that their involvement in the slave trade led to an enlargement of the significant political unit from village to chiefdom. This is plausible but difficult to verify. However, the fact that none of the chiefly dynasties that were prominent at the end of the nineteenth century extended back for more than a couple of generations may indicate that these chiefdoms were relatively new.
There was no central power, no "paramount chief, " but a series of more or less powerful chiefs, sometimes in alliance and sometimes in opposition, like a group of warlords. The authority of the chiefs appears to have rested largely on their ability to conduct trade with the coast and to muster men and slaves for that trade.
Despite the competition between chiefdoms, the Yao had a well-defined identity. They regarded themselves as Yao and were clearly distinguished in a political and economic sense from other people in the region despite the disunity within their own ranks. They were traders and slavers, the followers of powerful chiefs, and unmistakable in those roles whether settled or on the move. Where they had settled among the Nyanja near the lake, their villages were visibly different. The Yao seem to have quickly established their dominance over their neighbors wherever they moved in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Virtually every description of the Yao from that time, including those of the missionaries, who often found themselves in opposition to the Yao chiefs, emphasizes their political dominance and evident superiority over the other people in the region. Their involvement in the slave trade and contacts with the coast appear not only to have given the Yao political and economic advantage in the region but also to have led to the development of a sort of tribal chauvinism.
There were linguistic and cultural differences that tended to set the Yao apart from their neighbors and appeared to have unusual uniformity across the various Yao sections and chiefdoms. The view that the Yao, although dispersed and fragmented into sections and chiefdoms, were united by their language and culture into a "nation" was taken up by British colonial officials in their attempts to find suitable agents of indirect rule several decades later.
In 1891 a British protectorate was declared over the territory then known as Nyasaland (modern Malawi). Harry Johnston, the first commissioner of the protectorate, initiated a series of campaigns against the Yao chiefs to end the slave trade. His forces met with resolute opposition and suffered casualties and defeats at the hands of the Yao slavers. It was not until the end of 1895 that the last Yao chief was defeated and the slave trade was terminated in the protectorate.
It was an advantage toward the end of the nineteenth century to be a Yao in southern Nyasaland, since the Yao chiefs and their followers had a virtual monopoly on trade links with the coast. Even after the end of the slave trade the Yao tended to be regarded and treated as the dominant African group in the region.
The Yao maintained a clear sense of cultural identity throughout the colonial era in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. This was mainly a consequence of their conversion to Islam, which set them apart from other groups, especially in Malawi. The period after independence was not positive for the Yao. In Mozambique they were caught up in the civil war, and in Malawi they were marginalized by the new regime. Their fortunes improved in Malawi with the election in 1994 of a government headed by a Yao Muslim.
Yao villages tend to be strung out along a road or a path, and nearly all the villages have a mosque. Houses and mosques are usually built of pole and daub and are rectangular in shape. Most houses are thatched, while mosques may have an iron roof and a variety of architectural ornaments. Village mosques are often painted decoratively according to the taste of the builders. Village dwellings tend to be clustered into little groups surrounded by fruit trees—mango, papaya, and banana—with gardens of maize, cassava, rice, or sugarcane farther afield.
Subsistence. Villagers grow grain (maize or rice), vegetables (onions, tomatoes, cassava, and cabbage) and fruits such as mango, papaya, and banana. Very few Yao possess livestock of any sort with the exception of a few goats or chickens.
Many villagers who live near the lake depend on fishing to supplement their diets and incomes. A prerequisite for fishing is access to a dugout canoe, a net, and a lamp, since the favored method of catching the tiny usipa fish is to lure shoals of them to the side of the lake at night. Other fish, including chambo (tilapia) and kampango (catfish), are caught using larger nets, but catches are small and many Muslims refuse to eat catfish because the fact that it has no scales makes it forbidden food.
Those who have gardens and fields close to the lake are able to grow rice as well as maize and cassava, but very few people grow enough of the staple crops to feed themselves for the whole year and have to purchase extra grain.
Commercial Activities. In the colonial era the Yao were favored as soldiers, servants, cooks, and tailors. They are well known throughout southern Africa as tireless travelers in search of work in the mines or in industry or commerce.
Industrial Arts. The Yao who live by the lake are accomplished canoe builders and fishermen. They are skilled at weaving mats used for drying fish, making earthenware pots, and sewing.
Trade. In the precolonial era the Yao were notorious as traders in slaves and ivory. More recently they have tended to deal in cloth, fish, and crops such as cotton, tea, and tobacco.
Division of Labor. The main division of labor is between men and women. Men are generally responsible for fishing, agriculture, and most trading activities; women take care of tasks related to the maintenance and running of the household, such as fetching water and wood, cleaning, and cooking.
Land Tenure. Village headmen have the right to allocate fields and gardens to newcomers. The right to work the land is inherited through the female line.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Yao are matrilineal and are organized around a system of sorority groups known as mbumba. The sorority groups are normally constituted in relation to a man who is often the oldest brother of the sisters.
Marriage. Marriage is generally matrilocal and is transacted without the exchange of significant bride-wealth or a large dowry. Divorce is common and is not difficult to accomplish. The position of husbands is subject to the tensions that are characteristic of many matrilineal societies.
Inheritance. Property and titles usually pass from men to their sisters' sons or in some instances from older to younger brothers.
Social Organization. The central social unit is the village, which is organized around matrilineal kinship and sorority groups.
Political Organization. There is no central authority or institution of kingship in Yao society. For two centuries political organization has been structured around a series of chiefs and subordinate village headmen. In the colonial and postcolonial eras the appointment of chiefs and headmen usually had to be ratified by the central government.
Conflict. In the period of expansion and slave trade there was a great deal of conflict and competition between Yao chiefs and their followers. The powerful slaving chiefs were known to take slaves not only from groups such as the Nyanja but also from weaker Yao groups. The Yao were feared and respected in the region for their courage and skill in warfare, and after being defeated by the British, they were favored as recruits in the colonial forces. In the colonial era conflict was often resolved by the splitting of villages or groups. This practice has become less common as a result of growing population density. A serious challenge to the postcolonial regime in Malawi that occurred shortly after independence in 1964 (the "Cabinet Crisis") was led by a Yao. The armed revolt was crushed by forces loyal to the government backed by British troops.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Yao are often distinguished from other groups in the region by their conversion to Islam. However, this did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century, and there is still a considerable residue of pre-Islamic beliefs and practices among many Yao. Ancestors continue to be venerated, and the name of the founding ancestress of a lineage is remembered and referred to by a term meaning "the trunk of a tree." There has been a significant influence of Sufism on the practice of Islam among the Yao, and there appears to be a large degree of convergence between traditional Yao and Sufi practices. The Islam of the Yao is regarded as flexible and tolerant of local beliefs and customs.
Religious Practitioners . Yao Muslims have several categories of religious leadership. The most senior leaders are referred to as sheikhs and are often members of a Sufi order. There are also teachers and lower-order Muslim practitioners called mwalimu (from the Swahili word for teacher). There are ritual specialists known as amichila who are appointed by a chief to officiate at initiation rituals for boys.
Ceremonies. The Yao have initiation ceremonies for boys and girls as well as for young women. The initiation for boys includes partial or total circumcision and involves the production of a series of pictograms that are part of a complex system of esoteric knowledge and ritual. The initiations have for many years incorporated elements of Islamic practice and symbolism and were not disapproved of by even very devout Muslims until the emergence of reformist movements toward the end of the twentieth century. Most of the significant Muslim festivals are observed by the Yao, and the performance of dhikr (or sikiri, as the Yao refer to it) is often a feature of ceremonies. This central ritual of Sufi Muslims around the world has become the core of Muslim practice in the region, and it remains the key component of Islamic ritual for many of the Yao. Yao followers of Sufism perform sikiri on occasions such as ziyala· (the founder's anniversary), funerals, weddings, and other festivals. Although the Yao sikiri is usually performed by a group of young men, it does not exclude other Muslims who may be present, except on occasions, such as funerals, where men and women are segregated.
Arts. The most highly developed art form among the Yao is the system of pictograms used in initiations. They are large and intricate designs that are modeled on the ground and outlined with flour so that they make an extraordinary spectacle on a moonlit night.
Medicine. The Yao are famous as healers. Most villagers have a large body of knowledge of local medicinal herbs, and healers travel far and wide to gather potent plants and ingredients. There are practitioners who make use of the Islamic scriptures in various ways for divination or healing.
Death and Afterlife. The Yao believe that they will join their ancestors after death. Many also believe that they will be raised and judged on the last day as prescribed by Islamic doctrine. There seems to be little sense of contradiction between these two notions of the afterlife, which are held simultaneously by most Yao Muslims.
For other cultures in East and Central Africa, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.
Abdallah, Y. B. (1919). Chiikala· cha Wayao, edited and with a translation by G. M. Sanderson. Zomba, Malawi: Government Printer.
Alpers, Edward A. (1969). "Trade, State and Society among Yao in the Nineteenth Century, " Journal of African History 10 (3): 405-420.
Mitchell, J. Clyde (1951). "The Yao of Southern Nyasaland. " In Seven Tribes of British Central Africa, edited by E. Colson and M. Gluckman, 292-353. London: Oxford University Press.
—— (1956). The Yao Village. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Sanderson, G. M. (1954). A Dictionary of the Yao Language. Zomba, Malawi: Government Printer.
Stannus, H. S. (1922). "The Wayao of Nyasaland. " In Varia Africana III, edited by E. A. Hooton and N. I. Bates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thorold, Alan (2000). "Le rituel soufi et la construction de l'identite musulmane yao. " In Dynamiques religieuses en Afrique australe, edited by Veronique Faure. Paris: Karthala.
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ETHNONYMS: Byau Min, Kim Mun, Mien, Pai Yao, Yao Min
The 1990 census reports 2,134,000 Yao in China. Sixty percent of them live in Guangxi Province, with the remainder located in bordering areas of Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. Most live in mountainous areas. Their language belongs to the Miao-Yao Family. The most widely kown of four Yao dialects is Mien, which is spoken by about one-half of the Yao population. The four dialects are related but not closely enough to be mutually intelligible. About 20 percent of the Yao speak Zhuang-Dong, Miao, or Chinese languages rather than Yao. Dress styles serve as visible markers of language and territorial affiliation.
The Yao are mentioned in Chinese writings from Tang times on. They were called "Mo Yao," meaning that they were exempt from the corvée and taxes imposed on Han settlers in the area. The ancestors of the modern Yao probably derived from a number of ethnic groups, including some Han. Over the centuries a Yao ethnic identity emerged, and "Yao" is the name they use to identify themselves to outsiders.
Yao economic strategies vary according to regional conditions. The majority, long before 1949, were settled agriculturalist whose crops and techniques were strongly influenced by their Zhuang and Han neighbors. Depending on locale, forestry or hunting and gathering were as important or more important than agriculture. Some Yao continued slash-and-burn shifting cultivation into recent times. Women play an active role in the agricultural cycle and are responsible for household chores, weaving, embroidery, batik production, and clothing manufacture. Traditionally, in many communities in Guangxi, plowing, sowing, and transplanting of rice seedlings was done in mutual-aid groups of ten to twenty households. Hunting is also a communal activity.
Despite considerable variation, some cultural features are widely shared. The Yao follow principles of patrilineal descent and inheritance, adopting sons or bringing in sons-in-law when necessary and usually providing daughters with a share of land as part of the dowry. Marriages tend to be endogamous with regard to dialect and local territorial unit. Same-surname marriages are frowned upon but sometimes occur. There is a preference for marriage with mother's brother's daughter. Frequent festivals provide opportunities for courtship and love matches. Marriage requires parental consent and the payment of bride-price and dowry. Marriages are monogamous and residence is usually patrilocal. Divorces and remarriages are permitted.
The Yao are organized in patrilineal clans that subdivide into lineages and lineage segments. These named groups have ritual and legal functions, and their members provide mutual assistance. Formerly they held property, but today all agricultural and forest land is owned by the state.
The Yao have a rich heritage of music and song, which accompanies work activities, courtship, feasts, and festivals. Their religious life has been heavily influenced by Han versions of folk Daoism.
See also Yao of Thailand in Volume 5
Lemoine, Jacques, and Chiao Chien, eds. (1991). The Yao of South China: Recent International Studies. Paris: Pangu Editions de l'A.F.E.Y.
Ma Yin (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 380-387. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yao
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ALTERNATE NAMES: Mian,Jinmen,Bunu,Bingduoyou, Lajia, Pangu Yao, Shanzi Yao, Dingban Yao, Hualan Yao, Guoshan Yao, White Pants Yao, Red Yao, Indigo Yao, Plain Yao, Col Yao, Chashan Yao, etc.
POPULATION: 2.6 million
LANGUAGE: Yao, Miao, Dong-Shui
RELIGION: Polytheism; ancestor worship
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities
The Yao are historically linked with the ancient "Jingman" and "Changsha Wulingman." Their ancestors were called Muoyao in ancient books of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) and Yaoren during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Actually, it seems the Yao and the Miao had common ancestors. From the Tang onward, the name of Yao appeared separately in ancient Chinese books. It seems the Yao were the result of the assimilation of neighboring tribes by one main group.
For a long period of time, the Yao practiced the double system of yaolao and shipai. The former was practiced inside a village and the latter among the villages. Yaolao (Elders of Yao) was an administrative organization consisting of six powerful men. The "number one man" took charge of matters of his village (basically a clan), both inside and outside, including the refereeing of clan quarrels and the command of armed troops to fight against other clans. The "number two man" was his assistant. A third man was responsible for deciding the dates of agricultural activities. Another man took charge of religious affairs. The last man was responsible for water administration for irrigation and drinking. The number one man was chosen among the aged, changed annually, and could hold office only once. The number two man was elected every two years.
Shipai (Stone Tablet) was a union of villages. A small shipai consisted of several villages; a large shipai consisted of several small ones. Each shipai made a joint pledge according to customary laws and asked all members of the clan to follow the agreement to ensure order. The joint pledge was carved on a stone tablet, which was erected at the village gate. The executing person was called shipai head, and had the power to punish anyone violating the pledge. Up to the present, the remnants of these two systems still exist, especially in remote areas.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Yao population amounted to 2.6 million in 2000. They are mainly scattered in Guangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, and Guizhou provinces. The feature of their inhabitation is "wide distribution and tiny colonies." They dwell in mountainous areas, most of which are forested and picturesque.
Yao language is classified as belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, Miao-Yao group, Yao branch. In fact, only about half of the population use the Yao language, while about 40% of the Yao speak Miao. Some use another language, classified as Dong-Shui branch. There is no Yao writing. Most of the Yao use Chinese characters.
On account of their dispersion, the Yao call themselves by different names, such as Mian, Jinmen, Bunu, Bingduoyou, and Lajia. According to their different styles of clothing, totems, economic activities, and dwellings, the ancient Chinese books called them Pangu Yao, Shanzi Yao, Dingban Yao, Hualan Yao, Guoshan Yao, White Pants Yao, Red Yao, Indigo Yao, Plain Yao, Col Yao, Chashan Yao, and so on. The Chinese, not always realizing that they were dealing with a single ethnic group, traditionally used more than 30 names to designate the various groups. Since 1956, the unified name for all of these groups is Yao.
The Yao have a rich mythology. One of their origin myths relates that a long, long time ago, King Ping received a dragon-dog called Panhu. It was about 3 ft in length. Its hair was multicolored. At that time, King Ping's kingdom was frequently invaded by King Gao, and nobody was able to stop him. The dragon-dog told King Ping that he could kill King Gao. King Ping promised that he would give Panhu his princess daughter in marriage if he killed King Gao. The dragon-dog went to King Gao; the king was very happy to have such an exceptional dog and let him stay by his side. One day, King Gao got drunk and the dog seized this opportunity to bite him to death. Holding King Gao's head in his mouth, Panhu came back to King Ping's kingdom. Although appointing Panhu to a high position, the king did not redeem his obligation of marriage. On the contrary, he put the dog under a big golden bell. Six days later, King Ping regretted what he did. As the bell was removed, he found the dog had turned into a man. Panhu and the princess married. They gave birth to six sons and six daughters. King Ping was so happy that he appointed Panhu as King Pan, the earliest ancestor of the Yao.
The Yao are polytheistic. They worship their ancestors, especially their first ancestor, Panhu. Taoist priests and shamans are in charge of religious activities and play the role of intermediary between man and the world of ghosts and gods. Yao beliefs were deeply influenced by the Chinese religious traditions, in particular Taoism. Those who live around Nandan (in northwest Guangxi) revere Pangu (the god who created the world, according to Chinese mythology; there is obviously a connection between Panhu, the first ancestor, and Pangu, the Creator God) and the Jade Emperor (the Supreme Deity of Taoism). They also believe in the god of witchery. In a Pangu temple (actually a straw mat shed) set up in many villages of the Yao, three stones evoking human forms are erected. The stone in the center is Pangu. The Jade Emperor is on the right and the witchery god on the left. This is an illustration of Yao polytheistic beliefs. On March 30 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between March 20 and May 19), a chicken is sacrificed to the three gods. Three months later, a pig or a buffalo is killed and offered in sacrifice for the purpose of obtaining from the gods good weather for the crops and well-being for the villagers and their livestock.
Those dwelling in the Great Yao Mountains (in west Guangxi) sacrifice to King Panhu (originally a dog). The temple of Panhu is actually a pavilion with four high posts and a roof made of the bark of the China fir tree. There is a tablet on a small platform, but no statue. Community sacrifice is held every year or every other year. Members of the community make a dozen rice cakes beforehand and place them on a dustpan. Then a small cock is killed. Its trunk is cut into pieces and put on the cakes. The head, tail, wings, and legs are then disposed around the cakes so as to reproduce the figure of a live chicken. The head must point toward the tablet. Three shamans dance around the platform while playing drums. The sacrifice may be offered by an individual family faced with particularly difficult problems.
The Yao celebrate a large number of festivals, almost one each month. The festivals often differ from district to district. On lunar New Year's Eve (Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), the whole family reunites around the dinner table. Firecrackers are kindled. Spring Festival pictures are pasted on the walls of their houses. The next day, arrow shooting, dramatic performances, or sometimes buffalo fighting will be held. The youngsters gather on a lawn beside the village. They sing and dance, accompanied by the lüsheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument) and the yueqin (a four-stringed plucked instrument, similar to the mandolin). Newly married couples pay a New Year's call to the wife's family. At the dinner party, her father sings, wishing his daughter and son-in-law conjugal love and harmony.
The Danu ("keep in mind") Festival is held on May 29 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between June 21 and July 21). Depending on local economic conditions, it may not be held every year, but put off one or more years. It is a commemorative day for one of their famous ancestors, Milotuo, but has turned into a grand popular festival. People dress up and bring their own dishes and wine to dine together. They play hide-and-seek, dance to the rhythms of the bronze drum, and fire the blunderbuss.
Some festivals are for recreation after a good harvest, such as the Harvest Festival around Jianghua in Hunan; some are for social intercourse of the youngsters, such as the Singing Festival in many areas.
RITES OF PASSAGE
An adulthood ceremony is held for Yao young men from 16 to 22. The rite is organized by five or seven Taoist priests. The young man has to live at the priest's house. He is not allowed to go outdoors, neither to have a view of the sky, nor to talk with anybody except the priests. In the evening, he is instructed in various religious rites. On the day of the ceremony, he is led to a platform on a lawn. He should swear that he will never commit murder or set fires, never steal or rob, never abduct or rape a woman, never mistreat his parents or wrongly accuse an innocent person, and so on. The priest throws a firebrand into a bowl of water, indicating the misfortune of violating one's vows. Then the young man curls up his body, holds his knees in his arms, and rolls down from the platform. Thereafter, he is allowed to participate in adult society and get married. Moreover, it is believed that only after the adulthood ceremony may a man go to Heaven after death. This rite is considered so important for a young man that a grand feast will be organized by his family in the following days. Since the adulthood ceremonies consumed too much time, they have been recently reformed and simplified to various degrees in different districts.
The burial rite of the Yao has been deeply influenced by Chinese Taoism. The funeral is performed according to Taoist rites. The deceased is not allowed to be put into a coffin until his sins have been expiated by the reciting of scriptures by the priest. Native Yao beliefs are often combined with the Taoist ritual. For example, if an infant dies, it should be wrapped with used clothes or palm leaves, then put inside a bamboo basket and hung on a tree in the forest. The Yao believe that the soul of the infant will go back to its patron saint, Huapo (Flower Woman), and wait for reincarnation. The quick decay of the infant's body will result, they believe, in an earlier reincarnation; here, one also sees the influence of Buddhism on Yao beliefs.
It is a custom to announce a death in the family to the uncle (mother's brother) and to the uncle's uncle.
When calling on a family, the guest should offer greetings to the lady of the house first; otherwise, the host may deem the guest arrogant. In traditional Yao homes, the guest is offered salted meat and oil tea.
Yao youngsters are free to date. Antiphonal singing is the usual way to get acquainted and to fall in love. Around Libo in Guizhou, there is a unique way to talk about love. When a girl reaches 16 or 17 years of age, she is allowed to live alone in a room with a small hole in a wall. A young man may come to her side of the house in the middle of the night, wake her up, and express his affection. She may give a positive answer. When both of them fall deeply in love, they ask their parents to confirm their will to get married. Around Jianghua in Hunan, there is also a unique way of dating. During fairs and festivals, each girl carries an empty basket (covered by a new towel) in her hand. If a young man likes her, he will take the basket from her and put inside some refreshments. If the girl accepts, they go to the forest and take the refreshments while singing in antiphonal style. Next time, the girl puts nine pairs of cloth shoes in the basket, indicating her lasting love. The third time, he carries the basket and accompanies her to the market where the dowry is selected. If they are satisfied with each other through the three dates, the young man makes an appointment with her parents and proposes.
Yao houses come in different styles, often depending on the physical environment: thatched cottages, bamboo and wooden houses, and, less frequent, tile-roofed adobe houses. Most houses have three rooms. The main room is the central one; one of the side rooms is for sleeping, the other for the firepool and kitchen. The livestock pen is in the rear. Some houses are built on mountain slopes; these are usually two-story stilt dwellings. People occupy the second floor, livestock the ground floor. In some two-story houses, people live downstairs while grain and other commodities are stored upstairs.
Taking advantage of the abundance of water and the availability of bamboo, they often connect long "bamboo pipes" to channel the water from springs to a barrel in their house.
The Yao live in small patrilineal families. After marriage the son moves out. Parents live with their youngest son. Most of the villagers are of the same clan and same surname. The position of women in families is equal to that of their husbands. The Yao pay much attention to the power of the maternal uncle, who not only is respected, but also takes the responsibility of deciding important affairs.
In Chashan (in south Guangdong), the wedding ceremony is simple and frugal. The bridegroom's side sends several cousins to the bride's family in the middle of the night. They congratulate and thank the girl's parents, then accompany the bride on foot to her husband. The wedding ceremony takes place at his house and lasts all night long. The bride and the bridegroom take a nap at dawn and then resume their work in the fields in the morning.
In some areas, the son of a girl's maternal uncle has priority in offering to marry her. If the uncle has no son, she is allowed to marry somebody else. A son-in-law may be allowed to live with his bride's family, usually when her parents do not have a son. Divorce is always a serious matter and the couple is first encouraged by the aged to reconcile. If the couple has no choice but to separate, they go to the mountain, break a bamboo tube into two, each taking one half, depart in opposite directions, and never repent. There is no discrimination against a remarried widow.
Yao clothing varies according to region. Men's garments include edge-to-edge, collarless tops and another type with buttons down the left. A waistband is generally used. They wear trousers or shorts covering their knees. All are made of hand-woven cloth in blue or dark blue. Men around Nandan like to wear white, trimmed, knee-covering knickerbockers. Men around Liannan in Guangdong comb their hair into a bun plucked with pheasant feathers for decoration. There is also a great variety of women's dress. In some areas they wear collarless tops with buttons down the right side and a waistband. Their skirts come in different lengths. Some of them wear an edge-to-edge long garment with a waistband and long trousers or shorts. Their collars, cuffs, fronts of garments, waistbands, bottoms of trouser legs, and edges of skirts are all decorated with cross-stitches and embroideries. They wear few silver ornaments in daily life, but quite a number of them during festivals, including hair clasps, flowers, strings of beads, curved hairpins (maybe the largest silver ornament among minorities, reaching 1 lb in weight), plates, bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings. Young girls are also fond of earrings, hairpins, necklaces, bracelets, and so on. The Yao hang the teeth or claws of wild hogs, leopards, or tigers on children's waists, with a view to protecting them from evil.
The Yao take three meals a day. Their staple foods include rice, millet, corn, yams, and taro. Hot pepper, pumpkin, and soybean are their main vegetables. The proteins in their diet come from livestock and domestic fowl. Their favorite all-season dishes are salted meat and fish. In some districts, dog meat is taboo, being related to totem worship. They drink wine and oil tea. The latter is made of fried tea leaves, cooked in water, and seasoned with ginger, hot pepper, and salt.
There are now primary schools in large villages and middle schools (junior and senior) in small towns. The majority of children reaching school age are enrolled. Nevertheless, their cultural and educational level is lower than average among minorities. Illiteracy still predominates in remote rural areas. Some mountainous areas have very little contact with the outside world.
The Yao love to sing. Antiphonal singing parties usually last all night long. The lyrics are all-encompassing, from astronomy to geography, from ancient legends about creation to production work and daily life. Ironic or comical songs are well received by the community.
Yao dances comprise two main types: the Bronze Drum Dance and the Long Drum Dance. The long drum is made of wood, about 32 inches long, more slender toward the middle, with animal skin over its ends. It is held over the waist of a dancer, who plays while dancing. The bronze drum is bottomless, with carved figures on its surface and sides. The Bronze Drum Dance is rather unique. It is performed by two men and a woman. One man dances while playing the bronze drum; the other man, standing still, accompanies him with a skin drum; the woman, dancing behind the drummer, cools him with a fan.
Most Yao literature has been handed down orally. Only a small number of poems or mythical tales were recorded in Chinese; among these the "Songs of King Panhu," thousands of lines long, is a unique literary treasure of the Yao.
Yao economy is based principally on agriculture, mainly on rice. Forestry and hunting provide important dietary and economic supplements. Hunting also aims at protecting farmers and domestic animals from the wild animals. The hunting bag is divided evenly among all participants; even a baby on one's back has his own share. However, the hunter who hit or caught the animal receives a double share.
Whipping a top is a traditional sport of the Yao. The top is made of hard wood, 1 to 3 lbs in weight. Two teams participate in the game. One team sets all the tops rotating within a circle. Then the members of the opposing team throw successively their tops from a distance of 5-10 yds, trying to hit the rotating tops and stop them. If no rotating top is hit, the hitting side loses. If one or several tops are hit, the rotating time of the tops of both teams is recorded and compared to decide the winner.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Quite a number of television stations have been set up in Yao territory. Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces are all provided with television broadcasting stations and film studios. These are available for Yao programs. Movie theaters now thrive even in small towns. In addition, various recreational activities are held on traditional festivals. The Spring Buffalo Dance may be compared to the Chinese Lion Dance. Yao artisans build a frame with thin bamboo strips, then cover it with black paper in the shape of a buffalo head. The trunk is made of dark gray cloth painted with black whirlpool-shaped hairs. Two young men prop it up for performance, accompanied by a team of musicians (gongs and drums) and a team of dancers. They make a circuit through the villages. Wherever they go, the villagers dress up and line both sides of the street to welcome the parade. They are escorted by crowds in front and behind. The "buffalo" walks around the performing place, then stamps its hoofs, sways its horns, swings its tail, and rolls on the ground. All the "buffalo" movements are remarkably true to life. That is why it is well received by the villagers, who have had an intimate knowledge of the animal since childhood.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Cross-stitch work, embroidery, brocade, and batik are the better known traditional handicrafts of the Yao. The apron and satchel made of Yao brocade are much sought after by connoisseurs and tourists.
The Yao inhabit a rugged mountainous environment, which does not allow significant increases of their traditional crop yields. Physical environment is the major obstacle to the economic development of Yao society. To change their current socio-economic situation would require major decisions about their present territorial settlement.
The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.
China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.
Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.
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—by C. Le Blanc
"Yao." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yao-0
"Yao." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yao-0