YAO CULTURE: CLOTHES, MYTHS AND BRONZE DRUMS

YAO CULTURE

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Festival headgear
In China, the Yao are famous for their industriousness and wisdom. According to the Chinese government: “With growing scientific and cultural knowledge, the Yaos have, on their own initiative, discarded irrational customs and habits during recent decades, while preserving healthy ones.” The Red Yao who live the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region near Guilin have really long hair, which they fold like turbans at the top of their heads.. The longest hair is about 1.6 meters long. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

The Yaos cherish a magnificent oral literary tradition. 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 to generation. *|*

The Yao like to sing. Singing is featured at festivals and events such as weddings. There are specific songs for specific occasions: feasting, flirting, working relaxing and entertaining guests. Songs have also played a key role in passing down histories and folk tales from one generation to the next. Traditional Yao instruments include gongs, clappers, drums, and symbols. They are used mainly for ritual purposes. Dancing is rarely seen. Yao in Yunnan do the Pan Wang dance.

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. *|*

Yao Textiles

The Yao produce wonderful embroidered cloth. A Japanese craftswoman. Mayuko Takano, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “the items are produced with a delicate care that is seldom seen in Japan.” Traditionally-dressed Yao women wear intricately-embroidered black blouses and pleated skirts or pants, embroidered turbans or pointed black hats, silver coin jewelry, and a distinctive bright red or pink "puffs" around their necks. Their distinctive embroidery and braiding is made with cotton in a cross stitch pattern.

The Li, Miao and Yao peoples produced many kinds of textiles such as Bolup cloth, Mao (hawksbill) cloth, Zhu cloth (light blue or white cotton cloth), Yaoban cloth (blue batik with white speckles), ramie cloth and kapok cloth. Wax printing is a unique technique developed by some Chinese ethnic groups for printing and dying hand-made cloth. The blue and white pattens reveal natural cracks made when wax cools.

Among the Iu Mien, Dong wrote: ““Needlework is the feminine pastime. A pair of trousers is a project that occupies a woman, between household chores and fieldwork, for the better part of a year. Her skill is also displayed at the ends of the sash and the cloth forming the turban, on her men folk’s clothing, on the caps and clothes she makes for her children, and on many other articles. Silver is the symbol of wealth and status, and at New Year’s, weddings, and special ceremonies, the family trove of bracelets, earrings, neck rings, and necklaces is trucked out to adorn the ladies of the house. Their turbans and robes are draped with gleaming strings of coins, chains, braid, and other ornaments, all made of silver. On such occasions an apron-like garment lavishly decorated with embroidery and silver is worn either at the waist or around the shoulders like a stole.” [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong ]

Yao Clothes

left The clothing and adornments of Yao people are rich and colorful, with both sexes being fond of clothes made of blue and green. Yao women wear round-collar or upright-collar upper clothes without buttons, embroidered with various colored patterns or red floss. They wear cloth waistbands decorated with beautiful patterns. Many of them wear trousers; but some wear long or short skirts. In some areas Yao women 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. Many Yao women have hair coiled up in many ways: resembling a dragon, an "A", a crescent, a flying swallow, a horn, a board or an umbrella. They very much like silver adornments, including silver medals decorating their jackets and silver bracelets, earrings, necklets and hairpins.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~; China.org china.org *|*]

Yao mens clothing is less colorful but can be equally diverse. They usually wear collarless jackets buttoned in the middle or to the left, and are 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. *|* The traditional upper garment of Yao women in southern Guizhou consists of two connected pieces of cloth which hang in front of the chest and over the back. Many Yao women wear hip-length, black jackets or tunics split at the sides; and a colored sash tied around the waist. Red, white and blue braids decorate the hands. Split seams with silver plaques are fastened to the front of the jacket. When working in the fields women go barefoot and gather their trousers into a bands at their ankles.

Traditionally-dressed Yao men wear a tunic jacket and loose trousers and black embroidered caps similar in appearance to skull caps worn by some Muslims. The jackets very in length and are tied around the waist with colored sash. Large straw hats are worn by men and women when they work in the fields. Yao men that wear white trousers are called the “White-Trousered Yao.”

Among the Iu Mien, Dong wrote: “The traditional dress of the womenfolk consists of a large turban, trousers, and a long robe girt with a sash, all in dark blue or black, which sets off a bushy boa of bright red yarn sewn about the neck and down the front of the robe. The sides of the robe are slit and the front panels are generally tucked up into the sash, bringing into view the beautiful embroidery covering the trousers. Traditional men’s garb includes loose trousers and a double-breasted jacket. On special ritual occasions men don bright turbans and Chinese-style robes.” Substantial amounts of money and effort may be invested in obtaining traditional clothes and adornments from China. Particularly elaborate are the brocaded vestments worn by ritual experts who preside over ceremonies. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong ]

Clothes of the White Trouser Yao

The White Trouser Yao live in Nandan County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. They are known for their unique clothing and adornments. The most unique feature of men's garments is their "white trousers". They are pure white, knee-length knickers, adorned with blue cloth at the end of the trousers. Five palm-like red lines, which are longer in the middle and shorter at the sides, are embroidered above the blue cloth in the front part of the trousers.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Legend has it that the ancestors of the White Trouser Yao originally lived in Jincheng River area, near the modern-day city of Hechi in Guangxi. One day the tyrannizing ruler Mo sent troops to attack the Yao people in order to rob their beautiful homeland. The King of Yao people immediately gathered the whole village to defend their land. But they were greatly outnumbered by their enemy and suffered severe losses and had to leave their homeland for the remote mountains in the southwest. After some time they arrived at their current homeland (a place in Fangdan)—a region that was rugged, desolate and dense with trees, a sharp contrast to the beautiful homeland they left. The memory of their old home made the White Trouser Yao extremely sad and they couldn't help crying.~

The King of Yao people, exhausted from fight and traveling, fell asleep against a big rock. When he awoke an old man was standing in front of him, saying, "this is a good place. It has mountains and rivers. There are birds and beasts in the mountains and you can hunt. There are rivers to irrigate the crops. Fairly soon this place will become your beautiful homeland." Suddenly seeing the light, the King of Yao clapped his bloody hands against his knees and yelled, "Good idea." However, it turned out this was nothing but a dream. Yet he was greatly inspired by the dream. Looking around, he found out it was really a good place. So he gave orders to the troops to pitch a camp right there and settle down. But the five bloody finger marks on his white trousers, which had been torn apart from the knee down by the thorns, could not be removed. In memory of the King, the Yao people later began to make knickers, embroidered with five red lines just above the knees to symbolize the king’s five bloody fingers. ~

The most famous women's dresses are the so-called "hanging" garments. Both the front and back of the garment are two complete cloths linked together in the shoulder with a black cloth about 10 centimeters wide. The garment is collarless, sleeveless and the armpits are not sewed together. The two cloths naturally fall on the breast and back when the garment is pulled over from the head down. Interestingly, most of these garments are embroidered in the back with colored threads with a pattern similar to a square seal. According to legend, the King of the Yao people, published a notice seeking a handsome son-in-law. He succeeded in finding one and the next year a loveable grandson was born. The King was very happy. In order to amuse his grandson, he always took out the wooden box containing the seal of the Yao people for his grandson to play with. The king didn’t realize that his son-in-law was the son of the ruler Mo, who had long coveted the Yao village. After gaining the King's trust, he stole the seal and attacked the Yao village. Without the seal the King failed to assemble the troops from other Yao villages and eventually he lost the battle. Later, in order not to forget their hatred for Mo and also to remember the seal of the Yao people, the women began to embroider a seal pattern on the back of their garments. This legend is not completely made up. A Mo ruler did plunder Yao lands, and exploited and oppressed Yao people until the Yao rose up courageously to fight back.

Pan Yao Three-Horned Hats

The topknots of the Yao women are very complicated. Some of them wear hats, some place decorated brocade or handkerchiefs around their head, some form mallet-like chignon, some use silver hairpins and some attach a board to their heads and then wrap their hair around it to form a chignon. The Panyao women in Longsheng County, Guangxi always wear a three-horned hat: a hat-like framework woven with sawali and hemp and then covered with delicately embroidered cloth. Women of different ages wear hats of different colors. Old women wear cyan hats, which stand for longevity; middle-aged women wear blue hats, which refer to good harvests and prosperity; and young girls wear colorful hats, which imply youth and a promising future. Various patterns are embroidered on the hats, such as flowers, birds, fish, mountains, rivers, trees, lions, dragons, elephants, kylins, golden pheasant and phoenix. But tigers and leopards cannot be embroidered because legend has it that the three-horned hats were originally made to drive off tigers and leopards. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The ancestors of Panyao lived in the remote mountains and forests where tigers and leopards frequented their village and often caused casualties. Once all the men in a village went out hunting, leaving only women and children at home. At night a tiger entered the village and harassed the villagers by scratching doors and windows with its claws. The women were roused by the sound. Scared, they tried to drive the tiger off using sticks and hoes. This, however, did not drive it away. Instead the tiger began to approach them more viciously. At this critical moment, the sharp-witted Yao women, resourceful in an emergency, grabbed up a tripod in a fireplace and threw it at the roaring tiger. Surprisingly, this tripod fit exactly around the animal’s head. The tiger, with no idea what on earth this weird thing was, turned around and hurriedly ran away. Thanks to the tripod, the women and children managed to survive. Afterward, the women made triangle hats based on the shape of the tripod, which they believed could bring them good luck and as well as keep tigers away. ~

Panyao women in He County, Guangxi also wear triangle hats. Their’s are much bigger and magnificent than those worn by Longsheng women. Their tower-shaped hats sometimes have dozens of layers. The Pan Yao in He county believe that this kind of hat on will protect them from any danger if they enter remote forests and thick brush. In contrast, some Yao women in Jinxiu County prefer a kind of small and exquisite trapezoid hat, which also has a sawali-made framework covered with cloth, usually white. This hat is even smaller than the flowery hat of the Uyghurs and can only be put on the top of the head.

Yao Myths and Literature

As they themselves tell it, the origins of the Iu Mien involved a hero or god named Bienh Hungh (King Pan) and an epic “crossing of the sea” far in the distant Past. Many versions of what happened exist, some written down over a thousand years ago. In one, the Iu Mien was forced by drought to leave their land and cross the sea in boats. Many perished on the voyage, but a god, whom Bienh Hungh promised would evermore be honored by the survivors, saved the twelve Iu Mien clans some. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]

In another version, Bienh Hungh is a dragon dog, which volunteers to cross the sea to destroy an enemy of the Chinese emperor. Returning across the sea with the enemy’s head, he declines high state office, asking only to wed a lady of the court. Bienh Hungg and his wife then retire to the mountains and have twelve children. When the heroic dog dies, the emperor orders his children, the founders of the twelve clans, to honor him and grants them licenses to cultivate the mountains in perpetuity. +++

The tradition of mythical epical songs in honour of King Pan (Panwang tzu) is connected to the Pan Yao. Panwang tzu are recited during King Pan-festivals. In addition they are used as teaching material for children. A similar connection to the Pan Yao can also be stated for the pseudohistorical texts "Charta of King Ping" (Pinghuang quandie) and "Placard for Crossing the Mountains" (Guoshan bang). They are reported also for She groups of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang. Pan Wang is also known as Pan Gu (Pien Gouv). From a Chinese-English Dictionary 'Pan Gu' means "the legendary creator and first ruler of the universe". [Source: Tom O. Saephanh, “Priest's wreath; Laos/Northern Thailand”]

Recently an increasing number of Yao manuscript editions have been published in China and made available for research on the Yao, their written sources and their religion in the western world. The Munich Yao project, initiated in October 1995, is based on a collection of more than 1000 Yao manuscripts, acquired by the Department for Rare Manuscripts of the Munich Bavarian State Library during the last few years. The manuscripts of this collection date from the beginning of the 18th to the eighties of the 20th century and originate from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the southern provinces of China, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. Exemplary manuscripts have been examined, annotated, and edited regarding their role as 'magically' effective physical objects and liturgical texts in ritual. The manuscripts cover a period of over 260 years and a wide geographical range. Information has been gleaned related to persons (authors, scribes, owners.), families, clans, their relationships and their history as well as the relation of Yao culture and religion to Chinese cultural and religious traits, especially to local popular cults and Daoism. [Sources: Jingmen Yao; Textbook for Children (Chuxue zhengwen), 19th century] Ghosts, from "Boat Ritual" (Chi xiang fa yong); 1968; Iu Mien (Yao)]

Books: White, David Gordon, “Myths of the Dog-Man” (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991). This is an Important study of the tale of the dog-man, including Pan Hu (King Pan); Pinghuang quandie (Emperor Ping's charter); R. Cushman, "Rebel Haunts and Lotus Huts: Problems in the Ethnohistory of the Yao," (PhD dissertation, Cornell University, 1970). Still the best evaluation of most historical sources and analytical problems. The University of Language & Culture in Beijing offers courses in Yao history.

See Panhu Story Under History

White Pants Yao Bronze Drum Clans

White Pants Yao (Baiku Yao), speak the Bunu language and call themselves Balou. Their a social organization revolves around the clan, called "pupo" in their language. This is the basic structure of their society and links all the people who worship the same ancestor. It is an economic unit as well as a mutual support system. Each one of these clans has a bronze drum that represents them. This drum, usually kept by the chief of the clan, is available to all members. In the old days, every time the Balou celebrated a festival, each clan beat its bronze drum. When they carried out ceremonies to cure the sick, as well as at funerals, dead, the bronze drums were always beaten. The drum is the symbol of the whole clan. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

The Balou in Nandan, in Guangxi Province possess more ceremonial bronze drums than anywhere else in China. There are more than 90 of them. It is believed that bronze drums are symbols of the life of the clan, and are necessary to survive in the inhospitable karst lands where they live and game animals are hunting is scarce. Some of bronze drums clans are comprised of only two or three families, although they usually include several dozens. Each clan has a common territory that any of its members can use. Sometimes a clan forms a village. The relationship between the members of each clan is very tight. \*\

Bronze drum clans are governed by very simple rules: 1) Mutual assistance; Whenever a member of the clan is in need, the other should help him without expectation of any reward. 2) Food is distributed among all members of the clan after ceremonial sacrifices. 3) Wealth should not be wasted outside the clan whenever possible. 4) If someone repeatedly violates the norms of the clan, he can be excluded. He can also be readmitted when he is willing to follow them. \*\

Each clan has a chief that is in charge of several types of social functions, such as: 1) gathering the people together to evaluate the year; 2) solving the internal problems of the clan; 3) presiding over the ceremonies; 4) organizing the work in the fields; ensuring that everyone follows of customary laws; 5) keeps the bronze drum in his house, tied by a chain.

The Balou Yao believe that the soul doesn't die, but rather goes to the sky. They associate the bronze drum with the souls of their ancestors, thinking that once dead they can express their will through the sound of the drum. The drum is used primarily on three occasions: 1) To summon the souls of the ancestors for the New Year. On the 27th and 28th of the last lunar month, the drums are hung and beaten to call the ancestors' souls to come for the New Year celebrations. While the drum is beaten they recite the names of their male ancestors. On the 15th of the first lunar month the drums are beaten again for the ancestors to return to the sky.

2) When somebody of more than five years of age becomes seriously ill, a cow is sacrificed and ceremony takes place, accompanied by the beating of the drums. Neighbors and friends of different clans arrive with their drums; they meet in the square of the drum, sometimes with seven or eight or up to 20 drums. Each group, when arriving with their drum, begins to dance, creating a cheerful and festive atmosphere that precedes the ritual sacrifice of a cow. 3) When a person dies bronze drums are beaten to open the way for her soul to reach the world of the ancestors. Neighbors, hearing the drums, know that a sick person died. They join the drumming with their own drums. Everybody sings the "Chant of the Drum", calling on the drums to guide the soul to the lands of the ancestors. Later on, during the funeral, they also hold a ceremony in which a cow is sacrificed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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