The Yao speak a Sino-Tibetan language similar to Miao. There are several Yao dialects that are different enough that the members of one dialect group can not always tell what members of other dialect groups are saying. Many Yao speak Zhuang, Dong or Chinese instead of Yao. The Yao have no written language. They say their reliance on oral tradition was the result of a great famine which forced their ancestors to boil and eat all of their books to survive. The written language they use today is similar to Chinese and was created with Chinese help.
The Yao language is a member of the Miao-Yao-Pateng group, which is part of Sino-Tibetan family of languages that also includes Chinese, and Tibetan. About half of the Yaos speak the Yao language; 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 language. Many Yao in China can speak Mandarin Chinese or the local Chinese dialects or language of other ethnic groups that live near them. Literacy in Chinese has representative been highly valued among the Yao, sons being taught by fathers, and by tutors when available. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]
An archaic form of Chinese is The liturgical language of Iu Mien religion (the Iu Mien are the largest Yao group), occupying a place analogous to that of Pali in Buddhism and Latin in Roman Christianity. Chinese characters are also employed in writing Yao. However, a new generation of Iu-Mien in the U.S. have adapted new form of writing. The old Chinese characters are still employed, but only for older generation. Younger Iu-Mien in the U.S. use English characters when writing Yao. For example "Yie mbuo Iu Mienh yiem Meic- Guov xei yiem longx nyei" means "We Iu Mien in the U.S. are doing fine." +++
According to the Chinese government: “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.
Nushu, a written script created in southwestern Hunan Province, is perhaps the only written language in the world created just for women. A delicate, graceful script, it was created to help women communicate at a time when they were not allowed to learn to write and has been kept alive handed down from mother to daughter. Nushu is a written form of the local Cheng Guan Tuhua dialect and is associated with the Yao people. It looks like Chinese in many ways but is different in that many characters represent only sounds, as is the case with Roman letters, and not ideas like Chinese ideograms. Nushu is often written on silk screens.
Homa Khaleel wrote in The Guardian, “After having their feet bound at around the age of seven, girls in Jiangyong County in Hunan province would live indoor---first in the "women's chamber" of their own homes, and later in the homes of their husband's family. To ease their isolation and offer support in their pain, girls from the same village were brought together as "sworn sisters" until their weddings. But a more serious relationship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life, could be arranged between two girls by a matchmaker, with a formal contract, if the pair shared enough of the same "characters" (being born on the same day, for example). In See's book she writes: "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose “ to have sons." [Source: Homa Khaleel, The Guardian, November 3, 2011]
Women used Nushu to write to their laotongs after they "married out" into different villages. Yet until the 1960s few outside the province knew about it, and no men could read it, says See. "In the mid-60s an old woman fainted in a station," she says. "The police went through her things to see who she was and found a piece of paper with what looked like a code, so she was arrested on suspicion of being a spy." In the midst of the cultural revolution, the experts who finally identified the script were sent to labour camps, not emerging to study the writing until the 80s.
The origin of Nushu is not known but may date back to the A.D. 3rd century and is believed to have developed to facilitate the local custom of “sworn sisterhood” in which friends promised to be loyal to one another forever and wrote their sorrows for their missed friends after the friends got married and were forced to move away. One popular sayings goes: “Beside a well one does not thirst. beside a sister, one does not despair.” Nushu was often used to keep a diary of private thoughts that husbands could not read.
Nushu was not discovered by outsiders until the 1980s. A decade ago Chinese-American author Lisa See was researching an article on footbinding when she found a reference to Nushu, the world's only "women's writing". Though the origins were murky, the script revealed a culture of women's relationships and sparked the idea for her novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the film of which, co-produced by Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng, was released in November 2011. [Source: Homa Khaleel, The Guardian, November 3, 2011]
Today, because girls learn Chinese like boys, Nushu has lost its special value and is dying out. Maybe only 10 elder women can read and write it fluently. An effort is being made to keep it alive and preserve it. The Italian scholar Ilaria Maria Sala wrote that we should ‘stop calling it a “language”! As you know for sure, the language that nu shu transcribes is the Jiangyong dialect -- and of course it was never “secret,” as the dialect was the same for everybody, and women would use the script in plain view of all.”
Book: We Two Know the Script: We Have Become Good Friends by William Chiang, University Press of America, 1995.
Traditionally, the Yao have been animists, shamanists and ancestor worshipers whose beliefs have been shaped somewhat by Chinese religions, namely Taoism and Buddhism, and, in the case of some groups, Christianity. The primary religious practitioners are shaman-priest-exorcists. They preside over divinations with chicken bones and bamboo sticks and pick up their knowledge of spells ad incantations from books written with Chinese characters. Most boys are given some training in these matters. Those that show particular skill are selected to become shaman-priest-exorcists, who preside over exorcisms and healing ceremonies.
The Yaos recognize a multitude of gods, and deeply revere their ancestors. Particular attention is focused on evil spirits and ghosts to make sure they don’t cause trouble. Their belief in "Panhu," the dog spirit, reveals the importance of totemism in their religion. In some areas the worship of nature, ancestors and totems is very important in people's lives. While in some other places, the Yao people mainly revere shaman and Taoism. The Yao believe that dogs are their ancestors. As a result, during important festivals, they always let dogs lick the food on table first before they have dinner. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Qian Jia Dong wrote in her blog: “ The spirits of ancestors and lineage groups have traditionally been important to the Yao. The felicity of the lineage spirits depends upon the place they have merited in a heavenly hierarchy governed by a number of great gods. The Iu Mien possesses exact information on the correct protocol for approaching these gods. This is detailed in the liturgical manuals used by Iu Mien major ritual specialists, who orchestrate the Iu Mien community in enacting the rites and instruct them in their meaning. The teaching of this liturgy links scattered individuals as one people and has held this central position probably since 14th century, when Chinese Taoism influenced Iu Mien religious thinking. In addition to great gods and ancestors, there are lesser spirits, which may affect the living, often by causing illness. Iu Mien shamans and minor ritualizes conduct rites to cure those so disturbed. [Source:Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong ]
The Yao traditionally have had many religious activities, mainly related with the yearly agricultural cycle and an individual’s life cycle and extraordinary events in the life of the individual or de community. According to the Chinese government: “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 ones. [Source: China.org china.org ]
See Yao Myths and Literature Under Yao Culture
Religion of the Pai Yao
The Pai Yao is a Yao group that lives in Liannan County in Guangdong Province. They believe that the world is populated by a multitude of spirits that they roughly divide into big and small spirits, and as they relate to human beings, good or evil spirits. All these spirits originated in the human and animal world. The Yai have traditionally believed that after a person or an animal dies its soul will become a spirit. If the dead is good his spirit is good; if bad the spirit is bad. Sometimes if a good person suffers a bad death or his death is the result of an injustice, his soul can become a bad spirit. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com , based on the report by Li Feng and Si Tujing Nangang.”Pai Yao shehui diaocha (Researches on the society of the Pai Yao in Nangang) In Liannan Yaozu zizhixian yaozu shehui diaocha (Researches on the Yao society of Liannan Yao Autonomous County). Guangdong Peoples Press. 1987 \*\]
The most important spiritual beings to the Pai Yao are their ancestor spirits, who are regarded as protectors of one’s family and lineage group. The cult to the ancestors, especially that associated with King Pan, their mythical founder, has traditionally been the most important belief of the Pai Yao. In their temples, where they worship and pray to the good spirits, King Pan—often expressed with the Pangu Emperor and Pangu Empress—play a central role.\*\
Among the evil spirits there are four main types: 1) The four brothers and sisters, the first bad people among the Pai Yao, who during their lives they did many bad things such as stealing pigs and cows; 2) The 24 devils of the temple; 3) Spirits that become evil after an extraordinary death, such as those that died before birth or were killed by a tiger or a snake; and 4) Epidemic spirits, the souls of people that died of an epidemic disease. Good spirits are honored during their main festivals. If they aren’t, they can become bad. The bad spirits can cause sickness. People visit a shaman-priest (xiangsheng gong or wushi) to be cured. He first divines the size of the spirit to determine it is a big or a small one, then offers a sacrifice or some other treatment. \*\
Yao religious specialists are very abundant. Traditionally one in every five families had one. They were traditionally farmers who did their religious duties as a kind of side occupation. Due to the fact that their status and income was a little higher than of ordinary people, many young Pai Yao have traditionally wanted to become shaman-priests and to study under an old one. Laomiangong are another kind religious specialist who are more like traditional shaman. They are called in when a sickness can not be healed by a usually shaman-priest-healer to determine which spirits are causing an illness. After arriving to a sick person's home he performs a ritual in which he shakes and trembles and finally faints and falls on the ground, signifying he is the realm of the spirits, where searches for the spirit behind the illness.
Yao Health Care and Funerals
The Yao believe that the loss of a soul can cause illnesses or even death. The souls are stolen by spirits. Health can be restored if the spirits can be convinced through rituals to return the souls. Ceremonies to get rid of the offending spirits usually involve blood sacrifice and the burning fo strips of paper with the names of the offending spirits.
Deaths have traditionally been announced with a gunshot. In most cases the body is washed, dressed, placed in a wooden coffin and cremated. The ashes are placed in a pot selected by a shaman after consulting sacred books. Periodic rites are held to honor the spirits of ancestors. The Yao of Yaolu Village in the Dayou Mountains bury their dead in caves.
The funeral customs of the Yao ethnic group differ from region to region and branch to branch. The Mianzhi branch of the Yao people typically bury their deceased in graves. In the past, rock burial used to be popular among the Buluzhi branch, but nowadays use ritual burials instead. The adults of the Lajiazhi branch are cremated after death, while minors are buried and babies have a tree burial. When a baby dies soon after birth, the corpse is put into a bamboo basket and then hung on a tree in the woods. When people of the Liannanbaipai branch die, the corpse is first bound to a chair. When the funeral procession is held, the corpse is carried to the tomb and then put into the coffin. This kind of burial is called a Traveling Corpse Burial by local people. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
San Yue San is three day festival celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Yao, She, Mulao and Geleo minorities in China's southern and central provinces. Sometimes called Venus Day, it is a time when boyfriends and girlfriends are chosen and villages celebrate the occasion with singing, dancing, archery, wrestling, playing on swings, tug of wars, pole climbing and other activities. All of the minorities perform the Money Bell and Double Daggers Dance. In this dance one man holds two daggers in his hand. Another man holds a money bell. The man with the daggers tries to stab the man with the money bell, who in turn tries to run away. 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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
The Spring Festival is celebrated by the Yao at the same time as he Chinese. On the first day of the New Year, Yao women stay at home instead of visiting other families. They do not eat green vegetables and some even place a tree branch in front of their house gate. All families stay at home on the 3rd, 5th, and 6th day of the New Year. The Dragon Worshipping Ceremony is held on the 2nd day of the New Year; in some areas it is held on the third day of the third lunar month. On this day they worship the Soul of Rice, the Goddess of Rice, the ancestor Pangu, the Jade Emperor, the ancestor Shennong, and more, in order to pray for healthy livestock, bountiful harvests, safety and peace throughout the year, and security of money and property. During the ceremony, a cleaning activity is held in which women are not allowed to participate. At this time, strangers cannot enter the village. Strangers already inside the village must wait until the ceremony has been completed to leave. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The Panwang Festival— also called "Tiao Panwang", "Qing Panwang", "Zuo Panwang" and "Huan Panwang Yuan"— is one of the most important festivals of the Yao people. It commemorates the struggle of their ancestors against oppressive ancient chieftains and thanks the Creator God of Panwang for bringing good fortune. In the past this festival was celebrated on different scales at different times. Sometimes it was celebrated by annually; others held it every three to five years, or even every twelve years. Some Yao hold activities within one household; some villages celebrate the festival together with other villages. During the festival, people not only slaughter animals and have a big feast with relatives and friends, they also recite poems and lineage myth, perform magic tricks, dancee "Panwang dance" and sing "Panwang songs". At the National Yao Delegates Conference held in Nanning, Guangxi in August 1984, it was declared that the Panwang Festival would be held annually on the 16th day of the eighth lunar month as a common festival for all Yao people. Today's Panwang Festival, featuring various cultural and recreational activities, has taken on a more jubilant, auspicious and convivial atmosphere.
Taonianbai Festival is celebrated on the 15th to the 17th of the third lunar month. It honors Fengjie, a smart and brave Yao girl who lost her life in a battle against Qing Dynasty troops. The name of this festival means a festival celebrated in the middle of the month.. For three days, young girls dress up in their best embroidered blouses and straight skirts with wear silver necklaces and gilded earrings, while young men have their heads wimpled with checkered turbans, engage in various activities. \=/
The Danu Festival is on the 29th day of the fifth lunar month. Its name in the Yao language means “never forget”. It honors the birthday of Zuniang, an ancestor of the Yao people, and is also called the Zuniang Festival. Yao people clean their houses and streets and make offerings of rice wines and sticky rice cakes for Zuniang. According to traditional customs, all families have to sacrifice some chickens and sheep. Young men and women wear special clothes and assemble at one place. A big drum is banged which symbolizes the bronze drum that Zuniang gave her daughter. Toasts are made to the best drummer who is deemed King of Drum. In addition, people sing traditional Miluotuo songs accompanied by dance and music as a tribute to Zuniang and her thrid daughter, who went to the mountains and claimed land for the Yao. \=/
Yao Society, Character and Beliefs
Society is organized along patrilineal lines. Villages are generally led by headmen who have inherited their positions from their fathers. Old people are respected and often serve in the council of elders. Social control is exerted through a social code and list of taboos. Disputes are adjudicated by the headman and village elders. Women do much of the field work as well as weaving, embroidery and cloth making. Men hunt, clear the fields and build houses. Plowing and sowing have traditionally been done as a communal activity among several households.
The Iu Mien are the largest Yao group. The name is often used to describe all Yao. Qian Jia Dong, a Yao living in the U.S. wrote in her blog: “The Iu Mien bear a culture that opens before them a path of dignity, achieved ultimately beyond death in a position of honor among the gods and spirits in the celestial kingdom. Through astuteness and industry in the present life, the individual acquires the wherewithal to faultlessly fulfill obligations to the living and the dead and to fittingly honor the gods and spirits so as to merit their esteem and their aid in further advancement. Iu Mien culture emphasizes politeness, reserve and careful negotiation so as to discover common interests that will foster harmonious cooperation. Conflict is avoided, for it only wastes precious time and resources and diverts the individual from the central tasks of earning a living and gaining honor here and hereafter. [Source:Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]
“Iu Mien bear a clan name for life but, while well disposed toward fellow clansmen, they are not bound by obligations and restrictions as they are toward members of their lineage, a much narrower grouping of those able to trace a genealogical connection in the male line. The members of a lineage, living and dead, cooperate contractually. The older generation invests in merit-making ceremonies and marriages on behalf of the younger, expecting recompense before or after death. Prosperity and health attend the living that makes offerings to and merit for their forbearers, while illness and misfortune are often attributed to dissatisfied ancestors.” +++
The Yao are regarded as pure and honest and attach importance to rituals. It is said that Yao a family in trouble will get help from one hundred families. It is said Yao never steal or pick pockets; anything lost on the road is quickly found; in the evening, doors are kept unlocked. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
In Guibei Yao Nationality region in Guangxi, you can witness Yao people in rows and lines singing and sowing collectively during spring ploughing time. This method of planting is called Gong Drum Field. (Luo Gu Di) Following the sound of drum beats, field workers, sing together while planting rice or other crops. Jinxiu Yao Mountain area, young men and women from different villages get together and talk and sing while planting and walk from one village to another. In the daytime, they work in the fields; at nights they sing and make love. According to the Chinese government: “This mode of production not only helps to eliminate fatigue, accelerate production speed, but also promotes friendship and union.” ~
The Yao gather together as one hundred families to help out during weddings, funerals, house building, or whenever a family encounters some accident or need help, say, lacking food or money. Taking care of the orphan, widow, old, weak, sick, or poor is regarded as everyone's duty. If one person feels miserable and becomes a beggar, this casts enormous shame on an entire group or village. In Yao villages attack respect and courtesy to private property, from land to haystacks. It is said as long as there is a straw knot indicating the existence of the owner, no one will attempt to touch it, let alone possess it. When laboring in the mountains or visiting relatives, it is common practice to casually leave the unnecessary luggage on the roadsides or hang them on the trees. They will always be there. Doors are often unlocked. Even if they are locked, the keys can be easily found on the doorframes. ~
Yao Customs and Taboos
The Yao respect old people very much. When meeting an elderly person on the road or a footpath, a younger person should say hello and then give way a little to let them pass. One must dismount if he meets an old person while riding a horse. It is not allowed to sit cross-legged or use the names of the elderly while sitting in front of seniors or old people. While having dinner with seniors or old people, one should offer them a higher seat, serve them food first, and put the most delicious dishes within their reach. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
On the first day of the New Year, Yao women stay at home instead of visiting other families. They do not eat green vegetables and some even place a tree branch in front of their house gate. All families stay at home on the 3rd, 5th, and 6th day of the New Year. The Dragon Worshipping Ceremony is held on the 2nd day of the New Year; in some areas it is held on the third day of the third lunar month. On this day they worship the Soul of Rice, the Goddess of Rice, the ancestor Pangu, the Jade Emperor, the ancestor Shennong, and more, in order to pray for healthy livestock, bountiful harvests, safety and peace throughout the year, and security of money and property. During the ceremony, a cleaning activity is held in which women are not allowed to participate. At this time, strangers cannot enter the village. Strangers already inside the village must wait until the ceremony has been completed to leave. \=/
Yao taboos: 1) People should also never wash their face and feet in the same basin. 2) While having dinner it is forbidden to use another person’s chopsticks or bowls. 3) Clothes cannot be dried in front of gates after being washed. 4) Spitting is forbidden indoors. 5) People cannot kill pigs on the Day of Pig and chickens on the Day of Chicken. There is no selling of oxen or horses on the Day of Ox and Horses. \=/
The fire pit is the most important part of a Yao house. The tripod on the fire pit cannot be stepped on and the firewood or straws cannot be burned with the back or end first. In some places the Yao people have respect for dogs, so if visitors come to the Yao community, they should not beat the host family’s dogs or eat dog meat. In some of the regions where the Yao people live, it is forbidden to eat turtles, snakes or eels. \=/
Yao Marriage and Family
Marriages are generally between partners from different clans and villages. They need approval from parents but are usually love matches. Frequent festivals give young people a chance flirt and meet members of the opposite sex. Fathers often make the marriage arrangements, which are only approved if the couple’s horoscopes are compatible.
Weddings are often expensive and elaborate and feature the "singing before the building." Grooms need to pay a bride price. Those that can’s come up with the full amount do a bride service. The couple usually lives the grooms parents unless the groom is doing bride service and then they live with the bride’s family. Divorces and remarriages are permitted.
Many Yao live in extended family households with three generations. A typical household contains parents, unmarried children and one or more married sons with their families. A family is often defined as a group of people who eat and farm together. The youngest child usually lives with the parents permanently and takes care of them in their old age. When the parents die he receives the house The other children, including daughters, divide the remaining property.
Iu Mien favor large households. The ideal is for each son to bring his bride to his father’s home. While each family is a separate production unit, the ritual entity is the extended family household, which is better able to absorb the expense of ceremonies when several families are contributing their resources. To enlarge the household work force, Iu Mien have traditionally adopted children of othe ethnic group, making payment to the children’s parents. Adoptees, who make up a fifth of some communities, are ritually integrated into the household head’s lineage. +++
Yao Marriage and Wedding Customs
Qian Jia Dong, a Yao living in the U.S. wrote in her blog: “Marriage is a momentous undertaking, crucial to augmenting both productivity and the lineage. Compatibility being essential to a stable union, young people are permitted to choose for themselves. A teenage girl is given her own bedroom and may have her boyfriend over for the night. Any children she may bear enhance her value as a bride, and as a wedding can involve very heavy expenses, more than one child may be born before the necessary wealth is assembled. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]
“In making a match, the most important criterion is the harmony of the birth dates of the couple as determined with Iu Mien astrological handbooks, If the match seems propitious, the families negotiate wedding arrangements, such as numbers of guests, days, and pigs to be involved in feasting and the amount of the bride price and terms of payment. All details are entered in an agreement drafted in duplicate, duly signed and witnessed, retained by each party, and posted at the wedding. +++
“A grand wedding consumes many days and pigs in feasting, first at the home of the bride and then at that of the groom. Escorted by a party of the agreed size, the bride, wearing an elaborate headdress of scarlet and embroidered cloths and long fringe draped form a large triangular frame, is received at the groom’s home with much pomp and feasting. At the auspicious moment, she is introduced through the spirit door, and in the evening begins the central ceremony, in which the couple pay obeisance to each guest. The next morning the couple drink wine mixed by the presiding ritual expert, who then preaches on Iu Mien tradition and the duties of married life.” +++
According to the Chinese government: “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 down upon. 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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Yao "Love Hole" and "Basket-seizing"
The Yao advocate free love. Various festivals, fairs and idle time are good chances for young people to find their lovers through singing folk songs. Their courting activities are colorful and full of fun. Young Yao girls in Guizhou have the custom of making a love hole on their bedroom wall when they reach marriage age. In the evening when the moon is bright above, an admirer comes by with a stick and inserts it into the love hole, expressing his love. If the boy happens to be the one the girl likes, she stands beside the hole and chats with him. However if he is not the right one, she will pretend to notice him and remain silent, forcing the boy to leave dejectedly. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
In some places in Hunan, for instance in Jianghua, on festivals or fair days, young Yao girls carry bamboo baskets, wandering around the fair. If a young man sees a girl he likes, he suddenly takes away her basket "without telling her in advance", fills it with some cookies or sweets, and gives it back to the girl. The couple then goes off to a silent place and express their love through singing songs. Before their departure, the girl takes back the basket and arranges their next date. If she really fancies the young man, she puts some cloth shoes made by herself in the basket. The fellow then seizes the basket as he did before. If the relationship continues to grow after several more dates, the young man carries two specially-made big Yeba and Niangba (kinds of food) to the girl's home and proposes to her. If the “Two bas” are accepted by the girl's parents, it means their marriage is santified. Otherwise, the fellow has to continue the game of seizing her basket at fairs and festivals.
Different Kinds of Yao Marriages and Courting
Among the Yao there are several different kinds of marriage, though all they have some common characteristics: 1) Couples use antiphonal songs to court each other. 2) Young men and women have freedom to choose their love partners, but they do not always to marry them, since marriages sometimes arranged by parents when couple are children. 3) A matchmaker and a shaman are needed to decide an auspicious date. 4) Gifts are delivered to the bride by the bridegroom's family. 5) Chickens are sacrificed and sometimes their insides are checked for omens to see if a union is good. 6) The maternal uncle plays an important role in the marriage. 7) Marriages between cousins occur. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com\*\]
1) Panyao and Shanziyao branches marriage: The Panyao and Shanziyao that live in isolated villages take advantage of visits and festivals to meet members of the opposite sex. Songs play an important role in the beginning of a relationship. Sometimes young men and women invite a song teacher to accompany them when they visit a lover. The wedding party of the Panyao lasts three days. The most important moment is when the bride enters the bridegroom's village. They are expected to be faithful after marrying, and can easily divorce if they want. \*\
2) Qinghuyao branch marriages: Qinghuyao branch girls have an "eye of the love" in their room— a hole in the wall where an admirer can put a stick, and the girl decides whether to speak with him or reject him. 3) Baikuyao branch marriages: Young Baikuyao (White Pants Yao) usually meet their partners at funerals or festivals. They sing together and exchange gifts. Then the girl can invites him to sleep in her room, without any opposition from the parents. The wedding takes place after accepting the girlfriend's price. They have divorce. \*\
4) Bapaiyao branch: Bapaiyao young people also meet each other in festivals. They have sexual relations before marriage. Usually the men request sexual relations by giving the girls a red knot. During New Year's Eve and the first two days of the year, they go to the forest to look for sexual encounters. Now this practice has disappeared. They are free to divorce, but usually they don't do so. 5) Beilouyao branch: Young Beilouyao only sing in groups; they are not allowed to sing alone. They need the help of shamans and fortune-tellers in all the phases of their love and marriage. 6) Hualanyao branch: Hualanyao boys and girls have traditionally had their marriages arranged by their parents when they were children. Once their relation is formalized, they can sleep together. Their wedding is very simple, only 4 or 5 people attend, but they make a great ceremony when their first-born is one month old. Is very common to marry and divorce three or four times. \*\
7) Aoyao branch marriage: The young of the Aoyao branch need the help of their parents and a matchmaker. In the first visit of the matchmaker, liquor is fermented. After some days they smell it. If it smells right, they sanction the marriage; if not, the marriage is regarded as inauspicious. The couple can have sexual relations before marriage, but not children. Once married, they have the freedom to have lovers, who usually have good relation with their spouses. A couple usually only has two children. They take the husband’s family name even though the husband is often not the biological father. In the old days, if more than two children were born, infanticide was practiced. They have freedom of divorce, but rarely do it. \*\
9) Free marriage of the Chasan Yao: When courting a girl they like, young Chasan Yao men ascend to the upper floor of the girl’s house and sing songs to her from the balcony. This stage of the courting process is called the period of "light the torch", because the young men leave at night carrying a torch. If the girl doesn’t have a boyfriend, many suitors may visit her at night to sing under her balcony. If she already has boyfriend, only he is allowed to sing with her. Unmarried people can met in the "January Hall" building, which opens up during the first month of the year to facilitate the courting process. \*\
There is no economic component in the Chasan Yao marriage. Exchanges of gifts between the groom and the bride's family are negligible. Except among the richer families, influenced by Han Chinese traditions, weddings tend to be austere. By contrast, some of the richest families spend so much money on grand weddings they accumulate debt that lasts for generations. One month after the start their relationship a couple is allowed to have sexual relations. If a child is born it is not discriminated against. Divorce is easily granted. Some couples, marry and divorce four or five times, sometimes to the same partner. \*\
Yao Coming of Age Ceremonies
Boys between the ages of 12 and 20 undergo a coming of age ceremony that includes both group and individual rites such as soul calling, merit-making rituals and initiation rites. The events take several days and are held to honor the village’s and mountain’s guardian spirits. Yao girls also go through a coming of age ceremony.
Boys have to undergo an adult ceremony called the Dujie. The Yao people do not consider 18 or 21 years old as the age of maturity. Instead, they believe that, regardless of how old a man is, as long as he has participated in and passed the adult ceremony, he is an adult. After the ceremony, Yao boys are allowed to chase after girls and get married. For many Yao, the Dujie is sacred and holy, even more important and ceremonious than marriage. A man who has not taken part in or passed the adult ceremony is not considered as a real man and will not be loved by girls, and probably can never find a wife. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The process of the adult ceremony takes a lot of preparation time. As soon as a boy is ten years old, his parents invite a knowledgeable man to calculate the best year for him to take part in the adult ceremony. In some Yao villages, in order to publicize the 'Ten Testaments’, senior entertainers and give lectures about the dangers of pornography, robbery, rape, and laziness and the virtues of hard work, being productive, respecting the old, diligence and thrift. One or two years before the ceremony, the parents step up the preparations and set an exact date. After that, many knowledgeable teachers are invited to help in the instruction. The teachers use books and impart their own knowledge about all the traditional Yao moralities, virtues, and rules. The boy practices diligently on a big table as a dress rehearsal for the ceremony and sleeps in bed covered with a quilt for five days before the ceremony begins. \=/
The Dujie ceremony itself is long and complicated. It begins before the sun rises. The teacher first reads scriptures and helps the boy go through the religious rites. Then a teacher who wears a red gown helps the boy put on the same clothes, tying the red belt, and putting on a charm of the ancient Yao sacred statue. The teacher ties one end of a red ribbon to his own waist, and the other end to the boy's waist, symbolizing that his student is just like a baby who has not yet been delivered from the mother's womb. With the divine sword and the ritual apparatus in his hands, the teacher leads the boy into the courtyard for the ceremony. On the way there, the teacher also hands out paper money to the surrounding audience. \=/
After reaching the altar of heaven, the boy first walk around the altar three times in a clockwise direction under the leadership of the teacher. Then the teacher climbs up to the altar with a tool shaped like tree leaves in his hands, murmuring some words. Then he comes down, leads the boy to the big table, and unties the red belt symbolizing birth. At the same time, he tells the boy about the oath he will make. The boy kneels down to thank his teacher before the wooden ladder is taken away. Then the boy swears to heaven, that he will never commit the crimes of murder, arson, robbery, theft, rape, kidnapping or mistreat his parents, backstab any person and things like that. When the oath is finished, the teacher makes a red stamp on one of the boy's hands with a triangle seal. \=/
The Yao often live in villages interspersed with villages of other groups such as Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Miao. They often live on the slopes of mountains at an elevation between 300 and 1,300 meters. Their villages usually have between 20 and 80 households.
Qian Jia Dong wrote in her blog: “Iu Mien culture counsels adaptation to the local political situation and prescribes on one form of village organization. In Thailand, Iu Mien choose a headman, of their own or another ethnic group, to represent their village in accord with Thai government regulations. Iu Mien culture specifies no communal structures, though communities cooperate in making improvements to facilitate earning a living. On a mountain, an Iu Mien village may not be below that of another ethnic group, and in a village, no house may obstruct the front door of another or a clear line to the local spirit shrines, which must be above the village.” In the past Iu Mien were highly mobile. While villages might remain in one place, inhabitants came and went as families headed wherever they could to look for better land and opportunities to increase productivitym in pary to bear the costs of marriages and merit making. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]
The Yao people dwell in bamboo huts, log cabins, thatched cottages and a few live in houses built with mud walls and tiled roofs. 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 quarters for animals and storage for tools. 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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Houses built on the ground have a wood frame, bamboo walls, a dirt floor and roofs thatched with grass. They have traditionally been arranged in a line facing the downward slope of a mountain. Water is carried in from sources on bamboo tubes.Yao barns in southern Guizhou Province feature grass roofs that shed rain and moisture-resistant floors. Overturned pottery jars in the middle keep mice away.
Qian Jia Dong wrote in her blog: “Most Chasan Yao, who reside primarily in the Dayaoshan Mountains, live in houses of two floors; the lower is usually used to keep the tools, domestic animals and grain. The upper floor is where people live. Dong wrote: “The Iu Mien ritual center is the household altar. This faces the front door of the house, which opens away from the mountain and is used only on ritual occasions, such as when spirits are honored, when brides enter the household, or when the bodies of the dead depart. Normally, access is through doors in either gable end of the house. At one end is the main room, where guests are received: on the other is a kitchen area with a rice pounder and two hearths, both regarded as the dwelling places of spirits. The area behind the altar is partitioned into bedrooms. The house stands on the ground and has wooden or bamboo plank walls, and a shingled, grass, or thatch roof. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal angelfire.com/ca6/tomswebpage/QianJiaDong +++]
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 tea leaves 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 the house. [Source: China.org china.org ]
According to Chinatravel.com: “In Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the local Yao people catch migrating birds in basins and pickle them to make a special delicacy to treat distinguished guests. To make oily tea: first, they sauté tea leaves in oil; and then they make soups with the leaves; after that, they add some seasonings such as fresh ginger, pepper, and salt into the soup. At last, the soup is mixed with fried rice, fried peas and candies before drinking it. This kind of oil-tea has a very special and unique flavor.” [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com ]
Yao Economics, Agriculture and Hunting
Most Yao are farmers. The agricultural methods they use depends on where the live. Most grow rice, maize, chilies, eggplants and lettuce. They used to grow opium as a cash crop but have been discouraged from doing so. Land has traditionally been communally owned.
The Yao have traditionally been regarded as traders. The often live among villages of other groups and act as traders between them. They have also traditionally lived closer to the lowland groups than other highlanders and acted traders and intermediaries between lowlanders and highlanders. The Yao also make rifles and paper in addition to the traditional hill tribe tools and weapons such as knives and crossbows.
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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Image Sources: Wiki Commons, Nolls http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Jinhong website
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015