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The Yao are a fairly large minority found in southern China, northern Thailand, northern Laos and Vietnam. They live primarily in mountainous southern China, but they are also found in significant numbers in northern Thailand (where they are known as the Mian) and northern Laos and Vietnam (where they are known as the Man). About 60 percent of those in China live in Guangxi with most of the remainder live across the border in Hunan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Jiangxi and Yunnan.

Yao call themselves Mian or Mien, which means “people.” Yao is a Chinese expression that means “dog” or “savage.” They have traditionally lived in the mountains ad engaged in farming and forestry and have been involved in the opium trade and are regarded as one of most advanced hill tribes.

The Yao are also known as the Byau Min, Kim Mun, Pai Yao and Yao Min. There are approximately four million Yao living in various regions of southern Asia today. A 1990 census counted 2.1 million of them in China. Another 40,000 or so live in Thailand. Yao religious life has been heavily influenced by Taoism. Different Yao groups have different customs and identify themselves as such by wearing different clothing.

Websites and Sources: Yao Long Hair video You Tube ; More Long Hair You Tube ; Long Hair text chinaodysseytours.com ; Book Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Paul Noll site: paulnoll.com ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984

Yao History

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Yao in Chinese

The Yao consider China their homeland. They were described in Chinese historical records in 2500 B.C. According to legend the Yao were founded by a dog who saved the life of the daughter of a Chinese emperor and thus was rewarded with her hand in marriage. The Yao have fair skin and Mongolian features, and it is believed they have the same ancestors as the Chinese. Because of their Chinese origins, the Yao consider themselves to be culturally superior to other hill tribes.

Over time the Yao migrated southward and reached Vietnam perhaps by the 11th century. Their relations with China have been marked by conflict. Between 1910 and 1950 approximately 20,000 Yao escaped the turmoil in southern China, particularly during World War II, by emigrating to Thailand.

Yao Language and Religion


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.

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. Th Yao believed in pantheon of spirits of deities. Particular attention is focused on evil spirits and ghosts to make sure they don’t cause trouble.

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.


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.

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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.

Yao Festivals


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.

Yao Health Care and Funeral

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.

Yao Marriage and Family

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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’t 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.

Yao Society


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.

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 Villages and Homes

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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.

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.

Yao Life

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.

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.

Dancing is rarely seen. Yao in Yunnan do the Pan Wang dance.

Yao Clothes

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Festival headgear
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 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.”

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.

Yao Economics and Agriculture

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.

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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.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, Nolls http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html, Jinhong website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2010

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