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The Yao are a fairly large minority that are found in Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou and Yunnan in southern China, Thailand, 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 or Zao). About 70 percent of those in China live in Guangxi with most of the remainder live across the border in Hunan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Jiangxi and Yunnan.

The Yao (pronounced YOW) live in "small communities scattered across big areas". 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. Among people labeled as Yao you can find many differences in language, social organization, customs, practices, religious beliefs and clothing. Because of this the Yao are called a variety of names by other groups and among the Yao themselves dozens of names are used. [Sources: Ethnic China; Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ~]

Despite considerable variation among different Yao groups, 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 (marrying within one’s group) with regard to dialect and local territorial unit. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The Yao have long history. As early as the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the name "Moyao"—thought to a name used for the Yao’s ancient ancestors— appeared in historical records. Most Yao languages belong to the Miao-Yao language branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. Some of them belong to the Zhuang-Dong language branch and Dong-Shui branch. Significant differences exist among different dialects and some of them even cannot communicate.

Farming is the main occupation of the Yao people. They mainly grow on rice and corn. Sticky rice is their staple food. Yao houses are usually made of wood or bamboo. Some of them are also built with bricks and earth, with distinctive roofs. Often they are built on high mountains. Yao people celebrate many festivals, such as the Panwang Festival, the Spring Festival, Danu Festival, Zhongyuan Festival and Shewang Festival. Yao religious life has been heavily influenced by Taoism. They believe in Taoism and the ancient religions. Yao people have a variety of cultural and artistic activities, including their own music, dances and handicrafts. Different Yao groups have different customs and identify themselves as such by wearing different clothing.

Source: “Fifty Years Investigation in the Yao Mountains in Lemoine and Chiao Chien” by Fei Xiaotong, The Yao of South China-Recent International Studies. Pangu. Paris, 1991.

Websites and Sources: 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 (lu Mien) Names and Populations

Yao in Vietnam

Compared with other nationalities, the Yao have two unique features: they are widely scatted and they have many names. The Yao call themselves Mien, Mian and Iu Mien, which means “people.” Yao is the name for them in China. Yao is a Chinese expression that means “dog” or ‘savage.” In the Sapa area of Vietnam they are called the Zao, which means "evil, malicious, bad, mean, wicked." in Vietnamese. They are also called Dao and Man in Vietnam. In Laos and Vietnam the word "man" also means "people." Among the other names used to describe the Yao or Yao groups are 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 and Chashan Yao.

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 +++]

Historically, the Yao have had at least 30 names based on their ways on where they lived, their lifestyles, and dresses and adornments. In China the Yao are found mainly in 1) Jinxiu, Bama, Dahua, Du'an, Fuchuan and Gongcheng counties of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; 2) Jianghua, Ningyuan, Lanshan and Xinning counties of Hunan Province; 3) Jinping, Hekou, Funing and Malipo counties of Yunnan Province; 4) Liannan, Ruyuan and Lianshan counties of Guangdong Province; and 4) Rongjiang and Congjiang counties of Guizhou Province.

There are approximately five million Yao living in various regions of southern Asia today. A 2020 census counted 3.3 million of them in China. Another 40,000 or so live in Thailand. Yao are also one of the 54 ethnic groups officially recognized by Vietnam. There they are known primarily as Dao, Zao, or Man. In the Vietnam census in 2019, they numbered 891,151. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in the early 21st century they were 2,700,000 Yao in China, more than 350,000 in Vietnam, some 40,000 in Thailand, and approximately 20,000 in Laos. The large jump in numbers in Vietnam is probably the result of counting more people in remote places and more people identifying themselves as Yao who hadn't the past.

The Yao are the 13th largest ethnic group and the 12th largest minority in China. They numbered 3,309,341 in 2020 in China and made up 0.23 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. Yao populations in China in the past: 0.2098 percent of the total population; 2,796,003 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 2,638,878 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 2,134,013 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. A total of 665,933 were counted in China in 1953; 857,265 were counted in 1964; and 1,414,870 were, in 1982. About 70 per cent of them live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the rest are in Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia. China.org]

Yao Branches

There are a number of Yao branches. Some studies detail more than 30 different ones. The Big cultural and linguistic differences between Yao branches can be quite large. Among the major branches are the Chashan Yao, Baigu Yao and Hongtou Yao. But, in contrast to some of the other big minorities of China, such as the Yi or the Miao, whose identity is continually debated inside and outside the minority, nobody seems to deny the existence of the Yao as a kind of homogeneous minority. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Places Yao live in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand

The Yao language is divided into four main dialects: 1) Mian: the main dialect of the Yao, spoken by more than 700,000 people in south China and Southeast Asia; 2) Jinmen, spoken by 100,000 people, who live mainly in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and Vietnam, Laos and Thailand; 3) Biaomin, spoken in northern Guangxi province; and 4) Yaomin, with 50,000 speakers, who inhabit Liannan Yao Autonomous district in Guangdong province. *\

Linguistic analysis of these four dialects provides clues to origin, history and migrations of the Yao people, including that they originated more than 2,000 years ago. Studies of the Yao in Dayaoshan (Big mountain of the Yao), in Guangxi province, where the group has lived in compact communities for a long time, shows surprising diversity. In the 2,300 square kilometers of Dayaoshan, the Yao call themselves five different names: 1) Chashan Yao or Lajia. 2) Hualan Yao or Jiongnai; 3) Ao Yao or Aobiao; 4) Pan Yao or Mian; and 5) Shanzi Yao or Jindimen. All wear different traditional dresses. *\

These five ethnic groups speak three different languages: 1) Mian, 2) Bunu and 3) Lajia. Mian languages belong to the Miao-Yao family, Yao branch; Bunu language belongs to Miao-Yao family, Miao branch; Lajia language belongs to Zhuang-dong family, Dong-Shui branch. Chasan Yao, Hualan Yao and Ao Yao live up in the mountain and have traditionally been settled farmers. Pan Yao and Shanzi Yao practiced slash and burn agriculture until recently, moving their villages every several years. They were known as Shanzi Yao or Gaoshan Yao (Yao Crossing the Mountains), implying that they have no land nor fixed settlements. *\

On these differences Fei Xiaotong wrote: "Considering the fact of their different languages these five Yao groups with different self-denominations probably had different origins. In other words they are probably not of the same ethnic stock." Moreover "These Yao groups who entered Da Yaoshan at different times and by different routes did not mix with each other." Fei Xiaotong concludes that over a period of four to five hundred years, groups speaking different languages successively entered the Yao mountains, and, due to their common interests, united to protect the mountainous area. The Han people therefore referred to them all indiscriminately as Yao and this is how the present Yao community into existence despite the fact they speak different languages, wear different costumes and have different customs and habits." Even so, most people who have contact with the Yao, including the Yao themselves, consider the diverse Yao groups to be Yao. Some have argued that this situation came into existence so the Yao could avoid paying Chinese taxes and avert providing corvee service. *\

Places Where Yai Live China

The Yao are scattered over 136 counties in southern China: 60 counties in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, over 30 counties in Hunan province, 15 counties in Yunnan province, 11 counties in Guangdong province, over 20 counties in Guizhou province and parts of Jiangxi province. They usually live together with many other nationalities, including Han, Zhuang, Miao and Dong. The distributing feature of "small communities scatter across big areas" is very prominent. Except for some small parts that live in the hills and river valleys, most of them are scattered in high mountains, such as Wuling Mountain, Shiwan Mountain, Duyang Mountain, Xuefeng Mountain, Luoxiao Mountain, Liuxiao Mountain and Ailou Mountain. Hence the saying goes "there is no mountains in Nanling Mountains that Yao do not inhabit."

Yao in China

In China, most Yao live in beautiful, mountain valleys, between 1000 and 2000 meters, in humid, subtropical areas, densely covered with pines, firs, Chinese firs, Chinese cinnamons, tung oil trees, bamboos and tea bushes. The thickly forested Jianghua Yao Autonomous County in Hunan is renowned as the "home of Chinese firs." The places inhabited by the Yao also abound in indigo, edible funguses, bamboo shoots, sweet grass, mushrooms, honey, dye yam, jute and medical herbs. The forests are home to wild animals such as boars, bears, monkeys, muntjacs and masked civets.

Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County—a typical place where the Yao live in China—was established in 1952 with the name of Dayaoshan (Big Mountain of the Yao) Autonomous Zone, but in 1966 the name was changed to Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County. It is a mountainous county with rugged lands and a climate hot and wet. It has an area of 2,517 square kilometers and a population (2004) of 150,000. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Located in the central part of Guangxi, Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County is one of the places where the Yao are most heavily concentrated. Largely isolated from the outside world until the 1930s, Jinxiu County, was formerly inhabited by five different kinds of Yao: 1) Chashan Yao, 2) Ao Yao, 3) Hualan or Flowery Yao, 4) Pan Yao and 5) Shanzi Yao. The first three branches were considered the owners of the lands, because they arrived first in the area. They traditionally lived in settled villages and enjoyed a kind of economical stability. The other two branches arrived later, living as tenants of the land of the first three groups as nomads that never allowed them to become settled or accumulate many material goods. Before the beginning of the policy of assimilate ethnic minorities, most of the people in Jinxiu were Yao (18,000 of a total population of 26,000). The discovery of some Tang dynasty coins in the forest of Jinxiu made scholars think that the first wave of Yao arrived about 1,000 years ago.

Scattered Yao Branches

Fei Xiaotong, one of the first anthropologists to study the Yao in detail, wrote: "The Yao characteristically lived in small, widely-scattered communities. The Yao of Guangxi were spread over 60 or more counties, their numbers in each county varying from a hundred thousand or more to only a few thousand or a few hundred. Their villages were usually separated by several mountains. Even in the Dayao Mountains, walking from one village to another not infrequently took me a whole day when I first visited the region." "Living so widely dispersed; the Yao differed markedly among themselves in language, social structure, customs, habits, religion, and even dress. These differences formed the basis of the various names by which they were known." [Source: Ethnic China *]

1) Mien (Youmien): Most Yao belong to this branch. Usually Mien is synonym of Yao and the Mien language means the Yao language. In China they live in many counties of Guangxi, Guangdong, Yunnan and Hunan provinces. But there are no Mien communities in Guizhou. Most of the Yao of Southeast Asia are also Mien. Their population was is 523,709 in 2000 in China. In Southeast Asia there are about 400,000 of them. 2) The Bunu live mainly in several counties in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Funing County in Yunnan province. They have some myths differences from other Yao, such as the cult to Miluotou as the mother goddess. In 2000 their population was about 490,853. 3) The Bingduoyou (Dainaijiang) live in Guangxi (Gongcheng and Fuchuan counties) and Hunan provinces (Jianghua County). In 2000 their population was about 287,920. 4) The Jinmen live in the southeast of Yunnan Province (Wenshan and Honghe Prefectures) and the southwest of Guangxi province. In 2000 their population was about 210,714.

5) The Nunu inhabit Linyun, Bama, Tianlin, Fengshan and Donglang counties in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Prefecture. In 2000 their population was about 102,038. 6) The Zaomin live in Guangdong (Lianshan and Yangshan counties) and Hunan (Yizhang County). In 2000 their population was about 95,036. 6) The Younian numbered about 56,851 in 2000. 7) The Biaomei numbers 52,799 in 2000. 7) The Naogelao or Baonuo live in Guangxi (Hechi, Nandan and Tian'e counties) and Lipo County of Guizhou. One of its branches is the Dounu, known outside their communities as Baiku Yao or White Pants Yao. The total population of the Naogelao is 52,655. That of the Dounu, considered as a branch of them, is about 30,000. 8) The Bunuo numbered 35,829 in 2000. The Baheng numbered 33,157 in 2000.

9) The Biaoman live in Mengshan, Lipo, Pingle and Zhaoping Counties in Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 27,513. 10) The Gugangyou live in Luocheng County of Guangxi Province and Lanshan and Jianhua counties of Hunan Province. In 2000 their population was about 26,244. 11) the Lajia, also known as Chashan Yao, are one of the five Yao branches living in Yaoshan, Jinxiu County, Guangxi Province. Their language and culture has attracted the attention of many ethnologists. There are several books about them. In 2000 their population was about 17.091. 12) The Jiaogongmian live in Gongcheng County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 16,036. 13) The Wunao live in several counties of Hunan Province. In 2000 their population was about 12,719. 14) The Younuo live in Longsheng County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 9,331. 14) The Shimen live in Gongcheng County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 7,622

15) The Tuyou live in Hexian County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 7,174. 16) The Youjia live in Guanyang County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 6,433. 17) The Gandimen live in Jinxiu and other counties of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 5,570. 18) The Aobiao live in Jinxiu County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 3,943. 19) The Numao live in Lipo County of Guizhou Province. In 2000 their population was about 3,665. 20) The Nao live in Jinxiu County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 2,626. 21) The Beidongnuo live in Lipo County of Guizhou Province. In 2000 their population was about 779. 22) The Zhudun Youmien live in Fangcheng County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 511. The Shanjie live in Fangcheng County of Guangxi Province. In 2000 their population was about 479.

Yao Names

Among more than 60 names the Yao call themselves are Iu Mien, Mian, Youmian, Dongbenyou, Tuyou, Gugangyou, Bingduoyou, Bunu, Nuhao, Men, Jinmen, Min, Biaomin etc. Of the more than 390 names used by others are Panyao, Panguyao, Bunuyao, Red Yao, White Yao, White Trousers Yao and Tea Plantation Yao. The name "Yao" was officially adopted after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

Iu Mien is a name used to describe both the largest Yao branch or all yao. In Yao, the word “mien” means “people.” In China and Thailand, the Iu Mien are called Yao, and in Laos and Vietnam, they are called Man. Man is an ancient Chinese word, meaning “barbarian”. It was applied to peoples the Han Chinese encountered but were unable to assimilate when they expanded southward over last 1000 years or so. In both Chinese and Lao, “Man” may also refer to peoples other than Iu Mien. Yao, which derived from the 'Iu' in Iu Mien, first appears as a name for the group in an account of the Man “barbarians” living along the Hunan-Guizhou border written about a 1,000 years ago. [Source:Qian Jia Dong journal]

Originated from the "savage Changsha and Wuling tribes", the Yao ancestors lived around Changsha and Wuling counties, which are today's river valley areas along Xiangjiang River, Zijiang River, Yuan River and the Dongting Lake. They later moved southward to such areas as Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou and Yunan and thus the inhabiting feature of "small communities scatter across big areas" came into being. As a result, their life styles, cultural activities and even names began to diverge. ~

Yao self-names include "Mian", "Youmian", "Men", "Jinmen", "Shimen", "Min", "Biaomin", "Bunu" and "Bunuo". Among the names used are number that originated from totem and ancestor worshipping, like "Panyao", "Panwang Yao", "Pangu Yao","Bunu Yao", "Tangwang Yao", "Shangong Yao" and "Monkey Yao. Some come from the color of their costumes and adornments, like "Red Yao", "White Yao", "Flowery Clothes Yao", "White Trouser Yao", "Black Yao", "Cyan Yao" and "Cyan Trousers Yao". Some come from the features of their topknots, like "Ban Yao", "Dingban Yao", "Jian Yao", "Horn Yao" and "Bamboo Hat Yao". Some refer to their hairdos, like "Beifa Yao", "Bun Hair Yao", "Comb Yao" and "Painted Hair Yao". ~

Some Yao names from the terrain of the places they live like "High Mountain Yao", "Remote Mountain Yao", "Halfway Hill Yao", "Cave Yao" and "Level Land Yao”. Others come from the places where they live, like "Daozhou Yao", "Changning Yao", "Jinxiu Yao", "Qidu Yao", "Lianshan Yao" and "Shuangping Yao". Some come from the way they make a living, like "Slashing Yao", "Hillside-Opening Yao", "Mountain-Crossing Yao", "Leek Yao" and "Tea Plantation Yao". These names provide some hints in conducting research concerning the Yao's historical and cultural features. ~

Origins of the Yao

As is true with the She and Miao ethnic groups, the Yao are historically linked with the ancient "Jingman" and "Changsha Wulingman" who lived in the Qin and Han Dynasties. Their ancestors were called Muoyao in ancient books of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) and Yaoren during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). 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.

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. The name "Yao" began to be used in the 8th century, to denominate a group peoples who were relatively accommodating to Han Chinese invaders and rewarded with the right to not pay corvee (forces, unpaid labor). The first references to the Yao was with term “Mo Yao” in the Sui Dynasty. According to some scholars "Mo Yao" means "Exempted from corvee". According to the Book of the Later Han Dynasty (25-220), the ancestors of the Yao "liked five-colored clothes." Later historical records said that the Yao were "barefoot and colorfully dressed."[Source: Ethnic China *]

Some scholars believe the Yao belong to a group of peoples called the Shan Yue, who inhabited a mountainous area south of the Yangtze river in present-day Zhejiang Province before the unification of China for Qinshihuang emperor in 221 B.C. Other scholars believe they descended from the Wuximan People who lived in the southwest of today’s Hunan Province about 2000 years ago. Yet others say the Yao’s ancestors migrated to that region from areas near the Pacific Coast and or that the Yao people did not originate in one particular region, but a variety of locations. There is some agreement that the Yao people were originally connected and related to the Jingman, ChangshaWuling People, both of whom lived in today’s Hunan Province. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

When China was unified under Emperor Qinshihuang in 221 B.C., a policy was adopted of banishing criminals to the minority inhabited border areas . As a result, a lot of Han people from the central parts of China were sent to today's Changsha and Wuling regions, where the ancestors of the Yao lived. These Han people brought advanced technologies to the region, which promoted development. During both the Western Han (202 BC-25 AD) and Eastern Han Dynasty (25AD-220AD), the minority people in Wuling area had to pay high taxes to the government and sometimes revolted against the government in the Eastern Han Dynasty. \=/

Panhu: the Founder of the Yao


The Yao consider Panhu— a mythical figure at the center of their most important myths— to be their ancestor and the founder of the Yao people. According to legend Panhu was a dragon-dog who defeated the great enemy King Gao. After performing several heroic feats he is rewarded with the hand of the younger daughter of King Ping. After they were married they bore six boys and six girls, whose intermarriage gave birth the Yao people. Many scholars think that Panhu was a real person— a mythified local hero.

Some think that Panhu lived in time of King Ping, of the Western Zhou dynasty (8th century B.C.). Others think he lived later, maybe in the first years of the A.D. 1st century. According to one of the most popular stories, Panhu, also called Panwang and Pangu, was a dragon-like dog and a totem to the Yao people. Many Yao people believe that Panhu is their first ancestor. They worship him and offer sacrifice to him and honor him in the Panwang Festival. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Qianjiadong: Birthplace of the Yao

A place called Qianjiadong is regarded as the birthplace of the Yao. According to legend, the ancestor of the Yao, Panwang, (Panhu) was reproached by his men when he became the Han emperor's son-in-law. He and his wife were sent to the isolated Qianjiadong by the emperor. In the middle of the place lay a piece of flat land, surrounded by hills. It was linked with the outside world only by a cavernous tunnel. Panwang and his wife and their descendants lived and multiplied there generation after generation. [Source: Wei Liming, china.org ^^]

The Yao lived and worked in peace and contentment in Qianjiadong. They lived, grew, and multiplied there for many generations. Qianjiadong's surroundings were towering mountains, steep rocks, and rugged ridges, green forests, densed grass, trees, and waterfalls. Through the cavern suddenly lies broad farmland with rich soils, the land dwelled by more than a thousand households of Yao. These ancient people lived their prosperous lives as farmers, and enjoying their freedoms in a wonderland. [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal, Translated by Tommy Phan +++]

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), someone from the local government entered Qianjiadong through the tunnel and found people there well-clad and well-fed. The local government began to collect the land tax by force. Troops were dispatched to the site to collect funds by force. The Yao were outraged, overwhelmed, and disturbed by the military officials. Many Yao were hung to their deaths; buildings were destroyed, and set on fire. Their ancient narrow drums, antiques, arts, household valuable items were all destroyed, or set on fire. Many Yao feared that there maybe more slaughtering from the government, so the elders blew the ox horn to call together all the 12 clans of Yao, and warned them that Qianjiadong is about to end its history; that every bird has its own destiny, every beast has its own path, and that everyone must run for his or her life. ^^ +++


The Yao left their homeland. Before leaving, 12 tribes of the Yao ethnic group cut an ox horn into 12 parts. Every tribal chief received one part. They swore before the bronze statue of Panwang that after 500 years, Yao people, wherever they were, would return to the homeland, put together the horn and rebuild the holy land. As you can imagine this tragedy deeply tainted the hearts of all Yao. It also had tainted the history itself. It became forever difficult for many Yao to restrain such pain. More than 500 years had past, many Yao still cross mountains and wade in deep waters, not fearing of danger, or hardship.

Gong Zhebing, a professor of philosophy at Wuhan University, is credited with discovering Qianjiadong as well as uncovering Nushu, a writing used only by a small number of women. Yao elders whom Gong contacted in his investigation, referring to the family tree or the story which has passed down on lips, all claimed that their roots were in Qianjiadong. In order to find Qianjiadong, Gong and his colleagues went deep into the mountains of Hunan, Guangdong and Guangxi, where the Yao live. Using clues from the topographical features described in the “The Travel of Qianjiadong,” an oral epic handed down through many generations of Yao, they covered more than 1,000 kilometers and finally at Dupang Ridge, at the juncture of Guangxi and Hunan, found a cavern whose topographical features conform to that of Qianjiadong. They walked into the cavern and suddenly emerged into farmland surrounded by hills. ^^

The Qianjiadong site has been explored somewhat by archeologists. After hundreds of years, it is still largely intact and largely undisturbed. Archeologist have unearthed many ancient swords, metal torches, old bricks, and grindstones, offering evidence that the Qianjiadong story was true. Today it is a tourist attraction known for it rich natural resources, four huge lands, nine sources of rivers, maple trees, beautiful white ridges and many rare wonderful wild birds. All 12 parts of an ox horn that were cut to represent the 12 tribes have been returned. Atall monument of a huge 'Ox Horn' was built in Qianjiadong to preserve and to commemorate such discovery, which was completed in 1992.

Early History of the Yao

Around the Sui Dynasty (560 A.D.- 618 A.D.) , the Yao and Miao nationalities living in today's Hunan and Hubei Provinces diverged into two different ethnic groups. Over time the Yao migrated southward and reached Vietnam perhaps by the 11th century. The ancestors of the Yao people in today's Yunnan Province moved from of Guangxi, Guangdong and Guizhou Provinces to Wenshan area during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Later some of them moved to the Honghe River Basin, Mojiang and Mengla areas. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

At the end of the Han dynasty in the A.D. 3rd century China split into three independent kingdoms. Political instability in the north caused a large migration of Chinese people to the Yangtze River basin. This caused the people living in this area to move to the relatively wild and uncharted south, where various tribal peoples were already living. This started a process of colonization of indigenous lands by the Han Chinese that continues to this day. Some indigenous peoples mixed with the recently-arrived Chinese, assimilating into the Han Chinese masses. Others, such as the Yao, maintained their independence. However, they were forced to abandon their most fertile lands, and migrate further south and into the mountains to agriculturally less productive areas. It has been proposed that different branches of the Yao began differentiate themselves in these years: and separated from another they developed the distinctions that characterizes them today. The Yao were described as the Moyao in Chinese sources historical records. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Yao in the Tang Dynasty

20080306-Yao-char Nolls.jpg
Yao in Chinese
In the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 — 907), the Yao people mainly lived in the provinces of Hunan, Guangxi and Guangdong, and at that time were called Moyao ethnic group. The Moyao people were mostly farmers. The famed Tang poet Du Fu (712-770) wrote: "The Moyaos shoot wild geese; with bows made from mulberry trees." As time went on, historical accounts about the Yao increased, which could be interpreted as growing ties between the Yao and the Han people. It is said the Chinese introduced them to iron tools, and this greatly helped improved their agriculture and crafts, although some of tribes continued to reside in forest. Over the centuries contacts with the Chinese increased.

Two papers presented in the First International Congress of Yao Studies dealt with the origin and meaning of the "King Ping's Charter", a Tang Dynasty document that granted the Yao free pass across the mountains of the 15 southern provinces of China and an imperial statement that exempt them from the corvee services. Research has indicated the document was issued in the reign of the Emperor Tang Taizong, a time of peaceful development and a policy of low taxes and good treatment to the frontier minorities. [Source: Ethnic China *]

During this time the Yao inhabited the middle course of the Yangtze River, living mainly of fishing, hunting and a primitive agriculture. King Ping’s charters gave the Yao a free passe in all the mountain ranges of south China, provinces of which the Tang emperors had little real control. This has led some scholars to conclude that charter really meant the Yao were expelled from the rich lands they inhabited, possibly to make way for Chinese migrants, more able to develop the rice agriculture. As a kind of compensation for leave these lands, they were granted free pass through the mountain ranges and given exemptions, clearly specifying that no government authority was allowed to exact on them any toll or tax on places were the traveler usually pay, as well as exemption of corvee. *\

Many King Ping's Charter were reissued during the Song Dynasty when the Yao continued their southward migrations. This was also seen a evidence that the migrations were the result of the Han Chinese migratory pressures. The ensuing interactions between the Yao and other ethnic groups Miao helps explain the great linguistic diversity of the Yao, with some groups speaking languages belonging to the Miao sub- branch of the Miao-Yao family, and other even languages related with the Kam-Thai family. The process of ethnic fusion is guessed in some chronicles of the Ming dynasty. During this dynasty the pressure on the Yao and other minorities of South China was stronger than ever, with the result of bloody wars in territory over a period of 200 years. Mountain peoples with the same interest may have fought together against the Chinese.

Yao in Imperial China

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the ancestors of the Yao people inhabited many locations throughout China: from today's Shou County of Anhui Province in the east to Shang County of Shanxi Province in the west, Wuling area until the eastern part of today's Henan Province, and the Northwest region of today's Anhui Province. During this time, there was relatively high amount pf communication and interaction between the Yao and Han people. Agriculture and handicrafts developed considerably in the Yao areas and iron knives, indigo-dyed cloth and crossbow weaving machines made by the Yao had a good reputation. At that time, the Yao in Hunan were raising cattle and using iron farm tools on fields rented from Han landlords. [Source: Chinatravel.com; China.org ]

During the Song dynasty, the Yao were integrated in a marginal way into the administration of the Chinese state by the establishment of the Tuguan system. The tuguan were the local (tu) leaders who governed (guan) the Yao on behalf of the emperor. The Tuguan system brought benefits for the leaders who saw their leadership recognized by the powerful emperor, and for the Chinese who gained suzerainty and access to trade routes in Yao lands. But the for common people it is said the tuguan system was a setback because they were forced to do more work and services for their "tuguan" lords. Many Yao communities didn't accept the system and moved away from the Chinese to isolated areas, where they kept to themselves, living a simple economic life based on agriculture, until the second half of 20th century. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Yao manuscript

Despite the isolation of many Yao groups their existence was not always peaceful. Even when they lived in remote mountains their history is full of rebellions and resistance against the Chinese. Among the most important rebellions are: A) the 1327 rebellion that affected the whole Guangxi province and part of Hunan; B) the 1371 rebellion, the biggest of the Yao uprising; and C) the 1403 rebellion: when the Yao people rebelled in Guiyang and Hunan.. The 1371 rebellion began in Guangxi in 1371 in response to the "migration to the tropics" of the Chinese peoples, and the exploitation of tropical woods promoted during the Ming dynasty. It lasted more than 100 years.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), one story goes, imperial Chinese officials came to the Yao ethnic group to collect taxes. They were greatly welcomed by the Yao people and treated so well many of them didn’t return home. Their leader mistakenly believed that they had been killed by the Yao people and sent troops to Yao areas and slaughtered the local people. As a result the Yao people were forced to vacate their land and migrate to different places. Before they departed and went separate ways, they divided an ox horn into twelve parts; one part was kept by each of the twelve families. They vowed all of them would return to their homeland one thousand years later. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Later History of the Yao

During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the Yao ethnic groups were distributed in a variety of places in the provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, southwest Hunan, Yunnan, and some mountainous areas in Guizhou. As they lived in many different places under different circumstances, their development differed very much from place to place. In some places their economies rivaled those of the Han; however, in the remote mountainous areas, Yao people lived off hunting and gathering and didn’t even practice agriculture. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), farm cattle and iron tools spread among the Yao in Guangxi and Guangdong, who developed paddy fields and planted different kinds of crops on hillsides. They dug ditches and built troughs to draw water from springs for daily use and irrigation. Sideline occupations such as hunting, collecting medical herbs, making charcoal and weaving were pursued side by side with agriculture. [Source: China.org |]

"Early Qing sources guessed that of the total population of Guangxi, "half were Zhuang, 30 percent Yao, and 20 percent Han. Ming sources indicate that 80-90 percent of the population of Guilin prefecture was Yao, and 70-80 percent of Liuzhou too was Yao. By the 1940s, Han Chinese constituted about 60 percent of the population of Guangxi." "In the western half of the province the early Ming administrative system recognized some 49 "ji mi" or "loosely controlled," administrative districts (zhou), which were governed by hereditary tribal chiefs who nominally reported to the nearest Chinese military post and were liable for paying taxes." [Source: “Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Studies in Environment and History)” by Marks, Robert, P.E, and Worster, Donald (Editor), and Crosby, Alfred W (Editor), Cambridge University Press, 2006]

Before 1949 the Yao economy could be divided into three types: 1) The first and most common type, with agriculture as the base and forestry and other sideline occupations under a system that resembled those of the Han and Zhuang ethnic groups. 2) The second type was centered on forestry, with agriculture as a sideline. A few landlords monopolized all the forests and hillside fields, while the foresters and farmers had to pay taxes and rents no matter whether they went ploughing, hunting or fishing, built their houses, buried their dead, collected wild fruits and herbs. When the poor opened up new landthey had to plant saplings between their crops. As soon as the saplings grew into trees, they were paid to the landlords as rent. These exactions caused many Yao to be continually wandering from place to place. 3) The third type, engaged in by a tiny percentage of the Yao population, was "slash-and-burn" cultivation. Although most land was owned by Han and Zhuang landlords, the Yao farmers had some of their own. In such cases, the land belonged to ancient communes, each formed by less than 20 families descended from the same ancestor. The families in a commune worked together and shared the products equally. |

The Yao have a long revolutionary tradition. As early as the Han Dynasty, they fought feudal imperial oppression. During the Tang and Song dynasties, they waged more rebellions against their Han rulers. Fo 15 years from 1316 to 1331, they launched more than 40 uprisings. The largest revolt lasted for a century from 1371. The frightened Ming (1368-1644) emperors had to send three huge armies to conquer the rebels.

In the 19th century, corruption and exploitation by Qing officials provoked numerous rebellions that although not as violent or widely extended as those of the Miao were indicative of poor relations between minorities and the Qing government throughout China. After the defeat of China in the First Opium War, the Yao become more and more impoverished. Numerous revolts and rebellions occurred in a number of places. They didn't cease until the establishment of the Republic of China. The famous Taiping Rebellion, led by Hong Xiuquan in the 1850s received effective support from the Yao. Many Yao people joined the Taiping army and were known for their bravery. Noteworthy Yao revolts occurred in 1926, 1929, 1933 and 1934. The Yao Autonomous County of Bama in Guangxi was the base area of the 7th Red Army commanded by Deng Xiaoping in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the Kuomintang government — the enemies of the Communists — tried to enforce direct rule over the Yao in some places. They abolished the "Tablet system" that has regulated Yao society in the past, and set up a garrison and a "Bureau for the Establishment of Order."

Yao in the People’s Republic China

After the foundation of the People’s Republic China in 1949 the Yao has begun to enjoy autonomy in the regions that they inhabit. This was supposed to lead to improvements in their daily life. This has been true to some extent. But distinctive elements of their culture and religion suffered from Red Guards attacks during the Cultural Revolution.

After the victory of the Red Army over the nationalist government in 1949, some of Kuomintang soldiers resisted for some months in the remote mountains of what is now Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County. In 1952, the first Communist Party reforms in Jinxiu began. In 1954, land reform was carried out. Most of the nomads that suffered the most under the old system were resettled in the low lands. After that the Yao from Jinxiu were slowly integrated in the political life of China, and were affected by political movement that affected all of China.

In 1951, Longsheng Autonomous County was set up for the Yao. It was the first of its kind. From 1952 to 1963, eight Yao autonomous counties appeared, and over 200 autonomous townships covered smaller Yao communities. In places such as Yao Autonomous County of Duan in Guangxi agriculture was greatly improved. Here, the soil is so stony, prone to erosion and dry that an An old Yao saying went "the mountains start burning after three fine days; the valleys get flooded after a heavy rain." Tunnels, dams and reservoirs tamed the floods and provided water for crops. “In the early 1950s, few Yao people had any education, but today, schools can be found in all villages. Almost every child of school age gets elementary and many go on to secondary education. Mnay clinics and hospitals were built and diseases such as cholera were eradicated and the population doubled. [Source: China.org |]

The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution brought devastating economic policies to Yao lands. Some of their oldest forests were destroyed and agricultural lands were impoverished. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution the Yao have seen a resurgence of their culture and traditions, which as has exploited to some degree by the tourism industry in some places. In recent years, some of old forest areas have been revitalized and the Dayaoshan Mountains were designated a national natural reserve by the State Council. The 25 rivers that flow through these lands supply water to than 2 million people in the lowlands.

Yao Migration into Southeast Asia

The ancient Yao people lived in the fertile Dongting Lake and Poyang lake areas in what is now Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces. Because of pressures from the Han Chinese, they were forced to move southward, from the plain areas to the hills and ultimately ended up in the desolate and uninhibited mountains and forests, where infertile soil forced them to clear the mountains by burning them and practice extensive cultivation, yielding only a slight harvest. After a period of time, nutrients in the the soils were consumed and in order to survive they had to move again and clear new lands. ~

This unstable cultivation style, coupled with frequent migration, resulted in the wide distribution of Yao people. Historically, the slash-and-burn cultivation and migration were often practiced by family units that had blood relationship. It was rare for single household to migrate alone, generally a whole village or even several villages migrated together from place to place. These groupings sometimes moved only in a short distance, to the next mountains; Other times they traveled longer distances, even crossing several counties.

Historically, Yao people mainly moved southwest. They first moved to Guangxi and Guangdong and then further southwest to Guizhou and Yunnan. Today most of Yao people in Yunnan can be traced back to Guangdong and Guangxi origins. Some of Yao people in Mengla, Xishuangbanna moved to the northern mountainous areas in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. ~

The Yao reached Vietnam, as early as the eleventh century to escape from the imperial Chinese administration and to find new hill farmlands. Major movements of Yao further south, outside of China into Southeast Asia, probably began during the 19th century, stimulated by the expansion of the opium trade and the Qing-Manchu government’s reprisals against hill peoples in the aftermath of the Taiping, the Panthay, and other rebellions which wracked southern China in that period. From Laos, some Yao entered the Nam Tha and Chiang Rai areas and what is now Phayao Province of Thailand in the late 19th century, and greater numbers arrived after World War II, with most settling in Chiang Rai. Books written in the 1960s mentioned some 130 Yao living in Kiang Tung of Shan State in Burma (Myanmar). [Source: Qian Jia Dong journal]

20111102-wiki com  Yao.jpg

Yao Language

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 Yao speak the Yao language; others use Miao or Dong languages. As a result of close contacts with the Hans and Zhuangs, many Yao 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 +++]

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 Yao did not have a written language. Ancient Yao 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.

20080306-nushu acnient writing systems com.gif

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 in Thailand

In Thailand, Yao villages can be found in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phayao, Lampang, Nan, Kamphaeng Phet, Sukhothai and Tak Province. After World War II there was large-scale migration of Yao from Chiang Rai Province to the south to find fertile land for farming; when the soil was exhausted they moved back and settled in Lampang. A number of the Yao who cultivated the land in the reserved forest were forced to settle in Kamphaeng Phet. [Source: Chob Kacha-Ananda, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

There are around 40,000 Yao in Thailand today. In 1986-1988 the Yao population in Thailand was officially placed at 36,140 persons, living in 4,814 households in 205 villages in nine provinces: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Phitsanulok,, Kamphaeng Phet, Sukhothai, and Tak, with the largest concentrations in the Mae Chan District of Chiang Rai and the Chiang Kham District of Phayao. In 1972 there were only 19,990 Yao people living in 111 villages. The Yao population in Thailand rapidly increased due to high birth rates and immigration. More men than women speak the Thai language, especially the northern Thai dialect. |~|

Anthropologists described the Yao in Thailand as industrious and friendly but shrewd businesspeople eager to trade and to improve their lot. Marriage with other groups occurred, particularly with Thai men. Since the Yao live at lower elevations than the Miao (Hmong) and Lisu, their villages are more easily reached by plains-dwelling traders and missionaries. The Yao frequented lowland markets. Relatively few Yao converted to Christianity. Close contact with Thai society has changed the Yao way of life there.

Compared to the households of the other groups Yao households in Thailand in the 1990s were the largest, averaging 7.3 persons. Yao households in Tak, Phayao, and Lampang provinces are even larger, with an average of 10.4, 8.3, and 8.0 persons respectively. Under Thai administration, every Yao village is registered as an official hamlet (muban) or classified as part of an official hamlet. The village headman may be elected, if qualified, to the position of Phy Chuai Phuyai Ban under the lowland Thai Phy Yai Ban. Or he may be elected to be Phuyai Ban if his village is officially registered as a hamlet. He administers the affairs of the community under the supervision of the commune (tambon ) and district office (amphur ). |~|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Thanks Joshua Project for maps and angelfire for Qianjiadong picture

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 *\; 4) Chinatravel.com 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, BBC, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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