leftThe Gelao are a mountain agricultural people that live primarily in Jinshan and Luizhi counties western Guizhou, with a few in the Zhuang areas of Yunnan and Guangxi. They grow maize and sweet potatoes and when possible, millet, rice and wheat. In the old days, they grew opium as a cash crop. Now they sometimes produce tobacco, tung oil, palm oil and medical herbs for the same purpose. Also known as the Ch’i-lap, Gelo and Kopu, the Gelao are widely scattered. There are hardly any all Gelao villages. Some Gelao speak Gelao, an unclassified Sino-Tibetan language but most speak Chinese or the language of the minorities they associate with: the Yi, Miao and Bouyei. Not so much is known about the Gelao. Many of their customs seem to be borrowed from other ethnic groups.

The Gelao refer to themselves as "bendiren" (Chinese), meaning "natives," or as "shagai" (Gelao), meaning "resettlers." Most Gelao wear Han clothing, though women's ceremonial dress in the Zunyi area seems to be borrowed from Yizu. Ninety-seven percent of Gelao live in Guizhou Province, mostly in Wuchuan Gelao and Miao Autonomous County and Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County. Some reside in Guiyang city, the Guizhou cities of Liupanshui and Zunyi, and the districts of Tongren, Bijie, Anshun and Southeast Qian. A handful are scattered in Yunnan and Guangxi Province. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences; Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The Gelao are mostly farmers, growing paddy in the plains and valleys and various kinds of other grains in the mountains. The Gelao mainly inhabit region is in the north of Guizhou Province, at the border of Guizhou and Sichuan, which lies on slope from Yun Gui Plateau to Sichuan Basin. The terrain is varied, with hills, mountains, valleys and plateaus. The average rainfall per year is higher than that of China as a whole and fairly large amounts of water are available for agriculture. ~

According to Ethnic China: “The Gelao are one of the most problematic minorities to be studied in China. It is presumed that they descend from the old Lao, who inhabited the northern part of Guizhou more than 2,500 years ago. But nowadays it is difficult to make sense out of the word "Gelao", as this single term refers to nearly half a million people who refer to themselves in a dozen different ways. They speak languages that are mutually unintelligible, and they are spread out in a myriad of small communities in the western part of Guizhou Province and neighboring lands in Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan Provinces. The disparities between Gelao "dialects", the different ways they name themselves, and the sudden increase in the Gelao population from1982 to 1990 [See Below], all lead us to think that "Gelao" is an umbrella term under which further research will identify several different ethnic groups. [Source: Ethnic China]

Gelao Population and Regions

The Gelao are the 22nd largest ethnic group in China out of 56 and the 21st largest minority. They numbered 550,746 in 2010 and made up 0.04 percent of the total population of China in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census. Gelao populations in China in the past: 579,744 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census. According to the 1990 census, there were 437,997, Gelao in China, compared to 59,810 (0.01 percent of China’s population) in 1982. Apparently many Gelao decided to reclaim their cultural identity. A total of 26,852 were counted in 1964. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Places with Gelao, Map courtesy of Joshua Project

The third national census of 1982 counted only 53,800 Gelao, compared to around 438,000 in 1990. This dramatic increase in only eight years was probably the result of two convergent processes: 1) Some people that were previously reluctant to declare their minority ethnic status, were not afraid to so anymore as political climate in China became more open. 2) Some minority people, whose ethnic group or official classification was previously not, were included with the Gelao in 1990. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Most of Gelao live in Zunyi, Renhuai, Anshun and Zhenning counties in Guizhou Province. . In spite of their scattered population, the Gelao have two autonomous administrative entities, both them in Zunyi region: 1) The Wuchuan Gelao and Miao Autonomous County, established in 1987, covering 2766 square kilometers, with a a population in 1990 of 329,000 inhabitants, of which 84,000 were Gelao and 64,000 were Miao; 2) The Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County, established in 1987, covering 2156 square kilometers, with a population of 380,000 inhabitants, of which 75,000 are Gelao and 41,000 are Miao. Many Han Chinese live in these two autonomous counties. *\

Origin of the Gelao

Gelao people have a long history. Their ancestors had very close relations with "Baipu", named in histories of the ancient Shang and Zhou Dynasties down to the West Han Dynasty, and with "Pu", "Liao" from East Han to South and North Dynasties. They were called "Qilao","Qiliao", "Geleo", and "Geleo" in different periods after Sui and Tang Dynasties. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a scattered and diverse group were given the formal name Gelao. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

According to Ethnic China: “The Gelao are one of the oldest peoples of China. According to the ancient chronicles, their ancestors came from the border region between Sichuan and Shaanxi Provinces, from where they emigrated toward Guizhou Province in the 5th century B.C. Possibly they were one of the main components of the Yelang Kingdom that was established in Guizhou about this time. Many descriptions by Chinese travelers of the Han dynasty show that the culture of the Yelang Kingdom meshes perfectly with the culture of those known in later times as the Gelao (called Lao in those years). The Yelang Kingdom became a tributary of Han China, and its political structure disintegrated. [Source: "The Keh Lao of Kweichow and their History" by Inez the Beauclair, Studio, Serica, 5 (1946); Ethnic China *]

Research by Inez de Beauclair indicates that in the 3rd century the ancestors of the Gelao, possibly the Lao, faced military incursions the Wu Kingdom (one of the three kingdoms in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-284)). Perhaps because of these incursions, the Lao migrated again toward the northwest, occupying a great section of the eastern region of Sichuan. In the 4th century, there are reports of more than 100,000 Lao occupying the valleys and mountains of eastern Sichuan. China continued to be divided in those years, and the regime that ruled Sichuan— called the Cheng Han dynasty— attacked the Lao many times but was unable to defeat them or drive them from their homeland. *\

History of the Gelao

The term "Gelao" was used by the Chinese during Ming settlement of what is now Guizhou. The Chinese version of their history is that they are the descendants of people of the ancient Liao "tribes" and the Yelang Kingdom of the southwest, which were conquered by the Han dynasty some 2,000 years ago. Ming and Qing reports place them in their present areas. Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Over the last 2,000 years or more, Gelaos have lived in many places in China. Bridges, graves, wells, and even villages in Guizhou Province still bear Gelao names, even where no Gelao still lives. The group's name dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Before then, they were called the "Liaos." Descended from the Yelang, the strongest tribe in the Han Dynasty's Zangke Prefecture, the Liaos moved out of Zangke to Sichuan, where they became subject to the feudal regime, between the third and fifth centuries. [Source: \=/]

The Lao at that time were organized around tribal chieftains. Travelers to their areas wrote that they: 1) maintained slaves, captured in the war or sold by their families; 2) used bronze drums in rituals and ceremonies; 3) used bamboo straws to drink a local liquor through their noses; 4) buried their dead in coffins hanging off cliffs; 5) broke off a tooth when they felt very sad or when they became old; 6) made men rest in bed after the childbirth of their wives; and 7) knew nothing about bows and arrows. [Source: "The Keh Lao of Kweichow and their History" by Inez the Beauclair, Studio, Serica, 5 (1946); Ethnic China *]

20080305-Gelao-L Nolls.jpg
Gelao clothes
By the fifth century, the Liaos had developed metal spears, shields and fishing tools and copper cooking vessels. They could weave fine linen. At this time, the Liao people elected their kings, who later became hereditary rulers. By the 6th century the Lao dominated such a large territory that they attempted, without success, to create an independent state. During the Tang dynasty they were mentions in Sichuan, but they disappeared from there without apparent reason. Some migrated again south toward Yunnan, but most moved to the southeast, toward the mountains of Hunan and Guangxi. During the Ming dynasty it was said that they returned to the part Guizhou Province they left from more than a thousand years before. At that time they were considered mercenaries and merchants, Pressure from Han Chinese immigrants their area as well as increasing numbers of other peoples, such as the Miao, forced the Lao (Gelao) to either integrate into Han society or to retreat to poorer areas. The places the Gelao today are either relatively isolated or have large populations of Han Chinese and other ethnic groups. As with other south-central minorities, the Gelaos were ruled in the Yuan and Ming periods (1271-1644) by appointed chiefs, who lost their authority to the central court when the Qing Dynasty came to power. [Source: |]

According to the Chinese government: “Until 1949, most Gelaos were farmers. They grew rice, maize, wheat, sweet potatoes, and millet. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Gelao farmers had no irrigation or ways of storing water. As a result, their maize output was only about 675 kg per hectare. Droughts inevitably brought about devastating consequences. Side businesses, especially cork production, bamboo weaving and making straw sandals were essential to the Gelaos for survival. Before 1949, land mainly belonged to landlords of other ethnic groups. In Pingzheng village of Zunyi County, for example, landlords and rich peasants owned 50 per cent of the land, even though they constituted only nine per cent of the population. Rent was usually paid in kind and every year over half of the harvest went for rent. Gelao farmers also had to pay additional tributes as high as 200 per cent of a year's rent. In western Guizhou, farmers not only paid in maize, opium, soybeans and peppers, but they also had to work — unpaid — for 50-80 days a year. [Source: |]

Gelao in the 1900s

Reporting from Guizhou, Samuel R. Clarke wrote in “Among the Tribes of South-west China” in 1911: “The Gelaoare now nearly extinct: many of them have married into Bouyei and Old Chinese families. Some writers have spoken of them as extinct. As far as we know, there are now only several hamlets of them in the Anshun prefecture, which altogether do not number more than two or three hundred families. [Source: “Among the Tribes of South-west China” by Samuel R. Clarke (China Inland Mission, 1911). Clarke served as a missionary in China for 33 years, 20 of those in Guizhou]

These people claim, and rightly, we believe, to be the real aborigines of that region. In some parts of the province the Miao claim to be the aborigines, but where the Miao and Gelao occupy the same district, the Miao allow that the Gelao were there before themselves. From the similarity of names, we might suppose that these Lao or Gelao are the same as a branch of the Lao or Laos people of northern Siam, southern Yunnan, and other regions. This, however, we think is not so, as we have good reason to conclude that the Lao or Laos people of northern Siam, and elsewhere, are the same or closely related to the Bouyei of Guizhou.

The language of the Gelao is quite different from every other spoken in the province, although like all the languages spoken in Guizhou it is syllabic and, we think, tonic. Most of them can also speak Chinese. The men dress as Chinese and wear the queue, but the women wear a costume pecuHar to themselves, and have their hair done up in a knob at the top of their head, much like the style of a Taoist priest. Like all the other non-Chinese races the women do not bind their feet. In appearance they are, we think, most like the Miao.

All the Gelao we know or have heard of are in Anshun prefecture. Mr. and Mrs. Adam have visited some of them and have been kindly welcomed by them. About fifteen miles from Anshun, on the way to Ten-ten, an outstation among the Miao, is a Gelao hamlet where Mr. and Mrs. Adam always rest and have a meal, as there are no inns on the way to Tenten. The same family always entertains them, furnishing hot water for them, food for their coolies, and grass for their ponies. On the first occasion the old lady, when offered money for her hospitality, was quite offended, and said, “ Ah well! don't come back again." However, the difficulty was got over by always taking a present for the hostess or her grand-daughter. We have been in that hamlet, and if we had not been told they were Gelao, should certainly have thought they were Miao.

The Gelao, like all the inhabitants of Guizhou, Chinese and non-Chinese, are great believers in demons and are very superstitious, but thus far we have had no opportunity of learning more of their religious notions. They are also known under the following names: Hua Gelao, from the various colours in the dress of the women: Ya-ya Gelao, from the custom of breaking a front tooth of a bride before she goes to her husband's home. They are also called the Hung Gelao, that is the Red Gelao. Possibly Gelao means aboriginal, but this is only a guess. The Chinese have other names for them, but as these are the reverse of complimentary, out of respect for an ancient and vanishing people we shall not in these pages hand those names down to posterity.

Gelao Language and Dialects

The Gelao language belongs to Sino-Tibetan family. But where it fits as a language branch or subgroup is a matter of debate and not completely understood. The Gelao do have a writing system of their own, and basically use Chinese characters. Nowadays only a few old people understand the Gelao language. According to Ethnic China: “It is believed that the Gelao language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Zhuang-Dong branch, Geyang sub-branch, but not all linguists who have studied their languages agree. It is said that it has four main dialects, each of them with some local differences. But the language situation of the Gelao people is so complex that sometimes people living in one village cannot communicate even with people living some kilometers away. [Source: Ethnic China *]

“The Gelao are distributed over at least twenty counties of four provinces: Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan and Sichuan. Their linguistic situation is very complex. Sometimes Gelao people living in one county cannot communicate with other Gelao who live only kilometers away. This is the case with Gelao living in Zhengning, Guanling, Liuzhi, Zijin and Puding counties, all located in western Guizhou Province. According to the grammar, phonetics and vocabulary, as well as the way the Gelao people refer to themselves, their distribution, their life and their customs, we can divide the Gelao people and their language into four major branches according to dialect. *\

1) Central Guizhou Dialect is spoken by the Gelao people living between Guiyang and Anshun, consisting of about 10,000 speakers with three different local variants. A) Pingpa sub dialect, spoken by Gelao who call themselves "Lau" or "Pulau", is used in two places: Anshun (Wanzi and Heizhai Counties) and Pingba. There are many differences among these sub dialects, making communication among their speakers difficult. B) Puning Xinzhai sub dialect, spoken by Gelao who call themselves "Gao", is used in Puning County, in the areas of Baiyan, Xinzhai, Wozi, Zhanchong, and Meiqi. Phonetic and grammatical differences make communication difficult with Pingba speakers. C) Xijing or Xiongzhai sub dialect is used in Xijing County, in Longchang, Xiongjia and other villages. It is almost impossible for their speakers to understand the Gelao that speak the previous sub dialects.

2) Central - Northern Guizhou Dialect is spoken by the Gelao living in Renhuai and Zunyi Counties of Guizhou, and Longlin County in Guangxi. Altogether about 14,000 people speak it. It has two local varieties with differences so marked that communication is impossible between the Gelao who speak one of the dialects listed below or the other. A) First sub dialect is spoken by people who call themselves "Hake" or "Hakei", and are considered true Gelao. B) Second sub dialect has only a few speakers, who call themselves "Pumuhen" or "Men pu". They are found only in Renhuai County, in the Maoba, Fanliwan, and Zunyi Zones, and in Pingzheng County. They are considered Red Gelao.

3) Southwest Guizhou Dialect dialect has a wider distribution and more branches as is spoken by Gelao from Guangxi through Guizhou into Yunnan. In Guizhou it is used particularly in Liubanshui, Liuzhi and Shuicheng counties; in Guangxi in Longlin county; in Yunnan, in Wenshan County. There are 12,000 speakers with four local variants: A) Liuzhi Niupo sub dialect, spoken by people who themselves "Tolou" and live in some villages in Liuzhi, Puning and Jijin Counties; B) Longlin Moji sub dialect, spoken by only 400 people in Longlin County; C) C) Malipo sub dialect, the traditional dialect of about 2,000 Gelao living in Laozhai County, Tiechang Zone but scarcely used nowadays; and D) Shuicheng sub dialect, the traditional dialect of about 500 Gelao living in Zunyi Zone (Jianshan County) but spoken by only a handful of old people. Speakers of this subdialect are called Red Gelao and Green Gelao.

4) Western Guizhou Dialect. is used in Dafang, Qionxi and Qingzheng Counties. There are 15,000 people who speak it. It has two main local variants: A) Dafang sub dialect, is used in Dafan County by speakers wh0 call themselves "Puer"; and B) the Zhenning sub dialect, spoken by people in Bigong Village, who call themselves "Ren".

According to to the Chinese government: Only about a quarter of the Gelaos still speak the Gelao language. Because of close contact with other ethnic groups, their language has not remained pure — even within counties. There are Gelao-speaking people unable to converse with each other. For this reason, the language of the Hans, or Chinese, has become their common language, though many Gelaos have learned three or four languages from other people in their communities, including the Miaos, Yis and Bouyeis. Living among other ethnic groups, the Gelaos have become largely assimilated to the majority Han customs. [Source:]

Gelao: the Bamboo People?

Bamboo is called "Gelao" by the Gelao people, and thus some people call them the "bamboo people". The 1,600-year-old “Nanzhong Chronicles of Huayang State” and the 1,500-year-old “in Southwest Minority Groups in History” record the same ancient tale. One day long time ago, when a woman was washing clothes at Dun River (today's Beipan River in western Guizhou Province), a big three-jointed bamboo tube floated between her feet, and could not be pushed away. Suddenly, she heard a baby's cry coming out of the tube. She cut open the tube and found a baby boy inside. She brought the boy in her home and he became well versed in both letters and martial arts. He named himself as Yelang Marquis, taking bamboo as his family name. Where the cut bamboo tube was left grew up a flourishing bamboo forest. Later generations built a Bamboo King Temple to worship him. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ~]

Even today, legends about Bamboo King and the custom of respecting bamboo remain among the Gelao people. In Meijia Village in Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County, when the first boy is born, parents would bury his placenta with some egg husks under a bamboo tree and ask for the Bamboo King's blessing. During Spring Festival, many families go to the bamboo forest to burn paper money to the Bamboo King. In some places, people make offerings of bamboo tubes filled with rice to ancestors to ensure good harvests. Some scholars assert that this reverence for bamboo originated from the worship of bamboo tattoos worn by the ancient ancestors of the Gelao

Gelao Religion, Funerals and Cave Tombs

The Gelao are animists. They believed that everything has a spirit—hills, rivers, winds, rains, sun, moon, stones and plants— and spirits live forever. They worship of nature, ancestors, ghosts and gods. Among their most important gods are the Cattle King, God of Trees, and God of Mountains. The Gelao offer sacrifices at festivals and when they encounter disasters.[Source: ]

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Chinese ethnographers report that ancestor worship is the core of religious activity of the Gelao, but their data suggest that the focus is on founding ancestors of settlements rather than on founders of patrilines. Their traditional funeral practices followed the Han model only in part; Gelao additions include playing the lusheng (a traditional reed pipe) and dancing at the funeral, singing by the mourners, making animal sacrifices to accompany burial, and marking the grave with a tree rather than a gravestone. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994|]

Singing, music and dancing are featured at Gelao funerals in a few places, such as Zunyi and Renhuai counties in Guizhou. There, mourners dance in groups of three, one playing a lusheng (reed pipe), one beating a bamboo pole, the third brandishing a sword, and all singing as they dance. In other areas, mourners sing in front of the coffin; family members of the deceased serve wine in gratitude to them. In some places, a shaman who chooses the time and place of burial recites scriptures at the grave. Animal sacrifices are made at the place of the burial and the grave is marked with a tree rather than a tombstone or a mound. [Source: |]

Gelao Hall in Yixing

In ancient times, stone coffins and cave tombs were widely used and still remain in some places. There are two kinds of cave tombs: ones in natural cave and ones in man-made cave. Some of the man-made caves are cut into cliffs, while some are built with stone plates, lime and bamboo sticks, or clay bricks. Those built with stone plates come in a variety of forms: such as "document-containing barrel", "rice-washing bamboo basket", "bright hall", "resounding hall" and "dark outer coffin". In this kind of grave father and son or mother- and daughter-in-law can be buried together. At stone coffin sites, stones are piled up as symbols of the earth tomb, while such auspicious trees as boxwood and cassia bark are planted at the grave mound and before the grave. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China~]

Stone coffins were typically made of stone plates, usually buried in an earth mound, on top of a mountain, besides a river, or even in the forest. The well-known Qingqiu Cliff tomb groups can still be seen in Sanhui Village of Daozhen County in Guizhou Province. There, orderly arranged caves have been cut on a steep cliff, each cave 1.2 meters high, 1.7 to 2.6 meters wide and about two meters deep. Outer coffins are made up of stone plates in the caves. The number of the plates is usually odd, 7, 9 or even dozens of pieces. ~

Wang Yinliang's tomb in Daozhen County is built of bluestone, the front wall of which is carved into a memorial archway. The whole tomb is like a pagoda, 5.5 meters high and 6 meters wide, consisting of three floors. The ground floor has three doors, on which are engraved historic characters, flowers, herbs, birds and beasts, and on the end of the eaves are embossed phoenixes. The second floor has four pillars and three doors, with engraved folk stories on them. On the third floor, entwined dragons are carved on the two pillars in the middle, while the two sides feature engraved phoenixes spreading their wings. The sculpture are very exquisite and carved on a steep cliff, as if by te hands of immortals not men. ~

Gelao Festivals

Gelao people have the similar traditional festivals with Han, such as the Spring Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Middle-July Day and the Middle-Autumn Festival. Most Gelao festivals echo Han traditions, but some practices differ. At Spring Festival — the Lunar New Year — Gelaos offer a huge rice cake to their ancestors and after it is made, it remains untouched for three days. In Guizhou's Anshun, Puding and Zhenning, Gelao communities also celebrate the sixth day of the sixth lunar month by sacrificing chickens and preparing wine to bless the rice crop already in the fields. Other practices that are not part of Han tradition include communal village worship of ancestors accompanied by ritual sacrifices of oxen, sheep, and pigs in the seventh lunar month and major festival for the ox god in the tenth lunar month. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994; |]

Sticky rice cakes are an absolutely necessary food for any festival. At other festivals such as the Dragon Boat Festival people set up banquets and entertain guests with the sticky rice cakes. The sixth day of the seventh lunar month marks the second most important event of the year, a festival of ancestor worship in Wozi and Gaoyang villages of Puding County. Oxen, pigs and sheep are slaughtered for ritual sacrifices to ancestors. Ground opera is a kind of exorcism so named because it is performed on flat ground. For a while Chinese banned the Gelao festivals but allowed them again in 1980.

Cattle King Day a folk festival celebrated on the first day of the 10th lunar month. People offer sacrifices to the Cattle King of chicken and wine and pray that the Cattle King ensure cattle good health for all cattle. Cattle and water buffalo are feed with best foods and permitted to have a rest for the entire day. Some people decorate their horns with top sticky rice cake and let the animals look at themselves in a water mirror for good luck. The Day for Harvest is a big Gelao celebration. People dress up people come to the fields and gather rice shafts and make them into rice the next day. On the third day, the cooked rice and beef are offered as sacrifice to the ancestors for the effort they made as pioneers. [Source: \=/]

The Third day of the Third Lunar Month is the Spring Festival of Gelao. People offer sacrifices to the God of Mountain and spirits for good luck and safety and gather together for a big feast. San Yue San is three day festival celebrated around the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Yao, She, Mulao and Gelao 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.

Tree Feeding at the Gelao Spring Festival

The Gelao have two New Years every year: The Spring Festival and Gelao New Year, the latter of which is on the third day of the third lunar month. The date and customs of Spring Festival are mainly the same as the Spring Festival celebrated by most Chinese except for special activity known as "tree feeding". "Tree feeding", also known as "tree sacrifice" or "tree worship", is related to the Gelao worship of old trees and their belief in spirits. In some autonomous counties in Longlin, Guangxi Province, at noon of 14th day the first lunar month, Gelao families go with relatives and friends to the mountain to worship the tree, carrying offerings such as rice wine, pork, fresh fish and sticky rice along with firecrackers. The firecrackers are lit at the sight of the trees. In front of a tall, huge old tree, paper money is burned and joss sticks are lit. People get down on their knees to worship it. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

After that the “tree feeding” takes place.” One person cuts three openings in the bark while another person “feeds” some rice and meat into the cuts. Then the cuts are sealed with red paper and weeding and cleaning is done around the foot of the tree. While feeding, different words are said to different trees. For instance, to fruit trees, the Gelao say, "I feed you rice and meat, and you bear clusters of fruit." After feeding, people feast together. In some districts, on the 15th day of the eighth lunar months, people carry bull hearts and newly harvested rice to worship the holy "Tree of Buddha", praying for a good harvest.

In some places, Geleo practice "mountain worship" instead of "tree worship". Gelao have lived in mountain areas for generations, and possess a deep love and respect for mountains. A mountain ceremony held in a one village is attended only male adults. Apart from offering sacrifices, the shaman sings the "Song of Mountain Worship", bidding the mountain god to ensure the village is render safety of the whole village, a good harvest and a thriving of both people and domestic animals.

Gelao Marriage Customs

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The available literature is contradictory on whether marriages were parentally arranged or initiated by courtship. It is clear that postmarital residence remains neolocal, though usually in the groom's home village. Some local groups used to remove a girl's incisors just prior to her marriage." According to the Chinese government: “Before 1949, matches were made by parents at childhood, regardless of the desires of the children involved. As Gelaos were so few and so scattered, marriages were usually made among cousins. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994:]

Before the young man and woman get married, the young man's family asks a matchmaker to take the things such as chicken and wine the young woman’s home. If the gifts are received, it means the marriage wil go forward. The people of Gelao living in Daozhen and other places host three wedding meals for entertaining guests. The fist one is mainly for enjoying tea with some snacks such as walnut, chestnut, peanuts and sunflower seed. the second one revolves around drinking wine with various cold dishes, preserved dishes, sausages and salted eggs. The third one is a banquet for guests with delicious foods hosted by the families of the bride and groom. [Source:]

To celebrate the wedding, the bride walks with her relatives, carrying an umbrella, to the groom's home, where they live apart from their parents. For the wedding, friends and relatives the home-made 'Papo' wine into jars decorated with red ribbon. They are placed out side with reed straws and guests can drink from the jars as they like.

Gelao Wedding

Three to five days before a Gelao wedding, the bride begins to "cry for leaving". The groom does not go to the bride's house, but sends a team of sedan men there. Before being allowed to enter the house, the bride's side holds a "door block ceremony", including toasting, spreading the blanket, waiting respectfully. There are traditional ask-and-answer song sets that go with each step. The sedan men are expected to sing suitable replies, otherwise they are laughed at. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

On the wedding day, the bridal sedan is carried into the ancestral hall. The bride is "pulled out" of the sedan by her elder brother or uncle. She kneels down before the ancestors' tablets to bid farewell, and then is carried "by force" into the sedan, showing her reluctance to leave her family. The bride's side carries the sedan out of the village, and then passes it to the sedan men from the groom's side. Two men hold broadswords before the sedan, while colourful flags and blue parachutes are waved around the sedan. On the way back, the sound of firecrackers, trumpets and other instruments fills the air. At the groom's house, the bride is dressed up again and displayed to the people in the groom’s village for their appreciation and amusement. ~

The wedding of Gelao in northwest Guizhou has some interesting aspects. The groom rides to escort the bride back, with four groomsmen, two of whom carry brooms made of bamboo, while the other two carry wine and meat as gifts. The wine and meat are "robbed" midway by several strong men from the bride's side, and immediately eaten on the hillside, which shows that the bride's side is rich and does not need this little gift. At the gate of the village, a crowd are waiting there to beat the groom with sticks, because he has brought no presents, while the groomsmen protect him with their bamboo brooms. After the groom has entered the bride's house, cups of of wine are toasted in his honor. The groom and the bride offer a cup of wine to each other. After the wine, the groom holds the bride in his arms and places here on the back of a horse, and leads the horse on foot to the wedding feast. The splendid feast is divided into two or even three parts, which means the guests will have two or three different sets of dishes. The first set is tea, with fried food, nuts and fresh fruits. The second is wine and spirits, along with a variety of assorted cold dishes. The third one is the main feast, including two bowls of indispensable pork, as well as other boiled and stir-fried Gelao dishes. ~

During the feast, there is still a special gift for the guests: Za wine. Newly brewed wine is poured in a pot, the opening of which is sealed with a mixture of clay and firewood ashes. Two bamboo straws are inserted into the pot, one curving while the other straight, and both with joints. At the feast, the joints are cut through. People drink out of the curving straw and get air gets in through the straight one. When they are drinking Za wine, special singers perform the "roughhouse song".

Gelao Customs and Taboos

According to the Chinese government: “Prior to liberation, Gelaos had a number of distinctive taboos. During Spring Festival, for example, they did not allow themselves to sweep floors, carry water, cook food, clean houses, plough, ride horses or pour water from their houses. In some areas on other holidays, Gelaos would not transplant rice or build houses if they heard thunder. [Source: |]

Gelao taboos include: 1) Do not stand or sit at the gate. 2) Visits by strangers are not allowed while giving birth to a baby or having a funeral. 3) After giving a baby, the mother shouldn't go out and carry water from the well for 40 days. 4) Married ladies are not allowed to go upstairs when she comes back her mother's home. 5) Pregnant woman are forbidden from eating pork, mutton and fish to avoid getting diseases. 6) When livestock are giving birth, bamboo screens are hung at the stall gate, ash is sprinkled in the stall to warn pregnant woman not to get too close. 7) Clothing is not allowed to be placed outdoors for the first 15 days of the new year. Cutting grass and chopping wood are forbidden on the Third day of the Third Lunar Month . No one can work outdoors on the day autumn begins. [Source: \=/]

The Gelao are friendly to guests. They usually entertain friends and relatives with wine. In the area where both Gelao language and Chinese are used, people mustn't speak Chinese at any religious ceremonies. If it is, the ceremony is invalidated and it must be done again, and person who spoke Chinese is punished. In the old days the Gelao observed their taboos very strictly and people who broke could be harshly punished. \=/

Gelao Houses, Food and Clothes

Gelao residences are like those of their Han neighbors. They usually consist of a central kitchen and two bedrooms built on a hillside or at the foot of a mountain. They are mainly made of timber and have two stories, with animals and farm tools kept in the lower part of the house. According to the Chinese government: “Before liberation, poor Gelaos lived in mud, bamboo or stone houses, some with thatched roofs. Landlords and wealthier peasants lived in houses with wooden columns and thick stone slabs, with tile or stone roofs. Now, nearly everyone lives in houses of wood.” [Source: \=/; |]

In the mountain areas, the Gelaos eat mostly maize, while in the flatlands, they eat wheat, rice, millet and sorghum. Gelaos — like many other Chinese — love to eat hot and sour dishes as well as glutinous rice cakes and sticky rice. Gelao like to eat congee for breakfast and cooked rice for lunch and dinner. They eat sticky rice in various ways, such as with honey, brown sugar, white sugar and gingili. Gelao like to make the fresh vegetables into the sour pickled or salted vegetables, such as green vegetables with capsicum, garlic and ginger in it. They are especially fond of pickling the Chinese toon bud, which can be made into various dishes, and frying foods with light capsicum. Their home-made 'Papo' wine can be made from corn, jowar or rice. | ~

Men and women wear straight sarongs made of whole pieces of blue clothes. In the old days both sexes wore long scarves and women wore black-and-white striped line skirts but now most wear Han clothes. Gelaos continued to wear their ethnic costumes until 30 or 40 years ago. Women wore very short jackets with sleeves embroidered with patterns of fish scale. They wore tight skirts divided into three sections, the middle one of red wool and the upper and lower ones of black-and-white striped linen. Gelao women also wore short, black sleeveless gowns which hung longer in the back. Their shoes had pointed, upturned toes. Men wore front-buttoned jackets, and both sexes wore long scarves.

Gelao Culture and Lion Dancing on the High Stage

Gelao folk literature consists of poetry, stories and proverbs. Poems are of three, five or seven-character lines. Most Gelao folk tales eulogize the intelligence, honesty, diligence and bravery of the Gelao people, and satirize the upper classes. Typical are "The Brave Girl" and "Deaf Elder Brother and Blind Younger Brother Stealing Sheep." Gelao dances are simple and graceful, accompanied by the erhu, horizontal xiao, suona, gong, drum and other string and wind instruments. [Source: |]

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Folk literature has distinctly Gelao themes, and the Gelao have adopted traditional Chinese musical instruments and integrated them with local folk instruments found among neighboring minority groups. Their traditional funeral practices followed the Han model only in part; Gelao additions include playing the lusheng (a traditional reed pipe) and dancing at the funeral, singing by the mourners, making animal sacrifices to accompany burial, and marking the grave with a tree rather than a gravestone. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Lion Dancing with acrobatics is a popular form of entertainment among the Gelao. The 10-meter-high stage is composed of 8 to 12 square tables placed on top of one another, with the top table upside down. A lion dancing group consists of 4 or 5 to 15 members, with usually four performing at one time. Two dance as the lion, covered by artificial head and body of lion, with only their feet exposed. The other two are dressed as a monkey and a smiling monk. Sometimes small lions also appear. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

The monkey and the monk wave handkerchiefs to lead the lion climbing up to top of the stage. The action of climbing is alarmingly dangerous, forward, backward and flipping up. The small monkey and the monk, and two lions go up respectively in pairs, one forward while the other backward. The lion climbs directly up or spirals upwards around the tables. Having reached the top, the lion performs on the four table legs, without any safety rope. All the moves have vivid names, like "swallow turning over", "toad holding a baby", "turtle drinking water", "eagle spreading wings", "carp showing the belly", "spider hanging on a cobweb line", "immortal monkey picking a peach", "rolling dragon hugging a pillar", "standing upside down", "back-to-back somersault", "human pyramid", "dancing on high stakes" and "whirling like a windmill". A lion-dancing group sometimes performs without break for 4 to 5 hours. Some performances can be very alarming and make the audience breathless, while some others are quite amusing and provoke endless laughter. ~

Gelao Games: Playing the Bamboo Egg and the Flowery Dragon

"Flower Dragon" and "Bamboo-Strip Egg" are two favorite Gelao games. The "Flower Dragon" is a ball of woven bamboo, a little larger than a ping-pong ball. Inside are bits of broken porcelain, coins and sandstones. The game, especially popular in Zunyi and Renhuai, is played by groups of pairs on hillsides. "Bamboo-Strip Egg" is also a ball, larger and stuffed with rice straw. Two teams of three or five throw and kick the ball, avoiding contact except with the hands or feet. The Gelao also like the feather ball game, horse racing and rope skipping.[Source: |]

The duck-egg-size "Bamboo-Strip Egg" is woven with thin bamboo strips and is stuffed with straw, rags or old cotton. The game is played by two teams. When the match starts, one person of team A hits the egg with his hand to the field of the other team; then players of team B hit it back with hands or feet. If the egg is out, missed or hit with any part of the body other than the hand or foot, the other team gets a point. The team with a higher score wins. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

"Flowery dragon" is also a kind of ball made of bamboo strips, but is filled with bronze coins and porcelain fragments that makes the ball clangs when it is hit or thrown. In this game a person throws up a ball and the other players vie to catch it. After a person catches the ball he throws it up again and at the same time shouts aloud he is throwing. Whoever catches the ball the most times wins the game. The competition to get the ball can be very fierce. ~

In the autonomous counties of Longlin, Guangxi Province, people skip rope to celebrate an old person's recovery from a disease, praying for their health and longevity. The main skipper is the eldest son-in-law or niece-in-law, with a female relative skipping with him. The man holds an over 30-centimeter rope of beef tendon, and carries a bamboo steamer on his back, in which there is an empty bowl. The female skipper holds a chopstick in her hand, and tries to strike the bowl. Every time she does it, the main skipper has to have a cup of wine. When the woman’s chopstick is knocked down to the ground by the rope, she has to have a cup of wine, too. After the ceremony, beef and tendon is presented to the elder, wishing him or her good health and life as firm and tenacious as the tendon. ~

Image Sources: Nolls China website

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Wikipedia, BBCvarious books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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