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At present, there are about 2.6 million Yao people living in Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. Long ago, there were about 20 Yao subgroups (and many of them still exist as separate ethnic groupings). Each of these groups had different customs and lifestyles.
Although they each have their own language, they have also adopted many local dialects. Some can even speak the Miao and Zhuang languages.
Yao people only use Chinese characters for their written language. They do not have their own phonetic writing system. Fortunately, many Yao people these days are able to understand Mandarin.
Most Yao people survive by farming. They mostly live in small groups scattered throughout the mountains. Many live in Longsheng County, Guangxi.
The Yao people have been struggling to develop for over 2,000 years. Their existence can be traced back to 221 to 207 BC, during the Qin dynasty. During that time, many Yao people preferred living in creeks and near valleys. Back then they did not farm, but survived by hunting animals for food.
When feudal rulers initiated war against them, many escaped. Some were able to cross into Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. In the 1970s, some were given the chance to migrate to Canada, France or the United States.
The Han people have had a major influence on Yao food. Both groups have similar eating habits. However, Yao people also have their own special food.
This includes you cha, or oil tea. They prepare you cha (油茶 /yoh chaa/) by sautéing tea leaves using oil and adding water to create a soup. They mix in some salt, pepper and ginger. The soup becomes more nutritious when rice, peanuts and fried beans are added.
Initially, the taste is bitter. A sweet taste only emerges after the first or second bowl. This delightful Yao meal produces a fragrant smell. It warms the body and enhances blood flow.
Yao houses are similar to Zhuang and Miao houses. Yao people normally use logs and bamboo to build their traditional houses. Others live in houses made with mud walls and tiled roofs.
Ganlan and Diaojiaolou (/dyaoww-jyaoww-loh/) style houses are popular among the Yao. Ganlan houses are built on pilings, and they sit above the ground. Diaojiaolou houses are made of wood and project over the water.
Most Yao houses have two stories and three or five rooms. The first story is where they keep their farming tools and raise livestock. The family lives in the upper story. Yao people are fond of making annexes for their homes. This makes the structure of the homes even more complicated.
Blue and green hand-woven clothing is popular among Yao men and women alike. Men usually wear short robes without collars. They match these up with either knee-length shorts or long pants. Women like to wear jackets with openings on the sides, along with shorts, long pants or pleated skirts.
Yao women also love to sew. They decorate their clothes with attractive embroidery, usually added to their belts, hems and collars. They use bright colors on the designs.
Silver accessories are also among their favorites. Women often wear silver flowers, hair pins, beads and plaits. The distinction between married and single women is apparent from their distinctive headdresses.
Yao people show great respect to their elders. Youngsters should not fail to greet older people when they meet outside. They should step down on the lower part of a road to make way for the elders. Even horse-riders should dismount when they encounter an older person.
Speaking the names of older people, crossing one’s legs or using bad language in front of them are signs of disrespect. When eating, the best food should be closest to the most senior person. When eating together, younger people should give up their seats and serve food to older people.
Yao men almost always marry Yao women. Husbands usually live with the wife’s family. Yao people meet their future wives or husbands during festivals. A man and a woman who are courting often exchange keepsakes. These symbolize love and freedom.
Parents do not intervene when it comes to matchmaking. Some villages may require matchmakers to facilitate a meeting of the prospective couple, before a decision is made to marry.
Although Yao people celebrate Han festivals, they also have their own. These include the Panwang and Danu festivals.
Panwang is perhaps the biggest event for Yao people. It only happens, however, every three or five years, on the 16th day of the 10th lunar month (around November). Some groups only celebrate it once every twelve years.
The actual date depends on a lot of factors, including the time of the harvest, and the health of villagers and livestock. During the festival day, Yao people honor their ancestors. They give thanks to them for hearing their wishes and making the wishes come true.
The folk master leads the ceremony. He sings and dances to the god called Panwang. Villagers perform the long-drum dance. This calls for Panwang to protect them. The entire village participates in this festival.
The Danu Festival usually happens on 29th day of the 5th lunar month (late June or early July). During this day, people busy themselves cleaning their houses and surroundings. They worship the ancestor Zuniang, preparing offerings of rice cakes, rice wine, sheep and chickens.
According to the Yao legend, Zuniang asked her daughter to save land in the mountains for farming, giving her a bronze drum. The daughter used the drum to drive away birds in order to grow crops.
The daughter's work yielded a good harvest and she married a Yao man. They lived in the mountains and reclaimed the land.
The ceremony involves playing a big drum, representing the drum that Zuniang gave her daughter. People pray solemnly for health and a good harvest, for fertility for people and livestock alike. They dance and sing traditional Miluotuo songs. Zuniang is actually known to Yao people as Miluotuo.