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At present, there are about 2.6 million ethnic 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 languages, they have also adopted many local dialects. Others can even speak the Miao and Zhuang languages. In addition, 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. There are a lot of them in Longsheng.
The Yao people have been struggling for development for over 2,000 years. Their existence can be traced to 221 to 207 BC, during the Qin Dynasty. During that time, many Yao people preferred living in creeks and near valleys. Yao people did not farm at that time. They survived by hunting animals for food.
When feudal rulers called for war against them, many of them escaped. Some were able to cross into Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Some of them were given the chance to migrate to Canada, France and the United States in the 1970s.
The Han people have had a major influence on Yao food preferences. Both groups have similar eating habits. However, Yao people also have their own 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 it with some salt, pepper and ginger. The soup becomes more nutritious when rice, peanuts and fried beans are added. Initially, the taste is bitter. The sweet taste only comes out 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. They usually use logs and bamboo to build their traditional houses. Others live in houses made with tiled roofs and mud walls. 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 storey. Yao people are also fond of making annexes for their homes. This makes the structure of their homes even more complicated.
Blue and green folk weaves are very popular among Yao men and women. Men usually wear short robes without collars. They match these up with either knee-length shorts or long pants. On the other hand, women love to wear jackets with openings on the sides. They pair them with shorts, long pants or pleated skirts.
Yao women also love to sew. They accentuate their clothes with attractive embroidery. They usually add embroidery 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 in their head dress.
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 the road to provide them a way to pass. Even those who are riding a horse should dismount when he or she meets a senior. Crossing one’s legs, speaking their names and using bad words in front of older people are signs of being disrespectful. The most delicious food should be closest to the most senior person while eating. Younger people should give up their seats and serve older ones when eating with them.
Yao men almost always marry Yao women. Husbands usually live together 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 this matter. Some villages may require matchmakers to assist couples in a meeting with both parties before they decide on getting married.
Although Yao people celebrate Han festivals, they also have their own. This includes the Panwang and Danu Festivals.
Panwang is perhaps the biggest event for the Yao people. However, this only happens every three or five years on the 16th day of the 10th lunar month (around November). The date depends on a lot of factors, including the harvest and the health of villagers and the livestock. Some groups only celebrate the festival once every twelve years. During this day, Yao people honor their ancestors. They give thanks to them for hearing their wishes and making them come true.
The folk master leads the ceremony. He will sing and to the god called Panwang. The villagers will perform the long-drum dance. This calls for Panwang's protection. The entire village participates in this festival.
The Danu Festival usually happens on 29th of the 5th lunar month (late June or early July). During this day, people are busy cleaning their houses and surroundings. They worship their ancestor Zuniang. They prepare offerings of rice cakes, rice wine, sheep and chickens.
According to the Yao story, Zuniang asked her daughter to save the land in the mountains for farming. She gave her a bronze drum. The daughter used it to drive away birds in order to grow crops. The daughter's work yielded a good harvest and she got married to a Yao man. They lived in the mountains and reclaimed the land.
A part of the ceremony is the playing of the big drum. This signifies the drum that Zuniang gave her daughter. They pray solemnly for good a harvest and health, a productive life for people, and for the livestock. They dance and sing traditional Miluotuo songs. Zuniang is actually known as Miluotuo to Yao people.