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Yao Ethnic Minority

Yao nationality is a government classification for various minorities in China. They reside in the mountainous terrain of the southwest and south. In the last census, they numbered 2,637,421 in China, and roughly 470,000 in Vietnam. Their main habitats are Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Jiangxi together with Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Prefecture. They are divided into several branches, such as Baiku Yao (the Yao people who wear white trousers), Hong Yao (the Yao people who favor red clothes), and so on.


Origins of the Yao, Iu-Mien can be traced back 2,000 years ago, starting in South China.From the late 1800's to early 19th century, the Yao migrated into Thailand, Vietnam and the highlands of Laos. The migration was agitated by the opium trade said by the chinese government. But The Iu Mien say all the emigration was because of the Chinese taking their land.During the Laotian Civil War, Yao tribes of Laos had a good relationship with U.S. forces and were dubbed to be an “efficient friendly force.This relationship caused the Laotian government to target Yao tribal groups for revenge once the war was over. This triggered further immigration into Thailand, where the tribes would be put into camps along the Thailand-Laos border

After obtaining refugee status from the Thai government and with the help of the United Nations, many Yao people were able to obtain sponsorship into the United States (although many remain in Thailand). Most of the Yao who have immigrated to the United States have settled along the Western part of the U.S., mainly in Northern California such as Fresno, Oakland, Oroville, Redding, Richmond, Sacramento, but also in parts of Oregon Portland, Salem, Beaverton and the state of Washington Seattle, Renton, . See Mien American for those identified as Mien.


There are several distinct groups within the Yao nationality, and they speak several different languages. The variations can be so vast that members of different groups cannot even understand each other. Because they have lived together and interacted with the Han, Zhuang and Miao nationalities for a very long time, Yao people generally can speak Chinese, and some can also speak Zhuang and Miao languages.

As to the written characters of Yao language, Nv Shu (a special written language in South China used only by women), are used by Yao women. Han characters are widely used among Yao people, but written words of Yao language were created by Central University for Nationalities in 1982. Thus, the written words of Yao are also used universally now.


The Yao people living in different regions have differing beliefs. Some of them worship nature, some idolize their ancestors, and some adore the totem. The Yao also have a religion based on medieval Chinese (Taoism), although many have converted to Buddhism and some to Christianity. Though some people has converted onto other religions, many still remained practicing their traditions.


Yao people basically have the same eating habits with the Han people, but also have their own featured food – You Cha (oil tea). People first sauté tea leaves in oil, then add water to make soup out of it. Some seasonings, such as ginger, pepper, salt are added. When consumed, the soup is mixed with rice puff, fried beans, peanuts and other materials. The soup is fragrant with bitter taste at first. But after one bowl or two, sweet taste is gradually coming out. Oil tea is a healthy drink that promotes blood flow and warms the body.

The staple foods of the Yao people are rice, corn and potatoes. Most of the meat in their diet comes from their own domestic livestock and from wild animals that the men hunt. Teas and homemade wines are their favorite drinks.Yao males prefer drinking from bowls to cups. As the Yao people are very hospitable and polite, they entertain guests with their palatable food and refined wines and insist that seniors be seated in the seat of honor.

Dress & Clothes

Clothes of the Yao ethnic group differ according to the regions where they live. However, their clothes are mainly made of blue cloth with various pictorial designs on the fabric.

Men like to wear front opening short robes without collars, together with long pants or knee-length shorts. The men living in Yao villages in Nandan County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region wear white embroidered trousers. The Yao men living in Liannan Yao Autonomous County of Guangdong Province are fond of making chignons, pronounced "sheen-yon," usually decorated with pheasant feathers for their hair, and wimpling, or wrapping their heads with red cloth.

Yao women like to wear side opening jackets without collars and long pants, shorts, or accordion pleated skirts. In addition, they always sew colorful and gorgeous hand-stitching work as well as embroideries on the collars, cuffs, belts and skirt hems, to make them very bright-colored and eye-catching.

The Yao people have many varieties and styles of headdresses. They like to use silver hairpins, silver flowers, strings of silver beads, small arch-shaped silver planks and so on together with colorful ribbons to make head accessories. Judging from the different accessories, one can easily tell whether or not a girl is a maiden, unmarried or married woman.

Architectural Style

The Yao people have their homes in subtropical mountain areas about 1,000 to 2,000 meters above sea level. Yao villages are usually surrounded by thick bam?boo and trees. Different Yao tribes used to have different names in accordance with their tribal origins, occupations, attire and custom. Hence there were more than 20 branches among the Yao people such as the Pan Yao, Chashan Yao, Shanzi Yao, Ao Yao, Hualan Yao, Baiku Yao and Hongtou Yao. After the founding of new China, they were given a single appellation.

Yao people live in bamboo huts, log cabins, that ched cottages and a few live in houses built with mud walls and tiled roofs. Ganlan style (constructed on pilings rather than entirely on the ground), also called Diaojiaolou (wooden houses projecting over the water) is the most common.

The house is usually two-storied. The lower story consists of pilings that support the house, and bamboos, wood boards are filled between the pilings to form a wall for keeping livestock, storing farm tools, firewood or other sundries. Family members live on the upper story, which is divided into 3 or 5 rooms. Some houses are more complicated with lofts or annexes.


The Yao people are master at handicrafts. These crafts not only come in many variations, but also have special meanings. The ones they are most proud of are batik, sculpture, painting, and printing and dying.

Other culture and arts of the Yao ethnic minority are also worth appreciating, such as the ballads and legends with rich content and multiple styles that depict the nation's history, glorify the hard revolutions, or express their sweet love, with their distinctive music and songs as tambourine dance and timbal dance.


Yao people respect old people very much. When meeting an elderly person outside, it is necessary to extend greetings and then retreat to the lower part of the road for them to pass. One must dismount if he meets an old person while riding a horse. It is not allowed to sit cross-legged, speak dirty words, or use their names while sitting in front of seniors or old people. While having dinner with old people, one should offer them a higher seat, serve them food, and put the most delicious dishes close to the senior guests. The moralities of diligence, faithfulness, hospitality, and braveness have been handed down from generation to generation among the Yao ethnic minority, and have become the representative characteristics of the Yao people.

Generally speaking, the Yao people do not intermarry with other ethnic groups. The custom of having the husband live with the wife's family is quite popular. The young men and women have the freedom of choosing and falling in love with a partner. Through the form of ballads, they seek their lovers during festivals, assemblies, and the slack farming season while visiting different villages. If they both like each other, they will give each other keepsake. This is the tradition of falling in love freely without the intervention of parents. In some areas they need permission from their parents, so a matchmaker will assist in communicating between the two parties before they decide to get married.


The Yao minority group holds many festivals, with at least one a month. Among the grand festivals, Panwang festival and Danu festival are the ones most worth mentioning.

Panwang Festival is the grandest festival among the Yao people. It is said that this is a festival to commemoratehe struggle of their ancestors against the exploitation of ancient hereditary chieftains. Panwang Festival has been commonly referred to as Entertaining God of Panwang and thanking him for making their wishes come true. It is held on October 16th according to the local calendar every three or five years; however, in some areas, the Yao people have this festival once in twelve years. The frequency of this festival depends on the traditions of different Yao branches, how good the harvest is and the health of both people and their livestock. Usually several families or maybe even the whole village celebrate this festival together. During the main ceremony, the folk master will entertain the God of Panwang, pray and sing songs for him, and villagers will play the long-drum dance which asks Panwang for protection.


Danu festival is held especially for the Yao people living in Guangxi Province to commemorate their grandmothers. So it is also name named Zuniang Festival. It is said that Zuniang was actually known as Miluotuo by the ancient Yao people. Once she asked her third daughter to go to the mountains to reclaim the land. Before her daughter left, she gave her a precious item---the bronze drum. The drum helped the young girl dispel birds and make a good harvest. The third daughter of Zuniang got married with a local Yao man and lived happily in the mountains. Their lives flourished and produced more and more descendants, who were the early ancestors of today's Yao nationality. To commemorate Zuniang, the Yao people celebrated her birthday and named it Danu Festival. 

On this day, all the Yao people from different villages clean their houses and streets; they also make offerings of rice wines, sticky rice cakes, chicken and sheep to worship Zuniang. Young men and women assemble to celebrate the birthday of Zuniang by hitting a big drum which symbolizes the bronze drum that Zuniang had given to her daughter. All of them worship Zuniang piously and pray to her for a good harvest every year as well as a happy and prosperous life to both people and livestock. In addition, they will sing the traditional Miluotuo songs accompanied by dance and music as a tribute to Zuniang and what she had done for the Yao people.

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