The Yao ethnic group, with a population of 2,637,421 in the year 2000, is mainly scattered in the mountain areas in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces.
Historically, these people have been known as Mian, Jinmen, Bunu, Lajia and Bingduoyou, etc. The Yao's ancestry can be traced back to the Wuling tribe that lived near Changsha (Hunan Province) during the Qin and Han periods. Sharing the same origins, the Yao have had a close relationship with the Miao ethnic group from ancient times. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the Yao's forebears began to establish a kingdom along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. During the Sui Dynasty (581- 618), they separated from the Miao to become known as Moyao. It was during the Ming and Qing periods that the Yao ethnic group gradually migrated to Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and other provinces.
Actually, the Yao ethnic group consists of hundreds of smaller ethnic subgroups. It is estimated that are about 300 Yao subgroups living in China, with differing traditional costumes and dialects. Therefore, the Yao ethnic group has many names including Panyao, Shanziyao, Guoshanyao, Pindiyao and Baikuyao. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the name Yao was officially adopted.
The ethnic group has its own language which belongs to the Yao branch of Chinese-Tibetan phylum. Due to the dispersal over a wide area there are local dialects that show considerable variations. Some fifty per cent speak the Yao language but others use either Miao or Dong languages. As a result of close contacts with the Han and Zhuang people, many Yaos are also familiar with the Han and Zhuang languages. Yao does not appear in a written form, so there is a wide use of written Chinese.
Their occupations are dictated by the areas in which they live so most Yao people engage in agriculture. Others are engaged in the cultivation of sustainable forests or are hunters. They are also especially skilled in embroidery, weaving and dyeing.
They have three meals per day. Rice, corn, sweet potato and murphies make up their staple food. Daily vegetables include soybean, radish, bamboo shoot, agaric and etc. Alcoholic drinks and tobacco are quite popular. For those who live in northern Guangxi province, oil tea is a kind of daily necessity and often serves as lunch on some occasions. There are dietary taboos that mean dog, cat and snake meat are forbidden. For those who observe the folk religion known as Miluotuo, meat from the sow and glede are prohibited.
The Yao people retain a unique style of costume and adornment with certain variations depending upon their residential location.
The men wear jackets that may be buttoned in the middle or to the left. The jacket is normally belted. There are various preferences when it comes to trousers. Some are long and are worn so that they touch the instep, while others are of a short, knee length style. These clothes will be either blue or black in color. However, in places such as Nandan County in Guangxi province, men often wear white knee length knickerbockers.
Compared with the clothing of their menfolk, the women have more variety. Beautiful embroidered patterns adorn their collars, cuffs and the bottoms of their long trousers. Some women like to wear short collarless jackets together with pleated skirts of different colors and lengths. Some adopt knee-length upper clothes with buttons down the front, which are hitched up with a long belt, to go with short or long trousers.
Both the men and women cover their heads with a black or red scarf. Men have long hair. They will coil their hair up and wrap it with a piece of red, black or blue cloth and topped with several pheasant feathers. Some women wear knitted turbans of white cotton or wool. The turbans are tied in a great many different forms, including the pagoda, flat-top, helmet, curving-eaves and silver-hairpin styles. Women favor jewelry. They often decorate their upper clothes with a silver plate and wear silver bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and neck rings. Sometimes, even the men wear silver ornaments.
Yao people cherish a magnificent oral literary tradition. The content of their songs is very rich and some having been passed down from generation to generation. They use the song to recount their history, tell legends about the creation of heaven and the earth, express their feelings, ask meaningful questions or tell humorous stories. Traditionally, young couples express their love for each other through songs. Singing has become an indispensable part of the Yao way of life.
In addition, Yao people also beat a long drum to celebrate a good harvest and worship their ancestors. Made of Yanzhi wood, these drums, measuring about 85 cm, are thin in the middle and stout on both ends. Some are decorated with flowers, birds, dragons and phoenix patterns and some have bells at the ends and in the middle. These long drums can take several forms; of these the Yellow Mud Drum is most famous. As its name implies, it is made by smearing yellow slurry onto its sides. Sonorous and mellow, when it is beaten, the sounds can be heard several miles away.
Besides these drums, gongs, the suona horn (a woodwind instrument) and a long waist drum, are all unique musical instruments of the Yao ethnic group.
The Yao worship a number of gods and highly venerate their ancestors, while some have adopted Chinese religions and customs.
Most of the Yao festivals relate to their religious practices. As with other aspects of their lives, there are local differences but there are common celebrations such as the Spring Festival, the Land God Festival, the Pure Brightness Festival, Danu Festival and Panwang Festival.