Population and Distribution
The Gelao ethnic group has a population of about 579,357(in 2000), which is distributed among some 20 cities and counties such as Zunyi, Anshun, Liupanshui, Qianjin and Zhijin in northern and western Guizhou Province. Some live also in Guangxi, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
The Gelao people refer to themselves as 'Ling' or 'Jin'. Their ancestors can be traced back to the Liao people who lived in Guizhou Province about 2,000 years ago. They were called 'Geliao' or 'Liao' people before the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) and from the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), they were called 'Gelao'. With the founding of the PRC, following the consultation with the ethnic group it was decided to agree upon the official name of Gelao ethnic group.
Their language, consisting of four dialects, belongs to the Zhuang-Dong group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Now, only a quarter of the Gelaos still speak this language. The four dialects differ so greatly from each other that even Gelaos in the same county have difficulty in communicating with each other. For this reason, the language of the Hans, or Chinese, has become their common language. Also, the languages of the Miao, Yi and Bouyei are also used by the Gelao. They use Chinese characters as their written language.
The Gelao people mainly engage in agriculture. Main crops include maize, paddy, wheat, potato and etc. Other occupations include manufacturing, herbs collecting and animal husbandry. Iron forging is well developed.
The Gelao people have rice as their staple food which is complemented with maize, barley, potato, taro, millet and sorghum. For meat they eat pork, mutton, beef and horse flesh.
They prefer tart and piquant food. There are a variety of chili dishes, including chili gruel, chili with preserved bean curd, and many others. But what they like most is a recipe of chili powder mixed with powdered bone and chicken which is used as a spice.
The Gelaos also enjoy alcoholic drinks. They are all adept at brewing wine with maize, jowar and paddy. Each family has their utensil of making wine.
Traditionally, the Gelao people build their houses on hillsides or at the foot of mountains. Their houses are similar to those of the Hans in the style and constructing materials. Built of wood, each house is usually divided into three rooms. The two side rooms serve as the bedroom and kitchen while the central room is used as a family shrine and storage.
The costume style of the Liao people was kept until 30 or 40 years ago. Women wore very short jackets with sleeves embroidered with fish scale, rhombus, or triangular patterns. 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. All women like silver adornments such as earrings, bracelets and rings.
The men often wear short jackets buttoned down on the front and long trousers. Both women and men wrap their head with long scarves. Now, influenced by the Han culture, most Gelaos wear the same clothes as the Han.
The folk literature of the Gelao people includes poetry, stories, proverbs, etc. Poems are of three, five or seven-character lines. Most of the folk tales eulogize the intelligence, honesty, diligence and bravery of the Gelao people, while others satirize the atrociousness and cupidity of the ruling classes of the ancient time. Their songs and dances are simple and graceful. Popular music instruments are urheen, suona, gong and drum.
The Gelaos have a variety of entertainment activities of which 'Flower Dragon' and 'Bamboo-Strip Egg' are most popular. 'Flower Dragon' is a ball made of thin bamboo strips. It is a little larger than a Ping-Pong ball and is filled with broken porcelain, coins and sandstones. The game is played by groups of pairs on hillsides and its participator can be men or women, old or young.
The Spring Festival and the Gelao New Year are their most important festivals.
They celebrate the Spring Festival in a similar way to that of the Hans. The only difference is that they usually make a huge rice cake to offer to their ancestors. The cake remains untouched for three days.
The Gelao people also celebrate their own New Year on the third day of the third month of the lunar calendar when everything begins to grow. The most important activity of this festival is offering sacrifices to the holy tree. During this ceremony, all the men of the villages walk around the nearby mountain slopes. Then they offer sacrifice to the holy tree and pray to their god for happiness and a good harvest in the following year.