History of the Yao of China

ethnic china

History of the Yao of China

The Yao consider that Panhu is their ancestor. A mythical figure placed in the center of their most important myths that had real existence for them. Some of the modern specialists agree that Panhu is, in fact, a mythified local hero, which accords with their traditional conception of the history. Nevertheless while some think that Panhu lived in time of king Ping, of the Western Zhou dynasty (century VIII B.C.), others think that Panhu lived later, maybe in the first years of our era.

Possibly the Yao belong to the group of the peoples called Shan Yue, that inhabited south of the Yangtze River before the unification of China for Qinshihuang emperor in 221 B.C. It seems that the ancestors of the Yao were living at this time, in the north of Hunan province, although it is not discarded that they had migrated to that region from areas near the Pacific Coast.

At the end of the Han dynasty, with the separation of China in three independent kingdoms, the political uncertainty in the north caused an important migration of Chinese people to the Yangtze River basin. This caused the people living in this area to move south, to the wild lands of the south, where they find local peoples already living. Then started a process of colonization of indigenous lands that lasted until the present. Some of the indigenous inhabitants mixed with the recently arrived Chinese, melting soon in the great cultural cauldron of the Chinese people. Others, as the Yao, maintained their independence. They were forced to abandon the most fertile lands, and migrate to the south, to increasingly abrupt and less productive areas.

Different branches of the Yao started to differentiate in these years. Separated during long centuries they took the shape that characterizes them nowadays.

In those years, when the Chinese began their regular contact with the ancestors of the Yao, perfectly differentiated of other peoples, they are denominated Moyao in the Chinese sources.

During the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century), as a result of the slow migrations of the previous centuries, they were located in the south of Hunan, and the north of Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. As the contacts with the Chinese were intensified, the Yao get their first iron tools, what supposed a progress in their agriculture and craft, although some of their tribes remained inside the forests maintaining their traditional existences. The contacts with the Chinese were intensified during the following centuries. In fact, during the Song dynasty, they were integrated in a marginal way in the administration of the state by the establishment of the Tuguan system among them. The tuguan were the local (tu) leaders who governed (guan) the Yao on behalf of the emperor.

This system brought big benefits for the leaders that saw their leadership recognized by the great emperor, and for the Chinese; but for common people it supposed a setback, since they were forced to carry out works and services for their «tuguan». In some years the ethnic solidarity that helped them resist the Chinese encroachment, changed to a class solidarity that only benefits the leaders.

Many Yao communities didn’t accept the system of «Tuguan», and moved away from the Chinese to the abrupt areas, where they kept with a simple economic life based on the agriculture; until the second half of 20th century.

This rupture was not always peaceful. Even living in mountains of scarce economic value, the history of the Yao is full of rebellions, resisting the attempts of dominating them on the part of the Chinese. Among the most important rebellions are:

– 1327 rebellion: that affected the whole Guangxi province and part of Hunan.
– 1371 rebellion: The biggest of the Yao uprising. It began in Guangxi in 1371, as answer to the «migration to the tropics» of the Chinese peoples, and the exploitation of the tropical wood promoted during the Ming dynasty. It lasted more than 100 years.
– 1403 rebellion: when the Yao people rebelled in Guiyang and Hunan.

In the 19th century, the corruption of the Qing officials provoked numerous rebellions that although not so violent or widely extended as those of the Miao, show that the situation of the minorities deteriorated everywhere. After the defeat of China in the First Opium War, the Yao become more and more impoverished. Numerous revolts and rebellions surged everywhere, that didn’t cease with the establishment of the Republic of China, like show the revolts that happened in the 1926, 1929, 1933 and 1934.

From the foundation of the Popular Republic China the Yao has begun to enjoy autonomy in the regions that they inhabit. That has supposed an improvement of their conditions of life. The distinctive elements of their culture and religion suffered the furious attacks of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

From the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Yao have seen an important resurgence of their culture and traditions, threatened only for the globalization of modern times and the temptation of transforming their culture and traditions into objects of tourist exchange.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "History of the Yao of China," in Ethnic China, 2 marzo 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/history-of-the-yao-of-china/.

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