The drum of the clan among the Balou Yao

The drum of the clan among the Balou Yao

The Yao are one of the peoples who inhabit the mountains of southern China. They are composed of numerous branches, with languages and cultures that are quite different. One branch of the branches is known as White Pants Yao (Baiku Yao), who speak the Bunu language and call themselves Balou.

The Balou maintain a social organization that revolves around the clan, called «pupo» in their language. This is the basic structure of their society, which links all the people who worship the same ancestor. It is an economic unit as well as a mutual support system. Each one of these clans has a bronze drum that represents them. This drum, usually kept by the chief of the clan, is available to all its members. Formerly, every time the Balou celebrated a festival, each clan beat its bronze drum. When they carried out ceremonies to cure the sick, as well as during funerals for the dead, the bronze drums were always beaten. The drum is the symbol of the whole clan.

The relationship of the Balou with its bronze drums is so close that the district in which they live, Nandan, in Guangxi Province, is the place where more bronze drums are conserved than anywhere else in China. There are more than 90 these days.

It is believed that the bronze drum is the symbol of the life of the clan, of the necessary unity to survive in the inhospitable lands where they live: a succession of karst mountains where land is difficult to cultivate and hunting is scarce.

Some of these clans are comprised of only two or three families, although they usually include several dozens. Each clan has a common territory that any of its members can use. Sometimes a clan forms a village. The relationship between the members of each clan is very tight; their economic and productive unity is symbolized in the psychological realm by the bronze drum.

These clans are governed by very simple rules:

  1. Mutual assistance. Whenever a member of the clan is in need, the other should help him without expectation of any reward.
  2. Food is distributed among all members of the clan after ceremonial sacrifices.
  3. Wealth should not be wasted outside the clan whenever possible.
  4. If someone repeatedly violates the norms of the clan, he can be excluded. He can also be readmitted when he is willing to follow them.

Each clan has a chief that is in charge of several types of social functions, such as:
– to gather the people together to evaluate the year
– to solve the internal problems of the clan.
– to preside over the ceremonies.
– to organize the work in the fields.
– to ensure the following of customary laws.
He has the drum in his house, tied by a chain.

The Balou Yao think that the soul doesn’t die, but rather goes to the sky. They associate the bronze drum with the souls of their ancestors, thinking that once dead they can express their will through the sound of the drum.

The drum is used primarily on three occasions:

  1. To summon the souls of the ancestors for the New Year. On the 27th and 28th of the last lunar month, the drums are hung in the room and they are beaten, as a way to call the ancestors’ souls to come for the New Year celebrations. While the drum is beaten they recite the names of their male ancestors. On the 15th of the first lunar month, they beat the drums again for the ancestors to return to the sky.
  2. When somebody of more than five years of age becomes ill. In those cases the ceremony of the sacrifice of a cow will take place, accompanied by the beating of the drums. Neighbors and friends arrive with their drums; they meet in the square of the drum, sometimes with 7, 8, or up to 20 drums. Each group, when arriving with their drum, begins to dance, creating a cheerful and festive atmosphere that precedes the ritual sacrifice of a cow.
  3. When a person dies. They play the drums to open the way for her soul to reach the world of the ancestors. The neighbors, hearing the drums, know that the sick person in that family has died. They start in with their own drums. Everybody sings the «Chant of the Drum», requesting the drum to guide the soul to the lands of the ancestors. Later on, during the funeral, they will also hold a ceremony in which a cow is sacrificed.

Back to Yao main page

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The drum of the clan among the Balou Yao," in Ethnic China, 2 marzo 2021,

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