The Yao nationality puzzle

The Yao puzzle

The Yao are one of the indigenous peoples of China remarkable for the following characters:

– Big population. According to the 2000 census there were 2,600,000 Yao only in China.
– Big dispersion. The Yao are dispersed for all the provinces of South China and the neighboring countries.
– Big number of branches. Some studies about the Yao detail more than 30 different branches of the Yao.
– Big differences among their branches.
– Big cultural, and linguistically differences among the Yao peoples. Some differences are so evident that every time we read about the Yao, we see that the word «Yao» is preceded by the kind of Yao to whom the writer speaks. So we read about the Chashan Yao, Baigu Yao, Hongtou Yao, etc.

But, contrary to some of the other big minorities of China, as the Yi or the Miao, whose identity is continually contested inside and outside the minority, nobody seems to deny the existence of the Yao as a kind of homogeneous national minority.

The name «Yao» began to be used in the 8th century, to denominate some peoples who, adopting an accommodative attitude about the Chinese invaders were granted the right to not pay corvee. «Yao» must mean «those who pay no corvee services».

A word that can hardly design an ethnic minority, was used during the history to name some peoples culturally related who, in the less accessible places of South China, remained isolated from the mainstream of Chinese culture.

We can understand now how the experts (1) divide the Yao language in four dialects:

-Mian: It is the main dialect of the Yao. It is spoken by more than 700.000 people, inhabiting south China and the countries of Southeast Asia.

– Jinmen: It is spoken by 100.000 people, who live mainly in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

-Biaomin: It is spoken in North of Guangxi province.

– Yaomin: With 50.000 speakers, who inhabit Liannan Yao Autonomous district in Guangdong province.

The study of these four dialects can give light about the origin, history and migrations of the Yao people. Linguistic analysis (1) suggests that they originated more than 2.000 years ago, and that they can provide information about the old culture of the Yao and their main migrating routes.

Even the studies (2) of the Yao in Dayaoshan (Big mountain of the Yao), in Guangxi province, where they have kept compact communities until the present, shows an interesting ethnic diversity among the Yao.
In the 2.300 square kilometers of Dayaoshan, the Yao call themselves in five different ways: Chashan Yao or Lajia, Hualan Yao or Jiongnai, Ao Yao or Aobiao, Pan Yao or Mian y Shanzi Yao or Jindimen. All they wear different traditional dresses.

These five ethnic groups speak three different languages: Mian, Bunu and Lajia. Mian languages belong to the Miao-Yao family, Yao branch; Bunu language belongs to Miao-Yao family, Miao branch; Lajia language belongs to Zhuang-dong family, Dong-Shui branch.

Chasan Yao, Hualan Yao and Ao Yao live up in the mountain, are settle farmers. Pan Yao and Shanzi Yao practiced until recently slash and burn agriculture, moving their villages after several years of work. They were known as Shanzi Yao or Gaoshan Yao (Yao Crossing the Mountains), implying that they have no land nor fixed settlements.

These differences as explained by Fei Xiaotong (3): «Considering the fact of their different languages these five Yao groups with different self-denominations probably had different origins. In other words they are probably not of the same ethnic stock.» Moreover «These Yao groups who entered Da Yaoshan at different times and by different routes did not mix with each other.» Fei Xiaotong concludes that 2Over a period of four to five hundred years, groups speaking different languages successively entered the Yao mountains, and, due to their common interests, united to protect the mountainous area. The Han people therefore referred to them all indiscriminately as Yao and this is how the present Yao community came to be constituted by groups speaking different languages, wearing different costumes and with definitely diverging customs and habits.»

Even with this difficulty to ascertain a common language, history or customs; must of the people included in the Yao nationality consider themselves to be Yao, and, though they use their own appellation when they refer to themselves, speaking to the outside world they consider themselves Yao. Are they only the resistant to pay the Chinese taxes and the corvee service? Or, due to the fact, historical or legendary, that the Yao were exempt of these services and tributes, is the denomination other ethnic groups adopted, to enjoy the same benefits?

(1). Lun Yaoyu fangyan.- Pan Chengqian. (En Yaozu yanjiu lun wen ji). MZ CBS. 1988

(2) Fei Xiaotong.- Diaocha yaoshan wushi nian.-. En Yaozu yanjiu lun wen ji. 1988

(3) Fei Xiaotong.- Fifty Years investigation in the Yao Mountains. In Lemoine and Chiao Chien. The Yao of South China-Recent International Studies. Pangu. Paris, 1991.(This is the English translation of the reference (2), from which new materials are added to this short introduction to the Yao people.

Back to Yao main page

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The Yao nationality puzzle," in Ethnic China, 3 marzo 2021,

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