Thoughts about the Yao history

Thoughts about the Yao history

Two of the papers presented in the First International Congress of Yao Studies deal with the origin and meaning of the «King Ping’s Charter», a kind of document that granted the Yao free pass across the mountains of the 15 southern provinces of China and an imperial statement that exempt them from the corvee services. In the first one, besides the general outlay of these charters, that will be dealt later, the author makes a deep research in the possible origin of these charts, arriving at the conclusion that most of them must have been issued in the times of Tang Taizong, en the Zhen Guan imperial time; a period of peaceful development of the Chinese economy, when the emperor put the emphasis in the welfare of his subjects, promoting a policy of low taxes and good treatment to the frontier minorities.

In this time the Yao would inhabit the middle curse of the Yangtze River, living mainly of fishing, hunting and a primitive agriculture. The charts, allowing them free passes in all the mountain ranges of south China, provinces on which the Tang emperors have no real control, mean in fact, their expulsion of the rich lands they inhabited, possibly to be occupied by Chinese migrants, more able to develop the rice agriculture. As a kind of compensation for leave these lands, they were granted free pass through the mountain ranges, clearly specifying that no government authority was allowed to exact on them any toll or tax on places were the traveler usually pay, as well as exemption of corvee.

It is possible that in these years the eviction of the Yao only meant that they left the flat lands they inhabited for the mountain ranges in its vicinity; nobody can have foreseen that they would become the masters of the mountain ranges of south China and some countries of Southeast Asia.

The second interesting fact, already mentioned by Huang Yu but full developed by Jao Tsung-I in his paper, is the fact that many King Ping’s Charter were reissued in Song times. What can be at first look to be only a recognition by the imperial court of the privileges past dynasties offered the Yao, it is contextualized in the imperial opening of barbarian lands of the Meishan Mountains in Hunan Province. Here, the Yao are depicted as barbarian subjects of the imperial world in the way to be civilized, with some of them even receiving Confucian education. It can be supposed that their knowledge of the mountain life as well as of the mountainous peoples living beyond Chinese horizons must have made the Yao the ideal allied in this task. Their will to help the Chinese emperors in this new task must have made them merit the issuing of a new Chart to Crossing the Mountains.

This was only their twelve century stop in their secular southward migrations. As these migrations were the result of the Han Chinese migratory movements and opening of new lands in the southern provinces of China, it is not difficult to imagine that some of the peoples the Yao met in their way south, feeling also compelled to migrate due the pressure of the Han migrants, would have seek this kind of official document granting them free pass across the mountain ranges and exemption of the corvee services. This would serve to explain the great linguistic diversity of the Yao, with some groups speaking languages belonging to the Miao sub- branch of the Miao-Yao family, and other even languages related with the Kam-Thai family.

This process of ethnic fusion is guessed in some chronicles of the Ming dynasty. During this dynasty the pressure on the Yao and other minorities of South China was stronger than ever, with the result of bloody wars that in the territory occupied by the Yao lasted near 200 years. Mountain peoples with the same interest can have fought together against the Chinese invaders; in the peace intervals, they also must have tried to see their rights recognized with imperial charts that grant them their rights.

Jao Tsung-I considers that the Yao were known as Mo Yao at least from Sui times, as the name «Mo Yao» means «Exempted from corvee», it suggest that previous to these two contributions to the Chinese Empire (their migration from their maybe ancestral lowlands and their help in opening the Meishan Mountains), must have been other great contribution. In the analysis of the contents of the King Ping’s Charts realized by Huang Yu we see that after some introductory remarks about the origin of the world and of the Yao «there were first the Yao then the royal court», the flood and the brother-sister marriage, facts all belonging to a mythic tradition common to great part of China; the episode of the dragon-dog Pan Hu saving the kingdom with the killing of the enemy king Gao, is related. After this heroic feat Pan Hu is granted the younger daughter of King Ping, with whom they bore six boys and six girls, which intermarried giving origin to the Yao people. The own origin of the Yao people is linked in their more cherished legends to a praiseworthy help to the royal court (maybe only a local royal court).

Trying to link the dragon-dog to one of the ethnic minorities known in the Chinese remote epochs, one feels tempted to link them to the Quan-Rong (literally Dog-Barbarians), and though it is really risky to try to establish a relation between periods of time separated hundreds of years, and geographic spaces hundreds of kilometers away, it is not impossible that in the turbulent years that preceded the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty, a barbarian hero (maybe from the not so distant Sichuan province governed by some barbarian dynasties) associated, at least on the eyes of King Ping’s court, with the semi-mythic Quan-Rong of the classical texts, made a decisive contribution in the war against Gao King, receiving the third sister as reward, an episode too common in the Chinese history.

One more possibility is that the legendary facts related in the Pan Hu history, would have happened in other time and space, and were part of the imperial privileges granted to some clans by local kings or Chinese Emperors. In this context allusions found in some King Ping’s Charts to faraway places, as Henan Province, considered by the experts as writing errors, and distant times, at least to the last years of the Han dynasty, can be part of a mythic tale half forgotten, considered however vital to the safety and welfare of the people: the contribution of his ancestor Pan Hu to the «royal court».

Though these two hypotheses are only imagination exercises about how the pre-Yao history of the Yao history can have been, both them stress that further research on the historicity of the Pan Hu myth could unveil the nature and time of the first Yao contribution to the «royal court.»

Lemoine, Jacques and Chiao Chien.- The Yao of South China – recent international studies. Pangu. 1991

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To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Thoughts about the Yao history," in Ethnic China, 2 marzo 2021,

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