ETHNONYMS: Ch'i-lao, Gelo, Kopu

The Gelao are a mountain agricultural people scattered across twenty counties in western Guizhou Province, with heavy concentrations around Zunyi and Anshun. A smaller number are in Zhuang areas in Yunnan and Guangxi. Between the 1982 and 1990 census their registered population jumped from around 54,000 to 438,000, suggesting that many families challenged the state's classification and eventually reclaimed Gelao ethnic identity. The basis for transfer is unclear since the literature about them is sparse. Gelao, an unclassified Sino-Tibetan language, is spoken only by a minority. Most speak Han and/or neighboring languages, particularly Yi, Miao, and Bouyei. Until the 1950s, Gelao wore a distinctive costume that included long scarves for both sexes and black-and-white striped linen skirts for women. Now they wear Han clothing, though women's ceremonial dress in the Zunyi area seems to be borrowed from Yizu. The term "Gelao" was used by the Chinese during Ming settlement of the area. They refer to themselves as "bendiren" (Chinese), meaning "natives," or as "shagai" (Gelao), meaning "resettlers." The Chinese version of their history is that they are the descendants of people of the ancient Liao "tribes" and the Yelang Kingdom of the southwest, which were conquered by the Han dynasty some 2,000 years ago. Ming and Qing reports place them in their present areas.

They are dryland farmers, heavily dependent on maize and sweet potatoes, and, where possible, growing millet, wheat, and rice. Many were formerly tenant farmers, paying rents in opium as well as staple grains and labor service. Some Gelao were landlords, but most of the rental land belonged to members of other groups. Cork production, bamboo weaving, and making straw sandals were supplementary occupations. In recent decades, commercial production of tobacco, tung oil, palm trees, and medicinal herbs has been encouraged by the state.

At present the Gelao live in compact villages with housing following the Han style. However, they continue to practice customs either borrowed from neighboring groups or retained from their original culture that distinguish them from the Han. The available literature is contradictory on whether marriages were parentally arranged or initiated by courtship. It is clear that postmarital residence remains neolocal, though usually in the groom's home village. Some local groups used to remove a girl's incisors just prior to her marriage.

Folk literature has distinctly Gelao themes, and the Gelao have adopted traditional Chinese musical instruments and integrated them with local folk instruments found among neighboring minority groups. Their traditional funeral practices followed the Han model only in part; Gelao additions include playing the lusheng (a traditional reed pipe) and dancing at the funeral, singing by the mourners, making animal sacrifices to accompany burial, and marking the grave with a tree rather than a gravestone. Chinese ethnographers report that ancestor worship is the core of religious activity, but their data suggest that the focus is on founding ancestors of settlements rather than on founders of patrilines. Some festivals coincide with and resemble those of the Han but have their own unique elements. Others are not a part of Han tradition: for instance, offerings of wine and chickens to bless the growing rice crop in the sixth lunar month; village communal worship of ancestors accompanied by ritual sacrifices of oxen, sheep, and pigs in the seventh lunar month; or the major festival for the ox god in the tenth lunar month. The Chinese government allowed festival observances to resume in 1980.


Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities , 364-367. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Peng Jianqun (1987). "In the Mountains of the Gelos." China Reconstructs 36(11):66-69.


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