ETHNONYMS: Byau Min, Kim Mun, Mien, Pai Yao, Yao Min
The 1990 census reports 2,134,000 Yao in China. Sixty percent of them live in Guangxi Province, with the remainder located in bordering areas of Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. Most live in mountainous areas. Their language belongs to the Miao-Yao Family. The most widely kown of four Yao dialects is Mien, which is spoken by about one-half of the Yao population. The four dialects are related but not closely enough to be mutually intelligible. About 20 percent of the Yao speak Zhuang-Dong, Miao, or Chinese languages rather than Yao. Dress styles serve as visible markers of language and territorial affiliation.
The Yao are mentioned in Chinese writings from Tang times on. They were called "Mo Yao," meaning that they were exempt from the corvée and taxes imposed on Han settlers in the area. The ancestors of the modern Yao probably derived from a number of ethnic groups, including some Han. Over the centuries a Yao ethnic identity emerged, and "Yao" is the name they use to identify themselves to outsiders.
Yao economic strategies vary according to regional conditions. The majority, long before 1949, were settled agriculturalist whose crops and techniques were strongly influenced by their Zhuang and Han neighbors. Depending on locale, forestry or hunting and gathering were as important or more important than agriculture. Some Yao continued slash-and-burn shifting cultivation into recent times. Women play an active role in the agricultural cycle and are responsible for household chores, weaving, embroidery, batik production, and clothing manufacture. Traditionally, in many communities in Guangxi, plowing, sowing, and transplanting of rice seedlings was done in mutual-aid groups of ten to twenty households. Hunting is also a communal activity.
Despite considerable variation, some cultural features are widely shared. The Yao follow principles of patrilineal descent and inheritance, adopting sons or bringing in sons-in-law when necessary and usually providing daughters with a share of land as part of the dowry. Marriages tend to be endogamous with regard to dialect and local territorial unit. Same-surname marriages are frowned upon but sometimes occur. There is a preference for marriage with mother's brother's daughter. Frequent festivals provide opportunities for courtship and love matches. Marriage requires parental consent and the payment of bride-price and dowry. Marriages are monogamous and residence is usually patrilocal. Divorces and remarriages are permitted.
The Yao are organized in patrilineal clans that subdivide into lineages and lineage segments. These named groups have ritual and legal functions, and their members provide mutual assistance. Formerly they held property, but today all agricultural and forest land is owned by the state.
The Yao have a rich heritage of music and song, which accompanies work activities, courtship, feasts, and festivals. Their religious life has been heavily influenced by Han versions of folk Daoism.
See also Yao of Thailand in Volume 5
Lemoine, Jacques, and Chiao Chien, eds. (1991). The Yao of South China: Recent International Studies. Paris: Pangu Editions de l'A.F.E.Y.
Ma Yin (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 380-387. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.