The Yao are one of Southeast Asia's many upland minority peoples. They live scattered in small communities across the "Golden Triangle" region of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, and extend deep into the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi.
In Thailand the Yao number nearly forty thousand, and are officially recognised as one of this country's nine "Hill Tribes". In China they number almost one-and-a-half million, and enjoy favoured status as one of the People's Republic's fifty five recognised shaoshu minzu, or minority nationalities. In both countries they are long established, relatively prosperous, and well-known to the international scientific community.
Less well-known are the relatively remote Yao settlements in Burma, Vietnam and Laos - countries long troubled by civil war, communist insurgency and population displacement. The Lao People's Democratic Republic, for example, claims loosely and without clarification to have "fifty minorities", of whom the Yao - who live mainly in the north of the country - are but one.
The Yao, then, are just one small facet of mainland Southeast Asia's diverse, multi-ethnic hill tribe population. Yet, in many ways they are more than this. Some would argue that they are primus inter pares, "first amongst equals", in the degree of their cultural sophistication, business acumen, and overall confidence in dealing with settled, lowland societies.
In Thailand, particularly, the Yao are a Hill Tribe success story. More affluent and outgoing than any of the other upland peoples, the roots of their cultural confidence and commercial ability are founded in a long tradition of literacy and close association with things Chinese. The Yao have a very clear idea of who and what they are - aristocratic nomads of the hills, subject to none, but deeply committed to the traditional Sinitic world-view of which they form part.
The earliest known reference to the Yao occurs in the seventh century A.D. Liang Shu, or Annals of the Liang Dynasty. This chronicles the mythical origin of the Yao people, tracing their ancestry to Pan Hu, dragon-dog of the emperor Ping Huang, who lived in the third millenium B.C. Pan Hu disposed of his master's arch-enemy, King Gao, and was given a young Chinese princess in marriage as a reward. Their descendants, known as "the race of Pan Hu", became the progenitors of the Yao people.
This myth was given official credence by the Chinese court at some stage during the early Tang Dynasty, probably in 627 A.D., when the emperor Tai Zong granted the Yao freedom to wander the mountains at will, and for ever. The decree is enshrined in a special document, the Guo Shan Bang, or "Passport for Travelling in the Hills", which was subsequently reissued and reconfirmed in 1260 A.D. by Southern Song emperor Li Zong.
This remarkable document, copies of which are preserved and revered by the Yao to the present day, states in part that:
The Yao clans shall be permitted to settle the hills of Ji Shan and to live there and gain their sustenance by growing rice in wet fields and other kinds of farming. Should the population grow in future so that there is no longer land on which to make a living, the descendants of the Yao shall be permitted to travel in search of land... While travelling, they shall not be required to pay obeisance to anyone. They shall not be required to pay for crossing by ferry. They shall not be required to kneel when they meet lords... They shall be exempt from taxes and from military service. No demands shall be made upon, and no harm done to, good-natured and well-behaved Yao people. The Yao shall watch over the hills and farm forever...
This exceedingly great imperial bounty is made known to the Yao clans so that they may keep it well in mind.
The Yao did indeed keep this extraordinary honour very much in mind. They may also have been mindful of another section of the emperor's decree, which adjures them 'to dwell in the wilderness, to farm to make a livelihood, to live orderly lives, and to observe the law', before continuing:
Since the Yao live in the forest and the hills from childhood, they never see the writings of the emperors or study the treatises of the sages, so they are ignorant of cultivated usage and manners.
Perhaps through a combination of gratitude to their benefactors and chagrin at their ignorance of the 'treatises of the sages', the Yao responded by embracing many aspects of Chinese culture with enthusiasm. They learned to read and write Chinese characters, and they studied religious texts - most notably those of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, whom the Yao know as To Ta.
Yao shaman's mask, tin, boars tusks, paper and yarn. Photo credit: Kashgar
In this way Yao religious life became inextricably bound up with traditional Chinese religions. At the summit of the Yao pantheon are the fam t'sing, the "Three Pure Ones", Yen Si, Leng Pu and To Ta. They are assisted by Nyut Hung, the Jade Emperor of the Taoist Pantheon, and Seng Tsiu, "Master of the Saints". Beneath these powerful figures are a series of lesser celestial beings, including various warrior gods, nature divinities, and the lords of hell.
The Yao retain strong visual images of their Taoist pantheon through their possession of "god pictures" called mien fang. These icons, which are often finely painted, are regarded by the Yao quite literally as the abode of the gods. The artist who paints them performs an "eye-opening" rite according to Chinese religious practice.
In addition, and of great power and importance, the Yao possess elaborately decorated masks, designed to be worn by shaman priests at religious ceremonies during which the mien fang are displayed. When such ceremonies involve the use of magic, the priest may dance frenziedly, changing spirit identity as he changes masks. Amongst the Yao of southern China as many as eighteen separate mask-deities have been identified
Typical Yao textile featuring a traditional protective symbol. Photo credit: Kashgar
Taken as religious objects these masks - like the mien fang paintings they compliment - are naturally numinous objects, inspiring feelings of deep awe and reverence. Viewed more simply as objets d'art they are still deeply impressive, mute testimony even from a display cabinet to the age-old culture the Yao, children of the dragon-dog Pang Hu, and his Chinese princess.
The Yao Origin Myth
More than four thousand years ago, deep in the distant and mysterious past, Emperor Ping Huang ruled over China. He had one great enemy and rival, King Gao, whom he deeply desired to see killed - but when he asked for volunteers from amongst his court, he was met with silence.
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