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.
Yao lady takes a break in a village near the Thai/Burmese border. Photo credit: Kashgar
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.
Now Ping Huang possessed a remarkable dragon-dog called Pan Hu. It was three foot long, had a striped coat, and could talk. When Pan Hu saw that nobody was willing to dispose of King Gao, the dragon-dog made obeisance to the emperor and volunteered to carry out the task. Ping Huang was delighted, and told Pan Hu: "You have a spirit like that of a man. If you succeed in this mission, we will bestow upon you a lady of the court to be your wife".
Before many days had passed, Pan Hu returned to his master's court bearing King Gao's bloody head in his mouth. Ping Huang was well pleased with the dragon-dog, and proposed to grant it a hereditary lordship. But Pan Hu declined this honour, asking only that the emperor observe his earlier promise.
Emperor Ping Huang sighed, and said: "You are but a beast, but you have not forgotten the lady. This sordid affair will never cease to be told beneath the heavens, but I must fulfil my promise". He thereupon ordered Pan Hu to be clothed in striped robes and trousers, and chose a suitable lady of the court, admonishing her: "Although Pan Hu is but a beast, his spirit is equal to that of a man, and we esteem him no less than our lords and generals. Do not, therefore, disobey my command in the matter of this marriage".
The court lady did exactly as she had been commanded to do, and in the course of time she bore Pan Hu six sons and six daughters. Because they were engendered by a dragon-dog but born to a person, the emperor recognised them to be a new type of human being whom he designated "Yao". Each of the children was ordered to marry ordinary people and in this way the twelve Yao clans were founded.
Meanwhile ancestor Pan Hu, although ennobled and held in high favour by Ping Huang, still had the instincts of a dog, and enjoyed nothing better than going off hunting. One day he failed to return from the chase, and was later found dead by a river-side, gored through by the antlers of a deer. The emperor mourned greatly, and ordered the dragon-dog's offspring to honour their father aspan wang, or first ancestor, for all time.
In this way the Yao people came into the world, and to this day they honour and venerate the memory of their first ancestor, Pan Hu, the dragon-dog of Emperor Ping Huang.
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
Become a Kashgar nomad and join our mailing list...
Sign up to get the latest on sales, new releases and more …