Yao Woman in Longsheng, Guangxi, China

Looking East: Yao Woman

The Yao people are an ethnic minority group in southern and southwestern China. Their communities are concentrated in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; while others are in the provinces of Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong and Guizhou.

With differences in customs, dress styles, architecture and economic activities, there are a number of subgroups within the Yao people, such as Pan Yao, Guoshan Yao and Pingdi Yao, among others. There are also large Yao communities in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, as well as the US, where they immigrated as refugees during and after the Laotian Civil War (1953-1975).

Their history in China dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) when the emperor sent contingents of Han Chinese to explore the wild southwestern frontiers. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), native people there were already subject to levies. After the Han Dynasty, there was been frequent contact between the Chinese imperial courts and the people who later came to be known as the “Yao”, literally meaning “kiln”, as they were said to be expert pottery makers.

The Yao have their own language. However, linguistic variations in different communities separated by the mountainous regions have diverged in such a way that some of them cannot communicate using their own language. At the same time, they have adopted the writing system of Mandarin Chinese and can speak Mandarin Chinese and the Zhuang language.

In 1984, a Romanized writing system was finalized based on lu Mien, a common branch of the language spoken by the Yao people in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.