Guangdong is one of the richest and most famous provinces of China. Its administrative center Guangzhou is one of the largest Chinese megacities, well known for its economic growth. There are also Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan, Zhongshan, and nearby- the exclusive Hong Kong and Macao.
But if you go deep into South China, to the north part of Guangdong and pass the northern city of Qingyuan, you will enter a totally different Guangdong- a land of mountains, small towns, and remote villages, subtropical forests, rice terraces, canyons, and rivers.
Proceed further north and you will find yourself in a new fairy landscape- the limestone hills area of Yingxi. Pass Yangshan town, and finally approach the extreme northwest of Guangdong, near the borders of Hunan and Guangxi provinces. There you will reach Liannan, in the land of Yao, one of the most ancient people of China.
WHO ARE YAO?
We walked on the streets of Liannan, a small town in the extreme north of Guangdong province, with its own local life, deep in the interior of China. The center was crowded by a daily market, where the people were selling vegetables, fruits, hens, ducks, and some daily used products. Some of them (mainly women) were wearing their traditional dark blue clothes, bringing their red bags, with their high and decorated hats. They were Yao, and they were still attached to their traditional clothing.
We heard their language- they spoke a language, which is closer to the languages of Southeast Asia. Who are they? Where have they come from? What is their culture, traditions, history? What is the difference between them and the Han Chinese, which are “the original Chinese”, the majority of China’s population?
The history of Yao
A few thousand years ago, when the first ancient Chinese civilization appeared around the Yellow River, the southern part of today’s China, as well as Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia) has been populated by various tribes, from various language groups. In South China they were known are “Hundred Yue“.
Hundred Yue tribes come from various places. One of these tribes, known as Jiuli has lived in Northern China, some 4000 years ago. One of Jiuli leaders- Chi You, established a new tribe, called Sanmiao, which moved to today’s Anhui and Zhejiang provinces. Then another one, considered the first Yao ancestor, named Pan Hu, established Yao minority. Yao gradually moved to South China and mixed with many other tribes, part of Thousand Yue.
In the 3rd century BC, the rising Qin kingdom gradually defeated its rival kingdoms and unified the whole of China under Qin Empire. It conquered the lands of Hundred Yue, and from that time on, the history of Yao become part of Chinese history. Yao people (as many of the other tribes) often supported one power against another and when the supporting part was defeated, the winners persecuted the supporters. Thus Yao have been often forced to migrate around South China and Southeast Asia- mainly Vietnam and Laos, and in recent times- even to USA and France.
Now Yao minority is about 3,5 million people, living in the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangdong, as well as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and a few more countries. And as a Yao saying confess: “There would be no Yao without the mountains of South China (called Nanling)”, which was the cradle of their unique culture.
Yao minority is divided into a few branches. They have their own dialect of Yao language, some of the dialects are actually so different, that they can be considered as different languages. The branch of Yao, who settle in Liannan, Guangdong, is Bapai Yao (八排瑶).
Bapai Yao, as well as all other Yao people, have rich culture and traditions. They have many festivals. And they celebrate not only their own festivals but the festivals of Han Chinese and the other neighboring minorities like Zhuang and Miao people. Their most prominent festival is Panguwang Festival (盘古王节), dedicated to their ancestor King Pan Hu (or Pangu), celebrating in late autumn (following the Lunar calendar).
Another interesting festival is the Yao version of Valentine. It is celebrated in winter, every year on a different date. On this day single boys and girls meet on the mountain slopes and sing antiphonal songs. The boys prepare something like a bamboo stick. If a boy likes a beautiful Yao girl, he starts chasing her and hit her (gently) with the stick. If the girl doesn’t like the boy, she starts protecting herself and doesn’t allow him to hit her. But if she likes him, she just stays smiling, allowing him to proceed hitting. Then they both together start communicating, playing, flirting and becoming lovers.
One of the symbols of Yao is the long drum. It is a long red decorated drum, which can be hit on its both sides. You can see it everywhere- in sculptures, monuments, shrines, even like decorated pillars of the buildings. It is used in Yao’s traditional drum dance, related to an ancient legend. In general, Yao people really like music- dance and singing. They have a lot of songs, related to their daily life- working songs, love songs, celebrating songs and many more.
My first Yao friends
I was (and currently I still am) an English teacher in a few kindergartens in Qingyuan, Guangdong. One of the kindergarten teachers was Yao and I was interested to ask her many questions about her people and her land. She was proud to share to me everything, and actually, this made me plan some trips to their land.
Then in the summer of 2017 we made our second trip to Eastern Tibet. We were a group of 12 people and one of them was Fangzi (“Fangzi”- 房子 in Chinese means “house”, and it is a popular name in Yao), a Yao girl, who was the youngest and most active for adventures from the whole group. She enjoyed the grasslands, the glacier of Amnye Machin, the desert of Qinghai, and she was happy to ride horses and to make a lot of photos. And when we had some drink after a trip, we said “nian diu“, which means “cheers” in Yao language.
Thousand Years of Yao village
The same summer we made our first trip to the land of Yao. We visited Nangang (南岗), an old Yao village, located on a mountain slope with great panoramic views of the endless limestone hills. Now Nangang is turned to be a tourist destination, presenting Yao, and it has been given a new name- “Thousand Yeas of Yao village” (千年瑶寨). So it was not so native and original but good for an initial acquaintance of these people and their culture.
We joined a Yao performance. Yao have a lot of dances, related with various daily life activities- working on the rice terraces, building a house, birth and death, and of course- love affairs and marriage. We saw their popular way of dating- by antiphonal singing between girls and boys.
There were even more of their unique dating traditions- girls, sitting in a room, on the second floor of a house. They were sitting, embroidering some art pieces and singing together. Outside young men were walking and singing too. If the girls were looking for a partner, they secretly opened the door of the room where they were sitting. And when the young men approach their house, the bravest one climbed the house and chose one of the singing girls.
We walked around Thousand Years of Yao village, on its steep narrow lanes, full of souvenirs and some local food. It was the living of the local Yao. Anyway, the landscape around us was really stunning.
A few months later we made our second trip to Yao land. This time we went to Liannan, the main town of Yao in Guangdong province and center of Liannan Yao Autonomous area. It was a Christmas time.
We found many new Yao friends during that trip. Many of them were Christians, part of the Chinese Christian community. They had a Christmas celebration in their church, in the center of the town. I was nicely surprised to see them keep their culture, showing that the faith in Jesus is not a “western religion, bringing a western culture”, as many Chinese think about Christianity, but it is faith from heaven. So, the Yao Christians performed their dances and songs, wearing their Yao traditional clothes, singing in their own style and language. Then, finally, we had lunch together.
Liannan is a small town, but being a center of Yao minority in Guangdong, it has a new museum, dedicated to Yao. So we explored the museum, gathering as much as possible information about these people and their culture. However, what we were looking for, was not a tourist designed area, but a natural site of Yao. And one of our friends there guided us to such a place- Youling.
Youling is another village of Yao. Actually, it consists of two villages- New Youling and Old Youling. New Youling is located in a valley between the limestone hills, and its houses are relatively new. Most of its population are younger Yao people. They also try to develop some tourism but compared with Nangang, it is still in its very early stage.
We stopped in the parking lot, at the beginning of the village. Tim and his friends came with their truck and they took us to Old Youling, which is located high on the slope of the hills. Our car was too weak to climb the narrow mountain road, so only by truck or 4×4 vehicle we could get there.
The houses of Old Youling are old and traditional. Many of them are already abandoned, but some people, mainly old Yao, still live there. Their sons and daughters from New Youling often go to visit Old Youling, whose inhabitants just don’t want to move down and change their way of life.
We saw some of the local Yao, caring their livestock in the wild mountain, wearing their traditional Yao clothes. Everything was silent, with exception of only 2-3 new houses, which were actually a vacation villa for a few richer Yao.
Finally, there was a folk performance in a cave near New Youling. As I said, they tried to develop some tourism in this village, so they have well prepared for the performance. We entered the cave and watched them. Actually, we were the only visitors to watch their performance, and they were very happy to play it for us. We put on Yao traditional clothes, then danced together with them, and drank from a small cup of their local alcohol drink, saying “nian diu“.
How to reach Yao minority in Guangdong
There are a few buses every day, traveling from Guangzhou to Liannan. Four of them start from Sheng Zhan (Province Bus station) near Guangzhou Railway Station (in 8:10, 14:00, 15:30 and 17:00), and the other two- from Tianhe Bus Station (in 13:00 and 17:40). The price is between 85 and 100 RMB, depending on which bus you take. And the whole trip is between 4 and 5 hours.
There are also three buses from Shenzhen, two from Baoan Gongming Bus station (in 9:10 and 10:30), and one from Futian Bus station (in 7:40). The price is 140 and 142 RMB, and the whole trip- around 6-7 hours.
Once you arrive in Liannan, if you want to visit Nangang (Thousand Years of Yao village), you have to take another local bus to Sanpai village, then you can only take a taxi (car or motorcycle) to the entrance of Nangang. If you want to get to Youling, there are some local buses from Liannan, which arrive directly to New Youling.
For accommodation- there are some hotels in Liannan, but as everywhere in China, it is better you contact them in advance, to be sure that they accept foreigners. Now, as far as I know, there is a new hotel in Nangang (Thousand Years of Yao village), and maybe there will be soon in Youling. Another option is the two other nearby towns- Lianshan and Lianzhou- on less than an hour travel by bus. Lianshan is a town of Zhuang minority and Lianzhou is mainly Han Chinese city.
After reaching the land of Yao in Guangdong, you can not only visit these people and even make friends with them, but you can also enjoy the stunning natural landscapes in the area. There are a lot of limestone hills, canyons, caves and underground rivers, forests and mountains. You can go to Chuan Three Gorges canyon (川三峡), the Underground River (地下河) near Lianzhou city, Fushan mountain (福山) or the Golden mountain (金子山). There are local buses going to these places or the nearby villages. There are also one or two-days trips by some local travel agencies.
Anyway, the land of Yao in Guangdong is a really unique place with unique people. It far from the famous destinations of China, one of the hidden gems in the world. So, if you go on a trip to China, and look for some off the beaten path places, Liannan of Yao minority is a great choice and would bring you an unforgettable experience.
Get some impression about the ethnic diversity of China! Yao minority is only one of the ethnic groups in the country.
Check out some guides and other information about the South China, Guangdong province and its minorities!