Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Yao Variety in Jinping County

                                                      by Jim Goodman

       Honghe Prefecture is a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture and so either Hani or Yi officials occupy the top positions in the administration.  One of the two minorities, or both, resides in all of Honghe’s counties.  But in a few counties other minority nationalities are even more numerous than the Hani or the Yi.  Pingbian is a Miao Autonomous County.  Hekou, on the border with Vietnam, is a Yao Autonomous County.  And Jinping, next to it, is a Miao, Yao and Dai Autonomous County.
Landian Yao house near Mengqiao
       Several sub-groups of Hani and Yi live in various parts of Jinping County.  The Miao occupy remote mountain areas and Dai settlements dominate the plains in the south.  The Yao comprise 12% of the county’s population of roughly 350,000 and live mainly in the central and eastern parts.  All of Jinping’s ethnic minorities are still very rooted in their traditional culture, perhaps none more so than the Yao. 
       What makes Jinping special for anyone interested in the Yao minority is the presence of three major sub-groups, compared to the usual existence of just one sub-group in counties elsewhere in Yunnan.  They all speak the same Yao dialect and share the same mythology, history, religious practices and social customs.  They farm the same way, growing mainly rice, maize, bananas and cassavas, in the central and southern areas using the kind of irrigated terraces famous throughout the Ailaoshan area of the lower Red River. 
       The size and architecture of their villages will vary a bit according to sub-group.  More noticeably, the women’s clothing is quite different depending on the sub-group, which makes exploring Jinping Yao areas a great photo excursion, especially since practically all Yao females prefer traditional clothing and so do a large portion of the men.
Landian Yao ladies in Mengping
       The usual way into the county is from the Red River town of Manhao, in southern Mengzi County.  After crossing the river one option is to continue straight to Jinping city.  The other is to make a left turn and head southeast to Mengqiao, a small, nondescript district township with a couple hotels and restaurants, interesting only because the villages all around are mostly Yao.  Mengping, ten km further down the road, is just a large village, but holds market day every pig and snake day in the 12-day animal calendar.  The crowd is almost entirely Yao women, both sellers and buyers.
       The sub-group in Mengqiao district is the Landian Yao, the same as the dominant, black-clad Yao in Yuanyang and Luchun Counties.  But they live in simpler houses of one long building, thatched and sitting on the ground.  To the side of the house stands an open-air, roofed balcony.  Villages for the most part consist of clusters of such houses in a cleared slope below a forest.  Some families live outside the village perimeters, closer to their farms and several minutes’ walk from each other.
silver disc on a Landian turban
Landian woman and child, Mengping
       While the men here wear the same black jacket with coin-buttons and brimless black cap as their counterparts in Yuanyang and Luchun Counties, the Landian women dress a little differently.  They use the same black cloth for components cut and shaped the same way, but the jacket collar is white with black squares, the decorative acrylic woolen threads hang much further down from the collar, way past the waist, are fuller and white or pale pink instead of magenta.  They use the same thread to enhance their thin white belts and the ends of their shoulder bags.
twining thread outdoors,near Mengqiao
       The women’s headdress is also black cloth, like the western Landian, also rises above coils of black horsehair around the hairline, but is peaked, conical and pleated in the back.  The older women in the Mengping market wore their hair in a bun, wrapped in a medium-blue scarf and topped with an embossed silver disc or, if they didn’t own a silver disc, one of plywood or thick cardboard.
       Market day starts early and begins winding down around noon.  On the day I attended it was rather cool in the morning and the Yao women wrapped the woolen thread hanging from their collars around their hands to keep them warm.  But by the afternoon it was much warmer.  As I hiked by the banana plantations, rice fields and cassava patches along the rutty, unpaved road back to Mengqiao I passed several Yao houses where the women were out in the yard, enjoying the fine weather while they twined thread or stitched clothing.  And unlike the somewhat skittish women I met at the market (their first foreigner?) women along the road invited me into the yard for tea and a chat.
Hongtou Yao woman in Jinping
Hongtow Yao woman
       Returning from Mengqiao to the Manhao junction, a left turn takes one through the mountains to Jinping city, about 35 km south.  Jinping lies on a slope, doesn’t have any parks, but has good views from its edges and is blessed with a large ethnic presence, mainly Hani and Yao.  The nearest villages are Hani or Yao and the Yao in this part of the county are the Hongtou Yao.  Compared to the sedate apparel of Landian women, that of Hongtou Yao women is positively flamboyant.
unmarried Hongtou Yao woman
       Their name means Red-headed Yao and comes from the bright red, peaked cap worn by the married women.  It is held in place by a thick silver band around its base and the women knot the hair above it inside the cap, shaving any hair that might appear below the silver band.  This is the most obvious costume component, but not all local Yao women wear it.  Some prefer a plain, bulky black turban instead, crop their hair short, but do not shave it below the turban.  They are known locally as Baotou Yao, otherwise dress identically, and sometimes live in the same villages as the Hongtou.  Young girls of both groups leave their hair long and wear no headgear at all.
       Equally striking are the fully embroidered, shin-length trousers they wear under a long-tailed, black, front-fastened, long-sleeved jacket.  It is trimmed with embroidery along the hem, cuffs and lapel, though not as elaborately as the trousers or the fully embroidered shoulder bag.  The front is decorated with small colored pompoms along the lapel and fastened with simple coin-buttons or, if they can afford it, a row of rectangular silver buckles. The coat is held by a belt with colored ends draping over the buttocks.  Girls add a few embroidered tabs to hang from the belt.  On special occasions women wear silver neck rings, butterfly pendants attached to chains, necklaces with silver coins, and, like Landian women, silver earrings with an arrow piercing a hoop. 
Yao arrow earring
       Many Hongtou women still weave and dye their own cotton cloth, selling their surplus on the county market days.  But embroidery is a skill practiced by all and the most common spare-time activity.  They employ the cross-stitch method, making patterns with tiny x’s stitched into the cloth.  Most patterns have traditional names and meanings and a proper pair of trousers has to have certain patterns in certain rows, divided by lines that symbolize their terraces, though the bulk of the embroidery is left up to the skill and creative imagination of the woman herself.
       Hongtou Yao villages lie both close to the main commercial centers and in the remotest parts of the mountains.  They generally live in wide, one-story houses of mud-brick and wood, with roofs of thatch or corrugated iron.  The Hongtou Yao are avid market-goers, especially the women.  Villagers from nearby Jinping can be seen in the city any day, but especially on the market days, held every six days. 
       The county’s market day schedule runs north to south to west, one day apart; first Adebo (snake and pig days), then Jinping (horse and rat days), Nafa (sheep and ox days), Mengla (monkey and tiger days), Sanguocun (rabbit and chicken days) and finally Zhemi (dragon and dog days).  Enterprising Hongtou Yao women will take their cloth, herbs or whatever to many of these, particularly the string from Adebo to Mengla.  And while they wait for business they will inevitably keep busy with some kind of embroidery work.  They might also have their babies along, strapped across the back, wearing an embroidered cap festooned with charms to repel any lurking evil spirits.
Hongtou baby cap
Yao cloth market in Jinping
       In Jinping the market stalls begin around the center of the city and run all the way downhill and into every lateral street.  The Yao cloth merchants set up near the top, while those hawking vegetables, herbs, molasses or firewood set up further down, often right next to Hani or Yi women selling the same thing.  While the married women run their stalls the young women, in their finest outfits and decked with silver ornaments, manly wander the streets, stop for snacks and chats with friends and possibly keep an eye out for Yao bachelors.
       The Hongtou Yao also attend the market day in Adebo, the day before Jinping’s, but the next venues, Nafa on the Vietnam border and Mengla a little west of Nafa, only those Jinping area Hongtou making the market day runs turn up, and strictly as sellers.  A few Red Yao, who dress similarly, may come to Nafa from the Vietnam side.  But the large number of Yao who attend market days in Nafa and Mengla belong to the third major Yao sub-group in the county—the Sha Yao.
Sha Yao women in Nafa on market day
        Nafa is also known as Jinshuihe, which is actually the name of the river beside it and the border with Vietnam.  It’s a small town, only active on market day.  The border crossing is at a bridge about a kilometer outside town.  A few Vietnamese and ethnic minorities cross over for market day, but the main participants are a Hani sub-group different from the one in Jinping, two kinds of Miao and the Sha Yao.  
       On Mengla’s market day, about a half hour west, there are few if any from Vietnam attending, but the other minorities present in Nafa also come to Mengla, joined by the local Dai.  The Sha Yao are very numerous at both venues.  Some of the older ones set up stalls, but most of the younger ones stroll around in groups.  Encountering this third Yao sub-group after getting used to the ultra-colorful Hongtou Yao is almost like a return to the Landian look.
Sha Yao girl in Mengla
Sha Yao girl in Nafa
       Sha Yao women also dress in black, like the Landian, and decorate the front of the jacket with long, magenta woolen threads hanging down the center, though only about half as wide.  They also wear the same kind of silver ornaments, like the jacket fastener, neck rings, arrow earrings, often two pairs at a time.
       But several differences make the Sha Yao easy to distinguish from the Landian.  A long white apron, with a broad band of printed red and white across the top, is the most obvious.  A cotton cape of white or light blue is another.  Over this they usually sling red shoulder bags with blue sides.  The cap is a red-edged, black piece of cloth folded in three and laid across the top of the head.  They leave a brim of about 7 cm extending in front and wind a string over the brim and tie it under the hair bun at the back of the head.  The rest of the cloth falls loose in the back and hangs to the shoulders.  Females young and old wear the same headgear, in contrast to the Landian and Hongtou.
Longgu Sha Yao village
       Sha Yao settlements are more remotely sited, usually high up in the hills, than Landian or Hongtou ones and are generally much larger as well.  Longgu, for example, east of the Jinping-Nafa road about halfway between the two, an hour’s hike up a steep hill, holds nearly 300 houses, some of them within the forest at the edge of the village.  One of twelve Sha Yao villages in the area, growing mainly papaya, sugarcane and maize, its residents live in long, single story, mud-brick houses with thatched or tin roofs and an open-air balcony.  Stacks of firewood sit next to the houses and small picket fences enclose the yards around them.  Village men who’d just finished some threshing work invited me to have a meal with them while we chatted about Yao life and customs.  We had roast pork, cassavas, peppers and noodles, washed down with rice liquor, a typical Yao meal.
       In short, it was a day similar to a day spent with other Yao sub-groups.  Jinping Yao differ greatly in clothing and aesthetic taste and differ slightly in domestic life and the observance of annual festivals.  All other aspects of their culture, though, are common to all.  And one trait they also share is the habit of grace and hospitality to a guest.  Even unexpected total strangers are welcome.  It’s a custom that guarantees the visitor’s warm reception.

Hongtou Yao women bring in firewood for sale in Jinping.
                                                                     * * *                                                          

                               for more on the Yao and their Ailaoshan neighbors,
                                          see my e-book The Terrace Builders





  1. Hi Jim,

    I'm fascinated by your articles. I was reading about the Landian minority in JumpJin County. I'm currently in Yunnan researching the Landian Yao branch of the Jinmen dialect. It is the same Lanten minority who habits Luang Namtha in Laos. They wear blue dyed cloth by Indago and shave their eyebrows. I'm struggling to find this subdivision here. I was hoping you, have been traveling in Yunnan for such a long time, could have some information. I'm collecting material for an import research which aim to discover the Landian migration and cultural difference between China/Vietnam and Laos.Any chance you could help me out? I'd be glad!! Thank you,