Who are the Yao hilltribe in the northern part of Thialand?
Yao hill tribe, Thailand's beautiful hill tribe women in Northern Thailand
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Yao hill tribe
Thailand: 45,571 in 2003, distributed between 178 villages.
The Mien, or Iu Mien, as they call themselves, are called Yao by the Thais and the Chinese. In Yao, the word mien means ‘people’.
In Laos and Vietnam, they are called Man, meaning ‘barbarian”, the term applied by the Han Chinese to all the peoples that they could not assimilate when they expanded southward. The word Yao comes from the word Iu in Iu Mien, the term generally applied to all the non-Chinese peoples along the Hunan-Guizou border at the start of the last millennium.
Linguistic family: Austro-Thai
Linguistic group: Miao-Yao Linguistic branch: Yao
The Yao can often speak Mandarin or Yunnan. What is more, they can write the former. The liturgical language of their religion uses an archaic form of Chinese.
4. Origins and migration
A hundred years before the founding of Chiang Mai (13th century), the Yao were scattered in Guangdong, Guangxi, and present-day Yunnan, provinces where they are still to be found today, as well as in the northern part of Vietnam. Their southerly migration began in the nineteenth century with the expansion of the opium trade and the consequent reprisals taken by the Manchu government (the Qing dynasty) against the mountain tribes. Another causal factor behind their migration was the virtual state of war that existed between the central Chinese government and the Taiping and Panthay rebels, conflicts that had the whole of southern China in flames at that time.
The Yao entered Thailand from Laos at the start of the 20th century and settled in the provinces of Nan and Phayao. They were joined after the Second World War by other groups that settled in Chiang Rai and elsewhere in the north of Thailand.
Thailand: the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Lampang Phayao; Nan, Phitsanulok, and Kamphaeng Pet; China
6. Economy and agriculture
The Yao mainly grow hill rice and sweet corn. For a long time, they grew opium poppies but have now ceased to do so in Thailand.
The basic social unit of Yao society is the extended family, i.e., husband, wife, married sons and their families, and any unmarried children. So a household can contain as many as sixty people, though the average is between 15 and 20.
In Yao families, the wife is subordinate to her husband and has to accept his decisions. The women and children eat together after the men have eaten.
Particular respect is paid to the elderly, who are considered to have privileged knowledge about many things in life, including rituals.
Marriage is accorded great importance by the Yao because it opens the way to increasing the number of members of the blood line. To ensure stable relationships, young Yao are allowed to choose their own partners. An adolescent girl can have her own bedroom and entertain her future fiancé there.
Before the wedding can take place, the families consult astrological tables to check that the celestial configurations at the birth of the bride and groom are compatible. Then, if the omens seem good, the families negotiate the details of the wedding: the number of days, the number of guests, the number of pigs to be eaten, the size of the dowry, and how it is to be paid. All these details are set down in writing, with the signatures of both parties.
A grand wedding will last several days, and numerous pigs will be consumed in the course of the festivities. The bride is escorted to her future husband’s house by part of her family and is received with great pomp. She is then dressed in an elaborately embroidered black and red tunic with a scarlet headdress. When the right time comes, she goes through the main door (which is only used on selected ritual occasions of this sort), and in the evening the ceremony proper takes place. The following morning, the couple drinks the wine prepared for them by the person officiating over the rites, who lectures them on the traditions of the Yao people and the duties of married life.
During pregnancy, Yao women take great care not to frighten the soul of the baby, which, until the ninth month, is thought to reside successively in the door, the stove, the rice barn, the ground below the house altar, and the mother’s bed (the soul is only thought to be inside the mother herself during the fifth month of pregnancy). If a woman is not married, she gives birth in a purpose-built hut, whereas a married woman gives birth in her own bedroom, helped by her mother or her stepmother.
The baby is given a name that corresponds to its place in the family sequence (a Chinese practice). It is also given a ceremonial name and, sometimes, a nickname relating to the circumstances of its birth. It is then entered in the “spirit register”, so that the ancestors and spirits know that a new member of the family has arrived.
Death and funerals
The priest officiates at funerals. The body of the deceased is bathed and dressed; his hair is cut; and a coin is placed in his mouth to stop him from uttering lies or slander. The funeral lasts three days and three nights, during which pork, rice, and large quantities of alcohol are consumed. The body is placed in a wooden coffin while the priest recites a sacred liturgy that will allow the dead person to gain entry to the world of the ancestors. Finally, the coffin is carried out of the house by the main door and taken to a funeral pyre, where it is burned. Such bones as are left after the cremation are collected the following day and buried in a place chosen by the priest using his divining wands.
According to Yao tradition, they are descended from a hero or god called Pien Hung, who came from across the ocean long ago. There are many versions of this story. In one of them, the Yao are forced to leave their land by a drought. They cross the ocean, but many of them die on the voyage. The survivors are rescued by a god, and Pien Hung promises him that he will always be honored by the twelve clans of the surviving Lu Mien. In another version, Pien Hung is a cavalry officer who volunteers to cross the seas to destroy the enemies of the Emperor of China. On his return, he refuses all the high offices of state that are offered him and merely asks for the hand in marriage of a young lady of the court. Pien Hung and his wife settle in the mountains and have twelve children. When the brave ex-soldier dies, the emperor orders his sons, founders of the twelve clans of the Iu Mien, to honor his memory. He also grants them the right to farm the mountainsides in perpetuity.
A Yao bears his clan name throughout his life. However, he has no obligations to the members of his bloodline, that is, people belonging to the same genealogical group as he does in the male line. Nonetheless, members of the same line do have close relations. The oldest organize the various ceremonies and weddings for the younger members in the hope of reaping a reward after death. Prosperity and good luck are thought to come to those who make offerings to their ancestors, while illness and bad luck are attributed to the influence of discontented ancestors.
8. Religious beliefs, practices, and rites
The Yao believe in a form of Taoism that was practiced in China in the fourteenth century. According to these beliefs, the happiness of the ancestors of one’s blood line (ca fin) depends on the place that they merit in a celestial hierarchy that is run by a number of major and minor gods.
The Yao also worship the spirits of rivers, trees, and the earth. It is to these spirits that they attribute the various events that affect their lives, such as sickness or poor harvests. It is the shamans who have the task of mitigating the suffering for which such spirits are responsible.
The priest and the shaman
The main task of the priest (sip mien mien) is to persuade the ancestors and spirits to provide protection for the village and its houses. This is done at ceremonies where sacred texts are read or recited. Some very well-qualified priests may even communicate directly with the gods or ‘great spirits of the heavens’. The shaman has the ability to be possessed by supernatural powers. His main function is to organize healing ceremonies.
9. Traditional dress
Yao women have a reputation as exceptionally skilled embroiderers. Since childhood, embroidery has been the favorite pastime of young women. For their whole lives, in the few free moments left between working in the fields and performing household chores, they will never cease to ply their needles with astonishing dexterity.
This comprises a pair of wide trousers, a long tunic, a belt, and a turban. The long black or indigo tunic, with ankle-length panels, has a very characteristic red fur collar. The trousers are made of two panels embroidered with complex designs in bright colors. Each of these designs is taken from the classic Mien repertoire and worked in silk or cotton thread. From the age of ten, the young girls replace their children’s caps with black turbans with embroidered edges that are from 3 to 6 meters long.
Yao male dress consists of a short jacket with a cross-over front, which is done up with a dozen silver buttons or hooks, and a pair of wide trousers. Both are black or dark blue.
At the New Year and on festival days, Yao women put on large numbers of solid silver necklaces, chains, and pendants. They also wear a profusion of bracelets, earrings, rings, and brooches shaped like arrows, butterflies, birds, flowers, bells, etc. They are all made of silver and collectively signify good health and high social status.
Yao culture generally adapts to the political requirements of the moment. There is therefore no specific prescribed form of village organization. In Thailand, the Yao choose a headman from among themselves, or even from some other ethnic group, to represent
The head man
The main task of the Mien village headman is to take the lead at ceremonies and to preside over meetings of the village elders. He also has the power to intervene in disputes. giving advice and restoring harmony.
The traditional Yao house is built directly onto the ground so as to conserve heat in winter (which can be pretty cold at high altitudes). The outer walls are made of wood or sometimes bamboo, and the roof is made of grass or reeds and has to be renewed every two or three years. In the last ten years, instead of the traditional building materials, bricks have increasingly been used for walls and tiles for roofs.
The ritual center of a Mien house is the household altar, which faces the main door. The latter is only used during certain rites, e.g., to honor a spirit, to admit a married couple into the house for the first time, or when the body of a dead person is carried out to the funeral pyre. For everyday access, doors at the rear are used, one for men and one for women. One side of the living space is occupied by the main room, where guests are received, and the other by the kitchen, which contains the rice store and two hearths, each with its own spirit. The bedrooms are contained in the area behind the altar.
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