Chinese Ethnic Minorities: Yao

Even after four years in China I’m still used to thinking of the term ‘ethnic minorities’ as a serious misnomer used to describe people of colour living in America and Europe.

I call it a serious misnomer because of its misleading nature. If statistics were properly accounted for on a global scale it would soon be clear that people of colour are far from a minority, but that’s another post for perhaps another platform.

In the meantime, I very recently had the privilege of finding out about one of the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities.

The majority of  Chinese are descended from the Han ethnicity, but spread throughout the country in clusters are non-Han descendants many of whom still live according to the tradition of their ancestors.

Today I met Stephen who is a Professor in Philosophy at Shenzhen University and a member of the Yao people.

Liu Zhishan. Professor Stephen from the Yao Chinese Ethnic Minority, Hunnan Province, China. Happy to tell me all about his people.

During our discussion about various types of food, he mentioned that he didn’t eat beef. It’s extremely rare to meet Chinese people other than Buddhists who abstain from meat.

When he elaborated by saying that no-one in his family had ever eaten beef I became even more curious. Then he mentioned that he had eaten rice almost every day since childhood because his family were in the business of growing rice.

All of this fascinating information coming from such a mild, unassuming man. Who knew?

So we talked more and he was patient enough to satisfy my curiousity about a group of people I’d never heard of before; the Yao ethnic minority, found mostly, but not exclusively in South Western China.

Yao family in traditional dress. Love the way they look so happy! The husband lives with the wife’s family.

So, apart from the not eating beef thing and the love of rice, due to it being the family business, Stephen told me about the home he grew up in. It was on the mountainside and followed the common practice of one sect of the Yao people living at the bottom of the mountain, another sect dwelling halfway up, with the final third division pitching their homes at the top. I’m unsure why this separation exists. Perhaps it’s just tradition which came out of survival necessity many years ago.


Yao house made of bamboo and wood. Some are built on stilts over rivers.

Yao houses are built for convenience and shelter. Made from bamboo and wood, the ground floor is used to keep livestock while the family inhabit the upper floors. Sometimes the houses are built on stilts over water. As the family grows the house is extended to accomodate the new unit creating unique and interesting structures.

This is so different to the west where planning permission is needed to even think about erecting an extension, while rules, regulation and paperwork override intuition, need and sometimes commonsense, but I digress.

A Yao Wedding

Unlike some Chinese families, Yao engagements are not usually arranged or helped along by family elders. Prof Stephen said that it’s common for young people to meet at a Yao festival. After this they decide for themselves if they want to pursue marriage. Most marriages are within the ethnic group, but it’s not a problem to marry outside. Husbands live with the wife’s family.

Stephen quoted a figure of 5 million Yao in China. Other sources say that there is half that amount with figures around 2.6m. Out of 1.4 billion people, it’s a pretty small number and I wonder if it’s increasing or decreasing.

The Chinese government has special rules for its minorities. For example they were exempt from the old One Child rule. in addition; “Some ethnic minorities in China live in what are described as ethnic autonomous areas. These “regional autonomies” guarantee ethnic minorities the freedom to use and develop their ethnic languages, and to maintain their own cultural and social customs. In addition, the PRC government has provided preferential economic development and aid to areas where ethnic minorities live.” Jim Yardley, New York Times 2008.

Tracing their roots back to the Qin Dynasty of 221-207, Yao were originally animal hunters. Now, they generally make their living from the land as farmers, rice growers or livestock holders. They have their own written and oral language or dialect but Mandarin is widely used.

Yao rice paddies. Green, beautiful and with no commute! Notice how the Yao homes are situated right next to them.

For more than 10 years Stephen has resided in the bustling, ultra modern metropolis of Shenzhen where he holds a good job as a Professor in Philosophy at Shenzhen University. Later this summer he’ll take up a position of Visiting Lecturer at a Los Angeles tertiary institute. His wife is a teacher and his daughter  is excelling at school. He goes home to see his relatives as often as he can so his daughter will know about her heritage.

I asked him if he ever thought about returning to the South Western countryside and contributing to the family business.

His answer was that he’s made the right choice and, as you can see from the first photo, he’s happy.



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