Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close


Archives  >  CHINA  >  Yao Heavens

Yao Heavens

Yao Heavens

The Legendary Heritage Of The Yaos


The Yao are one of Southeast Asia's many upland minority peoples. They live scattered in small communities across the "Golden Triangle" region of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, and extend deep into the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi.

In Thailand the Yao number nearly forty thousand, and are officially recognised as one of this country's nine "Hill Tribes". In China they number almost one-and-a-half million, and enjoy favoured status as one of the People's Republic's fifty five recognised shaoshu minzu, or minority nationalities. In both countries they are long established, relatively prosperous, and well-known to the international scientific community.

Less well-known are the relatively remote Yao settlements in Burma, Vietnam and Laos – countries long troubled by civil war, communist insurgency and population displacement. The Lao People's Democratic Republic, for example, claims loosely and without clarification to have 'fifty minorities', of whom the Yao – who live mainly in the north of the country – are but one.

The Yao, then, are just one small facet of mainland Southeast Asia's diverse, multi-ethnic hill tribe population. Yet, in many ways they are more than this. Some would argue that they are primus inter pares, "first amongst equals", in the degree of their cultural sophistication, business acumen, and overall confidence in dealing with settled, lowland societies.

In Thailand, particularly, the Yao are a Hill Tribe success story. More affluent and outgoing than any of the other upland peoples, the roots of their cultural confidence and commercial ability are founded in a long tradition of literacy and close association with things Chinese. The Yao have a very clear idea of who and what they are – aristocratic nomads of the hills, subject to none, but deeply committed to the traditional Sinitic world-view of which they form part.

The earliest known reference to the Yao occurs in the seventh century ad Liang Shu, or Annals of the Liang Dynasty. This chronicles the mythical origin of the Yao people, tracing their ancestry to Pan Hu, dragon-dog of the emperor Ping Huang, who lived in the third millennium bc. Pan Hu disposed of his master's arch-enemy, King Gao, and was given a young Chinese princess in marriage as a reward. Their descendants, known as "the race of Pan Hu", became the progenitors of the Yao people.

This myth was given official credence by the Chinese court at some stage during the early Tang Dynasty, probably in 627 ad, when the emperor Tai Zong granted the Yao freedom to wander the mountains at will, and forever. The decree is enshrined in a special document, the Guo Shan Bang, or "Passport for Travelling in the Hills", which was subsequently reissued and reconfirmed in 1260 ad by Southern Song emperor Li Zong.

This remarkable document, copies of which are preserved and revered by the Yao to the present day, states in part that:

The Yao clans shall be permitted to settle the hills of Ji Shan and to live there and gain their sustenance by growing rice in wet fields and other kinds of farming. Should the population grow in future so that there is no longer land on which to make a living, the descendants of the Yao shall be permitted to travel in search of land... While travelling, they shall not be required to pay obeisance to anyone. They shall not be required to pay for crossing by ferry. They shall not be required to kneel when they meet lords... They shall be exempt from taxes and from military service. No demands shall be made upon, and no harm done to, good-natured and well-behaved Yao people. The Yao shall watch over the hills and farm forever...

This exceedingly great imperial bounty is made known to the Yao clans so that they may keep it well in mind.

The Yao did indeed keep this extraordinary honour very much in mind. They may also have been mindful of another section of the emperor's decree, which adjures them "to dwell in the wilderness, to farm to make a livelihood, to live orderly lives, and to observe the law," before continuing:

"Since the Yao live in the forest and the hills from childhood, they never see the writings of the emperors or study the treatises of the sages, so they are ignorant of cultivated usage and manners."

Perhaps through a combination of gratitude to their benefactors and chagrin at their ignorance of the 'treatises of the sages', the Yao responded by embracing many aspects of Chinese culture with enthusiasm. They learned to read and write Chinese characters, and they studied religious texts – most notably those of Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, whom the Yao know as To Ta.

In this way Yao religious life became inextricably bound up with traditional Chinese religions. At the summit of the Yao pantheon are the fam t'sing, the "Three Pure Ones", Yen Si, Leng Pu and To Ta. They are assisted by Nyut Hung, the Jade Emperor of the Taoist Pantheon, and Seng Tsiu, "Master of the Saints". Beneath these powerful figures are a series of lesser celestial beings, including various warrior gods, nature divinities, and the lords of hell.

The Yao retain strong visual images of their Taoist pantheon through their possession of "god pictures" called mien fang. These icons, which are often finely painted, are regarded by the Yao quite literally as the abode of the gods. The artist who paints them performs an 'eye-opening' rite according to Chinese religious practice.

In addition, and of great power and importance, the Yao possess elaborately decorated masks, designed to be worn by shaman priests at religious ceremonies during which the mien fang are displayed. When such ceremonies involve the use of magic, the priest may dance frenziedly, changing spirit identity as he changes masks. Amongst the Yao of southern China as many as eighteen separate mask-deities have been identified.

Taken as religious objects these masks – like the mien fang paintings they compliment – are naturally numinous objects, inspiring feelings of deep awe and reverence. Viewed more simply as objets d'art they are still deeply impressive, mute testimony even from a display cabinet to the age-old culture the Yao, children of the dragon-dog Pang Hu, and his Chinese princess.

The Yao Origin Myth

More than four thousand years ago, deep in the distant and mysterious past, Emperor Ping Huang ruled over China. He had one great enemy and rival, King Gao, whom he deeply desired to see killed – but when he asked for volunteers from amongst his court, he was met with silence.

Now Ping Huang possessed a remarkable dragon-dog called Pan Hu. It was three foot long, had a striped coat, and could talk. When Pan Hu saw that nobody was willing to dispose of King Gao, the dragon-dog made obeisance to the emperor and volunteered to carry out the task. Ping Huang was delighted, and told Pan Hu: "You have a spirit like that of a man. If you succeed in this mission, we will bestow upon you a lady of the court to be your wife."

Before many days had passed, Pan Hu returned to his master's court bearing King Gao's bloody head in his mouth. Ping Huang was well pleased with the dragon-dog, and proposed to grant it a hereditary lordship. But Pan Hu declined this honour, asking only that the emperor observe his earlier promise.

Emperor Ping Huang sighed, and said: "You are but a beast, but you have not forgotten the lady. This sordid affair will never cease to be told beneath the heavens, but I must fulfil my promise." He thereupon ordered Pan Hu to be clothed in striped robes and trousers, and chose a suitable lady of the court, admonishing her: "Although Pan Hu is but a beast, his spirit is equal to that of a man, and we esteem him no less than our lords and generals. Do not, therefore, disobey my command in the matter of this marriage."

The court lady did exactly as she had been commanded to do, and in the course of time she bore Pan Hu six sons and six daughters. Because they were engendered by a dragon-dog but born to a person, the emperor recognised them to be a new type of human being whom he designated "Yao". Each of the children was ordered to marry ordinary people and in this way the twelve Yao clans were founded.

Meanwhile ancestor Pan Hu, although ennobled and held in high favour by Ping Huang, still had the instincts of a dog, and enjoyed nothing better than going off hunting. One day he failed to return from the chase, and was later found dead by a river-side, gored through by the antlers of a deer. The emperor mourned greatly, and ordered the dragon-dog's offspring to honour their father as pan wang, or first ancestor, for all time.

In this way the Yao people came into the world, and to this day they honour and venerate the memory of their first ancestor, Pan Hu, the dragon-dog of Emperor Ping Huang.

Michael Goh and the Way of the Yao

Although born in Taiping, Malaysia, to a Singaporean Chinese family, Michael Goh never felt any particular empathy with things Chinese until he discovered the Yao. With English as his first language, he studied Malay rather than Mandarin at school in Singapore. In 1977 he moved to Bangkok, where he became involved in the gem business and learned Thai. Association with gems brought him to Chiang Mai, where he first came into contact with the Yao people and their culture.

In 1988 Michael first began collecting Hill Tribe artefacts and studying the ethnography of the Golden Triangle region. Yao society and culture struck a particular cord in him, and he began to develop a special interest in 'the Way of the Yao'. At first it proved difficult to acquire Yao artefacts in Thailand – there are relatively few Yao adhering to the 'old ways', and the northern region has been heavily touristed for many years. In 1992, however, through contacts built up amongst the Yao of Thailand, and neighbouring Laos, rare Lantène Yao artefacts from Muang Singh and Luang Nam Tha became available for the first time.

Michael began collecting and studying the Lantène pieces almost immediately. Some were destined for sale in his flourishing antique business, but many pieces – including the best – were carefully put aside to make a unique ethnological collection which one day will be returned to the Yao, when they have an appropriate museum to house them.

"In many ways the Yao are very Chinese," he says. "They have been accepted by the Han Chinese for fifteen hundred years, and have absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture. I feel a strong affinity for the Yao. To tell the truth, they have brought out the Chinese in me, more-or-less for the first time."


Michael Goh is an ethnologist and proprietor of "The Lost Heavens", an antique     business specialising in Yao artefacts in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media