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The striking attire of Yunnan's Yao women

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Honghe's official name is Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, and so either Hani or Yi officials occupy the top positions in the government administration in this corner of Yunnan province. One of the two minorities, or both, reside in all prefectural counties. But in a few counties other minority nationalities are even more numerous than the Hani or the Yi. Pingbian (屏边县) is a Miao autonomous county while Hekou (河口县), on the border with Vietnam, is a Yao autonomous county. And Jinping (金平县), next to it, is a Miao, Yao and Dai autonomous county.

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 percent of the county's population of roughly 350,000, living mainly in the central and eastern parts. All of Jinping's ethnic minorities are still very rooted in their traditional cultures, 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 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 Mountains (哀牢山) 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 where you are, which makes exploring Jinping Yao areas a great photo excursion, especially since practically all Yao women prefer traditional clothing and so do a large portion of the men.

The usual way into the county is from the Red River town of Manhao (蔓耗) in southern Mengzi County (蒙自县). After crossing the river, one option is to continue straight to the city of Jinping. The other is to make a left turn and head southeast to Mengqiao (勐桥), a small, nondescript district township with a couple of hotels and restaurants, interesting only because the villages all around are mostly Yao. Mengping (勐平), ten kilometers further down the road, is just a large village, but holds market days every pig and snake day of 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 Lüchun 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 perimeter, closer to their farms and several minutes' walk from each other.

While the men here wear the same black jackets — with coin-buttons — and brimless black cap as their counterparts in Yuanyang and Lüchun, 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.

The women's headdresses are also black cloth and, like the western Landian, also rise above coils of black horsehair around the hairline. But these versions are peaked, conical and pleated in the back. The older women in the Mengping market wear their hair in a bun, wrapped in a medium-blue scarf and topped with an embossed silver disc or, if they don'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 — was I their first foreigner? — women along the road invited me into the yard for tea and a chat.

Returning from Mengqiao to the Manhao junction, a left turn takes one through the mountains to Jinping City, about 35 kilometers 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, with the latter comprised of Hongtou Yao. Compared to the sedate apparel of Landian women, that of Hongtou Yao women is positively flamboyant.

Their name means 'red-headed Yao' and comes from the bright red, peaked cap worn by 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, cropping their hair short, but not shaving 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, although not as elaborately as the trousers or the fully embroidered shoulder bags. 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.

Many Hongtou women still weave and dye their own cotton cloth, selling their surplus on 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 agricultural terraces. Despite these requirements, 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, which are held every six days.

The county's market day schedule runs north to south to west, one day apart. First up is Adebo (阿得博) on snake and pig days, then Jinping on horse and rat days, Nafa (那法) on sheep and ox days, Mengla (勐拉) on monkey and tiger days, Sanguo (三锅) on rabbit and chicken days and finally, Zhemi (者米) on 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.

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 out with silver ornaments, mainly 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. However, the next venues — Nafa on the Vietnam border and Mengla a little to the west — only see Jinping area Hongtou making the market day runs, and then 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.

Nafa is also known as Jinshuihe (金水河), 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 of 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 half an 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 people 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 women also dress in black, like the Landian, and decorate the front of their jackets 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, and 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 seven centimeters extending in front, and then 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. Women young and old wear the same headgear, in contrast to the Landian and Hongtou.

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 (龙骨), for example, east of the Jinping-Nafa Road about halfway between the two and an hour's hike up a steep hill, holds nearly 300 houses. Some of these abodes sit aong the forest at the edge of the village.

One of twelve Sha Yao villages in the area, growing mainly papaya, sugarcane and maize, Longgu's residents live in long, single story, mud-brick houses with thatched or tin roofs and open-air balconies. 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, all washed down with rice liquor — a thoroughly 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 the extend to guests. Even unexpected and total strangers are welcome. It's a custom that guarantees any visitor's warm reception.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Great article Jim. I had the chance to pass through Jinping in late 2014 and it was impressive how much local garb is still about, though this is changing. Definitely still one of the better areas of Yunnan for observing traditional minority costume.

Thanks Mr. Goodman. I have a few photos of ladies in the pointed hats. Tried to find out, with no luck, about them. Very interesting piece.

Having read most of Goodmans books, one thing that is striking is the meticulous (can you say like that?) use of language. Its really a pleasure to read them, and theres no exaggerating either. Damn that book on Rock was good! Theres so much garbage out there so Goodman really stands out. While talking with Goodman is something like an impossibility, the language Goodman uses on Yunnan is in the tradition of Kingdon-Ward, another extremely pleasant read. Theres not only the knowledge, theres a blend of poetry. And talking about it, English seem to have abandoned Kingdon-Ward.

Peter99, I concur with your praise of Mr. Goodman. Not so keen on the earrings.

Thanks Jim. Always great to read your stuff.

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