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The Yao of Thailand's Hilltribe

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The Yao

Scattered through Northeast Thailand you will find the Yao or Mein. This hill tribe is currently about 60,000 strong in Thailand, but can also be found in Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and China.  They are believed to have originated in Yunnan China.

The Yao are traditionally animists, or nature worshippers.  They also partake in ancestor worship, and have been heavily influenced by Chinese Taoism.  The Chinese have had a profound effect on their culture and beliefs.  Not only did they originate in China, but they were also once quite powerful in China.  In fact a Yao princess was at once time married to the emperor of China. Within the group there have also been many conversions to Buddhism and Christianity.  The Yao celebrate Chinese New Year at the same time as the Chinese; this is their major annual holiday.

The Yao have a written form of language that sets them apart from all other hill tribes in the area.  They are linguistically related to the Chinese and their writing follows traditional Chinese characters.

The Yao prefer high altitude dwellings.  Their homes are typically built on wooden planks.  In a traditional Yao home you will find a communal living area, a few bedrooms, and a guest area.  When girls reach maturity they are usually given a private bedroom.  This gives girls a private area to entertain potential husbands.

The traditional attire of the Yao is extraordinarily beautiful.  The women wear long black jackets that are accented with woolen scarlet lapels.  In addition to this they wear loose black pants that are embroidered with exquisite designs and a matching black turban.  The Yao babies are also known for their exquisite attire. Yao babies commonly wear intricately embroidered caps.  Men wear loose jackets that are accented with embroidered pockets and trim.

Jewelry is popular in Yao culture as well.  During special events women and children often wear silver neck rings along with an intricate set of chains and ornaments, the silversmiths of the Yao hill tribe are renowned throughout Thailand for their impressive skill.  The women are also known to have gold capped teeth.

The women are known for their rich embroidery and cross stitch.  The intricate designs are unique facets to the clothing of each member of the Yao family.  The Yao are also known for producing exquisite silver pieces.  These skills account for a large part of their economy.

The men are considered the businessmen of the hill tribes of Thailand.  They are impressive purveyors of farm implements and plows and are known to sell these commodities to other groups.  This contributes greatly to their economy, in addition to the works of the women and silversmiths.

The Yao typically grow corn and rice as their major agricultural crops, though they are known to grow other smaller crops as well.  The Yao are adapting to Thai culture and agriculture and learning to produce a variety of new crops with each passing year.

Opium farming is still relevant in some sections of Yao culture, though the tradition is on the decline.  Though their economy was once based primarily on the sale of opium crops, opium addiction within the group is extremely rare.  The practice of growing opium has become very frowned upon within Thai culture, forcing the Yao to use their many other skills for subsistence.  The Yao are a very talented, flexible group of people who have easily found other ways of providing income.

Extended families are a normal part of the Yao lifestyle.  The Yao practice polygamous marriage, a unique quality among the hill tribes. Yao boys choose their marital partners from outside of their own clan. Once a dowry has been paid for a bride the new couple will move in with the young man’s family.  If the family is poor unable to provide a dowry and/or only has one daughter, Yao boys will sometimes live with their wives families for a period of time.  Adoption of children is very common within the Yao. Cross-cousin marriage and premarital sex are also common practices in Yao culture.

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