An Introduction to China's Yao People

Yao Women of Longsheng
Yao Women of Longsheng | © Toon Bronselaer / Flickr
Rachel Deason

A diverse people group, the Yao have spread themselves out across southern China and Southeast Asia and developed distinct and fascinating customs.

Loved by over 40s

Though the name Yao has come to identify over two million people in China, it is not the name of an ethnic minority. The original character for Yao was a pejorative term roughly translating to ‘jackal’ and was used by the Chinese government to describe the southern hill tribes of the Mien ethnicity. 20th-century language reforms changed the leftmost radical of the character, producing a much nicer translation: ‘precious jade’.


The Yao are said to have over 2000 years of history, dating back to the Qin dynasty. At that time, they lived in what is now the Hunan province and subsisted from hunting. During and after the Miao Rebellions of the Ming dynasty, however, the Yao were forced to retreat to the mountainous areas of southern China, where most of them remain to this day. There, they began farming, primarily cultivating rice. Some also practiced slash and burn agriculture, and others remained the hunters they once were. During the chaotic Republic of China, many feudal warlords targeted the Yao for conflict, leading to the flight of an estimated 20,000 to Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and even the USA.

Laotian Yao Woman


Though many Yao are now spread throughout Southeast Asia, they consider China their homeland. They believe themselves to have the same ancestors as China’s Han majority, and therefore see themselves as superior to other hill tribes. The majority of China’s Yao are found in the Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces. Because many Yao continue to subsist from farming, they tend to live in small village clusters, often on the slopes of mountains in wood frame bamboo houses.

Yao Village, Guangxi


As noted, Yao is only an ethnic group in name. In reality, the term refers to several distinct groups with the same origins. But because of their history of migration and clustering, each Yao group has developed a unique culture with its own traditions and style of dress.

Of all Yao, however, 70 percent speak the same language, namely Iu Mien, a Hmong-Mien language, which – similar to Mandarin – is tonal and monosyllabic. Most Chinese Yao also speak Mandarin, China’s national and compulsory language.

One Yao group that attracts significant attention outside of its own community is the Red Yao, who live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the mountain slopes leading up to the famous Longji Rice Terraces. It is not only their position in a tourist-friendly locale that makes this group the poster children of the diverse Yao, but more importantly the eye-catching hairstyle of the Red Yao women.

The Red Yao women only cut their hair once in their life: at age 16 in a coming-of-age ritual. Thus, those above a certain age carry long, black hair reaching well below the waist, which must be constantly cared for so that its strength and color don’t weaken. Fermented rice water is the preferred method of treatment. A woman’s hair tells a lot about her in this village. If her hair is covered by a black scarf, for instance, it means she is unmarried. If she is married but has no children, the woman’s hair is worn uncovered in two braids, and a married woman with children ties her hair around her head like a turban with a large bun just above the forehead.

Yao People, Laomeng, Yunnan
culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.


Keen to explore the world?

Our passionately curated premium small-group trips are an invitation to connect with like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.