LAST OF THE PI YAO MINORITY PEOPLE

Wong How Man
Liannan, Gunagdong

A Yao baby today. “Please, please join us for lunch. We are cooking anyway,” said Tang Mai De San, the 32 years old son-in-law of the family. I declined his truly warm hospitality as it was not just me, but seven of us in my team, and it would add undue work to their family’s very last day at this ancient house.

Tang had just arrived by motorcycle at this now remote hamlet. And the road, it was only completed less than ten years ago. Soon it would be abandoned and lay to waste. Likewise electricity arrived last year, and after today there would be no need for it anymore.

Yao lady. Dajiang Pi was once a bustling village with over a hundred households and perhaps five hundred some odd inhabitants, one of the largest among the eight Pi villages of the unique Yao minority people of northern Guangdong. They are very different in both language and custom from all other Yao people of southern China. But today, we were seeing the departure of its very last resident family, that of Tang Wu Ji Gung’s, the last to move down the hill some ten kilometers away, to live in the new village by the road.

Yao mother with two daughters. “We have no choice, the house is leaking everywhere, and every family had already moved out long ago,” said the younger Tang with his crisp Cantonese dialect. He was married to Tang Wu Ji Gung’s third daughter, whom by chance we gave a ride along the way as we drove up this windy and narrow road to the village. The other fellow who came with Tang is also a Tang, in fact everyone around was a “Tang”, the common last name of the entire clan. His name was Tang Chiao She Gui, another four-syllable complexity, and he was married to the second daughter in the family. Both men, the sons-in-law, were from Dajiang Pi village originally, and both left for Guangzhou to seek work.

A religious parade circa 1984. “All young people have to leave for the city in order to find work. There is simply no opportunity here inside the mountains. In the city, we can make money and send home,” said the young Tang as a matter of fact. From their modern outfit like all city folks of China, no one would guess that they were from the Yao minority group.

The ladies in the house, four of them including the mother, were still dressed in the Yao’s blue jackets with white trimmings, dark pants with embroidered leggings, with a touch of brighter color on the head with a red cloth over a bun. They were rummaging throughout the very dark corners of the house, looking for items they may want to take along. The father, Tang Wu Ji Gung, was a 70-years-old Yao man of small stature, seemed a bit high on his last bottle of home brew of rice wine.

New Year ritual 1984. Next door at an antechamber stood two coffins, one on top of the other. Those were prepared a while ago, awaiting its contents which would be the aging parents. “Aren’t you bringing those down the hill as well,” I asked. “No, these would remain until some day we may need them,” came the answer from young Tang. After all, were the senior to decease, they may want to be buried in the old village rather than the new one where they find little affiliation to their past.

Firing a matchlock rifle during New Year 1984. Funerals are very important departure, far more important than today’s departure from their old village. When I first came during Chinese New Year in 1984, I was still working for the National Geographic. At a Yao Village, I observed how a Yao Taoist elder chanted their mythical script, leading the Way for the dead in returning to their ancestors. It was believed the Yao came from China’s far north, and the Way would include stopping in numerous villages and towns, until their destination of where their ancestors came from was reached.

Elder Yao men with pipes. There was also a peculiar method by which such Taoist high priests were removed from their home if one should pass away. He would be tied, sitting upright, to a chair. The roof tiles would be removed and the body, together with the chair, would be lifted through the house roof and taken out. That was to signify that his spirit would go to heaven. Today, no such ceremony is performed anymore. After all, there are few Taoist masters remaining in new villages and most young people have not even heard of such rituals, let alone have seen it.

Misted hills of the Yao countryside. Today only a very few of the eldest among the Yao could recite such rituals. Yesterday afternoon, we occasioned upon one such man, Tang Gu Ming Si Gung at Youling, another Pi Yao Village. After much coaxing, he agreed to sing a few chants of the Way. But after a couple minutes, at times with his hands gesturing a direction, he was determined to stop. It was leading nowhere, without someone dead to come along!

Nearby Dajiang Pi Village, all the terraced fields seemed to have been left vacant and no one were at hand to farm the land. Lower down the hill, with the karst limestone hills all around, there were some tea farm terraces. Those seemed to be well cared for. We managed to buy some local tea from a Yao lady who lived down the hill. But our most prized pieces of purchase were two old jackets and a baby carrier, all from the Tang family, probably would be left behind as rags had we not picked them up. Though worn and torn, they were treated like rare relic for our collection of minority artifacts.

Pointing to the now vacant Dajiang Pi Village. Thirty years was a long time, especially during China’s break-neck pace of change of the last three decades. What I saw in 1984 was perhaps the last remnants of the Pi Yao’s traditional past. It was freezing cold on New Year’s Day that year, with icicles dripping down the thatch-roofed houses. People in traditional costume nonetheless came out in droves at local drinking parties. Some were hitting the gong, others blowing at buffalo horns, yet others firing off their long-barrel short-butt match-lock rifles while old folks with long pipes reaching to the ground stood by and watched with charming smile. All that had passed on quietly.

A last family moving out of the village. Today in Dajiang Pi Village, I could see the several modes of transformation, as houses evolved from thatch and yellow mud brick, to a few with solid green bricks and tiled roof, to finally those with plastered walls and lime white paint outside, signifying a gradual gain in prosperity and “wealth”. Today’s departure of the Tang family spelled the last of this evolution and an end to a generation, as the family move down the hill into a red brick house along the road.

From my vantage point looking out into the hills, the karst limestone with fog looked just like a traditional Chinese painting. With my mind drifting into history and the past, I felt both fortunate and sad that I was on hand just in time to observe the eclipse of the very last of the Pi Yao, out of their historical village into a mainstream but homogenous Chinese society!