Daoism among the Yao

Scholars of Chinese religion and Daoism have long been fascinated by the “Tao among the Yao” (Strickmann 1982, Shiradori 1975). Until now there have been some general historical studies of Yao Daoism (Alberts 2007, 2017), while collectors have published catalogues of Yao Daoist paintings and ritual implements (Lemoine 1982, 2008, 2016; Pourret 2002). Yao texts have found their way into museums and libraries in Europe and America (Obi & Müller 1996; Höllmann & Friedrich eds. 2004; Guo 2012). More recent anthropological scholarship, however, has questioned the “library approach” that privileges Yao manuscripts as “textual artefacts,” and calls for investigating the meaning and value of the texts for their users, which can only be understood in specific historical and local contexts (Johnsson 2000; Chen 2015). Indeed, the most systematic study of Yao Daoist ritual so far, conducted in Lanshan County 藍山縣 (Hunan, China) by a team of scholars from Kanagawa University, has demonstrated the importance of combining textual and ethnographic methods (Maruyama 2013, Hirota 2013, see also www.yaoken.org).

The main obstacle to a full analysis and interpretation of materials on Daoism among the Yao is that research on the Yao has typically been conducted within the field of studies of Chinese or Southeast Asian ethnic minorities, by scholars who are not trained in Daoism or Chinese religion (Kandre 1967, 1976; Cushman 1970; Lemoine and Chiao Chien eds. 1986; Litzinger 2000; Johnsson 2005, 2014). Meanwhile, the ethnographic study of Daoist ritual among rural populations has been conducted within the academic tradition of Sinology and largely confined to Han communities in Taiwan, Fujian and Hunan (Schipper 1994; Lagerwey 1987, 2010; Dean 1993; Arrault ed. 2010). In fact, these can also be considered as frontier regions, where researchers have often noted traces of the conquered “She” and “Yao” people in popular lore and ritual, and are beginning to examine interactions with ethnic minorities such as the Miao (Katz 2013). Thus it is essential to bridge these two academic fields in a collaborative effort. This project aims to accomplish such an undertaking, through the case of the Lanten Yao in the China-Laos-Vietnam border region.

​The Lanten 藍靛 (also known as Lao Huay and Yao Mun, Dao Làn Tiển in Vietnamese) are classified due to linguistic affinities as part of the Iu Mien – formerly Yao – who in turn constitutes one of the 50 officially designated ‘ethnicities’ of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos;  they are a branch of the Yao (瑤族
người Dao) who, in Vietnam, are one of the 54 official ethnic groups, and in China are one of the 55 national minorities. The Lanten migrated from China into territories that are now part of Laos and Vietnam in the 18th century. These migrations were triggered by the social, political and economic instability that marked the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). The first Lanten settlements were established in Laos in the early 1700s; these early Lanten settlers kept their tributary relationships with their Lords in Sipsóng Panna 西雙版納 (China) until the 1890s, henceforth, they constituted the de facto furthest periphery of the Chinese Empire in the region. Nowadays the Lanten population in northern Laos counts about 10,000 members.

In Laos, the Lanten speak the Kim Mun language (Mienic-Hmong family), as well as Lao. In contrast to most other ethnic groups in the Indochinese peninsula outside of China, the Lanten Yao also use Chinese as their ritual language (which they do not use in daily life but learn to copy, read and chant for exclusively ritual purposes). The Lanten religion combines animism, a specific form of ancestor worship, and, notably, a Daoist ritual structure in which all male youth are ordained as priests in a dujie 度戒 coming-of-age ceremony. A significant proportion of men in the community become accomplished ritual masters. As a previously semi-nomadic society that practiced slash-and-burn cultivation, its social hierarchies are flexible, its political organization is loose, and an intense ritual life provides the main form of community coordination. The religion, based on Chinese imperial cosmology with a hierarchy of divine officials who govern the world from their specialized celestial departments, provides a template through which the community virtually interacts with a distant imperial state. With all men ordained as Daoist priests, and with a generalized participation in the conduct of an intense ritual life, the Lanten Yao of Laos, outside of China, can be said to practice a form of Chinese religion within Daoist liturgical structures, to a greater extent than most Han people in rural China, where only a tiny minority of people train and practice as ritual masters and Daoist priests.