Major area of distribution: Guizhou and Guangxi
The Gelaos live in dispersed clusters of communities in Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Only about a quarter of the Gelaos still speak the Gelao language belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan language family. Yet, because of close contact with other ethnic groups, their language has not remained pure – even within counties. There are Gelao-speaking people unable to communicate with each other. For this reason, the language of the Hans, or Chinese, has become their common language, though many Gelaos have learned three or four languages from other people in their communities, including the Miaos, Yis and Bouyeis. Living among other ethnic groups, the Gelaos have become largely assimilated to the majority Han customs.
How the Gelaos live
The Gelaos’ living quarters, like those of their Han neighbors, usually consist of a central kitchen and two bedrooms built on a hillside or at the foot of a mountain.
In traditional Gelao clothes, women wore very short jackets with sleeves embroidered with patterns of fish scale. They wore tight skirts divided into three sections, the middle one of red wool and the upper and lower ones of black-and-white striped linen. Gelao women also wore short, black sleeveless gowns which hung longer in the back. Their shoes had pointed, upturned toes. Men wore front-buttoned jackets, and both men and women wore long scarves.
In the mountain areas, the Gelaos eat mostly maize, while in the flatlands, they eat wheat, rice, millet and sorghum. All the Gelaos – like many other Chinese – love to eat hot and sour dishes as well as glutinous rice cakes.
Before 1949, Gelao marriage customs were feudal, with matches made by parents at childhood. As Gelaos were so few and so scattered, marriages were usually made among cousins. To celebrate the marriage, the bride would walk with her relatives, carrying an umbrella, to the groom’s home, where they would live apart from their parents.
Gelao folk literature consists of poetry, stories and proverbs. Poems are of three, five or seven-character lines. Most Gelao folk tales eulogize the intelligence, honesty, diligence and bravery of the Gelao people. Typical are “The Brave Girl” and “Deaf Elder Brother and Blind Younger Brother Stealing Sheep.” Gelao dances are simple and graceful, accompanied by the erhu, horizontal xiao, suona, gong, drum and other string and wind instruments.
“Flower Dragon” and “Bamboo-Strip Egg” are two favorite Gelao games. “Flower Dragon,” in fact, is a ball of woven bamboo, a little larger than a ping-pong ball. Inside are bits of broken porcelain, coins and sandstones. The game, especially popular in Zunyi and Renhuai, is played by groups of pairs on hillsides. “Bamboo-Strip Egg” is also a ball, larger and stuffed with rice straw. Two teams of three or five throw and kick the ball, avoiding contact except with the hands or feet.
Most Gelao festivals are similar to Han traditions, but some practices differ. At Spring Festival – the Lunar New Year – Gelaos offer a huge rice cake to their ancestors and after it is made, it remains untouched for three days. In Guizhou’s Anshun, Puding and Zhenning, Gelao communities also celebrate the sixth day of the sixth lunar month by sacrificing chickens and preparing wine to bless the rice crop already in the fields.
The sixth day of the seventh lunar month marks the second most important event of the year, a festival of ancestor worship in Wozi and Gaoyang villages of Puding County. Oxen, pigs and sheep are slaughtered for ritual sacrifices to ancestors.
On the first day of the tenth lunar month, Gelaos give their oxen a day of rest. This is the day of the Ox King Buddha, and in some communities on this day oxen are honored and fed special rice cakes.
Prior to liberation in 1949, Gelaos had a number of distinctive taboos. During Spring Festival, for example, they did not allow themselves to sweep floors, carry water, cook food, clean houses, plough, ride horses or pour water from their houses. In some areas on other holidays, Gelaos would not transplant rice or build houses if they heard thunder.
Over the last 2,000 years or more, Gelaos have lived in many places in China. Bridges, graves, wells, and even villages in Guizhou Province still bear Gelao names, even where no Gelao still lives. The group’s name dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Before then, they were called the “Liaos.” Descended from the Yelang, the strongest tribe in the Han Dynasty’s Zangke Prefecture, the Liaos moved out of Zangke to Sichuan, where they became subject to the feudal regime, between the third and fifth centuries.
By the fifth century, the Liaos had developed metal spears, shields and fishing tools and copper cooking vessels. They could weave fine linen. At this time, the Liao people elected their kings, who later became hereditary rulers. As with other south-central minorities, the Gelaos were ruled in the Yuan and Ming periods (1279-1644) by appointed chiefs, who lost their authority to the central court when the Qing Dynasty came to power.