Slash-and-burn Cultivation and Migration of Yao Ethnic Group

Slash-and-burn cultivation is a primitive producing and living practice in the early human agriculture civilization. In modern times, it is still practiced in some mountainous areas by some minority communities that have little land resources. The Yao nationality is one of them.

Gu Yanwu, a scholar in the Qing Dynasty, once wrote in his “The Strategic Economic Advantages of Districts and States of the Empire” that “Yao people slash and burn one mountain; after it is used up they move to another mountain.” After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in some areas, Yao people still practice slash-and-burn cultivation and have to move to clear other areas after the nutrients in the soils have been used up.

The ancient Yao people lived in the fertile Dongting Lake and Boyang lake areas. Because of the imperial and ethnic oppression, they were forced to move southward, from the plain areas to the hills, from the canyons to the mountainous areas. To be out of sight, they ended up in the desolate and uninhibited mountains and forests. In face of the abominable environments and infertile soil, they had to clear the mountains by burning them and practiced extensive cultivation, which could only bring slight harvest. After some time, the nutrients of the soils were gradually consumed and in order to survive they had to move again and clear new lands.

This unstable cultivation style, coupled with frequent migration, resulted in the wide distribution of Yao people. Therefore, Yao people used to be called the “Oriental Gypsies”.

Historically, the slash-and-burn cultivation and migration were often practiced by family units that had blood relationship. It is rare that one single household strolled about or the whole village or even several villages went together from place to place. They sometimes move only in a short distance, which may only stretch to the other side of the mountains; sometimes they travel a long way, which may even cross several counties. Historically, Yao people mainly moved southwest. They first moved to Guangxi and Guangdong and then further southwest to Guizhou and Yunan. Today most of Yao people in Yunnan can be traced back to Guangdong and Guangxi origins. Some of Yao people in Mengla, Xishuangbanna even moved to the northern mountainous areas in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, various policies and measures based on nationality equality and unity have been put into place by the communist party and central government to help the Yao people improve production efficiency and living standard. The Yao people, who have been moving for hundreds of years, finally settle down and begin to live a happy life.