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Heart and Souls


Text by Fang Lizhen and Tang Guanjun Photographs by Tang Guanjun

Considered one of the oldest ethnic groups in China, the Yao people have inhabited Liannan County of Guangdong Province for more than 1,000 years. Over their millennium of history, they developed delightful songs and dances, the most famous being the romantic Long-Drum Dance. A visit to Yao villages during Panwang (Lord Pan) Festival is ideal, as it is the Yao’s most important celebration.

About 2,000 years ago, Yao forefathers lived in the central part of China before migrating south. Today, their descendants can be found not only in southern China, but also in Southeastern Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. According to Yao mythology, Pan Hu (or Lord Pan) is the patriarch of every branch of the ethnic group. Panwang Festival kicks off on Pan Hu’s traditional birthday, the 16th day of the 10th lunar month, and the Yao not only worship their legendary ancestor, but celebrate the harvest.

The Paiyao make up a Yao subgroup of Liannan County. Every year, local Paiyao people slaughter cattle and drink homemade wine at banquets to celebrate Panwang Festival. However, the pinnacle of the event happens even less frequently- a singing festival known as”shuagetang.” Shuagetang can be divided into two categories. A larger shuagetang comes along only every 10 years and lasts three to nine days. The lesser one is held every three to five years and lasts only one day. Participants beat gongs, recite Yao sutras, and sing songs dedicated to Lord Pan to revel in celebration and pay homage to their ancestors. Additionally, grand religious ceremonies revitalize locals’ memories of their people’s brilliant history. Perhaps many youngsters look forward to the event for one reason: it’s a common time to find love. Even the more mature participants appreciate the singular opportunity to socialize.

On the day of Panwang Festival, Yao people don colorful costumes and congregate in the streets for a parade. Accompanied by booming ceremonial gunshots, a village elder holds a live chicken in his left hand and a bronze bell in his right and recites sutras while leading the parade. An honor guard unit walks close behind him carrying various sacrifices, and the rest of the clan follows. The elder, dressed in red robe and lugging an embroidered silk pack, is believed to be able to communicate with deceased ancestors. He wears a ritual crown engraved with distinctive patterns and his religious name, under which his hair is tightly wrapped with a red kerchief. As he marches, the elder occasionally rings a bell and recites a paragraph of obscure sutra, which is thought to beckon spirits of the deceased.

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