Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Ajawa, Ayao, Mujao, Wahiao, Wayao


Identification and Location. The Yao live mainly in three countries: Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania. They are part of the Bantu-speaking population of East and Central Africa and are believed to have radiated outward from a homeland in the hilly region of northeastern Mozambique. Somewhere in what is now the Niassa Province of Mozambique, to the east of Lake Malawi in the mountainous area between the Lujenda and Luchelingo rivers, there is said to be a hill named Yao (the word is the plural form of a noun meaning "treeless hill"). It is from this region that the Yao, who took their ethnonym from this place of origin, moved in a series of migrations beginning in the eighteenth century to their areas of later settlement. They now live in a broad band stretching from the Shire Highlands in southern Malawi through the hills of Mozambique, to the east of Lake Malawi, and into the southern part of Tanzania, on the southeastern edges of the Great Rift Valley.

Demography . It is difficult to estimate the total number of Yao because of the lack of census data from all three countries on ethnic or linguistic affiliation in the postcolonial era. The proportion of the total population of Malawi (or Nyasaland, as it was previously known) who self-identified as Yao remained at around 15 percent during the colonial era. The population of the entire country was around 11 million in the year 2000, and so, assuming no major changes in the proportion of Yao since 1945 (the last census to include ethnic affiliation), as many as 1,650,000 persons in Malawi could be Yao. There were never large numbers of Yao in Tanzania, and since the civil war in postindependence Mozambique has made it difficult to arrive at accurate estimates of the population of ethnic groups in that country, it is perhaps best to assume that the total number of Yao in the year 2000 was between 1.5 and 2.5 million.

Linguistic Affiliation . The Yao language was classified as P.21 in a Yao group that includes Mwera, Makonde, Ndonde, and Mavia. This group forms part of the Eastern Bantu languages in Guthrie's widely accepted classification of the Bantu languages.

European missionaries, who were the first to record and study the language, found Yao to be dissimilar from many of the surrounding languages. They also found that by comparison with some of the other languages in the region, there was very little variation in dialect: The Yao spoken near Lake Malawi differed very little from that spoken near the East African coast. They concluded that this resulted from the disposition of the Yao to travel, bringing all the parts of the group into frequent contact. This view was supported by linguistic research conducted around 1960.

The lack of variation in the Yao language may have been partly due to the fondness for travel of its speakers, although it could also indicate that their dispersal from their homeland was relatively recent. It is possible that by the conclusion of the twentieth century there was more perceived variation among speakers of the language, which may have to do with a further time lapse and the difficulty of crossing international borders.

History and Cultural Relations

The story of the Yao begins with a hill. This hill is the home of the tribe and its place of origin, and it is the beginning of Yao history in more than one sense. Nothing is known of the people who came to be known as the Yao before their dispersal from the hill. The story of the hill and of an early state of tribal integrity is an important component of the identity of the Yao.

There is a tendency to speak of the hill Yao in a matter-of-fact way, as though there really were such a hill in northern Mozambique, but there is no record of any European traveler or missionary having identified the hill.

The word yao is a plural form of chao, a treeless place, usually a hill. However, the word chao is not used to describe the hill that is the home of the tribeit is the plural form that is used in this context. Therefore, the hill Yao may in fact be more than one hill. The hill from which the Yao take their name thus is neither a real hill nor a merely mythical entity. The moment it is approached, it dissolves into the myriad of hills and mountains in the region. It seems likely that the term "Yao" simply means "hill people"those who come from the hills.

The history of the Yao in the sense of a narrative of events can be reconstructed only after their dispersal from the hill. There are ten subtribes or sections of the Yao, each of which took its name from the place to which it moved after the dispersal from the hill Yao. The movements and transformations of these groups can be traced in the records of travelers and missionaries as well as in Yao accounts.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Yao emerged as the main means of the transport of goods between the interior of East Central Africa and the coast. By the early nineteenth century there was a well-established trade in ivory and slaves between the Yao and the East African coast at Kilwa. There is, however, little indication of the situation of the Yao in the interior until the arrival of David Livingstone. He encountered the Yao first as slave raiders on the upper Shire River in the course of the Zambesi expedition of 1859, but his most illuminating descriptions of the Yao come from the journals of his trip up the Rovuma in 1866. On that journey he passed through several Yao chiefdoms and with the assistance of two Yao boys was able to collect a great deal of information about the people he saw. Coming toward Mwembe, the town of one of the most powerful Yao slaving chiefs, Livingstone found that the trade with the coast was so well established that it was difficult to interest the people in his goods.

The Yao chiefs who participated in the slave trade turned their attention to the Nyanja to the south of Lake Malawi around the middle of the nineteenth century. The parties of Yao slavers Livingstone had met in 1859 were the vanguard of a general movement of the Yao southwest toward the Shire Highlands. Sometimes fugitives, sometimes raiders, groups of Yao were moving into what is now southern Malawi in a large-scale invasion.

The dominance of the Yao in this region was due to their contact with the coast, involvement in the slave trade, and access to and skill in using firearms. It is apparent that by the middle of the nineteenth century the Yao were organized into autonomous chiefdoms, some of which were stronger in a military sense than others and all of which were quite mobile. However, it is not clear how long this state of affairs had persisted. It has been suggested that their involvement in the slave trade led to an enlargement of the significant political unit from village to chiefdom. This is plausible but difficult to verify. However, the fact that none of the chiefly dynasties that were prominent at the end of the nineteenth century extended back for more than a couple of generations may indicate that these chiefdoms were relatively new.

There was no central power, no "paramount chief, " but a series of more or less powerful chiefs, sometimes in alliance and sometimes in opposition, like a group of warlords. The authority of the chiefs appears to have rested largely on their ability to conduct trade with the coast and to muster men and slaves for that trade.

Despite the competition between chiefdoms, the Yao had a well-defined identity. They regarded themselves as Yao and were clearly distinguished in a political and economic sense from other people in the region despite the disunity within their own ranks. They were traders and slavers, the followers of powerful chiefs, and unmistakable in those roles whether settled or on the move. Where they had settled among the Nyanja near the lake, their villages were visibly different. The Yao seem to have quickly established their dominance over their neighbors wherever they moved in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Virtually every description of the Yao from that time, including those of the missionaries, who often found themselves in opposition to the Yao chiefs, emphasizes their political dominance and evident superiority over the other people in the region. Their involvement in the slave trade and contacts with the coast appear not only to have given the Yao political and economic advantage in the region but also to have led to the development of a sort of tribal chauvinism.

There were linguistic and cultural differences that tended to set the Yao apart from their neighbors and appeared to have unusual uniformity across the various Yao sections and chiefdoms. The view that the Yao, although dispersed and fragmented into sections and chiefdoms, were united by their language and culture into a "nation" was taken up by British colonial officials in their attempts to find suitable agents of indirect rule several decades later.

In 1891 a British protectorate was declared over the territory then known as Nyasaland (modern Malawi). Harry Johnston, the first commissioner of the protectorate, initiated a series of campaigns against the Yao chiefs to end the slave trade. His forces met with resolute opposition and suffered casualties and defeats at the hands of the Yao slavers. It was not until the end of 1895 that the last Yao chief was defeated and the slave trade was terminated in the protectorate.

It was an advantage toward the end of the nineteenth century to be a Yao in southern Nyasaland, since the Yao chiefs and their followers had a virtual monopoly on trade links with the coast. Even after the end of the slave trade the Yao tended to be regarded and treated as the dominant African group in the region.

The Yao maintained a clear sense of cultural identity throughout the colonial era in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. This was mainly a consequence of their conversion to Islam, which set them apart from other groups, especially in Malawi. The period after independence was not positive for the Yao. In Mozambique they were caught up in the civil war, and in Malawi they were marginalized by the new regime. Their fortunes improved in Malawi with the election in 1994 of a government headed by a Yao Muslim.


Yao villages tend to be strung out along a road or a path, and nearly all the villages have a mosque. Houses and mosques are usually built of pole and daub and are rectangular in shape. Most houses are thatched, while mosques may have an iron roof and a variety of architectural ornaments. Village mosques are often painted decoratively according to the taste of the builders. Village dwellings tend to be clustered into little groups surrounded by fruit treesmango, papaya, and bananawith gardens of maize, cassava, rice, or sugarcane farther afield.


Subsistence. Villagers grow grain (maize or rice), vegetables (onions, tomatoes, cassava, and cabbage) and fruits such as mango, papaya, and banana. Very few Yao possess livestock of any sort with the exception of a few goats or chickens.

Many villagers who live near the lake depend on fishing to supplement their diets and incomes. A prerequisite for fishing is access to a dugout canoe, a net, and a lamp, since the favored method of catching the tiny usipa fish is to lure shoals of them to the side of the lake at night. Other fish, including chambo (tilapia) and kampango (catfish), are caught using larger nets, but catches are small and many Muslims refuse to eat catfish because the fact that it has no scales makes it forbidden food.

Those who have gardens and fields close to the lake are able to grow rice as well as maize and cassava, but very few people grow enough of the staple crops to feed themselves for the whole year and have to purchase extra grain.

Commercial Activities. In the colonial era the Yao were favored as soldiers, servants, cooks, and tailors. They are well known throughout southern Africa as tireless travelers in search of work in the mines or in industry or commerce.

Industrial Arts. The Yao who live by the lake are accomplished canoe builders and fishermen. They are skilled at weaving mats used for drying fish, making earthenware pots, and sewing.

Trade. In the precolonial era the Yao were notorious as traders in slaves and ivory. More recently they have tended to deal in cloth, fish, and crops such as cotton, tea, and tobacco.

Division of Labor. The main division of labor is between men and women. Men are generally responsible for fishing, agriculture, and most trading activities; women take care of tasks related to the maintenance and running of the household, such as fetching water and wood, cleaning, and cooking.

Land Tenure. Village headmen have the right to allocate fields and gardens to newcomers. The right to work the land is inherited through the female line.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Yao are matrilineal and are organized around a system of sorority groups known as mbumba. The sorority groups are normally constituted in relation to a man who is often the oldest brother of the sisters.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is generally matrilocal and is transacted without the exchange of significant bride-wealth or a large dowry. Divorce is common and is not difficult to accomplish. The position of husbands is subject to the tensions that are characteristic of many matrilineal societies.

Inheritance. Property and titles usually pass from men to their sisters' sons or in some instances from older to younger brothers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The central social unit is the village, which is organized around matrilineal kinship and sorority groups.

Political Organization. There is no central authority or institution of kingship in Yao society. For two centuries political organization has been structured around a series of chiefs and subordinate village headmen. In the colonial and postcolonial eras the appointment of chiefs and headmen usually had to be ratified by the central government.

Conflict. In the period of expansion and slave trade there was a great deal of conflict and competition between Yao chiefs and their followers. The powerful slaving chiefs were known to take slaves not only from groups such as the Nyanja but also from weaker Yao groups. The Yao were feared and respected in the region for their courage and skill in warfare, and after being defeated by the British, they were favored as recruits in the colonial forces. In the colonial era conflict was often resolved by the splitting of villages or groups. This practice has become less common as a result of growing population density. A serious challenge to the postcolonial regime in Malawi that occurred shortly after independence in 1964 (the "Cabinet Crisis") was led by a Yao. The armed revolt was crushed by forces loyal to the government backed by British troops.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yao are often distinguished from other groups in the region by their conversion to Islam. However, this did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century, and there is still a considerable residue of pre-Islamic beliefs and practices among many Yao. Ancestors continue to be venerated, and the name of the founding ancestress of a lineage is remembered and referred to by a term meaning "the trunk of a tree." There has been a significant influence of Sufism on the practice of Islam among the Yao, and there appears to be a large degree of convergence between traditional Yao and Sufi practices. The Islam of the Yao is regarded as flexible and tolerant of local beliefs and customs.

Religious Practitioners . Yao Muslims have several categories of religious leadership. The most senior leaders are referred to as sheikhs and are often members of a Sufi order. There are also teachers and lower-order Muslim practitioners called mwalimu (from the Swahili word for teacher). There are ritual specialists known as amichila who are appointed by a chief to officiate at initiation rituals for boys.

Ceremonies. The Yao have initiation ceremonies for boys and girls as well as for young women. The initiation for boys includes partial or total circumcision and involves the production of a series of pictograms that are part of a complex system of esoteric knowledge and ritual. The initiations have for many years incorporated elements of Islamic practice and symbolism and were not disapproved of by even very devout Muslims until the emergence of reformist movements toward the end of the twentieth century. Most of the significant Muslim festivals are observed by the Yao, and the performance of dhikr (or sikiri, as the Yao refer to it) is often a feature of ceremonies. This central ritual of Sufi Muslims around the world has become the core of Muslim practice in the region, and it remains the key component of Islamic ritual for many of the Yao. Yao followers of Sufism perform sikiri on occasions such as ziyala· (the founder's anniversary), funerals, weddings, and other festivals. Although the Yao sikiri is usually performed by a group of young men, it does not exclude other Muslims who may be present, except on occasions, such as funerals, where men and women are segregated.

Arts. The most highly developed art form among the Yao is the system of pictograms used in initiations. They are large and intricate designs that are modeled on the ground and outlined with flour so that they make an extraordinary spectacle on a moonlit night.

Medicine. The Yao are famous as healers. Most villagers have a large body of knowledge of local medicinal herbs, and healers travel far and wide to gather potent plants and ingredients. There are practitioners who make use of the Islamic scriptures in various ways for divination or healing.

Death and Afterlife. The Yao believe that they will join their ancestors after death. Many also believe that they will be raised and judged on the last day as prescribed by Islamic doctrine. There seems to be little sense of contradiction between these two notions of the afterlife, which are held simultaneously by most Yao Muslims.

For other cultures in East and Central Africa, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Abdallah, Y. B. (1919). Chiikala· cha Wayao, edited and with a translation by G. M. Sanderson. Zomba, Malawi: Government Printer.

Alpers, Edward A. (1969). "Trade, State and Society among Yao in the Nineteenth Century, " Journal of African History 10 (3): 405-420.

Mitchell, J. Clyde (1951). "The Yao of Southern Nyasaland. " In Seven Tribes of British Central Africa, edited by E. Colson and M. Gluckman, 292-353. London: Oxford University Press.

(1956). The Yao Village. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sanderson, G. M. (1954). A Dictionary of the Yao Language. Zomba, Malawi: Government Printer.

Stannus, H. S. (1922). "The Wayao of Nyasaland. " In Varia Africana III, edited by E. A. Hooton and N. I. Bates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thorold, Alan (2000). "Le rituel soufi et la construction de l'identite musulmane yao. " In Dynamiques religieuses en Afrique australe, edited by Veronique Faure. Paris: Karthala.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . (December 14, 2017).

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from



ETHNONYMS: Byau Min, Kim Mun, Mien, Pai Yao, Yao Min

The 1990 census reports 2,134,000 Yao in China. Sixty percent of them live in Guangxi Province, with the remainder located in bordering areas of Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. Most live in mountainous areas. Their language belongs to the Miao-Yao Family. The most widely kown of four Yao dialects is Mien, which is spoken by about one-half of the Yao population. The four dialects are related but not closely enough to be mutually intelligible. About 20 percent of the Yao speak Zhuang-Dong, Miao, or Chinese languages rather than Yao. Dress styles serve as visible markers of language and territorial affiliation.

The Yao are mentioned in Chinese writings from Tang times on. They were called "Mo Yao," meaning that they were exempt from the corvée and taxes imposed on Han settlers in the area. The ancestors of the modern Yao probably derived from a number of ethnic groups, including some Han. Over the centuries a Yao ethnic identity emerged, and "Yao" is the name they use to identify themselves to outsiders.

Yao economic strategies vary according to regional conditions. The majority, long before 1949, were settled agriculturalist whose crops and techniques were strongly influenced by their Zhuang and Han neighbors. Depending on locale, forestry or hunting and gathering were as important or more important than agriculture. Some Yao continued slash-and-burn shifting cultivation into recent times. Women play an active role in the agricultural cycle and are responsible for household chores, weaving, embroidery, batik production, and clothing manufacture. Traditionally, in many communities in Guangxi, plowing, sowing, and transplanting of rice seedlings was done in mutual-aid groups of ten to twenty households. Hunting is also a communal activity.

Despite considerable variation, some cultural features are widely shared. The Yao follow principles of patrilineal descent and inheritance, adopting sons or bringing in sons-in-law when necessary and usually providing daughters with a share of land as part of the dowry. Marriages tend to be endogamous with regard to dialect and local territorial unit. Same-surname marriages are frowned upon but sometimes occur. There is a preference for marriage with mother's brother's daughter. Frequent festivals provide opportunities for courtship and love matches. Marriage requires parental consent and the payment of bride-price and dowry. Marriages are monogamous and residence is usually patrilocal. Divorces and remarriages are permitted.

The Yao are organized in patrilineal clans that subdivide into lineages and lineage segments. These named groups have ritual and legal functions, and their members provide mutual assistance. Formerly they held property, but today all agricultural and forest land is owned by the state.

The Yao have a rich heritage of music and song, which accompanies work activities, courtship, feasts, and festivals. Their religious life has been heavily influenced by Han versions of folk Daoism.

See also Yao of Thailand in Volume 5


Lemoine, Jacques, and Chiao Chien, eds. (1991). The Yao of South China: Recent International Studies. Paris: Pangu Editions de l'A.F.E.Y.

Ma Yin (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 380-387. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 14, 2017).

"Yao." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from