History of the Gelao

 

The Gelao are one of the oldest peoples of China. According to the ancient chronicles, their ancestors came from the border region between Sichuan and Shaanxi Provinces, from where they emigrated toward Guizhou Province in the 5th century BC.

Possibly they were one of the main components of the Yelang Kingdom that was established in Guizhou about this time. Many descriptions by Chinese travelers of the Han dynasty show that the culture of the Yelang Kingdom meshes perfectly with the culture of those known in later times as the Gelao (called Lao in those years). The Yelang Kingdom became a tributary of Han China, and its political structure disintegrated.

Always following the work of Inez de Beauclair (1) their descendants, possibly these Lao, faced armed expeditions from the Wu Kingdom during the 3rd century (The Wu Kingdom was one of the three into which China was divided during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-284)).

Perhaps due to the attacks of the Wu, the Lao migrated again toward the northwest, occupying a great section of the eastern region of Sichuan. In the 4th century, there are reports of the establishment of a significant number of Lao, more than 100,000, occupying the valleys and mountains of eastern Sichuan. China continued to be divided in those years, and the régime that ruled Sichuan, called the Cheng Han dynasty, despite attacking them many times, was not able to obtain a victory. On the contrary, the waste created by the war contributed to its decadence.

The Lao, in that time, were organized around tribal chieftains. The customs the travelers attribute to them deserve to be mentioned. They maintained slaves, captured in the war or sold by their families; they used bronze drums in a ceremonial way; they used bamboo canes to drink through the nose a local liquor; they buried their dead in coffins hanging off cliffs; they broke off a tooth when they felt very sad or when they became old; they made the men rest in bed after the childbirth of their wives, and they knew neither bow nor arrow.

By the 6th century they dominated so much territory that they attempted, without success, to organize an independent political entity. During the Tang dynasty they are still mentioned in Sichuan, from where they then disappear without apparent reason. Some migrated again south toward Yunnan, but most moved to the southeast, toward the mountains of Hunan and Guangxi.

During the Ming dynasty it was said that they had returned to Guizhou Province, returning to where they had originally left from more than a thousand years before. They were considered famous mercenaries and merchants, but the push of the Han Chinese that emigrated into the area in ever increasing numbers, as well as other peoples, such as the Miao, also escaping from the Chinese, forced them to either integrate into Han society or to retreat to ever poorer areas.

Today some thousands of Lao, now called Gelao, still survive, isolated in the most inhospitable areas of Guizhou Province.

(1) Inez the Beauclair.- "The Keh Lao of Kweichow and their History", Studio. Serica, 5 (1946)

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