Introducing the Gelao

 

The Gelao are one of the most problematic minorities to be studied in China. It is presumed that they descend from the old Lao, who inhabited the northern part of Guizhou more than 2,500 years ago.

But nowadays it is difficult to make sense out of the word "Gelao", as this single term refers to nearly half a million people who refer to themselves in a dozen different ways. They speak languages that are mutually unintelligible, and they are spread out in a myriad of small communities in the western part of Guizhou Province and neighboring lands in Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan Provinces.

Most of the Gelao, however, live in Guizhou Province, especially in Zunyi, Renhuai, Anshun and Zhenning Counties.

In spite of their scattered population, the Gelao do have two autonomous administrative entities, both them in Zunyi region:

The Wuchuan Gelao and Miao Autonomous County was established in 1987 with a surface area of 2766 square kilometers, and a population of 329,000 inhabitants. Of them, 84,000 are Gelao and 64,000 are Miao.

The Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County was established in 1987 with a surface area of 2156 square kilometers, and a population of 380,000 inhabitants. Of them, 75,000 are Gelao and 41,000 are Miao.

The Gelao population reached 493,000 inhabitants in the census of 2000. They numbered 438,200 in 1990, but only 53,800 in the third national census of 1982. This dramatic increase in the Gelao population in only eight years could be the result of two convergent processes:

1. Some people that were previously reluctant to declare their minority ethnic status, are not afraid anymore, as political change in China has created a more favorable environment for the ethnic people.

2. Some ethnic groups, whose nationality status or official classification was not clear before 1990, were included with the Gelao in this year.

It is believed that the Gelao language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Zhuang-Dong branch, Geyang sub-branch, but not all linguists who have studied their languages agree. It is said that it has four main dialects, each of them with some local differences. But the language situation of the Gelao people is so complex that sometimes people living in one village cannot communicate even with people living some kilometers away.

The disparities between Gelao "dialects", the different ways they name themselves, and the sudden increase in the Gelao population from1982 to 1990, all lead us to think that "Gelao" is an umbrella term under which further research will identify several different ethnic groups.

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