The Gelo ethnic minority
The 438,200 Gelos live in dispersed clusters of communities in about 20 counties in western Guizhou Province, four counties of the Wenshan Zhuang-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Yunnan Province and the Longlin Multi-ethnic Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Only about a quarter of the Gelos still speak the Gelo language belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan language family. Yet, because of close contact with other ethnic groups, their language has not remained pure -- even within counties. There are Gelo-speaking people unable to converse with each other. For this reason, the language of the Hans, or Chinese, has become their common language, though many Gelos have learned three or four languages from other people in their communities, including the Miaos, Yis and Bouyeis. Living among other ethnic groups, the Gelos have become largely assimilated to the majority Han customs.
How the Gelos Live
The Gelos' living quarters, like those of their Han neighbors, usually consist of a central kitchen and two bedrooms built on a hillside or at the foot of a mountain. Before liberation, poor Gelos lived in mud, bamboo or stone houses, some with thatched roofs. Landlords and wealthier peasants lived in houses with wooden columns and thick stone slabs, with tile or stone roofs. Now, nearly everyone lives in houses of wood.
Gelos continued to wear their ethnic costumes until 30 or 40 years ago. Women wore very short jackets with sleeves embroidered with patterns of fish scale. They wore tight skirts divided into three sections, the middle one of red wool and the upper and lower ones of black-and-white striped linen. Gelo women also wore short, black sleeveless gowns which hung longer in the back. Their shoes had pointed, upturned toes. Men wore front-buttoned jackets, and both sexes wore long scarves.
In the mountain areas, the Gelos eat mostly maize, while in the flatlands, they eat wheat, rice, millet and sorghum. All the Gelos -- like many other Chinese -- love to eat hot and sour dishes as well as glutinous rice cakes.
Before 1949, Gelo marriage customs were feudal, with matches made by parents at childhood, regardless of the desires of the children involved. As Gelos were so few and so scattered, marriages were usually made among cousins. To celebrate the marriage, the bride would walk with her relatives, carrying an umbrella, to the groom's home, where they would live apart from their parents.
While funeral customs in most Gelo communities are the same as in Han areas, singing and dancing still marks funerals in a few places, such as Zunyi and Renhuai counties in Guizhou. There, mourners dance in groups of three, one playing a lusheng (reed pipe), one beating a bamboo pole, the third brandishing a sword, and all singing as they dance. In other areas, mourners sing in front of the coffin; family members of the deceased serve wine in gratitude to them. In some places, a shaman who chooses the time and place of burial recites scriptures at the grave. Animal sacrifice usually accompanies the burial. Trees, rather than stones, mark the grave.
Gelo folk literature consists of poetry, stories and proverbs. Poems are of three, five or seven-character lines. Most Gelo folk tales eulogize the intelligence, honesty, diligence and bravery of the Gelo people, and satirize the upper classes. Typical are "The Brave Girl" and "Deaf Elder Brother and Blind Younger Brother Stealing Sheep." Gelo dances are simple and graceful, accompanied by the erhu, horizontal xiao, suona, gong, drum and other string and wind instruments.
"Flower Dragon" and "Bamboo-Strip Egg" are two favorite Gelo games. "Flower Dragon," in fact, is a ball of woven bamboo, a little larger than a ping-pong ball. Inside are bits of broken porcelain, coins and sandstones. The game, especially popular in Zunyi and Renhuai, is played by groups of pairs on hillsides. "Bamboo-Strip Egg" is also a ball, larger and stuffed with rice straw. Two teams of three or five throw and kick the ball, avoiding contact except with the hands or feet.
Most Gelo festivals echo Han traditions, but some practices differ. At Spring Festival-- the Lunar New Year -- Gelos offer a huge rice cake to their ancestors and after it is made, it remains untouched for three days. In Guizhou's Anshun, Puding and Zhenning, Gelo communities also celebrate the sixth day of the sixth lunar month by sacrificing chickens and preparing wine to bless the rice crop already in the fields.
The sixth day of the seventh lunar month marks the second most important event of the year, a festival of ancestor worship in Wozi and Gaoyang villages of Puding County. Oxen, pigs and sheep are slaughtered for ritual sacrifices to ancestors.
On the first day of the tenth lunar month, Gelos give their oxen a day of rest. This is the day of the Ox King Buddha, and in some communities on this day oxen are honored and fed special rice cakes.
Prior to liberation, Gelos had a number of distinctive taboos. During Spring Festival, for example, they did not allow themselves to sweep floors, carry water, cook food, clean houses, plough, ride horses or pour water from their houses. In some areas on other holidays, Gelos would not transplant rice or build houses if they heard thunder.
Over the last 2,000 years or more, Gelos have lived in many places in China. Bridges, graves, wells, and even villages in Guizhou Province still bear Gelo names, even where no Gelo still lives. The group's name dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Before then, they were called the "Liaos." Descended from the Yelang, the strongest tribe in the Han Dynasty's Zangke Prefecture, the Liaos moved out of Zangke to Sichuan, where they became subject to the feudal regime, between the third and fifth centuries.
By the fifth century, the Liaos had developed metal spears, shields and fishing tools and copper cooking vessels. They could weave fine linen. At this time, the Liao people elected their kings, who later became hereditary rulers. As with other south-central minorities, the Gelos were ruled in the Yuan and Ming periods (1271-1644) by appointed chiefs, who lost their authority to the central court when the Qing Dynasty came to power.
Until 1949, most Gelos were farmers. They grew rice, maize, wheat, sweet potatoes, and millet. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, Gelo farmers had no irrigation or ways of storing water. As a result, their maize output was only about 675 kg per hectare. Droughts inevitably brought about devastating consequences. Side businesses, especially cork production, bamboo weaving and making straw sandals were essential to the Gelos for survival.