In 2019, after completing two road trips through Guangxi Province with Shanghai-based documentary photographer Hong Qui (Carl) Ye, I convinced Carl to make a trip through Jinping County in Yunnan Province.
Sharing a common border with Vietnam’s Lai Chau province to the south and Yuanyang County to the north, the region is home to a number of minority ethnic people including the Dai, Hani, Lahu, Miao (Hmong), Yao (Dao), and Zhuang.
One of my main interests was to meet and photograph a particularly interesting group of Yao people who live on both sides of the border in the very southernmost reaches of Yunnan Province. Known as “Red Top” or “Red Headed” Yao, the married women wear a spectacular red headdress adorned with handcrafted silver ornaments; silver is highly prized by the region’s minority people. The city of Jinping, the county’s capital, hosts a fantastic market every Sunday, where many Red Top Yao can be found wearing their best traditional costume. A large portion of the market is occupied by Yao women who sell their hand-made clothing and accessories.
In August of 2019, I made another solo trip from Vietnam’s Lao Cai Province up to Yuanyang to see the spectacular terraced rice fields during the height of “green season”, when the rice plants start to flower. On the journey back to Lao Cai I returned to Jinping City to attend both the Sunday market and the remote border market in Jinshuihe, better known as Nafa.
Nafa market, scheduled as per the lunar calendar, is within walking distance of a Chinese / Vietnamese border crossing point. This particular crossing point is not open to foreigners but is fairly busy with minority people such as the Yao who live on the Vietnamese side and frequent both Nafa and Jinping markets. In addition to the Red Top, there are two other groups of Yao people who attend the market; the Sha Yao (沙瑶) and the Indigo Yao who are easily recognizable as they wear a unique silver, basket-shaped headdress perched on top of a coil of black rope.
Centuries ago, the Yao (Dao) and Miao (Hmong) were allies in a series of bloody rebellions against the Ming and Qing dynasties. They likely migrated, or were driven, southward into China’s most remote and mountainous provinces, and later, further into Laos and Vietnam, at roughly the same time. The Yao and Miao are often found living in close proximity to one another in what is known as a “people clusters”, where related peoples, which, for strategic purposes may be clustered together.
The Miao people have a unique culture and are well-known as artisans and craftsmen. Traditionally the men work with stone, wood, bamboo, and steel to build homes and produce hand tools, knives, baskets, and various other types of farming implements.
The women of the region are also skilled artisans who weave cloth, produce natural indigo dyes, and excel at batik and embroidery work. Silver, in the form of jewelry, is highly prized by both the Miao and their neighbors the Yao. Silversmiths can be found in most of the region’s towns. In addition to producing simple items, such as ring and bracelets, local craftsmen painstakingly create large intricate pieces that are worn during festivals and weddings.
The Hani are another minority group that can be found on both sides of the border. Scholars believe they mostly likely migrated southward from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau prior to the third century. In China, there are eleven primary branches (or clans) that can be further divided into a bewildering number of sub-groups, each with its own unique costume.
The Hani are distant relatives to a number of minority ethnic groups found in China and mainland Southeast Asia, also known as the Southeast Asian Massif. They are members of the Lo Lo - Burmese language speaking group, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. Also included in this group are the Akha, Ho, Lahu and, the Lo Lo.