With a population of 550,746 (2010), the Gelo people 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.
Over the last 2,000 years or more, the Gelo people have lived in many places throughout China. Bridges, wells, and some villages in Guizhou Province still bear Gelo names, even in the absence of a Gelo community. The group’s name dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Before, they were called “Liao.” 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. As with other south-central minorities, the Gelos were ruled in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (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. Droughts inevitably brought about devastating consequences. Side businesses, especially cork production, bamboo weaving and making straw sandals were essential to the Gelos for survival.
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. There are Gelo-speaking people unable to converse with each other. For this reason, Mandarin 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.
Gelo women wear very short jackets with sleeves embroidered with patterns of fish scale. They also wear tight skirts divided into three sections, the middle one of red wool and the upper and lower ones of black-and-white striped linen. Short, black sleeveless gowns which hung longer in the back are customary too. Their shoes had pointed and upturned toes. Men wore front-buttoned jackets with long trousers.
The Gelo people practice ancestor worship. They also worship many gods, as they believe all things have spirit.
Most Gelo festivals echo Han traditions with some differing practices. During the 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.
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.