Could this be the world’s first pair of blue jeans?

They belong to a freedom-loving people who forged their way through the wild West. And I’m not talking cowboys.

Well, not American cowboys, but rather Asian ones—specifically, the Yao peoples who are scattered through southern China, Tibet, and parts of Indochina.

Conventional wisdom views the Yao as a backward tribe in need of development, but recent groundbreaking work by the Yale anthropologist James C. Scott argues that the Yao were not so much left behind as they consciously chose to stay behind.1

In other words, no thanks, I’ll have none of your state-making activity—not your religion, oppressive taxes, corvée labour, or your wars–none of that! In Ming China, those who did not register for tax and corvée became Yao, while those who did became Min (civilian subjects).

 

Being left alone is a lot harder than it looks, and the Yao strategically developed a whole way of life in pursuit of this objective.

 

For a start, they moved away from the valleys up into the mountains.

Here, they practiced not wet-rice cultivation, which would have tied them to a place and made it harder to elude census-takers and taxmen, but rather, slash-and-burn, also known as escape agriculture.

Since social units had to be flexible and adaptive in the face of constant threat, Yao social structures were not rigid and hierarchical, but egalitarian and fluid. For the same reason, Yao culture remained an oral, not written, one—since codification would have led to dogma and orthodoxy.

What does all this have to do with blue jeans?

The Yao liked to grow indigo as part of their crop rotation, which they then used to dye fabric that was stitched into pants—much the same as with blue jeans.

And just as logos on jeans signal the status of the wearer, the embroidery on the Yao pants is a signal as to the identity of its wearer.

Being a diffuse and mobile society, it was important for Yao people to have a means of distinguishing friend from foe while hunting and foraging in the forest. As each Yao group had strict codes for the embroidered designs on their pants, one only had to glance at the design on the pants to know if a stranger was a fellow Yao.

I’d gladly retire my Levi’s for a pair of these.