Who are the Miao people?
The Miao are one of fifty-five ethnic minority groups, or minzu, in the People’s Republic of China. The term “Miao” is somewhat controversial among scholars and Miao people alike, since the term “Miao” is itself Mandarin in origin and implies wildness or barbarity. Within China, though, the Miao generally refer to themselves as “Miao” However, Miao immigrants living in other parts of the world often refer to themselves as the “Hmong” people and may find “Miao” to be insulting. Second, “Miao” can be an umbrella term encompassing people who are diverse in custom, appearance, and geographic location. While there are similarities that tie various subdivisions of the Miao together, the Miao are not a culturally homogenous subset of Chinese culture. Because the discussion here deals mainly with the populations within China, we follow their conventions and use “Miao.”
Who are the Miao people?
The question of who the Miao people are and where they originated is difficult to answer, as multiple theories exist. “Miao” has historically been a blanket title applied by Han Chinese groups to diverse populations of southwestern Chinese ethnic minorities, thus confusing the matter. Works such as the 17th Century “Miao albums” meticulously divided and classified various subsets of ethnic minorities who would not in fact refer to themselves as Miao.
Chinese classics of the second century BC such as Plots of Warring States and Records of the Grand Historian refer to the “Miao.” “Miaomin,” “Youmiao,” and “San Miao” when discussing military conflict, but thereafter centuries of Chinese texts do not discuss the Miao. Once the term “Miao” re-emerged in the dynastic histories of the Yuan and Ming dynasties it referred to many of the diverse non-Han southern ethnic groups, further obscuring the relationship of the Miao moniker to its people. According to Louisa Schein, the tendency of some historians to accept the San Miao-modern Miao connection reinforces the theory, but does not necessarily render it true.
Recorded folklore indicates power struggles between the Miao and the Han. Sibling rivalry abounds in tales of Han and Miao brothers connected through a family marriage. In 1956 scholar Li Tinggui relayed a mythical account of one Han and one Miao brother crossing a river while each carried a book. Because the Miao brother carried the Han brother across the river, he placed his book in his mouth and it was lost in the water. The Han brother placed his book on top of his head, and so his survived. Accordingly, the written language of the Han survives while the Miao language is consigned to oral dialects.
Regardless of their historical truth, accounts and lore of the Miao ancestors vis-a-vis the Han establish the oft-cited antiquity and resiliency of the Miao. The ancient connections also serve to lengthen the relationship of the Miao to the Han, thus lengthening potential rivalries.
What about the geographic origins of the Miao? Today, the greatest concentration of Miao people exists in southern China, but theories have claimed that they migrated there from every possible direction. The French missionary Savina, for instance, drew parallels between Miao legends and Biblical lore and cited their “nearly white” skin as proof of a Mesopotamian or even European ancestry. Savina’s theory, however, has been widely refuted. Another theory, corroborated by linguistic analysis undertaken by Beijing researcher Cai Cuiyun, points to the present location of the Miao in the south as their origin. A missionary working with the Miao of Sichuan Province (a rather northerly locale with respect to other Miao settlements) reported that they expressed a longing for the warmth of the South. The Miao people of Guizhou Province have claimed Eastern Jiangxi and the Pearl River as their original location. The Brief History of the Miao, written in 1985 in an attempt to codify and classify China’s ethnic minorities, places the Miao ancestors side by side with that of the Han in central China. This follows China’s trend toward ethnic egalitarianism by geographically equalizing Han and Miao origins.
As we can see, the origins and current state of the Miao people are too fragmented and diverse to securely refer to any one custom or tradition as definitively and cross-culturally “Miao.” However, there are some features the Miao people in southwest China generally share, though the details of what happens in one Miao village may differ from what occurs in a neighboring village. Our own experiences interacting with the Miao were varied. For example, we noticed considerably less wearing of traditional silver ornamental hairpieces at the Mountain Ramp Festival than we saw at the Sisters Festival. Zhu Fugui, a local leader at the Mountain Ramp Festival, tied the waning appearance of silver hairpieces to their status as increasingly “old-fashioned.” Nevertheless, Long Chiangjang, who we met at the Sisters Festival, makes jewelry and hair-adornments full-time.
Costumes and Jewelry
The Miao people are renowned for their colorful, delicately pleated or embroidered clothing made primarily of hemp, silk, and cotton. Batik is another popular decorative art. Elaborate silver jewelry and hairpieces are also a Miao staple. At the Sisters Festival in Jiuzhou village, silver pieces depicting intricately detailed dragons and birds were the most popular theme. Additionally, Miao women sported extraordinary silver necklaces, bracelets and rings. Costumes were also adorned with decorative silver inlays within the embroidered panels.
For the Miao, traditional clothing functions beyond aesthetically pleasing decoration or social signifiers and provides a means to transfer wealth through generations. This is particularly true of jewelry. Traditional costume is important in large events like the Mountain Ramp Festival, where costumes are prepared far in advance and passed to sisters or younger relatives for future use.
Zhu Fugui, a local leader working at the Mountain Ramp Festival, joked on the day of the Festival that his wife had already started making next year’s costumes for their large family.
Sewing machines are increasingly present in Miao villages, which has led to more and more machine embroidery, but much embroidery is still done by hand. The meticulous care invested in hand-embroidered works renders them more valuable. The work of sewing and making clothing generally falls into the women’s realm and men are traditionally the silversmiths.
Differences in clothing styles have led to classification of various Miao subdivisions based on costumes. Designations such as “Red Miao,” “Blue Miao,” or “Flowery Miao,” for example, are based on red, blue, or flowery costumes.
Throughout the Guizhou section, you will find several icons like this one, which will provide supplementary information from our guide and scholar in Miao culture, Kejia.
As William Robert Geddes (1976) notes, there are two ethnic groups that have been through many hardships but have survived to be strong: they are Miao in China and the Jews scattered throughout the world.
In China, the Miao people (pronounced as “Maew”) are often called the “Hmong” in English. It is pronounced as Mèo in Vietnamese and as แม้ว / ม้ง in Thailand. The Miao are an ethnic group that is scattered throughout the world. The Miao population in China totals at about eight million people, with most of them inhabiting the Southwest region of the country. They are ranked as the fourth largest ethnic group in China. Beyond China, several million Miao people reside in Southeast Asia, America, France, Canada, Australia, and French Guiana.
The historical background of the Miao distribution changed largely over the years. According to historical documents and oral history, the Miao first lived in the Yellow River basin. Due to increasing numbers of wars, they migrated to the mountains of Southwest China. Starting in the thirteenth century (Ming Dynasty) and continuing through the seventeen century (Qing Dynasties), some of the Miao moved to other countries in Southeast Asia. In the twentieth century, they moved further to Europe and America.
The Miao have wide distribution but tend to live in small groups within a region. Most of them live in the mountains, far away from the cities. Their living environments are mostly surrounded by forests, which form a self-sustainable, relatively enclosed, and independent living condition. Most of the Miao are farmers or conduct forest businesses.
The Miao dialect belongs to the Han-Tibet language system. The ancestor calendar is used in the Miao culture. It has both a Yin and Yang side. The Yin Yang calendar is a calendar considering the relationship between the sun, the moon, and the earth. As interpreted by the Miao, the Yin Yang calendar tends to be sun focused.
With a difficult historical background, the Miao formed strong and unique characteristics. Miao people are also special in creating colorful and amazing clothing as well as silverworks. Their costume is named as “the encyclopedia worn on the body.” For example, it is not uncommon to find Miao clothing embroidered with many archives from the land and sea. Other embroideries map the afterlife.
The Miao religion and beliefs mainly include worship of nature and ancestors. Some Miao people are also Catholic or Christian. The Miao live in traditional
societies that believe in ghosts, gods, and witchery. They attribute natural phenomena to the sanctity or power of ghosts.
The Miao live in wooded areas. Many houses are built of wood. The buildings, suspended on hillsides, are usually built with two or three stories. The upper level is for people while the lower level is for animals and storage.
Rice, wheat, and corn are the most common foods of the Miao. Their dishes tend to be sour. In Miao culture, serving others with wine is an expression of respect. There are different customs and styles of serving wine. For example, they might prepare 5-10 glasses of wine at the entrance
of the village to welcome each guest, serve wine at the door of a house for whoever comes in, or pour wine down the mouths of hosts and guests while they are holding each other’s shoulders, necks, or hands.
The Miao have a lot of ceremonies, festivals, and dances. Every region has its own festival each month.
The Miao had five big migrations in the historical record. They were forced to move far away from their homelands and gradually settled down after the nineteenth century. As a general observation, many Miao people in Guizhou province currently live a nice and comfortable life.
The Miao who migrated to Southeast Asia between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries (especially to Laos) had a very difficult time. They were edged out in every way by local peoples. There was hatred between the Miao, native Laotians, and the Vietnamese. The Miao in Laos usually lived in the poor and remote mountains. They earned their living with very simple farming methods, such as “slash and burn” farming. Sometimes, they grew opium to sell.
Today, there are more than 300,000 Miao people living in the United States. California has the largest population of Miao people, while Minnesota has the second largest.
There is a large population of Miao who moved to the United States because of their contributions to the wars between 1961 and 1975. Apart from the Vietnam War, there was another war that happened secretly in Laos during that period. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Miao people living in Laos for military purposes. According to some retired Miao soldiers, the U.S. operatives made two promises to them. The first promise is that the U.S. C.I.A. would try their best to help the Miao. The second promise was that the American government would find a new place for their settlement if the war was lost.
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army left Laos. The Miao, who assisted the Americans, were afraid of revenge and left the refugee camps in Thailand. With help from UNESCO and other international organizations, these Miao people moved to other countries. Many of them chose to migrate to the United States.
The history of the Miao people who moved to the Western countries provides a live case study that mixes traditional culture and modern life with the study of folklore and anthropology. This migration opened a new chapter in Miao history as they moved to other countries.
This is the summary of the history of the Miao for whom I have a deep passion and love. The above information is for reference only.
—— Kejia from the Chinese Festival Culture Studio
Guizhou Province, China
2 April 2009