Miao in China

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Miao in China

LOCATION: China [also Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Myanmar and about 1 million migrants to the West]
POPULATION: 8.94 million
RELIGION: Shamanism; ancestor worship; Catholicism and Protestantism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The Miao have a very long history. They are mentioned in the most ancient Chinese sources, dating from about the 12th century bc. The events related are even more remote. According to these legends, the Miao lived along the Yellow River Valley and the Yangzi River Valley as early as 5,000 years ago. It was said that they were defeated in a fierce battle by the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people) and had no alternative but to migrate south of the Yangzi River. Nonetheless, they continued to fight against the rulers. Once they were defeated, they moved again. After tens of centuries, they entered the deep forests and mountainous regions of southwest China, especially Guizhou Province. It was from there that they dispersed, under military pressure during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially into the adjacent provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Yunnan and even across the Chinese border into Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, and Burma. From time immemorial, the Miao engaged in primitive farming, practicing slash-and-burn cultivation. Families lived in the same house no more than five years. As the soil of the nearby land became impoverished, families would then move away. This method of cultivation required repeated displacement. The Miao have been famed for their "perpetual motion." However, since the mid-20th century, the great majority of the Miao have settled down.


The Miao are distributed in more than 700 cities and counties of 7 provinces of south China and numbered 8.94 million in 2000. The main characteristic of their inhabitation is "wide distribution and tiny colonies." Their largest area of concentration is the Wuling and Miaoling mountain range in Guangxi Autonomous Region, where nearly one-third of the Miao population of the Peoples' Republic of China lives. "Birds nest in trees, fish swim in rivers, Miao live in mountains," says an adage of the Miao. Generation after generation, the Miao have dwelled in mountainous areas with mild climate and abundant rainfall both in China and in countries on the southwest Chinese border. In the 1970s and '80s, more than 100,000 Miao migrated from Laos to the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and Guyana. The Miao expatriates amount to more than one million.


The Miao language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan system, Miao-Yao family, Miao branch. It is typologically akin to the Thai language. There are 3 dialects, 7 subdialects, and 18 regional idioms. A written language was created by an English missionary about 100 years ago, but its use was limited to only a few counties. In the 1950s it was revised and another three written scripts were created in correspondence with the three dialects. Today, the Miao use the Chinese pinyin phonetic system based on the Western alphabet. Language is an important criterion to distinguish the many Miao groups. Each has its own self-given name, such as Kanao, Mo, Mao, Guoxiong, Daisou, Shuang, and Daji. The ancient Chinese books, identifying these groups by clothes and hairstyles, described them as Red Miao, White Miao, Black Miao, Flower Miao, Blue Miao, Long-skirt Miao, Short-skirt Miao, Red-head Miao, Tip-top Miao, etc.


The creation of nature, the existence and development of every animal, plant and artifact, the origin of the Miao people, and the battles and migrations they experienced are all illustrated in Miao mythology. For example, the ancient "Maple Song" said that White Maple was an immortal tree that gave birth to Butterfly Mama. She married a water bubble and thereafter laid 12 eggs. The treetop changed into a big bird, which hatched the eggs during a period of 12 years. The eggs finally hatched, giving birth to a Thunder God, a dragon, a buffalo, a tiger, an elephant, a snake, a centipede, a boy called Jiangyang, and his sister. Thus, Butterfly Mama was the mother of God, animals, and human beings. Then the flood came, which destroyed everything. As it receded, Jiangyang and his sister, alone in the world, were confronted with the dilemma of human progeny and incest. To know Heaven's will, they rolled down from the mountain two millstones. Since the millstones laid one on top of the other when they came to rest, the brother and sister were bound to marry. Three years after the marriage, the woman gave birth to a fleshy lump. Her husband cut it into pieces and spread them apart. Every piece of the fleshy lump turned into a man or a woman. Human beings thus multiplied.

The Miao folklore and mythology contains a great wealth of stories. Shelang and Ayi are the hero and heroine of a love story. The woman Naliaowan invented pottery. Meishan is a female hunter. Wumoxi is the heroine of an insurrectionary army. There is an endless stream of tales and songs about heroes and heroines.


The Miao believe that there is a supernatural power that exists in everything surrounding them and dominates or influences their destiny. They also believe that everything that moves or grows has its own spirit. They revere the sun, moon, lightning and thunder, fire, rivers, caverns, large trees, huge stones, and some animals, praying for their protection. According to the Miao, the spirit of the dead will become a ghost, which may come to haunt their families and livestock, make them sick, or even cause death. The shamans play the role of intermediary, allowing people to communicate with ghosts; they resort to magic arts, practice divination, treat various illnesses, eliminate personal misfortune, and bring about good luck. The earliest shaman was one of the Miao's ancestors, whose name (Xianggao) was frequently mentioned in the shamans' incantations. The Miao also worship their ancestors because they are deeply grateful for having been granted life; they also pray for protection and for the multiplicity and prosperity of their off-spring. Since the 19th century, a sizable number of Miao have converted to Catholicism and Protestantism.


There are dozens of Miao festivals. Among the most important is the offering of sacrifice to ancestors, performed at fixed dates during the year. Other sacrifices are for the purpose of social intercourse and collective celebration after a busy farming and hunting season. Chiguzhang is a grand ceremony held every 13 years in certain Miao districts, accompanied by the sacrificial slaughter of buffalo in honor of the ancestors. The Miao use their own calendar as well as the Gregorian and lunar calendars. The main purpose of the Miao calendar now is to fix the Miao New Year, a very jubilant festival. The Spring Festival (lunar New Year; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20) is now a major holiday common to all of China's nationalities. There are songs, dances, horse races, reed-pipe wind music, and dating.


To the Miao, a huge stone is a symbol of a strong child. As the child grows to three years of age, the parents will bring offerings to a huge stone, burn joss sticks and kowtow, and pray for blessings and protection. This rite is repeated three times annually. If it does not work (for example, if the child is unhealthy), the parents will turn to a large tree or cavern.

There is an ancient custom that right after a boy is born, his father would bury a piece of iron equivalent to the body weight of the baby, forge it every year, and finally hammer it into a sword when the child reached the age of puberty. Miao girls learn embroidery early at five or six years of age. When they reach adolescence, they are good enough to brocade, cross-stitch, and tailor clothes and skirts. Thereafter, they begin sewing their embroidered bridal clothes.

Miao boys and girls are allowed to date from 13 or 14 years of age. In some districts, when a girl reaches 12, she is believed to have passed through childhood and thus is allowed to participate formally in any dating activities.

According to custom, the Miao bury the dead underground. The family announces the sad news to all the village people, who spare no effort in the funeral arrangements. A shaman is invited to sing the mournful songs, to lead the soul of the dead back to live with the family, to bless and protect the offspring and, last but not least, to tell the dead how to be reunited with their ancestors in the future.


The Miao are a very hospitable people, always keeping their house open for guests, who are greeted with wine and song. The host comes outdoors to greet the guests and proposes a toast immediately. Then they sing, drink, and eat, enjoying themselves to the fullest. On the fifteenth of February or March (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between March 8 and April 6 or between April 7 and May 5) each year, the whole village will receive young males from outside. This so-called Sisters' Feast Festival lasts about three days. The parents prepare meals, which their daughters will offer to the boys. Girls dress up, use makeup and wear a yellow flower in their hair. Blowing the reed-pipe wind instrument (lüsheng), peculiar to the Miao, boys come to the village and wait for the girls to come and meet them. The group dating of the Miao is called youfang (yaomalang), tianyue, zuoyue, or caiyueliang in different Miao districts, but the meaning of the words and the ritual patterns are similar. Singing in antiphonal style and dancing form the initial rite through which a boy and a girl might gradually pay tender regards to each other and fall in love. Group dating is held on many occasions, especially during festivals. During the Sisters' Feast Festival, each girl offers food to the boy of her desire, who sings for his meal. He may find in the rice a token of affection. If he is not the boy chosen by the girl, a little food will be carelessly offered.


Engaged in agriculture, the Miao are self-sufficient for their livelihood. They live in houses of one or two stories, the rear built on the mountain slope and the front resting on stilts. The roof is made of straw. The grain is stored in the ceiling. The bottom of the house is for the livestock and poultry. There are three to five rooms. Sons and daughters are separated. The infants live with their parents. Their furniture includes a bed, cupboard, case, table, and stool, all made of wood. In addition, there are big bamboo baskets for food storage and pottery vessels for water and wine. The living conditions of the Miao residing in urban areas are not very different from their neighbors of other nationalities.


The Miao family is monogamous and patrilineal, consisting of parents and their children. The property is inherited by the man, but the housewife has power in the family. There is enough freedom to allow young people to choose their spouses, and marriage is usually the result of dating and falling in love. Although an old custom favored arranged marriages or cousin marriage, the union took place only when the boy and the girl both agreed. There is a custom that the bride goes back to her own family immediately after the wedding ceremony and will return to live with her husband only during festivals or after the busy season. If she gets pregnant, she will then move to her husband's house. Otherwise, she should move three years after the wedding. A rite will be held for the change of dwelling. The Miao enjoy a healthy demographic growth, and, like the other national minorities in China, are not restrained by the one-child policy of the Chinese state.

The Miao are fond of pets, especially dogs, cats, and birds.


There are a variety of costumes corresponding to the numerous Miao branches (in fact, the difference in costumes and hairstyles is the best symbol to distinguish one branch of Miao from another). As a result, there are hundreds of styles that have no parallel among the other nationalities in China. Brilliant embroideries and silver ornaments are a distinctive national feature. The accordion-pleated skirt is a cultural trait of Miao women.


The Miao's principal food is rice (glutinous rice during festivals), supplemented by yams, millet, corn, wheat, buckwheat, and sorghum, all cooked in a rice steamer. The Miao like hot pepper. In fact, every dish is spicy. They also like sour condiments. Proteins come from poultry, eggs, beef, veal, pork, frog, fish, snail, eel, snake, crab, and shrimp, but their diet is mainly vegetables. No food is taboo. They use chopsticks and bowls. Wine is made at home with rice. The kitchen is provided with a cooking range, burning firewood, or sometimes coal. Filling the bowl with rice is the duty of the housewife, her unmarried daughter, or a daughter-in-law who lives in the house. Men and guests should not do it. A married daughter still staying at her parents' home can fill the bowl, but not if she has already lived at her husband's house.


All children are able to receive formal education. Miao scholars, professors, and other intellectuals are not uncommon. Some parents, however, hold the traditional view against girls' education: "It would be better to send a girl to a piggery than to send her to study," "Girls eventually marry and leave," etc. Quite a number of girls drop out of school after puberty. That is why female intellectuals are so few and the rate of illiteracy and semi-illiteracy among Miao women is as high as 95%.


Song and dance are deeply rooted in Miao life. Without them, one is no longer a Miao. In addition to songs sung on specified occasions (love songs, funeral songs, wedding songs, sacrificial offering songs, etc.), a great variety of songs are sung impromptu to express in a touching manner an individual's true feelings. On the occasion of a wedding ceremony, aged persons are invited to sing in antiphonal style, continuing for days and nights. In antiphonal singing during group dating, the appropriate answer, unique metaphor, beautiful voice, and poetic wording of a singer will definitely attract attention from the opposite sex.

Just like their songs, dances also display the distinctive features of Miao culture. Dance is not only an expression of joy, but also of grief. The Miao dance not only for entertainment and recreation, but also for physical health and sentimental expression. Blowing the wind reed-pipe, accompanied by the graceful movement of the performer, is a unique combination of music and dance.

The Miao have a rich tradition of folk tales, represented mainly by ancient songs; an ancient song, Jia, sung in ancient Miao language, is considered a gem of ancient Miao culture.


All the work of Miao is dedicated to ensuring a constant supply of food and daily necessities. They are self-sufficient agriculturists, with rice as their staple crop. In addition, they grow corn, yams, millet, sorghum, beans, wheat, buckwheat, fruits, vegetables, cotton, hemp, tobacco, indigo, castor, peanut, sunflower, rapeseed, and sesame. They grow an abundance of hot peppers. In the past, weeding was thought to be women's duty and plowing was left to men. Nowadays, women also work with the plough. Needless to say, many other farm chores are also done by women. Only harrowing and building raised paths through fields are men's duties. In addition, all the housework, including cooking, laundry, spinning and weaving, tailoring, and livestock and poultry raising, is left to the females, while the males sometimes join together for hunting in the off-season.


The Miao like horse races, which are usually held on festivals. Teenagers love basketball, table tennis, and Chinese chess. The dragon boat regatta is a traditional competition of the Miao. The participants of a team usually come from the same village. The distance of the race is about 2 km. Other popular sports are kicking the shuttlecock and Chinese shadowboxing (wushu).


Dancing and singing for nights and days only takes place during festivals and wedding or funeral ceremonies. In normal times, dining together, chatting, calling on relatives, and the visit of a married woman to her parents' home are the joys of life. Movies, television, videos, libraries, and cultural centers are popular in cities, counties, and small towns.


Embroidery, wax printing, brocade, and paper-cuts are four famous crafts of the Miao. Silver ornaments elaborately wrought by craftsmen display their great attainments and sophisticated artistic conceptions.


Because of their mountainous environment, the Miao are still confronted with the problems of poverty and isolation. Migration of Miao youngsters from their villages to urban and coastal areas is a widespread and ambivalent phenomenon. The positive aspect is that the migrants may bring back new knowledge and experience, which is helpful to their native place; the negative aspect is that their migration runs counter to the immediate needs of talent and skills for local development. Today, the trend of migration to the outside world grows stronger and stronger.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


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—by C. Le Blanc