¡¡¡¡With a population
of 8,940,116, the Miao people form one of the largest ethnic minorities
in southwest China. They are mainly distributed across Guizhou,
Yunnan, Hunan and Sichuan provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous
Region, and a small number live on Hainan Island in Guangdong Province
and in southwest Hubei Province. Most of them live in tightly-knit
communities, with a few living in areas inhabited by several other
On the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and in
some remote mountainous areas, Miao villages are comprised of a
few families, and are scattered on mountain slopes and plains with
easy access to transport links.
Much of the Miao area is hilly or mountainous,
and is drained by several big rivers. The weather is mild with a
generous rainfall, and the area is rich in natural resources. Major
crops include paddy rice, maize, potatoes, Chinese sorghum, beans,
rape, peanuts, tobacco, ramie, sugar cane, cotton, oil-tea camellia
and tung tree. Hainan Island is abundant in tropical fruits.
As early as the Qin and Han dynasties
2,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Miao people lived in the western
part of present-day Hunan and the eastern part of present-day Guizhou.
They were referred to as the Miaos in Chinese documents of the Tang
and Song period (A.D. 618-1279).
In the third century A.D., the ancestors
of the Miaos went west to present-day northwest Guizhou and south
Sichuan along the Wujiang River. In the fifth century, some Miao
groups moved to east Sichuan and west Guizhou. In the ninth century,
some were taken to Yunnan as captives. In the 16th century, some
Miaos settled on Hainan Island. As a result of these large-scale
migrations over many centuries the Miaos became widely dispersed.
Such a wide distribution and the influence
of different environments has resulted in marked differences in
dialect, names and clothes. Some Miao people from different areas
have great difficulty in communicating with each other. Their art
and festivals also differ between areas.
The Miao language belongs to the Miao-Yao
branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. It has three main
dialects in China -- one based in west Hunan, one in east Guizhou
and the other in Sichuan, Yunnan and part of Guizhou. In some places,
people who call themselves Miao use the languages of other ethnic
groups. In Chengbu and Suining in Hunan, Longsheng and Ziyuan in
Guangxi and Jinping in Guizhou, about 100,000 Miao people speak
a Chinese dialect. In Sangjiang in Guangxi, over 30,000 Miaos speak
the Dong language, and on Hainan Island, more than 100,000 people
speak the language of the Yaos. Due to their centuries of contacts
with the Hans, many Miaos can also speak Chinese.
Their clothing has distinctive
features which vary from place to place. In northwest Guizhou and
northeast Yunnan, Miao men usually wear linen jackets with colorful
designs, and drape woolen blankets with geometric patterns over
their shoulders. In other areas, men wear short jackets buttoned
down the front or to the left, long trousers with wide belts and
long black scarves. In winter, men usually wear extra cloth leggings
known as puttees. Women's
clothing varies even from village to village. In west Hunan and
northeast Guizhou, women wear jackets buttoned on the right and
trousers, with decorations embroidered on collars, sleeves and trouser
legs. In other areas, women wear high-collared short jackets and
full- or half-length pleated skirts. They also wear various kinds
of silver jewelry on festive occasions.
In southeast Guizhou, west Hunan, Rongshui
in Guangxi and on Hainan Island, the Miaos eat rice, maize, sweet
potatoes and millet as staple foods. In northwest Guizhou, Sichuan
and northeast Yunnan, they mainly eat maize, potatoes, buckwheat
and oats. In southeast Guizhou, Miao cooks make a sour mixture of
glutinous rice and vegetables by packing them tightly into jars
for up to two months. Before 1949, for lack of salt, many Miao people
had to flavor their food with pepper or a sour taste. Many even
had to live on wild vegetables.
Because timber resources are plentiful
in most Miao areas, houses are usually built of wood, and roofed
with fir bark or tiles or are thatched. In central and western Guizhou,
houses are roofed with stone slabs.
Houses vary greatly in style. In mountainous
areas, they are usually built on slopes and raised on stilts. Animals
are kept under the stilted floors. In the Zhaotong area in Yunnan
and on Hainan Island, most Miaos live in thatched huts or "branch
houses," made of woven branches and twigs or bamboo strips
plastered with mud.
The typical Miao family is small and
monogamous. Aged parents are usually supported by their youngest
In some areas, a son's name is followed
by his father's, but generally a Miao person uses only his or her
own name. Influenced by the Han feudal patriarchal clan system,
the Miaos made efforts to maintain their family pedigrees, built
ancestral halls and adopted words in their names to indicate their
position in the family hierarchy.
Marriages are usually arranged by parents,
but unmarried young men and women have the freedom to court. Mass
courting occasions sometimes take place during holidays, when young
women from a host village gather to sing antiphonal love songs with
young men from neighboring villages. If a couple are attracted to
each other, they exchange love tokens. But they must still win the
approval of their parents before they can marry.
In Chuxiong, Yunnan Province, the practice
of setting up public courting houses for unmarried men and women
prevailed until a few decades ago. After a day's work, they would
visit these houses to sing, dance and court with their partners.
The Miaos there also practiced the custom of "kidnapping brides."
If the kidnapped girl consented to an offer of marriage, a grand
wedding feast was held. If she did not, she was free to go.
Different Miao communities celebrate
different festivals. Even the same festivals may fall on different
dates. In southeast Guizhou and Rongshui County in Guangxi, the
Miao New Year festival is celebrated on "Rabbit Day" or
"Ox Day" on the lunar calendar. The festivities include
beating drums, dancing to the music of a lusheng (a wind instrument), horse racing
and bull-fighting. In counties near Guiyang, people dressed in their
holiday best gather at the city's largest fountain on April 8 of
the lunar year to play lusheng
and flute and sing of the legendary hero, Yanu.
In many areas, the Miaos have Dragon
Boat festivals and Flower Mountain festivals (May 5), Tasting New
Rice festivals (between June and July), Pure Brightness festivals
and the Beginning of Autumn festivals. In Yunnan, "Stepping
over Flower Mountains" is a popular festivity for the Miaos.
Childless couples use the occasion to repeat vows to the god of
fertility. They provide wine for young people, who sing and dance
under a pine tree, on which hangs a bottle of wine. Young men and
women may fall in love on this occasion, and this, it is hoped,
will help bring children to the childless couples.
The Miaos used to believe in many gods,
and some of their superstitious rituals were very expensive. In
west Hunan and northeast Guizhou, for instance, prayers for children
or for the cure of an illness were accompanied by the slaughter
of two grown oxen as sacrifices. Feasts would then be held for all
the relatives for three to five days.
The Miao have a highly diversified
culture developed from a common root. They are fond of singing and
dancing, and have a highly-developed folk literature. Their songs,
which do not rhyme and vary greatly in length from a few lines to
more than 15,000, are easy to understand and are very popular among
The lusheng is their favorite musical instrument. In addition, flutes,
copper drum, mouth organs, the xiao
(a vertical bamboo flute) and the suona
horn are also very popular. Popular dances include the lusheng dance, drum dance and bench dance.
The Miaos create a variety of colorful
arts and crafts, including cross-stitch work, embroidery, weaving,
batik, and paper-cuts. Their batik technique dates back 1,000 years.
A pattern is first drawn on white cloth with a knife dipped in hot
wax. Then the cloth is boiled in dye. The wax melts to leave a white
pattern on a blue background. In recent years, improved technology
has made it possible to print more colorful designs, and many Miao
handicrafts are now exported.
Miao areas differ in their scale
of economic and educational development. Early Miao society went
through a long primitive stage in which there were neither classes
nor exploitation. Totem worship survived among Miao ancestors until
the Jin Dynasty 1,600 years ago. By the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D.
25-220), the ethnic minorities in the Wuxi area had begun farming,
and had learned to weave with bark and dye with grass seeds, and
trade on a barter basis had emerged. But productivity was still
very low and tribal leaders and the common people remained equal
Primitive Miao society changed rapidly
between the third and tenth centuries A.D. Communal clans linked
by family relationships evolved into communal villages formed of
different regions. Vestiges of the communal village remained in
the Miao's political and economic organizations until liberation
in 1949. Organizations known as Men Kuan in the Southern Song Dynasty
(1127-1279), and as Zai Kuan during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911),
were formed between several neighboring villages. Kuan leaders were
elected by its members, who met regularly. Rules and regulations
were formulated by all members to protect private property and maintain
order. Anyone who violated the rules would be fined, expelled from
the community or even executed. All villages in the same Kuan were
dutybound to support one another, or else were punished according
to the relevant rule.
By the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907),
the Miaos had divided into different social classes. Communal leaders
had authority over land, and frequent contacts with the Hans and
the impact of their feudal economy gave impetus to the development
of the Miao feudal-lord economy. The feudal lords began to call
themselves "officials," and called serfs under their rule
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279),
some upper class Miaos were appointed prefectural governors by the
imperial court, thus providing a political guarantee for the growth
of the feudal economy. Under the rule of feudal lords, the ordinary
people paid their rent in the form of unpaid service. The lords
had supreme authority over them, and could punish them and bring
them to trial at will. If feuds broke out between lords, the "field
people" had to fight the battles.
By this time, agriculture and handicrafts
had been further developed. Grain was traded for salt between prefectures,
and Xi cloth was sent as a tribute to the imperial court. High-quality
iron swords, armor and crossbows came into use. By the end of the
Song Dynasty, the Miaos in west Hunan had mastered the technique
of iron mining and smelting. Textiles, notably batik, also flourished.
Regular trade sprung up between the Miaos and Hans.
The Miao feudal-lord economy reached
its peak and began to decline during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
A landlord economy had taken shape and was in its early stage of
development. In 1502, the Ming Court began to abolish the rule of
Miao feudal lords, and appointed officials who were subject to recall.
During the early years of the Qing Dynasty, these measures were
applied to many Miao areas, contributing a great deal to the disintegration
of the feudal-lord system and the growth of a landlord economy.
In west Guizhou and northwest Yunnan, however, some lords still
retained their power, and the feudal-lord economy continued to exist
there until the end of the Qing Dynasty.
After 1951, a number of Miao autonomous
divisions were established in Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guangdong,
and Hunan. Most of these autonomous divisions have taken the form
of multiethnic autonomy, as the Miaos have for a long time lived
harmoniously with the Tujia, Bouyei, Dong, Zhuang, Li and Han peoples.
In some Miao areas, before autonomous
authorities were established, priority was given to such things
as the election of delegates to the People's congress and the training
and appointment of minority administrative staff. Now a large number
of Miao people have been promoted to leading posts. In Northwest
Guizhou Autonomous Prefecture alone, Miaos account for 68 per cent
of the district and township officials.
Before 1949, textiles, iron forging,
carpentry, masonry, pottery, alkali making and oil pressing were
the only industries in the area. After the birth of the People¡¯s
Republic of China, many factories and hydroelectric stations were
built. Now electricity is widely used for lighting, irrigation and
In mountainous areas, the Miaos have
built reservoirs, dug canals and created new farmland. They have
also developed a diversified economy according to local conditions.
As a result, grain production as well as oil, fiber and starch crops
and medicinal herbs have all flourished. This has helped to open
up new sources of raw materials and supplies for industry and commerce,
and improved the Miao people's living standards.
Sheep raising has a long history in
Weining Autonomous County, Guizhou, where 265,000 hectares of grassland
and trees provide an ideal grazing area. Herds have grown rapidly
as a result of the introduction of improved breeds and better veterinary
The construction of railways between
Guiyang and Kunming, and between Hunan and Guizhou has boosted the
development of the Miao areas along the routes. Before 1949, more
than half the counties in Qiandongnan Autonomous Prefecture had
no bus services.
Cultural, educational and public health
provisions have also expanded rapidly. In 1984, there already were
23,000 teachers in Qiandongnan alone, of whom over half were of
the Miao or Dong minorities. They set up schools in mountainous
areas and brought education to the formerly illiterate mountain
villages. Before 1949, the incidence of malaria was as high as 95
per cent in Xinchi village in Ziyun County, Guizhou Province. But
since liberation, the disease has been eradicated through massive
health campaigns. This is giving rise to the rapid emergence of
clean, hygienic and literate Miao villages.