Miao people

From New World Encyclopedia
Longhorn Miao China.jpg
Headdress of the Long-horn Miao—one of the small branches of Miao living in the 12 villages near Zhijing (织金) County, Guizhou Province.
Total population
10-12 million
Regions with significant populations
Miao language
Shamanism, Buddhist, Christian, Others

The Miao (Chinese: ; pinyin: Miáo; Vietnamese: Mèo or H'Mông; Thai: แม้ว (Maew) or ม้ง (Mong); Burmese: mun lu-myo) are a linguistically and culturally related group of people recognized by the government of the People's Republic of China as one of the fifty-five official minority groups in China. Miao is a Chinese term and does not reflect the self-designations of the component sub-groups, which include (with some variant spellings) Hmong/Mong, Hmu, A Hmao, and Kho (Qho) Xiong. The Miao live primarily in southern China, in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Hainan, Guangdong, and Hubei. Some members of the Miao sub-groups, most notably Hmong/Mong people, have migrated out of China into Southeast Asia (northern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand). Following the communist takeover of Laos in 1975, a large group of Hmong/Mong refugees resettled in several Western nations (United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere.)

Throughout Chinese history, the term “Miao” has been applied inconsistently to a variety of non-Han peoples, often with the connotation of "barbarian." The term "Miao" gained official status in 1949 as a minzu (nationality), as part of a larger effort by the Peoples’ Republic of China to identify and classify minority groups in order to clarify their role in national government.

Nomenclature: Miao and Hmong

Miao musicians from the Langde Miao Ethnic Village, Guizhou.

The term "Miao" gained official status in 1949 as a minzu (nationality) encompassing a group of linguistically related ethnic minorities in southwest China. This was part of a larger effort by the Peoples’ Republic of China to identify and classify minority groups in order to clarify their role in national government, including the establishment of areas of autonomous government and the allocation of seats for representatives in provincial and national government.[1]

Historically, the term "Miao" had been applied inconsistently to a variety of non-Han peoples, often with the connotation of "barbarian." This former meaning has not kept members of the modern nationality from self-identifying as Miao. Outside of China, the designation "Meo," a variation of "Miao" still exists in Southeast Asia where it is often used in a highly derogatory way. Western researchers have treated the terminological problems in a non-uniform way. Early writers used Chinese-based names in various transcriptions: Miao, Miao-tse, Miao-tsze, Meau, Meo, mo, miao-tseu. When referring to specific sub-groups of the Miao nationality or to ethnic groups outside of China, it is preferable to use the ethnonym of the specific group, such as Hmong/Mong, Hmu, A Hmao or Kho (Qho) Xiong. The prominence of Hmong/Mong people in the West has led to a situation where the Miao nationality is sometimes referred to as Hmong or Mong, despite the fact that they are only one of the sub-groups contained in the classification. Following the recent increased interaction of Hmong in the West with Miao in China, it is reported that some non-Hmong Miao have even begun to identify themselves as Hmong.[2]

Though the Miao themselves use various self-designations, the Chinese traditionally classified them according to the most characteristic color of the women's clothes. The list below contains the self-designations, the color designations and the main regions inhabited by the four major groups of Miao in China:

  • Ghao Xong; Red Miao; west Hunan.
  • Hmu, Gha Ne (Ka Nao); Black Miao; southeast Guizhou.
  • A Hmao; Big Flowery Miao; northwest Guizhou and northeast Yunnan.
  • Hmong, White Miao, Mong, Green (Blue) Miao, Small Flowery Miao; south Sichuan, west Guizhou and south Yunnan.


The Miao practice slash-and-burn agriculture in remote, mountainous areas, relocating their villages when the soil becomes depleted. The main crops are maize, rice, and opium poppies. The Miao practice a traditional form of spirit worship through which they believe they sustain contact with their ancestors.[3]

On the eighth day of their fourth lunar month (around mid-May), the Miao celebrate a festival during which they offer sacrifices to their ancestors and cultural heroes. This festival commemorates the day in which the heroes Ya Yi and Ya Nu died in battle while preventing a cruel ruler from his cruel custom of annually forcing the Miao to choose one of their beautiful young women to be his concubine. At the festival, they sing, play reed pipes (lusheng in Chinese) and bonze drums, and dance to honor their ancestors, ensure a good harvest and drive away evil spirits. On special occasions such as this, the Miao women wear large quantities of silver necklaces, bracelets and headdresses which jingle when they dance. This silver jewelry is handed down as a family heirloom. The women are also known for their beautiful embroidered clothes.


Young Hmong boy in Guizhou, China
Traditional Miao Boat used to travel down rapids for trading goods.
Traditional Miao irrigation system made entirely of wood planks (Yunan Province)

According to the 2000 census, the number of Miao in China was estimated to be about 9.6 million. Outside of China, members of Miao sub-groups live in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, due to migrations starting in the eighteenth century. As a result of recent migrations in the aftermath of the Indochina and Vietnam wars between 1949 and 1975, many Hmong/Mong people now live in the United States, French Guiana, France and Australia. Altogether there are approximately 8 million speakers of Miao languages. This language family, which consists of six languages and around 35 dialects (some of which are mutually intelligible) belongs to the Hmong/Miao branch of the Hmong/Mong-Mien (Miao-Yao) language family.

Note: The Miao areas of Sichuan province became part of the newly created Chongqing Municipality in 1997.

Most Miao currently live in China. Miao population growth in China:

  • 1953: 2,510,000
  • 1964: 2,780,000
  • 1982: 5,030,000
  • 1990: 7,390,000

Approximately 3,600,000 Miao, about half of the entire Chinese Miao population, were in Guizhou in 1990. The Guizhou Miao and those in the following six provinces make up over 98 percent of all Chinese Miao:

In the above provinces, there are 6 Miao autonomous prefectures (shared officially with one other ethnic minority):

  • Qiandongnan Miao and Tong Autonomous Prefecture (黔东南 : Qiándōngnán), Guizhou
  • Qiannan Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (黔南 : Qiánnán), Guizhou
  • Qianxinan Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (黔西南 : Qiánxīnán), Guizhou
  • Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (湘西 : Xiāngxī), Hunan
  • Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (文山 : Wénshān), Yunnan
  • Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (恩施 : Ēnshī), Hubei

There are, in addition, 23 Miao autonomous counties:

  • Hunan: Mayang (麻阳 : Máyáng), Jingzhou (靖州 : Jīngzhōu), and Chengbu (城步 : Chéngbù)
  • Guizhou: Songtao (松桃 : Sōngtáo), Yingjiang (印江 : Yìnjiāng), Wuchuan (务川 : Wùchuān), Daozhen (道真 : Dǎozhēn), Zhenning (镇宁 : Zhènníng), Ziyun (紫云 : Zǐyún), Guanling (关岭 : Guānlíng), and Weining (威宁 : Wēiníng)
  • Yunnan: Pingbian (屏边 : Píngbiān), Jinping (金平 : Jīnpíng), and Luquan (禄劝 : Lùquàn)
  • ChongQing: Xiushan (秀山 : Xiùshān), Youyang (酉阳 : Yǒuyáng), Qianjiang (黔江 : Qiánjiāng), and Pengshui (彭水 : Péngshuǐ)
  • Guangxi: Rongshui (融水 : Róngshuǐ), Longsheng (龙胜 : Lóngshēng), and Longlin (隆林 : Lōnglín)
  • Hainan: Qiong (琼中 : Qióngzhōng) and Baoting (保亭 : Bǎotíng)

Most Miao reside in hills or on mountains, such as

  • Wuling Mountain by the Qianxiang River (湘黔川边的武陵山 : Xiāngqián Chuān Biān Dí Wǔlíng Shān)
  • Miao Mountain (苗岭 : Miáo Líng), Qiandongnan
  • Yueliang Mountain (月亮山 : Yuèliàng Shān), Qiandongnan
  • Greater and Lesser Ma Mountain (大小麻山 : Dà Xiǎo Má Shān), Qiannan
  • Greater Miao Mountain (大苗山 : Dà Miáo Shān), Guangxi
  • Wumeng Mountain by the Tianqian River (滇黔川边的乌蒙山 : Tiánqián Chuān Biān Dí Wūmēng Shān)

Several thousands of Miao have left their homeland move to larger cities like Guangzhou and Beijing. There are also 2,000,000 Miao in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Taiwan, Cambodia and on other continents. About 174,000 live in Thailand, where they are one of the six main hill tribes.


Contact with the Huaxia

In China, the first recorded Miao kingdom was called Jiuli, and its ruler or rulers had the title Chiyou (in Chinese) or Txiv Yawg (in White Hmong) or Txiv Yawm (in Mong Leng). Chiyou means grandfather, and is a title equal to, but no less than, emperor. The Chiyou's ancestors are thought to be the Liangzhu people. Jiuli was said to have jurisdiction over nine tribes and 81 clans.

History according to Chinese legend

According to Chinese legend, the people under Chiyou (Chinese: 蚩尤 pinyin: Chīyoú) were defeated at the Battle of Zhuolu (Chinese: 涿鹿 pinyin: Zhuōlù, a defunct prefecture on the border of present provinces of Hebei and Liaoning) by the military unification of Huang Di (Chinese: 黃帝 pinyin: Huángdì) and Yandi, leaders of the Huaxia (Chinese: 華夏 pinyin: Huáxià) tribe, as they struggled for supremacy of the Huang He valley. The compass was believed to been crucial to Huaxia's victory; the battle, believed to have taken place in the twenty-sixth century B.C.E., was fought under heavy fog, and Huaxia was able to seek out the ancestors of the Mong by using the compass.

After the loss, the original tribe split into two smaller splinter tribes, the Miao and the Li (Chinese:黎; pinyin: lí). The Miao continuously moved southwest and Li southeast, as the Huaxia race, now known as Han Chinese, expanded southwards. During the course of Chinese history, they were regarded as "barbarians" by the increasingly technologically and culturally advanced Han Chinese. Some fragments of the races were assimilated into the Chinese during Zhou Dynasty.

In other versions of post-Jiuli history, the people of Jiuli fragmented in three different directions. It is said Chiyou had three sons, and that after the fall of Jiuli, his oldest son led some people south, his middle son led some people north, and his youngest son remained in Zhuolu and assimilated into the Huaxia culture. Those who were led to the south established the San-Miao nation. Perhaps due to this splitting into multiple groups, many Far Eastern people regard Chiyou as their ancestors, and by the same token, many question the ethnicity of Chiyou as exclusively Mong or otherwise. In some circles of thought, the Koreans also regard Chiyou as an ethnic ancestor. Furthermore, under the present ethnic unification policy of the PRC, Chiyou is now also regarded as one of China's forefathers alongside the ethnic Han ancestors, Huangdi and Yandi. It is believed that during this time the Mong were split into two main dialects: Mong Leng and Hmong Der, and referred to as Mong and Hmong. Today, the two names are used interchangeably.

Qin and Han dynasties

The term "Miao" was first used by the Han Chinese in pre-Qin times, i.e. before 221 B.C.E., for designating non-Han Chinese groups in the south. It was often used in the combinations "nanmiao," "miaomin," "youmiao" and "sanmiao" (三苗; pinyin: Sānmiáo). At that time the people lived in the Yangtze River valley, but later they were forced by the antagonistic policing of the Han Chinese to move further southwards and to higher elevations. As most territories of the Six Dynasties were located south of the river, bringing the Miao into submission was a major concern for stability of those dynasties. When the Wu Hu began ravaging areas north of the river, large scale migration of Chinese to the south accelerated the assimilation of Miao into Han Chinese.

Tang Dynasty

Beginning in Tang Dynasty(618 - 907 C.E.), the Miao ceased to exist as a major non-Han Chinese group except in the province of Yunnan, where six zhaos (Chinese: 詔 meaning "state") of Miao resided. Some scholars argued that the six zhaos were groups of the Yi people. The southernmost, known as Meng-she-zhao (蒙舍詔 Méngshězhào) or Nan-zhao (南詔 ; pinyin: Nánzhào) united all six zhaos and found an independent state during the early eighth century with support from Tang Dynasty. Uneasiness of the increasing threat from Tubo (today Tibet) encouraged the Chinese dynasty to establish a friendly regime neighboring both countries. Tang also deployed a military district, Jiannan Jie-Du (劍南節度; pinyin: Jiànnán Jiédǔ) located in today southern Sichuan Province and bordering Nanzhao. The title of the head of state was Nan-zhao Wang (南詔王; pinyin: Nánzhàowáng), meaning the King of Nanzhao.


During the first ten peaceful years in eighth century, Nanzhao regularly paid tributes through the head of military district (Jiannan Jie-Du-Shi (劍南節度使; pinyin: Jiànnán Jiédǔshǐ)) to the Han Chinese dynasty. The rulers of Nanzhao were Tibeto-Burman speakers, but it is possible the population included some ancestors of the present-day Hmong. As the Tang Dynasty deteriorated during the mid-eighth century, the military district was gaining more independent authority from the Tang dynastic government. They demanded increased tributes from Nanzhao to develop sizable forces against the dynasty. Some district heads even intimidated the peoples of Nanzhao; a famous example was a rejected demand to spend a night with the queen, the only wife of the Nanzhao King. All these intimidations and unfair demands for tribute led to the outbreak of a Nanzhao rebellion during the Tianbao era (742-756) of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang China. Before marching against the district legion, the Nanzhao King ordered the erection of a stone inscription bearing the reasons for the rebellion. The monument remained standing and can still be seen today. The Tang Dynasty could have easily defeated Nanzhao troops, but a power struggle among the generals of the district allowed the Nanzhao to penetrate deeply into Tang territory, almost reaching Chengdu, location of the district headquarters. The Tang appointment of incompetent leaders was also a factor in the Nanzhao’s success. The most famous one was Yang Guozhong, brother of Lady Yang, the beloved concubine of the emperor. Although the rebellion was eventually suppressed, the Tang dynasty wasted precious resources which could have been used to secure the northern border, creating the circumstances which ushered in the much more disastrous Anshi Rebellion.

During the later years of the Tang dynasty, Nanzhao had the upper hand in its relations with Tang and Tibet, as both countries tried to ally with Nanzhao and isolate the enemy. Nanzhao fully exploited the situation and rose as a major power in Southeast Asia. During the zenith of its power, the northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma, Guangxi and the eastern portion of Guangdong, southwestern portion of Sichuan, Guizhou and the whole province of Yunnan were all under its control. Chengdu and Hanoi were each sacked twice. After the fall of the latter in late ninth century, Chinese dynasties never recovered the city until Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. The Tang Dynasty gradually increased the numbers of military in the district bordering Nanzhao and the consequent insurgency of Pang Xun was the first of the rebellions leading to the fall of Tang.

Nanzhao, under the influence of Tang for a century (eighth century to ninth century), was gradually adopting the Chinese culture, and at the same time disintegrating because of power struggles among various rival clans. Eventually the Duan (段 ; pinyin: duàn) clan won, and founded the Kingdom of Dali which lasted until the submission to the Mongols. During the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, the term "nanman" (南; 蠻]] ; pinyin: Nánmán; meaning the southern non-Chinese people) was used to describe them. However, the name "Miao" to describe some of these southern people reappeared in Fan Chuo's book on the southern tribes, Manshu (862 C.E.).

Ming and Qing dynasties

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911) the terms 'Miao' and 'man' were both used, the second possibly to designate the Yao (傜 Yáo) people. The Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties could neither fully assimilate nor control the aboriginal people. As a result, a policy of "using barbarians to rule barbarians" (yiyi zhiyi) was employed. Furthermore, a counterpart to the Great Wall was erected in the south to protect and divide the Chinese from the 'southern barbarians'. Politically and militarily, the Hmong continued to be a stone in the shoe of the Chinese empire. The Hmong were more than a match against the Chinese, since the Chinese military was deployed across China defending against northern invaders. The Chinese had to fall back on political means to control the Hmong people; they created multiple competing prestigious official positions for Hmong people to assimilate them into the Chinese government system and assure their participation. During the Ming and Qing eras, the official position of Kaitong was created in Indochina. The Hmong retained the Kaitong government structure until the 1900s, when they entered into French colonial politics in Indochina.

During the late 1700s, massive immigration of Han Chinese into western Hunan sparked widespread rebellions by the Miao residents, which were harshly suppressed by the Qing dynasty.[4]

Historical References

Usage of the term "Miao" in Chinese documents dates back to the Shi Ji (first century B.C.E.) and the Zhan Guo Ce (late Western Han Dynasty). During this time, it was generally applied to people of the southern regions thought be descendants of the San Miao kingdom (dated to around the third century B.C.E.) The term does not appear again until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), as by then it had taken on the connotation of "barbarian." Interchangeable with "man" and "yi," it was used to refer to the indigenous people of the south-western frontier who refused to submit to imperial rule. During this time, references to Raw (Sheng) and Cooked (Shu) Miao appear, referring to level of assimilation and political cooperation of the two groups. Not until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) do more finely grained distinctions appear in writing. Even then, discerning which ethnic groups are included in various classifications can be problematic.[5]

See also

  • Ethnic groups in Chinese history
  • Ethnic minorities in China
  • History of China
  • Hmong people
  • Hmong customs and culture
  • Hmong-Mien languages
  • Languages of China


  1. Louisa Schein. "The Miao in contemporary China." In The Hmong in transition. Edited by Hendricks, G. L., Downing, B. T., & Deinard, A. S. Staten Island: Center for migration studies (1986), 73-85.
  2. Nicholas Tapp. "Cultural Accommodations in Southwest China: the "Han Miao" and Problems in the Ethnography of the Hmong." Asian Folklore Studies 61 (2002): 77-104.
  3. Dorothy Perkins. 1999. Encyclopedia of China the essential reference to China, its history and culture. (New York: Facts on File, ISBN 0816026939), 323
  4. Ibid.
  5. Norma Diamond, "Defining the Miao: Ming, Qing, and Contemporary Views." in Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, ed. Stevan Harrell. (Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995.), 99–101.


Earlier publications

  • Edkins, Rev. J. The Miao-tsi Tribes. Foochow, China: 1870.
  • Henry, Benjamin Couch. Ling nam, or, Interior view of Southern China. London, 1886.
  • Bourne, J. C. Journey in Southwest China. London, 1888.
  • Keaw, A. H. Man: Past and Present. Cambridge: 1900.

Contemporaly publications

  • Corrigan, Gina. Miao textiles from China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001 ISBN 0295981377
  • Deal, David and Laura Hostetler The Art of Ethnography: a Chinese "Miao Album". Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. ISBN 9780295985435
  • Diamond, Norma. "Defining the Miao: Ming, Qing, and Contemporary Views." in Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, ed. Stevan Harrell. (Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995.
  • Enwall, Jaokim. Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter 17 (June 1992), Department of Anthropology, Australian National University.
  • Hendricks, G. L., Downing, B. T., and Deinard, A. S.(eds.) The Hmong in transition. Staten Island: Center for migration studies, 1986. ISBN 0913256951
  • Jin, Dan (Contributor), Xueliang Ma (Contributor), Mark Bender (Translator) Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006. ISBN: 978-0872208490
  • Schein, Louisa. Minority rules: the Miao and the feminine in China's cultural politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. ISBN 082232444X
  • Tapp, Nicholas. The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0391041878
  • Tapp, Nicholas, (Editor), Jean Michaud (Editor), Christian Culas (Editor), Gary Yia Lee (Editor) Hmong/Miao in Asia. Silkworm Books, 2004. ISBN 9749575016


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