China's Miao Minority Persevere... As They've Done for Centuries

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 7th, 2011 | Updated: August 5th, 2014 | Comments
                                                                          

The Miao (Miáo zú, 苗族) are an ancient people who ruled the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys before the arrival of the Han Chinese, but who were eventually forced to migrate slowly south-by-southwest as far as Laos and Thailand. The Miao refer to themselves by a host of different names based on region, heritage, history and beliefs—Hmong being the most widespread. The Chinese refer to a large group of minority peoples living in southwest China as "Miao."

Though the term might not be anthropologically accurate, it makes for much easier bookkeeping. The scattered Miao live throughout southern China, especially in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong (as well as in Hunan and Hubei among other provinces), but their Mainland stronghold is Guizhou, where approximately four million Miao make their home. "Home" is often a strange word to the Miao people: since the first wars with the legendary Huang Di thousands of years ago, the Miao have been on the move, fleeing war, famine and slavery, leading to one scholar to state that "the Hmong people could never be united again, and be strong as a nation."

The Scattered People of the Miao Minority

                               

The Miao in China are broken up into groups based loosely on how their clothes look to Han Chinese: Hong (red: hóng, ), Hei (black:hēi, ), Bai (white:bái, ), Hua (flowery:huá, and Qing (green: qīng, 青). They have also been separated linguistically into three main dialects—eastern, central and western. The different colors and dialects do not understand each other. They are often separated by mountains or political boundaries and they primarily live in the hills, where, traditionally, they've found the autonomy that has allowed them to keep their language and culture alive.

People who have actually traveled to Miao villages in Guizhou, Yunnan or Guangxi are struck by the poverty—quaint to some, crushing to others—in which most Miao villages are mired. The chief means of living seems to be farming, selling clothing and patterns (or similar ethnic trinkets) or leaving home behind and joining mainstream society, in itself a challenge for mountain-born Miao kids.

Guizhou is the one place where the Miao are more or less left alone, primarily because the land there is so difficult to farm. Guizhou was long a place of exile for unwanted imperial officials, and the roads (if any) were so difficult to traverse that the successive armies chasing the Miao often more or less just gave up and let them have the hills.

Such a challenging environment and enduring poverty obscure—or, some might say, emphasize—the beauty of the Miao lands. The mountains of Guizhou are rolling and green, terraced like few other regions—the hills one part karst upthrust and two parts leafy tropical mound, and in towns like Kaili and Anshun and villages like Basha (Bashā Miáo Zhài, 岜沙苗寨), the beauty of the region and the local Miao people draws travelers from around China and the world each year.

Silver Princesses

                                                             

The Miao people of China are known chiefly for their beautiful garments and the massive silver headdresses worn by young women. The headdress is different depending on region and culture, but it seems to be a common ceremonial accessory for Miao women. There are a number of festivals celebrated by the Miao people, including the popular Lusheng Festival in Kaili, Guizhou Province (16-20th days of the first lunar month), which involves singing, dancing, bullfighting and horse racing, and the Yunnan and south Sichuan Miao also take part in the torch festivals that rage across southwest China each summer.

The Guizhou Miao, near Qingshui River also celebrate a large and festive Dragonboat Festival (24-27th of fifth lunar month). The Sister's Festival (15th day of the third lunar month), as it is known in some circles, is a somewhat more personal affair, involving  courtship rituals in which village youths woo one another with rice cakes and allegorical songs. So make your way deep into the hills of southern China, and perhaps you'll get to see Miao girls with silver crowns being serenaded by sonorous Miao lads ... and you'll see a side if China that can be charming while also quite enlightening, revealing the complexity and cultural richness of this vast nation's history and present, as well as the rural poverty that still plagues many of its peoples.

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