Provinces: Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hainan, Hubei
Related to the Hmong of Southeast Asia, the Miao people lived in central China during ancient times. Their ancestors established the Three-Miao State along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River during the Zhou Dynasty. Pushed southward by the rising tide of the Han, Miao clans became scattered and isolated from one another among the Miaolong and Wuling Mountains. Forming strong groups with diverse dialects, customs, and dress, there was no love-lost between them. In the past, Chinese governments often recruited them as mercenaries against one another (as can be seen in the popular 1992 Jet Li movie Asia Invincible).
Despite comprising several dialects, the Miao peoples’ language as a whole belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. They had no written script until 1957, when a Romanization system was created. Because of the lack of a written language, oral history and tradition was passed on by songs and dances.
The friendly Miao are well known for their hospitality. Living in mountainous communities, they generally depend on farming and animal husbandry. Close-knit, they often work together on farms and construction. Besides song and dance, Miao also excel at embroidery.
Women’s headdresses take special importance in Miao culture. When a girl is born, her parents will start saving money to make fancy silver head ornaments that can weigh several kilograms.
Traditional Miao religion is animistic. Important celebrations include the Miao New Year (Eighth Day of the Fifth Lunar Month) and the Dragon Boat Festival.
Photographs from “China’s Minority Peoples,” China Pictoral Publishing House.