Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Miao (苗), also known as Hmong, are an Asian ethnic group whose homeland is in the mountainous regions of southern China (especially Guizhou) that cross into northern Southeast Asia (northern Vietnam and Laos). It probably has a history even longer than that of the Han Chinese. Today, they form are the fourth largest of the 56 nationalities officially recognized by the People's Republic of China.

Table of contents
1 Nomenclature: Miao or Hmong
2 History
3 Demography
4 See also

Nomenclature: Miao or Hmong

Two terms, Miao and Hmong, are both currently used to refer to one of the aboriginal peoples of China. They live mainly in southern China, in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Hubei. According to the 1989 census, their number in China was estimated to be about 7 million. Outside China they live in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma, due to migrations starting in the 18th century, and also in the United States, French Guiana and Australia, as a result of recent migrations in the aftermath of the Indochinese wars. All together there are approximately 8 million speakers of the language. This language, which consists of 30-40 mutually unintelligible dialects, belongs, together with the Bunu language, to the Miao branch of the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) language family.

Western researchers do not treat the terminological problems in a uniform way. Early writers used Chinese-based names in various transcriptions: Miao, Miao-tse, Miao-tsze, Meau, Meo, mo, miao-tseu etc., but due to the influence of the Hmong of Laos (a sub-group of the Miao people) some contemporary researchers have adopted another terminology.

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

Thus only one group out of four uses the term Hmong. Furthermore, it is only this group which has speakers living outside China. It is these non-Chinese Hmong who advocate that the term Hmong be used not only for designating their dialect group, but also for the other groups living in China. They generally claim that the word Miao is a derogatory term which should not be used at all. Instead the term Hmong is to be used to designate all groups of the people. However this can also be a result of confusing denotation with connotation. The Chinese expeditioners and invaders gave to the Hmong the appelation "Miao", which later became "Meo" and "Man". Latter term means the southern "barbarian" - an expression formerly used, in Europe, by the Romans to designate other peoples. The word 'miao' has been taken over by other peoples in southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai etc. in the form Meo. Though many of the speakers of those languages (and of Chinese) undoubtedly consider the Miao to be barbarians, this by no means proves that the word itself has that denotation. It is, of course, also possible that the speakers of Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, who have taken over the word 'miao' from Chinese, have lost the original meaning "seedling" and use it only to designate a people whom they consider to be barbarian. If pronounced with the wrong tone in Thai or a high tone in Cantonese the word means "cat". This might explain the strong resentment against the term 'miao' among the Hmong groups in southeast Asia.

In China, however, the situation is different for two main reasons. The Miao groups have different self-designations and only a small proportion use the word Hmong. The rest have no feeling that Hmong is in any way preferable to Miao as a common designator. Since the official classification of the minorities in the 1950s some minority groups have complained about the word used in Chinese to designate them and have asked for the government to change the official usage. The Miao groups of China have, to my knowledge, voiced no such concern. The second reason is purely pragmatic: it is impossible to introduce the word 'hmong' into Chinese as this syllable does not exist in the Chinese language. As a matter of fact, this is also the case for the English language, as few speakers are able to pronounce an unvoiced nasal. However, in English, unlike Chinese, it is at least possible to write the word Hmong.

Many Hmong living in the West believe that every people should have the right to choose their own self-designation in other languages. At first this policy might seem reasonable, but it would result in numerous problems of spelling and pronunciation if implemented universally.

The Hmong write their name for themselves Hmoob. Doubling a vowel indicates that it is nasal, and several consonants are used at the ends of syllables to denote tones. Thus "America" is written Asmeslivkas in Hmong.

The term Hmong was proposed as the designation of the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. Some consider that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in the study of Miao. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. Perhaps not much can be done about this now but hopefully some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.

(Based on Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, Number 17, June 1992, Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. The material may be freely reproduced with due acknowledgement. No copyrights.)


According to Chinese legend, the tribe under Chiyou (蚩尤 chi1 you2) was defeated at Zhuolu (涿鹿 zhuo1 lu4, a defunct prefecture on the border of today provinces of Hebei and Liaoning) by Huang Di (黃帝 huang2 di4), leader of the Huaxia (華夏 hua2 xia4) tribe as they struggled for supremacy of the Huang he valley. The compass was believed to be the crucial reason of Huaxia's victory. The battle, believed to be taken place in early 26th century B.C, was fought under heavy fog as Huaxia was able to match against Miao with the compass. After the loss, the original tribe splitted into two smaller splinter tribes, the Miao and the Li (黎 li2). Miao continuously moving southwest and Li southeast as the Huaxia race, now known as Han Chinese race, expanding 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.

The term Miao was first used by the Chinese in pre-Qin times, i.e. before 221 BC, for designating non-Chinese groups in the south. It was often used in the combinations "miaomin", "youmiao" and "sanmiao" (三苗 san1 miao2). At that time the people lived in the Chang Jiang valley, but later they were forced by the Chinese to move further southwards. As most territories of the Six dynasty located south of the river, bringing the Miao into submission was a major concern for stability of those dynasties. With the Wu Hu ravaging areas north of the river, large scale migration of Chinese to the south accelerated the assimilation of Miao into Chinese.

Thus beginning from the Han Chinese Tang Dynasty the Miao ceased as a major non-Chinese group except in the province of Yunnan where six "zhaos" (詔 zhao4 means "state") of Miao resided there. Some scholars argued that the Six "zhaos" were groups of the Yi people. The southernmost, known as Meng-she-zhao (蒙舍詔 meng2 she3 zhao4) or Nan-zhao (南詔 nan2 zhao4) united all six zhaos and found the first independent Miao state during early 8th century with treacherous help from Tang Dynasty. The title of the head of state was Nan-zhao Wang (南詔王 nan2 zhao4 wang2), meaning the King of Nanzhao. 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 jian4 nan2 jie2 du3) located in today southern Sichuan Province and bordering Nanzhao.

During the first ten peaceful years in 8th century, Nanshao regularly paid tributes through the head of military district (Jiannan Jie-Du-Shi (劍南節度使 jian4 nan2 jie2 du3 shi3) to the Han Chinese dynasty. As the Tang Dynasty deteriorating during mid 8th century, the district was gaining more independent authority from the Tang dynastic government. They demanded more tributes from Nanshao 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 intimidations and unfair tributes led to the outbreak of Nanzhao rebellion during the Tianbao era (742-756) of Emperor Tang Xuan Zong of China. Before marching against the district legion, the Nanzhao King ordered a stone inscription of the reasons of rebellion. The monument remained erected and can still be seen today (location?). The Tang Dynasty could have easily defeated Nanzhao troops but struggles of power among generals of the district letting Nanzhao surge deeply into Tang's territory, almost reaching Chengdu, location of the district headquarters. Appointment of incompetent heads was also a factor. The most famous one was Yang Guozhong, brother of Lady Yang, the beloved concubine of the emepror. Although the rebellion was eventually squashed, the dynasty wasted precious resources which could have been used securng the northern border, ushering in the much more disastrous Anshi Rebellion.

During the later years of Tang dynasty, Nanzhao had the upper hand on its relations with Tang and Tibet as both countries tried to ally with Nanzhao, thus isolating the enemy. Nanzhao fully exploited the situation and rose as a major power in Southeast Asia. During its zenith of power, northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma, Guangxi and 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 9th century, Chinese dynasties never recovered the city until Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. Tang Dynasty gradually increased numbers of military district bordering Nanshao and consequently the insurgances of Pang Xun was the first of the rebllions leading to the fall of Tang.

Nanshao, under the influence of Tang for a century (8th century to 9th century), was gradually adopting the Chinese culture and at the same time disintegrated as struggles of power among various rival clans. Eventually the Duan (段 duan4) clan won and found the Da Li Kingdom which lasted until the submission to the Mongols. During Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty the term "nanman" (南蠻 nan2 man2 means the southern non-Chinese people) was used. However, the name "miao" reappeared in Fan Chuo's book on the southern tribes, Manshu (862 A.D.).

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) 'miao' and 'man' were both used, the second possibly to designate the Yao (傜 yao2) people.


Most Miao are in China. Their population growth in China: 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 province make up over 98% of all Chinese Miao: In the above provinces, there are 6 Miao autonomous prefectures (shared officially with one other ethnic minority): There are in addition 23 Miao autonomous counties: (松桃、印江、务川、道真、镇宁、紫云、关岭、威宁) Most Miao reside in hills or on mountains, such as Several thousands of Miao left their homeland move to larger cities like Guangzhou and Beijing. There are also 20,000,000 Miao, especially in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and other continents.

See also