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 Miaos.
The Miao are generally adept singers and dancers and specialize in love songs and songs for toasting. The reed pipe is the most commonly used musical instrument during musical serenades or feasts . 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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
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 clothing incorporates hundreds of styles in varying arrays of color. Headdress is common, often using flowers to accent vibrant patterns.
The Li, Miao and Yao peoples produced many kinds of textiles such as Bolup cloth, Mao (hawksbill) cloth, Zhu cloth (light blue or white cotton cloth), Yaoban cloth (blue batik with white speckles), ramie cloth and kapok cloth. Wax printing is a unique technique developed by some Chinese ethnic groups for printing and dying hand-made cloth. The blue and white pattens reveal natural cracks made when wax cools.
Miao Beauty and Hairstyles
Miao often wear complex necklaces, bracelets, earnings and headdresses Women wear their hair in topnot surrounded by a towel. In the old days both men and women had gapping holes in their ear lobes. Men used to put ivory stoppers in their holes and women put in wooden disks in theirs. The Miao don’t have a lot of body hair. Miao children are amazed by the hair growing on white people's arms. Sometimes they'll try to yank some off as a souvenir.
The Miao used to consider a full set of teeth to be ugly. In the old days each village had a "dentist" who charged one chicken for every four teeth he treated. During the treatment the teeth were chipped and filled into sharp points and then covered with shiny black lacquer made from tree sap.
Umbrellas were once considered prized possessions among Miao women, who used them primarily for protection from the sun. The Miao equate fair skin with status. The dark-skinned Lao Theung sub-tribe are looked down upon by other Miao.
Some Miao, have really long hair. According to the Guinness Book of Record, Hu Sengla, a Miao man who lived in northern Thailand, had the world’s longest hair. It reached a length of 5.79 meters. He washed his hair only once a year, mainly to earn money from tourists. His brother, Yi Sengla, had the world’s second longest hair. His was 5 meters long. A younger brother cuts his hair.
Miao are famous for their traditional costumes and wonderful embroidery. Women wear black tunics and pleated skirts, or calf-length black trousers with a short black skirts, or maroon or colored jacket or shirt with a colorful vest along with silver ornaments, and a turban-like headdresses strung with dangling coins. They sometimes sport silver rings around their necks. They also wear distinctive colorfully-embroidered aprons which Miao women believe can be dipped in water and used as a wash cloth to cure their husbands of any illness. Many wear gaiter that reach from the knees to the ankles.
Miao men have traditionally worn black short-sleeve tunics, with beautiful embroidered panels on the chest, and black baggy trousers with a crotch so deep it almost touches the ground. Draped around their shoulders and waist are sashes and bandolier-like belt hung with silver coins. On their head they wear turbans, satin skullcaps with pink pompons, or caps that look like crosses between a fez and a yamuka. "Black" Miao men wear dark skull caps, indigo homespun tunics, with embroidered colors, over long shirts and wide pants, held together by a wide, embroidered belts. Sometimes they have silver loops around their neck, bronze bracelets and a dagger in their belt.[Source: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988]
The Miao wear all kinds of clothes and adornments, whose materials, colors and styles are often attractive bright and colorful. In China, the Miao are known for wearing the most elaborate and largest variety of costume of all of China’s ethnic groups. Men and women generally wear a short sarong. Many Miao women wear pleated sarongs. The ones worn in southeastern Guizhou are only 30 centimeters long.
Clothing styles can vary quite a bit from area to area as the Miao have a large population and scattered over a large area. In China alone, clothes styles are divided into five big types, with 480 sub-types and kinds. The five types are: 1) Southeastern Guizhou style, 2) Mid-southern Guizhou style, 3) Sichuan-Guizhou style, 4) Western Hunan style and 5) Hainan style. The Miao clothes and adornments are famous worldwide, and often feature delicate embroidery and splendid silver decoration. Although sewing methods the the skill and artistry are of a high level. The silver adornments in the southeastern Guizhou are especially varied, elaborate and characteristic. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
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. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Miao Silver Adornments
Miao women in Southeastern Guizhou Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, home of one of the largest concentrations of Miao, generally like to wear silver adornments. The Miao here believe that the more silver adornments a woman wears, and heavier and more valuable they are, the more beautiful a woman looks. Some rich decorations are over 20-30 jins (10 to 15 kilograms) and make the whole body sparkle and shine with silvery light and sweat. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Miao are partial to silver adornments because they regard silver as a symbol of wealth. Silver adornments are beautiful, durable and easy to make. What's more, silver symbolizes light and health. It is believed that silver can drive out evil spirits, divert natural disasters and bring good fortune. ~
Among the Miao’s silver adornments are: silver hats, silver horns, silver combs, “moon plates,” silver ear-rings, ear columns, ear pendants, neckbands, necklaces, bracelets and rings. Most of them have traditionally been made by hand by Miao silversmiths. Structural arrangements include symmetrical style, balanced style, connected style and radiation style. Among the skills and methods used to make silver adornments are casting, hammering, plaiting, cutting flowers and carving lines. Favorite animal and patterns like dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds are often according to the personal requests of the owners. Treasured pieces have traditionally been handed down from mother to daughter or given as wedding presents. ~
Miao neckbands can be hollow or solid and are shaped like centipedes, columns, wound wire or twisted wire and boards. There are two kinds of necklaces: chain necklace and jingle bell necklaces. Chain necklace are comprised of dozens of round or elliptic solid rings. They are considered rough, thick, heavy and primitive. Jingle bell necklace are more delicately-made and elegant. The "moon plate" is a breast adornment worn by some women, so named because it is three-dimensional and empty like a half moon. Miaos' bracelets and rings come in a variety of shapes. There are whorl bracelets, worm bracelets, dragon head bracelets, bracelets shaped like the rolled leaves of the Juancaolan (a kind of plant). A Miao women dressed up for a festival or other event typically wears tree, fivem seven or eight bracelets on each wrist. ~
Miao Silver Hats
Silver hats worn by women are the main decorations of many Miao groups. Dazzling and extraordinarily splendid, these hats are generally composed of a “horse-tablet head” surrounded by silver slices, silver flowers, silver birds, and silver phoenixes. Images of a magpie stepping on aplum, a golden pheasant crying, a peacock spreading its tail, and male and female phoenixes perching together are lifelike, vivid and dramatic. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The images vary from place to place. For example, the phoenix hat in the Huangping region in Guizhou Province is composed of hundreds of delicate flowers fixed on a half-hemisphere-shaped iron wire hoop to make a round hat that looks like the hats worn by imperial concubines in ancient times. At the middle of the top of the hat is a silver phoenix, flanked on each side by two birds with different shapes. At the front are three plates of different length hung side by side. Extending out the sides are silver horns or lings that situated under each plate and make a jingling sound when the wearer moves. There are three levels of girdle-shaped silver pieces at the back of the hat and they are like tail of the phoenix. There are eight pieces on the surface, twelve in the middle and five under them. The three levels are arranged according to their length. The surface level reaches neck, the middle level reaches shoulders and the lowest level reaches the waist—like the tail of phoenix. Each silver hat needs at least 3-4 jins (1½ to two kilograms) of pure silver. ~
Silver horns are one of the main features of head adornments for Miao women in Kaili, Leishan, Danzhai and Taijiang. They come in different thicknesses. Their shapes are like the horns of a big, strong bull. Some are decorated with a silver fan between the two horns. The silver horns are 50 to 70 centimeters long, and are carved or hammered into the patterns of two dragons grabbing jewels or phoenixes. Some are decorated with feathers or tassels. Their weight is about 1-2 jins (a half to one kilogram). ~
Miao Pleated Skirts
Miao women wear tubular skirts, girdle skirts, pleated skirts and many other kinds of skirts. The pleated skirt is the most characteristic. Miao pleated skirts have hundreds or even thousands of close, vertical pleats. They are beautiful and artistic, but complicated to make, and associated most with Miao women in western Hunan. It is said that Miao women generally wore tubular skirts in ancient times, but changed to pleated skirts to easily distinguish the Miao from other ethnic groups. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
According to the legend "The Origin of Pleated Skirts" from the middle region of Guizhou: in ancient times, the skirts of Miao and Han were the same. In order to make them different, a mother and daughter decided to sew a special skirt to symbolize the Miaos. They thought for a long and hard time and were finally inspired by a colorful green flower they found on a mountain slope. They made a skirt with pleats resembling the flower and wore it a place where other Miao women threaded flower garlands. The Miao women applauded and praised the pleated skirt. They all learned to sew and wear pleated skirts, and the custom spread to other Miao villages, and women in different branches of the Miao began to wear pleated skirts of different length. ~
The pleated skirt of the Miao is requires great skill to make as the pleats are close and rich. Some even have thousands of pleats. The body of the skirt is straight vertically and sways back of forth horizontally. There are colorful designs and figures embroidered on the skirt. These vary from place to place. The pleated skirts in Huangping, Guizhou are usually made of narrow hand-woven dark purple cloth which the Miao women there weave and dye themselves. The skirt is composed of head, body and edge. Among these the edge is the most beautiful and important part. To make a skirt 1) these women put hand-woven cloth on a grassy area or a sunning mat, spray the juice of hyacinth bletilla on it and fold it into pleats of the same size. 2) Then they spray the juice again and finalize the design with white thread stringing the pleats together. 3) The edge is made of four lines of horizontal figures (from the bottom upward): the first line is " little humans figure"; the second line is" birds' wings figure" and the third and forth lines are " dragon figures". The first and second are embroidered lines, and the third and forth are woven lines. ~
Miaos' pleated skirts can be divided into three kinds according to the length: long, mid-length and short skirts. Long skirts reach the feet; mid-length skirts drop below knees; and short skirts reach the knees. A kind of short skirt worn by Miao women in Leishan, Guizhou is only about 20 centimeters long, and the people wearing it are called " short skirt Miao". Short skirts are often worn with trousers. There is a legend about the origin of short skirt in Leishan: in ancient times, there was a very handsome and brave Miao hunter. Once caught a very beautiful golden pheasant and gave the bird to his girlfriend, Abang. In order to express her deep affection to the young man, Abang wove a cloth stitched and embroidered with flowers and designs inspired by the golden pheasant. She then then made the cloth into a short skirt and decorated herself like a beautiful, golden pheasant. The hunter was impressed and enchanted. After that, other girls learned to make the embroidered short skirt and the design caught on Miao women in that area. ~
Embroidery refers to the traditional handicraft of weave figures on fabric with a needle and colorful threads. Embroidery skills are highly valued by the Miao. Almost every Miao woman is good at embroidering, often using the art form to decorate her clothes and the clothes of her family. Trousers, skirts, shoes, hats, socks, scarves, handkerchiefs and belts—fancy clothes worn to festivals and common dress and articles for daily use— are all embroidered with elegant figures and designs. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Miao embroidery has a very long history. Historical records after the Tang Dynasty have many descriptions about it. Miao women passed on their skills from generation to generation and has traditionally been an important component of not only Miao culture, but Chinese national culture. The Miao embroidery has both a strong national style and local character. In additional to embroidery, the wax printing of the Miao is also very famous. ~
One of the characters of Miao embroidery is that its colors are rich, bright, clear and passionate. Red and green are main colors, and they are supplemented by other colors. The designs are dense which makes the colors more gorgeous, rich and splendid. Another character is that the shapes and lines are exaggerated and vivid. Figures of the Miao embroidery come from daily life, but they don't simply reflect life: careful observation and experience has taught Miao women how to emphasize outstanding features of the flowers, birds, worms, and fish they make, plus express their own feelings and Miao symbolism. ~
The Miao embroidery usually uses paper-cut to create the base shapes. Some women embroider spontaneously. The shapes, colors and structures are elaborately designed beforehand. Common figures include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes, fish, frogs, birds, butterflies, geometric figures and plant figures,. Through artistic abstraction, Miao women exaggerate and deform images to express aesthetic ideals and Miao interpretations of common symbols. For example, the fish with a round head, fat body, small mouth and big eyes is regarded as vivid and lovely. Designs, patterns and shapes should be symmetrical, natural and harmonious. Dragons, phoenixes, flowers, grass, worms and fish, should all be symmetrically arranged, especially in stitching embroidery. On top of this the different patterns of images are put together freely in an interesting way. ~
Different Styles of Miao Embroidery
There are different ways of embroidering: flat embroidery, plaited embroidery, knit embroidery, wound embroidery, crape embroidery, stitching embroidery, stretching embroidery, rolling embroidery, embroidery with split thread and sticking embroidery. 1) Flat embroidery is the most commonly used method. Employing two needles used together, it is simple, ingenious and flat, which is suitable for embroidering small figures. 2) Plaited embroidery means to plait 8-12 colorful silk threads into a "braid" and sew it into a cloth. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
3) Knit embroidery refers to inserting a needle in the cloth with a round thread on the needle and taking out the needle. 4) Stitching embroidery is used stitch regular geometric figures and deformed flowers, birds, butterflies. The structure should be balanced and symmetrical according to the latitude and longitude lines of the cloth. 5) Sticking embroidery is used to create cloth mosaics from little pieces of stitched silk and satins, joined together into designs and figures on cloth, and lock-stitch the border. This kind of embroidery is rough and tasteful, and is often used on big designs and figures. ~
6) Crape embroidery is complicated. The first step is to plait colorful silk threads into braid like plaited embroidery. The braids are stitched into different figures in different ways according to the structure. 7) Embroidery with split thread is very difficult and creates very subtle designs. It means to divide a thread into several plies, and thread a needle with each embroider all kinds of designs with the individual plies. This style of embroidery makes the most delicate, fine and smooth designs. ~
The Miao have a rich oral literature of myths, history and folk tales. According to the Miao creation myth, many, many years ago men lived underground with the animals and the world was nothing but black rock. One day a man and his wife followed a monkey and a dog through a series of long tunnels that lead to the surface of the earth. Upon seeing the nothingness that covered their planet the man and women returned to their subterranean world to collect some seeds and worms which they brought back to the surface. From the seeds sprouted plants, which in turn multiplied bringing life to the earth.
In another well-known Miao story, men and monkeys used to live in harmony, but man was jealous that the monkey's fields produced more rice than his so he tricked the monkey into exchanging fields with him. Even then man wasn't satisfied. When the monkey---hungry because his fields were so unproductive---asked man what he should do, man told the monkey to kill his children, which would leave him with more food. The monkey took the advise and murdered all of his children. That night man sneaked into the monkey's house and gathered up the bodies. The next day the monkey found the man eating something and asked him what its was. "Only bird's intestines," the man replied. Not long afterwards the monkey realized the truth, and in a rage decided to live in the forest. Now he only comes in out of the forest to steal man's crops because man had deceived him and stolen the souls of his children.
The Miao traditionally recorded their lives and stories on stitched story cloths.
Miao Art and Music
The most sacred and revered form is Miao art is the pa ndau ("flower quilt"), a stitched story cloth that measure around 8-by-10 feet and depicts myths and histories. After the Miao written language was lost, the Miao say, pa ndau were critical in transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.
The Miao deliberately do no make art with supernatural being to differentiate themselves from the Han Chinese. The geometric patterns found on pa ndau are also placed on their shirts, dresses, and burial shrouds using indigo batik and applique.
The Miao also enjoy music. Antiphonal songs are sung by courting couples. The playing of lusheng, a reed pipe, is said to be an expression of Miao history and customs. The lusheng is played at festivals and major celebrations. The ability to improvise, especially when singing, is highly valued.
The Miao in China are famous for the reed-pipe dance. In western Hunan province the Miao do a drum dance. The Banjiawu dance of the Miao and pestle dance of the Gaoshans are depictions of farm labor.
Miao Reed Pipes
Miao musical instruments consist mainly of pipe instruments—such as reed pipe, vast bobbin, night vertical bamboo, sisters' vertical bamboo and bamboo flutes—and percussion instruments—such as bronze drum, wood drum and bronze gong. Among them, the reed pipe is the most popular and characteristic instrument. During festivals, auspicious days, weddings, building new houses, and welcoming honorable guests, people play reed pipes while singing and dancing. It is said the saying "reed-pipes are indispensable to the Miaos" has existed since the ancient times. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The reed pipe is usually composed of three parts: the pipe, the cup-shaped body and the reed. Commonly used ones are installed with six pipes. On the surface of the pipes are holes which can be for pressed to make different notes. The lower part is installed with bronze reeds. The pipes are inserted into a rectangle cup-shaped wood or gourd, with one sound coming from each pipe. One bamboo pipe is put in two or three pipes that serve as a resonant pipe. ~
Reed pipes come in different types according to the length of the pipes. Small ones are only ten centimeters long, and big ones can be three to four meters long. Modern versions of the instrument can have over ten to twenty pieces, and produce a wide range of sound. In some place not only is Miao music played with the reed pipes, popular Chinese songs can be played as well. The timbre of reed pipes is very bright, simple and vigorous. The pipes can be used as a solo instrument or played in an ensemble of two or more instruments. They have been used to accompany the reed-pipe dance among the Miao people since ancient times. ~
Miao Reed Pipe Dances
The reed-pipe dance has a long history and is the most representative dance of the Miaos. "The Song History" records that "one person played the gourd reed-pipe— several generations danced together mildly, and stepped on the ground to the rhythm." Today the dance is most popular in certain places. The Reed-pipe dance in southeastern Guizhou is divided into line dances and step dances. In the line dance, dancers hold reed pipes, stand in line and dance while turning around with the main pipe player as the axis. While dancing, they always keep the line straight. Girls are arranged around the reed-pipe team and dance slightly to the rhythm of the reed pipes. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
In the stepping dance two persons play a pair of pipes of the same size together and lead the dance. Dancers circle around and follow the leaders. The stepping hall dance of the Miao in Rongshui, Guangxi Province is famous for its mass participation. On wide stepping ground, dozens of reed pipes are played together, and hundreds, even thousands of people dance around them.
The reed-pipe dance in Western Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan is interesting. In addition to the collective dance that everyone knows, there is performance dance that includes some acrobatic movements. This dance can be done by one, two four or eight persons. In Yuanyang, Yunnan Province, a performer climbs up a flowery pole of several meters high while playing reed-pipe, pick up an object and comes down. When about onne or two meters before reaching the bottom he turns a somersault while playing the reed pipe, drawing a big applause. Among the other moves are: " standing upside down", "earthworm rolls on sand", " holding persons on shoulders", " getting over wooden bench", "turning a square table round", " walking on bamboo stick", " stepping on eggs", and " rolling a bowl with water in it".
Miao Horse Fighting
Rongshui in Guangxi province is a famous Miao area famous for retaining many special cultural customs, such as horse fighting and "pulling drum". Horse fighting is a traditional entertaining activity of the Miao in Rongshui, and it is often held in different festivals, with the horse fight festival from the 26th to the 28th in December, the grandest. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
On the first day of the festival, every family butchers chickens and ducks, steams polished glutinous rice and makes sweet wine. They also go to their fields to catch fish by drawing off water, and cooking fresh fish gruel to entertain relatives and friends from far away. Horse fight and horse race are held on the second and third days of the festival. Horse fights are very thrilling, exciting and fascinating match. At about 10 in the morning, the surrounding space of the fight site is crowded with many people. After some indigenous "Guoshanchong" guns are fired, two groups of powerful horses enters the fight accompanied by a reed pipe team and lion dance team. ~
When a match begins, a judge announces the list of horses joining the fight, one horse from each of the two teams is brought to the fighting site . After the halter is released, the two horses rush toward each other at once. They bite each other, turn their hoofs and kick, and raise their front hoofs in the air and confront each other. Smoke and dust fill the air; spectators hold their breath, cheer and jump for joy and applaud loudly. After a certain number of rounds, if one horse falls down or runs away, the other wins, and another two horses get into the site to begin a new fight. The Single elimination system is used, with winning horses moving on to the next round. Half the horses are eliminated in each round, until the last two horses fight it out for the championship. After the championship match finishes, people drape a red cloth over the winner's back. The owner of the horse is not only awarded, but also feels very proud of having such a brave and strong steed. ~
Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , San Francisco Museum, Wiki Commons
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015