For the Miao patrilineal descent defines kin groups which in turn form the basis of village and community organization. Most villages are made up of members of local lineages that can trace their origin back to a common ancestor. Status and rank are determined by age and lineage. Major lineage differences are distinguished by variations in household rituals and funeral ceremonies. The ritual head of the lineage is the oldest living member of that lineage. In China. many Miao have been forced to take Chinese names and the patrilineage system works under those names.
Villages are relatively self sufficient. Villagers grow their own food. Their political and social units are the family, clan and the village. Miao villages are relatively egalitarian. The rigid Confucianism of the Han Chinese is generally not practiced by the Miao on a society level or family level. Inheritance is not a big thing because there is little privately owned land and thus little land to inherit. Property is generally divvied out at marriage and when houses are built and children are born rather than at death.
Good Websites and Sources: Hmong Home Page hmongnet.org ; Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center hmongstudies.org ; Miao photos pratyeka.org ; Miao performance video YouTube Wikipedia article Wikipedia article ; Photos marlamallett.com ; Miao in Lusheng China ; Miao Clothes China Vista ; Miao Language omniglot.com ; Miao Funeral c232osu.spaces.live.com/Blog ;
Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights
Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map nytimes.com ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site) chinaethnicgroups.com
Links in this Website: MINORITIES IN CHINA--- Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA--- HISTORY, RELIGION Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---LIFE AND CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---AGRICULTURE, GOVERNMENT Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---ACHANG TO HAKKA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA--JING TO PUMI Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---SHE TO ZUANG Factsanddetails.com/China ; DONG MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; HANI MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAHU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LISU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; MIAO MINORITY: HISTORY, RELIGION, MEN WOMEN Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Miao Leaders and Social Control
Problems and disputes are arbitrated on the village level by an assembly of male lineage elders. At assemblies women can play an informal role. The ritual head of the lineage and the village shaman have the highest status. In some places village headmen are appointed to deal with specific issues such as extramarital affairs.
Social control is exerted more through traditional customs and taboos that laws of the nation, where the Miao live. Gossip, accusations f witchcraft and the power of men over women and fathers over sons are also used to exert social control.
The Miao language and culture is nuanced and subtle. Miao that have come to the United States find Americans uncomfortably blunt and direct.
Most disputes are between local lineages over marriages, bride-price payments, children born out wedlock and extramarital affairs. There are also been disputed over Christian proselytizing and land claims. In rare cases lineages declare war on one another.
Marriages are usually arranged by parents, but unmarried young men and women have the freedom to court. Mass courting occasions sometimes take place during holidays, when young women from a host village gather to sing antiphonal love songs with young men from neighboring villages. If a couple are attracted to each other, they exchange love tokens. But they must still win the approval of their parents before they can marry. *|*
Marriages outside the clothing color, language or dialect group are uncommon. When a women marries she leaves her family and clan and enters the family and clan of her husband. She often moves to her husband’s village When she dies she is worshiped by his descendants. Usually only the youngest son lives with the parents after marriage.
Prospective couples often begin their relationship by playing a courtship game called pov pob, dancing and singing antiphonal songs during the Miao New Year festival. If a couple decides to marry the family of the groom has to give the bride's family a bride price in silver and animals that usually amounts to between a thousand and two thousand dollars, quite a lot of a Miao family. Unions are often sealed with a pig. In lieu of a price or sometimes i addition to one the husband works for two years for the bride’s parents to make up for the loss of their daughter, who is regarded as a strong, hard worker.
Before a Miao marriage a chicken is sometimes killed in front of the husband and bride to be. If the chicken's eyes are identical that means the marriage will be a happy one. If the eyes are different that is a bad omen, and the wedding plans are quickly scrapped. The weight the chicken is also significant. If either the bride or the groom breaks the engagement their family has to pay the other family the weight of the chicken in silver.
At a Miao wedding the bride and groom eat glutinous rice cake in which a dragon, phoenix and Feng doll are drawn. Also, at the wedding ceremony the bride and groom must drink Jiaobei spirit together from special cups by crossing their wrists and drinking wine from their own cup.
Types of Miao Marriages
Arranged marriages are the norm but couples are often given a degree of freedom in choosing a partner. Young people are permitted to enjoy a "golden period of life" in which premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. Many villages have “youth houses,” where unmarried young people could meet. In some cases groups of young men travel from village to village to met up with young women at these houses. Marriage often takes place at the first pregnancy.
Couples have traditionally been monogamous, but polygamy is practiced. For a while it was encouraged because so many men were killed during the Vietnam War and it was difficult to find husbands for all the women. In polygamous unions two or three wives often live in the same house. Because bride prices are so high generally only rich could afford to have multiple wives.
Couples are often very young when they get married. Many get married when they 14 or 15. Divorces are uncommon, partly because the bride prices are so high that the bride’s family is unwilling to return it. Often the only way an unhappy wife can get out of here marriage is through suicide.
The Miao also practice levirate marriages. If a man dies his eldest brother usually has first dibs on the widow. If he doesn't want her, the widow's family is required to return some of the bride-price. Bride kidnapping is still practiced by the Miao. In many cases it is nothing but elopement and usually occurs when parents disapprove of a match or boy doesn't get along with the girls parents.
In Chuxiong, Yunnan Province, the practice of setting up public courting houses for unmarried men and women prevailed until a few decades ago. After a day's work, they would visit these houses to sing, dance and court with their partners. The Miaos there also practiced the custom of "kidnapping brides." If the kidnapped girl consented to an offer of marriage, a grand wedding feast was held. If she did not, she was free to go. *|*
Miao Antiphonal Songs and Free Marriage
The Miao practice what is called free marriage. A free marriage relationship is established step by step through "roaming around" (also called "Yaomalang", "Zuomei", "visiting villages", "meeting girls", "Wanbiao", "stepping the moon" depending on the place) and singing love songs in an antiphonal style. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
“Roaming around” is usually held at big festivals like the Miao New Year, the New Product Eating Festival, the Slope-Climbing Festival, and slack seasons in farming. It takes place at fixed site, such as slope or clearing near a villages, riverbanks and reed pipe playing ground. When the time comes, young men from different villages come together near the young women's villages, and whistle or blow leaves or reed-pipes as a signal to invite girls to the roaming site. When they hear the signal, girls who want to join dress themselves in their best clothes and go to the roaming site. The young fellows welcome girls with passionate songs, and antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) begins between men and women. A song called the "Marrying Fellows of Our Village" goes:
Men: Trees in your village are high, and every tree has the makings of ridgepoles.
Girls in your village are pretty, and everyone is charming.
If you have not married yet, marry fellows of our village.
If you are kind and diligent, life will not be bad.
Women: Trees in our village are low, and are hard to become ridgepoles.
Girls in our village are ugly, and will not be loved by anyone.
So they are not married, and they are waiting for their lovers.
If you don't mind, choose and take anyone you like. ~
Through antiphonal singing, young men and women get to know each other's working, living and family situations. If a girl fancies one of the men, and the man also has a good opinion of her, they may depart from the roaming site and sing and talk separately at a quiet place. After several times of contact, their affection increases. If they exchange mementos ("Diubabin" in the Miao language) that means they are serious. They can decide their marriage secretly. Many Miao families have gotten started this way. ~
Miao Women and Men
Miao women have traditionally done the most work: cleaning, cooking, pounding rice, tilling the fields, taking care of the children and making clothes. Men have traditionally woven baskets, plowed the fields, hunted for meat and defended the village from enemies.
But, in many cases, the traditional work system has broken down and women do all the work. Many Miao men don't do much except sit around the village and get drunk or smoke opium. Women sometimes say they are so busy they encourage their husband to take another wife so they don't have so much work to do.
Miao women are famous for their embroidery and cloth making skills. They spend a lot of their time spinning, weaving and embroidering cloth often made from hemp, ramie and cotton they grow themselves. Often a woman's ability to attract a good husband is determined by how well she can sew. Because Miao women don't use sewing machines, pins or patterns their stitches are virtually invisible. Some Miao women in America have had success cashing in on their sewing skills.
Miao Families and Children
There are nuclear family and extended family households. A typical Miao household consists of parents, unmarried children, and married sons and their families. The largest families are made up of parents with young married sons, their wives and children. Fathers have traditionally taken an active role in some aspects of child rearing.
Aged parents are usually supported by their youngest son. In some areas, a son's name is followed by his father's, but generally a Miao person uses only his or her own name. Influenced by the Han feudal patriarchal clan system, the Miaos made efforts to maintain their family pedigrees, built ancestral halls and adopted words in their names to indicate their position in the family hierarchy. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
From a young age, children help with chores and become engaged in village life. Literacy rates are low because most children don’t go to school. Young boys are taught to hunt and learn local custom by attending ceremonies and rituals. Girls are taught weaving, singing and other skills from their mothers. Children learn subsistence skills by working in the fields at a relatively young age.
Upper class house The Miao have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet, an altitude perfect for growing opium poppies, once their major cash crop. Most Miao have settled in the mountains because the lowlands have always had dense populations and they didn't want to encroach and stir up trouble. In addition the mountain tops are easier to defend and the Miao seem to prefer a cool climate. Miao villages are often interspersed with villages of other groups, particularly the Yao, Akha, Ding, Zhuang and Yi.
There is an old saying in Guizhou Province of China: "The Miao live in high mountains, the Dongs live near water, and the Qilaos live at stone corners." This reflects to a large degree the living situations of these minority groups. Most Miao DO live in mountain areas: typically at the foot of a hill or mountains and beside a streams. A village contains ten or 100 or 200 households, with the biggest villages containing over 1000 households. House styles is vary from to place to places, but one-storey houses and two-story buildings are main styles. Among them the "building with hanging feet"— which is built of wood and partly covered by tiles —is the most characteristic and popular one. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
The Miao used to say that the world reached only as far as a man could walk. Miao villages typically have seven to 50 households and are often organized in a horseshoe pattern just below the ridge of a mountain, sheltered by forests and near a water source. The buildings are oriented in accordance with the principals of feng shui. Water is often piped in a series of troughs made from split bamboo or collected from a well or tap system.
Usually bamboo, peach and banana trees are grow around the village to provide food and shade. Many villages have a grove of trees where religious ceremonies are held. Nearby slopes are used to raise herbs and vegetables. Rice and other grains are stored granaries raised off the ground for protection against animals. Chicken coops and stables are also built. Pigs are generally allowed ro run free. Some villages have shops run by Chinese traders. .
The traditional Miao house is built on the ground rather than on piles and has a roof thatched with teak leaves or cognon grass, a dirt floor and no windows. The frame is made of lengths of timber notched together or bound with hemp rope, without the use of nails. In some parts of China Miao houses are made from mud bricks or stone. In Thailand and Laos they are often built in the Thai style. Families that can afford it have zinc or polyurethane roofs. The poorest of the poor build their houses entirely from split bamboo and matting.
Because timber resources are plentiful in most Miao areas, houses are usually built of wood, and roofed with fir bark or tiles or are thatched. In central and western Guizhou, houses are roofed with stone slabs. Houses vary greatly in style. In mountainous areas, they are usually built on slopes and raised on stilts. Animals are kept under the stilted floors. In the Zhaotong area in Yunnan and on Hainan Island, most Miaos live in thatched huts or "branch houses," made of woven branches and twigs or bamboo strips plastered with mud. [Source: China.org china.org ]
Miao: sleep on straw sleeping pallets, bamboo beds or wooden platforms and food is cooked over an open fire pit or primitive stove. Every house is built so that the owner can see a distant mountain from the front door. When a site for a house is chosen one grain of rice is laid down for each member of the family and left over night. If the spirits move them a new site must be chosen. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]
Miao “Buildings with Hanging Feet"
Balcony A “building with hanging feet” is a typical pile dwelling, usually built on a southward-facing mountain slope with a steep gradient. The foundation of this is like two steps. Short poles are erected to support the upper storey and long poles are put under the lower storey. In this way, veranda at the front of the house is as high as the ground at the back of the house. Poles erected under the lower storey becomes hanging feet poles supporting the front half of the house, and the name "building with hanging feet" comes from this. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
"Buildings with hanging feet" usually has three storeys: the lowest storey is used to keep domestic animals and fowls and to pile firewood and farm tools. The middle storey is the main place for family to live, eat and sometimes sleep. Outside the middle story are corridors, benches and balconies. The third storey can be used as bedroom or for storing things. The main building materials is soft wood like pine or fir. A standard a "building with hanging feet" of three storeys about 30 chi wide needs 24 poles, 40-50 sleepers, 39 purlins, 28 big and small square woods, 135 rafters, 600 square woods, 600 pieces of boards and 15,000 pieces of tiles. Iron nails are only used to fix the rafters. The other parts are held together by mortise and tenon. ~
There are many ceremonies and proprieties involved in building a house for the Miaos and none should be done carelessly. "Stepping the new house" is one of these ceremonies. After the new house is completed, relatives and friends in the village or from other villages bring presents to congratulate the new homeowner. When guests from other villages come into the village, they set off firecrackers. Hearing the sound of firecrackers, the new homeowner goes out and welcomes the guests, invites them into the new house, and spreads a feast. Happily gathered under the roof of the new home, everybody raises one's wine, sings the setting house song loudly to congratulate the owner of the new house and wish him and his family good fortune. ~
Miao Food, Drink and Eating Customs
Rice, the staple of the Miao diet, is supplemented with bread made from corn. Miao like wine and vinegar-pepper food. They like to eat pumpkin vines stir fried with fish sauce, lemon grass and chilies while the pumpkins are given to pigs to eat. Miao drink bitter green tea out of fine china cups and eat stir fried dishes prepared in a wok. Corn is also distilled in a powerful moonshine. Less potent rice wine, known as room, is consumed from a communal crock with four-foot-long straws. According to journalist Howard Sochurek room tastes like white wine that has turned to vinegar. Women sometimes smoke bong-like pipes packed with marijuana when they do their work. Opium is still smoked in some places,
In southeast Guizhou, west Hunan, Rongshui in Guangxi and on Hainan Island, the Miaos eat rice, maize, sweet potatoes and millet as staple foods. In northwest Guizhou, Sichuan and northeast Yunnan, they mainly eat maize, potatoes, buckwheat and oats. In southeast Guizhou, Miao cooks make a sour mixture of glutinous rice and vegetables by packing them tightly into jars for up to two months. Before 1949, for lack of salt, many Miao people had to flavor their food with pepper or a sour taste. Many even had to live on wild vegetables. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
The Miao are very welcoming when it comes to the treatment of guests. For instance, when a guest visits, the host kills a chicken or a duck to entertain and feed the guest. If the guest comes from a great distance, the host first invites the guest to drink an alcohol called Horn spirit. When the chicken is eaten, the chicken head is presented to the senior member of the feast, and the senior member presents the youngest with a chicken leg. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Another unique Miao tradition the chicken (or duck) heart sharing custom. The eldest person of the family uses chopsticks to pick up the chicken heart and presents it to the guest. However, the guest cannot eat the whole chicken heart. He or she must share the chicken heart with the elder that presented it as a the gift. \=/
Glutinous rice cakes are customary presents given by men and women who have fallen in love and get married. It is also used as a sort of valentine for admirers to express their feelings. For instance, the Miao girls and boys of Hunan present glutinous rice cakes to each other when a mandarin duck is drawn as love tokens. At a Miao wedding the bride and groom eat glutinous rice cake in which a dragon, phoenix and Feng doll are drawn.
Miao "Walking Guests"
The Miao in the Langde village of Leishan County in Guizhou call visiting relatives "walking guests", which is called " Di'anghan" in the Miao language. There are several situations for "walking". For example: when they run into a friend by chance and see relatives at a festival, they "walk"; when they attend happy events (such as marriage, building new houses and having child), they " walk". “Walk” often means to give a present. The variety and number of presents in different situations are different. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
When married women go back to her parents' home or when there is a big festivals (mainly New Product Eating Festival and Miao New Year), guests for a feast "walk" with a chicken, a large bundle of rice, a piece of salted or fresh meat, or a carp and present them to their host. All these presents are commonly called "mixed bundle". When guests come, the host's families should not only entertain them warmly, but also invite paternal uncles and cousins and other members of the village to unwrap the " mixed bundle", and drink and feast together. Everyone enjoys “walking” presents brought by the guests, comments how good they are expresses their gratitude to the guests for coming and bringing the presents from so far away. The next day, relatives and villagers who enjoyed the "mixed bundle" invite the guests to their homes— in order of seniority, family rank and age— to enjoy thank you snacks. The guests "walk" four to five families a day, then return to the host's home for supper. On the third day, guests might visit more families and repeat the ritual. This activity is called "disturbing village". ~
When the guests leave, the host and people who shared the " mixed bundle" give presents for the guests to take back with them. After the guests leave, the hosts can't close the door until the guests are out of sight. This shows that the door is open to welcome the guests to come again. When guests go out of the village, the host leads the way and takes the main road instead of a path, which means he wishes the guests to have a pleasant trip. When honorable guest leave, paternal relatives and all the people in the village come to see him off. Women place colorful cloth strips on shoulders and necks of the guests to express good wish, and guests are expected to wear them until they reach home. ~
At they are presenting the cloth strips, the women propose toasts to guests, and sing loud and clear a "flying songs" (seeing off songs) that goes: "Guests are reluctant to leave, the feast is over, and the place is desolate. Grass if going to grow at the feast place, and grass is going to be in a jumble. It wouldn't look good when guests come, so we look forward to the returning of guests, in order that we drink together there, and let grass disappear." Then the guests sing antiphonally:" When we come to your home, we drank nine jars of wine, ate up nine pools of fish, and the feast should be over now. Today we should return home, and we reluctant to go. Guests will come to your home continuously, and grass is hard to grow here." The host and guests echo each other and part reluctantly. ~
The Miao in Langde regard wine as the most important thing when entertaining guests. When guests arrive at the gate or the village or leave the village, wine is drunk is a welcoming and departing gesture. It also drunk almost anytime and everywhere: blocking the way wine, getting into the house wine, proposing toasts, leaving wine, seeing off wine. During feasts, hosts and guests drink the “nuptial cup.” There are two ways of doing this: one is for the host and the guest ro feed wine into each other's mouths; the other is they cross their wrists and drink wine in their own cup. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Proposing toasts is usually done by women in two rounds: in the first round, toasts are offered to the host first, and then to the guests; in the second turn, the order is reversed. Sometimes, no matter who is host and who is guest, the oldest one is offers the first toast. The one who is the last to be offered should propose a toast back to express thankfulness. Two cups of wine should be drunk by one person both in the nuptial cup ritual and when proposing toasts. According to the Miao way of thinking, people walk with two feet, so they should drink two cups of wine. When offering toasts, women hold their cups in their hands and sing a toast song loudly:" We killed bull and waited for the coming of honorable guests everyday, but no one came. Today the guests come to our home by mistake. There is no good wine in jars and no fish and meat in plates. So we can only express our good will with pickled cabbage soup." The guest take the cup and answer back in song: “I have had the idea to visit relatives for long, but I'm busy with family matters and can't get free. Today I take the liberty to come here, and you entertain me warmly. Food in dishes is full, and nice wine is in jars. I'm very happy and thank nice host." The host and the guest echo each other, and the atmosphere becomes warmer and more festive.
The average Miao life span in some places in the 1970s was 35; the infant mortality rate was fifty percent. The Miao have been in the mountains for so long they easily get tropical diseases when they head into the lowlands. Eighty percent of all Miao get malaria in the lowlands if they don't take medication.
The Miao, like most hill tribes, believe that physical deformities such as withered arms and club feet are punishments for misdeeds performed by ancestors. The Miao also believe that surgery maims the body and makes it difficult for a person to be reincarnated. "If a child is born blind," a Miao man in America told the New York Times, "We don't face it. If we try to change it, someone else in the family will die and get sick."
To ease the pain of a headache, a water buffalo horn is heated by a fire and then suctioned into place at the site of the headache. Massage and magic therapy is also used. Modern medicine is valued where it is available.
Miao Healing Ceremonies
Sickness, many hill tribes believe, results when evil spirits lure the soul from the body. The Miao believe that the soul can only be taken through the front door and potential evil-spirit carriers such as pregnant women are supposed to enter through the backdoor. Wrist-tying is a custom performed by almost all the hill tribes do to keep an individual's 32 to 64 souls (depending on the tribe) within its body.
The Miao rely on shaman and female herbalist to treat sickness. During a ceremony that offers thanks to the gods for healing a sick baby, a Miao shaman known as tu-ua-neng mix rice and corn mix rice and corn liquor with herbs and folk medicine and offer it to chanting participants. The shaman then goes into frenzied trances to make deals with evil spirits in the clouds, at the bottom of a pond, in China to exorcize evil spirits from a house. Deals with the spirits are usually sealed with a pig or cow sacrifice from a rich customer and chicken sacrifice from poor one. [Source: "The Miao of Laos" by W.E. Garret, January 1974]
In another kind of healing ceremony a spider is dropped on the sick person's head. The Miao believe that a spider spirit is the most important spirit to have near one's head. Each night the spider spirit leaves the head when a person sleeps, the Miao say, and it returns when he or she wakes up. Sickness occurs if the spider's spirit leaves the body when a person is awake. To become healthy again the spider's soul is encouraged to return to the body.
For sustenance, the Miao rely heavily on agriculture and for the most part are a typical agrarian society. However, hunting also plays an important, albeit minor, role.Most Miao have traditionally been and continue to be farmers. The Miao do not produce their own pottery. Their villages generally do not have any full time craftsmen. The only jobs are that of blacksmiths, wedding go-betweens, funeral specialists and shaman.
The trading of opium for rice or cash has traditionally been the most important economic activity. Individual households sold opium to traders and representatives of organized paramilitary groups that visited at the time of the harvest. In Laos the Miao traditionally grew more opium than any other group.
Miao communities have traditionally not had regional markets and engaged in a batter economy in which iron was the media of exchange. They have traditionally relied on trade with other groups and occasionally visited lowland markets and towns to get supplies and sometimes sell silver jewelry, forest products or vegetables. Some sell silver jewelry and traditional cotton clothes to tourist shops.
The Miao are famous for their silverwork. Villages have traditionally had a silversmith and a blacksmith. The former are sometimes quite skilled. The latter was in charge of making iron farming tools and weapons. They also employed Chinese silversmiths.
The Miao are skilled blacksmiths. Iron has traditionally been values to make machetes for land clearing and flintlocks for rifles for hunting. Describing Miao blacksmiths at work, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “The path is filled with the sounds of hammers and saws and the smell of sweet smoke from small forges. The men sit together filing, grinding, and hammering, talking quietly with one anther. It was a picture of contentment and fellowship.”
Weaving: See Men and Women
Silver has traditionally been the Miao symbol of wealth. Both Miao men and women wear silver necklaces, which are often bought with money sent by relatives living abroad or earned from selling opium, silver jewelry and traditional cotton clothes. Every Miao infant receives a silver necklace at birth to warn the spirits that the baby is not a slave and belongs to a family and that the spirits could face some serious shit if the child is harmed in any way. .
Silver also serves as the Miao's banking system. Families store their wealth in women's jewelry. The rich sometimes keep their wealth in silver bars, which are buried safe keeping. Silver bars used in opium transactions are sometimes referred to as "Meo money." Attractive girls who earn large sums of money for their families as bride prices are sometimes referred to as three or four bar women.
In some places the Miao still prefer to use silver coins as currency. Many Miao are indebteded to Chinese traders.
The Miao have traditionally raised rice for food, maize for animal feed and opium as a cash crop. They also grow oranges and papayas on the lower slopes of mountains and peaches, apples, oats, potatoes, hemp, millet and buckwheat on the upper slopes.
In some places the Miao grow dry rice on mountain slopes that have been slashed and burned. In other placed they raise wet rice in irrigated terraces. The Miao plant corn in swirls rather than rows, a practice that probably was conceived as a way of accommodating the irregular shaped mountain fields. To make corn flour, the kernels are crushed with a contraption that looks like a see saw.
Miao farmers who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture have generally not had title to their land. Many don’t even have citizenship rights in the countries where they live. Traditionally, the farmer who first cleared the land had the right to cultivate it. In some places where Miao practice permanent wet rice agriculture they have land-use rights. In China, the land is owned by the state and the Miao have to pay a tax or turn over a portion of their harvest to use it.
Pigs and chickens are the primary sources of protein. Cattle, goats and water buffalo are also bred. Fodder for these animals is concocted from corn husks, banana stalks and squash. Goats and pigs are feed cooked food prepared in a wok. Some have finer cooking areas for their animals than they do for themselves.
Miao Agriculture Techniques
Rice is usually planted at the beginning of the wet season. For dry rice the forest is slashed and burned, and the rice is planted in fields fertilized by the nitrogenous ashes. In many cases the land is tilled with simple wooden hand plows or hoes. While rice fields have be left fallow after two or three years. Maize can be replanted for eight years.
Before planting Miao farmers taste the soil. If it is sweet (meaning its has a high lime content) then the soil is ideal for growing opium. During planting men march along poking holes in the soils with a dibble stick while women and children follow behind sowing seeds.
Corn and rice is largely ground by hand. In some Miao villages you can find a water-powered threshers that pounds rice with a sledgehammer-like devise. The mixture is then placed in water, the chaff rises to the top.
Miao Hunting and Fishing
Miao men have traditionally hunted wild game in the forests with flintlock muskets and crossbows and poisoned arrows.
During the Vietnam War, tribesman often used grenades for fishing. The exploding grenades, which were tossed underwater, usually didn't kill the fish but stunned them long enough so that they could be gathered up by hand. Entire villages would sometimes assembled around a river to collect the fish before they were swept away by the current. While they collected fish some tribesmen held fish in their mouth to free their hands to catch more fish.
Hmong and Opium
Chinese traders introduced opium to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia. The French as well as the English grew it as a cash crop. One forth of the money the French earned in Southeast Asia was generated from opium. The French gave poppy seeds to the Hmong in Laos, and gave them advise on how to increase their opium yields. At one point about 90 percent of the Laos's total opium output was produced by the Hmong.
The Hmong have long used opium for ritual and medicinal purposes. In the 1970s many Hmong smoked opium on occasion, but not to the point of addiction. It was regarded as acceptable for elderly people to smoke opium and pass away the end of their life in peaceful euphoria but was considered disgraceful for young people to become addicted. National Geographic recounted a story about a Hmong man who ordered his son to stop smoking. The young man tried and failed. The father then told him to kill himself. He did.
Opium and corn are often grown together. Opium is planted in September or October and harvested after the New Year. Corn is planted in May or June and harvested in August or September before opium is planted. Some have argued that the degradation of the soil by slash and burn agriculture and Hmong indebtedness to Chinese traders forces many Hmong to grow opium, which grows well in poor soils and provides the biggest profits.
Opium toleration policies in Thailand have ended. There the Hmong and other groups have been encouraged to grow alternative cash crops.
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