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.
Miao are regarded as friendly, generous people. They always keep their house open for guests and greet them with wine and song. Guests are greeted outdoors. Then they are invited to drink, eat, and sing. 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 of witchcraft and the power of men over women and fathers over sons are also used to exert social control.
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia article ; Photos marlamallett.com Miao Language omniglot.com ; Book Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; Paul Noll site: paulnoll.com ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984; “Weavers of Ethnic Culture: The Miaos” by Gu Wenfeng (Yunnan education publishing house, China, 1995)
Marriages are usually monogamous and require parental consent but unmarried young men and women generally have the freedom to court and choose their partners. Some marriages are arranged by parents. 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. In some areas, there is delayed transfer of the bride until after the birth of her first child, or the practice of starting out with residence with the bride's family. Divorce and remarriages are permitted.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Norma Diamond wrote: In the absence of parental consent, elopement was an alternative. Festivals and trips to periodic markets still provide an opportunity for young people to meet, engage in antiphonal singing and dancing, and establish new friendships. Since the 1950s, travel restrictions and state disapproval of premarital sexual behavior has increased the parental role in marriage arrangement. [Source: Norma Diamond, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
In many places, Miao boys and girls can date from the age of thirteen or fourteen. In some districts, girls begin dating at twelve. Prospective couples often begin their relationship by playing courtship games, dancing and singing antiphonal songs during the Miao New Year festival. There are some regional variations. George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “Miaos in the Liupanshui region of Guizhou have an annual love festival known as the Tiaohuapo or “dance on the flowery meadow.” About forty thousand people attend this festival, some as spectators. But for unmarried young men and women, it is the chance to meet others and to flirt and “seduce” — through music, song, dance, smiles, and furtive glances — members of the opposite sex with a view to finding a marriage partner. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]
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" ("youfang", "yaomalang", "zuomei", "visiting villages", "meeting girls", "tianyue", "zuoyue,", "caiyueliang", wanbiao", and "stepping the moon" depending on the place). Singing love songs in an antiphonal style is a hallmark of the tradtion. Group dating is held on many occasions, such as the Sisters' Feast Festival in February or March, when the girls of a village are courted for about three days by young men. Parents prepare meals that their daughters offer to the boys. Each girl offers food to the boy of her choice, who sings for his meal. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ~]
“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 Families, Women 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 |]
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, including the heavy work like plowing. Many Miao men don't do much except sit around the village and get drunk. 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.
From a young age, children help with chores and become engaged in village life. Literacy rates have traditionally been low because many children didn’t go to school. Instead, young boys were taught to hunt and learned local custom by attending ceremonies and rituals. Girls were taught weaving, singing and other skills from their mothers. Children learned subsistence agriculture skills by working in the fields at a relatively young age. Girls in particular were plucked out of school early or didn't go at all. In decades past as many as 95 percent of Miao women could not read or write.
Among the Miao, a sturdy stone represents a strong child. When a child is three years old, parents offer gifts to a huge stone, bowing, burning joss sticks and praying for protection. This rite is repeated three times a year. If the child is has health problems, the parents pray at a large tree or cavern instead of a large stone.
The Miao have traditionally lived in villages located at 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) to 2000 meters (6,560 fee0t, 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.
Norma Diamond wrote: At higher elevations, as on the plateau straddling Guizhou and Yunnan, settlements are rarely larger than twenty households. An average village in central Guizhou might have 35 or 40 households, while in Qiandongnan villages of 80 to 130 families are common, and a few settlements have close to 1,000 households. Villages are compact, with some cleared space in front of the houses, and footpaths. Many settlements are marked by a grove of trees, where religious ceremonies are held. [Source: Norma Diamond, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
Upper class house 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 ~]
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 Miao live in houses one or two stories high. The back of the house is built on the mountain slope and the front rests on stilts. 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. Families that can afford it have metal or tile roofs. Grain is stored in the ceiling. The first floor of two-story houses is for the livestock and poultry. The poorest of the poor build their houses entirely from split bamboo and matting.
In some places houses are raised off the ground, and there is an additional sleeping and storage loft under the roof. Windows were largely unknown in many places until the 1990s. Animals are usually kept in outbuildings; in the past they were sheltered under the raised house or kept inside. According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life": There are three to five rooms in the living quarters. Sons and daughters live separately and infants live with their parents. Furniture includes a bed, cupboard, table, and stool, all made of wood. There are big bamboo baskets for storing food and clay pots for water and wine. The living conditions of the Miao in urban areas are like those of their neighbors of other ethnic groups. [Source:C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]
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 ]
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 ~]
"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 and Drink
Rice, the staple of the Miao diet, is supplemented with bread made from corn. Miao like spicy, vinegar-pepper food as well as dishes with sour flavorings. They eat stir fried dishes prepared in a wok and cook yams, millet, corn, wheat, buckwheat, and sorghum, in a rice steamer. Sticky rice is eaten on holidays. They like to eat pumpkin vines stir fried with fish sauce, lemon grass and chilies while the pumpkins are given to pigs to eat. Their diet is mainly vegetables. However, they also eat poultry, eggs, beef, veal, pork, frogs, fish, snails, eels, snakes, crabs, and shrimp. Wine is made at home with rice.
Miao like wine and drink bitter green tea out of fine china cups. 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.
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 |]
According to the “Human Use of Insects as a Food Resource: A study that will not sound too appealing to many Westerners is on the presumed health benefits of Chongcha, a special tea made from the feces of Hydrillodes morosa (a noctuid moth larva) and Aglossa dimidiata (a pyralid moth larva). The former eats mainly the leaves of Platycarya stobilacea, the latter the leaves of Malus seiboldii. Chongcha is black in color, freshly fragrant, and has been used for a long time in the mountain areas of Guangxi, Fujian and Guizhou by the Zhuang, Dong and Miao nationalities. It is taken to prevent heat stroke, counteract various poisons, and to aid digestion, as well as being considered helpful in alleviating cases of diarrhea, nosebleed and bleeding hemorroids. Whatever the extent of its preventive or curative benefits, Chongcha apparently serves as a good “cooling beverage" having a higher nutritive value than regular tea. [Source:“Human Use of Insects as a Food Resource”, Professor Gene R. De Foliart (1925-2013), Department of Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002 ==]
Miao Eating Customs
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 \=/]
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 ~]
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 ~]
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.
Divination and exorcism of ghosts and evil spirits have traditionally been part of healing. In addition to shaman's extensive knowledge, ordinary persons also have some knowledge of plants and other materials that have healing properties. The Chinese have claimed that Miao women engage in a form of magical poisoning call gu, but all evidence suggests this is a Han myth. [Source: Norma Diamond, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
The Miao used the word fan as a traditional medical term to describe illnesses and ailments. Altogether, there are at least forty-nine so-called fan such as the wu-ya-fan (raven illness), pai-yen-fan (white-eye illness), ma-yi-fan (ant illness), ma-fan (horse illness), and kuei-fan (turtle illness). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw, “Illustrated Miao Medical Textbook of Fan Illnesses” “Anonymous, 1903 edition]
In the book “Illustrated Miao Medical Textbook of Fan Illnesses” an illustration of a human figure accompanies the description of the fan illness and / or its symptoms. In the section concerning the mi-feng-fan (honeybee illness), there is an illustration of a honeybee on the upper right corner of page. On the lower right corner is a human figure with the symptoms of the illness. Written in the center of the page is the description of this particular illness: continuous coughing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, purple boils on the tongue. Not only are the symptoms described, but the illustrated text also includes a cure: Cure the mi-feng-fan illness by pricking the purple boils with a needle.The book also includes symptoms and cures for at least nineteen other fan involving post-natal illness, long-term frostbite, contagious skin diseases, etc. It can be said that this book is a unique illustrated medical textbook of the Miao culture.
Chen Xiaoming (1990)(The Research Institute of Insect Resources) noted that there are many edible insects in Yunnan Province and that many minority nationalities use them as food and for medicinal purposes. Among the insects often eaten are a species of ant; locusts of the genera Oxya and Locusta; pupae of the silkworm, Bombyx mori; the termite, Coptotermes formosanus (Rhinotermitidae); larvae and pupae of five species of bees and wasps among the Apidae, Vespidae and Scoliidae; the moth larva, Hepialus armoricanus (Hepialidae); the bug Tessaratoma papillosa (Pentatomidae); and the weevil larva, Cyrtotruchelus longimanus (Curculionidae). [Source: “Human Use of Insects as a Food Resource”, Professor Gene R. De Foliart (1925-2013), Department of Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002 ==]
In addition to studies on the folk edible insects of Yunnan, there is a study of Macrotermes barnyi as a health food. The queen termites are steeped in alcohol as a beverage rich in vitamins A and C among other micronutrients of benefit to health. A study that will not sound too appealing to many Westerners is on the presumed health benefits of Chongcha, a special tea made from the feces of Hydrillodes morosa (a noctuid moth larva) and Aglossa dimidiata (a pyralid moth larva). The former eats mainly the leaves of Platycarya stobilacea, the latter the leaves of Malus seiboldii. Chongcha is black in color, freshly fragrant, and has been used for a long time in the mountain areas of Guangxi, Fujian and Guizhou by the Zhuang, Dong and Miao nationalities. It is taken to prevent heat stroke, counteract various poisons, and to aid digestion, as well as being considered helpful in alleviating cases of diarrhea, nosebleed and bleeding hemorroids. Whatever the extent of its preventive or curative benefits, Chongcha apparently serves as a good "cooling beverage" having a higher nutritive value than regular tea. ==
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. Many Miao are indebteded to Chinese traders.
The trading of opium for rice or cash has traditionally been the most important economic activity. 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.
Norma Diamond wrote in the 1990s: No Miao communities are self-sufficient. All depend on the market for pottery, salt, processed foods, and various daily necessities. In Guizhou there is great demand for silver for making jewelry. What the Miao have to sell varies greatly by area. The Hua Miao market wool, hides, sheep and goats, wild game, firewood, and a variety of forest products. The Cowrie Shell Miao market agricultural produce, poultry and pigs, bamboo shoots, and home-crafted grass raincoats and sandals. Different areas have their specialties, such as cattle, horses, bamboo baskets, and herbal medicines. Before 1949, some Miao sold opium, but more often poppy growing and production of raw opium was the required rent for cropland and the profits went to the landlord and middlemen. Very few Miao were full-time merchants or traders. [Source: Norma Diamond, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
Prior to the 1950s land reform, some Miao were smallholders. Many, if not most, were tenants on lands owned by Han, Yi, Hui, and others. Few were true landlords, and most who rented out land were likely to work part of their holdings themselves with family labor. All land is now owned by the state, including undeveloped mountain and forest lands, thus limiting any expansion beyond lands officially assigned to an individual or village.
Mao Silvermaking and Blacksmithing
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 employ Chinese silversmiths. 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.”
Hongxi is a town in Guizhou with a 100-year silvermaking tradition. Families there have been making silver for three generation or more and its 2,000 residents are divided among farmers and silver crafters. The BBC reported: Peiyua Wu was born in Hongxi. Like many silversmiths from the village, he moved to the nearby city of Kaili to open a shop. You don’t have to look closely to notice most of the faces in Hongxi are wrinkled. Only very young children and the elderly inhabit the village. The tradition of silver making has deep roots in Miao culture, but what will happen when the roots spread too far from the tree? [Source: Runze Yu, BBC, October 13, 2017]
In the village, the Wu family used to produce their silver jewellery at home and sell it at a local market once a week. Peiyuan melted and shaped the silver, while his wife Zilan washed and dried newly made pieces. Now their shop is in Kaili’s covered market, surrounded by 50 other vendors, many of them also from Hongxi. Although their location has changed, the couple continues to work together to produce intricate pieces. Moving to the city has increased many villagers’ earning potential, which means they can afford more silver.
Miao Wealth, Silver and Marriage
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. In some places the Miao still prefer to use silver coins as currency.
Miao women often wear heavy and elaborate silver headdresses and jewellery during weddings, funerals and the annual Sister’s Meal Festival, a springtime celebration when couples publicly profess their love. Many families believe their daughters cannot get married if they don’t own a proper silver outfit, and start saving up to 10 years before the ceremony. When Guanghui Wu got married she carried 10 kilograms of silver on her head and shoulders. “You can tell a family’s wealth from the silver she is wearing,” told the BBC. [Source: Runze Yu, BBC, October 13, 2017]
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.
Miao Agriculture and Hunting
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 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.
Miao men have traditionally hunted wild game in the forests with flintlock muskets and crossbows and poisoned arrows.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. 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.
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.
Agricultural and subsistence strategies traditionally varied. Norma Diamond wrote: The Hua Miao were shifting-swidden farmers, growing buckwheat, oats, corn, potatoes, and hemp, and using a simple wooden hand plow or hoe. Sheep and goats were fed on nearby pasture land. Additionally the Hua Miao hunted with crossbow and poisoned arrows and gathered foodstuffs in the forests. In parts of Guizhou, the Miao more closely resembled their Han neighbors in their economic strategies as well as in their technology (the bullock-drawn plow, harrowing, use of animal and human wastes as fertilizer). The Cowrie Shell Miao in central Guizhou were settled farmers growing rice in flooded fields, and also raising millet, wheat, beans, vegetables, and tobacco. Their livestock was limited to barnyard pigs and poultry, with hunting and gathering playing a very minor role. Some of the Black Miao in southeast Guizhou combine intensive irrigated terrace farming of rice with dry-field upland cropping. [Source: Norma Diamond, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
Miao and the Modern World
Many Miao young people migrate from their villages to cities and coastal areas in search of a better life and to escape poverty and isolation in their homes. If they return, they can bring new knowledge and skills back to their home-towns but many don't, depriving their villages of labor, talents and skills needed to help the villages survive and prosper.
Runze Yu wrote for the BBC: Wu was six years old when she left Hongxi, but the family still owns a house in the village and loves to spend time there. Few young people want to return to the farms where their ancestors have been practicing terrace agriculture for generations. As more young people migrate to cities, traditional skills like Miao embroidery and silver making are lost. [Source: Runze Yu, BBC, October 13, 2017]
Most kids are born and live in the cities. The parents no longer use Miao language to communicate with their kids. Therefore, the language is slowly dying. I […] want my son to learn the language and keep our culture and tradition alive,” Wu said.
Now 29, Wu works as a nurse in a hospital in Kaili. Although detached from her village from a young age, Wu is proud of her heritage and of her family’s story: her parents got married with 1kg of silver on them, while she got to wear 10kg. She and her husband Shikun Yang plan to pass their people’s unique culture on to their children. Although in the past, the Miao were incentivised to assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture, there has been recent interest in reviving their rich cultural traditions. As outside appreciation for the beauty of traditional Miao crafts grows, the tourism industry is steadily increasing.
Image Sources: Nolls China website, 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 *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, BBC and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated October 2022