Miao Ethinic Group - History & Culture
In 2019 we once again traveled to China’s Guizhou Province to visit with the people of the Miao ethnic group. Our guide, Li Mao Qing of Tribal Tours of China would be our guide for the next six days. We met at the High-Speed Train station in Sanduxian, China.
The Miao are a culturally rich ethnic minority that lives primarily in southern China, Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and Thailand. Originally from China, the Miao are animists and ancestor worshipers and have traditionally lived in mountain villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet level. According to Miao history they lived along the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys as early as 5,000 years ago. Later they migrated to the forests and mountains of southwest China.
From their earliest days, the Miao practiced primitive farming using slash-and-burn methods. Families never lived in the same house for more than five years. As the soil in one area became depleted, they would move away. The Miao became known for always being on the move. However, most of the Miao have settled down since the middle of the twentieth century.
The term Miao is actually of Chinese origin. They are known in Southeast Asia as the Hmong (roughly pronounced mung). Hmong means "free men." Miao means weeds” or ‘sprouts." Miao subgroups---Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Cowrie Shell Miao, Flowery Miao, Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao)---are in most cases named after the woman's dress.
The Miao are one of the largest minorities in China. They are widely distributed over Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan provinces, with a small number living on Hainan Island and in Guangdong Province and in southwest Hubei Province. Most of them live in tightly-knit communities, with a few living in areas inhabited by several other ethnic groups. The main Miao settlements are in the Southeastern Guizhou.
Our first stop would be to a traditional Black Miao village to visit the Lusheng workshop of Mr. Hvang Hnong Shi. The Lusheng (芦笙) is a wooden reed instrument made of bamboo played by various minorities in China and neighboring countries, such as the Dong, Gelo, Lahu, Miao (Hmong) and Shui. It usually has six pipes arranged in two rows of three, ranging in size to instruments with pipes of up to four meters in length. The pipes are closed near the lower end. Often the upper ends of the pipes have additional resonators added to them and in some cases one of the pipes might be fitted with multiple reeds to emphasize a particular note.
The lusheng is most commonly used to provide the music for festivals, funerals, and shamanic rituals, sometimes with large ensembles of differently sized lusheng playing in unison. Amongst the Miao (Hmong) people, the lusheng (known in the Hmong language as gaeng or qeej) is both a vitally important cultural emblem and a means of communicating with the spirit world.
I was there top watch him work as well as to pick up my own handmade Lusheng which I would take back to America. While we were there we also met three young men who were sent by their village to learn to play the Lusheng under Mr. Hvang Hnong Shi's tutelage.
Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.Anthony Bourdain
The Miao are famous for their traditional costumes and wonderful embroidery. Women wear black tunics and pleated skirts, or calf-length black trousers with short black skirts, or maroon or colored jacket or shirt with a colorful vest along with distinctive headdresses strung with silver ornament.
In fact most Miao groups derive their name from the attire of their womenfolk.