Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Refuge in Yunnan: the Tragic History of the Miao

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Miao in the Laomeng market,Jinping County
       Besides the creation of the universe and origins of the gods, Chinese mythology also narrates battles among the gods themselves over control of heaven and earth.  These culminated in the final victory of the Yellow Emperor over his challenger Chi You, a demon deity with a bovine bronze head, four eyes, six arms and a human body.  The long and tumultuous final battle took place at Zhuolou, near the present provincial border between Hebei and Liaoning.
       Both sides had allies.  The Yellow Emperor’s support came from gods and ghosts, bears, leopards, jackals and tigers.  Chi You had his brothers, demons and devils and the Miao.  The Yellow Emperor prevailed and killed Chi You and most of his army, including the Miao warriors.  It was also a territorial victory, for now the Yellow Emperor’s people, the Han, would occupy the lower Yellow River Plain and make it their heartland, pushing the Miao further south.
Miao girl in Mengzi
older Miao woman in the Mengzi market
       Chinese used the term Miao back then, and for many centuries afterwards, to identify any people who lived south of them who were not Han.  Even today ethnologists and some of the sub-groups themselves dispute the classification as Miao all the different people who have been grouped as such, making the, China’s fifth largest ethnic minority.  Yet Chi You is part of Miao mythology, though as a sagacious king and not, as the Chinese would have it, an oppressive monster.  And he’s still revered as a war god by both Han and Miao.
Miao women at the Duoyi River
Nevertheless, the myth establishes that animosity between Han and Miao dates back to ancient times.  Under successive dynasties the Han continued to expand south, constantly confronting indigenous Miao and other peoples in the way of new settlements.  Because they consistently clung to their own culture and traditions and did not adopt Chinese ways, the Chinese considered them uncivilized barbarians and felt no compunction about evicting them.
       Throughout the Song and Ming Dynasties the same scenario played out repeatedly in the central provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.  Han migrants would encroach on Miao land.  The Miao would drive them out and repulse local military attacks.  But then the Han government would send in a much bigger force that eventually defeated the Miao and forced them to abandon the area.  Some moved out of the region entirely, all the way to western Sichuan and northern Guangxi.
Miao girl embroidering at Haizibian, Wenshan
Miao woman gathering edibles in Haizibian Lake
       The Miao were never a nation, nor ever tried to become one.  Authority lay with each clan chief, not with an overall sovereign.  Yet out of the dreary pattern of encroachment, revolt, repression and expulsion, a new Miao myth developed—the Miao King.  Heaven would send him and he would be recognized by certain signs and powers, unite all the Miao clans around, drive out the Han and reestablish the old order.
Miao house in Haizibian, with the loom on the upper floor
       This pattern continued under the Qing Dynasty, especially in Guizhou in the 18th century.   Always successful initially, for the Miao were defending their own territory, not seeking to expand it, in the end they always lost.  In this period, some migrated out of the region altogether, to northern Vietnam and Laos or faraway Yunnan.
       While they were no longer subject to periodic Han land grabs, the Miao experience in Yunnan varied depending upon where they settled.  Northeast Yunnan is heavily Han-dominated, though the Han government turned over administration of the hill areas, and tax collection, to nobles of the Yi ethnic minority.  The Miao of Zhaotong Prefecture suffered more under the Yi than they had under Han officials in Guizhou or Hunan.  Besides taxes and forced labor, they were also conscripted to serve as soldiers in the Yi nobles’ incessant feuds with each other.
Miao woman prepares herself for market day in Tongchang
Miao woman on the way to Tongchang
       By the late 19th century they were on the verge of revolt, only awaiting the emergence of a charismatic figure to proclaim he was the new Miao King.  But the situation was different this time, for the Qing Dynasty was in terminal decline, forced into granting concessions to Western powers, one of which was the right of foreign missionaries to proselytize in the country.  Among its many assignments, the China Inland Mission dispatched Samuel Pollard and James R. Adam to Zhaotong, who concentrated their preaching among the downtrodden Miao.  Pollard even devised a script for the Miao language.
Miao village near Tongchang, Jinping County
       The Miao took special interest in the story of Christ, identifying emotionally with the tortures of the crucifixion, so like those inflicted on them by the landlords and bureaucrats.  Attendance at the sermons mushroomed.  Mass conversions soon followed as whole villages enlisted in the new religion.  At the same time they awaited the Miao King, so obviously predicted in the missionaries' story of the Second Coming.  Some even conjectured that Pollard himself was the Miao King. 
       Meanwhile the Miao coming into town in such massive numbers aroused the suspicions of both Yi and Han. A campaign of repression of the Christian Miao commenced, burning villages, seizing property, beating, torturing and imprisoning them.  Yet the more severe the persecution the more the Christian movement spread.  It was not long before virtually all the Miao of Zhaotong Prefecture had embraced Christianity.  The movement even spread to the Miao in Wuding and Luquan Counties, north of Kunming, under the stewardship of Arthur Nichols of China Inland Mission.
Miao women in Mrngla for market day
Miao in Mrngla, Jinping County
       Just as the situation reached the boiling point in late 1904, Pollard intervened.  He persuaded the magistrates to issue proclamations protecting the Christians. Things simmered down for a while but the landlords launched a fresh campaign in 1906-7.  Again the missionaries obtained proclamations from the magistrates, this time sent directly to the Yi lords.  Pollard and Adam themselves visited the lords to urge their compliance.
twisting hemp thread while in the market
       Han officials resented the foreigners' interference and talked openly of expelling them.  When Pollard found out he threatened them with reports to their superiors, a threat that implied their dismissal.  The local officials at once backed down and even promised to take no action against the Christians.  Hostilities continued off-and-on for the next several years.  But gradually some of the Yi also became Christians, while the millenarian aspects of Miao Christianity faded, as did expectations of the Miao King's imminence.  Yet the missionaries' prestige was so high the Miao remained faithful adherents of the new religion.
       Elsewhere in Yunnan, migrant Miao met with a different experience.  Most moved into Honghe and Wenshan Prefectures, in counties where the Han were not so numerous, which were already densely settled by other ethnic minorities like the Hani, Yao, Dai, Buyi, Zhuang and other Yi.  Neither the Han nor any single ethnic minority dominated the area as in the northeast.  Miao culture was not under stress and missionaries had little or no impact.
Miao on the road to Laomeng
selling firewood in Jinshuihe, Jinping County
       Much of this part of Yunnan had been occupied for many centuries before the Miao arrived.  For the most part they had to make do with the narrowest valleys and stony soil--lands nobody else wanted.  A diligent, practical and adaptable people, they managed to eke out a living in such environments, raising corn, millet, sugarcane, vegetables and hemp.  And where they could settle on more fertile lands they became expert agro-engineers, creating extensive terracing for growing rice, as in Pingbian and Jinping Counties in Yunnan and around Sapa in northern Vietnam.
       With a history of resisting or fleeing forced assimilation, the Miao were shyer and more reclusive then their neighbors, rarely marrying out of their own sub-groups, and tenacious about preserving their culture and identity.  Though in recent decades they have become more involved with the society around them, and no longer face aggressive designs on their lands, this remains a chief Miao characteristic, exemplified by the almost universal preference of the women for their traditional clothing.
Miao leg wrappers
For most Miao sub-groups in Honghe or Wenshan the most striking component is the bulky, pleated, indigo batik skirt, appliquéd with lavish embroidery.  The colors and batik patterns may differ from one sub-group to another, and one group wears plain pleated white skirts, but the shape is the same and no other ethnic group wears a similar skirt.  Some don a plain black jacket, but for most the rest of the outfit is also heavily embroidered and includes leg-wrappers, a wide belt, apron, jacket and some kind of headgear. 
       Perhaps one reason Miao women are so attached to their traditional costumes is the great amount of time and effort expended to produce them.  The process begins with the cultivation of the hemp plant, the dried stalks of which can be turned into thread, but only after a long, laborious process.  The women strip off the skins of the stalks and tear them into thin strips.  Then they bundle and beat them until all foreign matter is removed and start twining them into something resembling thread, a common spare time activity at home, walking to the fields or sitting around a market stall.  That done, the next step is to wind them onto the spinning wheel and further twist the threads.
       Following that, loops of spun thread get bleached by repeatedly boiling in water and lime.   Then women mount the thread on a large winding frame to prepare the warp threads to put on the loom.  Now it’s ready to be woven into a strip of cloth, usually 30-40 cm wide.  After that they lay out the cloth on a table to begin the batik process, a form of resist dyeing, by applying beeswax in complicated patterns, dyeing with indigo and removing the wax.  The patterns appear in white.  The final step is to cut the cloth into appropriate lengths for a skirt, stitch narrow folds together while it is wet and after it is dry, remove the stitches for permanent pleats.
festival dance for Trekking the FloweryMountain
       It’s still not ready to wear.  Women add narrow bands of heavily embroidered cloth to the sides and hems of the skirt, obliterating much of the batik designs.  They also add these bands to the jacket, belt, apron, cap and leg-wrappers.  Drawing on a vast repertoire of traditional cross-stitch patterns they may also create new ones, for it is in these details that individualism comes into play.  Young women spend much time improving their embroidering skills, for they are highly regarded in Miao society.  Cultivation of this art requires certain character traits—diligence, a sense of beauty, attention to detail, skill with the hands—that are desirable in a prospective wife and mother.
       Traditionally Miao youth were free to socialize and engage in romance, though parents arranged their weddings.  Should romance blossom into love the couple sought parental approval, but if they didn’t get it they might take the option of elopement and make a new home for themselves somewhere far away, alone or joining another couple or two who also eloped.
       Courtship was usually a group affair in the beginning stage, especially at big public events, though it could also occur spontaneously in the fields or at a rest stop on the way back from a market.  Antiphonal singing was a favorite method, groups responding to the songs of each other.  It was common at the festivals, particularly the event called Trekking the Flowery Mountain, celebrated by several villages together, held in southern Yunnan the 3rd to 5th days of the first lunar month, honoring a pair of mythical lovers.
the Flower Pole for the festival
Miao girl dressed up for the festival
       For this event villagers select the bravest boy and most beautiful girl and erect a tall Flower Pole at the festival site. The girl presents the boy with a ball of red silk and a reed pipe.  He must climb the pole and deposit them at the top.  After descending to the ground he returns to inform the girl of his success, holding a flowery umbrella.  The crowd encourages them to get closer until in the end he retreats with her behind the umbrella.  The crowd cheers, hoping that true love sprouts behind that umbrella.  If the couple does fall in love and wed, that will be a happy marriage and bring good luck to the village.  On selecting the couple in the first place the villagers collectively play the role of matchmaking parents.  So if love indeed is the result of their selection, it is seen as a tribute to their collective wisdom.
       Besides various rituals performed by the elders, the festival features song and dance shows, the music of lutes, flutes and reed pipes and antiphonal singing.  Girls begin with a common folk song.  Boys respond with the next stanza.  Eventually they will invent new stanzas expressing their feelings and compete to come up with imaginative lyrics.  The older folks improvise lyrics within a set rhyme scheme and sing about nature, agriculture, Miao history and legends, also in a call-and-response style, which becomes a test of traditional knowledge.
       Many romances might result from this.  But more important to the participants, the festival is a celebration of being Miao, of being a people whose traditions and culture have persisted, despite tragedies and displacements, ever since the time of the Yellow Emperor.

festival participants, Trekking the Flowery Mountain
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for more on the Miao, see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Delta Tours Vietnam organizes trips through Miao territory in Honghe Prefecture.  See the itinerary at

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