The Miao ethnic minority
The majority of the 7,000,000 Miaos inhabit Guizhou Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Most of them live in tightly-knit communities, with a few living in areas inhabited by several other ethnic groups.
Much of the Miao area is hilly or mountainous, and is drained by several big rivers. The weather is mild with a generous rainfall, and the area is rich in natural resources. Major crops include paddy rice, maize, potatoes, Chinese sorghum, beans, rape, peanuts, tobacco, ramie, sugar cane, cotton, oil-tea camellia and tung tree.
As early as the Qin and Han dynasties , the ancestors of the Miao people lived in the western part of present-day Hunan and the eastern part of present-day Guizhou. In the third century A.D., the ancestors of the Miaos went west to present-day northwest Guizhou and south Sichuan along the Wujiang River. In the fifth century, some Miao groups moved to east Sichuan and west Guizhou. In the ninth century, some were taken to Yunnan as captives. In the 16th century, some Miaos settled on Hainan Island. As a result of these large-scale migrations over many centuries the Miaos became widely dispersed.
Such a wide distribution and the influence of different environments has resulted in marked differences in dialect, names and clothes. Some Miao people from different areas have great difficulty in communicating with each other. Their art and festivals also differ between areas.
The Miao language belongs to the Miao-Yao branch of the Chinese-Tibetan language family. It has three main dialects in China. Due to their centuries of contacts with the Hans, many Miaos can also speak Chinese.
Their clothing has distinctive features which vary from place to place. In northwest Guizhou and northeast Yunnan, Miao men usually wear linen jackets with colorful designs, and drape woolen blankets with geometric patterns over their shoulders. In other areas, men wear short jackets buttoned down the front or to the left, long trousers with wide belts and long black scarves. In winter, men usually wear extra cloth leggings known as puttees. Women's clothing varies even from village to village. In west Hunan and northeast Guizhou, women wear jackets buttoned on the right and trousers, with decorations embroidered on collars, sleeves and trouser legs. In other areas, women wear high-collared short jackets and full- or half-length pleated skirts. They also wear various kinds of silver jewelry on festive occasions.
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.
Because timber resources are plentiful in most Miao areas, houses are usually built of wood. 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.
The typical Miao family is small and monogamous. 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.
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.
Different Miao communities celebrate different festivals. In southeast Guizhou and Rongshui County in Guangxi, the Miao New Year festival is celebrated on "Rabbit Day" or "Ox Day" on the lunar calendar. The festivities include beating drums, dancing to the music of a lusheng (a wind instrument), horse racing and bull-fighting. In counties near Guiyang, people dressed in their holiday best gather at the city's largest fountain on April 8 of the lunar year to play lusheng and flute and sing of the legendary hero, Yanu.
In many areas, the Miaos have Dragon Boat festivals and Flower Mountain festivals (May 5), Tasting New Rice festivals (between June and July), Pure Brightness festivals and the Beginning of Autumn festival.
The Miaos used to believe in many gods, and some of their superstitious rituals were very expensive. In west Hunan and northeast Guizhou, for instance, prayers for children or for the cure of an illness were accompanied by the slaughter of two grown oxen as sacrifices. Feasts would then be held for all the relatives for three to five days.