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The Miao ethnic group has about 9.5 million members in China. They live among related ethnic groups in south China in picturesque rural mountainous areas.
The women are noted for donning copious silver alloy jewelry on special occasions. The Miao are also noted historically for being fierce fighters and independent, and for their craftsmanship.
Tourists like to visit their beautiful terraced fields and tribal villages and to experience their ethnic culture.
The Miao ethnic minority group population has grown extensively in South China in Guizhou and surrounding provinces (Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, and Hainan).
They also live in surrounding SE Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Miao people are also scattered all over the world. About 260,000 of the Miao diaspora live in the US.
Guizhou Province is often referred to as the Miao homeland because almost half of the Miao in China, over 4 million people, live in the province. Southeastern Guizhou Dong and Miao Autonomous Prefecture is a major Miao population base. The Miao population accounts for over 25 percent of the people living in the southeastern Guizhou region (Qiandongnan). Tai County is 97% Miao.
The majority of the Miao people live in mountainous areas far from cities. They also prefer to live with their own people instead of with other ethnicities. However, other ethnic people such as the a Yao and the Zhuang live near and often among them.
The Miao ancestral legends and also the Han origin legends and ancient written histories describe that the ancestors of the Miao originally lived east of Beijing. They fought a war against the Huaxia tribe and lost, and so migrated to the south and southwest. The Han dating times this war at about 2500 BC.
Starting from the rise of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Miao and Yao people in an area around Hunan and Hubei fought successive wars against Ming armies. They lost, and many moved on to their present area in the southwest around Guizhou and Yunnan.
A part of them moved further south into Vietnam where they are known as the Hmong. In the 1970s and 1980s, some were given the chance to migrate to France and the United States.
Dining: In Xijiang Miao Village, they have an unusual method of dining. Hundreds of people sit at long lines of tables. It is called the long-table banquet. It is the most important kind of banquet of the Miao people. In recent years, it has also become a window for tourists to experience local customs and to feast like gourmets.
Special dishes: Miao king fish (green pepper and fresh fish), sour-soup fish, chicken, pickled fish and pickled meat are notable.
A common Miao broth is oil tea (油茶 youcha /yoh-chaa/) that is made by sautéing tea leaves and perhaps rice in oil and then brewing with ginseng or ginger. The soup becomes more nutritious when salt, chili powder, rice, peanuts or fried beans are added.
Silver jewelry and clothing: For special occasions and festivals, Miao women don shiny silver alloy accessories such as hats, vests, hair pins, beads and plaits. The also sew silver sequins on their clothes. The alloy is of copper, nickel and other metals such as cobalt. It might only have a 2% silver content, so it isn't as costly as it looks.
The Miao people are great observers of etiquette. They are also very hospitable and pay respect to their guests. When people visit their homes, families will often kill a chicken to provide poultry for their guests to eat. They also try their best to entertain guests.
Those who have come from far-off places are given a special drink called horn spirit. This is an alcoholic drink served to pay respect to guests.
The poultry ceremony is also a common custom in Miao households. A chicken head is given to the senior member attending the celebration. The leg is given to the youngest person attending.
Another common custom is the sharing of a poultry heart. Either a duck or chicken is killed, and its heart is presented to the guest. The senior member of the household presents the heart using a chopstick. The person carefully picks up the heart and presents it to their guest. In return, the guest must share the heart with the person who presented it to them.
People who cannot tolerate alcoholic drinks and fatty meat can excuse themselves from this undertaking. The host will not look down on their request. This is much better than eating too much. Over-eating is regarded as a great insult to a Miao host.
The marriage customs of the Miao are unique. Couples eat rice cakes when they start to want to marry, and Miao boys and girls exchange rice cakes to show their affection. Mandarin ducks are another token of their love.
They practice romantic love to attract partners by singing songs. On the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, young men and women dress up and gather together on the hills or along the rivers and sing songs to woo their love.
Weddings: When a couple marries, relatives and friends of the bride come to the bridegroom’s home and celebrate a banquet for 3 days. The wedding ceremony involves eating glutinous rice cakes decorated with dragons and phoenixes. Couples drink from a horn cup (jiao bei). This is done by crossing their wrists (linking drinking arms) and drinking from their own cups.
Traditional years of separation: During the wedding days, the couple can not sleep together. Even in the following 3 years, the couple can’t live together. After 3 years, when the bride is pregnant, the couple can finally live together.
Those who are interested in learning more about Miao marriage ceremonies can visit the Guizhou Museum of Marriage Customs of Ethnic Minorities.
Traditional Miao houses are in general similar to Zhuang and Yao houses. In Xijiang Miao Village, the buildings are called ‘stilted buildings.’ Since they are built on steep hillsides, they differ from ordinary Miao houses in that one side of the main building is built on the ground and the other three sides are supported by pillars.
The buildings are reached by staircases built on the mountainsides. When the sky grows dark, the lights in the houses make it seem like the whole mountain has been lit up.
The Lusheng Festival is celebrated from the 16th to the 20th day of the first lunar month (February or early March) in the Kaili area of Guizhou province. This is considered to be the most influential Miao festival because it is very popular in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces.
The festival features a lot of Miao ethnic activities such as singing, bullfighting, horse racing, and dancing to the rhythm of the lusheng music. If you plan to visit Guizhou in March, you can experience the Lusheng Festival in Zhouxi Town.
Traditional music can also be enjoyed all throughout a stay with the Miao. The Lusheng is a traditional instrument, and many Miao people are excellent Lusheng players, and they are often happy to serenade tourists. Tourist enjoy great music and lots of dancing during festive gatherings.
The Sisters’ Meal Festival is another favorite among the Miao in Taijiang and Jianhe counties. This is similar to Valentine’s Day. It is celebrated from the 16th to the 18th of the third month of the lunar calendar (usually in April).
The Miao people celebrate their own New Year's Day. It falls during the tenth month of the lunar calendar (late October or November). This is the most important festival for the Miao ethnic group. It symbolizes the start of something new and fruitful. However, the holiday does not have an exact date. The date of New Year's Day is only revealed two months prior to the celebration.
The New Year Festival is very popular among the Miao people. Miao women and girls dress up in traditional costumes, and there are large parades and group performances.
Several minority villages, hidden deep in the mountains and valleys, have retained their traditional cultures and lifestyles. There you can visit master craftsmen, see superb handwork skills, and gain an in-depth understanding of the ethnic minorities’ cultures.
Having a local guide and interpreter is important for helping you get the best out of minority ethnic areas.
Here are sample itineraries including the Miao: