If you are traveling to China and then later to Vietnam, it can be confusing as both the words Miao and Hmong can refer to the same or similar hill tribe groups.
Miao is a Chinese term used for the ethnic hill tribes that are Hmong, Hmu, Qo Xiong, and A-Hmao people. If someone says they are Miao, you can not automatically assume they are Hmong as they could be one of these 4 ethnic classified groups.
To really understand this, we need to understand a bit about the Miao people in China and why the Hmong are called Miao and not Hmong in China.
Who Are the Miao?
The Miao, also written as Meo, is a Chinese term used to classify the ethnicly diverse groups of people who live in the mountain regions of southeastern China. Part of this group is the Hmong.
The Chinese government has 56 official ethnic groups of people- the Miao are one of those groups.
But the Miao classification includes the Hmong and other ethnic minorities as the Hmu, Qo Xiong, A-Hmao; all of these very diverse ethnic groups are classified in China as Miaos. The Chinese classify these groups as Miao as their languages are all part of the Hmong-Mien group.
Even though these languages are considered to be Hmong Mian, they are not similar. Each hill tribe group cannot understand each other.
This even gets more confusing as not all the ethnic minority groups who speak the Hmong-Mien language are classified under Miao. For example, .speakers of the Bunu and Bahegic languages are considered Yao ethnic minorities and not Miao ethnic minorities, even though their language is also classified as Hmong-Mien.
Here are some facts about the Chinese Miao ethnic classifications:
- Mountain dwellers – The Miao people are ethnic groups who live in the mountains of Southern China. Many live on the borders of China with Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
- Speak Hmong-Mien languages – They all speak languages classified as Hmong-Mien, also known as the Miao-Yao languages. Scholars have found no genetic relationship between the Hmong-Mien group of languages and other language classifications. Even though the different Miao hill tribe groups all speak a Hmong-Mien language, they cannot understand each other.
- Over 9 million Miao in China – China has over 9 million people who are considering Miao. Of the 9 million, the Hmong are about 1/3, or about 3 million people are considered Hmong.
- Hmong Migration – Of all the Miao groups, only the Hmong have migrated out of China. The other groups have remained mainly within Chinese borders.
- Agricultural Societies – All these Miao groups have agriculture as their chief means of subsistence. Traditionally they practiced a slash-and-burn kind of agriculture and grew mainly rice, corn (maize) with the opium poppy. The slash-and-burn agriculture practice and opium poppy production have now almost ceased.
- Ancestor Worship – Most Miao practice ancestor worship and belief in a lot of different spirits. Many practice shamanism. Today many A-Hmao and Hmong have become Christians.
- Four Distinct Ethnic Groups – The Miao are four district groups that are only very distantly related in language and culture. Thie 4 groups are listed below:
- Hmong – The Hmong live in Guizhou, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Yunnan, China
- Hmu People – Live in southeast Guizhou, China
- Qo Xiong People – Live in west Hunan, China
- A-Hmao People – Live in Yunnan, China
Even though China has classified the Miao with these 4 different groups of people, these groups of people are very distantly related in culture and language. In fact, the Hmong, who are considered Miao, are most closely related to the Lu Mien, classified as Yao and not Miao in China.
Who Are the Hmong?
In China, the Hmong is the largest ethnic group that is classified as Miao. Since the late 18th-century, the Hmong are the only Miao group that has been slowly migrating out of China.
It is estimated that over 1.2 million Hmong have left China to live in the rugged mountains of North Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar(Burma). This means that even though the Hmong in all these countries can be culturally and ethically Hmong, they are also citizens of China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, or Myanmar.
The Hmong have also left their homes in these places, in particular from Laos after the Vietnam War (1955-1975). There are now approximately 170,000 Hmong living in the United States, 15,000 in France, 2,000 in Australia, 1,500 in French Guiana, 600 in Canada, and 600 in Argentina. But despite these figures, the majority of Hmong still live in China and are classified officially as Miao and not Hmong.
The original home of the Hmong is said to be the Yellow River basin in central China. The Hmong were slowly driven southward and marginalized by the ever-increasing population of the Han Chinese people.
The Hmong are also famous for their opium poppy production. The opium poppy is not native to the Hmong. The crop was introduced to them in the late 19 Century by outside traders. They sold the opium to the trader, who usually gave the Hmong silver in return.
Are Miao And Hmong The Same People?
The Miao and Hmong are the same in the Chinese classification of Miao. Not all Miao are Hmong as the Miao includes 3 other distinct ethnic groups who are very loosely related to the Hmong. You can say that the Hmong are one of the groups under the Chinese classification as Miao.
The Miao classification came in China in 1954 when the Miao were officially recognized. The recognization has to do with how the Chinese government is set up and the amount of representation each Ethnic group has in the Chinese government. The Miao are the 5th largest Ethnic group classification in China.
The top Chinese ethnic group classification is Han Chinese. Almost 92% of all Chinese are consdiered Han Chiense. The other 55 Ethnic groups share the remaining 8% of the Chinese population; the MIao is the 5th largest group and is about 0.70% of the Chinese population.
When you put all this in perspective, you can see that even though the Hmong would be a significant minority group in some countries, the Hmong are a tiny part of the entire Chinese population in China.
This is why when someone in China says they are Miao, it can mean they are ethically Hmong, Hmu, Qo Xiong, or A-Hmao people.
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