Nicholas TAPP

Hmong (Miao) girls in silver headdresses. COURTESY OF PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

The Hmong, whose own name for themselves is not officially recognized in China, are a mainly agricultural people living mostly in the southern provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan, as well as Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; there is also a considerable diaspora population in Southeast Asia and abroad. Hmong customs show traces of the earliest customs ever recorded in China, leading some scholars to believe that they were in China before the Han Chinese.

The Hmong account for about a third, some 3 million people, of the Miao people, one of the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minority peoples in China. They live as farmers in villages in a unified swathe of territory reaching down from north to south in the provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan, as well as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region toward the Vietnamese border. In Chinese history they are referred to only as Miao, together with the members of two other main language groups related to them by distant ties of language and custom, but whose languages they cannot understand. Since 1850, Hmong shifting cultivators (people who farm a plot of land temporarily and then move on to cultivate another) have migrated across Chinese borders into the mountainous regions of neighboring Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. Many Hmong from Laos were further resettled as refugees overseas following the Vietnam wars to third countries such as the United States, France, Canada, and Australia. There are some 1 million Hmong in Asian countries outside China and approximately 320,000 in diaspora.


Throughout history the Hmong, under the rubric of Miao, were generally described as shifting cultivators of the mountainsides. They planted upland crops, such as millet, buckwheat, and maize, moving their villages great distances once the fertility of the soil was exhausted. There are various legends and theories about their ultimate origins, but it is most probable that they originated in the Huang (Yellow) River valley basin. They were recorded in Chinese annals as early rebels against the establishment of the Chinese state, having been banished from the central plains around 2500 BCE. Rebellions of the Miao against the Han Chinese are recorded since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The expansion of the Han Chinese people into southern China since the Song dynasty (960–1279) led to increasing pressure on scarce resources, such as water and land, and fierce conflicts with local minority people who inhabited these regions.

The encounter with in-migrating Han Chinese troops, farmers, miners, and merchants, and the colonization by the Chinese of the southwest in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties led to important divisions within minority people like the Hmong. Some became more settled and law abiding, adopting Chinese customs and manners, while others remained in the remote mountains beyond the reach of the Chinese state. The Chinese referred to them for this reason as the Sheng (raw, or wild) and Shu (cooked, or tame) Miao. Hmong customs show traces of the earliest customs ever recorded in China, such as the courting game of catch played at the New Year still retained by Hmong outside China. For this reason some researchers have seen them as aboriginal Chinese who may have inhabited China before the Han Chinese. There have certainly been strong Chinese influences on the Hmong in history. A high proportion of their language is shared with Chinese, and they adopted Chinese surnames for their clans.

Economy and Socialist Impact

Hmong traditional economy was in most areas based on the shifting cultivation of upland crops, along with the animal husbandry of poultry and swine, hunting, some fishing, and gathering of wild products in the forest. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, opium was cultivated in remote mountainous areas in exchange for silver with itinerant traders. However, in some areas Hmong were able to farm small patches of irrigated riceland on terraces or in valley basins, where settled villages were established.

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, opium cultivation was banned and shifting cultivation was outlawed. Remote upland villages were resettled in lowlands. Hmong villages joined cooperative socialist organizations and agriculture was collectivized. Communist Party organization penetrated the villages and organized much of social and economic life. Traditional religion, such as ancestor worship and shamanism, was illegal but still continued in secret and at night. During radical left periods, such as the Great Leap Forward beginning in 1958 and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), it was prohibited to sing minority songs, speak minority languages, and wear ethnic costumes. As members of an official ethnic minority, the Hmong received some special privileges in the form of a measure of autonomous local government in many areas (although this autonomy is limited) and special lower pass marks for college and university entrance (although the numbers of Hmong achieving this status have been minimal). However, special funds were allocated for minority regions, which benefited some Hmong areas.

Under the household responsibility system, which followed the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, some measure of autonomy has been returned to the Hmong household, which was traditionally the main basis of the social system. Families now work together again as an economic unit in cultivating the areas of land allotted to them by village organizations according to the number of household members. They cooperate with other members of the local lineage and affinal relatives (those related by marriage) in ritual, social, and economic affairs. The Hmong generally live in brick houses in rural villages much like those of the Han Chinese. The greatest concentration of Hmong is in Wenshan Autonomous Prefecture on the Vietnam border; Bijie in northwest Guizhou is another area of dense Hmong settlement.

Culture and Kinship

In the past the Hmong were divided into a number of tribal cultural divisions. These still survive outside China in the form of strong divisions between Green and White Hmong in Laos and Thailand. They still wear different costumes, and they live in houses of a different design and speak consistently different dialects. Even outside China these divisions have become less significant as members of different cultural divisions intermarry and live in the same villages. In Wenshan there is some memory of these divisions, reflected in still different dialects and traditional costumes (now worn only at festivals), but Communist Party policy firmly discouraged such signs of local cultural variation and in most places they have almost disappeared.

Hmong culture, from China to Thailand, remains remarkably homogeneous. This may have resulted from their traditional life as shifting cultivators, which distributed uniform cultural traits widely over great geographical distances. There is a range of Hmong dialects, but they are all recognizably part of the same Hmong language, and the rituals of death and shamanism, which now, to some extent, have been revived in China since the more relaxed economic reform policies since the 1980s, are similar within China and beyond its borders.

Hmong culture is rich and complex and full of oral legends and dramaturgical performances at marriage, death, and illness where traditional shamans ar
e still consulted. For example, there are the elaborations of the wedding ceremony and the beauty of the women’s intricate batik and embroidery; festivities of the Hmong New Year; the long, mournful chants of the Master of Death as he guides the soul of the deceased back to the village of its ancestors at the dawn of historical time; and the shaking of the shaman as he or she enters the Otherworld in trance to rescue the lost soul of a sick person.

The Hmong share with the Chinese and other ethnic minority people in southern China a system of geomancy (divination by means of forms of the landscape) to determine the location of houses and graves in which human residences are aligned with the natural contours of mountains and rivers.

At the heart of Hmong culture is the kinship system and the division of all Hmong into some twenty patrilineal exogamic (out-marrying) surname groups or clans. These surnames, such as Lee, Wang, or Yang, reach across the cultural divisions. Intermarriage is still forbidden among them, even in China where members of the same surnames (generally huge in number) are legally allowed to marry. The lineage is divided into ritual sublineages clustered around a common known ancestor and known as ib tus dab qhuas (of one group of spirits). It is still the case that a visiting Hmong of the same surname will be treated as a classificatory brother by those of the same surname, wherever he comes from (even the United States). Marriage with other groups, however, still remains very rare, even in villages where Han Chinese and Hmong have lived together for several generations.

In traditional society Hmong women occupied a low position, although one higher than that of most Chinese women, and there was considerable freedom in premarital courtship. In post-1949 China, while premarital liaisons are generally forbidden, the position of Hmong women has much improved. A Hmong woman at marriage is still expected to leave the household of her natal family and move to that of her husband. The wedding process is elaborately celebrated and can be protracted, including ceremonial presentations and wedding songs sung by go-betweens who represent both parties to the marriage. The bridegroom is expected to present to his bride’s family an expensive bridewealth, which was traditionally paid in silver and is said to compensate the bride’s parents for their trouble in raising her. A young man is often dependent on his parents for this requirement, which today generally takes the form of furniture and clothes, besides the pork and whisky expended on the wedding feast. Strict monogamy is expected of a wife; a man traditionally could take two or more wives, although this rarely occurred and is now illegal. The one-child, one-family policy has affected the Hmong, as it has all people in China. However, in some areas, because they are impoverished or ethnic minority people, there are exemptions, and a couple may be allowed three or even four children in some cases, without any fines or imprisonment.

Foreign missionaries have worked among the Hmong for over a century, arriving in Guizhou in 1875 and working in Yunnan and northern Vietnam shortly after that. Many Hmong converted to Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century in an extraordinary mass movement and some of them continued their faith throughout the years of socialist revolution. A smaller number have become Catholics. Recently new converts to Christianity have been made along the Vietnam border, which has led to persecution and imprisonment and the flight of some Hmong across borders into neighboring countries.


Since the 1980s, under newly liberal policies and the impact of the tourist industry, there has been an enormous revival of interest in and sympathy for traditional ethnic minority culture in China, and the Hmong have proved no exception to this. Many local Hmong scholars have recorded their own customs and transcribed parts of their traditional oral culture. Some overseas Hmong, particularly from the United States, have begun to revisit their old homes in Laos, their more remote places of family origin in Vietnam, and even the homes their ancestors left many generations ago in southern China. New connections between transnational Hmong communities have been formed, helped by the use of videos, mobile phones, and the Internet, and some global trading relations have been established between Hmong in China and Hmong in the West, particularly for the marketing of traditional Hmong costumes now required overseas. These new contacts have been spearheaded by Hmong and other Miao minority cadres now working in universities or local provincial research institutes or at minority colleges or in governmental organs such as the Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission, which is in charge of minority affairs in China. Whether these new connections will lead to a new kind of emergent global Hmong community, or whether they represent a vain attempt to reconstitute a community already divided and scattered across the world by migration and war, it is too early to say.

Further Reading

Graham, D. C. (1954). Songs and stories of the Ch’uan Miao. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution.

Lin Yueh-Hwa. (1940). The Miao-man peoples of Kweichow. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 5, 261–345.

Ruey Yih-Fu. (1960). The Magpie Miao of southern Szechuan. In G. P. Murdock (Ed.), Social structure in South-East Asia. Viking fund publications in anthropology, no. 29 (pp. 143–155). Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Schein, L. (2000). Minority rules: The Miao and the feminine in China’s cultural politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tapp, N. (2000). The Hmong of China: Agency, context, and the imaginary. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Tapp, N., Michaud, J., Culas, C., & Lee, G. (Eds.). (2004). Hmong/Miao in Asia. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Source: Tapp, Nicholas. (2009). Hmong. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1040–1043. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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