The Hmong, also known as Miao (Chinese: 苗: Mio; Vietnamese: Mèo or Hmng; Thai: แม้ว (Maew) or ม้ง (Mong)), are an Asian ethnic group speaking the Hmong language, whose homeland is in the mountainous regions of southern China (especially Guizhou) that cross into northern Southeast Asia (northern Vietnam and Laos). The term "Miao" is offensive to some Hmong people. Today, they form the fifth largest of the 56 nationalities officially recognized by the People's Republic of China.

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Hmong Flag

Nomenclature: Miao or Hmong

Two terms, Miao and Hmong (or H'mong in Vietnam), are both currently used to refer to one of the aboriginal peoples of China. They live mainly in southern China, in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Hubei. According to the 1989 census, their number in China was estimated to be about 7 million. Outside China they live in Thailand, Laos (where they are known as Lao Soung), Vietnam and Myanmar due to migrations starting in the 18th century, and also in the United States, French Guiana, France and Australia as a result of recent migrations in the aftermath of the Indochinese wars. Altogether there are approximately 8 million speakers of the language. This language, which consists of 30-40 mutually unintelligible dialects, belongs, together with the Bunu language, to the Miao branch of the Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) language family.

Western researchers do not treat the terminological problems in a uniform way. Early writers used Chinese-based names in various transcriptions: Miao, Miao-tse, Miao-tsze, Meau, Meo, mo, miao-tseu etc., but due to the influence of the Hmong of Laos (a sub-group of the Miao people) some contemporary researchers have adopted another terminology.

The Miao themselves use various self-designations and the Chinese traditionally classified them according to the most characteristic colour of the women's clothes. The list below contains the self-designations, the colour designations and the main regions inhabited by the four major groups of Miao in China:

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Flower H'mong in traditional dress at the market in Bac Ha, Vietnam
  • Ghao Xong; Red Miao; west Hunan.
  • Hmu, Gha Ne (Ka Nao); Black Miao; southeast Guizhou.
  • A Hmao; Big Flowery Miao; northwest Guizhou and northeast Yunnan.
  • Hmong; White Miao, Green (Blue) Miao, Small Flowery Miao; south Sichuan, west Guizhou and south Yunnan.

Thus only one group out of four uses the term Hmong. Furthermore, it is only this group which has speakers living outside China. It is these non-Chinese Hmong who advocate that the term Hmong be used not only for designating their dialect group, but also for the other groups living in China. They generally claim that the word Miao is a derogatory term which should not be used at all. Instead the term Hmong is to be used to designate all groups of the people. However this can also be a result of confusing denotation with connotation. The Chinese expeditioners and invaders gave to the Hmong the appelation "Miao", which later became "Meo" and "Man". The latter term means the southern "barbarian". The word 'miao' has been taken over by other peoples in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai etc. in the form Meo. Though many of the speakers of those languages (and of Chinese) undoubtedly consider the Miao to be barbarians, this by no means proves that the word itself has that denotation. It is, of course, also possible that the speakers of Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, who have taken over the word 'miao' from Chinese, have lost the original meaning "seedling" and use it only to designate a people whom they consider to be barbarian. If pronounced with the wrong tone in Thai or a high tone in Cantonese the word means "cat" (which is possibly of onomatopoeic origin). Also, the literal Vietnamese translation for Mo is "cat". This might explain the strong resentment against the term 'miao' among the Hmong groups in southeast Asia.

In China, however, the situation is different for two main reasons. The Miao groups have different self-designations and only a small proportion use the word Hmong. The rest have no feeling that Hmong is in any way preferable to Miao as a common designator. Since the official classification of the minorities in the 1950s some minority groups have complained about the word used in Chinese to designate them and have asked for the government to change the official usage. The Miao groups of China have, according to a 1992 article in the Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter [TYPN 1992], voiced no such concern. The second reason is purely pragmatic: it is impossible to introduce the word 'hmong' into Chinese as this syllable does not exist in the Chinese language. As a matter of fact, this is also the case for the English language, as few speakers are able to pronounce an unvoiced nasal. However, in English, unlike Chinese, it is at least possible to write the word Hmong. (The White Hmong generally pronounce the word "Hmong" with a regular "m" (see below); however, the word mong doesn't exist in Chinese either.)

Many Hmong living in the West believe that every people should have the right to choose their own self-designation in other languages. At first this policy might seem reasonable, but it would result in numerous problems of spelling and pronunciation if implemented universally. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that are two main Hmong groups in America who have a slightly different dialect: the Green Hmong, or Hmong Leng, and the White Hmong, or Mong Der. For most purposes, the White Hmong dialect is used, as they are somewhat more numerous.

The Hmong write their name for themselves Hmoob. Doubling a vowel indicates that it is nasal, and several consonants are used at the ends of syllables to denote tones. Thus "America" is written Asmeslivkas in Hmong.

The term Hmong was proposed as the designation of the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. Some consider that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in the study of Miao. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. Perhaps not much can be done about this now but hopefully some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.


The Hmong people have a recollected history that stretches back, perhaps to the last Ice Age. There are two places where the origin of Hmong people are discussed. In oral history, Hmong people recall coming from a place of extreme cold, where it was dark for 6 months and light for 6 months. From this place, they entered into China by way of a hunting expedition. A hunter and his dog hunted for several days after a wild animal in the snow. The hunter ran out of food and came back for several days without his dog to prepare for and continue the hunt. When the hunter set out again, the dog had already followed him back. The hunter petted his dog and found some new and different seeds on the fur. Then, Hmong people thought the known world was already explored, but the new and different seeds led Hmong people into China. The second place that describes where Hmong people came from occurs in their "Showing the Way" burial ritual. In this ritual, the deceased is instructed to go back to the ancestors. It is believed that the ancestors have died and left this world to return to their place of origin, which is, again, the place of extreme cold. The last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, and coincided with the rise of modern man. The conditions described by Hmong people's oral history and "Showing the Way" certainly resembles a world of monotonous ice and snow, conditions that were last seen during the end of the last Ice Age.

In China, the first recorded Hmong kingdom was called Jiuli, and its ruler or rulers, had the title, Chiyou. Chiyou is also spelled Zhiyou (pinyin) and Txiv Yawg (RPA Hmong). Chiyou means father-grandfather, and is a title equal to, but no less, than emperor. No one goes by the title, Chiyou, today. Chiyou's ancestors are thought to be the Liangzhu people. The Liangzhu people are credited with creating proto-characters for today's Chinese, Korean, and Japanese characters. Chiyou is responsible for ushering people of the Far East into the civilized era; he established a central government system, penal laws, and religion. His people's achievements also included melting metal for weapons. Jiuli was said to have jurisdiction over 9 tribes and 81 clans; Chiyou's unification ability was unsurpassed; his ethnic Han contemporaries, Huangdi and Yandi, both blood brothers, were divided and could not confront Jiuli individually.

According to Chinese legend, the people under Chiyou (蚩尤 Chīyo) was defeated at Zhuolu (涿鹿 Zhuōl, a defunct prefecture on the border of today provinces of Hebei and Liaoning) by the military unification of Huang Di (黃帝 Hungd) and Yandi, leaders of the Huaxia (華夏 Huxi) tribe as they struggled for supremacy of the Huang He valley. The compass was believed to be the crucial reason of Huaxia's victory. The battle, believed to be taken place in the 26th century B.C, was fought under heavy fog as Huaxia was able to match against Miao with the compass. After the loss, the original tribe split into two smaller splinter tribes, the Miao and the Li (黎 l). Miao continuously moving southwest and Li southeast as the Huaxia race, now known as Han Chinese race, expanding southwards. During the course of Chinese history, they were regarded as "barbarians" by the increasingly technologically and culturally advanced Han Chinese. Some fragments of the races were assimilated into the Chinese during Zhou Dynasty.

Yet, in other versions of post-Jiuli, the people of Jiuli fragmented in 3 different directions. It is said Chiyou had 3 sons, and after the fall of Jiuli, his oldest son led some people south, his middle son led some people north, and his youngest son remained in Zhuolu and assimilated into the Huaxia culture. Those who were led to the south established the San-Miao nation. Perhaps due to this splitting into multiple groups, many Far Eastern people regard Chiyou as their ancestors, and by the same token, many question the ethnicity of Chiyou as exclusively Hmong or otherwise. In some cirlces of thought, the Koreans also regard Chiyou as an ethnic ancestor. Furthermore, under China's ethnic unification policy, Chiyou is now also regarded as one of China's forefathers alongside the ethnic Han ancestors, Huangdi and Yandi.

The term Miao was first used by the Chinese in pre-Qin times, i.e. before 221 BC, for designating non-Chinese groups in the south. It was often used in the combinations "nanmiao", "miaomin", "youmiao" and "sanmiao" (三苗 Sānmio). At that time the people lived in the Yangtze River valley, but later they were forced by the Chinese to move further southwards. As most territories of the Six dynasty located south of the river, bringing the Miao into submission was a major concern for stability of those dynasties. With the Wu Hu ravaging areas north of the river, large scale migration of Chinese to the south accelerated the assimilation of Miao into Chinese.

Thus beginning from the Han Chinese Tang Dynasty the Miao ceased as a major non-Chinese group except in the province of Yunnan where six "zhaos" (詔 zhao4 means "state") of Miao resided there. Some scholars argued that the Six "zhaos" were groups of the Yi people. The southernmost, known as Meng-she-zhao (蒙舍詔 Mngshězho) or Nan-zhao (南詔 Nnzho) united all six zhaos and found the first independent Miao state during early 8th century with treacherous help from Tang Dynasty. The title of the head of state was Nan-zhao Wang (南詔王 Nnzhowng), meaning the King of Nanzhao. Uneasiness of the increasing threat from Tubo (today Tibet) encouraged the Chinese dynasty to establish a friendly regime neighboring both countries. Tang also deployed a military district, Jiannan Jie-Du (劍南節度 Jinnn Jidǔ) located in today southern Sichuan Province and bordering Nanzhao.

During the first ten peaceful years in 8th century, Nanzhao regularly paid tributes through the head of military district (Jiannan Jie-Du-Shi (劍南節度使 Jinnn Jidǔshǐ)) to the Han Chinese dynasty. As the Tang Dynasty deteriorating during mid 8th century, the district was gaining more independent authority from the Tang dynastic government. They demanded more tributes from Nanzhao to develop sizable forces against the dynasty. Some district heads even intimidated the peoples of Nanzhao. A famous example was a rejected demand to spend a night with the queen, the only wife of the Nanzhao King. All intimidations and unfair tributes led to the outbreak of Nanzhao rebellion during the Tianbao era (742-756) of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang China. Before marching against the district legion, the Nanzhao King ordered a stone inscription of the reasons of rebellion. The monument remained erected and can still be seen today (location?). The Tang Dynasty could have easily defeated Nanzhao troops but struggles of power among generals of the district letting Nanzhao surge deeply into Tang's territory, almost reaching Chengdu, location of the district headquarters. Appointment of incompetent heads was also a factor. The most famous one was Yang Guozhong, brother of Lady Yang, the beloved concubine of the emperor. Although the rebellion was eventually squashed, the dynasty wasted precious resources which could have been used securing the northern border, ushering in the much more disastrous Anshi Rebellion.

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Traditional Black H'mong culture in Vietnam is being eroded through the influence of mass tourism

During the later years of the Tang dynasty, Nanzhao had the upper hand on its relations with Tang and Tibet as both countries tried to ally with Nanzhao, thus isolating the enemy. Nanzhao fully exploited the situation and rose as a major power in Southeast Asia. During its zenith of power, northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma, Guangxi and eastern portion of Guangdong, southwestern portion of Sichuan, Guizhou and the whole province of Yunnan were all under its control. Chengdu and Hanoi were each sacked twice. After the fall of the latter in late 9th century, Chinese dynasties never recovered the city until Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. Tang Dynasty gradually increased numbers of military district bordering Nanzhao and consequently the insurgences of Pang Xun was the first of the rebellions leading to the fall of Tang.

Nanzhao, under the influence of Tang for a century (8th century to 9th century), was gradually adopting the Chinese culture and at the same time disintegrated as struggles of power among various rival clans. Eventually the Duan (段 duan4) clan won and found the Da Li Kingdom which lasted until the submission to the Mongols. During Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty the term "nanman" (南蠻 Nnmn means the southern non-Chinese people) was used. However, the name "miao" reappeared in Fan Chuo's book on the southern tribes, Manshu (862 A.D.).

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) 'miao' and 'man' were both used, the second possibly to designate the Yao (傜 Yo) people. The Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties could neither fully assimilate nor control the Hmong people. As a result, the policy of "using barbarians to rule barbarians" (yiyi zhiyi) was employed. Furthermore, a counterpart wall to the Great Wall in the south was erected to protect and divide the Chinese from Hmong. This wall in the south was called the Hmong Southern Frontier Wall. Politically and militarily, the Hmong continued to be a stone in the shoe of the Chinese empire. The Hmong were more than a match against the Chinese since the latter's military was stretched across China defending against northern invaders. The Chinese had to fall back on political means to ensnare Hmong people, they created multiple competing positions of substantial prestige for Hmong people to participate and assimilate into the Chinese government system. During the Ming and Qing times, the official position of Kaitong was created. The Hmong would employ the use of the Kiatong government structure until the 1900's when they entered into French colonial politics in Indochina.

History of the Hmong in Laos

In 1960, many Hmong in Laos were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as part of a plan more to fight for and defend Laos against the massive and disciplined North Vietnamese Army (NVA) than the Communist Pathet Lao movement in that country. Pathet Lao activity was used to dress up and cover NVA invasion into Laos. In fact, ethnic Lao troops from the Royal Lao Government and Pathet Lao participated marginally in the fighting, as most of the battles were between the CIA-backed Hmong and NVA. About an equal number of Hmong, however, were recruited by the communist Pathet Lao to fight against the Royal Lao Government and the CIA.

General Vang Pao was the ethnic Hmong soldier handpicked by the CIA to lead the northern Military Region II (MR2) defense against NVA incursion. General Vang Pao's headquarters was in Long Cheng, also known as Lima Site 20 Alternate (LS 20A). At the height of its activity, Long Cheng became the second largest city in Laos, estimated at 300,000, with 200,000 ethnic Hmong and 100,000 people of other ethnic background. Long Cheng was a micro-nation operation as it had its own bank, airport, school system, military units, officials, etc... Before the end of the Secret War, Long Cheng would fall in and out of General Vang Pao's control.

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In the 1990s, many Flower H'mong switched from their traditional colourful dress to western clothing

The Secret War happened around the same time that the United States was officially involved in the Vietnam War across the border. Ultimately, the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and also evacuated General Vang Pao into Thailand. Many people in Laos who had assisted the U.S. in the Secret War found themselves in an unwelcome environment. An estimated 300,000 Hmong fled to neighboring Thailand, eventually forming refugee camps. For some Hmong who stayed behind, fierce fighting continued to rage on under the Chao Fa group. The Chao Fa fighters had ambitious goals, including establishing a soveriegn nation for Hmong people. However, due to no financial and military support, Chao Fa are forced to re-examine their goals as they are hunted and resort to eating tree roots.

During the 1990s, the United Nations, with general support from the Clinton Administration, began to forcibly return many Hmong refugees to Laos. The decision to do so was controversial, with many Hmong alleging that they were persecuted by the Laotian regime upon their return.

In the United States, the forced return of the Hmong was staunchly opposed by many American conservatives and human rights activists. In a 1995 National Review article, for instance, Michael Johns labeled the decision to return Hmong veterans to Laos a "betrayal"[1] (

Pressure built on the Clinton administration to alter its repatriation policy and, in a significant political victory for the Hmong, most Hmong refugees were subsequently resettled to other countries, with many moving to the United States. The last major resettlement of about 15,000 Hmong from the Wat Tham Krabok camp began in 2004.

Today, the majority of Hmong in the United States, about 270,000, live in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Fresno, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee have especially high concentrations of Hmong. Although the Hmong remain as one of the poorest Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., many Hmong children have performed highly in schools. Hmong Americans are also advancing rapidly both socially and economically.

A significant population of H'mong still follow a traditional lifestyle in North Western Vietnam. The start of mass tourism to these regions in the 1990s has introduced many H'mong to western lifestyles, and the traditional dress of the H'mong people is gradually disappearing.

In the 20th century many Hmong in Asia cultivated opium for the international heroin trade. Disputes with the Hmong are therefore tied in with efforts to stem drug production.


Note: The Miao areas of Sichuan province became part of the newly created Chongqing Municipality in 1997.

Most Miao currently live in China. Their population growth in China:

3,600,000 Miao, about half of the entire Chinese Miao population, were in Guizhou in 1990. The Guizhou Miao and those in the following six province make up over 98% of all Chinese Miao:

In the above provinces, there are 6 Miao autonomous prefectures (shared officially with one other ethnic minority):

There are in addition 23 Miao autonomous counties:

Most Miao reside in hills or on mountains, such as

  • Wuling Mountain by the Qianxiang River (湘黔川边的武陵山 : Xiāngqin Chuān Biān D Wǔlng Shān)
  • Miao Mountain (苗岭 : Mio Lng), Qiandongnan
  • Yueliang Mountain (月亮山 : Yuling Shān), Qiandongnan
  • Greater and Lesser Ma Mountain (大小麻山 : D Xiǎo M Shān), Qiannan
  • Greater Miao Mountain (大苗山 : D Mio Shān), Guangxi
  • Wumeng Mountain by the Tianqian River (滇黔川边的乌蒙山 : Tinqin Chuān Biān D Wūmēng Shān)

Several thousands of Miao left their homeland move to larger cities like Guangzhou and Beijing. There are also 2,000,000 Miao, especially in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and on other continents. 70,000 live in Thailand, where they are one of the six main hill tribes.

See also


  • Template:Book reference
  • [TYPN 1992] The section on nomenclature draws heavily on Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, Number 17, June 1992, Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. Material from that newsletter may be freely reproduced with due acknowledgement.

Chinese ethnic groups (classification by PRC government)

Achang - Bai - Blang - Bonan - Buyei - Chosen - Dai - Daur - De'ang - Derung - Dong - Dongxiang - Ewenki - Gaoshan - Gelao - Gin - Han - Hani - Hezhen - Hui - Jingpo - Jino - Kazak - Kirgiz - Lahu - Lhoba - Li - Lisu - Man - Maonan - Miao - Monba - Mongol - Mulao - Naxi - Nu - Oroqen - Pumi - Qiang - Russ - Salar - She - Sui - Tajik - Tatar - Tu - Tujia - Uygur - Uzbek - Va - Xibe - Yao - Yi - Yugur - Zang - Zhuang

External links

de:Hmong es:Miao ko:먀오족 ja:ミャオ族 nl:Hmong th:แม้ว zh-cn:苗族


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