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The Future of the Miao in the Face Of Mass Relocation and Assimilation

The Miao have have been resisting extermination and assimilation for thousands of years, living far out in the mountains of south-central China. But for how much longer can they remain?

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Located at the tip of Songtao Miao Autonomous Prefecture, which shoots up peninsula-style between Chongqing municipality and Hunan province in south-central China, Yajia stands firmly beyond the fringes of what could be called “modern China.” It’s positioned in an area that has until recently been overlooked by the denizens of modernization and development; it’s people being mostly ethnic Miao minorities living in mountain villages and small market towns virtually off the proverbial map.

This stretch of Guizhou has now come into focus, and as it sits at a “golden triangle” of three provincial level administrative zones it is being transformed into a regional economic hub.

As for the people who live there? In one of the most galvanic movements in human history, two million villagers are being relocated from their mountain villages and into newly built towns and small cities scattered through eastern Guizhou province. As of now, they are just begin offered incentives to move — a government stipend and a bank loan to buy one of the new 80 to 120 square meter houses that have been built for them along with assistance finding work in local industrial parks — but it has been implied that eventually everybody will need to relocate and their traditional villages will be decommissioned, so to speak.

More on The China Chronicle: A Look at the Two Million Person Migration in Guizhou

This has been billed as Guizhou’s “final offensive against poverty,” and the people being moved have been dubbed “ecological migrants.” Apparently, the central and provincial governments have decided that there just isn’t enough sustenance to be found in the natural environment here to support human communities above poverty level, and therefore the people will need to be moved to more fertile ground: i.e. to cities and towns.

Along with the 2.5 million person relocation that’s currently being conducted in Shaanxi province for similarly reasons, the Guizhou migration is a part of China’s broader urbanization drive. “Townification” (城镇化) is officially what it’s called, and it consists of moving rural and mountain villagers into smaller scale, city-like centers, which will form a complex grid of urban clusters throughout the country. While these are often not cities in their own rights, these new “towns” serve the function of bringing communities hanging on the remote fringes of China into the fold of economic and social modernization.

With the knowledge that urban residents buy far more things than people living in rural areas — especially in mountain villages — this movement of people is partly to increase China’s consumer base which will then, logically, increase economic growth — or so it is thought.

As farming and other traditional trades will no longer be viable economic options for the migrants, massive manufacturing plants and new industrial parks are being built near the locations of many of the “ecological refugee towns.” Those who relocated will be provided with training necessary to become factor workers. Which, it must be stated, will also partially restock the supply of super cheap labor at a time when its starting to run low throughout the country.

As China is sucking the sap from the last of its untapped labor reserves and attempting to increase consumption by manufacturing consumers, a way of life is being systematically eradicated.

Yajia is one of the many reception zones for this massive relocation. Hundreds and hundreds of identical rose colored apartments have already been built along a new road that has been dubbed “Ethnic Customs Street.” Thousands of migrants from the surrounding villages are poised to be moved here, but seven years after construction began the place remains conspicuously empty. Most all of the housing units are abandoned, and the biggest kinetic forces I observed were Han Chinese office workers from Chongqing setting up shop in places that were supposedly designated for the migrants.

There are roughly 9.6 million Miao people throughout southern China and a couple million more in Southeast Asia, though they are most numerous in Guizhou province.

Though designated by the Chinese government as the Miao in 1949, the term itself is a blanket classification that takes in many different related, as well as some not so related, ethnic groups. The misnomer was more or less for administrative purposes, and was intended to simplify the area’s almost incomprehensibly diverse ethic landscape for political purposes.

The Miao people call themselves the Hmong, Hmu, A Hmao, the Kho Xiong, or various other titles to represent myriad different cultural subsets. While the Hmong diaspora will often claim that the term “Miao” is derogatory, most of those who fall under it in China don’t share this sentiment. When speaking with outsiders they generally acquiesce with their official status and say that they are Miao or they declare their own ethnic self-designation.

The groups who are categorized as Miao in China speak six different languages and roughly 35 dialects — some of which are mutually unintelligible.

The groups that make up the Miao have a history that stretches back to the beginning of recorded time in China. Folklore has it that the Miao descended from the Jiuli tribe, which was led by the impeccable Chiyou, a mythical king who, depending on what account you believe, had A) a bronze head with a metal forehead, B) 4 eyes and 6 arms, C) the head of a bull with two horns and the body of a human.

In the 26th century BC Chiyou and the Jiuli tribe fought an epic battle with the Yellow Emperor and Yan Di and their confederation of Huaxia tribes in Zhoulu, in the northeast of China. Having the use of some kind of mechanical compass that proved to be the decisive advantage, the Yellow Emperor was victorious. He then took control of the Yellow River Valley, and the Huaxia descended into the Han of today. While the Jiuli tribe retreated to Yangtze River and the mountains of south-central China, where they are said to have eventually become the Miao.

The antecedents of the Jiuli tribe, and by extension the Miao, are thought to have been some of the first people to have settled in China, and geneticists have connected the Miao to the Daxi Culture (5,300 – 6,000 YBP), which has been credited with being a very early cultivator of rice.

Guizhou is China’s poorest province, with a per capita GDP that is 40 percent of the national average and just 17 percent of Shanghai. The province’s terrain doesn’t do its residents any favors, as over 90% of Guizhou’s total area is mountainous — more than 30,000 sq km of which is classified as “rocky desert terrain” — and is prone to frequent bouts of natural disasters, including landslides and floods.

Yajia is mostly made up of Miao people, but a respectable amount of Han have also made footholds here. The Han and the Miao intermix in Yajia, and as I talked with people around the village I often found groups of mixed heritage (especially those of young adults and students) communing with each other in the streets as if there was little that culturally separated them. Unlike with Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs, and some of China’s other ethnic minorities, the Miao and Han don’t just coexist here, they very readily seem to be blending together. While the older generations of Miao maintain more traditional ways of dress, skills, and habits — wearing conical hats, smoking tobacco out of reed stem pipes, practicing old trades such as basket making — it is impossible to culturally distinguish the younger generations, who tend to dress in modern clothing and speak fluent Mandarin.

The Miao are able to blend in smoothly with Han culture when they get formally educated, speak good Mandarin, move to the cities, and integrate, as they do not face the same physical or cultural barriers that some of China’s other minority groups do.

“Can you tell a Miao person apart from a Han person just from looking at them?” I asked a Han college student who had just completed a stint of volunteer teaching at a remote mountain school.

“No,” he answered plainly.

This sentiment was echoed whenever I asked this question to other Han Chinese and to more assimilated Miao themselves, and it is clear that after going through the State schooling system the Miao are prepared to fully assimilate into Han culture — if they want to.

Though it seems as if integration doesn’t really even seem to be a conscious choice for the young Miao in places like Yajia. Though remote, there are schools here; though this is the fringe of developing China, it’s not over the edge — as villages farther off in the mountains are. In this way, both young Han and Miao people are on the same track: school, then university or work elsewhere.

Young adults from places like Yajia move away. Regardless of heritage, they leave small mountain market towns like this and go to more economically vibrant cities throughout the country, and many never really return. They start new lives in a new place, and in the case of the Miao, occasionally with a new identity. The cultural batter in China’s big cities is so well stirred that easily assimilate-able minorities — like the Manchu, Zhuang, Dong, and Miao — who can speak good Mandarin blend right in with the masses that come from all stretches of the country.

“His grandfather was Miao, but he is Han,” a young Han guy pointed to the guy riding across from me in my train compartment later on as I was leaving Guizhou.

I asked the guy sitting across from us if he would also consider himself Han, and he just sort of squirmed and said that it was okay to say that. I asked him if he was Miao, and he just sort of squirmed before echoing that he his family was Miao, but he isn’t anymore.

At a station in the far west of Hunan province I was talking with a group of college students who were just finishing up a cross-country bicycle trip. Three of the guys were Han, one was half-Han, half-Miao. There were no discernible cultural, language, or appearance difference between them, but the half-Miao guy said that he identified and classified himself with his ethnic minority heritage, and then quietly added that he could also speak a Miao language.

“My mother made sure that I could speak Miao language,” he said. “It was very important for her.”

It has been a long time since I’ve traveled to a place in China where ethnic minorities continued to carry on their traditional trades, beliefs, and practices outside of the influence of tourism. In Yajia, older generations of Miao were in the streets weaving baskets, making brooms, smoking pipes, selling vegetables and medicinal herbs; I saw a cow being kept in a house, a woman performing a spiritual healing rite, and a man dressed as a monk doing a kung-fu show in the street to attract customers to buy his charmed silver bracelets.

Yajia, as of now, is a place that tourists don’t go. The people there happily posed for photos, and then excitedly gathered behind my camera to look at their images on the LCD screen. Upon seeing their faces they would break out in a roar of chatter and laughs. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been in a place remote enough in China for digital photography to be a novelty.

More on The China Chronicle: Fenghuang, Another Ethnic Tourist Trap in China

It was through taking these pictures that I noticed a small cultural trait that very much differentiates the Miao from the Han: the Miao smile for photos.

They also smile for just about every other reason when dealing with an affable foreigner with far too many strange questions. To put it basely, these people are extremely friendly. This almost excessive friendliness is a hallmark of the Miao who live beyond the reaches of tourism, and just about every traveler I’ve met who has ventured out to these fringes have returned with the same report: “They are so friendly out there.”

Since at least the Song Dynasty, the Miao living out in the mountains of Guizhou — outside the bounds of the State, not paying taxes or participating in the broader economy — have been stubborn nails for each successive wave of Chinese authorities. Old government documents refer to them as “Sheng Miao.” Sheng (生) meaning raw. Likewise, dynasty after dynasty, government after government, ruler after ruler in has tried to root them out, exterminate them, or assimilate them into the Han majority — but until now all attempts have failed.

The mass-relocation of the “Sheng Miao” in Guizhou is a continuation of the ancient battle that was said to have taken place on the fields of Zhoulu 4,600 years ago. The decedents of the Yellow Emperor are still trying to reel the Miao into China’s mainstream social and economic sphere. It is dubbed a social welfare mobilization, and the relocations are being sold as something the government is doing for the Miao’s own good. As far as the tangible benefits go the migrants will have access to better education, healthcare, and higher paying jobs. Though whether this is worth the intangible culture and way of life that they must give up is a decision that many Miao are currently making throughout Guizhou.

Whether this relocation is intentional culturecide or not is debatable, but this much is clear: beyond the tourists sites, where the Miao make up their livelihood vending the branded elements of their heritage, as a truly distinct cultural entity the Miao are on the same path as the Manchu, the Zhuang, the Tujia, and the Dai — a path that only goes in one direction: assimilation and extinction. This is something the Miao have fought bitterly against through the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, the Republican period, the Mao era, all the way up to today.

Though, I have to add once again, the relocation centers of Yajia are virtually deserted.

From a previous article on The China Chronicle:

The Miao of Guizhou are people who have been living with scant outside support in the Wuling Mountains for hundreds of years and could probably keep living there for hundreds more. But the traditions, the knowledge, the skills that allow people to live in such remote areas, predominately utilizing local resources, are lost almost immediately upon moving into a city. Thousands of years of tradition and cultural evolution can disappear in a single generation of urban living. Culture is a chain, with just one missing link it breaks. There is no going back.


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Filed under: Articles, Changing China, China, Disappearing Traditions, Miao Culture

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Sun June 26, 2014, 5:55 pm

    Why does a more modern lifestyle and higher living standards equate to cultural assimilation? 60 years ago, the Han Chinese lived much the same way. In fact, there are still remote village that live like this, populated by ethnic Han Chinese. Are they being “culturally assimilated”?

    Yes, we lose a lot of traditions when society moves forward, but that doesn’t mean a culture is being lost. It is only being changed. Nothing can stay the same forever, unless it wishes to face extinction. Change and adaptation are the keys to survival, whether as a tribe, a culture, or as a species.

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    • Wade Shepard June 26, 2014, 9:47 pm

      Cultural change and cultural assimilation are two different processes. Sure, cultures will always change and evolve. This is normal and unavoidable and, in most cases, necessary for survival. Assimilation means that large numbers of one culture become a part of a dominant majority culture and cease passing on their traditions, customs, language, etc . . . to successive generations. Outside of tourism — where superficial aspects of the culture (oftentimes adopted to suit the expectations of visitors) are being “preserved” — many of the groups that now make up what are called the Miao are being absorbed into the Han majority. Keep in mind that a value judgement wasn’t projected in this article.

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