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Re-Thinking Hmong History: Are Hmong and Miao the Same People?

By Hawj, Laj Lim

In a rush to fill the void in the history of the Hmong and in a effort to try to establish some semblance of a comprehensive written history for the Hmong people, Hmong scholars have relied and drawn heavily upon the records which had been attributed to the Miao to create a history for the Hmong without first examining whether Hmong and Miao, beyond semantics, are actually one and the same people. My intention here is not to say that Hmong are not Miao, but to explore the possibility that not all "Miao" are Hmong and if that is the case, then there may be more than one group of people within the group that the Han Chinese called Miao.

First, let's look at some definitions. When I speak of Hmong, I mean all the people who call themselves Hmoob in the White Hmong dialect or Moob in the Green/Blue Hmong dialect, and other closely related Hmong terms by the Hmoob Sib, Hmoob Xauv, and Hmoob Dub both in Southeast Asia and in China. And when I speak of Miao, I am referring to the rest of the people whom the Han Chinese called Miao, but do not call themselves Hmoob or Moob and do not the speak the Hmoob or Moob Language. According to official Chinese statistics, of the seven million or so Miao in China, those that call themselves Hmoob or Moob numbers about three million, most of them live in Southwest China.

There is no question about the connection between the Hmong in Southeast Asia and the Hmong in China; they are one and the same people. The question I have or asked is whether the Hmong (Hmoob/Moob), both in China and in Southeast Asia, are related to the rest of the Miao who don't call themselves Hmoob or Moob, but Gho Xong and/or Gha Ne. These other Miao, obviously are not Hmong to a Hmoob or Moob person. If the people the Han Chinese refer to as Miao are the Hmong, then we need to find out who these other people are because to a Hmong, they definitely are not Hmong. On the other hand, if these "other" people were and are the actual Miao, then we need to acknowledge that the Hmong and Miao are two different groups of people. To continue to deny the re-examination of a separate history for these people would be a great injustice.

The problem I see in the popular assertion that all Miao are Hmong is this. We know that the term Miao was first used in pre-Qin China to refer to non-Chinese in Southern China. I don't think for a minute that the Han Chinese was referring to the Hmong alone. The term was used to refer to all the non-Han groups. Later on the term Miao was used by the Tang and Sung dynasties to refer to Southern Barbarians. Again, I don't believe that it was referring to the Hmong only. Let me draw a parallel example to make this point. When the Europeans came to the new world, they called everyone they saw an Indian. Does that mean that all the people in the new world were the same people? Obviously not; the people the Europeans called Indians were different people. They were Iroquois, Navajo, Hopi, etc. The same would hold true for the people the Han Chinese called Miao. Within the group of people that the Han Chinese called Miao, obviously there were the Hmong and others. Who are these "others"? I don't know the answer to this, but I feel that what we need to do is find out which Miao is Hmong and which is not. In light of the fact that many Hmong groups are not currently classified as Miao and many non-Hmong groups are classified as Miao, it would be naive to say that all Miao are Hmong.

A Miao scholar in China once wrote: "Owing to the wide distribution and important influence of Miao in the period of Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, people often mistakenly regarded other nationalities whose living places were very near Miao as Miao people. Therefore, the names "Yi Miao", "Dong Miao", "Zoulou Maio", etc. appeared. In fact "Yi Miao" and "Zoulou Miao" belong to Buyi nationality. "Dong Miao" is Shui nationality and Lulou Miao belongs to the Yi nationality."

Here is what Dr. Gary Yia Lee, a noted expert on the Hmong has to say about this issue:

Among themselves, the Hmong outside China prefer to be called "Hmong." Those in China use such terms to designate themselves as "Ghao Xong" in Western Hunan; "Hmub", "Gha Ne" or "Hme" for a group speaking the same dialect Southeastern Guizhou; "A Hmao" in northwest Guizhou and northeast Yunnan; and "Hmong" in south Sichuan, west Guizhou, and south Yunnan. These many different terms also refer to the languages spoken by the people concerned whose number is estimated at 7.5 million around the world. Of this number, Hmong speakers are the most numerous with more than three million people in China, Southeast Asia and in the West. Given this diversity in their name, it is possible that the Hmong in China accepted the Chinese term "Miao" for convenience and through forces of history rather any meanings of the word. The non-Chinese aboriginals of southern China consist of many different ethno-linguistic groups. After many centuries of Chinese control, some might have adopted the name "Miao" without realizing how many other groups have had it used for them. Hence, the acceptance of the name by such a large group of culturally and linguistically diverse people, many of whom cannot even communicate with each other except in Chinese.

A self-described Hmong historian in the US once told me that the question of Hmong and Miao is as simple as British and English. "Just different terms for the same people." I beg to differ. This is what I know about the Hmong. The Hmong has always called themselves Hmoob or Mood, but never Miao, even after 4000 years of suppression. Today, the Hmong in China, though officially called themselves "Miao", sing songs praising their Hmong name. The Miao (those who don't call themselves Hmong) in China seems to have always called themselves Miao or other terms. And they prefer to be called Miao today.

Other factors which suggest that Hmong and Miao may be two different groups of people include the following: According to Chinese records, the Miao seemed to have originated in the Yellow River Basin (Please read the articles by Yang, Kaiyi and others published in previous Yim Hmoob editions); the Hmong, on the other hand, is believed to originate in a place beyond China...a place which is often mentioned to be somewhere in Siberia.

The Hmong legends and oral history is replete with the notion that the Hmong once lived in a place beyond China called Maum Nkauj Liag. Whether this mythical Maum Nkauj Liag is in referenced to the modern Mongolia and/or a place within greater China has yet to be fully explored. Nonetheless, the Hmong in Southeast Asia's (Hmoob Xov Tshoj) psychological connection to China (Tuam Tshoj) is to this mythical Maum Nkauj Liag city/country, not to Present day Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, or Hunan, etc. Yet most Hmong scholars in the U.S. now seemed to have accepted the notion that Hmong has no historical tie to Maum Nkauj Liag whatsoever. In my view, in the absence of any hard evidence as to the origin of the Hmong, to disregard the rich oral history of the Hmong from the effort to establish a comprehensive history for the Hmong would be a mistake and a disservice to the Hmong people as a whole.

I am not convinced that Hmong scholars have explored the possibility that Hmong and Miao may be two totally different group of people mistakenly lumped together by outsiders, mainly Han Chinese, long time ago. Current scholars are too eager and willing to accept at face value the notion that Hmong and Miao are one and the same people beyond semantics, a notion that was concocted by outsiders/conquerors. My theory on this is that there has always been a group or groups of people that the Han Chinese called Miao throughout the history of China, but at certain point in the history of China and for some reason the Hmong, a separate group, but similar was lumped into this same group or groups as the Miao by the Han Chinese. Thus the two (or more) separate groups became one group to outsiders and the Hmong has been called Miao ever since.

Email Author: llhawj@flash.net