Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Hmong Outside China Oppose the Term Miao

It is probably na├»ve of me to think that all the answers are in China, but I did. The more I dig this grave of Hmong history I’m realizing that I am biting to more than I can chew. There’s so much history yet nothing is solid stone. I’m searching for some kind of solid evidence about the Hmong history pre-Vietnam War. I thought I would find it here in China since I couldn’t find it at St. Ben’s. The facts are definitely not in the Chinese history. In the Chinese language “there are no Chinese characters for Hmong throughout recorded Chinese history” (Tapp, 2004).
The only fact I can find is that during Maoist period when China was trying to unify everyone, including ethnic minorities, “China came to recognize each other (ethnic minorities) as co-ethnics and to identify with and operate under the ethnonym Miao. Only a portion of those identified as Miao – the ones distributed over Western Guizhou and parts of Yunnan, particularly the border states – call themselves Hmong in their own language” (Schein, 2004). As a young child I learned from many Hmong elders, professionals and mentors that the term Miao is a derogatory term, much like how the word nigger is a derogatory term for the African American community.
Many Hmong outside China oppose the term Miao, but “it is utilized as a neutral ethnonym within China, and as the only term that encompasses all the subgroups” (Schein, 2004). The term Miao literally means “rice-plant shoot,” “sprouts,” and in some sources, “weed” in Chinese (Leepreecha).  I do not like to refer to myself as a Miao for this reason, but I would only do so reluctantly in China to get my point across Chinese people. What’s strange is that it seems like the Hmong-Chinese are fine with people calling them Miao.
The reason why the term Miao is more accepted in China is because during “the Maoist (1949-1979) and the early reform (1979-1989) periods, they were more caught in Nationalist projects, building a strong sense of Chineseness vis a vis the West, throwing their culture into the amalgam that was to constitute the multi-ethnic Chinese people. The Chinese state, for the most part, was seen as their patron, their benefactor, their projector form the economic caprice to which both nature and the market had subjected them in the past” (Schein, 2004). During that period “the Chinese government’s project of ethnic identification, based upon the criteria of common language, territory, economy, and psychological characteristics or sentiments, was launched after the Communist Party took power in 1949” (Leepreecha).
However, “deeply disaffected with the trajectory post-Mao reform took, however, some came to question the Chinese national project which had so acutely disadvantaged them. They have turned instead toward a transnational source of identity which could yield the possibilities for development that the reform process had denied them” (Schein, 2004). During the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, “Hmong ritual leaders said that their ritual practices were banned. They even had to hide their ceremonial gong for funerals in a cave. However, after the Cultural Revolution, they resumed performing the rituals, in spite of the Communist government’s continued refusal to support any religious beliefs” (Leepreecha).
In fact during the early reform period in China, “more than four hundred groups of people were registered for approval in the early 1950s.  However, by the mid-1960s, only 55 groups (nationalities or minzu), including the majority Han, were officially registered.  All the rest of the groups were classified under these 55 categories.  During the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s and 1970s, one more nationality was added. Up to now, many ethnic groups subsumed under other nationalities and still struggle to gain official recognition from the Chinese government” (Leepreecha).
Truth of the matter is, “the cumbersome umbrella term Miao refers to a number of disparate groups totaling 7.5 million people as of 1990, speaking 3 mutually unintelligible dialects and scattered over 7 provinces in southwest China, but most densely aggregated in Guizhou, Yunnan and Hunan” (Schein, 2004). The problem lies in the fact that three ethnicities (San-Miao) in the larger entity more broadly known as Miao, “a classification originally imposed by the conquering Chinese; each of these Miao groups has their own history, and their own views about who were their ancestors and where they originated from, but these varied versions have now been combined to read like a single unified account” (Lee, 2007).

Lee, Gary Yia. “Diaspora and the Predicament of Origins: Interrogating Hmong Postcolonial History and Identity.” Hmong Studies Journal, Volume 8, 2007. 25 Oct. 2011. Web. < >
Leepreecha, Prasit. The Construction and Reproduction of Hmong Ethnic Identity in China. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct 2011. < >
Schein, Louisa. “Hmong/Miao Transnationality: Identity beyond Culture”, in Jean Michaud, Christian Culas, Nick Tapp and Gary Lee, Hmong/Miao of Asia (Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2004).