Miao / Hmong

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From Bob Ramsey:

Ethnic Miao girls in traditional Miao costumes–in Sichuan, China

China promotes the exotic for its numerous “others”—at least in touristy situations. This People’s Daily photograph, for example, shows pretty Miao girls in native dress greeting guests—read tourists—with home-made rice wine.

Such happy pictures gloss over the relationship the Miao and other minorities have long had with the Han Chinese, though. Much like the Comanche did against Anglo settlers, the Miao mounted fierce resistance against Han Chinese incursions into their territory.

When China made Miao lands part of the Empire, Han settlers moved in and the Miao rebelled repeatedly. In one bloody uprising in 1795, Miao warriors sacked frontier towns in three different provinces, slaughtering hundreds of settlers and burning thousands of homes. Miao determination on such occasions was so fierce, many killed their own wives and children before going into battle. In the face of what Han Chinese saw as unremitting barbarity, their armies responded with even greater ferocity.

In pre-modern China, the Miao ranked near the bottom of the social hierarchy, and as late as the 1940s, the government was still banning the Miao language and Miao clothing. The Chinese made up mocking names for them based on impressions of what they looked like, or where they lived. They became: the Shrimp Miao, the Short-skirt Miao, the Magpie Miao, the Pointed Miao, the Upside-down Miao, the Long-skirt Miao, the Steep-slope Miao, the Striped Miao, the Big-board Miao, the Cowrie-shell Miao… Even the name “Miao” itself was a Chinese term.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that over centuries of relentless pressure from the Chinese, many Miao groups migrated farther south into Southeast Asia. There, most no longer called themselves “Miao” but went instead by their own autonyms, including the people known as the “Hmong,” a now well-known group of recent immigrants to the United States.

Meanwhile, among the Miao who remained in China, at least half still live in the hills of Guizhou, the most impoverished province in all of South China. There may be no wars today, but the Miao still live in an uneasy peace with the Han majority. 

VHM:  The Miao are a very ancient people, whose roots date back at least three millennia.  Linguistically, genetically, ethnically, and culturally, they have a complicated history.  Here I give a simple sketch of the Miao / Hmong, since there are South China and Southeast Asian specialists among Language Log readers who are much better equipped to provide more detailed information concerning them and their linguistic affinities (for their languages, see "Hmongic" and "Hmong-Mien").

Roughly speaking, then, outside of China the Miao are called Hmong, Miao (the character used to represent this sound in Mandarin) having the not very flattering surface signification of "sprouts".

Population of the Miao in the PRC — around 9 million

Population of the Hmong outside of the PRC — over 2 million, the majority of whom live in Vietnam and Laos, with significant numbers also living in the United States, Thailand Myanmar, Australia, and France, and smaller numbers living in half a dozen or so other countries.

In their diverse communities scattered across China, Southeast Asia, and the globe, their ethnonym is pronounced in an astonishing array of different ways.  To help recognize the origins and phonological relationships of these different pronunciations, here is some basic information about the term in Sinitic:

miáo 苗 ("seedling; shoot; sprout; offspring; the Miao peoples [including HmongHmuA-HmaoQo Xiong, etc."])

(BaxterSagart): /*m(r)aw/(Zhengzhang): /*mrew/


The Hmong have become a significant component of the population of the United States:

The states with the largest number of Hmong immigrants are California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. According to Census 2000, 84 percent of Hmong immigrants are concentrated in three states: 41,133 (or 40 percent) live in California, 26,234 (or 26 percent) in Minnesota, and 19,349 (or 19 percent) in Wisconsin. The states with the next largest Hmong immigrant populations, North Carolina and Michigan, have significantly lower numbers (3,923 and 3,785, respectively). Only 15 states are listed in the 2000 Census as destinations of Hmong immigrants.


Studies on the networks among the various Hmong groups that result in their current distribution have been carried out, and point to facilitation of various levels of government, church organizations, and ethnic groups. Attrition of fluency in their native languages and sociocultural assimilation have also been analyzed and lead to interesting conclusions about language preservation and immigration patterns and policies.

Suggested readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. KeithB said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 8:53 am

    "Miao determination on such occasions was so fierce, many killed their own wives and children before going into battle. "

    Do we have independent attestation of this, or is this something their enemies said about them? I assume they did it so that they were not vulnerable there.

    Though this was how the Comanche were pacified, by the Cavalry attacking the camps with the women and children, if I remember "Empire of the Summer Moon" correctly.

  2. Allen Thrasher said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 9:16 am

    Also, if they really killed their own women and children, how did they expect to perpetuate themselves as a group? Taking wives from other Miao groups? Captured Han women? Or could these attacks been motivated by despair and pure revenge, rather than attempts to get back what was theirs?

  3. Alexander Browne said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 11:49 am

    As mentioned, there's a large Hmong population here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, concentrated in St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. Most of my favorite farmer's market vendors are Hmong, and Hmong is usually the third/fourth language public signs/notices here are written in. (Somali would top it in Mpls, but Hmong in St. Paul.) While there is a larger population in California, it's less concentrated and much smaller relative to the total population of CA — Wikipedia says over 1% of the MN population is Hmong, nearly 1% in WI, but 0.2% of CA — making it the largest urban Hmong population in the world.

    I've also read that there's a growing Hmong population in French Guiana, which certainly has a much more similar climate to Laos compared with Minnesota ;-)

  4. Alexander Browne said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 12:22 pm

    And just to be clear, my farmer's market vendor comment does was not meant to mean Hmong people are limited to market gardeners. There are Hmong doctors, lawyers, politicians including state senator and more infamously one of the former MPD officers accused of aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd.

  5. Antonio said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 1:03 pm

    I read something interesting related to the Miao languages recently:

    >The Pollard script (…) is an abugida loosely based on the Latin alphabet and invented by Methodist missionary Sam Pollard. Pollard invented the script for use with A-Hmao, one of several Miao languages. The script underwent a series of revisions until 1936, when a translation of the New Testament was published using it. The introduction of Christian materials in the script that Pollard invented caused a great impact among the Miao. Part of the reason was that they had a legend about how their ancestors had possessed a script but lost it. According to the legend, the script would be brought back some day. When the script was introduced, many Miao came from far away to see and learn it.


  6. David B Solnit said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 7:04 pm

    Just briefly:
    -The relationship between the Miao ethnicity and the Hmong-Mien languages is complex. Some groups classified as ethnically Miao speak Mienic languages and some classified as "Yao" (Mien) speak Hmongic languages
    – The Hmong as we know them in North America and other places outside of East/Southeast Asia are from just one branch of a subgroup of the speakers of Hmongic languages. Speakers of other Hmongic languages use other self-designations, such as A-Hmao, Hmu, and Qo Xiong.
    For a clear and ample description of this and much more, see _Hmong-Mien Language History_ by Martha Ratliff, published 2010 by Pacific Linguistics, ANU.

  7. Chris Button said,

    January 13, 2022 @ 9:38 pm

    many Miao groups migrated farther south into Southeast Asia.

    Hmong in Burmese is spelled မုံ with an ံ -m coda, which suggests the coinage was late after the coda had become nasalization of the preceding vowel in Burmese and possibly Hmong-Mien too. The lack of pre-aspiration in the m- onset မ (rather than expected ʰm- မှ ) is curious and suggests that the source might not have been Hmong itself.

    see _Hmong-Mien Language History_ by Martha Ratliff

    The pre-nasalization of obstruents in Hmong-Mien has been used as evidence for pre-nasalization in Old Chinese via loanword connections. The idea that this may be used as evidence for an actual nasal prefix in Old Chinese seems unlikely to me.

    I treat pre-nasalization as feature of Old Chinese voiced obstruents that occurred for articulatory reasons associated with the preservation of voicing. That doesn't preclude Chinese loanwords in Hmong-Mien also attesting pre-nasalization with voiceless obstruents, but does assume a different time depth when nasalization was treated as more salient than voicing in the Chinese source.

  8. John Swindle said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 4:32 am

    Thank you for Miao/Hmong history in China. Hmong people in Southeast Asia have also had a difficult time of it. One might mention the First (French) and Second (American) Indochina Wars, the CIA, subsequent reprisals, and Major General Vang Pao, who was able to guide displaced compatriots into exile.

    Antonio has mentioned the Pollard script. There are other scripts—see Wikipedia s.v. Romanized Popular Alphabet—and see also the fascinating "Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script," by William A. Smalley, Chia Koua Vang, and Gnia Yee Yang.

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