Thursday, November 9, 2017

Introduction to the costumes of the Miao-Yao, or Hmongic-Mienic peoples, part 1 Xong and Hmu

Hello all, 

Today I will start talking about a large family of peoples with their own language family and amazing folk costumes. The Han Chinese refer to them as the Miao and the Yao. They refer to themselves with a wide variety of names, depending on the group. The best known groups in the west call themselves the Hmong and the Mien, but there is no native term that covers all the different groups.  Here is a map showing the current extant of this language family.

As you can see, these peoples live in southwestern China, from Hunan, Jianxi and Fujian provinces west to Yunnan, and also across the border into the hill country of Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

The two main branches of this language family are Miao, or Hmongic, and Yao, or Mienic. They split a few thousand years ago. It seems that they originated in what is now central China. Apparantly the Yao lived south of the Miao.  There are references in Chinese history to what is believed to be these peoples. At the time that the Han Chinese were expanding their territory, the Miao lived along the Yellow River, and the Yao along the Yangtse. The Han record some semi-legendary battles over territory, recognizing the valor of their enemies. Rather than live under foreign domination, both of these peoples moved to the southwest. This pattern repeated several times, resulting in a scattered migration of these peoples, each of which split into several groups, which split further into subgroups, etc. On the map above you can see a hint of the migration pattern of these two groups of peoples

The image at the top of the article shows embroidery on a Hmong woman's 'jacket' from Nankai in western Guizhou province. This is one of the designs which they say symbolizes the long and winding road which they have traveled.
 Here is traditional embroidery from a northern Hmu woman's skirt from Gedong of Taijiang county, showing a line of riders on horses, which also symbolizes their many migrations

One thing which most of the branches of this language family has in common is a love of embroidery, an emphasis on excellence in the ornamentation of their clothing, and a great love of silver ornaments. They also do not hesitate to borrow from neighboring peoples.


Although this is a foreign term, it is handy to refer to this group as a whole. The Chinese government considers all of the peoples in this group to form one nationality. The Miao language family has three main branches, Qo Xiong, Hmu, and West Hmongic, which includes Hmong.

The Han Chinese have a saying 'If you meet a hundred Miao, you will see a hundred costumes.' 

This is literally true.  

Qo Xiong

Almost a million speakers

This is what they call themselves.The Han refer to this group as the Xiangxi Miao. They are also referred to in the literature as the 'West Hunan Miao'. They speak Northern Hmongic dialects. These people live in the northwest corner of Hunan province, as well as over the border in southwest Hubei, southeast Sichuan and northeast Guizhou provinces. 

Because they are the northeasternmost of the Hmongic peoples, their costume has been the most influenced by the Han, and even, during the Qing dynasty, by the Manchu.  Whereas most often the women's costume features a pleated skirt, here they usually wear pants.They live in close proximity to the Tujia people.

Enshi in southwestern Hubei Province.

Youyang in southeastern Sichuan Province

Huayuan County in Northern Hunan

Chiping, Yuanling county, Hunan Province

 This costume is found in Songtao in Guizhou Province, as well as across the border in Shanjiang, Fenghuang County, Hunan Province. 

 This costume is worn in Yingjian, which is slightly west of Songtao in Guizhou Province

Zhongying of Qinglong county is in southwestern Guizhou Province, but the people there migrated from this area during the Ming Dynasty. They have kept the language and much of the costume tradition. This is common among the Hmongic peoples.


As in many of the eastern areas, the men wear simple and plain costumes


This is their self designation; the Han call this group the Qiangdong Miao, you will also see them referred to as the Southeastern Guizhou Miao. They inhabit southeastern Guizhou Province, where they share an Autonomous Prefecture with the Dong people. Some of these costumes are quite similar to those of the Dong. They are also found over the border in southwest Hunan Province and north central Guangxi Province. Linguists usually group the Hmu dialects into 3 or 4 languages.

 In this map Guizhou is in yellow, Hunan in pink, and Guangxi in gray. Three clusters are visible; these correspond to Northern Hmu, Eastern Hmu and Southern Hmu. Western Hmu is only spoken by a few thousand people in a handful of villages 

Northern Hmu
about 1,000,000 speakers

These form the densest cluster of the Hmongic peoples in existence, Centered around Kaili municipality. Every summer they hold a remarkable array of festivals. The land here is rich and the festive costumes are characterized by a great deal of silver, as well as mind blowing embroidery and other handwork. I will only give a few representative costumes; many more exist.

Gulong of Huangping county

This lies to the north of this area. If a piece of cloth is rubbed enough, it becomes shiny. In the west this is considered a sign of wear, but these people treat their cloth this way on purpose to get the shine.

A round cap is worn when not in full festive dress. Married women wear a kerchief over it.

Xijiang in Leishan County

This costume is often photographed, because of the flamboyant silver headdresses. Note the skirt made of many separate bands.

 Gedong of Taijiang

Girls all dressed up in their best. If you look carefully you can see a row of horses and riders embroidered on the middle of the skirt.

 A girl spinning in everyday clothes.

Shidong in Taijiang

Mothers and daughters getting ready for a festival.

Older women from Shidong

The pleated skirts of Shidong have a ribbon with three fine red lines. They represent the three great rivers which they have crossed in their migrations over the centuries, The Yellow River, the Yangtse and the Qingshui.

Around Leigong mountain,  various groups have short skirts worn in layers,  They refer to themselves as 'Gannao'. One example is this costume from Taojiang in Leishan County.

Another version is worn in the village of Yanban of Taijiang.

One group of northern Hmu migrated from Huangping to Baqiao town of Zhenfeng county in southwestern Guizhou in the Qing dynasty. They have kept the language and a similar costume, but they make it all in black and blue.

Young girl in full dress

Woman in festive attire, not the large headdress with a double kerchief


 ladies attending a festival

Here is a closeup of the stitchwork on the sleeves and backs of the jackets

and the apron

Eastern Hmu
About 250,000 speakers

This is from Guben in Jinping county in Guizhou province

This is from Jiupang area, on the border of Juianhe and Liping counties

These girls are from Liping County, Guizhou province

 These girls are from Zhulin in Tianzhu county, Guizhou province

 This is from Dapu of Jingzhou county, Hunan province

 This is from Pingcha of Jingzhou county, Hunan province

Southern Hmu
About 350,000 speakers

This costume is that of the town of Langdong, in Rongjiang County, Guizhou province
The embroidery on the lower part of the aprons is amazingly similar to that of the Hutsul people of Ukraine.

And we finally see men with nice costumes

Biasha, Congjiang county, Guizhou province

And a Biasha man dressed for a festival

Gundong of Liping county, Guizhou

Gandong of Rongshui county, Guangxi province. This and a couple other costumes of the south Hmu include feathers.

A man from Gandong in festival dress

Chunde village, Fulu municipality, Sanjiang county, Guaxi province.

Just to show diversity, here is the costume from another village in the same municipality, Qinya.

A group of southern Hmu rebelled against oppression during the Qing dynasty, and in the end fled to the north of Vietnam, where they settled, and can still be found today. They call themselves the Na Mieu. The Vietnamese government, like China, lumps them in with the Hmong, but the two languages are completely unintelligible to each other, and these people consider themselves to be distinct. 

 Here is the one photo which I have been able to find of these people, from 1925. The costume is definitely similar to these above, and not close to those of the Hmong of Vietnam.

Western Hmu
This language is also called Raojia, and is spoken by only about 15,000 people.

This is the end of part 1. In the next article i will introduce the costumes of the Western Hmongic peoples, which inhabit south central Guizhou province.
Part 3 will cover the costumes of the Hmong proper,
Part 4 will introduce the costumes of the Yao or Mienic peoples.

Please note that this article is far from exhaustive. There are many costumes which I had to omit. I will be doing more in depth articles on particular costumes and embroidery techniques in the future.

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative, and possibly inspirational.

Roman K.


Source Material:
Robert Lam Ping-fai et al, 'Ethnic Costumes of the Miao People in China, Hong Kong, 1986
Tomoko Torimaru, 'One Needle, One Thread', Honolulu, 2008
Wu, Shizhong, 'A picture album of China's Miao Costumes and Ornaments', Guiyang, 2000
Zhao Yuchi et al, 'Clothings and Ornaments of China's Miao People', Beijing, 1985
Yan Da, et al, 'Miao's Attires', Guiyang, 2010
Deryn O'Connor, 'Miao Costumes', Southhampton England, 1994
Florian Knothe et al, 'Embroidered Identities', Hong Kong, 2013
Gina Corrigan, ' Miao Textiles from China' Seattle, 2001
Zeng Xiangyang, 'Ethnic Miao Embroidery', 2009


  1. Raojia call themselves Hmu?

    1. I am not sure what they call themselves, but some linguists classify them as speaking one of the Hmu languages.

    2. Yes, the Rongjia Miao do call themselves Hmub. In Vietnam, the Na Meo speak the same dialect as Rongjia Miao. The Na Meo called themselves as Mu which is Hmu.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The Chinese classification goes back to the 1950's. Many groups were not satisfied with the results. Yao were generally defined by culture and not language. My understanding is that the Heba language has not been assigned to either the Hmong or Mien branch, even though linguists say it related in some way. It does not make sense to me the way they lump them all together

  3. Thank you for sharing. I believe first picture of Xong is actually Bouyei. I am ethnic Miao.

  4. Do you mean the image of a woman winding turbans around three girls? That image is from the book 'A picture album of China's Miao Costumes and Ornaments' which is pulished in China. pp. 588-589. The book claims that the costume is worn in Enshi city in Hubei province. The costume itself is rather generic and could well be also worn by Tujia and possibly even Han. I do not think that Bouyei live in Hubei province. I have no good way to verify if the book is correct. Thank you for reading and for your input.