Introduction to China’s Hmongic Languages

Written by Dakota Wang 

Miao or Hmongic is a set of language families of mutually unintelligible local languages, which are chiefly spoken by the Miao people of China. 

There are 8,940,116 Miao people living in mainland China according to the Chinese census of 2000. 

Almost half of the Miao people live in Guizhou (48.1% of Miao in the PRC), and the rest are distributed across Hunan (21.49%), Yunnan (11.67%), Chongqing (5.62%), Guangxi (5.18%), Hubei (2.40%), Sichuan (1.65%), Guangdong (1.35%), Hainan (0.69%) and other provinces (1.85%). 

The Hmongic languages of various regions are quite different, and it is basically impossible to use one’s own Hmong language to communicate with that of another region.

The Miao or Hmongic language families are divided into three types by Ma: Eastern (West Hunan), Central (East Guizhou), and Western (Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan). They are also called Xong, Hmu and Ahmao respectively. 

While the Miao language of my hometown belongs to the Eastern branch, I would like to raise my readers’ attention to the Miao language family that belongs to the Eastern branch that is spoken in West Hunan: the Xong language family (also called Xiangxi Miao). 

The Xong languages are spoken by approximately 0.9 million Miao people in Xiangxi Autonomous Prefecture. This is twice as many as there are speakers of Shire Frisian in the Netherlands (470,000 speakers of Shire Frisian according to Ethnologue).

In contrast to Xong (Eastern Hmongic language family), the Central Hmongic language family (Hmu) is spoken by approximately 2.1 million people (according to Ethnologue). Hmu is spoken especially in East Guizhou as mentioned before. 

The Miao or Hmongic language family belonging to the Western branch (Ahmao or simply called Hmong) is the one with the most complicated internal differences and the widest distribution as well as the largest number of speakers in the entire Miao or Hmongic language family. 

Miao people are generally multilingual. Most of the Miao nationality also speaks Chinese. In some areas, the Miao nationality also speaks Buyi or Yi. In addition, about many Miao people speak Chinese, Dong or Mian, Yao as their mother tongue.

In the epics and folklore of the Miao people in many places, it is said that the Miao people had written characters in ancient times, but they were lost due to various reasons. Some local documents also mentioned ancient Miao script. But in modern times, there is no traditional script anymore in use in the Miao areas. 

It is a pity that with economic development, social progress, and cultural influence, many people’s cultural concepts have changed, and many Miao people no longer speak Miao nor practise the Miao cultural traditions. When I was young, I could still see Miao people celebrating festivals grandly. Now these festivals have slowly becone forgotten by the people. The festival that impressed me the most was the 3 March of the Miao nationality, also known as the “Choosing Onion Festival”. On this day of 3 March each year, young men and women wear their beautiful clothes and go to the market to find their true love. In my hometown, if a girl fell in love with an elder brother (young man), they would step on their feet. The heavier they step, the deeper their love. If they still like each other, after three days, the man can bring the bride price to the girl’s house to propose marriage, so as to get the approval of the girl’s parents.

Unfortunately, with the impact of globalisation, more and more people are observing international festivals than ethnic festivals. More and more parents let their children learn foreign languages instead of their local languages. They abandon their own native culture when they learn about others’. The fragile cultural balance between keeping one’s own culture and learning from others’ cultures, which is a situation that ensured contuinity for generations, seems to have been broken in recent decades. 

30 comments

  1. Hi Dakota. I read your article about Miao languages with great interest. I have visited several Miao villages in Guizhou. It was a wonderful experience. In one village I met a retired teacher who told us about how they are trying to continue teaching the local language in the school as much as possible.

    Have you ever read the book When the Spitit Catches you and you Fall Down? It is about Laotian Hmong refugees in the USA.

    Thank you for your interesting articles.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hello friend. I regret that I have not read that book yet. I live in the ancient city of Phoenix in Xiangxi, very close to Guizhou. Like Guizhou, my hometown is also a gathering place for ethnic minorities. There are indeed some people who are working hard to protect the Miao culture, but there are too few of them. Since you have visited several villages in Guizhou, you must have noticed that there are only old people in the village. This is because our economy is relatively backward. Many young people go to work in first-tier cities and will take their children with them to settle down. Therefore, children of this generation have little chance to get in touch with the Miao culture. As income levels increase, many children in the village go to the city to study. In schools in the city, they learn Mandarin and foreign languages, and they rarely have the opportunity to speak Miao. So, it’s really a pity….😫😫😫 Sad….

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Dakota.

        Saving culture and heritage is so important. They are essential riches in the fabric of society. The world will be poorer if we lose these things.

        The name of the book is actually ‘When the Spirit catches you and you fall down’ (sorry for the typo).

        Jacqui

        Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Jacqui,

      I totally agree with your points. Once these cultures are lost, then it means forever. I always feel sad that we only pursue popular culture while abandoning tradition. ☹️☹️☹️When we lose it, we begin to regret it. 😫 Tragic….
      Thank you for sharing this book with me. I will read it.
      Have a nice day ~😬🌹🌹

      Dakota~

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your comment ~ I wish that as well. We can join Hmong to perserve their culture and languages as well. Just keep learning it slowly. Maybe one phrase per day. It is useful as well. 😬😬😬😬 Have a nice day ~

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So true about forgetting languages and customs. It’s happening everywhere. I witnessed that in my high school. There was only one student in the whole school who could speak with his grandparents in their native Creole.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah. It is a sad truth happening in the world. ☹️☹️☹️☹️☹️It is very necessary to improve our awareness of protecting culture and languages. Thank you for sharing your experience ~ have a nice day ~

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Does the “Choosing Onion Festival” actually refer to the English word “onion”? Or, is it a phonetic translation for something else? It appeared that people were choosing wives and husbands — not vegetables. 🙂 The world has lost so much in the name of “progress.” Grateful for Operation X’s commitment to their important work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello, thank you for your comment. The onion mentioned here is a green onion that grows in the wild. In my article, I emphasised 3 March in Xiangxi. In other areas, every 3 March, men and women gather together in the name of digging wild onions and love each other on the hillside, digging wild onions while talking and singing Miao songs. On this day, Miao girls will dress in full costumes and come to a fixed place to show their beauty. The boys are also waiting for this day. They have the opportunity to meet many girls and sing songs with them. If they like each other, they can take them home immediately.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your comments~ This situation usually happens when we were young. I have similar experience as well. I am very sad to hear this. Hope she is well. Have a nice day ~🌹🌹

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Very interesting Dakota you should write story posts in the Miao language for children with Chinese/English translation to keep it and the folklores alive. Another way of keeping languages alive is by folksong this is how the Welsh kept their languages alive.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hello,Charlotte. Thank you for your advice. 😁😁😁I am so sorry to tell you that the original Miao character has been lost completely. 😫😫So it is 😫 heart-breaking….

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your supports. Miao language is my local language. 😇I am honoured to introduce Miao to you.
      Hope you have a nice day ~
      Thank you🌹😁😁😁

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments. Miao language is my local language. 😇I am very happy that I introduce Miao to you and make you like it.
      Hope you have a nice day ~
      Thank you🌹😁😁😁

      Liked by 1 person

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