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.