Hill Tribes of China: Silver, Horns and Bamboo

With 92% of the Chinese population belonging to one ethnic group, namely Han Chinese, most people do not think of China as an ethnically diverse country. Yet in a country of 1.4 billion people, the remaining 8% amounts to about 120 million people, and according to the Chinese government, the non-Han Chinese belong to 55 different ethnic groups. Apart from the Tibetan (sigh) and the Uygur (sigh again), most of these groups are unknown to Westerners. This last fall, spending time in Guizhou, a province of Southwest China, I had the chance to meet people from the hill tribes of China, many of them from the Miao minority. The Miao is the fifth largest ethnic group in China and about half of the 10 million Miao Chinese live in Guizhou province.

The first thing to clarify about the Miao is that they are neither a homogeneous nor a natural group. They are, in fact, a group “made up” by the Chinese government, consisting of several tribes who share cultural, linguistic, or way-of-life characteristics. Most of them lived in isolated mountain villages, as the roads were barely navigable until the last ten years. Among them are the Hmong who constitute a large proportion of the Miao, but again, all Hmong are Miao but not all Miao are Hmong. There are about …80 different types of Miao. I will not attempt to name all of them but will only say that one of the ways they name themselves (at least in English) seems to be based on some features of their traditional clothing. So there are short-skirt Miao, long-skirt Miao, mini-skirt Miao, hot pants Miao, black Miao, red Miao, white Miao, hundred-bird Miao, long-horn Miao, four-seal Miao…

Chinese ethnic tribes are well known for their beautiful traditional dresses made of exquisite fabric, often indigo, and amazing embroidery. The traditional dresses are still worn at festivals and local ceremonies. My time in Guizhou coincided with a few local festivals held in relatively remote villages (one of them took us 7 hours to get to, resulting in an unplanned sleep-over at the village head’s house, but that is a long story). During the festival, a few of the men play a local reed instrument, the luzhen that all men learn how to play. It is hard to describe the sound made by the luzhen, but it is certainly quite repetitive and stays with you for a long time. If you long to experience it, here is an audio clip.

Young women of marrying age or soon-to-be get dressed in their beautiful embroidered clothes, wear all the silver they own (or some silver metal equivalent), their new sneakers (I guess this is a new addition to the traditional attire), and dance in a circle incredibly slowly for hours on end from early afternoons till dusk, with the luzhen a constant source of accompaniment. The idea is apparently to display their beauty and wealth to the local young men who sit around and watch. Mr. Lee, our always-inspired local leader, translated the name of the group of Miao we visited as the “Pink-beaded skirted Miao’ though I doubt this is official.   At one of these festivals, a type of Miao rarely seen, the hundred-bird Miao (I assume because of the feathers at the bottom of their dresses and the beautiful embroidered birds), also appeared briefly.

Other Miao and the Dingban Yao clans are well-known for their rather unique (and quite spectacular) traditional attire. As no festivals were scheduled for them during our visit, a few women kindly agreed to wear their traditional dress for us. The Long-Horn Miao, as one can guess, use a horn (it used to be an animal horn, but it has now been replaced by one made of wood) to construct an elaborate headpiece. The horns are fixed to the women’s natural hair, and then a mixture of linen, wool, and ancestral hair is wrapped around it. The hair is then secured to the horn by a white ribbon.

An older but oh-so-sweet lady from the four-seal Miao was so excited about showing us her full attire that she insisted on singing and dancing and invited one of her friends to join her. When we left, she made sure we had her phone number in case we ever came back, informing us that she did not need ours as she did not know how to initiate a call, but she knew how to answer.

The Dingban Yao women also wear an impressive headdress made of a large bamboo structure shaped like a triangle that is then decorated with strings of ribbons and beads.

Well, there are still more than 70 branches of the Miao clan that I have not seen. Clearly, I need to get busy.




22 Responses

    1. Thank you Alison. You are right, the clothing in your post is very similar to the clothing worn by the Miao in China. Which makes sense since they are basically all from the same tribe as the Hmong have migrated out of China to SouthEast Asia (northern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand). And more recently, a large group of Hmong refugees has resettled in Western nations. We have big communities in the U.S., perhaps you do in Australia as well. France

  1. You freaking NAILED it, girl! Am sooooo envious of your locations! We just returned today from 2 weeks in Antarctica and then 2 weeks in Colombia…great landscape in Antarctica. Colombia was sort of a bust. You’re quite the professional photographer now, my dear! Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Elise. Sorry to hear Colombia was no a hit. There are tribal groups there but you have to go pretty far off. I was there for the Baranquilla carnival a couple of years ago. That was quite colorful. Enjoy your time back home.

  2. As always, gorgeous! I visited Dali in 1988 – after weeks of traveling through the usual Han Chinese areas – and regretted then that I had not started in that part of the country.

    1. Tricia. Lovely hearing from you again. I am sure Dali was quite something then. Now Dali is very urban and you have to go quite a bit further to see anything colorful. On the other hand, the roads are much better than they were. I am sure you had a great time. The local people are so welcoming.

  3. Oh France, these are breathtaking photographs of incredibly beautiful people and costumes! Yes, you clearly need to get busy… more please! Sharon

    1. Thank you Sharon. Nice hearing from you. They are indeed incredibly beautiful people and costumes. I will “get busy” ;-), the problem is that these villages are all pretty far from one another so it takes quite a while to go visit. So many things to see, so little time!

  4. Wonderful, What a privilege that must have been to witness these events. Thanks you for sharing your experience and for attaching that piece of audio which brings another whole dimension to gettiing an idea of what it must have been like for you.

    1. Thank you Dave. It was indeed special to be there, particularly in the small villages. I am glad you like the images and the audio clip. However, to have a sense of what it was like for me, you have to listen to the clip for 5 hours in a row ;-) As they get tired, the men replaced one another playing and it goes on forever…

  5. Happy Chinese New Year France

    These pictures are stunning. I’ve rarely seen such beautiful adornments presented with such clarity !

    1. Thank you Emily. Yes these traditional dresses are beautiful. It is nice to see how proud the local people are of them, even younger generations.

  6. You never disappoint. Since I was a fellow traveler and understand the often times difficult photographic conditions, not to mention your injured arm, special kudos, and not just to your wonderful eye and photographic skills, but your beautifully written blog. I’m pretty sure there is more to come, hopefully soon.

    1. Sarah, Thanks for you kind words. We could not have done it without your snacks ;-) And yes there is more to come!

    1. Thank you Mikhail. Thanks for taking the time to visit the blog. Yes, these hidden areas are fascinating to the western world. But I think, the similarities between all of us is also always evident in these stories. The young man in the water buffalo fighting ring (which is the school basketball court when there is no festival) is wearing a jersey from Michael Jordan, a famous basketball player from Chicago where I live. All the best, France

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