Who are the Miao ?
The Miao designation as one of China’s 56 'nationalities' (i.e., the 55 ethnic categories plus the Chinese Han) includes four major ethnic groups. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, the very existence of this official category appears to engender a sense of identity that transcends to some extent the basic ethno-linguistic divisions existing within itself (Foggin and Carrier, 2010). The Miao currently correspond to the fifth most populous nationality with a population of just over 9,426,000 or .71 % of China’s total population at the time of the 2010 census (NBS, 2012) and are concentrated for the most part in southwest China, particularly in Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan and Sichuan provinces and in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Figure 1). However, they are made up of some significantly different linguistic and ethnic sub-groups.
To describe the four major Miao ethno-linguistic groups, starting in the east, there are the Ghao-X[i]ong, also called by two other names, the Xiangxi Miao or the Red Miao, in western Hunan province. Their language or dialect has two main vernaculars, the western dialect for over 90 per cent of the speakers and the eastern version comprising less than 10 per cent. The Hmu, also known as Qiandongnan (“Southeast Qian”) or as the Hei (Black) Miao of southeast Guizhou, have three very distinct dialects: the northern with 65 percent of the speakers, the eastern with 15 percent and the southern with 20 percent” (Enwall, 1995).
The A-Hmao is the third major grouping of the Miao. The A-Hmao people are separate and different from the Hmong (the language of whom is officially called Chuan-Dian-Qian, or C-D-Q). Those speaking A-Hmao are spread over perhaps the largest contiguous territory of any of the Miao linguistic groups. The A-Hmao language is spoken in northwest Guizhou and northeast and central Yunnan.
Finally, Hmong language dialects are spoken by between a third and a half of those classified as Miao in China. In a telling commentary Lemoine says: “Back to the anthropological facts, ethnic (H)mong of China are but a part of the Miao political minority nationality and I see no logical way that other Miao (like the Ke Xiong [or Gho Xong], the A Hmao or the Hmu) could pretend to be considered as belonging to the same (H)mong ethnic group or change (H)mong from an ethnic name into a category name equivalent to Miao." They live primarily in central and western Guizhou and in southeastern Yunnan province. Some also live in Sichuan.