Allow me to introduce you to one of the most intractable problems of nomenclature I’ve run across.

You have probably seen references to the Hmong people; many of them fled Southeast Asia after working with the American military and finding themselves on the wrong side of the Communist takeover, and a sizable community has settled in the U.S. They have established themselves enough to have begun to find a voice; the NY Times yesterday published a long article by Felicia R. Lee about the birth of a literature out of an oral tradition, in particular the literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks. A quote from the article:

As for the Hmong, they are gradually coming into their own in America. They have elected their first state senator, from Minnesota, and the St. Paul police have learned to speak Hmong. The anthology is being bought particularly by educators and those interested in Asian culture, said John van Vliet, a spokesman for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Since October, about 3,200 of the 4,500 books in print have been sold, said Kevin Morrissey, a marketing manager for the press.

Note that in none of those links does the word “Miao” occur.

Now let us turn our attention to the minority languages of China. One of the most prominent (spoken by 5,000,000 people, behind only Zhuang, Uighur, and Yi) is Miao, part of the Miao-Yao group. A striking feature of Miao is that it has a large number of consonants (49 in one representative dialect) but few vowels, and syllables can end only in a vowel or in the consonant -ng (in some dialects, this becomes nasalization of the preceding vowel). The usual romanization system takes advantage of the fact that no syllable ends in a consonant: the tone (except for the mid tone) is indicated by a consonant letter written at the end of each syllable. Thus pob ‘ball’ has high tone, poj ‘female’ has high falling tone, and so on, with po ‘spleen’ representing the mid tone. This is a clever and economical system, with the disadvantage that foreigners not used to the conventions find it virtually impossible not to “hear” the final consonant they see written. Thus the name of the journal I cited above, Paj Ntaub, is pronounced something like “pa ndau” (with tones as in my examples). Note that in neither the above paragraph nor in the links does the word “Hmong” appear.

The attentive reader will already have anticipated the surprise ending: Miao and Hmong are one and the same. It took me some time to figure this out, and once I did I was quite annoyed. There are many languages that are known by more than one name (Gypsy/Romanes, Galla/Oromo, Araucanian/Mapuche, Votyak/Udmurt, etc., the latter of each pair being the “correct” name), but when these are referred to acknowledgment is usually made of the duality. Only in the case of Hmong (written Hmoob in the standard romanization) and Miao do the two terms lead such separate lives. The explanation is simple enough. The group that migrated from southern China to Laos and Vietnam within the last couple of centuries (many of whom have now emigrated to the U.S.) call themselves Hmong and quite naturally passed the term on, first to the soldiers they worked with and now to Americans at large; meanwhile, the much larger group that remained in China has always been known to the Chinese as Miao, and since there is no common self-designation (only a minority using “Hmong”), Miao has quite naturally been used by linguists and others who deal with the minorities of China. So what are we who want to refer to the whole population to do? Joakim Enwall has written a short article [“Miao or Hmong?” from the Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, Number 17, June 1992] on the subject, and I am willing to accept his conclusion:

I propose that the term Hmong be used only for designating the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. However, I think that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in Miaology. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. There is perhaps not much that can be done about this now, but I hope that some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.


  1. Just now am at my mother’s in Yorkshire finishing off my copy of Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ I started when I was last back.

    Just last night got to the Pacific languages bit where Diamond identifies the Miao as “known in the US as the Hmong”. Maybe we should build this little fact into the intelligent-cat question-and-answer joke I heard last week….

  2. Regarding ethnonyms/glossonyms issues, one would usually tend to consider that sticking to the people’s self-designation in their own language is always better than alleged scholarly “tradition”, which is all-too often based on ages-old misinterpretations of the colonial/missionary period.
    However, Enkwall gives a rather convincing argument why this is not as easy to apply as an ideological viewpoint falsly assumes (the ‘Miao’ who call themselves ‘Hmong’ being actually ‘Baimiao’ according to the colour-coded chinese terminology). As a point of comparison, this reminds me of the now usual designation of Greek-Russian immigrants as “Rossopontii” (Pontic Russians), although only part of them are Pontics (and an even smaller part actually speak the dialect). As a matter of fact, politics is strongly present in the background of such issues: popsci books and travel guides rarely indicate that ‘Tibetans’ are only known as ‘Zang’ for the average Chinese.
    As an aside, famous writer Shen Congwen, son of a Hmong (Baimiao) mother, has some beautiful descriptions and somehow literary analysis of this nation’s epics (the absence of any Han epics is one of those “unsolved mysteries” of human science, quite usefull to stop hasty eurocentric systematizations).

  3. Correction: Of course, it’s “Russian Pontics”. By the way, sorry for using such broken english on a language blog: this is actually the only foreign language I had to learn all by myself, in a pretty chaotical way.

  4. Jimmy: Don’t apologize; reading your first comment I didn’t have any idea you weren’t a native English speaker. And you make some very interesting points; I hope you’ll drop me a line one of these days (at languagehat at yahoo dot com) so we can discuss them. I’m quite interested in the Pontic Greeks, and the nonexistence of Chinese epic is something I hadn’t thought of.

  5. Ilya Vinarsky says

    Perhaps Chinese epics were among the books that Qin Shi Huangdi burned.

  6. Charles Moua says

    It is a bittersweet when talking about the terms Miao and Hmong. Either term is acceptable at the time being. However, there is another push for a new term–Mong. Actually, the term Hmong and Mong existed at about the same time in the early 1950s, in Laos, of course. But then Mong was less used then Hmong. How these two terms derived from remain silent still. I agree with Joakim Enwall and you that let the term Miao be the universal term when referring to this group of people, and Hmong and Mong be in use in the western countries, especially the United States.

  7. Curious about the current situation, I turned to Wikipedia. Miao people:

    The Miao are a group of linguistically-related peoples living in Southern China and Southeast Asia […]

    Miao is a Chinese term, while the component groups of people have their own autonyms, such as (with some variant spellings) Hmong, Hmu, Xong (Qo-Xiong) and A-Hmao. These people (except those in Hainan) speak Hmongic languages, a subfamily of the Hmong–Mien languages including many mutually unintelligible languages such as the Hmong, Hmub, Xong and A-Hmao.

    Hmong people:

    The Hmong people (RPA: Hmoob, […] IPA: [m̥ɔ̃́]) are an ethnic group living mainly in southern China (Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing and Guangxi), Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. […] In China they are classified as a subgroup of the Miao people. […]

    Today the term Miao has lost its derogatory connotation in China, and Miao zu (苗族, “Miao ethnic group”) is officially used by the Chinese government to denote a group of linguistically and culturally related peoples, and Hmong is one of the largest (the others are Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao).

    In Southeast Asia, Hmong people are referred to by other names, including: Vietnamese: Mèo, Mông or H’Mông; Lao: ແມ້ວ (Maew) or ມົ້ງ (Mong); Thai: แม้ว (Maew) or ม้ง (Mong); Burmese: မုံလူမျိုး (mun lu-myo). The xenonym, “Mèo”, and variants thereof, are considered highly derogatory by some Hmong people in the USA.

    And there’s a whole section “Hmong/Mong controversy” which makes me tired even to think about.

    (Jimmy Ho’s first comment was in this thread! I wish he’d come back.)

  8. That Wikipedia article has a (presumably recently added, but I’m not going to check) main section on “Noteworthy Hmong athletes.” Online evidence suggests that Suni Lee (the only athlete listed) who won the Olympic women’s gymnastics all-around competition a few days ago uses the “Hmong” spelling.

  9. A couple of genomic references. The ancestral population group is known from ancient bones in Guanxi from 500 BCE. Slash-and-burn agriculture made these groups semi-nomadic, but the migration South towards Laos only started about 500 years ago. Linguistic and genetic trees are very similar. Many notes on etymology of the ethnonyms and on the complex composition of China’s “official ethnicities”

  10. Oh, thank you!!

    Now WP calls the family Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao in parentheses) and Russian WP followed English WP.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Thanks. Have read both. The number of recent papers referenced is maddening, and the methods and results are increasingly subtle. The field is getting hard to follow.

    I found the former paper hard to read, but I gather that it supports and expands earlier finds that linguistic branching matches fine-grained genetics. The latter paper was an easier read. Essentially the Yao (not all of which are Hmong-Mien) are a collection of peoples living (preferring to live) outside the reach of the Ming administrative system, each group showing a strong founder effect at the time of formation. The same goes for Hmong-Mien in general. The peoples and languages that survived into the modern era were those whose ancestors managed to stay outside the Han state — or who fled, some far into South Asia.

  12. as scott had described in his account of upland south asian ethnogenesis!

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