Chinese scholarship links the present-day Miao to tribal confederations that moved southward some 2,000 years ago from the plain between the Yellow River and the Yangtze toward the Dongting Lake area. These became the San Miao mentioned in Han dynasty texts. Over the next thousand years, between the Han and the Song dynasties, these presumed ancestors of the Miao continued to migrate westward and southward, under pressure from expanding Han populations and the imperial armies. Chinese texts and Miao oral history establish that over those years the ancestors settled in western Hunan and Guizhou, with some moving south into Guangxi or west along the Wu River to southeastern Sichuan and into Yunnan. The period was marked by a number of uprisings and battles between Miao and the Han or local indigenous groups, recalled in the oral histories of local groups. Though the term "Miao" was sometimes used in Tang and Song histories, the more usual term was "Man," meaning "barbarians." Migration continued through the Yuan, Ming, and early Qing, with some groups moving into mainland Southeast Asia. The retreat from Han control brought some into territories controlled by the Yi in northeast Yunnan/northwest Guizhou. The various migrations can also be seen as "vertical" migrations into the undeveloped hillside and mountain areas that were of lesser interest to Han. Depending on the terrain, the settled farming cited in Miao historical myths gave way to shifting slash-and-burn agriculture, facilitated by the introduction of the Irish potato and maize in the sixteenth century, and the adoption of high-altitude/cool-weather crops like barley, buckwheat, and oats. Farming was supplemented by forest hunting, fishing, gathering, and pastoralism. During the Qing, uprisings and military encounters escalated. There were major disturbances in western Hunan (1795-1806) and a continuous series of rebellions in Guizhou (1854—1872). Chinese policies toward the Miao shifted among assimilation, containment in "stockaded villages," dispersal, removal, and extermination. The frequent threat of "Miao rebellion" caused considerable anxiety to the state; in actuality, many of these uprisings included Bouyei, Dong, Hui, and other ethnic groups, including Han settlers and demobilized soldiers. At issue were heavy taxation, rising landlordism, rivalries over local resources, and official corruption. One of the last Miao uprisings occurred in 1936 in western Hunan in opposition to Guomindang (Republican) continuation of the tuntian system, which forced the peasants to open up new lands and grow crops for the state.
From Song on, in periods of relative peace, government control was exercised through the tusi system of indirect rule by appointed native headmen who collected taxes, organized corvée, and kept the peace. Miao filled this role in Hunan and eastern Guizhou, but farther west the rulers were often drawn from a hereditary Yi nobility, a system that lasted into the twentieth century. In Guizhou, some tusi claimed Han ancestry, but were probably drawn from the ranks of assimilated Bouyei, Dong, and Miao. Government documents refer to the "Sheng Miao" (raw Miao), meaning those living in areas beyond government control and not paying taxes or labor service to the state. In the sixteenth century, in the more pacified areas, the implementation of the policy of gaitu guiliu began the replacement of native rulers with regular civilian and military officials, a few of whom were drawn from assimilated minority families. Land became a commodity, creating both landlords and some freeholding peasants in the areas affected. In the Yunnan-Guizhou border area, the tusi system continued and Miao purchase of land and participation in local markets was restricted by law until the Republican period (1911-1949).
Throughout the Republican period, the government favored a policy of assimilation for the Miao and strongly discouraged expressions of ethnicity. Southwestern China came under Communist government control by 1951, and Miao participated in land reform, collectivization, and the various national political campaigns. In the autonomous areas created beginning in 1952, the Miao were encouraged to revive and elaborate their costumes, music, and dance, while shedding "superstitious" or "harmful" customs. Some new technology and scientific knowledge was introduced, along with modern medicine and schooling. The Miao suffered considerably during the Cultural Revolution years, when expressions of ethnicity were again discouraged, but since 1979 the Miao have been promoted in the media and the government has encouraged tourism to the Miao areas of eastern and central Guizhou.