Identification. The various Miao groups are for the most part an unstratified agricultural people found in the uplands of several provinces of China and related to the Hmong of Southeast Asia. They are distinguished by language, dress, historical traditions, and cultural practice from neighboring ethnic groups and the dominant Han Chinese. They are not culturally homogeneous and the differences between local Miao cultures are often as great as between Miao and non-Miao neighbors. The term "Miao" is Chinese, and means "weeds" or "sprouts." Chinese minority policies since the 1950s treat these diverse groups as a single nationality and associate them with the San Miao Kingdom of central China mentioned in histories of the Han dynasty (200 B.C. - A.D. 200).
Location. About half of China's Miao are located in Guizhou Province. Another 34 percent are evenly divided between Yunnan Province and western Hunan Province. The remainder are mainly found in Sichuan and Guangxi, with a small number in Guangdong and Hainan. Some of the latter may have been resettled there during the Qing dynasty. The wide dispersion makes it difficult to generalize about ecological settings. Miao settlements are found anywhere from a few hundred meters above sea level to elevations of 1,400 meters or more. The largest number are uplands people, often living at elevations over 1,200 meters and located at some distance from urban centers or the lowlands and river valleys where the Han are concentrated. Often, these upland villages and hamlets are interspersed with those of other minorities such as Yao, Dong, Zhuang, Yi, Hui, and Bouyei. Most live in the fourteen autonomous prefectures and counties designated as Miao or part-Miao. Among the largest of these are the Qiandongnan Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture and Qiannan Bouyei-Miao Autonomous Prefecture established in Guizhou in 1956, the Wenshan Zhuang-Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan established in 1958, and the Chengbu Miao Autonomous County in Hunan organized in 1956. In addition, there are Miao present in at least ten other autonomous units where they are a minority among the minorities. Some Miao villages are within minzuxiang (minority townships), in areas that have a high concentration of minority peoples but not autonomous status, as is the case in Zhaotong Prefecture in northeastern Yunnan.
Demography. The 1990 census reports a population of 7,398,677 Miao. This is an increase of almost 47 percent over the 1982 census figure of 5,036,377. Some of the growth is due to natural increase (as of 1990 the Miao were not limited to one or two children) and some to the recognition of additional population as Miao and better census procedures.
Linguistic Affiliation. According to Chinese language classification, the Miao languages belong to the Miao-Yao Branch of Sino-Tibetan. Officially, these languages are termed fangyin (dialects) although they are not mutually intelligible. There are at least three main languages, further divisible into distinct and separate sublanguages or dialects of varying degrees of closeness. The Miao languages are tonal. Xiangxi, spoken in western Hunan by close to one million speakers, is associated with the Red Miao. It is comprised of two sublanguages. The larger of the two has been taken as standard and given a romanization for school texts and other local publications. The Qiandong language of central and eastern Guizhou is associated with the Black Miao. It has three major subdivisions. The most widespread of the three has well over a million speakers, and is taken as the official standard. The others, with a half million speakers each, are regarded as dialects and, as of this writing, have no official recognition. The Chuanqiandian languages are spoken by White, Flowery, and Blue Miao. There are at least seven major subdivisions, each further divided into a number of local dialects. At present only Chuanqiandianci (White Miao) and Diandongbei (Hua Miao) are officially recognized. Both of these formerly used a phonetic script, introduced by missionaries at the turn of the century. The script has been supplanted by a government-introduced romanization. In addition there are some eight additional fangyin, with several thousand speakers each, which do not fit into any of the major categories. Most of the Miao in Hainan are Yao speakers, and some Miao elsewhere speak only Dong or Chinese.