Miao - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and activities vary by locale and subethnic identity. The situation is further complicated by partial adoption of elements of folk Daoism and Buddhism, or by conversion to Christianity (as among segments of the White and Flowery Miao). Traditional religious beliefs concern powerful suprahuman forces associated with sacred groves, stones, caves, and other natural phenomena, as well as with bridges and wells. Other protective spirits guard the household and hamlet. The latter are sometimes thought of as dragons. It is believed that at death, the soul divides into three parts, one of which returns to protect the household as an ancestral spirit. There is also concern with evil spirits and with ghosts of those who died bad deaths and who may cause illness and misfortune. Religious beliefs are supported by a complex series of sung or chanted poetic myths, which treat the creation of the universe, the doings of divine beings and culture heroes, and early Miao history.

Religious Practitioners. Most religious ritual is performed or guided by various part-time specialists who act as priests, diviners, or shamans for the local community or for kin groups. Most of them are males. They engage in ordinary work, and only the most important religious activities require them to don special items of dress and decoration to mark them from others. There are no written texts for learning the chants, songs, dances, and rituals: they are memorized. If called by a family, specialists receive a small payment (often in foodstuffs) for their assistance. Shamans play a key role at funerals and postburial rites. They are also involved in analysis and healing of illness: some are skilled in herbal medicine as well as ritual procedures. Shamans also provide explanations of the possible causes of misfortune and can provide protective amulets. Ceremonies on behalf of the village community or a gathering of kin from several villages are conducted by skilled male elders who function as priests, following ritual procedures, administering the necessary animal and food sacrifices, and chanting the songs and myths without going into trance or communicating directly with the supernaturals and spirits. Some ceremonies are led by the male head of household on behalf of his immediate family.

Ceremonies. The calendrical year holds a number of set ceremonies that vary from group to group in content, purpose, and timing. For example, some groups now celebrate the lunar New Year along with their Han neighbors, whereas others celebrate the year's start in the tenth lunar month, following the harvest, and mark it with bullfights and cattle sacrifices. Others mark the New Year with cockfights or sacrifice of pigs and chickens, or intervillage assemblages enlivened by antiphonal singing, dancing, and the playing of the lusheng. Among the important festivals found in many (not all) Miao communities are the Dragon Boat Festival, which is synchronic with the Han festivities to a large extent, and the Mountain Flower festivals, which were an important institution for bringing together marriageable young people from different hamlets. The Drum Society festivals are held by dispersed kin groups to honor their ancestors every seven, ten, or twelve years, and are not strictly tied to the calendar. Most festivals involve the lavish offering of animal sacrifices, and for this reason the state has discouraged them.

Arts. The Miao are well known for the complexity, sophistication, and variety of their weaving, embroidery, and brocade and batik work, though little of it is commodified. Their elaborate silver jewelry is also famous. There is a rich heritage of oral literature (myths, history, tales, and songs). The ability to play the lusheng or other instruments and to sing and improvise songs is highly prized. Generally the Miao do not have graphic arts: the absence of god figures or painting of supernatural beings is a deliberate internal marker that differentiates them from Han and some neighboring groups.


Medicine. Aside from the shaman's extensive knowledge, ordinary persons also have some knowledge of plants and other materials that have healing properties. The Chinese invert this by claiming that Miao women engage in magical poisoning (gu), but all evidence suggests this is a Han myth rather than Miao practice. Divination and exorcism of ghosts and evil spirits are also a part of healing.


Death and Afterlife. The human soul is comprised of three parts. After death, one resides at the grave; another must be led safely through the journey to the other world where it rejoins the ancestors, and the third must be led safely back home where it serves as a protective ancestral spirit to the living. Thus, burial and postmortuary rituals require the skills and knowledge of a shaman to lead the mourners in ritual and perform the necessary sequence of ceremonies.


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