Where did Mien people come from?

If you’re Mien, you’ve probably faced the conundrum of explaining where Mien people came from. You’d think that an explanation of our origins wouldn’t be burdened with such complexity, but the fact that we’re a transnational people makes it almost impossible to provide a simple response.  

Not only are we residing in many countries around the world like China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, France, the United States, and so forth, we’re also a subgroup of the Pan Yao, the largest of the three major branches of the Yao Nationality.

For sure, the Yao label is hardly indicative of a homogenous ethnic group. But for convenience, I’ll be using mostly the term “Yao” to refer to the Mien.   

Mongolian Origins  

Let’s dispel the belief that the Mien originated in Mongolia. The idea that we sprang from Mongolia seems to be spreading on social media and has built up some momentum in recent years. I’ll admit, it’d be interesting if we’re the descendants of the mighty Mongols that once ruled the largest empire in the world. But it wouldn’t be historically accurate.  

To make a long story short, when Yao tribes were first seen roaming the mountainous regions of Southern China, the Mongols didn’t exist as a nation. Prior to the 13th century, present-day Mongolia was ruled by various nomadic empires, none of which were considered Mongol. It wasn’t until 1206 when Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, seized the leadership of the Mongol confederation and began what we’d call the Mongol Empire.   

Such belief in Mongolian origins likely stemmed from interactions between the Mongols and Yao tribes when the armies of the Yuan Dynasty (1138-1276) invaded Southern China in the latter part of the 13th century. Perhaps, there were intermarriages between some Mongolian men and Yao women that spawned the folk stories we hear today of Mongolian origins.  

The Earliest Ancestors 

According to academia, the earliest ancestors of the Yao would have resided somewhere south of the Yangtze River. Most scholars from both the West and East seem to agree that the Yao were indigenous to Southern China and among the Nanman (Southern Barbarians). Given the context of the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) and the geopolitics of the time, the earliest ancestors of the Yao would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Chu State (1030-223 BCE). But how do we know the earliest ancestors of the Yao weren’t residing in other states during the Warring States Period?

Chinese States at the time were in a sense fighting to the death. Borders were heavily guarded and armies were on full alert. It would have been very difficult for large groups of people that hadn’t been incorporated by Chinese states to move from one state to the other. Thus, it makes sense that when the Chu expanded further south and encountered unincorporated barbarian groups (Jingman), its borders to the north had already been established. 

The only problem is that ancient Chinese references to Southern Barbarian groups during the Chu and the periods that followed didn’t distinguish among the various ethnic groups and languages in the South; they simply lumped everyone together. So any references to the Nanman or Southern Barbarians could have been made toward the ancestors of the Yao, Miao (Hmong), She, Zhuang, Tuija, or Tai peoples, all of whom were living in the area at the time. So how do we separate the ancestors of the Yao from the ancestors of other Southern Barbarian groups?   

The Panhu Myth

The Panhu Myth, also known as the Legend of King Pan, is undeniably the most important piece in the fabric of ancient Yao history. For it allows us to link at least one of those Southern Barbarian groups with the Yao. Unlike certain origin myths that may be specific to one subgroup, the Panhu Myth has been passed down by many Yao subgroups in China, Southeast Asia, and the West.   

Here’s a summary:

Long ago in Ancient China, Emperor Diku (Gaoxin) was under the threat of the Quanrong, a formidable rival led by Marshal Wu. The Emperor ordered his commanders to launch an assault on the Quanrong. However, none of his commanders dared to challenge the Marshal. The Emperor then made a promise that he who defeated the Marshal would be rewarded with the opportunity to marry one of the princesses. To everyone’s surprise, it was the palace dog, later named Panhu, who accepted the challenge. 

Panhu quietly left for Quanrong, and upon returning to the palace with Marshal Wu’s decapitated head, was rewarded with marriage to one of the princesses. He was also given land to rule and thereafter referred to as King Pan.  

The story ends with King Pan and the princess eventually giving birth to six boys and six girls, believed by many Yao today, especially the Pan Yao, to be the forbearers of the original twelve clans. And in many communities around the world today, annual King Pan festivals continue to be held.       

Okay, was there an actual palace dog that helped defeat the rival of an ancient Chinese emperor? Literally, no. If there is some truth to the myth, it is that Panhu was a tribal Chieftain of a non-Sinitic (non-Chinese) people living on the periphery of a Chinese kingdom. An alliance might’ve been forged between Panhu and the nearby kingdom after an incident in which the former performed a good deed and was rewarded. After all, such arrangements between the state and non-Sinitic peoples were not uncommon in China.

(Interesting 4-minute clip about the Legend of Pan Hu)

Moyao, Yaoman, Yaoren 

Whether or not there’s truth to the Panhu Myth remains a matter of debate. What we do know is that by the Tang Dynasty (618-907), official state records began referring to the “supposed” descendants of Panhu with variants of the term Yao: Moyao, Yaoman, and Yaoren. The state had learned more about the indigenous peoples of the south, and it became possible to sort out the different ethnic groups and languages. However, it's likely that they were simply following trends that had already been set. 

For example, the ancient Chinese historian Fan Ye (398-445 CE) mentioned in the Houhanshu (Book of the Later Han) that the barbarians of Wuling (northern Hunan) and other areas of the Jing (Chu) region were none other than the descendants of Panhu. Other sources included commentary from Ganbao, a historian and writer working for the Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE). In the Jinji (Annals of Jin), Ganbao also claimed that the descendants of Panhu were indigenous to Wuling and were scattered near the Five Streams of Dongting Lake in Northern Hunan.    

Beyond the Tang 

As the relationship between the state and Yao tribes became more defined, the historical record of the Yao became clearer. And nowhere is the historical record clearer than in official state records that pertain to Yao rebellions.  

From the Song Dynasty (960-1276) through the Qing (1634-1912), numerous uprisings were recorded in official records, indicating a rather tumultuous relationship between the Yao and the state. During the Yuan Dynasty, from 1316 to 1331, the Yao were responsible for more than 40 uprisings. And perhaps the largest and most significant Yao Rebellion of all took place in 1832 across the Hunan-Guangxi-Guangdong border region during the Qing Dynasty. Thousands of Yao combatants and civilians were slain before a peace accord was reached with Qing officials.

For the most part, the Yao have historically seen themselves as autonomous folk exempt from taxes, forced labor, and obligatory military service. Frequent incursions by the state is one of the reasons why the Yao were consistently migrating further south and into higher elevations, gradually moving from Hunan to Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou, Yunnan—and beginning in about the 13th century, Vietnam. By the late 19th century, Yao tribes of the Iu Mien subgroup began making their way from Yunnan into northern Laos.

Reasons for resettlement in Laos varied. Some say that the chaos created by the ailing Qing Dynasty was a factor, while others believe that the lack of arable land on the mountains in Yunnan was a driving force. There was also drought in southern Yunnan in the late 1800s that forced many Iu Mien to rethink their positions. Whatever the case, by the 20th century, the Iu Mien were firmly established in Laos.  

David Saechao the author of From Mountains to Skyscrapers: The Journey of the Iu Mien.  

Further Reading 

Alberts, Eli. A History of Daoism and the Yao People of South China. 2007 

Hjorleifur, Jonsson. Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand. 2005  

Litzinger, Ralph A. Other Chinas. 2000  

Phan, Kal S. Mountain Taoist Literacy to Urban American Classroom: The Experience of Second Generation Mien American High School Students. 2016  

Shu Shin Luh and Dr. Jianwei Wang. China: The Emerging Superpower, The People of China. 2014 

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