December 31, 2015
Mian (Mien or Yao)
The people officially known as the “Mian” in Thailand call themselves “Mian” or “Iu Mian.” Historically, the Chinese called them “Mian,” which means “dog” or “savage.” In Mian, (Laos and Vietnam) the word mian means “people.”
The Mian are distant linguistic relatives of the Hmong people and are the smallest group of the seven major hill tribes of Thailand. They also live at lower elevations than most other Hill tribes and due to their long association with China many display distinctive Chinese facial features.
There is historical evidence of Mian (Mian) dating back to the 5th century BC, it is believed that they originated from the mountains of Tibet. It is also reported that they have lived in the mountainous areas of southern China’s Hunan province for at least 2,000 years, before migrating during the 15th-16th century to northern Vietnam, northern Laos and eventually to northern Thailand.
Immigration into Thailand was sharply accelerated after the Indochina War when the victorious Pathet Lao forces began seeking reprisal for the involvement of many Mian, as soldiers in a CIA-sponsored secret army. The same was true for the Hmong people and their involvement in the same ‘Secret War’
There are 4 major groups of Mian, the Phan (Bienh), the Bunu, the Cha Sun, and Ping Ti. The Phan language is the most widely spoken, while the Bunu and the Luc Jaa developed into separate languages. There a total of 12 clan names (see below Legend of the Mian lineage).
In the early 21st century they numbered some 2,700,000 in China, more than 350,000 in Vietnam, and approximately 20,000 in Laos. Several thousand Mian refugees from Laos have also settled in North America, Australia, and France.
In 1986-1988 the Mian population in Thailand was officially placed at 36,140, up from only 19,990 in 1972, The Mian population is rapidly increasing owing to a high birth rate and immigration. There are now thought to be between 40-60,000 Mian in Thailand, found predominately in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan, Kamphaeng Phet, Tak and Sukhothai.
Beliefs and Practices
Evidence for the centuries of Mian association with China is most clearly seen in their religious beliefs and practices. Their religion is a combination of Animism and Taoism, in which they worship their ancestors’ spirits (“Zu Zong Mianv”): They also celebrate the lunar New Year.
They have a number of spirits believed to have an influence on human beings. The Mian recognize eighteen principal deities whose finely painted portraits they preserve on scrolls. (“Sai Nzung Sou”) These are usually kept rolled up on the spirit altars in their homes and are displayed on important ritual occasions. They are normally written in Chinese with most believed to derive from Chinese deities; the Jade Emperor, the Three Celestial Ones, the earth god, Tichu, and even the deified Lao Tzu.
In Thailand while a number of Mian have converted to Christianity and to Buddhism, many more still practice their native traditions. Like the Chinese, Mian have a host of minor supernatural’s, gods, deceased heroes, and even spirits of natural phenomena.
Considerable attention is paid to evil spirits in exorcistic and propitiatory rites, which are carried out on such occasions as harvest or when there is illness. Their sacred written scripture (“Sai Nzung Sou”) is adapted from Taoism and is handed down from one generation to the next and are also a guide on how their rituals and ceremonies are performed. This form of literacy distinguishes the Mian from the other hill tribes of Thailand who have no pre-modern literate tradition.
On occasions such as the house blessing ceremonies, the “sai Mianh” or the spirit’s priest will read from the “sai nzung sou” to bless the house and to invite the “Mianv Zoux Ziouv” or the good spirit to stay in the home. The people believe this will help protect them from illnesses and or evils undertaken by the bad spirits.
Language and System of Writing
The Mian language is closely related to that of the Chinese Miao, both belonging to the Miao-Mian Pateng Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. Many Mian also speak Yunnanese or the closely related Mandarin Chinese. In Thailand, the dialect spoken by the Mian of different regions is essentially the same, with the addition of some new words from Yunnanese and Thai. More men than women speak the Thai language, especially the northern Thai dialect.
Mian society is organized around a clan structure that enables individuals living in highly dispersed areas to have a sense of kinship. Compared to the households of the other Hill Tribes in Thailand the Mian households are the largest.
Religious Practitioners. The position of priest-exorcist (“sai Mianh”) is important in Mian society. Although these practitioners are skilled at divining with chicken bones and bamboo sticks, their real power lies in their knowledge of incantations taken from their sacred “sai nzung sou” scrolls. During their teens boys are given special instruction in this art so they may become shamans later in life. Mian shamans are called in on occasions of illness and also officiate in various village ceremonies.
Shamans are seen as crucially important to the Mian as they maintain the harmony within the village, for it is believed they mediate between the world of the living and the supernatural world beyond.
Headman. Traditionally the village’s headman is the same person who established the village, in some instances the headman of one village takes the leadership role for several villages. The position is passed from father to son or to someone selected by the retiring headman. Old people are highly respected, and they may form an elder council giving advice to the headman on domestic problems.
Conflicts are resolved by the headman, assisted ritually by the religious practitioner.
The land around the village belongs to the village and is under the authorized management of the village headman. The people who first cleared the land have the right to cultivate it, and it will be theirs for as long as they stay in that village. If a man leaves the village, his kin in the village have a prior right to cultivate the land, subject to the headman’s decision. If nobody in the village uses the land, outsiders may be asked to cultivate it. Since the Mian have come to live in permanent villages, about 97.2 percent of families own the land they work and very few rent land in the reserved forest.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Dry-rice agriculture dominates the economy while the opium poppy was once their only cash crop. Opium was not wiped out as an economical crop until as late as the 1990’s. See our post from Opium to Tea. The Mian now grow a range of other cash crops.
See more on the changes to the Hill Tribes commercial activities
Most villages have at least one blacksmith/silversmith who can make farm tools and jewelry.
Marriage. Premarital sexual experimentation is permitted and young people are expected to choose their own marriage partners, with advice from their elders. Fathers retain an intermediary to make arrangements; the couple’s horoscopes are examined and, if these are compatible, the girl’s parents are approached and the bride-price is discussed. Mian marriage ceremonies are formal, elaborate, and very expensive affairs. Their principal purpose is to transfer the girl, and her fertility, from her father’s lineage to that of her husband.
Legend of the Mian lineage
Their ancient writings tell the story of how the people were made and where they got their 12 clan names: The two heavenly gods Daa Ong (Grandfather) and Daa Gux (Grandmother) decided to create the Mian people and live amongst them on Earth. Daa Ong manifested himself into a five-colored dragon-dog named Phan Hu, while Daa Gux made herself into the third daughter of one of the two ruling emperors. The Dragon-dog killed the other ruling emperor, as his reward he was given the hand in marriage of Daa Gux. The two gods had 12 children six boys and six girls, the twelve names given to their children are the names of the twelve clans
Gunfire and death
Upon a Mien person’s last gasp of breath and in order to call heaven to help watch for the spirit and soul a gun is fired into the air three times, the noise from the gunfire also helps inform the neighbors that a family member has just passed away.
|The cremation and eventual burial rituals go on for four days. During the first three day’s all of the relatives who are younger than the dead and as a sign of both honor and respect wear a white cloth over their head.Day One: The headman selects six special helpers to help cut down a tree to carve a casket. When the casket is completed, the helpers bring it from the forest. The village priest performs a ritual around the casket, knocking the casket inside and out, chasing away any evil spirits which may be hiding within. Once the freshly dressed deceased is laid inside, the casket is sealed and decorated with variety of paper-designs. The priest is on hand to keep the dead person informed on every step of the way.|
At the same time friends and family prepare paper money, produce dolls out of dough, and make a paper boat.
Second day: Family and friends this time build a miniature wooden bridge with towers, calling all known spirit ghosts to come down from the heaven to help guide the way.
The third day: Encompasses finalizing the ceremony. Before the casket can be moved to the burial spot normally near the village there is more gun fire, the funeral procession with the six men carrying the casket is escorted by family and friends playing drums, gongs and other traditional musical instruments. Once the procession reaches the place of cremation, a women holding a rooster walks around the casket to ensure the soul is separated from the dead person, then the priest steps onto the casket and begins chanting, once finished the casket is set alight on all four corners and within a few minutes all those in attendance turn their backs and quietly walk away, never to look back. There’s an ancient Mein saying “if you look back, your spirit may go back with the death.”
The final Day: The next morning, the priest along with selected family and friends returns to the site to collect the cremated bones for a permanent burial. A burial site can be a pre-selected spot, chosen by the dead person (when they were alive) The group takes the remains along with a chicken and an egg to the selected burial area. The priest conducts a further ceremony, informing the dead what he is about to do and tosses the egg on the ground. If the egg breaks, it means that particular spot is desired by the dead for the burial of his bones. But if the egg does not break, they will have to keep on dropping it in different spots until it breaks. After the burial is done, those in attendance prepare the chicken and have a picnic as a reward for a job well done.
The Mien have a unique way of giving names to their children. Every Mien man has 3 names in his lifetime: a child name, an adult name, and a spirit or ghost name (primarily used when calling the dead – all ghost names begin with ‘Fa’). In doing so one can tell by a person’s name where they stand within a clan in reference to their age.
Children’s names often reflect the characteristics of the child e.g. A child who urinates soon after birth maybe called “Zaanc” meaning: Cheap or Priceless. Their names can also reflect the wishes of the parents e.g. When parents no longer want any more children “Liuz’ meaning a final child or no more after this one.
For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people of Thailand