Iu-Mien History: From China to the U.S.
By Fahm Finh Saeteurn
An Early History
The early history of the Iu-Mien (Yao) is obscure and unclear. Much of it has been passed down through oral myths and legends, for few written historical records exist. The available records were written by the Han Chinese, and while they offer important glimpses into early Yao history, perhaps these records raise more questions than it answers.
The Yao have been traced to around 220 A.D. as belonging to one of many groups categorized under the term Nanman, which translates to southern barbarian. Nanman is one of two categories assigned to the people of the South, for those who lived in present-day Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan, and eastern Guizhou. The actual first reference to the term "Yao" appeared during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.) in the expression moyao, usually translated as "not subject to corvee labor." Many scholars have attempted to link this expression to the present-day Yao, implying that those historically not subject to compulsory labor are the Yao's direct ancestors. However, in an influential work on early Yao publications, Cushman convincingly argues that there is not enough evidence to support this link. The term moyao has only appeared in five sources, and there is no indication that it refers to a particular ethnic group. Furthermore, no one has been able to explain the shortening of moyao to Yao.
Other historical references to the Yao point to "tribal uprisings." The first uprisings were reported during the rule of the Song emperor Renzong (1023-1064 AD), as due to either the Yao's refusal to pay taxes or their attempts to reclaim confiscated land. This portrayal of resistance is present in all records, and as pointed out by Litzinger, the Han's failure to assimilate the Yao into its cultural and political order was often blamed on the Yao's stupidity, backwardness, and stubbornness, and not on the administration's inadequacies.
The first major southward migration of the Yao to Vietnam is reported to occur between the 17th and 18th century. It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th century that the Yao migrated into Laos, Burma, and Thailand. The cause of these migrations were reported as being due to Han encroachments, Yao's refusal to pay taxes, and the search for new land because of droughts.
An Origin Myth
A popular legend about Yao origin can be found on scrolls written in Chinese, called "King Ping's Charter." The legend tells of P'an Hu, a multi-colored dog who married a Chinese princess. According to the myth, the Chinese emperor King P'ing of the Ch'u Kingdom (528-516 B.C.) promised to give one of his daughters in marriage to anyone who could rid him of his enemy, King Kao. A multi-colored dog named P'an Hu succeeded, brought back King Kao's head, and married the princess, giving birth to six sons and six daughters. The twelve children are said to be the forefathers of the twelve Yao tribes.
Many Yao settled in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma after their southward migration in the 17th through 20th centuries. For the purposes of this paper, the Iu-Mien of Laos and Thailand will be the focus and discussed more thoroughly. In Thailand and Laos, the Iu-Mien practiced slash and burn agriculture, also known as shifting cultivation, which involved moving to new land once every decade.
In the 1960's and 1970's, Laos got engulfed in the Vietnam War. When the United States intervened to support anti-communist forces in the early 1960's, they contracted for help from the hill tribes of Laos. Like many other hill tribes, the Iu-Mien got involved and engaged in guerrilla warfare, providing the United States with intelligence, surveillance, and armed manpower. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and communist forces were victorious, the Iu-Mien began fleeing the new Pathet Lao government. More than seventy percent of the Iu-Mien population fled to Thailand, escaping through the jungle and across the Mekong. Once they arrived in Thailand, they were resettled in refugee camps. They received food and supplies from other nations and the United Nations Organization. After several years, the United States returned to fulfill their contract made with the ethnic minorities. They offered a refugee rescue program, which gave the Iu-Mien and other groups the choice to resettle in the United States.
Resettlement, Identity, and Links
The first significant group of Iu-Mien arrivals came during the late 1970's. After resettling, the Iu-Mien faced numerous obstacles. Moving from a non-industrial, slash and burn economy, to the industrialized, post-modern United States made adjustment extremely difficult. Problems existed in all areas, from language and customs to religion and power structures. Since their arrival, the Iu-Mien language has been slowly disappearing. A majority of third generation Iu-Mien are fluent in English but cannot converse in Mienh. Many Iu-Mien have abandoned the Taoist/Animist religion and converted to Christianity. Gender and power relations are in flux, as authority is no longer centered around the oldest male. Many changes have taken place during the last 25 years. It has been argued that "traditional" Iu-Mien culture will disappear in a matter of decades and ethnic identity will diminish.
While the claims are valid to a certain degree, there is hope. Numerous organizations are being formed to promote ethnic consciousness and education. The Iu-Mien are graduating from universities, starting their own businesses, entering diverse professions, and perhaps most importantly, are giving back to their communities.
Interestingly, ethnic identity is maintained and heightened in other ways. Tracing roots and history has been an important element in fostering an Iu-Mien identity. Since arriving in the United States, some Iu-Mien leaders have made contact with the Mien Yao of China, who number about 880,000 while the United States Iu-Mien number around 30,000. Videotapes are made of these adventures to the "homeland" and are sold and distributed throughout different Iu-Mien communities. A large number of Iu-Mien have revisited relatives in Thailand and Laos, and many keep in touch with relatives in other parts of the world, such as in France and Canada. Ethnic identity is also heightened due to new year celebrations. At new year celebrations, "traditional" culture is performed and played out both on and off-stage. Participants celebrate their "Mienhness" and in the process, create and maintain a shared ethnic identity.
Perhaps in the near future, when the Iu-Mien have had more time to adjust to life in the United States, Iu-Mien ethnic identity and awareness will become more important and stronger. This could lead to the possibility of establishing a pan-ethnic identity with the Iu-Mien throughout the world.
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