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Other historical references to the Yao point to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
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
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
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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