Yao Daoism: Five Things to Know

By David Saechao

For many Mien-Americans raised in the “old” religion, Yao Daoism is somewhat of a mystery. Even as they participate in the sipv wuonh ritual and receive the small ball of paper or assist family members with preparations for large ceremonies, there is a sense of bewilderment that some questions have not been answered. Yes, a thorough study of Yao Daoism would require the commission of not only knowledgeable priests but also experts in Chinese Daoism. But there are a few items of information that could certainly shed light on an ancient religion that has changed little since the 12th century.

The Celestial Masters and Socio-Political Movements

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Zhang Daoling (34-156 CE)

The founding of the Way of the Celestial Masters in 142 CE by Zhang Daoling was a turning point in the history of Daoism in that it expanded the Dao beyond the philosophies of antiquity. Taking advantage of the social structure and cosmic role of the emperor established by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Zhang and his successors led politico-religious movements in Sichuan province in the mid-second century CE that culminated in the first theocratic state based on Daoist principles and beliefs.

Such movements were replicated in the centuries that followed, and they built upon systems of governance that had already been established by the Celestial Masters. Leaders relied on “Libationers,” as they were called, to facilitate the organization of communities and to administer Daoist rituals and ceremonies. The openness of movements to incorporate local peoples as they expanded allowed for non-Sinitic (non-Han) mountain tribal groups such as the Yao (Mien) to be converted.

Of the Tianxin Zhengfa Tradition

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Emperor Huizong (Northern Song), 1100-1126

To be specific, Daoism, as practiced by the Yao today, originated in the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Emperor Huizong (1100-1126) was a talented calligrapher and Daoist practitioner of the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition, otherwise known as the “True Rites of the Heart of Heaven.” His efforts to promote the tradition had a significant impact on the religious aspirations of the court. Sadly, the Northern Song fell to barbarian groups, as a Song prince was forced to flee south, settling in Hangzhou, located in today’s Guangdong province in southeastern China.

There, the Song prince gathered the remnants of the Northern Song and formed the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1229). You might remember Netflix’s Marco Polo in which Kublai Khan was hell-bent on destroying the Southern Song—yes, it was around this time. Moreover, the Southern Song sanctioned missionaries to spread the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition to non-Sinitic ethnic groups in Southern China, teaching them the tradition’s rituals and a simplified form Daoism that revealed secrets to healings and exorcisms. The Yao were among the first Southern peoples to convert and adopt the Chinese writing system. And because the tradition was likely transmitted by Daoist masters from southeastern China, Yao ritual texts, even today, are read in the Guangxi Cantonese dialect. Furthermore, the spread of Daoism was initiated by the Song, in part, to pacify non-Sinitic tribal peoples and to bring them closer to the imperial government.

A Daoist Celestial Hierarchy

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The Daoist Pantheon

By adapting Daoism, the Yao were required to incorporate their native beliefs with the Daoist pantheon of deities and celestial hierarchy, which begins with gods that reside in heaven. One of them is Marshal Teng (Tang Yun-Suei), the God of Thunder; among the Mien group, he is referred to as Ba’Ong. Children raised in Mien households are often told that they must behave, otherwise, Ba’Ong will strike them with lightning. During large ceremonies, paintings of the highest gods are displayed. Priests and shamans call upon them by blowing into a buffalo horn.

Beneath the gods, the hierarchy extends to lower immortals, the first patriarchs, ancestral spirits, and those living solely in the earth realm: priests, shamans, and newbies ordinated through the guaax dang ceremony—usually performed during adolescence or later. Hence, in order for individuals to be admitted into the celestial hierarchy, they must first complete the guaax dang ceremony, at which point they will be registered in the family’s ancestral lineage with a spiritual name and given the protection of spirit soldiers. It must be noted that women receive the same benefits and are brought in through their husbands or other males of the family.

Two Levels of Priesthood

Calling Upon Heaven

Within the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition, as practiced by the Yao, there are two levels of priesthood. The daogong (black-head mediums) priest performs his duties through a classical tradition, while the shigong (red-head mediums) priest conveys a more vernacular tradition. Among the Mun Yao branches, there is a stricter line between the daogong and shigong, as they practice a form of Daoism closer to the peoples of Taiwan and Fujian. The Pan Yao—includes the Mien—are closer to the Meishan and Lushan traditions of Guangdong and Hunan, in which daogong priests are able to move back and forth.

Expanding on this difference, priests and shamans are not one and the same. When rituals or ceremonies involve calling upon heaven, only priests can accomplish this task. Masters (sai chia) and High Priests (tom sai chia) are trained to not only copy ritual texts but also write petitions and memorials on their own. And those that have reached the level of postulant in the tou sai major ordination are symbolically recognized by the Burials of Exorcisms of the Northern Bourne as having achieved the status of a disciple in the three precepts of Mei and Lu doctrines, which are given by the Superior Orders. Shamans, on the other hand, are usually relegated to smaller rituals that involve chanting from texts to communicate with ancestral spirits and lower beings of the hierarchy.

To be a Daoist Society

Preparing for a large ceremony

The Yao, arguably, cultivated a Daoist society on the rugged mountains of Southern China and Southeast Asia. While they were far from promoting a theocratic form of social structure, Daoism was prevalent in many aspects of daily life.

As followers of the tradition, a great deal of money, animals, and labor was needed. First, it was ideal to have every male ordinated in the spiritual realm through the guaax dang ceremony and be admitted as lowly figures in the celestial hierarchy. Families did everything in their power to ensure that resources would be available; this is on top of regular rituals and ceremonies throughout the year to keep the ancestors happy and to maintain a proper balance between earthly and spiritual realms. Thus, the need to expend significant amounts of resources on rituals and ceremonies placed priests and shamans, as well as more affluent families, ahead in social status.

Sources

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

Hudson, Clarke. The Ancestors, Births, and Lives of Yao Daoist Manuscripts. 2006

Lemoine, Jacque. Yao Ceremonial Paintings. 1982

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An Interview w/ the Owner of Chiew Insurance Services

Chiew Saechao—of Redding—opened up Chiew Insurance Services in 2015 to offer affordable auto insurance options and has since become one of the more successful companies in Shasta County. I sat down with him to talk a little bit about his business and what it took for him to get it started.

Where were you born and how old are you right now?
I was born in Thailand. I don’t know exactly where but somewhere near a refugee camp. My parents immigrated here when I was very young. I’m 36 right now.
What kind of work did you do prior to insurance?
Well, I kind of bounced around for several years. For a while, I was a warehouse worker for Tur Blue Logistics in Shasta Lake City. Then I did general labor work at the Walmart distribution center in Red Bluff.
How did you get into the insurance business?
It was not like I hated my job as a laborer, but after I suffered a pretty bad knee injury at work, I really started thinking about a new career. I’m not exactly sure how I ended up in insurance, but an opportunity came around for me to work for Titan Insurance.
What made you want to start your own company?
I’ve always wanted to become a business owner. As far back as I can remember, I just never really liked working for anyone. The right time came when Titan was sold to Acceptance Insurance and my wages were cut. I knew that I had to get out of there, but I didn’t want to just work for another company. I made a grip of money for the company. Yea they gave me a good commission, but it hit me that I could make a lot more money if I had my own company.
What did you have to obtain in order to start?
I did a lot of research online at first. It took me months to figure out all the local requirements and forms, city licenses, and all the other legal stuff that insurance companies had to worry about. Actually, LegalZoom helped me a lot with forms and making sure that I was filling out everything correctly. On top of that, I needed money. I ended up maxing out all of my credit cards and withdrew everything I had in savings and 401k.
Tell us about your first year and the challenges you ran into?
My first year was a difficult time. I was working long hours, seven days a week to keep my customers happy. And I took calls at night. I just knew that I could not miss any calls. I spent endless hours marketing my company. I did a lot of this by building relationships with local dealerships, not just with sales reps, but accounting and anyone that would give me a chance to talk to them.
How did you overcome these difficulties?
You’ve got to stay hungry and believe in yourself. There were times when I really felt like I had no support. For me, it was a life and death situation. I had thrown everything I had into this company, and it if didn’t work out, then my family would suffer as well.
What’s some advice you’d give to someone that wants to start a business?
My advice would be to make sure you know the business inside and out. Get a business account, a lawyer, and don’t cut corners. Find out what you love to do. Having a job that you enjoy doing makes things so much easier. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many people willing to give you advice. You just have to ask.
Can you tell us a little about your future plans for Chiew Insurance Services?
A big part of our future plan is to open up locations in places that are lacking non-standard auto insurance businesses. Also, I’d like to add more employees to our office and expand DMV registration services. And of course, I want to make sure that we continue to keep up the excellent customer service that our customers value.

Chiew Insurance Services is located at 1355 E Cypress Ave, Suite D–Redding, CA 96002 and offers services in auto, home, commercial, and specialty insurance. Chiew Saechao can be reached at (530) 338-2770 or (530) 921-1351.

No photo description available.

 

The Elephant Hunter of Yunnan

By David Saechao

It was a harmonious spring morning in Huibu. The tea trees, hiding beneath the lush evergreen tropical landscape, were breathing comfortably beside the rising sun. Some of the villagers from the adjacent mountain were dispersing from their homes and anxious to tend their crops a few li away. But among the cluster of thatch grass roofs, one family remained in their home.

At the behest of our village leader, the tall and articulate Mr. Fu Wang Pan, we were invited to a ritual.

I followed my parents as we hiked the narrow dirt path all morning and weaved our way to the other mountain. Upon reaching the first house on the slope, we were welcomed by a group of young females dressed in black turbans and black robes with red ruffs sewn from the neck down. They were sitting quietly beneath a tree, embroidering Mien designs. We greeted them on the way up.

My father opened the big door as we kicked off our straw sandals and stepped on to the dirt floor.

The high priest, adorned in a red brocaded robe and black ritual hat, was reading from a Taoist ritual text and chanting the final petitions before the ancestral altar. A butchered pig had been laid onto a table, towering the small cups of rice wine beneath it. On the wall, the priest had hung ceremonial paintings of the Taoist pantheon of gods.

Settling in the living room, my father joined Mr. Fu Wang and other men from the village.

I followed my mother into the spacious kitchen to look for Liu, who along with her mother, older sisters, and the other women of the village, was engrossed in preparations for the ritual meal. Liu was bent down on a stool and cleaning a large bowl of freshly-picked bamboo mushrooms. She glanced at me for a moment and smiled.

I proceeded to the patio, where several children were joyfully playing. The firepit outside exuded intense flames and illuminated the thin slabs of pork belly that had been laid out on a stubby table. I put on the pair of mittens hanging beside the table and placed an iron grill over the flames. As I sat down on a convenient stool, Liu’s eldest maternal uncle approached the pit.

We were exchanging pleasantries when I noticed Liu. She was holding a steaming bowl of rice porridge and must have sensed that I was hungry from the long hike. Barely making eye contact, she handed me the porridge and walked away. The uncle noticed her kind gesture.

“Younger brother Lu, when are you going to marry my niece?”

“Good sir,” I replied timidly. “I haven’t yet spoken to my father.”

“Why wait? Liu is a pretty girl. As a matter of fact, our Mien tribal chief has informed us that highlanders from the north will be resettling in Huibu. I am sure there will be bachelors among them.”

“Why do they want to come here when there are so many mountains in Yunnan?”

“You are not yet old enough to understand,” the uncle chuckled. “In time, you will understand that we all have to leave—sooner or later.”

Shortly past noon, two long tables and chairs were brought into the living room. Liu began placing pairs of bamboo chopsticks and wooden spoons in front of each chair. Other women were moving back and forth from the kitchen with bowls of cooked dishes. When the table was finally set, Liu’s father hailed for the men to sit.

I sat down next to my father and picked up a slice of pork belly. The village leader waved for Liu and her older sister Lai to bring him a bottle of rice wine and small cups. Liu knew that I would be drinking the wine as well and joked to me that she would fill my cup to the rim.

“How goes the elephant hunt brother Yao Fong?” asked the village leader.

“It goes well,” my father replied. “I am leaving in the morning with my son Lu.”

“You know, merchants from Kunming have stated that demand for ivory is higher now than ever.”

“That is good to hear. However, the herd has migrated further south, and I am not the man I used to be.”

“Both you and I,” exclaimed the village leader as he raised his cup of rice wine. “Here’s to a successful hunt.”

The next day at dawn, I met Liu under a tea tree near our plot. She had her hair tied back in a dragon’s knot and was wearing a grey tunic embroidered with Mien designs on the collar. She looked beautiful, imparting the same graceful composure that enamored my spirits when we first met. I put my hands beside her waist to pull her closer and could feel her gently tugging my hand.

“How long do you think you’ll be gone?” she whispered.

“Three days, maybe four. It depends, my dear.”

She gave me a look of apprehension—and rightly so. Not more than five years past, an elderly man from our village, while returning home from his plot, was stomped to death by a wild elephant. The priest in our village believed that the elephant had been possessed by malevolent forest spirits.

“Come back safely. We should announce our engagement before the rice harvest.”

“Don’t worry.”

I moved my hand up to brush her delicate, tan skin. Liu grabbed ahold of it and sunk into my palm, arousing emotions that made me flutter. We embraced for a short while before I kissed her and said goodbye.

I returned home and found my father in the kitchen wrapping dried meat and filling several gourd containers with water. He instructed me to retrieve two spears from our old Mandarin robe cabinet near the stove. As I opened the cabinet, a mist of dust flew in my face. The two long, leaf-shaped spears were decorated with red horsehair tassels.

“Father, I want to marry Liu Wang.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I want her to come live with us.”

“I know. I have already spoken to Mr. Fu Wang.”

I was happy to hear that. All four of my older brothers had married several years ago, and I knew that my father was waiting for me to do the same.

“Can we perform the engagement ceremony when we get back?”

“Patience, my son,” he cautioned. “We have to make sure that we perform the ceremony on a fortuitous day.”

Meanwhile, my mother had woken up and was getting ready for a day’s work. She joined us in the kitchen and inspected my basket.

“Do you have everything you need?” she asked, handing me a long knife.

“I think so.”

“Of course we do,” my father interjected. “We have enough food and water to last a fortnight.”

I hung the knife to my side and strapped the basket onto my back. My mother helped me straighten one of the straps, which had wrapped around a silver button on my black trousers.

My father was waiting for me outside. I stepped out, and we departed up the southern mountain.

By sundown, we had crossed three mountains. My father was delighted to find a flat patch of land and announced that we would be camping there for the night. I left momentarily to gather some firewood; when I returned, he had taken out a few pieces of meat.

After dinner, I lay next to the fire on a thin cotton sheet and gazed at the full moon and the seven sisters in the sky. I thought about Liu and the kiss we shared earlier that morning. Although the night was eerie, my father’s snoring was a comforting sound. I was nearly asleep when I heard a rustle behind me.

A pair of eyes were glowing through the bushes and glaring in my direction. I did all that I could to temper my fears. For a moment, I wanted to alert my father of this elusive creature, but it vanished, as quickly as it appeared.

I woke up the next morning to find my father examining the earth.

“Did you see something last night?”

“I don’t know what it was,” I replied.

“It was a tiger, and it looks like it is moving south. You did well son by not panicking, for it might have attacked us.”

It was rare praise.

Making our way down the mountain, we came upon an ancient road. There was a rumbling from beneath our feet, and at a distance, an imperial brigade appeared. I looked at my father for reassurance, but he was focused on the road.

Several of the armed infantrymen were carrying flags of the imperial dragon emblem. At the posterior of the brigade, a horse-drawn carriage was guarded by cavalry. My father immediately grabbed my hand and pulled me down to genuflect.

“What is your business here?” asked a horseman as the carriage passed.

My father calmly looked up, as did I.

“High chieftain, I did not know it was you,” my father answered. “We are hunting for elephants.”

The high chieftain was of Dai Lu ethnicity and worked as an official for the imperial government. He possessed a higher rank than our Mien tribal chief. “You must know that the largest herds are moving south beyond Yunnan. Beware, however, if you choose to cross into those mountains. Taiping bandits have taken refuge.”

“I understand. Thank you for your words of caution.”

The next morning, we found ourselves at the gate of Yunnan. I followed my father up the forest as we slashed our way through the vegetation. We searched desperately for wild elephants, but they remained cloaked behind copious layers of trees and bushes.

With no luck thus far, we crossed into the next mountain. There, we discovered a pristine plateau and a dark tunnel within the forest that had been forged before our arrival. We entered the tunnel, and my father’s stern movements signaled that we were close. He held his hand up and pointed at a palm tree, where we found cover.

Suddenly, the majestic wild elephant was within our grasp, and just as we had planned, it had strayed from the herd. My father looked at me and displayed a restrained smile, knowing it was male. He then whispered that he would approach the elephant head on, while I should attack its flank.

The elephant had its trunk curled up and was pulling on palm leaves. It was unaware of our presence.

I positioned myself several steps behind it and put a firm grip on my spear. At the same time, my father had his spear down and was closing in. Despite his old age, he was stronger than most young males. He thrust the spear at the elephant’s ribs, piercing the armored skin. It let out a vociferous roar that shook the forest.

The wild beast was weakened but moving erratically, attempting to remove the spear from its flesh. I waited for the right moment and thrust my spear at its buttocks. My father yelled at me to move back.

Frustrated, the elephant charged at my father, who took off running. I sprinted toward them, but as I caught up, it had gotten on top of him. Instinctively, I reached for my knife and rammed it into the elephant’s neck. I stepped back and watched the monstrous beast swerve aimlessly before falling to the ground.

I was petrified to see my father laying there mutilated. Some of his internal organs had erupted and were splattered on the ground, which compelled me to look away. But as the rush of guilt crept up my spine, I got down on my knees and lifted his head slightly.

Sitting there alone, I pondered what to do with his body. Tradition would command that he should be taken back to the village, though I knew that that would not be possible. I did my best to clean him up with water from the gourd containers, before constructing a platform next to his body. I lifted him up and found a piece of white cloth from his basket and placed it over his head. Tears began to fall as I lit the platform.

The elephant laid there with one of its tusks poking into the ground and the other sticking up. I took my knife and cut both tusks off the elephant. Knowing that it would be a long road home, I cut off a piece of its flesh.

I returned to the village with the elephant’s tusks sticking out of my basket. My mother saw me walking up the mountain and came out to meet me. She began crying, knowing that my father was not returning.

Later in the day, my paternal uncles paid my mother and me a visit to inform us that they had arranged for my father’s funeral to be held on the next fortuitous day.

Liu had heard about what happened and came over to offer her condolences. I led her to my bedroom, where we sat on the ground. As was the proper practice, men were to remain stoic, but I could not hold back the tears. I buried myself into her lap and released a cry that I had repressed since becoming an adolescent.

As I regained my composure, I conveyed my intentions.

“Dear, I want to start a family with you on the mountain where my father fell.”

“But how will we live?” she responded.

I paused for a moment and took her by the hand. “The mountain there is rich and uninhabited. We shall build a new Mien village beyond Yunnan.”

“As your wife, I’ll follow you wherever you should go.”

“Can you stay with me tonight?”

“Of course.”

Why Mien People Can’t Keep Quiet During Speeches

Just a few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a Mien scholarship fundraiser party in Sacramento, California. The event was well-organized and emceed by two of our community’s finest. It began with an apparent atmosphere of excitement for both scholarship recipients and the Chinese-Mien delegation in attendance.

However, as speeches were given, there was a continuous look of frustration and deep disappointment from event organizers and many attendees. The audience, as a whole, seemed incapable of keeping quiet during speeches.

This, of course, is nothing new and has always been a nagging problem for Mien-American communities, far and wide.

Let me state here that I’m not setting myself apart from the Mien community. I too am guilty of not always extending my undivided attention to speakers during Mien events. I’m also not placing blame to any person or group that night. Our emcees were valiant in their efforts to keep the audience quiet, and they did an exceptional job given the circumstances. In addition, no blame should go to the organizers of the event. The fundraiser still ended as a success and with good vibes.  

With that said, what is the matter with Mien people?

A Cultural Disconnection

On the way home, I asked my uncle why Mien people have such a difficult time keeping quiet during speeches. I wondered if there is something innate about Mien culture that presented a challenge to Mien folks sitting in an audience.

Turns out, there is.

To make a long story short, the Mien are not traditionally accustomed to listening to speakers in such large settings. In the mountains of Laos and Thailand, he said, there just weren’t many occasions that called for speakers to deliver inspirational stories or anecdotes. So with this generalization, one could argue that we just don’t know any better.

Food and Booze

Understandably, it’s difficult to pay attention to anything when there’s food and booze around, especially when it’s right in front of you. It sort of harks back to our human nature to subconsciously seek food and eat. Mix this in with alcoholic beverages, and we’re likely to produce a talkative crowd.

I’m hoping that for future events, someone would conduct an experiment to see what would happen if no food or alcohol is served during speeches.

Somebody Needs to be an Ass

I’ve noticed that during Mien events, from the the Northwest down to the Central Valley, there are few Mien folks willing to forcefully tell the audience to “shut up!” There were moments during that night when I seriously wanted to pick up a microphone and be an enforcer. Unfortunately, I am not quite as bold as I imagine myself to be.

A solution might be for someone to walk around with a shhh sign. Or maybe someone could even walk around with a microphone and call people out for not keeping quiet. I understand that this may seem disrespectful and rude. But isn’t it ironic that this is precisely how we are treating speakers?

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All said and done, this type of behavior from the audience discourages others from wanting to speak at Mien events. It was unfortunate that we did not capture the inspirational messages of the night’s speeches. Each speaker walked up to that stage with good intentions, and for that, they deserved the same kind of respect we would extend at non-mien functions.

To the young gal that persevered through the crowd noise to tell her story of hard work and achievement as one of few Mien attorneys, I hope that she is not discouraged to continue her support for the Mien community. There is a developing sense of Mien identity that stretches from the West to China and Southeast Asia, as networks continue to grow. Mien organizations, equipped with the tools of social media, are more empowered than ever, and there will come a time when they will need her help.

 

 

Do Mien People Really Hate on other Mien People?

By David Saechao

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It is truly remarkable that the Mien (Yao) have survived as a nationality. In spite of the continuous presence of overbearing governments and centuries of cross-culturalism, the Mien are a resilient people and caretakers of a proud culture. Even as they dispersed throughout Southern China and Southeast Asia and cultivated different dialects, styles of dress, and cultural practices, a sense of Mien identity persisted.

Yet, there seems to be a perception among the Mien that they are a disunited people—perhaps, more so than others. Some would even argue that the Mien are quick to feel jealous of one another, especially when situations involve movements in wealth or social status. To be sure, the Mien are aware of this perception, and anyone that has grown up in a Mien household would not deny that this notion exists. So what gives?

Divide and Conquer

It is likely that a sovereign Mien Kingdom did, at one point or another, exist in Southern China. The kingdom might have been ruled by King Pan himself or powerful chieftains. But as Imperial China expanded, the Chinese would eventually take away any sovereignty or centralized government, leaving a number of Mien chiefs to work with imperial administrators to allocate authority in lands settled by the Mien. High level chiefs were given administrative duties and privileges as a way to limit nationalistic aspirations and rebellions. It was an ideal contract between governments and the Mien, one that would last well into the 20th century—in Southern China and Southeast Asia. The problem? It all but ensured a disunited Mien nationality. And given the mountain landscape, it bred a mentality of competitiveness and rivalries among chiefs that would, unfortunately, extend to common Mien folk of the various subgroups. Certainly, there were periods in which the Mien were united in rebellion and full-scale combat, e.g., the Secret War in Laos.

However, the Mien are not alone, as other tribal or clan-oriented peoples in Asia and around the world have suffered the same fate. Imperialistic nations have always practiced the tactic of “divide and conquer.” The idea was to keep leaders happy in conquered territories by offering incentives and creating dependency—When Alexander the Great and his armies marched from Greece to India, it was known that the young general often pitted conquered leaders against one another. The Roman Empire employed a similar tactic with the Gaelic and Germanic tribes of northern and eastern Europe. Even the US government made it a priority to create or expand rivalries among Native American tribes during expansionary episodes. In each instance, the less united were compelled to a culture with more divisiveness and competition.

A Small Mien Population

As an ethnic group with a relatively small population in the states, news seems to spread with flashing speed. So what little tension or problems in the Mien community can often be amplified and not necessarily representative of the Mien. Consequently, it perpetuates a cycle of pessimism, that the Mien are not a united people.

A common frustration expressed on social media and gatherings is that, when compared to other Asian-American groups, the Mien lack effective organizations and do not have enough able leaders. The obvious answer is that there is a shortage of both funds and volunteers. Without a doubt, there are many, many, talented Mien with leadership qualities that could contribute to established Mien organizations or excel in creating new ones. But not everyone has the time nor energy to take on such endeavors. And with a smaller population, there is less of a chance for the Mien to find people that actually have the time.

The Paradox of Negative Language and Praise

The Mien, like other Asian groups, are less inclined to express positive emotions. It is a cultural trait that is built on the very foundations of what is considered proper conduct. The centuries old cultural practice is responsible for Asian parents often using negative language and why they do not tell their kids they love them. Furthermore, this cultural trait touches upon other aspects of the social sphere.

So if Kao does not jump up and down with joy upon hearing that Sou has recently opened up a restaurant, it does not mean that Kao is not supportive or happy for Sou. Yes, Kao could very well be a hater. But more likely than not, Kao just finds it more comfortable to express his joy in a less expressive or verbally positive manner.

Things Are Not What They Seem

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So do Mien people really hate on other Mien people? No, not anymore than anybody else.

While it may seem that Mien people are always trying to outdo one another, the need to compete is as old as human civilization itself and is something that spans all cultures. After all, our oldest ancestors, the first Homo Sapiens, started the trend when they competed with and destroyed the hapless Neanderthals. If we really examined the people in our social sphere, we will find that the Mien are not much different than anybody else. People, in general, like to compete and sometimes hate on one another. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our current political climate—I dare you to find a Clinton supporter and Trump supporter just chilling somewhere together eating kao-liang fen.

It is a new day. There is a current of excitement among younger generations and a wave of energy that could certainly be harnessed to produce Mien leaders of the future. And despite common perceptions, there are indeed, successful and effective Mien organizations in the Bay Area, the Sacramento area, and other cities across the US, and they are led by fine leaders. In addition, any Mien person that has ventured into opportunities that may find Mien support, whether it has to do with starting a business or writing a best selling children’s book (kidding), would attest that the Mien community is quite supportive.

David Saechao is the co-chair of the Shasta County Mien Community board. He currently resides in Northern California.

Content Sources

Lo Saephan, Yao Saechao, Paxon Saechao, Ryan Yoon Nam Thuugc

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

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

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

China’s Ethnic Groups Series: Yao With Statistical Data, by Fmprc Seac and Luc Changlei Guo

 

 

The Yao Nationality and the Iu Mien

By David Saechao

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On October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong stood atop Tiananmen Gate in Beijing and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The civil war between the Red Army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists had ripped the country apart, and one of many announcements was a call for unity—all Chinese nationalities, even those on the fringes, would be brought under the communist banner.

So in the years that followed (1949-1950s), the government launched an “ethnic classification” project to formalize the nationalities within China’s borders. Government research teams engaged in the extensive task of examining common territorial zones, language, cultural practices, physical makeup, and so forth. And at the end of the project, fifty-four ethnic groups were officially classified—the Yao being one of them.

Origins of the Term “Yao”

The term Yao, or a variation of it—Moyao—first appeared in Chinese records during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). It appeared as a reference to the Man peoples of western Hunan, who some experts believe are the ancestors of the Yao today.  However, this may or may not be accurate. Imperial administrations of past were not likely identifying any particular ethnicity. Instead, they were employing the term to identify a people of a region or territory. The vastness of the mountainous Southern Chinese landscape and the numerous ethnic groups meant that it would have been impossible to apply Moyao as a single ethnic label.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1269), other variations of the term Yao were used in official records: Yaoren, Yaoman, and Manyao. The variation had much to do with who was in charge, as each variation carried a slightly different meaning. Imperial Chinese governments had always bestowed a certain amount of autonomy to local chieftains in the far reaches of the empire. Historically, the Yao were considered outside of Chinese society and exempt from taxation or corvee (forced labor)—the Kia Chen Pong (Mien Passport), an ancient  manuscript recording an imperial edict that supposedly granted King Pan and the Yao everlasting autonomy, was often presented by Yao chieftains to imperial agents. Hence, the Yao were brought into the administrative network under tributary status, meaning that as long as local chieftains recognized the authority of the emperor and paid certain dues, they were left alone. At times, imperial administrations accepted this contract, and in other times, they did not. So whether the government used Moyao, Yaoren, Yaoman, or Manyao depended on who was in charge and what was going on at the time—peace, war, rebellion?

The Link Among Yao Subgroups

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To classify the Yao as a single ethnic group is not possible. Most of the 2.5 million Yao around the world do not refer to themselves as Yao. There are also over 400 terms in the Chinese language used to refer to the Yao as an ethnic group. And at the moment, only half of all Yao subgroups actually speak the Yao language. Some subgroups classified as Yao, after generations of integrating with other ethnic groups, speak another primary language: Miao (Hmong), Dong, Zhuang, and Mandarin. In addition, not all Yao subgroups share the same cultural practices.

However, there are a few reasons why the Yao ethnic classification is worth retaining. First, there is such a thing as the Yao language, which falls under the Miao-Yao branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. While there are many different languages within the Yao family, the three major branches (Iu Mien, Kim Mun, Biao Mun) were once mutually unintelligible, an indication that there was probably a time when a single Yao ethnic group existed. Also, most subgroups considered Yao today, whether in China, Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand, have at one point or another, practiced the same medieval Taoist-Animist religion. Some rituals and texts vary from subgroup to subgroup, but they are essentially practicing the same religion. And although there are other groups besides the Yao that claim King Pan as their forefather, it is the Yao that have predominantly used the Kia Shen Pong to legitimize autonomy from the imperial government. In other words, it is largely a Yao thing.

The Iu Mien as a Subgroup

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While there is no consensus among historians about when and where the Iu Mien sub-group formed, evidence seems to indicate that the sub-group, along with other Yao, originated somewhere in western Hunan province. For centuries, the Iu Mien—and numerous ethnic Chinese minorities—endured a rugged, yet contented, livelihood throughout the mountain regions of Southern China. But during the 12th and 13th centuries, groups of Iu Mien began venturing into the mountains of northern Vietnam.

The Yao of Vietnam are likely of the same stock as the Iu Mien populations that emigrated to Laos and Thailand in the 19th century. Many elders in the United States attest—through oral history and some written records—that significant groups of Iu Mien had emigrated to Vietnam first before moving into northern Laos and Thailand. There is credibility to this claim because Yao groups in all three countries speak a Mien dialect that is very closely related. So it is possible that the Iu Mien groups that emigrated to northern Laos and Thailand were carrying the last baton in a series of Iu Mien mass migrations that began hundreds of years before.

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One cannot help but notice the complexity of the Yao nationality. How can a nationality be considered a single entity and be made up of so many distinct ethnic groups with different styles of dress, cultural practices, and dialects? Well, the mountainous landscape of Southern China and Southeast Asia all but ensured that we remained a sparse and scattered nationality—land and travel was rather limited. Ironically, the mountainous landscape also saved what little we had as a nationality. By inhabiting such a setting, we were deemed outsiders and barbarians by imperial governments, which enabled the very existence of such a Yao nationality.

David Saechao is the co-chair of the Shasta County Mien Community board and resides in northern California.

Content Sources:

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

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

Vietnam: Journeys of the Body, Mind, and Spirit, by Nguyen Van Huy and Laurel Kendall

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

China’s Ethnic Groups Series: Yao With Statistical Data, by Fmprc Seac and Luc Changlei Guo

Image Sources (descending order)

Yao Women- Chan Chao

King Pan Festival- Kouichoy Saechao

The Red Dao- Samantha Saechao, Michelle Saelee, Caitlin Saechao

Iu Mien New Year’s Dancers- Shasta Mien

 

A Nightmarish Dream or an Encounter with Ong Aiv

By David Saechao

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My eyes are wide open. I am restless—frightened. I stare into the darkness of my room, wondering what the heck just happened. It was just a dream, I thought, yet it felt so real.

The dream resumes with a feeling of joy and excitement and the opportunity to spend some time with a former teacher at his cabin. Our intellectual curiosities spark interesting conversations, and we are genuinely having a good time. Another friend of mine—one from the distant past—walks in.  An ambiance of darkness falls upon the cabin. I gaze through a window and catch a glimpse of the ominous landscape. I am beholden to a deep sense of fear. I begin to worry about the drive home. The thought of staying the night—the somber eeriness of a cabin in darkened woods. I wake up. So I thought. I am being pushed down . I feel the grip of my aggressor’s fingernails pressing. My right—the shadow of an arm moving, in rhythm, with flashes of pain. I am fighting for my life. I attempt to bring my arms up. I cannot move. I scream, silently. Bungx Guangc Yie! I wake up. I am able to move.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that I experienced what doctors would describe as sleep paralysis. It is another way of saying that my mind was awake, but my body was not. Many of us have experienced sleep paralysis throughout our lives, and we are usually able to brush it off. However, what makes it so terrifying is that we are powerless against this mysterious force, whether real or imagined. In many cultures around the world, sleep paralysis is believed to be the work of a demonic figure. Among the Iu Mien tribes from Southern China and Southeast Asia, it is believed that this seemingly paranormal experience is the act of a shadowy, short and stubby, night stalker that preys upon people at an opportune time. The common belief is that it sits on its victim, thus rendering that person incapable of movement.

Now, with the dream that I mentioned, I don’t know. I’ve had similar experiences, but none in which I remember feeling the grip and pain of fingernails pressing down on my arms. Admittedly, I did sleep with a nightlight in the days that followed. But if one thing is an indication of what might have happened, the shadowy arm that I vividly remember, turned out to be my room door.