The text and photographs on this page are copyright by Alejandro Cardeinte. He is a tribal educator working among the Mien ethnic tribe in northern Thailand.
The Mien minority tribe is also known as "Yao." Considering their population in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and China, they become one of the largest ethnic groups in Asia. That is excepting the more than 20,000 Mien populations living in the United States. Despite their unique heritage, this people seems locked into their cultural world in the isolated jungle, where, usually, farming on slopes is their main livelihood.
In the mountains of Northern Thailand, which are in the provinces of Chiangrai, Nan and Phayao, there are more than a hundred Mien villages. Many estimate that there are more or less 30,000 Mien people in the whole of Thailand. Mien cultures and beliefs are closely tied to Chinese, in which sacred Taoist-origin script-texts, handed down from their ancestors, are written in Chinese. Since there are also Mien in Laos and Vietnam, it is not hard to believe the many stories of their migration from China. Many of my Mien friends have blood-relatives in Laos. But since it dates back several centuries ago, tracing the most reliable stories and the significant years of their exodus from China to Laos, and from Laos to Thailand is impossible to tell. In fact, there are still many old Mien people in Chiangrai and Nan provinces that would tell the stories of their migration.
Two possible theories may arise in the evolution of their semi-Taoist scripture. One, they probably carried it with them from China during their migration. Two, their old ancestors may recall what they had learned for a long time in China and then put it into writing. In the second case this sacred written scripture makes their beliefs and practices stronger than any other hill tribe in Asia.
The Mien people believe strongly in the spirit world. Their "Ani-Taoist" (combination of Animism and Taoism) religion, worshipping their "zu zong mienv" or their ancestors' spirits and combining this with the Taoist belief play an important role in the religious life of each Mien family. Since the Mien tribe has their own sacred written scripture adapted from Taoism (all written in Chinese), they have their guide in their rituals and ceremonies. On occasions such as merry-making and house blessing ceremonies, the "sai mienh" or the spirit's priest will read the "sai nzung sou" or the book to perform the ceremony to bless the house and to invite the "mienv zoux ziouv" or the good spirit to stay in their house. They believe this will help to protect them from illnesses and "mienv morh" or tragedies done by the bad spirits. The owner of the house then will pay the "sai zinh" or the service pay to the ritual priest who officiated.
The "mienv baaih" or the spirit's altar is built in every house, which can be seen easily from the main door. It signifies that the "mienv" or the spirits, which are believed to pass through the main door, are welcome and do not have a hard time going into their altar. The "mienv kuv" or the list of names of their deceased ancestors is placed on the altar. But some well-off Mien families usually put pictures instead of the list of names. When someone dies, the "sai mienh" or the ritual priest will perform the "zoux caeqv" or a ceremony to separate the person's body from sin, so that the person will have a peaceful rest. Then using the water to do the ceremonial washing, he will perform the "zoux sin" or the taking away of the evil spirit from the person's dead body. Then he will initiate the "doh dangh caeqv jaiv" or a ceremony to take away the evil spirit from the soul of the dead person. Then the "zoux sin-seix" will be performed by the priest to really make sure that the dead person will have a happy life in the spirit world and in the new generation to come, since they believe in the "hoz seix" or reincarnation.
The use of spirit's money is also one of the unique and unusual beliefs of the Mien hill tribe. The spirit's monies are the dirty, white blank bond paper that they cut into pieces, a little bigger than the real monetary system that they normally use. They make the paper monies manually using a metal stamp and a wooden stamp with a carved animal design.
Aside from the animal they slaughter for sacrifices, these monies also, as I had personally observed, are used to pay for their protection, their health (because the family will make spirit's money when someone in the family gets sick), and for their security in the hereafter. I have observed them making a lot of spirit's money, at least three big sacks. When someone dies, a neighbor goes to the house of the bereaved to donate a plastic bag of rice and a bunch of paper for the spirit's money. The spirit's monies are used to pay so that the dead could have a good life in the spirit world, while the rice is to feed the dead person's spirit. During the funeral ceremonies, the relatives and close friends of the deceased form a big circle close to the coffin. Then they perform a burning ceremony using the spirit's monies and the rice. This ritual is done inside the house. The spirit's priest scatters the rice into the fire so that the dead person has something to eat in the spirit world.
If Western countries have their fortune tellers with their palm reading, horoscope and etc. the Mien also has their "mangc maengc fin saeng" or the fortune teller. He will use the "mangc maengc sou" or the astrological book that can tell the luck of the individual. This book is written in Chinese and contains the date, month and year. However, what is common to the Mien is the "tong sou" or the unique astrological calendar which contains the date, month and year to determine whether lovers are compatible. This has been use by parents to tell whether their children are compatible with whomever they have a relationship. Mien marriages largely depend on it. Unlike other conservative hill tribe, with the Mien girl's family consents, the girl can invite her boyfriend to stay with her overnight. In fact, having a child before getting marriage is not a big deal in their culture. In the many Mien wedding ceremonies I attended, it would take many days and much money is involved in the process. The many days' reception is part of it, aside from the agreed amount of dowry which the groom's side must give to the bride's parents. Like other tribes, Mien women are bound to household duties such as cooking, washing and cleaning which their men have very little contribution to. In fact, a Mien wife has many and heavy duties compared to her husband. Though they work equally on the farm, the wife will be left alone to do all the cooking and household chores aside from carrying the heavy basket on her back. This basket is usually full of firewood, vegetables and farming tools which she carries back and forth.
The Mien men "lui liez" or traditional suit is a simple outfit and is usually dark blue or black. Both jacket and pants are a little bit loose projecting their Chinese origin. Nowadays, the "mouc fang" or the Mien traditional hat for boys, which has colorful stripes on it, is commonly worn by their children. Mien women have their elaborate, distinguishable dress and a little bit loose outfit. In fact, part of their "lui houx" or traditional garment has designated names on it, which is almost impossible for me to memorize. However the obvious part of their outfit is the red part in front that covers the edge and goes through around the neck. Their unique traditional dress, especially the lower which has a heavy sewing-design would take them at least a year to finish. This becomes the refreshing hobby to most Mien women. Their women are also wearing the "muoc zou" or their traditional black turban, on which tiny colorful and unique designs can be seen. The Mien people wear their traditional outfit when attending special occasions such as weddings, Chinese New Year and birthdays. Only few of them can be seen wearing their traditional outfits on ordinary days.
The "mienh waac" or the Mien dialect is highly tonal and is closely related to Mandarin Chinese. The Mien dialect has 5 tones, namely, the middle tones, low tones, rising tones, falling tones, and rising-falling tones. Their old people are usually fluent in Chinese and are able to write it legibly. Literacy in Chinese seems to be the qualification of their "sai mienh" or their spirit's priest since he must be able to know how to chant the semi-Taoist sacred scripts which are all written in Chinese. Nowadays, in Thailand, it would seem a challenge for the "sai mienh" to find his successor since the new generation Mien has a very slim chance to learn Chinese. In fact, adult Mien these days do not even show much appreciation of their own Mien dialect! Though old Mien people are weak in the Thai language, Mien teenagers have started to adopt Thai not only because of the influence of the Thai educational system but because of tribal discrimination in lowland-Thai society, hoping to find equal job opportunities like the Thais. In fact, some change their names to Thai to make themselves more saleable. In Nan and Chiangrai province, the Mien dialect is written in Thai script. But Mien in the West have started to use the newly developed Romanized script to help them learn and appreciate their language better.
The Mien people are usually "zuangx lingh mienh" or farmers. They plant corn and (usually dry) rice on the slopes. A little vegetable garden can be seen in their big fields to supply their daily needs. During the planting season, after preparing the land, the owner will request the ritual expert to perform a ritual in the field to pay the "doh deic mienv" or the landlord spirit and the "ndeic mienv" or the spirit which will take care of the field and plants. This is believed to help yield a good harvest. This includes the offering of food to the spirits and the lighting of Chinese candle-like incense sticks, whose smoke is believed to communicate with the spirit world. This is also done in almost every Mien ceremony.
Their income is usually obtained through their large amount of corn and rice products which they sell in town. Pig and chicken raising is common in Mien villages and can be seen in almost every family. This helps them avoid buying meat for their own consumption and to have it ready anytime that rituals and ceremonies performed. In their ceremonies the killing of pig or chicken as sacrificial offering is part of their ritual services. Basically, Mien staple food consists of "mbiauh" or rice, which they produce themselves. They love to eat spicy and hot food. Their appetizer is the "lai sui" or the pickled vegetable, which they keep for several days to make it sour. In Nan and Chiangrai, their women gather edible plants, wild fruits, root crops and mushrooms in the jungle and swamps. Wild meat of birds, wild cats, snakes, rats and frog becomes part of their diet, which are usually hunted by their men. Chopsticks that are usually made of bamboo are commonly used by them aside from spoons and forks. When eating they are use small bowls instead of big round plate. It becomes easy for them to push the bowl close to their mouth using their hand. This also tells of their Chinese origin.
The real value of relationship in the Mien tribe is also one of their unique, unwritten ways of doing something. This helps them see the real importance of making friends toward their neighbors. Each of the Mien family has a big farm that needs human forces to plant and harvest. They largely depend on their neighbors rather than money in order to help get things done on the farm, whether in the planting time or the harvest time. Despite every family being busy, each would send their representative to join the rice and corn harvest of their neighbors. A Mien family paid their neighbors' strength with strength. Helping each other is not an idea but it is an important value in the Mien culture. For them, success in the farm is relational! This is one of their encouraging unwritten practices.
Many Mien families suffer great loses in their farming because they are not good friends to their neighbor. When these insensitive and selfish families tried to help others' farms hoping they could get help too the farm owner just compensated them cash (120 baht, US$3) per day to finish off his obligation. This is not the usual Mien practice. The result, they will be left alone working in their wide farm which messed them up. That was a sad lesson most Mien families learned from the past which some are still experiencing. I've been seeing this sad situation and trying to help them to cope. At least they will start to learn from their mistakes.
Photography and text © 2006, Alejandro Cardeinte. All rights reserved.