(The following is a post by Yuwu Song, Chinese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)
The “Ke meng gu yang Miao tu” 克孟牯羊苗圖 (“Illustrated album of the Kemeng Guyang Miao people”), now included in the Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, likely dates back to the era of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) of the Qing Dynasty. This work belongs to a distinct ethnographic genre of illustrated albums that depict the indigenous Miao people in southwest China, especially those living in Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. The Miao people also encompass a number of related subgroups, such as the Hmong, who live in areas of present-day Laos and Vietnam. These albums, which were commissioned by the central government, were usually illustrations of tributary peoples in southwest China, particularly in Guizhou, where many Miao lived. They were initially intended to educate local officials about the cultures and customs of ethnic minorities, which would allow them to rule more effectively. There are albums of other ethnic groups, such as those in Yunnan and Taiwan, but for reasons unclear, the majority of existing ethnic albums feature the Miao. Two similar works from this genre are also available through the Chinese Rare Book Digital collection: “Miao fan tu” 苗蕃圖; and “Miao Man tu ce ye” 苗蠻圖冊頁.
This album contains forty-eight watercolor paintings starting with the Kemeng Guyang Miao, as well as other subgroups of the Miao people in the province of Guizhou. Each entry covers one group with a vivid and interesting illustration supplemented with descriptive texts of the modes of life of the Miao tribes as well as local customs such as costumes, living places, occupations, rituals, celebrations, social norms, and manners. It is worth noting that some of the descriptions are from the local gazetteers of Guizhou published in the eras of Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) and Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820), such as “Guizhou tong zhi.” From an artistic point of view, the paintings show intricate and refined delicacy in draftsmanship and liveliness of color. After more than 200 years, the rich colors of the pictures have remained fresh.
Below are some selected scenes from the Library’s edition of the “Illustrated album of the Kemeng Guyang Miao people.” An important point to keep in mind when viewing a work like this is that it was created by an outside Chinese observer in the 18th century who would not have been able to appreciate the Miao culture.
From the perspective of the Qing-era painters, the Heijiao Miao, or “Black-foot Miao,” were people known for kidnapping travelers, especially wealthy merchants who were held for ransom. In this illustration, one sees a kidnapped man locked up with a Y-shaped cangue.
The Jiu Gu Miao, or “Nine-tribe Miao,” were depicted as a tough warlike tribe characterized by swiftness and fierceness. One of their distinct weapons is a powerful bow, two meters wide, which was operated by three men. According to legend, arrows launched from the bow could penetrate anything.
The Liu E Zi Miao, who lived in Dading County in Guizhou Province had two subgroups: the Black and the White. Per their tradition, they buried deceased family members in a coffin placed in a tomb. In the coming year, the family would visit the tomb and show respect for the dead with offerings of sacrificed animals and wine. Afterwards, they opened the tomb, pulled out the bones, and washed them until they became white. They then wrapped up the bones in a piece of cloth, reburied them for two years, and repeated the ceremony seven times. According to folklore, bone washing would keep the family from illness and harm. If a family member got sick, it meant they failed to clean the bones adequately.
The Hei Miao, or “Black Miao,” people had a unique way of resolving disputes. When one party of the Hei Miao refused to accept the county government’s verdict in a dispute with another party, the government officials would ask the two parties to get together to “drink cat blood” and swear to tell the truth in public. They would kill a cat and collect the blood in cups. At the last minute, the guilty party would usually repent since he did not dare to drink the cat blood. It is said that even long-entangled lawsuits could be decided quickly using this method.
During a fight between two tribes, a Black Miao warrior would protect himself by wearing an iron cap and body armor made from water buffalo skin, which weighed sixty to ninety pounds. The warrior would receive a reward of 36 taels (silver dollars) from the chief of his tribe if he killed one opponent and 72 taels if he killed two.
As a visual history of the subgroups of the Miao people in the Guizhou Province of China, the Asian Division’s illustrated album offers a glimpse into their customs and culture. Since it contains both images and descriptions, it holds great value for the study of the history and culture of ethnic minorities in southwest China, as recorded in pre-modern sources.
For those interested in reading more about the Miao album genre in English, one early translated account comes from Elijah Coleman Bridgman (1801–1861), an American missionary and sinologist, who published “Sketches of the Miau-tsze” in the December 1859 issue of the “Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,” accessible online via HathiTrust. Among more recently published items available at the Library of Congress are scholarly works offering a translation of another Miao album and an exploration of ethnography and cartography during the Qing Dynasty. Other works of interest might include “The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary,” “Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The “Miao” Rebellion, 1854-1873,” and “A Hmao (Hua Miao) Songs, Stories and Legends from China.” In addition, the Asian Division’s collections contain hundreds of books about Miao and Hmong peoples published in several languages. To learn more about these and other related materials, contact reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-A-Librarian inquiry form.