The Miao – or Hmong, as they are better known outside of China – are spread through Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Forced off their lands by the Qing-dynasty government, rebels in Guizhou such as Zhang Xiumei took a lesson from the Taipings in adjacent Guangxi and seeded their own uprising in 1854, which was only put down in late 1873 after a huge slaughter involving whole towns being obliterated: out of a provincial population of seven million, over half died during the revolt.
Miao women are famous for their embroideries: girls traditionally spent years stitching their wedding jackets, though most are made by machine nowadays. Patterns are sometimes abstract, or incorporate plant designs, butterflies (the bringer of spring and indicating hoped-for change), dragons, fish – a China-wide good luck symbol – and buffalo motifs. Each region produces its own styles, such as the sequined, curly green and red patterns from the southerly Leishan district, Chong’an’s dark geometric work, and the bright, fiery lions of Shidong.
Many of the design themes recur in Miao silverwork, the most elaborate pieces again being made for wedding assemblages. Women appear at some festivals weighed down with coil necklaces, spiral earrings and huge headpieces, all of which are embossed or shaped into flowers, bells and beasts.