The people called “A-hmao” and their writing

In the pages that follow the word “Miao” is used, not in a general sense covering all the branches of the Miao race in China and South East Asia, but for one specific group found in central and North East Yunnan, and in the North West of Guizhou, who call themselves “A-hmao”. In earlier years they were designated, by reference to their tribal costume, “Hua Miao”, a name which became “Flowery Miao” in English. By modern Chinese writers they have been distinguished as “North East Yunnan Miao”

Until the present century the Miao had no written language, but in 1904 a movement towards Christianity began. Two Missions were principally involved, the China Inland Mission and the Bible Christians, which was a small branch of the Methodist Church. In order that their converts might be able to read the Scriptures, both missions were anxious to find a system for writing Miao. One, using the Latin alphabet and favoured by J.R.Adam of the C.I.M., eventually gave place to a system evolved by Samuel Pollard of the Methodist Church. This form of writing remains popular, and is still widely used, despite determined efforts to supersede it. Its continuing appeal seems to depend on two factors, first, on simplicity, both in the formation of the letters and in the ingenious method of indicating tones, and second, on the fact that the letters, being different from any other form of writing, the people claim it as their own unique Miao calligraphy, and so it bids fair to becoming part of the tribal heritage itself.

The Miao script is by no means beyond criticism. Printing its unique alphabet has always been a problem. However, with a computer programme now available for writing it (see Writing Miao text and the Ahmao font), this difficulty should be largely overcome. The script has also been condemned as “unscientific”, that is, it is not phonetically accurate enough to satisfy the professional linguist, and, in particular, the tonal system of the Miao language is considerably more complex than those who created the script envisaged. In response it must be pointed out that the writing was not devised for the benefit of the professional student of linguistics whose needs are, in any case, much better met by the International Phonetic Alphabet, but in order that ordinary, simple people might be able to communicate with one another in writing, in their own native language. On this criterion, after a trial period of ninety years, the system, whatever its faults, must surely be judged a success.

Since 1950 attempts have been made to introduce a system of writing which might be used by all the Miao groups. It employs the Latin alphabet, and is an adaptation of the Pinyin scheme used for the Romanization of Chinese characters. Like the Pollard script it has both advantages and disadvantages, but it has not proved very popular among the A-hmao. With the exception of Document N, all the original manuscripts from which the Miao songs and stories are drawn were written in Pollard script, so that in the transcriptions which follow, those pieces which are found only in Document N will alone be written in modified Pinyin, all the rest will use the Pollard script.

The origin of the documents

In April 1946 Yang Xiu-gong joined the staff of the Methodist Mission at Weining, Guizhou, in South West China. By profession he was a paramedic, and had charge of the Mission dispensary in the town, but by race he was a Miao, and his home quickly became the centre at which any Miao passing through the city stayed. In conversation with Mr.Yang as we travelled to outlying villages, I discovered that he had an extensive knowledge of Miao stories, and I was able, eventually, to persuade him to write out some of them for me in the Miao script.

Mr.Yang’s initial hesitation in committing the stories to paper was understandable. A Miao, living in a Chinese city, he was acutely aware of the contempt in which, at that time, the Miao were often held by the Chinese. There is no doubt that the Chinese reaction to the suggestion of writing Miao stories would have been one of ridicule, and Mr. Yang was always very reticent to speak about the stories in the presence of any Chinese.

The suggestion of writing the stories down appeared to be quite a novel one. The Miao script, used for printing the New Testament and for hymn books, might also be employed by literate Miao for writing letters, but the idea was very firmly fixed that, Chinese being the language of education, Miao stories were of no importance, and the writing of them was a waste of time. I was able to show him, however, in a notebook written by Wang Ming-ji, a Miao teacher from Shi-men-kan, four Miao stories written out, and this helped to convince him that it was indeed a worth while exercise. Having once accepted the suggestion, Mr.Yang took it up with enthusiasm, and his own repertoire of stories was extended further using material which he gathered from Miao visitors staying in his home.

Mr.Yang did not wish to part with his manuscript which was written in pencil in an exercise book that I had provided, so as each story was completed, we went through it together and I then copied it, making a preliminary translation, and checking any queries at our next session. To Mr. Yang’s collection I added the four stories recorded by Wang Ming-ji. This manuscript is referred to as Document H.

During the autumn of 1946, as I was working with Mr. Yang on his Miao stories, I was told that at Shi-men-kan there was an old book of songs which had been written at the request of the Rev.W.H.Hudspeth by a Miao teacher called Yang Zhi, who had a very extensive knowledge of the old Miao traditions. Mr.Hudspeth subsequently left the Methodist Mission to work with the Bible Society in Shanghai. Any Miao material he had collected or intended to publish was destroyed during his imprisonment by the Japanese. I said I would be most interested to see Yang Zhi’s work, and in the November a friend brought the document to Weining. It transpired that this volume was not, in fact, Yang Zhi’s original manuscript. That had been presented to Mr.Hudspeth. This was a copy made by someone else from the original.

The messenger who had brought the book for me to see insisted on taking it back to Shi-men-kan when he returned two days later, despite my pleas to leave it long enough for me to make a copy. However, he promised to get a copy made for me, if I could provide the paper. (It was war time and paper was in short supply and very expensive.) So it was that in the following January I received Document A. Dated January 1st, 1947, it had been written out by Wang Ming-ji, and contained all the material in Yang Zhi’s book, 13 songs, together with 6 additional songs from other sources.

In the course of my conversations with Yang Xiu-gong and his friends, I enquired what the Miao had believed in before they became Christians, and what form their worship took. They were unable to give any precise account because they had been brought up as Christians, and had little use for the old ways. “A man who has been set free does not want to return to slavery!” So said Han Zhen-ming, one of the visitors from Shi-men-kan. I pointed out that to know what they had been delivered from might be a salutary safeguard against slipping back unawares, and also a good reason for giving the greater glory to their Deliverer. The point was taken, and, hopefully, I gave Mr. Han an unused exercise book to collect what information he could. Early in February it was returned to me with an extended account of the old spirit worship, including many of the incantations used. Along with this there were a dozen more songs and a brief account of the negotiations that used to take place in arranging for a marriage. This I designated Document B, and was dated 22nd January, 1947. The writer was again Wang Ming-ji.

After a further request for paper in the summer of 1947, I received another manuscript dated 12th October. This I called Document C. It contained a further 21 items, mostly songs, collected from a number of different sources and transcribed, as before, by Wang Ming-ji.

On December 9th, 1947, I had a brief visit from Yang Han-xien a Miao lecturer working in Guiyang. He had at some time previously contributed an article to an academic journal concerning the migration of the Miao in Western Guizhou, and he gave me an off-print of the article. It contained two pieces of Miao text, one a song the other, narrative. This I listed Document G.

In the autumn of 1947 Lu Xin-fu, another of Yang Xiu-gong’s friends, was going to some villages to the North of Shi-men-kan and volunteered to collect any of the old songs he might be able to find. In January 1948 he returned with a manuscript containing four songs. Three were different versions of Yang Zhi’s songs, the fourth was a new one. This became Document D.

My persistent enquiries about the old Miao songs and and traditions seem to have caused a reawakening of interest in the subject among the teachers at Shi-men-kan. During 1948 or early in 1949 Yang Yong-xing began exploring the possibility of duplicating a book of Miao songs. His first attempt was abandoned after the initial eight pages because, though the duplicating was clear enough, the paper was of inferior quality. It comprised the first three and the opening lines of the fourth of Yang Zhi’s songs. This was Document E'.

Yang Yong-xing eventually produced a book, clearly duplicated from hand written wax stencils on very much better quality paper and inscribed “Shi-men-kan 1949”. The book was entitled “Miao song-stories, a bundle of traditions”. It contained 22 songs, the first 13 being a reprint of Yang Zhi’s collection. The remainder were mostly new material, and was designated Document E.

In 1950 Yang Yong-xing produced a further book of songs, Document F. It bore the title, “Old Miao songs and traditions”, and was duplicated as before, but, presumably to save paper, it was written with much smaller letters so closely packed that in places it is not easy to read. It contains another 22 songs followed by a rather shorter account of the old Miao spirit worship, and a glossary of “old Miao words”. I returned to England on leave in 1949, and Documents E’, E, and F were brought home for me by my brother, Rev.P.Kenneth Parsons who came back some months later.

While pursuing her research in London in 1987, Prof. Norma Diamond of the University of Michigan, in the U.S.A., photocopied and sent to me 14 pages of Miao text written by Samuel Pollard in his diary in the summer of 1911. The pages contained six pieces, some songs and some stories, and have been given the reference Document J.

From about 1990, Dr. Joakim Enwall of Stockholm University, made several trips to China in the course of his studies into the modes of writing used for the different Miao languages. In Beijing by, courtesy of Mr Wang De-guang, he was able to photocopy a third book of songs duplicated by Yang Yong-xing at Shi-men-kan and dated 23rd October 1953. This book contained 30 songs, about 10 of which were fresh material. This manuscript was designated Document K. The ravages of time make it, in some places, difficult to read.

In July 1981 a group of Miao teachers in Weining reissued Document K, omitting one item. Now for the first time the songs were set out in lines instead of in continuous writing as in all earlier documents. I was able to secure a copy from Weining through the good offices of Mr. Dong Ren-da, and called it Document L. While in Beijing, Dr. Enwall also discovered in Mr. Wang De-guang’s library a second volume of old songs and prose writing compiled by the same teachers in Weining and dated December 1986. Of this, too, a photocopy was taken. It contained 26 items, rather more than half being fresh material, and became Document M.

In 1988 a volume entitled, “Ancient songs of the Miao tribe in the Western sector”, (Xi bu Miao zu gu ge) was issued by the University of Yunnan. It had been compiled by Mr Wang Jian-guo, son of Wang Ming-ji of Shi-men-kan, and was based on the extensive collection of material that his father had amassed. The first half of the book contained paraphrases of Miao songs set out in Chinese verse form. The second half gave the Miao text written in Romanized script. There are some 50 pieces in all, of which about 15 are recorded nowhere else. This book was designated Document N.

Handling the documents

All these documents were either hand-written or derived from hand-written sources, which, having been copied and recopied a number of times, display the characteristics commonly found in such material. Thus, there are many places where mistakes in an earlier document are simply perpetuated in later ones. On the other hand an early mistake may have been recognised and corrected in a later manuscript. Just occasionally the attempted correction itself proved to be erroneous and the deviation from the original text made even worse. Again, there are places where a perfectly correct passage has been changed in a later document. Often this is simply a misreading, though sometimes it is the result of a misunderstanding of the original. Very occasionally it has been done deliberately. Examples of dittography and haplography are not uncommon.

In a number of documents, especially those duplicated from wax stencils, the paper used is such that the writing on the back of a page shows through, partially obscuring that on the front. When, in addition, as in the case of Document K, the paper has gone brown with age and been stained with water spillage, the original is hard to read, and, the photocopy of it, nearly impossible.

Document N presents a rather different set of problems. Although the print is perfectly clear, the paper of reasonable quality, and the production excellent, the Miao text is full of mistakes. The compiler, beginning with manuscripts written in Miao script had to transcribe these into the Romanized form of writing with which he was much less familiar. This system employs eight different letters of the alphabet, which, added to the ends of words, indicate their tones. Throughout Document N, the use of these tone markers is wayward indeed, and most inconsistent. Even more serious is the very large number of mistakes in the actual printing. The compositor clearly had no idea what he was typing. He regularly misread the written manuscript he was copying, and his work was obviously never submitted for proof-reading. So the impression is given that, while the Chinese paraphrases were regarded as important, the original Miao songs were not considered to be of any great consequence.

As none of the documents are the autographs of the the original singers of the songs, and some are copies several times removed, the first task to be undertaken has been an exercise in textual criticism. In the case of each song, as accurate a text as possible needed to be established, and at the same time, variant readings in the different documents had to be noted. The text had also to be divided into its proper lines. The early documents recorded the songs as continuous writing, and even in Documents L, M and N, where division into lines had been introduced, there were a number of places where what should have been two lines had been run together. It became apparent, having thus sorted them out, that the lines themselves fell naturally into stanzas of varying length according to their content and the poetic structure of the song.

The final step was to make a translation into English. Without exception this has followed the Miao text line by line in order to preserve the parallelism which is the most distinctive feature of Miao poetry. However, English, with its multi-syllables and elaborate grammar, often masks the rhythms and the succinctness of the monosyllablic Miao speech.