The Iu-Mien are an ethnic minority from Southeast China. Originally ruled by kings, the Iu-Mien have ties to Chinese history that can be traced to as early as 2240 B.C. Throughout history, they have been called many names, but were most commonly referred to as the “Yao” people. “Yao,” however, means “barbarian” in Chinese, and today they prefer calling themselves “Iu-Mien” or “Mien,” which means “We are the people.”
The entire history of the Iu-Mien people is unclear because ancient documents do not exist. For centuries, the Iu-Mien did not have a written language (though a modern-day script was created in the 1980s), and most ancient ceremonial texts are written in Chinese. Instead, Iu-Mien history has been preserved through the retelling of legends, folk tales, and songs.
One legend, “Crossing the Sea,” explains both how the Iu-Mien lost their written history and the origins of their religious beliefs. According to the myth, the Iu-Mien faced a severe six-year drought in 1500 A.D. After three years, they were forced to leave their homes in China, setting sail in 10 ships to search for food and a better life. But the travelers were caught in heavy storms. Afraid they might lose the precious history books they had brought with them, they decided to eat the books rather than lose them to the sea. Without the books, it is said, the Iu-Mien lost their written language.
The myth also explains the Iu-Mien people's belief in shamanism, because the Iu-Mien had brought paintings of spirits with them on their boat journey. As the seas became more treacherous, the leaders of the ships promised they would worship these spirits for nine generations if they survived.
When the boats finally landed, the Iu-Mien trapped wild pigs for sacrifice to the spirits in the paintings. A shaman then performed what is said to be the first ritual ceremony, which led to the tradition of animism and spirit worship.
More than 1 million Iu-Mien still live in the mountainous regions of China, and there are conflicting reports about when and why some Iu-Mien migrated to Southeast Asia. However, it is generally believed they were driven to Laos and Thailand for economic and political reasons.
When they relocated, the Iu-Mien maintained simple lifestyles that revolved around subsistence slash-and-burn farming. But in the late 1960s and '70s, the Iu-Mien were caught up in the violence of the Vietnam War. Like the Hmong, the Iu-Mien supported the United States' anti-communist efforts and fought alongside the U.S. military. Those who could escaped to refugee camps in Thailand, where they lived in squalid conditions, surviving on rice and cabbage.
The first Southeast Asian refugees left the camps in 1975, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that groups like the Iu-Mien, Lao, and Hmong were able to migrate to new homes in the West. Today, about 30,000 Iu-Mien live in the U.S., primarily in the Northern California cities of Oakland, Richmond, and Stockton. Strong Iu-Mien-American communities have also taken hold in the Pacific Northwest.