Although the government considers them a part of the Miao nationality, the Southern Mashan Miao are a distinct people group. They live in small and compact communities, speak their own language, and have little to do with the outside world.
The Southern Mashan Miao are a group who migrated south following persecution against them in the past. The Chinese Canon of Shuen records one Miao group, the "San Miao," being driven into the mountains of San Wei around 4,000 years ago.
The Miao believe there was a time when dragons guarded their families, crops, animals, and trees against disease and pestilence. The people regularly sacrificed chickens to the dragons and burned paper money to procure their favor.
During funeral chants, which predate all Christian influence, many Miao groups refer to an outer place of darkness where the spirit of the deceased must travel. They believe it is a horrible place of demons, torments, and gnashing of teeth. Legend claims there was once a time when the Miao were able to climb to heaven on a huge fir tree, but the gods struck it down. Left with no other way to communicate with heaven, the people in Yanpai village of Xijiang County in Guizhou climbed to the top of the highest mountain and thrust a bamboo branch into its crest, signaling to the gods, "All is not well." The Southern Mashan Miao are animists, living in fear of evil spirits.
Wangmo County, the sole area where the Southern Mashan Miao live, was largely neglected by mission organizations in the pre-Communist era. There are a few Catholic believers among the Bouyei minority to the north, but the Miao and Bouyei have little contact with each other and speak different languages. Most Southern Mashan Miao cannot speak more than basic Mandarin; fewer still are able to read or write Chinese.