HMONG MINORITY: HISTORY, RELIGION, MEN, WOMEN

HMONG ETHNIC GROUP

(Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and southern China)

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The Hmong are a colorful and culturally- and historically-rich ethnic minority that lives primarily in southern China, Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and Thailand. Originally from China, the Hmong are animists and ancestor worshipers and have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet.

The Hmong are known in Southeast Asia as the Hmong (pronounced "mung" or “mong”). They are ethnically different and linguistically distinct from the Chinese and the other ethnic groups in China and Southeast Asia. Even though they have intermarried a great deal with the Chinese, they are shorter and their eyes and faces look different than those of Chinese. The Hmong can be quite different from one another. The difference between Hmong groups is often as pronounced as between Hmongs and non-Hmongs.

The Hmong (pronounced mung) are racially different and linguistically distinct from the Chinese and the other hill tribes in China and Southeast Asia. Even though they have intermarried a great deal with the Chinese, they are shorter and their eyes are less slanted than the Chinese. The Hmong are also often very different from one another. The difference between Hmong groups is often as pronounced as between Hmongs and non-Hmongs.

Good Websites and Sources: Hmong Home Page hmongnet.org ; Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center hmongstudies.org ; Hmong photos pratyeka.org ; Hmong performance video YouTube Wikipedia article Wikipedia article ; Photos marlamallett.com ; Hmong in Lusheng China ; Hmong Clothes China Vista ; Hmong Language omniglot.com ; Hmong Funeral c232osu.spaces.live.com/Blog

Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights

left Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map nytimes.com ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site) chinaethnicgroups.com

Links in this Website: MINORITIES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA--- HISTORY, RELIGION Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---LIFE AND CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES IN SOUTHERN CHINA---AGRICULTURE, GOVERNMENT Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---ACHANG TO HAKKA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA--JING TO PUMI Factsanddetails.com/China ; MINORITIES GROUPS IN SOUTHERN CHINA---SHE TO ZUANG Factsanddetails.com/China ; HANI MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; JINGPO MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAHU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; LISU MINORITY Factsanddetails.com/China ; Hmong MINORITY---SOCIETY, CULTURE, FARMING Factsanddetails.com/China

Early Hmong History

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Some consider the Hmong to be the original inhabitants of the Chinese heartland of eastern China, predating the Han Chinese. Some believe they originally came from the river valleys of what are now the Hunan and Jiangxi provinces of south-central China. Other believe they originated father north in the polar regions.

The Hmong were described in ancient Chinese chronicle as a rebellious people that were banished from the central plains around 2500 B.C. They were displaced by Han Chinese invaders from the north around 2000 B.C. and have been migrating southward and western to the mountains of southern China and Southeast Asia ever since.

The Hmong are regarded as disciplined and have a long martial history. According to ancient historical records the Hmong settled in western Hunan and eastern Guizhou during the Qin and Han dynasties over 2,000 years ago. In some cases their migrations have been as much as vertical---from the lowlands into the highlands---as horizontal across Asia. Often they ended up territories dominated by other non-Han-Chinese ethnic groups, who subjugated and even enslaved them. The Hmong were often leaders in rebellions against the Chinese.

Hmong in Imperial China

There are some references to the Hmong in Chinese records from 1300 to 200 B.C. From that time to around A.D. 1200 they are grouped with other minorities and collectively referred to as southern barbarians (“Man”). After A.D. 1200 there are numerous reference to the Hmong. Most of them are descriptions of Hmong uprisings against the Chinese state.

The Chinese were sometimes rattled by the threats posed by the Hmong. Their major concern was that their rebelliousness might influence other groups to also rebel. The uprising often began as disputes over taxes and access to resources and sometimes ended with ethnic cleansing campaigns. In times of peace the Hmong were largely governed through the tusi system.

The Hmong fled China (where they were traditionally paddy rice farmers) to escape persecution and pacification campaigns, gradually migrating through Vietnam and Laos, into Thailand. They adopted swidden farming in these regions by necessity because lowland basins were already settled. Small groups of households would leave an established village to start another village in relatively uninhabited upland areas. In turn, other families moving from older settlements would settle an area that had been vacated, always in search of better farmlands than those that had been left behind. [Source: Library of Congress]

Later Hmong History

In the early 19th century the Hmong began migrating into Southeast Asia and Hainan Island (Chinese territory off coast of Vietnam) after they were forced off their homelands in the Chinese forests by the Chinese and pressured into assimilating and adopting the Chinese language. Later they migrated southward and settled in the mountains in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, where they raised live stock and grew rice and other crops. [Sources: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988; W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

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The last major Hmong uprising was in 1856. After that time the Chinese discouraged Hmong insurrections by displaying the severed heads of rebel leaders in baskets. The Hmong remain bitter and still refer to the Chinese as "sons of dogs." One Hmong elder said: “If you want to know the truth about our people, go ask the bear who is hurt why he defends himself, ask the dog who is kicked why he barks, ask the deer who is chased why he charges the mountains."

"Runnin' and dyin', runnin' and dyin' are all the Hmong have ever known," one old Hmong man told National Geographic magazine. "[In China] we were slaves. To escape we made a big cloth---3,800 Hmong stood on it. A good spirit made a big wind and blew us out of China into Laos."

In the colonial period the Hmong in Southeast Asia fell under the authority of the French in Vietnam and Laos. In 1919 they staged a rebellion over an opium tax in Laos that took the French several years to put down and resulted in the Hmong getting a fair degree of autonomy. In 1959, the Thai government tried to ban opium production, The effort failed and led to a state policy of toleration of opium production.

As the population of both Hmong and other neighboring groups increased, it ultimately became impossible to find new unclaimed lands, and the pioneering settlement pattern ended sometime between 1960 and 1975 in western Laos and northern Thailand. Villages in the old settled areas of eastern Laos-- Xiangkhoang and Louangphrabang--in many cases have been in one location for more than thirty or fifty years and have grown in size to as many as sixty or eighty households and more than 500 persons. [Source: Library of Congress]

From 1959 to 1973, the CIA trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist insurgencies in Laos. Many of the first recruits were Hmong guerillas who fought under the charismatic leader Vang Pao and had worked earlier with the French. The Hmong have traditionally occupied the strategic highlands in Laos overlooking North Vietnam and have traditionally been enemies of the lowland Vietnamese. They entered the conflict against Vietnamese first as scouts for the French and later as guerrillas for the Americans.

Hmong Population

There are an estimated 12 million Hmong worldwide. According to the 1990 census, there were 7.4 million Hmong in China. About half live in Guizhou Province. A third are in an area between Yunnan and western Hunan Provinces. The remainder are mostly in western Hubei, Sichuan and Guangxi, with some in Guangdong and Hainan. Many live in 14 autonomous prefectures and counties set up for them.

There are about 300,000 in Vietnam, 200,000 in Laos, 50,000 in Thailand and few thousand live in Burma near the Chinese border. About a million have been resettled n Western countries, including 300,000 in the United States.

Hmong customs vary a great deal from place to place. Hmong groups are divided by language and clothing. Duyun is the home of the “Chicken Feather Hmong.” See Places, China

Hmong Language

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Hmong in
Chinese characters
The Hmong language belongs to a western branch of the Hmong-Yao language group, which also includes such well-known languages as Hmu and Kho Xyong. Hmong is a tonal language with eight tones and a complex phonology. Some linguists classify Hmong-Yao languages as Sino-Tibetan languages; some don’t. Hmong-Yao language are a family of languages spoken mainly by hill tribes and ethnic groups that live in isolated areas scattered across southern China, Laos and Thailand.

There are five main Hmong-Yao languages, many associated with the speaker’s clothing: Red Hmong, White Hmong (Striped Hmong), Black Hmong, Green Hmong (Blue Hmong) and Yao. Often the language of one group is unintelligible to members of other groups and is divided into a number of dialects. About half of all Hmong speak Red Hmong and Black Hmong languages.

The Hmong had no written language until the 1950s when the Chinese and Thais developed Thai-based and Chinese-based scripts for them. Christian missionaries gave them a Roman-based script and used it to translate the Bible. The Hmong had traditionally passed on their culture orally and through the use of story clothes. The Hmong believe they once had a written languages but it disappeared after their ancient books were eaten by horses while Hmong warriors slept exhausted from fleeing China.

Hmong Religion

Hmong are animists, although a small number have converted to Christianity as a result of contact with Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Most believe that spirits are a common cause for illness. Shamans (txiv neeb) who can treat spirit- induced illness are respected and play an important role in the village, often being consulted to tell fortunes. Shamans may be either male or female and are usually "chosen" by the spirits after the former have suffered a long illness. Other men and women may know curing rites but do not enter a trance as a shaman does.

Hmong beliefs have been shaped somewhat by Chinese religions, namely Taoism and Buddhism, and, more recently in the case of some groups, Christianity. Within a house there are special altars for the spirits of sickness and wealth in the bedroom, the front room, and loft and near the house post and the two hearths. “The Hmong believe that souls, like errant children, are capable of wandering off or being captured by malevolent spirits, causing illness. The New York Times described a Hmong shaman who performed a ceremony for the diabetic man called a spiritual inoculation, meant to protect his soul from being kidnapped by his late wife and thus extending his “life visa.” [Source: New York Times]

Male household leaders are usually in charge of the domestic worship of ancestor spirits and household gods. Part time specialist act as priests, diviners and shaman. They don special clothes when the preside over rites and employ chants, prayers and songs they have memorized. They are paid in food for their services. Shaman are generally called upon on cure illnesses by bringing back lost souls. They play a key role in funeral rites and are called upon to explain misfortunes and preside over rites that protect households and villages.

Hmong Creation Myth, See Literature.

Hmong Spirits

Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to household well-being and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As with other Lao groups, illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The shaman may be called on to engage in significant curing rituals. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness is caused by one's soul climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the body in order to effect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about the family's fortune. *

The Hmong pantheon of gods and spirits include Saub, a beneficent deity often invoked for help; Siv Yis, the first shaman; and the two malevolent underworld kings, Ntxwj Nying and Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem. Hmong spirits, known as tlan, are thought to live in high concentrations in places like sacred groves, caves, stones, wells and bridges. Household ancestor spirits (dab) are distinguished from spirts called up by shaman (neeb). The spirits that protect homes and villages are sometimes thought of as dragons. Some Hmong groups believe in a pre-eminent spirit that presides over all earth spirits; some do not. A few believe in a kind of cargo cult in which Jesus will arrive in a jeep and military fatigues and bring all kinds of wonderful things.

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Hmong Shaman, Folk Beliefs and Healing Ceremonies

Hmong shamans are believed to be chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness. The illness would be diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women can be summoned in this way by the spirits to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is no uniform technique or ritual; rather, it varies within a general framework according to the practice of each master and apprentice. *

Folk beliefs affects almost every aspect of the Hmong's daily life. If a bird flies into a person's house and roosts, for example, it means it is time to start thinking about moving. Hunters are supposed to wipe their crossbows or rifles with the blood of the animals they kill to appease trail spirits which cause sprained ankles and other injuries.

Pregnant women are not supposed to enter some houses through the front door lest they bring great misfortune. Using the backdoor is alright. Sickness is thought to result from evil spirits luring the soul from the body and can only be cured of the soul is brought back through the front door of a house. To ward off evil spirits and keep the soul in the body, the Hmong, like many hill tribe people in Southeast Asia, tie cotton strings around their wrists.

The Hmong believe that the newborn and its parents must leave the family home for 30 days out of respect for ancestral spirits. In Laos expectant couples simply construct a small hut next to the house. If “the baby and new parents don’t leave the house,” one Hmong man told Smithsonian magazine, “the ancestors will be offended and the entire family will die.”

In the 1970s, foreign teachers tried to teach their Hmong students that a lunar eclipse were caused by the earth passing between the moon and sun. The students laughed at this implausible idea. Everybody knows, they said, that eclipses are caused when the frog spirit swallows the moon. The Hmong also believe that the best way to avoid getting struck by lightning is not to avoid standing on high ground, but rather to avoid drinking milk.

Hmong healers mix rice and corn liquor with herbs and folk medicine and offer it to chanting participants to thank the spirits for healing a sick baby, a shaman; go into frenzied trances to make deals with evil spirits in the clouds, at the bottom of a pond, in China to exorcize evil spirits from a house. Deals with the spirits are usually sealed with a pig or cow sacrifice from a rich customer and chicken sacrifice from poor one. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

Hmong Festivals and Sports

Many Hmong groups have their own festivals and ceremonies, which vary from village to village. Many also celebrate Han Chinese holidays. Some celebrate the new year according to Han Chinese calendar Others celebrate it in the 10th lunar month following the harvest. Other important festivals include the Dragon Boat festival, the Mountain Flower festival, which are important in bring in young couples together, and Drum Society festivals, which are held only in some years to honor ancestors.

San Yue San is three day festival celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Hmong, Yao, She, Mulao and Geleo minorities in China's southern and central provinces. Sometimes called Venus Day, it is a time when boyfriends and girlfriends are chosen and villages celebrate the occasion with singing, dancing, archery, wrestling, playing on swings, tug of wars, pole climbing and other activities.

The Dong and Hmong celebrate the first day of the festival by eating and drinking milky white wine. On the second day girls give baskets of shrimp and fish to the boys they fancy. On the third day everyone meets in the town square to participate in "drum treading" and "reed-pipe" dances. On the night of the third day girls dress up in their most beautiful tribal costumes and go upstairs in their bamboo houses to sing to the boys who are waiting downstairs. Boys then follow the girls to the gate of the bamboo houses and sing their reply.

All of the minorities perform the Money Bell and Double Daggers Dance. In this dance one man holds two daggers in his hand. Another man holds a money bell. The man with the daggers tries to stab the man with the money bell, who in turn tries to run away.

Toulou is an elaborate team sport requiring skill at spinning large wooden tops. As part of an ancient courtship ritual girls and boys stand in lines tossing balls back and forth.

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Hmong New Year

The Hmong New Year is generally celebrated on the first four days of the tenth lunar month. It is the biggest event of the year. New clothes are put on, feasts are held, antiphonal songs are sung by courting couples, courting games are played, and ceremonies are held to honor household and ancestral spirits. Each household sacrifices domestic animals and holds a feast. Weddings are often held. Some villages stage bullfights. Other have cockfights.

The Hmong New Year celebration was created to give thanks to ancestors and spirits as well as to welcome in a new beginning. During the Hmong New Year celebration, the Hmong ball tossing game pov pob is a common activity for adolescents. Boys and girls form two separate lines in pairs that are directly facing one another. Girls can ball toss with other girls or boys, but boys cannot ball toss with other boys. It is also taboo to toss the ball to someone of the same clan. The pairs toss a cloth ball back and forth, until one member drops the ball. If a player drops or misses the ball, an ornament or item is given to the opposite player in the pair. Ornaments are recovered by singing love songs to the opposite player. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The Hmong New Year celebration—specifically based on both religious and cultural beliefs—is an "in-house" ritual that takes place annually in every Hmong household. The celebration is to acknowledge the completion of the rice-harvesting season—thus, the beginning of a new year—so that a new life can begin as the cycle of life continues. During this celebration, every "wandering" soul of every family member is called back to unite with the family again and the young will honor the old or the in-laws—a ritual of asking for blessings from elders of the house and clan as well as the in-laws of other clans. ==

Hmong Sacrifices

Animal sacrifice ceremonies are held by the Hmong to help sick relatives and assure that good tlan watch over their children. During the big ceremonies a cow is sacrificed in honor of relatives who died fighting in Laos.

Eighty percent of the pigs in an average Hmong village end up being consumed at spirit ceremonies. When the ceremony is over the animals are eaten (the spirits only take the souls of the pigs not the meat) The remaining 20 percent of the pigs are slaughtered at weddings, funerals and christenings. The guest of honor at a ceremony is usually given the head, which is considered a real delicacy. Proper etiquette requires the guest of honor to suck out the brain. [Source: W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

Each year the Hmong hold four major sacrifices in which a cow or buffalo is offered. All four honor the rice spirit, Yang Coi. The first sacrifice is held before the land is cleared, the second before the seeds are planted, the third when the rice is half-grown and the forth after the harvest.

The sacrifice ceremony takes two days. On the first day the sacrificial cow is lead by a shaman, a group of children and six musicians with a gong into a field. Pieces of the cow's ear are cut out and buried near the borders of the field while a shaman chants a prayer.

During the second day a huge bamboo pole is erected in the field and decorated with bamboo cut-outs of cows and people. At the base of the pole is an alter which holds offerings of rice, bananas, and eggs. After a prayer is said a cow is killed with a ceremonial ax. Village women anxiously collect the spurting blood in bamboo containers which are later placed in the house to ward off evil spirits. While everyone sits around an drinks a rice beer called room they cow is cooked---hooves, hide and all---and later it is butchered and divided equally among the villagers.

Hmong Funerals

After death, the Hmong believe, the soul divides into three parts: one remains in the grave, a second joins his or her ancestor in the next world and the third returns to protect the home as an ancestor spirit. The dead have traditionally been cremated by lighting branches piled on top of the body. Funerals generally last a minimum of three days and are attended by all male kin within the household of the deceased. The ceremonies are often wailing affairs with mournful songs played by reed pipes to guide the dead on his or her journey to the other world. Cattle are sacrificed and the dead are buried in a place with auspicious feng shui.

Funerals may be presided over by ritual specialists but shaman are preferred because they are more skilled in making sure the soul of the deceased is given a proper send off to the other world and doesn’t become a malevolent spirit.

On the third day after the burial the grave is renovated. On the 13th day after death a ceremony is held for the ancestral soul so it will protect the household. A final memorial service is held a year after death. Later the deceased spirts may be invoked to help cure illnesses or misfortunes. When an ancestor soul returns to its village it must collect its placenta which has been buried beneath his house. This journey is described in funeral songs in which parallels are drawn between its journey and the journey of the Hmong out of China.

Hmong Marriages

right Marriages outside the clothing color, language or dialect group are uncommon. When a women marries she leaves her family and clan and enters the family and clan of her husband. She often moves to her husband’s village When she dies she is worshiped by his descendants. Usually only the youngest son lives with the parents after marriage.

Arranged marriages are the norm but couples are often given a degree of freedom in choosing a partner. Young people are permitted to enjoy a "golden period of life" in which premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. Many villages have “youth houses,” where unmarried young people could meet. In some cases groups of young men travel from village to village to met up with young women at these houses. Marriage often takes place at the first pregnancy.

Prospective couples often begin their relationship by playing a courtship game called pov pob, dancing and singing antiphonal songs during the Hmong New Year festival. If a couple decides to marry the family of the groom has to give the bride's family a bride price in silver and animals that usually amounts to between a thousand and two thousand dollars, quite a lot of a Hmong family. Unions are often sealed with a pig. In lieu of a price or sometimes i addition to one the husband works for two years for the bride’s parents to make up for the loss of their daughter, who is regarded as a strong, hard worker.

Couples are often very young when they get married. Many get married when they 14 or 15. Divorces are uncommon, partly because the bride prices are so high that the bride’s family is unwilling to return it. Often the only way an unhappy wife can get out of here marriage is through suicide.

Polygyny and Types of Hmong Marriages

Couples have traditionally been monogamous, but polygamy is practiced. For a while it was encouraged because so many men were killed during the Vietnam War and it was difficult to find husbands for all the women. In polygamous unions two or three wives often live in the same house. Because bride prices are so high generally only rich could afford to have multiple wives.

The Hmong practice polygyny, although the government officially discourages the custom. Given the regular need for labor in the swidden fields, an additional wife and children can improve the fortunes of a family by changing the consumer/worker balance in the household and facilitating expansion of cropped areas, particularly the labor-intensive opium crop. Yet the need to pay bride-price limits the numbers of men who can afford a second (or third) wife. *

Anthropological reports for Hmong in Thailand and Laos in the 1970s suggested that between 20 and 30 percent of marriages were polygynous. However, more recent studies since the mid-1980s indicate a lower rate not exceeding 10 percent of all households. Divorce is possible but discouraged. In the case of marital conflict, elders of the two clans attempt to reconcile the husband and wife, and a hearing is convened before the village headman. If reconciliation is not possible, the wife may return to her family. Disposition of the bride-price and custody of the children depend largely on the circumstances of the divorce and which party initiates the separation. *

After a young married man dies, according to Hmong tradition, his widow is married to clan member, who provides for her children.The Hmong also practice levirate marriages. If a man dies his eldest brother usually has first dibs on the widow. If he doesn't want her, the widow's family is required to return some of the bride-price. Bride kidnapping is still practiced by the Hmong. In many cases it is nothing but elopement and usually occurs when parents disapprove of a match or boy doesn't get along with the girls parents.

Hmong Weddings

Marriage is traditionally arranged by go-betweens who represent the boy's family to the girl's parents. If the union is acceptable, a bride-price is negotiated, typically ranging from three to ten silver bars, worth about US$100 each, a partial artifact from the opium trade. The wedding takes place in two installments, first at the bride's house, followed by a procession to the groom's house where a second ceremony occurs. Sometimes the young man arranges with his friends to "steal" a bride; the young men persuade the girl to come out of her house late at night and abduct her to the house of her suitor. Confronted by the fait accompli, the girl's parents usually accept a considerably lower bride-price than might otherwise be demanded. Although some bride stealing undoubtedly involves actual abductions, it more frequently occurs with the connivance of the girl and is a form of elopement. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Before a Hmong marriage a chicken is sometimes killed in front of the husband and bride to be. If the chicken's eyes are identical that means the marriage will be a happy one. If the eyes are different that is a bad omen, and the wedding plans are quickly scrapped. The weight the chicken is also significant. If either the bride or the groom breaks the engagement their family has to pay the other family the weight of the chicken in silver.

As a result of a government directive discouraging excessive expenditures on weddings, some districts with substantial Hmong populations decided in the early 1980s to abolish the institution of bride-price, which had already been administratively limited by the government to between one and three silver bars. In addition, most marriages reportedly occurred by "wife stealing" or elopement, rather than by arrangement. In the past, males had to wait for marriage until they had saved an adequate sum for the bride-price, occasionally until their mid-twenties; with its abolition, they seemed to be marrying earlier. Hmong women typically marry between fourteen and eighteen years of age. *

Hmong Women and Men

left Hmong gender roles are strongly differentiated. Women are responsible for all household chores, including cooking, grinding corn, husking rice, and child care, in addition to regular farming tasks. Patrilocal residence and strong deference expected toward men and elders of either sex often make the role of daughter-in-law a difficult one. Under the direction of her mother-in-law, the young bride is commonly expected to carry out many of the general household tasks. This subordinate role may be a source of considerable hardship and tension. Farm tasks are the responsibility of both men and women, with some specialization by gender. Only men fell trees in the swidden clearing operation, although both sexes clear the grass and smaller brush; only men are involved in the burning operation. During planting, men punch the holes followed by the women who place and cover the seeds. Both men and women are involved in the weeding process, but it appears that women do more of this task, as well as carry more than half of the harvested grain from the fields to the village. Harvesting and threshing are shared. Women primarily care for such small animals as chickens and pigs, while men are in charge of buffalo, oxen, and horses. Except for the rare household with some paddy fields, the buffalo are not trained but simply turned out to forage most of the year. [Source: Library of Congress]

Hmong women have traditionally done the most work: cleaning, cooking, pounding rice, tilling the fields, taking care of the children and making clothes. Men have traditionally woven baskets, plowed the fields, hunted for meat and defended the village from enemies. But, in many cases, the traditional work system has broken down and women do all the work. Many Hmong men don't do much except sit around the village and get drunk or smoke opium. Women sometimes say they are so busy they encourage their husband to take another wife so they don't have so much work to do.

Hmong women are famous for their embroidery and cloth making skills. They spend a lot of their time spinning, weaving and embroidering cloth often made from hemp, ramie and cotton they grow themselves. Often a woman's ability to attract a good husband is determined by how well she can sew. Because Hmong women don't use sewing machines, pins or patterns their stitches are virtually invisible. Some Hmong women in America have had success cashing in on their sewing skills.

Hmong Families and Children

Hmong households traditionally consist of large patrilineal extended families, with the parents, children, and wives and children of married sons all living under the same roof. Households of over twenty persons are not uncommon, although ten to twelve persons are more likely. Older sons, however, may establish separate households with their wives and children after achieving economic independence. By the 1990s, a tendency had developed in Laos for households to be smaller and for each son and his wife to establish a separate household when the next son married. Thus, the household tends toward a stem family pattern consisting of parents and unmarried children, plus perhaps one married son. Following this pattern, the youngest son and his wife frequently inherit the parental house; gifts of silver and cattle are made to the other sons at marriage or when they establish a separate residence. In many cases, the new house is physically quite close to the parents' house. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Today there are nuclear family and extended family households. A typical Hmong household consists of parents, unmarried children, and married sons and their families. The largest families are made up of parents with young married sons, their wives and children. Fathers have traditionally taken an active role in some aspects of child rearing.

From a young age, children help with chores and become engaged in village life. Literacy rates are low because most children don’t go to school. Young boys are taught to hunt and learn local custom by attending ceremonies and rituals. Girls are taught weaving, singing and other skills from their mothers. Children learn subsistence skills by working in the fields at a relatively young age.

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , San Francisco Museum, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: Primary Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Other Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988; W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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