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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 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) to 2,000 meters (6,5600 feet). Hmong speak dialects of the Miao Branch of the Miao-Yao Language Family.

The Hmong (pronounced "(H)MAWNG", "mung" or “mong”) are known in China and parts of Vietnam as the Miao (pronounced mee-OW), a term the Hmong regard as derogatory. They are ethnically different and linguistically distinct from the Chinese and the other ethnic groups in China and Southeast Asia. The Hmong can be quite different from one another. The difference between Hmong groups is often as pronounced as between Hmongs and non-Hmongs. There are two main cultural divisions of the Hmong in Southeast Asia, marked by differences of dialect and custom: the White Hmong and the Green Hmong (who pronounce their name as "Mong").

The Hmong are also known as Man, Meo and Mong. They migrated to Southeast Asia from the mountainous parts of southwestern China, where the majority of Miao-Hmong still live. They inhabit the mountainous regions of northern Laos, northern Vietnam, and northern Thailand, with a very small perhaps in Myanmar (Burma) near the Chinese border. Since the ending of the Vietnam War large numbers of Hmong refugees from Laos were resettled in the U.S. and other Western countries. [Source: Nicholas Tapp, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The Hmong are often at odds with the governments of the states in which they reside because of their independence, opium growing, and shifting slash-and-burn agriculture that is destructive to the environment. They are being encouraged to settle in lowland areas where they can be more easily controlled and can practice more productive wet rice agriculture. Mutual suspicion exists, however, between the Hmong and the majority populations, who tend to consider them ignorant and uncivilized. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Hmong Population and Places Where They Live

The places where Hmong and Miao live — Southwestern China and northern Southeast Asia — form a unified geographical zone characterized by a merging of main mountain ranges, which are extensions of the eastern Himalayas and the Tibetan plain, with semitropical and dense tropical rain forest in some areas. At around 1,000 meters deciduous trees give way to evergreen forest. Mountain peaks range from 2,535 meters in Thailand to 7,470 meters in southern China. The mountain ranges primarily run north to south, with fertile alluvial river valleys between them, which served as pathways for caravan routes in the past. |~|

The Hmong tend to live in mountainous border regions where they resist government controls and have paid little attention to borders, often going back and forth between countries as they please. This angers governments that want to control their peoples and their borders. In Laos, where they are called called Lao Sung, or upland Lao, the Hmong live in the uplands with other groups such as the the Akha, Phu Noi, and Mien (Yao). Hmong make up two-thirds of the upland Lao population and about 5 percent of the total population of Laos, the only country where they are a significant minority. The government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) has tried to include the upland peoples and extend services like health and education to them. By using terms like lowland Lao (basically ethnic Lao), midland Lao (Kammu and others), and upland Lao, the LPDR has tried to de-emphasize ethnicity. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

There are an estimated 15 to 16 million Miao-Hmong worldwide. Of these 11 million are Miao that live in China. The Miao diaspora is scattered across the globe. They exist on five continents. Countries with significant populations in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the United States. Regions with significant populations of Hmong:
1) China: 2,777,039 (2000, estimate)
2) Vietnam: 1,393,547 (2019)
3) Laos: 595,028 (2015)
4) United States: 327,000 (2019)
5) Thailand: 250,070 (2015)
6) Myanmar: 40,000
7) Argentina: 4,000 (1999)
8) Australia: 3,438 (2011)
9) France (French Guiana): 2,000
10) Canada: 600 (1999)
[Source: Wikipedia]

Estimates of the Hmong population vary. In the late 2000s it was estimated there were probably 4–6 million worldwide, with A) 3–5 million in southern China, mostly in Yunnan; B) about 350,000 in north Vietnam; C) 230,000 in north and central Laos; D) and around 100,000 in northern Thailand. In the 1990s there were around 2 million Hmong speakers in China, approximately 200,000 in Laos, 300,000 in Vietnam, and 50,000 in Thailand. More than 30,000 others were in refugee camps along the Thai border with Laos. More than 100,000 had been resettled in Western countries, mostly the U.S. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *\, [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *] |~|

Miao-Hmong History and Their Migration to Southeast Asia

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 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]

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Incursions by Imperial Chinese forces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced the Miao from the home base in Guizhou into the nearby provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Yunnan. Some Miao even migrated across the Chinese border into Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar).

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. "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." [Sources: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988; W.E. Garret, National Geographic, January 1974]

Hmong to Southeast Asia

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]

In Vietnam and Laos, the Hmong came under the authority of the French colonial government. A major Hmong rebellion against excessive levies on opium production broke out in Laos in 1919. It took the authorities several years to suppress the revolt and this led to a fair amount of autonomy among. During the Indochina wars, involving France in the 1940s and 50s, and the U.S. the 1960s and 70s, Hmong loyalties were sharply divided between the royalists, neutralists, and opposition in Laos, and large numbers fled to Thailand when the Pathet Lao gained control of their country in 1975. In Thailand similar divisions occurred as a result of the 1959 ban on opium production. Many Hmong supported the armed rural struggle of the Communist Party of Thailand against the government in the 1960s and early 1970s. [Source: Nicholas Tapp, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Hmong and the Wars in Vietnam and Laos

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, who 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.

Nicholas Tapp wrote: In north Vietnam, the Hmong were caught up in the First Indochina War (1946–1954) and were instrumental in the Viet Minh victory against the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954). The Hmong were considered fierce fighters, skillful in guerrilla warfare in mountainous terrain. The Hmong were also involved in the Lao civil war, which was in many ways an extension of the Vietnam War. During the civil wars in Laos from 1962 to 1973, Hmong were divided along clan and regional lines between support for the rightist parties and for the socialist Pathet Lao. Some joined the Communist Pathet Lao while others served in the CIA-sponsored mercenary army under General Vang Pao, supporting the Royal Lao Government. As porters, guides, spies, and fighters, they were crucial to a war effort fought mostly in sensitive border regions; many became regular or irregular troops under General Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army. Casualties were heavy. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

With the fall of Laos in 1975, more than 100,000 Hmong fled Laos for Thailand, where they were housed in five refugee camps along the border, from which they have mostly been resettled in third countries. A small Hmong insurgency continued, and when Lao and Vietnamese forces were unable to secure Hmong villages with regular forces, they turned to chemical and biological warfare. New waves of Hmong refugees fled the country. Perhaps as many as 200,000 Hmong left Laos. Most were resettled in other countries, but the thousands remaining in Thai refugee camps are being unwillingly repatriated to Laos. The Thai government's hard line toward remaining Hmong is based in part on the perception that the remaining refugees are "economic migrants" rather than people fleeing in fear of their lives. A large number of Hmong refused resettlement because they were led to believe they would be needed to retake Laos, where a small resistance movement continues with variable support from elements of the old counterinsurgency military establishment. Formal recognition of their support for the American war effort in Indochina was won in the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000, which allows special consideration for irregular Hmong ex-soldiers.

Hmong Language

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. [Source: Nicholas Tapp, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

There are two major Hmong dialect and cultural groups: the Green Hmong (sometimes called the Blue Hmong) and the White Hmong. The colors refer to women's traditional dress. The two dialects are mutually intelligible. In the old days there was little intermarriage between the two dialect groups, but in recent decades it has become common. In Laos, the government supports a Hmong radio news broadcast, the only broadcast in a minority language. The Hmong language contains many words borrowed from Chinese, Thai, Lao, French, and English. An effort is being made to educate the Hmong and make them literate in the languages of the countries they live in. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

The Hmong have many short rhyming expressions with messages of wisdom and show their outlook on the world.
You don't have to sharpen a thorn
You don't have to explain to a smart person.
See a tiger, you will die
See an official, you will be poor.
Tangled hair, use a comb to unsnarl it
Complicated dispute, use an elder to solve it.
Able to weave, don't waste thread
Able to speak, don't waste words.
The mouth tastes food
The heart tastes words.
If the crops aren't good, you lose only one year
If your wife isn't good, you lose a whole lifetime.
[Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

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. Relatively few Hmong are literate in the romanized script missionary groups developed for their language. The script has some odd traits. The word "Hmong," for example, is written "Hmoob." The double letter signals a nasalized vowel, and the last consonant is an unpronounced tone marker. The Hmong proverb in romanized script is written: “Niam-txiv piv tam lub ntuj" (Parents are like the sky), "Tub-ki piv lub tem" (Children are like the earth). ++

Hmong Religion

Hmong are animists. 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]

Hmong girls in Thailand

In Thailand and Laos, 10 to 20 percent of the Hmong are Christians. Many have been converted evangelical Protestant missionaries. This is viewed by some Hmong as a threat to clan solidarity, since Christians destroy their spirit altars, refuse to sacrifice at funerals, and feel less bound by clan ties. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

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 spirits 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.

Hmong Shaman and Folk Beliefs

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.

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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 Sacrifices and Funerals

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.

Hmong New Year in Wisconsin

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 Festivals and New Year

Many Hmong groups have their own festivals and ceremonies, which vary from village to village. Many also celebrate Han Chinese holidays. Christians celebrate Christians holidays. Weddings are big events.

The Hmong New Year is generally celebrated on the first four to ten days of the tenth lunar month, which usually falls in December after the harvest. 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 a pig or another domestic animal and holds a feast. The household altar is cleaned and redecorated. On new year's eve, the eldest male in the household calls the spirits home — the father's spirit, the mother's spirit, the children's spirits, the animals' spirits, and the spirits of the crops. He then throws away the evil and bad words of the old year. The new year is welcomed and named after the first animal they hear cry out. Weddings are often held. Some villages stage bullfights. Other have cockfights. Young men visit the elders, taking whiskey and food; they kneel and wish good fortune to the elders, who bless them in return. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

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 festivities, 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: ==]

Hmong New Year in Vietnam

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. ==

Image Sources: Nolls China website, 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

Last updated October 2022

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