Kmu woman in Laos

The Khmu are the largest Lao Theung Group. They form the biggest ethnic group in Oudomxay province. They are considered as the 'guardians of the land' and have settled in all Northern provinces of Laos. Living in the mountains, dry-rice cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques characterize their traditional economic system. The Khmu are also known as Kammu, Khamu, Kmhmu, Kho' Mu, Khmu', Lao Theung; also Kha, Kha Che, Xa Cau, which are pejorative

There are around 800,000 Khmu, with 708,412 in Laos (2015), 90,612 in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand and 7,000 in China. There are also some in the United States, France, and Canada. and a few other countries. Most of those in the United States arrived after 1975. A 1985 census in Laos counted about 400,000 Khmu, 10 percent of Lao’s population, making them the largest single minority ethnic group in the country. At that time Khmu in Thailand numbered from 5,000 to 50,000; in China there were approximately 2,000; and in Vietnam there were 32,000 in 1979. In mountainous regions the population density is very low; there are also small urban populations in cities such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Lampang, and even Bangkok. Some 3,000 Khmu now live in North America, and approximately 750 live in France. [Source: Wikipedia; Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Frank Proschan wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In the Khmu language, "Khmu'" means "person, human"; they were formerly known by the pejorative term "Kha" or "Xa" (from Tai languages), meaning "slave, serf." Khmu are divided into a number of local groups known as tmooy (guest or stranger) ; the word refers to people who are like us but unknown to us, and may even include members of other neighboring Mon-Khmer ethnic groups. Another term, jé', refers to people who are not like us (for instance, Lao, Tai, and Hmong). The tmooy groups are believed by some scholars to be the remnants of ancient political divisions, although it is more likely they are simply differentiated by geography. The Tmooy Ou are those living near the Ou river; the Tmooy Yuan are those who formerly paid tribute to the Tai Yuan overlord; the Tmooy Cvaa are those living in the Luang Prabang region, formerly Muang Cvaa. People also may be distinguished by which negative particle they use: Tmooy Al are speakers of a northern dialect and Tmooy Am speakers of a southern one. |~|

“Khmu traditionally lived at the lower elevations of mountain ridges in northern Indochina. They once centered on the valleys of the Nam Ou, Nam Tha, and Nam Beng rivers and their confluence with the Mekong river. Following Tai migrations into this area, Khmu were dispersed in every direction, often absorbing smaller related ethnic groups. They inhabit tropical forests watered by monsoons, with a rainy season that extends from May or June to September or October. |~|

The Provincial Tourism Department (PTD) gives tourists the opportunity to visit Khmu villages on trekking tours including home stay in the villages. With these tour programs the villages Ban Tanongpo, Ban Phavi and Ban Chom Ong are also part of the PTD’s development program.

Khmu History

From a trip to Lao in 1866

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Khmu once were masters of the domain of Muong Cvaa (or Muong Sua), centered on what is now the city of Luang Prabang. Following their conquest in the thirteenth century by Lao people, the Khmu were driven into remote mountain ranges or became serfs to a Lao aristocracy. In places, however, the Khmu retained a good deal of autonomy and local authority, sometimes even governing over local Lao and Tai populations. The Khmu were recognized as older brothers of the Lao and Tai in coronation ceremonies and other court rituals in Luang Prabang and Nan, and in oral traditions of the Lao and Khmu. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

“The political structure of the ancient Khmu domain of Muang Cvaa is unknown, although tales and legends speak of Khmu kings. More recently, Khmu were incorporated into the civil and political administration of their Lao and Tai neighbors; the degree of their subservience varied from region to region. Village chiefs (naay baan ) of monoethnic Khmu villages were always Khmu; a mixed Lao-Khmu village might have a chief from either group. In certain places Khmu could serve as naay phong or tasseng (two levels of local chief), in some cases even having authority over Lao villages within the phong or tasseng. More often, however, Khmu could not exercise authority over members of other ethnic groups. Until the independence revolution, Khmu could not aspire to higher positions such as chao muang (district chief) or chao khoueng (province chief), but in contemporary Laos Khmu can be found at every level of government. |~|

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Khmu frequently rebelled against the local Tai and Lao feudal lords and French colonial authorities, in millennarian rebellions that were called Sôk Cheuang (Cheuang's Wars), after the mythical or legendary culture hero Cheuang. From 1945 until 1975, Khmu were in the forefront of the Lao independence revolution, making up the largest part of the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Pathet Lao) military forces. A smaller segment of the Khmu population supported the United States and Royal Lao Government; many of them fled as refugees following the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975. |~|

Khmu Language and Culture

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Khmu speak a number of mutually intelligible dialects of the Khmu language, which is the largest member of the Khmuic Group of the Northern Mon-Khmer Branch of the Austroasiatic Language Family. Their territory is surrounded by groups speaking smaller languages of the Khmuic Family; in many cases these people also speak Khmu itself. Khmu are almost all at least bilingual, speaking their mother tongue and whatever is the locally dominant Tai language (Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Dam, Lue). The contemporary vocabulary includes a large proportion of Tai loanwords, many borrowed centuries ago and others borrowed more recently. Khmu in Vietnam, the United States, and France also speak the languages of those countries as a third language. Their own language includes two main dialect groups: Southern Khmu dialects maintain a historical distinction between voiced and voiceless initials, whereas Northern Khmu dialects have replaced this with a distinction between low tone and high tone. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

“Khmu share many cultural traditions with their Lao and Tai neighbors, and with other neighboring ethnic groups including the Lamet (Rmeet), Hmong, and Thin (Mai-Pray). These may include subsistence technology, crafts and material culture, music and song, and clothing. There are nevertheless cultural traditions unique to the Khmu, or borrowed from them by their neighbors. Intermarriage with members of other ethnic groups is not infrequent; in some cases non-Khmu people (especially those from smaller ethnic groups) marry into a Khmu village, adopting Khmu language and traditions, while in other cases Khmu marry out, taking on the language and traditions of another group (especially the larger Lao or Tai culture).

Khmu have rich traditions of verbal art, including myths of the origin of the group and of each totemic clan, humorous and heuristic tales, prayers, riddles, play languages, and sung verse. Khmu song features an elaborate poetic structure of reverse parallelism that is ubiquitous among the Khmu and rarely known among other groups. Khmu music features a number of flutes, reed flutes, mouth organs, Jew's harps, and percussion instruments, almost all made of bamboo. The bronze drum is important as a symbol of wealth and status, in ceremonies and rituals, and as a musical instrument. Knowledge of traditional medicinal plants and herbs is widely held; they are gathered in the forests or may be cultivated in village gardens. Shamanic healing is practiced only by highly trained specialists. |~|

Khmu Religion

Frank Proschan wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Khmu traditional religion is marked by belief in a pantheon of hrôôy (spirits) who include ancestor spirits, household spirits, village spirits, locality spirits, rice spirits, and spirits associated with natural phenomena, animals, and dragons. Each person has hrmaal (soul-spirits) who are inclined to flight at times of turmoil or transition. For at least the last century, Khmu villages have adopted Buddhism, often without completely forgetting their traditional religion. Protestants undertook missionary activity from the nineteenth century, and Catholics from 1945; adherence to Christianity usually required giving up most traditional beliefs. Khmu who have migrated to the United States and France usually practice Christianity, although some maintain those beliefs that can still be practiced in their new circumstances. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Most Khmu are able to perform common ceremonies and some rituals; more elaborate rituals require the expertise of a specialist. Shamans who have undergone elaborate long-term training may diagnose spirit-caused illnesses and perform shamanic ceremonies to cure them. |~|

Ceremonies and rituals are required to honor the hrôôy spirits, to forestall the danger they might cause if offended, to pacify spirits when they are angered, and to restore harmony when the spirits create trouble. Wristtying ceremonies and other ceremonies of reintegration are required to call a hrmaal back to the body or prevent its flight. |~|

After death, a long narrative song is sung by the survivors, guiding the deceased's spirit to its resting place. If this cannot be done properly, or the spirit is hungry, it may return to haunt the survivors with its plaintive demands. The spirits of those who die accidentally are especially likely to return to trouble their survivors. |~|

Khmu Marriage and Family

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Although marriages are traditionally arranged through negotiation between the two families involved, individuals have substantial influence over their choice of spouse as long as they choose within the prescribed kinship system. Adolescent girls receive nocturnal visits from suitors, who make use of a Jew's harp to send verbal messages of love to the girl. If she reciprocates the boy's affection, she responds by playing on a flute. Premarital sexual activities are accepted, although they should not result in pregnancy. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Marriage is negotiated between the two families, and formalized through ceremonies hosted by each side. Where the boy's side meets the bride-price expected by the girl's side, the new family may reside near the boy's family. Where the boy is unable to meet the bride-price, he will indenture himself to his father-in-law for a period of service, during which the new family resides with the girl's parents. Divorces are formalized through negotiation between the two sides; they may require a refund of the bride-price (for instance if the match does not produce offspring, or the wife is unfaithful) or a fine (if the husband has abandoned or mistreated the wife). Polygyny is sometimes practiced by more prosperous men. |~|

The household is the primary domestic unit, comprised of a nuclear family as its core and sometimes including grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, children-inlaw, and others. Young unmarried men may reside for some period in the communal men's house or joong, or they may live together away from the village in an urban area where they have gone as temporary laborers. Infants are raised by both parents and by older siblings, aunts, or cousins. A father can perform most parental responsibilities. Infants are usually carried by adults in slings on the chest or back; when carried by a child they may be held on the hip. Adolescent males traditionally reside together in a communal men's house, where they learn techniques of hunting, trapping, and material culture.

There are few daily tasks that are restricted to one gender; under circumstances of necessity almost any task can be performed by either gender. Tasks associated with men are hunting and trapping, felling trees, blacksmithing, and long-distance trade that requires sleeping away from the village. Tasks associated with women are planting rice, carrying water, gathering forest plants, feeding animals, and trade with nearby villages. Both men and women perform most agricultural tasks of clearing brush, cultivating, weeding, harvesting, and carrying; either may cook, although men are said to be better and are responsible for butchering large animals. Child care is generally women's work, although men frequently carry their infants. |~|

Khmu Society

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Khmu kinship system revolves around prescribed marriages with the matrilateral cross cousin. There are three jeua (lineages) each comprising one or more snta' (totemic clans): the quadruped lineage may include the civet, tiger, gaur, monkey, squirrel, and bear clans; the bird lineage may include the forktail, hornbill, mynah, kite, and kingfisher clans; the plant lineage includes the fern clan. Descent is patrilateral in some regions, bilateral in others. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Khmu villages are not highly stratified, and relative prosperity or poverty depends more on individual circumstance than on heredity. Older people are generally accorded respect, and those with special knowledge of herbal medicine or special talents for song or musical performance are recognized as experts. Ritual specialists and shamans are known as such, although in daily life they work just as others do (observing certain special ritual prohibitions and obligations). Young men reside temporarily in the joong but do not constitute an age-set; there are no initiation ceremonies. |~|

Within a household, the father exercises most authority, although the mother is in charge of money. Social control is usually expressed through subtle means: either by gossip about someone else or through an indirect or veiled reference, heuristic tale, or parable. In times of stress, turmoil, or personal misbehavior, the concerned party might be the focus of a communal ceremony intended to encourage them to do right by demonstrating the community's concern and solidarity. An informal assemblage of village elders may be convened to arbitrate disputes between families, to discipiine unruly or disruptive members, or to make decisions for the village as a whole. Unreconciled disputes or unresolved grievances may separate families or lead to the fissure of the village. |~|

Conflict in traditional village life can often be avoided through compromise, acquiescence, or flight. One of the most important things affecting the lives of contemporary Khmu was the three-decade-long war of independence from 1945 to 1975; this conflict was one in which Khmu were profoundly implicated, although they had little control over its course.

Khmu Villages and Houses

Frank Proschan wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Khmu mountain villages range from 15 to 150 households, and from 100 to 1,000 people. The larger the village, the more prosperous it is likely to be; small villages usually have less territory available for farming and villagers are less able to accumulate wealth or material possessions. Often situated alongside a mountain stream that can provide drinking water, the village is surrounded by land used for swidden agriculture. In places, Khmu villages also have adjoining rain-fed or irrigated rice paddies; some now have tea plantations or groves of commercial trees. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Khmu village

Houses are built on stilts or pilings, and are made from bamboo, wood, or both. A prosperous villager will have a house with wooden walls and a metal or wood-shingle roof; a poor villager will have a house with plaited bamboo walls and a thatched roof. The arrangement of houses in the village is determined by the contours of the terrain; the village chiefs home (or a communal men's house, where that tradition is preserved) is located near the center, along the path or road entering the village.

A typical traditional house includes three chambers, each with a hearth: a front area for receiving guests, a central area for the family's cooking and eating, and a rear area where the ancestral altar is maintained. In urban areas of Laos or Thailand, or in North America and France, Khmu live in houses or apartments, often clustering together with other Khmu families when possible.

Khmu Economy and Agriculture

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The dominant aspect of Khmu life is the cultivation of dry rice in swidden fields on mountain slopes. Traditionally they practice a sustainable swidden system in which fields are cleared, burned, and planted for one or two years, then left to regenerate as long as possible—ideally a dozen years or so. Where the land available for a village's cultivation is restricted by terrain or the proximity of other villages, it may be necessary to practice a shorter cycle, requiring longer use of a field and shorter periods of regeneration. This results in rapid depletion of the soil and requires villagers to seek fields farther from the home village. Governmental efforts in recent years have been directed toward sedentarization, discouragement of swidden agriculture, and the introduction of irrigated rice agriculture; these efforts have had only mixed success where they have not indeed been harmful. The sloping swidden fields are not plowed but planted with a dibble or planting stick. Maize, legumes, gourds and squash, taro and yams, chili peppers, eggplants, and herbs are sown among the rice plants. Pigs, water buffalo, goats, chickens, and ducks are kept for meat or eggs. A large part of the traditional diet, especially during the season when new fields are being planted and rice stocks are depleted, is filled by plants gathered in the forests and by fish, birds, and small game captured with nets, snares, and crossbows. [Source: Frank Proschan, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Khmu are well known to their neighbors as specialists in the crafting of baskets of all kinds, snares, and traps, all of bamboo. Women in some regions spin cotton and weave small shoulder bags using a backstrap loom, but in general Khmu are not known for textiles and have no broadcloth weaving. Clothing was traditionally acquired from neighboring Tai peoples, and is now most likely to be mass-produced in Western style. In certain regions Khmu may practice blacksmithing of knives, swords, and agricultural implements, or may make jewelry, but these are not prominent traditions. |~|

Khmu live in close proximity to other ethnic groups and engage in frequent, albeit small-scale, trade with their neighbors. These trade relations are symbolized in certain ritual exchanges incorporated into court ceremonies, where Khmu provide beeswax, resins, stick 1ac, honey, and other products gathered in the forests, in exchange for metal goods, cloth, and industrial products. In China and northwestern Laos, Khmu controlled several salt mines and engaged in trade with others wanting this precious commodity. Historical accounts also describe Khmu as providing rice to their lowland neighbors, the Lao or Tai. |~|

The land surrounding a village is generally recognized by others as belonging to that village. Rights of usufruct ensure that those who have cleared a field and cultivated it have the right to its use in the future. The historical primacy of the Khmu is acknowledged by the Lao and other Tai groups in court rituals in which they pay tribute to the Khmu as the ancestral owners of the territory. Decades of war and the Socialist economic system of the Lao People's Democratic Republic led to massive dislocations and to collectivization efforts, both of which disrupted traditional land-tenure relations. More recently, efforts to sedentarize Khmu and discourage swidden agriculture have also changed the bases of land tenure.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, National Geographic, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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