Hmong


Hmong
/hmawng/, n., pl. Hmongs, (esp. collectively) Hmong.
Miao.

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or Miao

Mountain-dwelling peoples of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand who speak Hmong-Mien languages.

There are also émigré communities in the U.S. Agriculture is the chief means of subsistence for the Hmong throughout their traditional territories; they grow corn (maize) and rice and raise opium as a cash crop. Most venerate spirits, demons, and ancestral ghosts, and animal sacrifice is widespread. Households are multigenerational. In China many Hmong follow the Chinese practice of arranged marriage. Worldwide they number about 9 million.

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people
      ethnic group living chiefly in China and Southeast Asia and speaking Hmong, one of the Hmong-Mien languages (also known as Miao-Yao languages). Since the late 18th century, the Hmong alone among the Miao groups have slowly migrated out of the southern provinces of China, where about 2.7 million still remain. See also China: People (China). Some 1.2 million have moved into the rugged uplands of northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and the eastern parts of Myanmar (Burma). More than 170,000 live in the United States and nearly 20,000 more in France (15,000), Australia (2,000), French Guiana (1,500), Canada (600), and Argentina (600). (See Researcher's Note: Hmong population figures and self-name.)

      The original home of the Hmong is thought to have been in the Huang He (Yellow River) basin of central China. They were slowly driven southward and marginalized by the expanding population of the Han Chinese. Traditionally, the Hmong practiced the shifting cultivation of unirrigated upland crops; buckwheat, barley, and millet were grown at the highest altitudes, and rice and corn (maize) at lower elevations. Virgin forest was cleared and burnt off for the planting of new fields; when soil fertility declined (usually after several decades), the entire village would relocate. New villages could be a considerable distance away from a group's previous locale. In the late 19th century the opium poppy was introduced into the highlands by outside traders, and the Hmong began to cultivate it in an integrated cycle together with corn and dry rice. They sold opium to itinerant traders, usually Chinese, in return for silver. The silver was used in bridewealth payments, and the trading system often involved a loan against a future opium harvest.

      By the late 20th century, shifting cultivation had become impracticable except in a few remote areas. In response to government programs in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, the Hmong have now largely abandoned shifting cultivation and opium production. They have instead turned to the permanent-field cultivation of crops such as corn or the gardening of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, which they sell in lowland markets.

      Hmong society is organized through a number of patrilineal clans with Chinese surnames such as Li, Wang, and Yang. Smaller descent groups within these clans comprise people united through a known common ancestor and shared ancestral rituals. Surname exogamy, or outmarriage, is still strictly observed: a Li man may not marry a Li woman. An ideology of brotherhood unites the men of a particular clan, so that a man of the Li clan may expect to find hospitality from other Li “brothers,” wherever they may be living. The role of women in traditional clan culture is more ambiguous; their spirits were cared for in the afterlife, but their social status was low.

      Clans bridge the broad cultural divisions that are thought to reflect the migration of different groups of Hmong from central China. The two main cultural divisions of the Hmong in Southeast Asia are the White Hmong and the Green Hmong, which may refer to the colour of women's clothing. The White Hmong and the Green Hmong traditionally lived in separate villages, rarely intermarried, spoke different dialects, had different forms of women's dress, and lived in houses of different architectural patterns. By the late 20th century there was greater proximity between the cultural groups—more intermarriage occurred and mixed settlements had become commonplace—yet the sense of difference between the divisions still remained strong.

      Hmong cultural life and religious beliefs are extremely rich, like the embroidery and love songs for which the Hmong are noted. At marriage the bride joins her husband's household. The sequence of events at a wedding is carried through by a series of songs marking each moment of the bride's transition, sung by two go-betweens appointed respectively by the bride's and the bridegroom's side. A certain amount of bridewealth, traditionally in silver, must be paid by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. This payment acts as a sanction on her behaviour; if it can be shown that she has misbehaved (for example, by cheating on her husband or by running away for no good reason), the husband's family can demand its return. Female suicides, often by swallowing opium, were quite common. A man may have more than one wife; co-wives live together in the same house and treat their children equally.

      The New Year, which starts on the 30th day of the 12th lunar month, is a time for honouring the family's ancestral and household spirits, and for the family to remain together, but also for visiting other villages and playing communal games. In Southeast Asia rows of unmarried boys and girls play catch with a cloth ball, while in China there is the beating back and forth of a feather shuttlecock. These games may lead to further meetings between a young couple and eventually to marriage.

      In cases of serious sickness or misfortune, a shaman (shamanism) is invited to the house, where he enters a possessive trance in order to visit the otherworld and locate the missing soul of the patient. Every person has a number of souls who may wander away from the body or be trapped by evil spirits, causing illness, and it is the shaman's job to diagnose this and to retrieve the soul (see shamanism; soul loss).

      Funeral (death rite) rites may last several days, and there is a series of mortuary rituals that takes place some years after a death. A drum is beaten, the reed pipes are played, and a special ritual expert is invited to sing the song "Opening the Way," which will guide the reincarnating soul of the deceased back to the original village of ancestors, from where it will be reborn. The corpse is buried, usually in a place selected—like the sites of villages are—according to the Chinese system of geomancy (feng shui).

      Sometimes a shaman acts as a political leader, as there is no specifically Hmong political institution above the level of the village or local descent group. From the late 19th through the 20th century the Hmong have periodically risen up in armed revolt against colonial and postcolonial authorities, a response to the exploitation and hardship imposed by more dominant peoples. Often these rebellions have been associated with the belief that a messianic (messiah) leader of the Hmong is about to be born, the imminence of which is announced by a prophet who validates his claim by “discovering” a form of writing for the Hmong language. There is no traditional form of writing for Hmong, but legends explain how they lost their writing at the dawn of time and describe the circumstances under which it will one day be restored. Although a variety of scripts are now in use for the language, messianic movements persist.

      In the 20th century the Hmong of Southeast Asia were divided by the conflicts between communist parties and states. In Thailand, where many Hmong joined the Communist Party during the 1960s, they earned a reputation as enemies of the state for that reason. Decades later, many Hmong in Thailand still continue to lack citizenship rights or proper titles to the land they cultivate.

      In Laos many Hmong sided with the opposition to the communists; after the Revolution of 1975, more than 100,000 fled from Laos into refugee camps in Thailand, from where they were resettled to countries including the United States, Canada, France and French Guiana, Australia, and New Zealand. Many families were split apart in these resettlements. Some diasporic Hmong have begun tracing family roots and tracking down relatives while revisiting their homelands in Thailand, in Laos, to a lesser extent in Vietnam, and even in southern China, which their families may have left two centuries ago. New contacts have been formed across the Hmong global community through the use of audio- and videocassettes and increasingly through the Internet. Indeed, these technological advances have been crucial in forming a new sense of transnational community among the geographically distant groups of Hmong.

Nicholas Tapp

Additional Reading
There is a large literature on the Hmong in non-English languages and some important works in French and German. Only English-language references are provided here. Robert D. Jenks, Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The “Miao” Rebellion, 1854–1873 (1994). by an army historian, provides a detailed historical account of how these rebellions in China, described as “Miao,” included a whole range of local peoples indiscriminately called “Miao” by the Chinese and even included local Chinese. The situation of the Miao in China is discussed in Louisa Schein, “The Miao in Contemporary China: A Preliminary Overview,” in Glenn L. Hendricks, Bruce T. Downing, and Amos S. Deinard (eds.), The Hmong in Transition (1986).Yang Dao, Hmong at the Turning Point (1993; originally published in French, 1975), provides an introduction to Hmong culture, history, the political situation of the Hmong in Laos, and the origins of the conflict there. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992 (1993), describes the conflicts in Laos, their aftermath, and the obstacles the Hmong faced in leaving their homeland.Personal remembrances are a focus of Gayle L. Morrison, Sky Is Falling (1999), a collection of oral histories centring on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's retreat from Laos. Experiences of life during the war, in Thai refugee camps, and in the United States are recounted in the life histories presented in Lillian Faderman and Ghia Xiong, I Begin My Life All Over (1998). Additional information about the Hmong experience in the United States can be found in Nancy D. Donnelly, Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women (1994).Hmong emigrant communities and some of the medical issues they faced in the clash with biomedicine in the late 20th century are introduced in Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997).Nicholas Tapp, Sovereignty and Rebellion: The White Hmong of Northern Thailand (1989), describes a Hmong village in Thailand and the emigrants' relations with the Thai state and includes a history of the Hmong in China. Robert Cooper, Resource Scarcity and the Hmong Response: Patterns of Settlement and Economy in Transition (1984), is a neo-Marxist account of the emergence of classes that compares four upland Hmong villages in Thailand.William Robert Geddes, Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand (1976), is the classic ethnography of the Hmong in Thailand, by a professor of anthropology who was employed by the United Nations to advise on the eradication of opium production in Thailand. Half the book is devoted to an account of the opium economy.Nicholas Tapp, The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary (2001), is an account of a Hmong village in Sichuan province, China. These Hmong spoke Hmong like their counterparts in Southeast Asia though they were much affected by Chinese culture.Louisa Schein, Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics (2000), describes the Hmu people of China's Guizhou province who, like the Hmong, are called “Miao” by the Chinese. This work of postmodern theory describes the shifts of identity that occurred in the early 1990s when non-Hmong Miao from China met Hmong from the United States. Patricia V. Symonds, Calling in the Soul: Gender and the Cycle of Life in a Hmong Village (2004), provides a good account of the position of women and the traditional ritual life cycle in a Hmong village in Thailand.Nicholas Tapp et al. (eds.), Hmong/Miao in Asia (2004), a book of essays resulting from the 1998 International Workshop on the Hmong/Miao in Asia held in France, is the most comprehensive collection of essays by current researchers on the Hmong of Asia. It covers China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand and includes essays on history and linguistics.Nicholas Tapp and Gary Yia Lee (eds.), The Hmong of Australia: Culture and Diaspora (2004), provides a good account of the Australian Hmong, with essays on their costume, settlement, music, and linguistics.The earliest major English-language source on the Hmong is Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, Akha and Miao: Problems of Applied Ethnography in Farther India (1970; originally published in German, 1947). It compares in some detail Hmong and Akha society and culture in Thailand in the 1930s. Some of the older Christian missionary books on the Hmong and A-Hmao in China, such as Samuel Pollard, The Story of the Miao (1919), and Tight Corners in China: Missionary Among the Miao in South West China, 2nd ed. (1921); and Walter Pollard, The Life of Sam Pollard of China: An Account of the Intrepid Life of Danger, Toil & Travel of a Missionary in the Far & Little Known Interior of the Vast Chinese Empire (1928), a biography by Pollard's son, are difficult to find but make for good reading.Nicholas Tapp

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Universalium. 2010.

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