Current Hmong Issues: 12-point
(By Dr Gary Lee and Dr Nick Tapp)
On the meaning of the
3. On the difference between the term
'Hmong' and the term 'Miao'
4. On the Hmong Kingdom in the past
5. On the geographical origins of the Hmong
6. On Hmong Kinship and Surname System
7. On the current number of Hmong in the world
On Hmong Family Size
9. On the Hmong as Destroyers of the Environment
10. On Hmong political ambitions
11. Hmong Genocide in Laos
12. Does Hmong marriage by capture amount to rape?
familiar with the Hmong in their global context, we thought it time
to put to right and clear up some matters which have been of concern
to many students, friends and interested people on the Hmong.
Judging by the
frequency of your emails and questions to us, certain issues have
proved to be the source of great concern and confusion! It is
important to separate facts from opinions, so we have tried in the
following to distinguish between what is fact and what are opinions.
On the meaning of the
Nobody is sure what
the real, original meaning of this term is, although everybody may
have their own ideas and opinions about it. Many nationalities'
ethnic names have no particular meaning, or have only meanings which
are not important any more, or meanings which just refer to a
particular group of 'people' living in, or originated from, a
particular place or country.
The same is true with
the term 'Lao'. In the 1940’s, there was a political movement
(the Lao Issara or Free Lao) which argued that the real meaning of
the term 'Lao' was 'free', although there was no real historical
evidence for this. Some Lao historians have also advanced the idea
that the word “Lao” originated from another Lao term “dao” (meaning
“stars”) which became “lao” when used by Chinese speakers.
This argument would have elevated the people’s status by linking
them to a celestial origin. The same has been made for the
term 'Hmong' which some have taken to mean “free”, although the
Hmong language does not have an exact word that means "freedom".
It is a fact that
nobody knows or can be sure of the real meaning of the term 'Hmong'.
Probably it has no special meaning, except to refer to the people
known as 'Hmong'. In our opinion, the term may once have meant
something like 'us' or 'people', but that is only an educated guess.
Our position is that we should stop seeking meanings to the name
"Hmong", and that we should just be happy with being known as
Hmong, or Mong. The Americans, the French, the Germans, or the
Japanese are not bothered by what their names could mean. Why
cannot the Hmong do the same?
2. Hmong or Mong
A controversial debate
took place between Hmong intellectuals in mid-2003 in the US
concerning the name “Hmong”. Some argue that the
term as spelled only applies to the White Hmong or Hmong Der (who
pronounce the word with a nasal “H” sound in front). As such,
it should not be used to include the Blue Hmong or Mong Leng (who
say “Mong” without the nasal “H”, thus preferring to be known as
“Mong”). Others even go so far as claiming that the Hmong Der
and Mong Leng are linguistically and culturally different and
do not belong to the same ethnicity, although they have lived side
by side since time immemorial. Those of this opinion resent
the name “Moob Ntsuab” (Green Mong) to apply to them, as it implies
a low state of socio-cultural development, compared to the more
vague and neutral name “Mong Leng“.
We respect the wish of
those involved who want to be known by one name in preference to
another. However, we would like to point out that in our informed
opinion, both the Hmong Der and Mong Leng belong to the same ethnic
group by virtue of their common religious practices, history,
cultural traditions and language (despite some dialect difference).
They also mix and inter-marry freely. Both groups have been
known internationally by the generic name “Hmong” for many years
now. It will only create confusion for younger Hmong who grow
up in Western countries and to researchers on the Hmong to have to
face these different terms. We have also used the name
“Green Hmong” (Hmoob Ntsuab) in our writings because it has
never carried any negative connotation for anyone at the time we
wrote our articles. It is only a name for a sub-division of
the Hmong people, supposedly based on the colour of the women’s
skirts. Many Mong Leng people in Laos preferred to
be called “Moob Ntsuab” in the 1960’s and 1970’s (see
Hmong-French Dictionary by Txiv Plig Nyiaj Pov, and “The Religion of
the Hmong Njua” by Nusit Chindarsi). The word “ntsuab”
(green) connotes lush vegetation and life, while no one knows what
“lees” (leng) really mean.
3. On the difference between the term
'Hmong' and the term 'Miao'
'Hmong' is a word in
the Hmong language. 'Miao' is a word in the Chinese language.
Because the Hmong did not have a written down language, there are no
historical records about them. Therefore, we know nothing for
sure at all, from the written Chinese records available, about the
Hmong, because the Chinese only use the term 'Miao' and have no way
to write the word 'Hmong' in their language.
In Southeast Asia, the
word 'Miao' or 'Meo' has a very unpleasant meaning when used
incorrectly. We should all resent and hate its usage and fight
against the use of this term in Southeast Asia or overseas to refer
to the 'Hmong'.
But in China, things
are a little bit different. In China, 'Miao' is an official
government category or minority identity, which has no unpleasant
meanings. Maio) mentioned in Chinese history long ago.
There are three major peoples, ethnic groups or cultures, who the
Chinese put under this word 'Miao'. One is the Hmong, another
are the Hmu people in Southeast Guizhou province, and the third are
the Kho (or Qho) Xiong people of West Hunan province.
These three peoples,
the Hmu, the Kho Xiong, and the Hmong, although all called the 'Miao'
by the Chinese, speak different languages and cannot understand each
other at all. They have had different histories, different cultures
and traditions. Perhaps, thousands of years ago, they were the same
people since their languages are related, but on one knows for sure.
The only thing that is sure is that they are called 'Miao' by the
Chinese, and altogether in China they now number over 9 million
people. But not all these 9 million Miao people are Hmong -
only perhaps less than half of them.
Among the other Miao
groups in China, the ones closest to the Hmong (although they still
cannot understand each others' dialects) are the A Hmao people in
Yunnan province. They are called Da Hua Miao or 'Great Flowery Miao'
by the Chinese. Still these are not Hmong people, as they cannot
speak the same language.
The Hmong people in
China still speak very good Hmong, closer to Green Hmong than to
White Hmong but with different tones and expressions. They live in
parts of Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces. But the
Hmong in China speak much the same dialect and do not group
themselves into White, Black or Green Hmong with their own
distinctive dialects like those in Southeast Asia.
So in China it is OK
to call Hmong people 'Miao' and the Hmong there do not seem to
resent being called by this name. But we have to remember that
not all the Miao in China are Hmong! Unfortunately, many
writers just substitute the word 'Hmong' for any reference to 'Miao',
resulting in a lot of inaccuracy about the Hmong in China.
On the Hmong Kingdom in the past
This is a very
difficult problem. Because there is no written historical record of
the Hmong by themselves or by other people, we cannot know if they
really had a kingdom or not from the available written records,
except in their folk tales and legends. There are Chinese records
about the 'Miao', but we cannot be sure whether this included the
Hmong at that time or different groups. Probably, at most times in
history, the Chinese history of the 'Miao' also included some Hmong
groups as well as many other non-Han Chinese nationalities.
But there is not even
any Chinese historical record that the Miao (let alone the Hmong!)
ever had a kingdom! Sometimes the Chinese records talk about 'Miaowang'
or 'Miao kings', but mostly these were small local leaders who were
fighting against the Chinese and trying to establish independence in
their local areas, but they had never succeeded to do it.
This is not to deny
that there could have been Hmong kings or kingdoms in the past.
It is quite possible that ancestors of the Hmong (perhaps also
called Hmong, perhaps not) lived in or had separate kingdoms of
their own in southern China. But there is not one piece of
historical evidence for it. So all we have are the oral
legends and stories of the Hmong themselves about their past to tell
us about these kingdoms - not one written record, by the Chinese or
any other foreign power in history, not one bit of archaeological
Our point is that
there has not been any written evidence for the existence of Hmong
kings or a state or kingdom in any part of the world in the past.
5. On the
geographical origins of the Hmong
Again, nobody can be
sure because there are no historical records of the Hmong! Different
people have different ideas. In Louisa Schein's book Minority
Rules (Duke University Press, 2000) about the Hmu people in
Southeast Guizhou, China, she gives five different theories about
where the Miao came from - the North, the South, the East, the West,
and the Centre of China (pp. 44-48).
There are stories of a
northerly origin outside China, and stories that the Hmong came from
a 'land of ice and snow' (Savina, Histoire des Miao, Hong
Kong 1924, p.x). These stories probably originated from Western
imagination, or from inaccurate transpositions of Hmong terms which
were not well understood. For example, Savina translates 'dej npau'
as 'snow and ice' when it should mean 'boiling water', and the lines
of the ritual of death (qhuab kev) where the soul of the dead
person is led to join the ancestors state in Hmong that the
ancestors 'nyob ntuj qhua teb nkig, ntuj txag teb tsaus',
which should mean 'live where the sky is dry, the earth brittle; the
sky is cold, the earth is dark') get translated incorrectly as 'lie
under burning skies on the scorched earth, under icy skies on the
dark earth" (Ken White's English translation of Jacques
Lemoine's French translation of the ritual Qhuab Ke in Kr'ua Ke :
Showing the Way, by Jacques Lemoine, Pandora, 1983, p.8). These
kind of mistakes have led writers to conjecture that the Hmong came
from a land of ice and snow with long dark winter months (like
Siberia or the North Pole) and before that, from a land of 'burning
skies' and 'hot earth' (like Mesopotamia in the Middle East).
But these metaphors could just be Hmong expressions to describe the
world of the dead rather than any real place.
These kinds of errors
and interpretations are very common in books about the Hmong,
particularly with early missionary writers (who were trying to
convert the Hmong to Christianity) like Savina who wanted to
link the Hmong with a Biblical origin. This was despite the lack of
any supporting evidence, except he noticed that some Hmong children
were fair-skinned and had blue eyes (as if albino children were not
also found in other non-European groups). Sadly, this
Mesopotamian origin has been repeated again and again by subsequent
writers on the Hmong, up to the present day.
Did the Hmong come
from Mongolia? Or from Tibet? What evidence is there? Do
the Hmong have anything in common with the Mongols or Tibetans?
Many Hmong mistakenly believe that their ancestors originated from
Mongolia, because the similarity in the syllable "mong" in the two
names. However, a closer examination reveals that the Hmong
have nothing that would link them to Mongolia, not even anything
that could be said to have been influenced by the Mongols such as
words or religious rituals. The Hmong do not have legends
about emperors and Khans, or being conquered by them. They have no
stories about a grassland nomadic life involving horses and sheep
like that in Mongolia, but there are many stories about tigers and
jungles as commonly found in the highlands of China, and especially
tales about Chinese people whom they call “mab suav” who chased them
across rivers and mountains, so they ended up where they are today
in Southeast Asia.
The plain fact is,
nobody knows for sure where the ancestors of the Hmong came from, so
different people may have different explanations. Maybe future
scholarship will throw more light on this question. But because the
word 'Hmong' was never written down in Chinese historical records,
proving whether the Hmong had a kingdom (in China where most of them
live) or whether they came from the east or the north, will probably
never be possible. Nor are there any archaeological ruins
which could be claimed to be Hmong or to show the origins of the
Hmong, as they do not seem to build lasting monuments or distinctive
In our view, based on
what we have read or heard, the original home of the Hmong may have
been somewhere around the Yellow River basin in China, for Chinese
classics referring to a legendary history some 4000 years ago
mentioned the 'San Miao' or 'Three Miao' living in that
region. There are also many religious and cultural similarities
between the Chinese and the Hmong which would suggest that the Hmong
have always been in close contact with the Chinese, rather than any
other people. As pointed out by Bradley (in his book The
Languages of China, Princeton University Press, 1987, p.282),
many ancient words are shared between the 'Miao' and Chinese
languages; and 'Such words indicate that there was early, intimate
contact between the ancestors of the Miao and the Chinese'. And
Hmong stories and rituals often mention the Chinese (Suav), with one
folk story even saying that the ancestors of the Hmong and the Han
Chinese were once two brothers worshipping at the same ancestral
grave (see D.C. Graham, Songs and Stories of the Ch’uan
Miao, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978,
6. On Hmong Kinship
and Surname System
kinship organisation in Southeast Asia (and now among those living
in Western countries) is structured around the clan or surname
(ib xeem) and lineage (ib tus dab qhuas) system. The clan
system is based on the surname used by one's paternal kin group.
A lineage is based on membership in a descent line which can be
traced to a known ancestor and a common set of ancestral rituals,
while with a clan this is not possible beyond the sharing of a
Mottin (in his book
Eléments de Grammaire Hmong Blanc, Bangkok, 1978) identifies
nineteen clans with twenty clan surnames (because one clan has two
surnames in Green Hmong). For the White Hmong, only eighteen clans
and eighteen clan surnames can be found, but the Green Hmong have
fourteen clans. The White Hmong have five clans (the choj,
faj, tsheej, vwj, and xem), which are not found among the
Green Hmong while one Green Hmong clan (xoom) does not exist
with the White Hmong.
These surnames are:
tang/hang (haam), heu (hawj), khang (khaab), chang (tsaab),
Kue (kwv), Lee (lis or cai), moua (muas or zaag), thao (thoj), cho (tsom,
vang (vaj), xiong (xyooj), yang (yaaj) and kong (koo).
chao (choj), fang (faj), heu (hawj), kha (khab), kong (koo),
lo (lauj), Lee (lis), moua (muas), thao (thoj), chang (tsab), cheng
(tsheej), cho (tsom), vang (vaj), vue (vwj), se (xem), xiong (xyooj)
and yang (yaj).
The clan system is
used by the Hmong to identify people they are or are not related to.
All people bearing the same surname are supposed to be related to
each other, even though there may not be any known blood ties
between them. This entails the same social obligations towards
each other as if they are members of the same family. When a
stranger from the same clan visits, you are supposed to treat him
and offer him hospitality as if he is your own close relative.
Thus, traditionally a Hmong man can visit other Hmong men anywhere
and be expected to be well received by them. However, members
of the opposite sex within the same clan are forbidden to
marry each other, and can only marry Hmong from another clan
or surname group.
A recent phenomenon
with the Hmong in Laos and Thailand is the adoption of new surnames.
Some families have chosen to use the name of their great grandfather
(e.g. Bouasao, or Yangtu – fictitious names here) as the
group's surname. Others have used Thai or Lao names such as
Rattakul or Lilavanh. With a new name like Yangtu or Lilavanh,
one can still guess that the name is derived from the Yang or Lee/Li
clan. However, with names such as Bouasao or Rattakul, it is
impossible to know. Because of this, it is possible that
people bearing the Bousao name could be originally from a Vang clan,
but now with the name Vang gone they can easily violate the Hmong
taboo of not allowing members from the same surname group to marry
each other, for there then would be nothing wrong with a Vang
marrying a Bouasao after a few generations. And it is possible that
such a couple could easily be related by blood, except that one did
not chose to change his or her surname while the other did.
How would the Hmong deal with this phenomenon?
One negative aspect of
Hmong social organisation into tightly knit clans based on different
clan names is that it often mitigates against political unity into a
single nation under a single leader. Does anyone know this not
to be true during the past two centuries of Hmong armed resistance
and struggles for freedom? Political unity is usually strong in the
initial stage of a crisis, but tends to crumble when members of one
clan become distrusful or resentful of another ; for example,
rivalry between the Lo and the Lee clans in Laos, or between the
Yang and the Vang in post-1975 for those in the diaspora?
The Hmong all crave for and talk about unity, but have they ever
achieved it? Often, outsiders know and exploit this lack of
unity for their own political end – and to the Hmong’s own
7. On the
current number of Hmong in the world
According to Michaud
and Culas (in Michaud, Culas, Tapp and Lee, eds. Hmong/Miao in
Asia, 2004), the 1990 census in China shows that people who call
themselves "Miao" total 7,383.622 (0.65% of the total population)
with a break-down as follows: 3,666,751 (11.3% of the
provincial population) in Guizhou; 1,568,951 (2.6%) in Hunan;
895,704 (2.4%) in Yunnan; 533,860 (0.5%) in Sichuan;
426,413 (1%) in Guangxi Zhuang; 200,764 (0.4%) in Hubei;
51,676 (0.8%) in Hainan; 5,988 (0.01%) in Guangdong; and
33,515 in other provinces. There are no figures just for the
Hmong, but as stated above, only less than half of all the 'Miao'
people in China are Hmong. It is now estimated that the
current total Miao population in China is 9 millions.
For Southeast Asia,
Thailand has 124,000 Hmong (or 0.21% of the total population), Laos
316,000 (6.08%), Burma (Myanmar) 2, 656 (0.01%), Vietnam 558,000
Source: McKinnon and Michaud (2000), based on official
figures gathered at national level. Burma : extrapolation based on
the 1931 census (Bennison 1933). Thailand : 1995 figure (TRI 1995).
Laos : 1995 figure (Lao National Statistical Centre 1997) Vietnam :
Census of 1989 (Khong Dien 1995). China : figures for the Miao in
general (TPCPRC 1993).
It is difficult to
know the exact figures for Hmong in Western countries, but in our
estimates there are now some 200,000 Hmong living outside Asia,
Note: the Hmong in New
Zealand had all migrated to join the bigger Hmong community in
Australia by 2003.
Other people have
given the total number of Hmong in the world as 12 million, but that
may be an over-estimate, especially given that the majority of the
Miao in China do not call themselves Hmong and do not speak the
Hmong language. If any readers have the latest demographic records
for Hmong in any country, we would appreciate receiving this
information so we can use it to correct the above figures.
8. On Hmong Family Size
Large families are
often found in most traditional Hmong settlements. Many
couples have at least 5 to 7 children, and some polygamous marriages
may have more than 10 children, depending on how many wives some
male family heads may have (usually two, but rarely more than three
wives and most marriages are monogamous).
People have asked
about the reasons for this seemingly high fertility rate? The
major reason is the Hmong's desire to have sons - like people
in any patriarchal society. In their traditional village
setting, they are farmers who toil from dawn to dusk for all their
lives. There is no retirement pay-out they can depend on,
except the support of their families and children when they reach
old age. The Hmong's worst fear is that there may not
anyone to care for them when them grow old. Daughters marry
and move away to live with their husbands, so only sons would be
left to do this task. Moreover, only sons have the duty to
make food and paper-money offerings to their parents after the
latter's death so that they will not go hungry in the Afterworld.
Such beliefs give the Hmong a real fear of destitution.
These material and
religious fears are the real reasons most Hmong couples try to have
sons and may go on trying if most of their children happen to be
daughters. In the process, the families may become large
before the parents realise it. It is not because they want
many daughters to get dowry payments. It is not because they
want many children so that they can occupy large tracts of
conversion to other religions that do not demand ritual offerings to
ancestors, may help to reduce Hmong family size. With recent
problems relating to the lack of farming land and the need to send
their children to schools (requiring much money), many Hmong couples
in Southeast Asia have now started to become interested in family
planning and to reduce the number of children they have. As
they become more aware of the many other good things around them,
many Hmong married women now want to know how they can stop having
children - whom they love but for whom they have to toil day after
day for the best part of their lives.
9. On the
Hmong as Destroyers of the Environment
The Hmong are often
accused of destroying forests and watersheds, because they live in
the highlands and practice shifting cultivation. In their
search for new farming lands, they are said to have denuded large
areas, leaving only grasslands and drying up streams and rivers that
used to provide water for crop irrigation in the lowlands.
In fact there are
strong arguments that shifting cultivation by itself does not lead
to deforestation (given plenty of land and few people), and that
deforestation is not the main or only cause of droughts and floods.
However, in Laos and Vietnam there are plans to move them to the
lowlands (and many forced relocations have already taken place), but
there are no lands available there for this and many Hmong also
prefer to live in the cool climate of the hills. With increase
in population and a lack of farming lands, even in the highlands,
many Hmong in Laos have moved from their traditional areas to Bokeo
or Borikhamxay provinces to take up wet rice farming. So far,
only those with money or with overseas relatives to send them money
have been able to do this, as they have to buy wet rice lands from
Lao farmers. Many also complain of the hot weather there which makes
them sick and too weak to farm. What is to be done?
In Thailand, for more
than 20years now, the Royal Forestry Department has stopped Hmong
farmers from clearing new lands for farming, and has planted pine
trees on mountain areas traditionally used by the Hmong. This
has forced many of them to adopt commercial cropping (growing
cabbage or flowers), or fruit tree plantations (lychee or peach).
The new commercial enterprises necessitate the use of water for
irrigation and chemicals. The Hmong have been taught to do this by
other Thai government agencies responsible for tribal welfare or
agricultural development. Their hard work and initial
success have allowed Hmong families to build better houses and to
buy pick-up trucks or motor cycles - items that many lowland farmers
cannot afford. This has created much resentment, leading the
Hmong to be accused of overusing water and causing drought in
the lowlands, and poisoning lowland water sources through the
pesticides and fertlizers they have to use to support their new
farming methods. And they only adopted these new methods because
there was so much pressure on them from the Thai Government and
other agencies to give up shifting cultivation and the opium poppy!
In Doi Inthanon,
Chiangmai, groups of lowland Thai have taken the law into their own
hands by putting up road blocks to prevent the Hmong and other hill
tribes from taking their produce to the market (Chatvanichkul, in
Tai Culture International Review, December 2000, pp. 165-168).
The Hmong were also blamed for causing forest fires so that they
should be moved from the area by force (even though these fires were
later found to have been lit on purpose by their accusers -
interview by Gary Lee with Hmong leaders in Doi Inthanon, October
1998). In Pak Klang, Pua, a group of lowlanders went to the Hmong
village in 2000, burned down houses and destroyed lychee trees which
had taken the Hmong more than 10 years to grow. Such wanton
acts were also carried out against Hmong villagers in Tak and other
provinces. A recent article (21 May 2001) in the local Thai "Chiangrai
Newspaper" (Nangsupim Nakhorn Chiangrai) published a feature
article accusing the Hmong of having large families so as to
overpopulate northern Thailand, of destroying the Thai environment
and all forms of wildlife.
Where is the evidence
for these accusations? Are the Hmong the only highlanders?
The Thai and Lao highlands have always been occupied by many ethnic
groups, including lowland people who have moved upland following
recent population pressure in the lowlands. Why target only
the Hmong? How can the Hmong, local authorities and lowland
people cooperate to work and live peacefully together?
10. On Hmong political
Some Hmong want to
have a country of their own so they can bring together other Hmong
who are now scattered in different corners of the world. Some
have formed political groups to fulfil this dream, although where
this place is they want for themselves is never made clear.
The Chiangrai Thai newspaper cited above claims that northern
Thailand would be the target and that this separatist movement was
being assisted by educated overseas Hmong. Is this real or are
people only trying to stir up trouble for the Hmong?
movements have always talked about the coming of a Hmong kingdom,
but there have been many such messianic groups or advocates that did
nothing but talk and dream their messianic dreams. Not many
people have taken them seriously and they have been mostly harmless.
The danger is that outsiders with their own political agenda use the
Hmong to cause trouble for their own aims – like the so-called “Red
Meo” war in Thailand in the 1960’s which was actually led by lowland
communist Thai using the Hmong as cannon-fodder. Similar
exploitations of Hmong political ambitions also occurred in Laos.
But even if some Hmong
were to carry out their political dreams, let us consider how
realistic this would be. To begin with, the Hmong are not a
united group of people living in one place. They are small
groups of minorities living in different countries under different
regimes. Their first loyalty is to their country of birth or
adoption. They cannot be motivated to come together, and
do not have the leadership and the resources to do so.
Secondly, the Hmong in each of the countries they now live in only
form a very small proportion of the total population (see figures
above) – all less than 1% (except in Laos where their number is 6%
of the national population). Such dreams, or fears, are not based on
reality or on what the Hmong can and want to do – to live with
dignity in peace and harmony with other people. When they took
up arms in the past (be it in China, Laos or Thailand), this was
only to defend their persons and properties, but never to take over
the country or lands of other peoples.
11. Hmong Genocide in Laos
In 2002, the Fact
Finding Commission, a Hmong lobby group based in California,
released a video which vividly shows the suffering of members of the
Hmong resistance in the Saisomboun Special Zone: sick and
malnourished children and women living in dug-outs under tree
foliages, scarred and ageing men clinging to old weapons with tears
running down their faces as they cried for help after nearly 30
years of desperate struggle deep the jungles of northern Laos.
In May 2003, Time Asia magazine published an article written by
Andrew Perrin entitled “Welcome to the Jungle” in which he described
his meeting with these Hmong rebels who were originally resisting
the Lao communist government but are now fighting for their life
with only about 800 survivors. Perrin wrote that “in all my
years as a journalist I had never seen anything like this.”
These CIA-Secret War veterans were begging their American ally and
the world to come and rescue them from extermination by Lao and
Vietnamese troops. The article carried many heart-wrenching
photographs taken by international photographer Philip Blenkinsop
who has since exhibited his work in a number of countries, openly
referring to the atrocities suffered by these Hmong in the jungles
of Laos as genocide.
This is a theme
that has been repeated for many years by the Lao Human Rights
Council based in Wisconsin, USA. In a submission to the US House
Committee on Ways and Means in April 2003, the Council alleged
“genocide” and “war crimes in Laos” with “300,000” people said to
have been killed by the Lao government since 1975, and cited
leaders of the Hmong resistance as the source of this estimate (see
We have interviewed
many Hmong refugees on the issue and know how difficult it is to
obtain correct figures. However, we believe that 300,000 killed
under the new Lao communist government would probably be too high,
given that the Hmong of Laos was estimated to be only 300,000 before
1975. With 200,000 resettled in Western countries after 1975 and a
1995 census count of 316,000 Hmong in Laos, this would have meant a
total of 1.1 million Hmong persons in that country – one fourth of
its current total population, which is not really the case. On
the issue of genocide, it depends on which group we refer to.
If it is the Hmong who resist joining the new government and who are
the target of its pacification campaign, then using the term
“genocide” to describe the way the Lao authorities have tried to
exterminate these small groups of 800 – 2,000 rebels may be correct.
However, more than 310,000 Hmong live as Lao citizens under the
current Lao government, most of whom are left in peace and cannot be
said to be subjected to genocide.
Hmong marriage by capture amount to rape?
Hmong marry like other
groups of people – because a young man and woman love each other and
agree to cement their relationship through the bond of marriage. In
the majority of cases where both are in love with each other, the
girl would agree to accompany her boy friend home, then undergo the
lwm qaib (welcome) ceremony to be accepted into the spiritual
world of his household – if there is no objection to her from the
man’s family. A party would be sent to the girl’s house to inform
her parents not to worry about her, for she has only “gone to get
married” (mus yuav txiv lawm). Once the lwm qaib ceremony is
completed at the front door of the man’s house, the girl will be
allowed to enter the house and is considered his wife from that
moment on, although the wedding celebration is still to be carried
out at a date to be agreed on later by the families of both the
groom and the bride – at which time dowry and other payments will be
discussed. This is the most common form (about 95% of all
In a few cases, the
girl may not be keen on her prospective husband because they do not
know each other well enough, or because she may not like him for one
reason or another. In this situation, the man and his family
may ask her for marriage in a formal ceremony called “nqi tsev hais
poj niam” (going into house to ask for wife). Often, her
parents would leave the final decision to her, but sometimes they
may try to convince her to accept the marriage proposal if the man
is considered “a good prospect” for her. If she cannot fight against
her parents’ decision, she may run away with her real boy friend if
she has one, or she may agree to go to the prospective husband’s
house but return to her parents later after a cooling period without
going through the wedding ceremony with him. In rare
circumstances, she may even commit suicide if she knows that her
parents will refuse to accept her back and she has no one else to
turn to for support and advice. This is more common in Laos,
Vietnam and Thailand where Hmong women have no official law to
used also to occur where parents of very young children may agree to
betroth them to be married many years later when they are old
enough. Arranged marriages of this kind are now
virtually non-existent. What is more common is when a girl may
consent to a marriage without having seen her future husband – as
sometimes happens between Hmong women in the homeland and Hmong men
living in Western countries, what is sometimes known “as mail-order
brides”. Again, this is not very common, nor is it confined to
well-publicised form of marriage which is almost extinct
today, is the so-called marriage by capture. This used to
occur in the past when a man was really taken by a girl he had just
met, but he might not have time to court her or she might reject all
his advances. This is what the Hmong call “the act of a
desperate man” – forcing a girl into marrying him by capturing her
with the help of some male friends. They would carry her off,
and her mother might try to beat them off, or her father might
talk them into letting her go. However, if they were
physically the stronger party, they would take her to the man’s
house, and put her through the lwm qaib ceremony – a sort of
approved rite of passage. Once this is done, she would be
considered his lawful wife. In such cases, the man often has to pay
heavy fines to the girl’s parents at her wedding. Most girls who are
unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation often
reluctantly consent to the arrangement and many go on to have a
happy married life, for their husbands usually “treasure” them more
on account that they “married” them with such difficulty.
Recently, an American
academic at Michigan State University has branded this marriage by
capture as “rape marriage”. This may be too strong a term to
use, since women who enter into this form of marriage usually
consent to it after their initial refusal. If they absolutely
refuse to agree to it, they are left with the decision to “run away”
and get a divorce with local authorities, or to return to their
parents. There are no rules set in concrete to say that they
have to marry by force whether they like it or not. In most
cases, it is a “fake abduction” agreed to by both the bride and
groom. Some “good” girls may prefer to set themselves up to be
abducted for marriage as a “face-saving” device, even when they and
their prospective husbands already know each other well. Being
“forced a little” means that a girl can show she is not “too eager
to throw herself” at the man of her choice by running away with him
like an “easy woman”. If later the marriage fails, she can at
least say that she was not keen on it in the first place and has to
“abducted” or coerced. This is a matter of culture that
Western academics should seek to understand before using their own
narrow cultural norms to pass judgement on the Hmong people.
We hope that the above
statement has helped you in your search for basic knowledge on the
Hmong. Some of this information is based on what we consider
to be factual evidence, others on what we see as something closer to
the real acceptable situation rather than on claims which have been
influenced by myths or political motives. We have not presented the
many varieties of Hmong cultures, as this is a complex subject and
much of it is already available in many other publications. However,
there is a great deal of confusion and muddled thinking here as
For example, a group
known as the Yochio Hmong is often described. These Hmong people,
who lived in Guizhou province, actually call themselves the 'Hmong
Ntsü'. But the Chinese call them Yaqie Miao, or 'Magpie Miao', after
the dark blue and white colour of their women's clothing, which they
thought resembled magpies (see Ruey Yih-fu, The Miao: Their Origin
and Southward Migration, Proceedings of the International
Association of Historians of Asia Biennial Conference, 6-9
October 1962). So the term 'Hmong Yochio' is a mixture of a Chinese
word ('Yaqie) and a Hmong word ('Hmong'), which has never actually
been used by anyone.
In this short
statement, we have presented some facts, and where we are not sure
of the facts, we have made clear that it is our opinions which are
being expressed. There are still many uncertain aspects to the life
of the Hmong in different parts of the world, and we invite
all who are interested to do your own research and to share your
information with others – even through this website!
As anthropologists, we
are happy to assist with advice.
Dr Nick Tapp is a
Senior Fellow with the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
the Australian National University. He has researched on the
Hmong in Thailand and in China for many years, and has published
widely on them, including a book Sovereignty and
Rebellion: the White Hmong of Northern Thailand (Singapore:
Oxford University Press, 1989). His latest publication, The
Hmong of China: Context, Agency and the Imaginary has just been
released by Brill (Leiden, 2001).
Dr. Gary Lee is an
anthropologist who obtained his Ph.D. in social anthropology from
the University of Sydney, and worked as a Senior Ethnic Liaison
Officer in the New South Wales government, Australia, for many
years. He has researched on the Hmong in Thailand, Laos, and
Australia, and specialised in issues of social structure,
development, and migration. He has published many articles on
these subjects, including a first novel Dust of Life: a True Ban
Vinai Love Story (St. Paul: Hmong ABC, 2004).
Both Dr Tapp and Dr
Lee recently co-edited two new books on the Hmong:
The Hmong of
Australia: Culture and Diaspora (Canberra: Pendanous
Hmong/Miao in Asia, edited with J.
Michaud and C. Culas (Chiangmai: Silkworms Books,