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Cultural identity in post-modern society

There is no easy answer to the question of what constitutes the cultural...
 

Bandits or rebels

On the evening of 31 March 2000, the relative calm of Vientiane...
 

Hmong dream talk

Dear Relatives and Friends, Like all minority peoples who have lost...
 

Minority politics in Thailand

Dasse (1976:74-75), writing about highlanders...
 

 

12-point statement

 

Hmong of Laos

This  paper is a brief examination of the Hmong of Laos and their...
 

Hmong refugees in Australia

In an article on Hmong refugees in San Diego, California...
 

Tribal socio-economic change

During the last few years, there have been official attempts to...
 

Hmong Rebellion in Laos (New)

On the 4th of June 2005, a group of 171 people...
 


Current Hmong Issues: 12-point statement

(
By Dr Gary Lee and Dr Nick Tapp)

Contents

1. On the meaning of the term 'Hmong'
2. Hmong or Mong
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
8. 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?
13. Conclusion


As researchers 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.

1. On the meaning of the term 'Hmong'

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.

4. 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 evidence. 

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 structures anywhere.  

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, p. 27). 

6. On Hmong Kinship and Surname System

Tradionally, Hmong 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 surname.

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:

Green Hmong:  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).

White Hmong:  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 detriment.

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 (0.87%).  

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, with:

France

15,000

French Guyana

1,800

USA

186,000

Canada

640

Australia

1,860

Argentina

250

NZ

150

 

 

 

 

 

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 agricultural lands. 

Education and 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 ambitions

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?

Hmong messianic 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 http://waysandmeans.house.gov/ hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=532). 

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.

12. Does 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 Hmong marriages).

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 protect them.

Arranged marriages 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 the Hmong.

Another 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.

Conclusion

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 well.

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: 

  1. The Hmong of Australia: Culture and Diaspora  (Canberra:  Pendanous Books, 2004)

  2. Hmong/Miao in Asia, edited with J. Michaud and C. Culas  (Chiangmai:  Silkworms Books, 2004)

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