Identity In Post-Modern Society:
Reflections on What is a Hmong?
(From: Hmong Studies Journal, Vol.1, No.1, Fall 1996)
makes a Hmong "Hmong"?
address given at the 2nd International Symposium on Hmong People,
26-30 August 1995, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. Assistance with
typing this paper from my daughters, Melinda and Sheree Lee, and
with travel expenses from the Hmong Australia Society (N.S.W.) is
is no easy answer to the question of what constitutes the cultural
identity of a person or human group. When is someone a Hmong and
what are the characteristics of such a person? How is this personal
identity moulded into a shared image at the group level? Some may
say that there is such a thing as a true Hmong, but many others will
argue that there is no such a person today when many Hmong have been
assimilated into the local cultures and languages of the majority
societies in which they now live in China, Southeast Asia or in the
grapple with this issue, I will take a dialectic approach which will
attempt to arrive at what is considered true by eliminating
differences and by synthesising common grounds or potential
similarities. I will begin by looking at different concepts from a
collective perspective, followed by a similar examination at the
personal level focusing on what I regard as being the major
characteristics of the Hmong as individuals and as a people. I will
then draw my conclusion in the light of the Hmong's diaspora and the
globalisation of their contacts today.
concern to present a proper group image to themselves and to the
world at large, as well as the aspiration to live up to this image
seem to be persistent themes among the Hmong, wherever they live. To
understand this group image, to know what makes the Hmong "Hmong", I
will look at their origin and at some cultural features which
distinguish them as a group from other groups. I will examine common
grounds and differences to see in what ways the Hmong are similar
and in what other ways they are different. Is there a common Hmong
meanings of the terms "Hmong" and "Miao"
term "Hmong" has come to be used internationally during the last
twenty years, largely through the advocacy of the Hmong in Laos and
through the pioneering work of Dr. Yang Dao (6), who first suggested
that the word "Hmong" means "free people". Before this period, the
international literature, following Chinese usage, usually refers to
the Hmong as "Miao" or "Meo", but this is the term the Hmong outside
China use or want to refer to themselves. Regardless of which term
is used, most Hmong are hesitant about its meaning as they simply do
of a messianic movement based in the former refugee camps in
Thailand believe that the term "Peb Hmoob" (Us Hmong) derives from
the word "Peb Hmoov", meaning "the Tree Fortunes". The word "peb"
can mean either "us" or "three". Hmong messianic legend has it that
the Hmong were once delivered from the Chinese by a set of three
brothers called "Peb Hmoov" (the Three Fortunes). Previous to this,
the Hmong are said to call themselves "Keeb" (Quing or Ch'ing) or
"originators". Despite the linguistic similarity between "Peb Hmoob"
(the way the Hmong often refer to themselves) and "Peb Hmoov", this
explanation seems to have confused Hmong origin with Vietnamese
history. The Vietnamese are known as the Quing people, and they were
at one time delivered from Chinese domination by the Le sisters,
similar to the story of the three Hmong brothers. To complicate
matters further, the Hmong in Laos and Thailand have been known as "Meo",
a derivative of the Chinese word "Miao". With a slight change in
accent, the word "Meo" in Lao and Thai can be pronounced to mean
"cat". It is most offensive for many Asians to be compared to an
animal, a lower form of beings in their views. For this reason, the
Hmong have taken exception to being known as "Meo". The Lao
government has complied by referring to them as "Lao Sung" or "Lao
of the mountain tops", a term which also includes the I-Mien or Yao
people. Thai authorities have taken no official line on the issue.
Outsiders in Laos and Thailand may refer to the Hmong as "Hmong"
when political correctness calls for it, otherwise the Hmong
continue to be called "Meo".
According to Enwall (1992:256), the term "Miao" was used in pre-Quin
China to refer to non-Chinese people of Southern China, often in
combination such as "Miao Min" (the Miao people), "Yu Miao" (the
Miao) and "San Miao" (the three groups of Miao). Later, during the
Tang and Sung dynasties, the term "Nan Man" (Southern Barbarians)
was used, and it was not until 862 A.D. that the word "Miao"
appeared again in Fan Chuo's book _Manshu on the Man Tribes. During
the Ming and Quing dynasties, both the terms "Man" and "Miao" were
used. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) finally saw the term used
for the Hmong in today's China where they are now referred to as "Miao-Tseu".
Hmong in China are today reported to readily accept being called "Miao".
Enwall (op.cit.: 258) also contends that the Hmong in China
have voiced no concern about the term, and it is impossible to write
"Hmong" in Chinese characters (with a nasal 'h'). Regardless of
this, the reference to the Hmong as "Miao-tseu" carries shades of
ambiguity since it can be defined as either "rice sprouts" or "sons
of the soil". The Chinese Hmong may have raised no objection because
they are not aware of the ambiguous meanings of the term, or have
not been ridiculed by the use of such a name unlike their brothers
and sisters in Thailand or Laos.
themselves, the Hmong outside China prefer to be called "Hmong" (in
the White Hmong dialect) or "Mong" (in Blue Hmong or Moob Lees).
Those in China use such terms to designate themselves as "Ghao Xiong"
in Western Hunan; "Hmub", "Gha Ne" or "Hme" for a group speaking the
same dialect in South eastern Kweichow; "A Hmao" in Northwest
Kweichow and Northeast Yunnan; and "Hmong" in South Sechwan, West
Kweichow and South Yunnan. These many different terms also refer to
the languages spoken by the people concerned whose number is
estimated at 7.5 million around the world. Of this number, Hmong
speakers are the most numerous with more than 3 million people in
China, Southeast Asia and in the West.
this diversity in their name, it is possible that the Hmong in China
accept the Chinese term "Miao" for convenience and through forces of
history rather than any meanings of the word. The non-Chinese
aboriginals of southern China consist of many different
ethno-linguistic groups. After many centuries of Chinese control,
some might have adopted the name "Miao" without realising how many
other groups have had it used for them. Hence, the acceptance of the
name by such a large number of culturally and linguistically diverse
people, many of whom cannot even communicate with each other except
in Chinese. It will be interesting to see whether those who call
themselves Hmong will continue to use the term "Miao" or to change
to "Hmong" in the near future as advocated by the Hmong in Western
familiar with the Hmong knows the legend of the Great Flood and the
incestuous marriage between a brother and his sister, the only two
persons left on earth after the deluge. The Hmong and their many
clans are said to be the result of this union (Geddes: 22-24). What
is distinctive about this creation legend is that the Hmong in
reality condemn incest, and the closest form of marriage between
relatives is with cross-cousins. The Hmong practise strict clan
exogamy or marriage outside one's own clan, and would not allow any
person to break this rule.
Great Flood story an attempt to hide an undesirable group image
(incest) or did the Hmong really originate from this brother-sister
union? Who were these two, brother and sister, and more to the point
who were their ancestors? Were these ancestors not Hmong? Trying to
discover the back-ground of the mythical parents of the Hmong is
like asking about God's origin, a belief accepted by many but
questioned by only a few.
regarding the origin of the Hmong, Western scholars have speculated
that they come from "the far north" where today's Eskimos live. The
link of the Hmong with the arctic probably stems from their stories
of a land of stars and snow where they used to live, where the earth
is connected to the sky and it is dark for half of the year. Such
stories have been found among the Ch'uan Miao in Kweichow, Southern
on these stories, Savina suggested that the Hmong could have been
the lost tribe in the Old Testament following the fall of the Tower
of Babel and the confusion of languages. They could have wandered
north from the Holy Land to the Red Sea, the Russian steppes and
possibly the arctic, before migrating over the centuries down to
southern China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand through Mongolia. The
fact that albino people (with blond hair and blue eyes) are found
among the Hmong has also been used to speculate on their Caucasian
origin (Quincy: 14).
Hmong also claim that they have originated from Mongolia. This has
most probably arisen from a misconception that there is a link in
the syllable "mong" in the two names. Despite the lack of any
cultural or linguistic connections with these far-flung places, many
Hmong still believe that they have some remote relation with people
of the far north, even when they have never met an Eskimo or a
Mongol to see if they could at least communicate with each other or
share some minute cultural features.
Possession of Magic Power
belief in their mythical origin has lead the Hmong to attribute
supernatural qualities to their legendary heroes and cult leaders.
This gives them hope for deliverance from their mundane living
conditions, or to compensate for an oppressive political situation
from which they have tried to escape, as did the American Indians
during their fight against European domination last century. Many
Hmong believe that their mythical prophets and chieftains were
charged with holy missions against their political oppressors and
were endowed with extraordinary abilities.
very first Hmong king, for instance, is said to be invulnerable,
except for his armpit. After numerous attempts on his life, the
Chinese could not eliminate him so they sent him a beautiful Chinese
princess as tribute. She eventually fulfilled her mission of
discovering his weak spot, and thus succeeded in killing him.
Although followers of Hmong messianic cults cannot always agree on
the details, two of the most recent Hmong kings were reported to be
Tswb Tshoj (Chue Chor) and Vaj Yim Leej (Va Yee Leng). The first was
said to be the son of a hog, while the second was allegedly a kungfu
expert and was born with a flying sword. It is believed that whoever
was to find this sword would become the next Hmong king.
attribution of supernatural power to their leaders by some Hmong may
result from a belief in magic and a common expectation that everyone
with true leadership abilities should also have super-human
qualities. To possess magical abilities also adds an extra dimension
to a leader who can thus claim a direct link with a similar Hmong
"king" or "huab tais" (huangti) in the past, thus drawing a larger
number of supporters. Although these beliefs have their origin in
the Hmong resistance against the Chinese in earlier times, they
continue to influence Hmong resistance in other countries. Such
beliefs also make some Hmong susceptible to the worship of
"deformed" children as kings, and attributing to animals the ability
to talk and deliver ominous messages or to predict events of
example, after the Pathet Lao takeover of Laos in 1975 some of the
Hmong leaders who were engaged in the armed resistance against the
new regime declared that they had God's protection and their
followers would be immune to enemy fire. This alleged power drew
together thousands of refugees, desperate to escape from Pathet Lao
control (Lee: 212-215). This resistance was crushed by Vietnamese
troops in 1978, but remnants of the movement continued to carry on
their political struggle in Laos from refugee camps in Thailand or
from their hiding places in the jungles of Laos, firmly believing in
their messianic mission.
common conception of the Hmong is that they are a people on the
move. Every ten years or so, they are said to migrate to a different
village after they have slashed and burned the forest around the old
settlement for agriculture. They are not permanent settlers like wet
rice farmers. This is said to have lead them to move freely across
boundaries between neighbouring countries. Hence they are found in a
large area from southern China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma.
Thailand, for instance, the Hmong are reported to have a group that
"changed their localities more than any other hill people" (Young:
46). They are also seen as mountain dwellers, "highlanders", "a hill
tribe", a tourist curiosity. In Laos, they are officially named "Lao
Soung" or "Lao of the mountain tops". Their frequent migration and
preference for mountain living have lead Geddes to describe them as
"migrants of the mountains". Their isolation is also said to have
made them difficult to integrate into the mainstream nation. Thus,
Young states that they will not be "absorbed easily by the Thai
people or other tribes. They continue to have very strong bonds of
solidarity and tight clans."
Hmong really a mountain tribe who migrate regularly? It is true that
many Hmong of the older generation dreaded going to the lowlands, as
many died from malaria and other diseases they caught during these
trips. There are many tragic tales of drowning, sickness and death
following visits to "chaw qis" or "the lowlands." They are also
afraid to live near rivers for fear of drowning or being "swallowed
by dragons." The fear of water means that few Hmong know how to
swim. Does this mean that they live only in the confines of their
mountains, isolated from the lowlands, the urban modern life?
and Thailand, Hmong are known to live in the lowlands, working for
the government, carrying on commerce or permanent irrigated rice
farming. Many of us at this conference are the product of this
lowland life, for only in the lowlands could we pursue higher
education. The same pattern of settlement can be said about the
Hmong in China. Ling and Ruey (54-72) stated that although swidden
was still prevalent in the late 1940's in Western Hunan, wet rice
terraces were also found along river banks and in valleys irrigated
by water wheels. In Kweichow, according to De Beauclair (50), the
Miao were "expert fish breeders" and cultivated terraced fields
supported by stone walls and irrigated with water from bamboo pipes.
In North western Kweichow, wet rice fields, fish breeding and the
construction of houses on stilts (instead of the traditional earthen
floor) have been adopted as a result of influences by the T'ung
minority, their neighbours.
seems to indicate that not all Hmong are migratory swidden farmers,
or are adverse to living in the lowlands and along river banks.
Hmong in China and Vietnam have now lived willingly amid their
dominant neighbours in urban or semi- rural areas. Some do farming,
others trade or work for wages. Thus, the Hmong appear to be
adaptable to both lowland and highland settlement, and are not
confined to living on mountain tops.
is A Hmong?
level of the individual, being "Hmong" can be attributed to such
characteristics as one's birth and look, descent, given names,
adherence to certain religious beliefs, and one's identification or
interaction with Hmong and other people. I will now look at these
factors and their significance for the Hmong.
and Physical Features
is not only a person's first entry into the world but also the most
important mark of one's identity. In Laos, Vietnam and Thailand,
Hmong births usually take place at home in order that the child's
placenta -- the symbol of one's natural cloak (or "tsho tsuj tsho
npuag") -- can be buried in the parents' house (a boy's placenta
near the central post, a girl's near the mother's bed). It is
believed that the burial of the placenta allows it to be reclaimed
by its owner during the latter's journey to join ancestors in the
spirit world after death.
Western countries, where many Hmong now live, nearly all births
occur in hospitals and placentas are disposed of by the hospitals.
Does this mean that the Hmong born in America, France or Canada will
no longer be able to journey back to their ancestors -- at least not
dressed properly because they have lost their placenta? Will they be
any less Hmong, alive or dead?
giving birth, the new mother is confined to the house, sleeping near
the family fireplace for a month so she can regain her strength.
During this period, visitors have to take off their shoes before
entering the house, otherwise the mother's lactating milk may dry
up. Yet again, this belief is not widely observed among the Hmong in
western countries because it is no longer convenient to do so when
many houses do not have a central fire place. As well, many mothers
no longer need to breastfeed their babies. In fact, some want their
milk to dry up as quickly as possible so that they can return to
work or do other things they enjoy doing. Are these mothers doing
the wrong thing by Hmong birth traditions? Apparently no, as no one
seems to have missed the old beliefs and practices.
terms of physical looks, are there body features which can be said
to be distinctly Hmong? Many Hmong seem to think so. They usually
comment on the look of a lowland Thai or a Chinese and say that they
"don't look Hmong." No one, however, is certain how a Hmong really
looks like, but they know a European is definitely not a Hmong.
Despite this, Hmong have adopted children from other ethnic groups
and these children have grown up into well accepted adult Hmong,
regardless of the shades of their skin colours. In France and
America we now have Hmong children from mixed marriages between
Hmong and White people. These children appear to be well accepted,
despite the fact they do not fit the usual image of Hmong. Thus, the
Hmong seem to have developed their own image about what they should
look like, but also appear to also accept deviations from it.
person is born into a line of descent. This line consists of the
immediate nuclear family and the extended household (as primary
group), and the lineage or cluster of blood relatives of the
father's side (as secondary group). The sub-clan, or members of the
clan who follow the same sets of ancestral rituals, and the clan or
people bearing the same family name serving as a reference group.
This constitutes a Hmong's social structures in microcosm. Beyond
these structures lies the misty concept of the Hmong nation which
further segments the Hmong into different divisions or tribes such
as black, blue, white, red, flowery, magpie, river, striped, etc. It
is said that in China there are about sixty such Hmong/Miao tribes.
Spiritually, a Hmong belongs to his line of descent or clan, unless
he is adopted into a family with a different clan name. A woman also
belongs spiritually to her family of birth unless she marries when
she then moves into her husband's line of decent. Once married, she
cannot return to the ritual world of her paternal line, even after
divorce or widowhood. If she re-marries, she then passes from her
previous husband's line to that of the new husband and his clan. A
Hmong woman no longer belongs to her parents' ritual domain after
marriage whereas a man continues to do so for life.
terms of marriage, people from the same clan are believed to belong
to the same family of origin. The incest taboo forbids persons of
the same clan from intermarrying, even though they may not be
related by blood. However, this rule does not seemed to be observed
by all Hmong clans when some do allow their opposite members to
marry so long as they are not closely related. Thus, the incest
taboo applies to most clans, but not all of them.
use these descent rules and the incest taboo to characterise a Hmong
person? Obviously, the answer is no, because all the Hmong clans are
still accepted as Hmong, despite the non-observance of birth beliefs
by Western Hmong women, and the violation of the incest taboo by
some clans. These differences serve only to highlight the fact that
Hmong traditions are often very adaptable to suit new situations,
and thus cannot be used to characterise all Hmong.
days after birth, a Hmong baby is given the "soul-calling" ("hu plig")
ceremony during which it is given a name for the first time. A small
necklace is put around the baby's neck to keep the soul (or "plig")
to the body. The name may change if the child is sick later in life
and the sickness is explained by shamans as a dislike for the
original name. Other than this, the original name will remain with
the person until death in the case of a woman, or until later in
married life for a man when he will be given a new "adult" name ("npe
laus") by his parents-in-law in an elaborate "renaming ceremony" to
mark his attainment of "family man" status.
Hmong in the traditional village setting of Southeast Asia have
typical Hmong names. However, many of the younger Hmong have
increasingly adopted names from the local majority society in order
to enrol in government schools or take up mainstream employment.
This practice, whether by choice or by force of necessity, is found
virtually among all Hmong groups, whether in Asia or the West. Many
Hmong parents in America or Australia, for example, now call their
children by American or Australian given names. In Thailand, those
who enrol in Thai schools have adopted Thai names, and may sometimes
change their clan names into Thai-like surnames. It is thus no
longer possible to recognise Hmong by these foreign names.
say that people who have given up the use of names are not really
Hmong? Does a Hmong name make one a true Hmong? Again, it is not
easy to find an answer, for apart from names there are other factors
that define a person.
is expected to be able to speak the Hmong language which is
distinctly different from all other languages. Being members of a
minority and living among many other ethnic groups, most Hmong need
to learn, in addition to their mother tongue, one or more of the
local or national foreign languages. These could be Mandarin for
those in China, Lao for those in Laos, Vietnamese for those in
Vietnam and Northern or Central Thai for those in Thailand. In the
process, they have also borrowed foreign words from these languages,
some of which become assimilated as Hmong. For example, the word "to
go" in Hmong is "mus" but many Hmong in Laos have come to use the
Lao word "pai" instead, and the word "txiv" (father) is also
possibly borrowed from Mandarin. The more educated a Hmong is in
another language, the more words from that language the person is
likely to use in every day conversations.
Overall, the Hmong language may have some local variations or
dialects which are specific to a region or tribal group. However,
this linguistic difference in intonation and vocabulary is generally
small so that, for example, the White Hmong can usually understand
the Green Hmong. But is this always the case? Once again, this does
not really hold true. If we look at the broader picture away from
Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, if we go further north to Southern
China, the Hmong linguistic landscape becomes very complex.
According to a recent Chinese study, there are three major Miao
dialects in China which are distinctly different so that the
speakers of one dialect cannot readily understand those of the
others (Lemoine: 195-200). These are: (1) the "Hsiang Hsi" dialect
used primarily in Hunan and the Sung T'Ao Miao Autonomous region of
Kweichow; (2) The "Ch'ten Tung" dialect spoken in other parts of
Kweichow and some areas of Kwangsi and Hunan; and (3) The "Ch'uan
Ch'ien Tien" dialect found in Southern Szechwan, Western and Central
Kweichow, Eastern Yunnan and Western Kwangsi (Miao Language Team:
Chinese identifying terms have been rendered more Hmong as Ghao-Xong,
Hmu and Hmong through the self-design- nation of their users by
Enwall (4-5) who also adds a fourth dialect, A-Hmao ("Ab Hmaob").
These four "languages" are said to consist of more than 30 mutually
incomprehensible varieties, each with their own continuum. Ghao Xong
is spoken by about one million people, Hmu by two million, Hmong by
two and a half million in China and half a million outside China,
and A-Hmao (Cifangyan or Diandingbei in Chinese) by about 30,000
people known as the "Flowery Miao" or Hwa Miao who live in Northwest
Kweichow and Northeast and Central Yunnan. Thus, we can see that in
China the so-called Miao language is really not one single language
with dialects, but a number of very distinct languages.
addition, many other Miao speak languages which do not belong to the
above four dialects. For example, the Miao on Hainan Island speak
I-Mien or Yao but not Miao. Smaller Miao groups in Kweichow, Hunan
and Kwangsi use only Chinese or the T'ung language. With today's
diaspora, French, English and Spanish have been added to this long
list of languages used by the Hmong. Some parents speak these
languages in addition to their mother tongue but for the younger
generation the local foreign language has become the only language
they know. Many Hmong children in the West are no longer fluent in
Hmong, and many refuse to use it with their parents.
this brief overview, it is obvious that the Hmong do not all speak
the same language or dialect. Despite this, they still see one
another as part of the Hmong or Miao family. Therefore, language
alone does not make one a Hmong, as a foreigner may learn to speak
Hmong fluently but is still not seen as a Hmong. Many participants
in this symposium, for instance, need interpreters to communicate
with each other, but they consider themselves and are accepted as
Traditionally, the Hmong are known to practise ancestor worship and
spirit rituals, at least among those in Southeast Asia. These
consist of ceremonies that are performed in each household in the
case of ancestral spirits, and in the open air in the case of
farming or territorial spirits. The Hmong also believe in the
existence of souls, and often perform soul-calling ceremonies when a
person is sick. Shamanic trances ("ua neeb") are commonly used to
reinstate a wandering soul as a means to cure sickness, even among
the Hmong living in Western countries. This is sometimes
complemented by the use of herbal medicine and magic formulas or "khawv
koob" to extract bad spirit from the body of the sick person, or to
heal a broken limb. All these practices stem from the Hmong's
beliefs in spirits and the ancestral after world.
distinctive set of Hmong rituals is those related to death. A Hmong
person has to be given elaborate funeral rites, otherwise the soul
of the dead person is believed to remain in limbo, unable to join
the ancestors in the other world or to be born again ("thawj thiab").
For this reason, all the important steps of a proper Hmong funeral
have to be observed through the playing of the following reed pipe
ritual music: "qhuab ke" (showing the way chanting), "qeej tu siav"
(last breath reed music), "qeej tsa nees" (helping the person mount
the horse for the heavenward journey), and "qeej sawv kev" (raising
the body to get it on its way to the spirit world just before
all the right steps taken and proper rituals performed, a dead
person would not be received by the ancestors. For example a
well-respected Hmong man died two years ago in California, USA, but
was dressed in a formal Western-style suit rather than the
traditional Hmong funeral costumes: his spirit was said to have come
back to the family and told them that he was not able to find his
way to the ancestors until he has the proper Hmong burial clothes.
religious beliefs are still held by the majority of Hmong, including
many in the West. For many decades now, however, both in China and
in Southeast Asia a number of Hmong have become Christian, some
Catholic, others Baptist or Fundamentalist. Since their settlement
in the United States, this conversion to Christianity has continued
unabated. The Christian Alliance Church is now said to be the
biggest, and is operated by the Hmong themselves with missions in
Thailand and even Southern China. This conversion has driven a large
wedge into Hmong society in America as the more fundamentalist
converts refuse to interact with their non- Christian relatives, or
to take part in the latter's ancestral feasts -- seeing them as
sinful pagan practices. The incursion into different religious
practices has always divided the Hmong, and is now a major cause of
division, even among those following the same religious beliefs.
these religious differences, the Hmong in America continue to see
each other as Hmong. Those who have changed religion may be seen by
ancestor worshipping relatives as having sold out their ancestors
but not their Hmong identity. Again, this seems to show that
ancestral rituals and the beliefs in spiritualism are not
necessarily the sole indicators of being Hmong. Even among the
Christian Hmong, many have discovered that worshipping the same god
as White Americans does not really entitle them to be accepted into
American churches: many have to fund their own evangelical
activities and subsist on the support of other Hmong. Hence, they
need to keep their Hmong identity for their personal and spiritual
Self-Identification and Perception by Others
the above discussion, we can see that being a Hmong does not depend
on the possession of a cultural or physical feature particular to
the Hmong. A number of factors characterise a person as Hmong,
including: being born Hmong, having a Hmong name, speaking a Hmong
language, belonging to a Hmong clan and observing Hmong rituals. But
is this enough? Some will argue that it is, and I would agree -- to
an extent. However, we may be born Hmong, but may not necessarily
want to remain Hmong. This has happened to many Hmong-born persons,
those who are adopted or who married into a different ethnic group
and have completely cut off all links with their Hmong relatives by
choice or by force of circumstances. There are also those who may,
for social or economic reasons, benefit from not being known as
Hmong, and prefer some other identities such as Thai or Chinese
because of similar body features. Some may change their Hmong names
or learn to speak the other group's language so fluently it is
difficult to tell them apart.
people in these situations, is it possible to forget their Hmong
origin? The answer is likely to be both "yes" and "no." Some can but
others may not be able to totally escape from their "Hmongness."
This is because one's identity is also defined by birth and assigned
by members of the other groups we interact with: No matter what we
do to imitate them, they will one day discover our origin and put us
back there. It is easier to pass over when we have similar physical
features and skin colour, but more difficult when we do not look the
question thus becomes whether a Hmong who does not mix with other
Hmong can still be seen as Hmong. Again, the answer depends on
whether the person concerned will one day face the ultimate test of
rejection or acceptance by his or her adopted non-Hmong group.
Further, a person's sense of belonging may be tested by reactions to
seeing a member of his or her group of birth being abused or
mistreated. This seems to be a strong attribute of most Hmong, the
bond of solidarity in the face of adversity. Whenever possible,
Hmong usually come to the defence of other Hmong, the defence of the
group's honour and survival. This group feeling is sometimes so
strong that the Hmong-Australia society, for instance, refuses to
accept as members anyone (Hmong or non-Hmong) who have betrayed the
Hmong people or have ill-treated them.
the above features at both the group and personal levels, what can
we say about being "Hmong"? This is an open question which really
has no one answer, because any one or all the attributes discussed
so far can make a person a Hmong. Depending on where the person
lives and what he or she does, some attributes may be more important
than others, but Hmong everywhere have at least a number of these
attributes. This situation applies to any other ethnic group.
Feelings of affinity, mutual acceptance and belonging through
certain shared beliefs and activities propel members of a group to
mix and relate to each other.
Hmong is Sharing a Collective Consciousness
features of Hmong identity stem from their cultural symbols, their
perceptions of themselves in relation to other groups, and their
status allocations into superior or inferior social positions. The
Hmong like to see themselves as an in-group called "peb Hmoob" (Us
Hmong) in contrast to outsiders who are seen as "mab sua"
(strangers). This classification puts the Hmong in a clear social
category in relation to other groups of people: "mab sua" stands for
all the things which one does not understand, things which are
foreign but not necessarily objectionable to the Hmong. Thus, "peb
Hmoob" is the inclusive concept used to bring home the fact that
there is a collective Hmong identity, a collective Hmong
consciousness. This collective image is represented by certain very
distinct social values and material objects. The most commonly cited
value is that "Hmong have to look after their own" (Hmoob yuav tsum
hlub Hmoob). This is like a supreme commandment, although it does
not mean that all members of the group will be able to fulfil it.
terms of material symbols, the following objects are seen as
typically Hmong: the reed pipe or "qeej", the long flute or "raj
nplaim", the mouth harp or "ncas", and the women's colourful
costumes. Although there are other ethnic groups with reed pipes in
China, the Hmong reed pipe consists of a longer mouth piece and 6
reeds attached to a blower while the reed pipes of other groups are
either longer or shorter. The colours of Hmong women's costumes are
also used to identify the divisions or tribal affiliations of each
Hmong group such the White Hmong (with the women's skirt being
White), the Green Hmong (with green dye batik patterns on the
women's skirts), the striped or arm-band Hmong (with the sleeves of
the women's shirt having black and blue bands), and so on.
are the more important cultural symbols of the Hmong: both at the
abstract and material level. The Hmong value them and hold them up
as typical images of their culture. When they see one of these
objects, they know that the person holding that object is a Hmong.
For example, the Hmong in America visiting those in China were said
to have gone there with a reed pipe in their hands. When the Chinese
Hmong see this, they immediately identify with the visitors, thereby
feeling much closer to each other than if they see no such object or
Hmong is Being in Relationships with other People
suggested by Goffman, we have many images of ourselves which we
present in every day life to other people based on our expectation
of them, and which others give to us based on what they expect of
us. These expectations are readjusted all the time, to suit the
needs of the moment and the roles we play. In order to meet these
changing expectations, we need also to change, to improve and shift
our positions. This may also require us to learn from other groups
as well as from ourselves so that images of ourselves can be used to
our own advantages.
this reason, the Hmong need to learn to interact with others
effectively, so that we can work with each other for mutual
benefits. To do this, we have to become competent people through:
being self-confident, flexible, tolerant and understanding;
being genuinely dependable, and responsible;
acting on the basis of evidence, firmly held values and beliefs;
feeling that one's own life is important;
being open to new experiences and ready to learn; and
being in control of one's emotions and life situations.
most Hmong have sought only to live simply and peacefully with a
very down-to-earth existence as subsistence farmers, others have
actively promoted certain ideal modes of behaviour through
participation in messianic movements and activities to generate what
they see as desirable group qualities. These mythical aspirations
aside, we will truly be Hmong if we can weave together a post-modern
Hmong identity, a sort of mixed Hmong "cultural pastiche" by using
our old traditions and ideas, by borrowing from other sources to
shape a new group image to fit the demands of the post- modern
cannot accomplish this by staying inside our houses and saying there
is nothing we can do because we are not educated enough, or that
there is no need to discover new things because we are already the
best. We have to learn from all sources. I do not mean that we have
to go to colleges and get degrees only -- this too but mostly we
need to learn informally from books, from discussions, get to know
ideas about life. This will inspire you to greater heights, give you
much more joy in living, and above all open your eyes to new things,
make you see clearer and farther, make you outward, not inward,
looking. Introspection is good but looking outside yourself gives
you better direction.
Hmong is Being Effective Parents
some Hmong, it may be enough to be competent people and to relate
positively to others. For many, however, we will need to be more
than competent Hmong: we need to become better human beings, to have
better visions. By this I mean we need to be good parents and
responsible children because, like charity, character formation and
cultural appreciation begin at home. If parents do not foster the
love of their own culture in their children, how can children know
and accept that culture? If parents insist on being right and
unquestionable, how can our children think or act for themselves?
According to Barry, Child and Bacon (BCB-4A), there are at least six
aspects to the training of a child:
obedience training through setting limits and not going over them;
responsibility training through participation in household tasks;
nurturance training through being helpful to other siblings and
dependent people in the family;
achievement training through competition or imposition of standards
self-reliance training to take care of oneself and to be independent
of the assistance of others in providing for one's needs; and
general independence training to learn to act without being
dominated or supervised too often.
Hmong parents strive to be good to their children, but perhaps
stress too much obedience and nurturance training at the expense of
the other aspects. There is a need for Hmong parents, in the West
especially, to learn other ways of parenting which will agree more
with their new Western life style and the new cultural values
adopted by their teenage children. This requires that they become
effective in conflict resolution, in producing "win-win" situations
rather than "win-lose" outcomes. Parents who demand absolute
obedience from their children only makes one side win, the parents.
If you allow your children to win also, they will learn to respect
you and to listen to you more. Being good parents means being
effective managers of our families. Some people are born managers,
but most of us have to learn to manage and to make decisions.
Unfortunately, few parents believe that they need training to be
parents, to be leaders and managers.
survival of the Hmong culture rests with Hmong children, and the
children have to know and take pride in that culture in order for
them to adopt it, to pass it on to future generations. Thus, being
Hmong also means being good parents, looking after the future of our
children and not leaving it to chance, and above all acting as
custodians of the Hmong culture by passing it down to future
generations. Hmong parents in the West face a most difficult task,
and they need guidance and support to be effective parents as well
as to be effective cultural carriers. They face an array of
conflicting rules and values from their own culture and the
mainstream society. We have to adapt to this diversity, whether we
like it or not. This cultural diversity can enrich us if we know how
to preserve our own cultural continuity.
children respect us and listen to us, then like strangers they will
gradually learn our culture, skills and beliefs. As suggested by
Carrithers (10), what the younger generation makes of things done by
their parents must reflect the young people's own situation and
needs: they should not be merely imitating their parents like
parrots, because real understanding is being able to do something
new for yourself with what you have learned, not just copying
blindly. Our children need to accept who and what we are by knowing
our language and culture as these give us our identity, self-
respect and confidence in our own abilities, our future, and the
future of our children.
Hmong is Living in a House of Many Rooms
American Anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn (246), once said that
"human life should remain as a house of many rooms." The world no
longer operates as if human societies are isolated from each other,
unchanged by the mass media, modern technology or contacts with
other cultures. According to Clifford (10), we can no longer speak
about other cultures as "primitive", "pre-literate" or "without
history". To do so would be to see them as mere caricatures frozen
in time and isolated from the influences of the most powerful
economic and political systems around them. No society is isolated
today. The encroachment of capitalism and government into the
heartlands of the most isolated tribes means that virtually no human
groups have been left untouched. Many have been changed by this
encroachment materially if not culturally, often forever.
words of Clifford (22), people in different countries now
"influence, dominate, parody, translate, and subvert each other....
enmeshed in global movements of difference and power." Cultures
never hold still: they are alive, constantly evolving, adapting,
being borrowed, forced upon one another. They are like moving
pictures on a screen (Wolf: 387). For the Hmong in their many
different settings, new trends and ideas emerge all the time, both
within their own society and from outside. Thanks to the initiatives
of Xu Thao and other enterprising Hmong in the United States, we now
have international movies dubbed in Hmong, Hmong videos and feature
movies, documentaries, music and dance adaptations from all sources
far and wide (Indian, Japanese, Lao, Thai, American, and Chinese).
There is now even rap music in Hmong. This represents real progress
and shows that the Hmong culture can be dynamic and not static, can
develop and change.
ability to travel freely to other countries where Hmong live and the
informal Hmong mass media have allowed the Hmong people to
rediscover each other, to see each other on videos. Hmong girls in
Australia and America have now adopted the colourful Hmong
traditional costumes from China in their dances. The modest Hmong
Quarterly "Liaj Luv Chaw Tsaws", published by our Hmong community in
French Guyana, has become an international Hmong voice: through it
we can now share thoughts and read Hmong stories or news written by
Hmong in many countries for other Hmong.
is Hmong when he or she reaches out to other Hmong. We are not one
single homogenous group located in one single geographical area, but
a multi-ethnic and multilingual community living with many people in
many countries. We are a community numbering in the millions but
without any geographical boundaries. We have to accept these facts
and to meet their many challenges without fear and without shame. We
need to recognise that despite all the differences in languages,
life styles, religion, customs and economic status, we are but one
people. We are challenged by the need to adopt a common Hmong
writing for all and not the many scripts we now use. We are
challenged by the need for a common history book incorporating all
the local histories of the Hmong in whatever countries they now
live, and not the myriad versions we now have. We need to share our
house of many rooms with each other, with our friends and our
old days it is said that wherever a Hmong might go he would always
return home, return to his beloved highland. These days, however,
this is not always the case, as many Hmong are scattered in many
areas, many directions, creating disloyalty and divisions. The house
of many rooms has become a divided house, a neglected house. Unless
we come back home more often or permanently, our house risks being a
deserted house and eventually a ruin. To be Hmong, we need to look
after our own house. This house is held together by our leaders:
they are the posts holding the house together. The posts need to
support each other, and other parts used to build the house need to
stay together or else the house will fall down.
to remember that no matter what clan we belong to, this should be
used only to define our marriage rules, and not as something that
divides us in other areas of life. Our clan differences should not
be used to override our unity of purpose, our common identity. Hmong
of one tribe or clan should not distrust or betray those of another
clan. If we avoid favouritism by treating each other as equals, we
will be able to stay together to support the house of many rooms and
many tribes. Other people around us build monuments and write books
about their leaders: we need to do the same to celebrate the
achievements of our great leaders, not just criticising them but
these leaders should also set examples to show they deserve this.
Our house should not be destroyed by ourselves, but should be kept
in excellent repair so it will provide us with comfort and
protection against our adversaries. Additions and extensions should
be made to our house so that it can grow bigger to accommodate new
members, new ideas which will help us survive as a nationality in
humankind's long march to the future.
Hmong means living by certain commitments and social values
is a French proverb which says "tout comprendre, c'est tout
pardonner" or to know all is to forgive all. As stated by Beattie
(127), the more we understand each other's cultures, the more we are
likely to show mutual tolerance. The Hmong, no matter where they
are, need to know that the total sum is always bigger than its
parts: the overall global Hmong identity is greater than its many
local differences and groups. To stay Hmong, we have to accept that
we are a people with other identities as well as our own. More
importantly, we need to commit ourselves to certain moral values
such as: equality, honesty, ability to compromise, fairness,
flexibility and sensitivity to other people. We are Hmong but also
American, Chinese, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Argentinian,
Australian or Canadian. Being a Hmong in America is not the same as
being an American Hmong or Hmong American: the first still keeps his
culture and language, the second has lost them.
to fulfil our responsibilities as citizens of our respective
countries of adoption, but we need to appreciate our "Hmongness." In
order to meet the challenge of unity in the face of this diversity,
progress in the face of hardship and deprivation, the Hmong need to
come together more often as we are now doing at this conference. We
need to be united in our goals, to adopt a common language so we can
talk to one another, and a common writing so we can communicate. We
need to share our hopes and fortunes, to discuss our concerns and
plans, to work together and to give of each other. For the Hmong,
there is only one road ahead if they want to avoid eventual
extinction. That road is the road to progress and redemption,
redemption from a past of isolation and distrust, poverty and
ignorance, submission and dependence. We need to come out of our own
darkness into a new life, a life of prosperity and a life of hope.
taken a post-modern approach to my discussion of Hmong cultural
identity. This, I believe, is the most appropriate at this juncture
of world history and the development of the Hmong. Human societies
have now reached the stage where they now actively engage each
other. This engagement has resulted in a world which consists
increasingly of blended rather than discrete cultures, a cultural
mesh or "pastiche" which mixes all styles and materials, borrows
from all sources and rejects traditionally accepted standards. Post
modernism sees the world as passing through the modernist stage when
the so-called "less developed" countries were treated as separate
from the more modern societies, to one where they blend with, or
borrow from, each other economically and socially on the modern
this approach, I have tried to explore in this paper the common
patterns as well as the paradoxes in Hmong culture. I have used the
knowledge gained through this rediscovery process to see how
cultural features are given to the Hmong and how the latter reject
or incorporate these features into their group ethos. Like other
human groups, the Hmong have benefited as well as suffered from
their group image or identity: it has been used to their own
advantages and the advantages of other people as during the Vietnam
war where the Hmong's reputation as hardy soldiers was exploited by
both sides of the conflict with devastating effects. One of these
effects is that many Hmong people are now refugees in America where
their cultural identity is fast changing. If it was not for the
concern for this identity we would not have organised this
conference today to discuss its survival.
of our Hmong women have transformed their beautiful embroideries
into large commercial banners, bed spreads and quilts depicting
Hmong history. Their handcrafts now adorn houses, bedrooms and
museums around the world. The biggest challenge for all Hmong is how
to apply their joint skills, like our women's handicraft skills, to
turn our diverse language and customs into one unified and one Hmong
/ Miao identity, guided by a new set of multicultural social values
selected from the many Hmong groups and other people they live with.
We cannot achieve this until we look at our shortcomings, broaden
our minds by listening more to other people, by becoming tolerant,
assertive, knowing how to speak and act without hurting people.
this is done we will be able to join hands and achieve the
freedom we yearn for: freedom from poverty and ignorance, freedom to
learn and progress, freedom to get together and to share, freedom
from exploitation and from contempt, freedom from our own greed,
freedom from idleness and neglect of our families, freedom from too
much freedom in the West and its effect on our children. We have to
do more than talk, we have to act today and every day. We have to
change, to overcome our narrow mindedness, our arrogance, our clan
politics and divisiveness. The Hmong will be able to maintain and
develop their post-modern identity with pride and freedom from fear
only if they all join hands to look after each other's interests,
when they stop turning against each other because of their clan
feelings or parochial differences.
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