THE HMONG, CULTURE


The HMONG (Mountain People)
CUSTOMS and THEIR CULTURE


ປະຊາຊົນອົບພະຍົບມົ້ງ

To explain the “ Secret War”, we must deeply explore the ethnic group which carried the brunt of the war literally on their backs.  The Hmong people are a proud ethnic group currently native to several countries, believed to have come from the Yangtze River basin area in southern China.   The Hmong are known in China as the Miao, a designation that embraces several different ethnic groups. There is debate about usage of this term, especially amongst Hmong living in the West, as it is believed by some to be derogatory, although Hmong living in China still call themselves by this name. 

The Hmong people relocated throughout their history, maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity and independence. Evidence suggests the Hmong lived in Siberia as similarities are seen between the Hmong and Siberian shaman practices. Chinese text suggests the Hmong originated in 2300 B.C. E. in northern central Asia, the area of present day Mongolia. 

Over centuries, people migrated south into Tibet and China, in the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan. For several thousand years, the Hmong lived relatively independently while paying tribute to the Chinese government. However, under the oppression of the armies of the last dynasty in China, the Hmong rose in rebellion. In the 1800s, faced with political persecution, depleted soil fertility and increasing population pressure, some Hmong migrated into Southeast Asia. They settled in the mountains of northern Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. 

They strongly retain their individualism since they do not have a country of origin specifically, they are native to many countries in the Southeast Asia region.   

Many of their traits are conducive and similar to those peoples of China, Lao, Cambodia and Thailand but they maintain their separation in dress and some customs.

Chinese scholars have recorded contact with the Miao as early as the 3rd century BCE, and wrote of them that they were a proud and independent people. 

However, after the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty attempted to impose several new taxation systems and continued expansion of their empire, the Hmong are reported to have rebelled. 

Many wars were randomly fought, and eventually many Hmong were pushed from China into Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. 

NOTE: The history of the Hmong people is difficult to trace; they have an oral tradition, but there are no written records except where other people have encountered them.  

Hmong history has been passed down through legends and ritual ceremonies from one generation to another as well as through Hmong textile art or story cloths sewn by the women.

The population of Laos was 6, 987,260 (Jan, 2015 est.). Around 85% of the population are farmers and live in rural areas. There are 3 main ethnic categories: Lao Loum (low Landers), Lao Thueng (Lower Mountain dwellers), and Lao Soong (High Landers). 

About 60% of the population are Buddhist, and the remaining animist, or spirit believers.  This coincides with the population who are about 60% Lao Loum (Buddhist), and  40% Lao Thueng and Lao Soung, who are made up of over 49 ethnic groups with distinct languages and traditions.  It is a lop-sided melting pot challenged and attacked for centuries by it’s neighbors.

The Hmong are the High -Landers. they are the ones who distinguished themselves in the secret war.



SOCIAL STRUCTURE and ORGANIZATION

The Hmong clan remains a dominant organizing force in Hmong society. There are about eighteen Hmong clans that are known in Laos and Thailand.  Clan membership is inherited upon birth or occasionally through adoption. All children are members of the father’s clan, through which they will trace their ancestors. 

Women become members of their husband's family upon marriage but will retain their clan name of their father. Members of the same clan consider each other to be “ rothers", or "siblings," and they are expected to offer one another mutual support. The term kwv tij is regarded as one's father's family or in the case of women who are married it refers to her in laws. A related term neej tsa is the wife's family after marriage. However she regards her birth family to be her kwv tij until she is married. 

Respected clan leaders are expected to take responsibility for conflict negotiation and occasionally the maintenance of religious rituals. Members of a clan who share the same ritual practices may identify as a group on the sub-clan level.

Clan groups are exogamous: that is, Hmong may not marry within their own clan group; a marriage partner must be found from another clan.  For example, a Xiong may not marry another Xiong. However, they are allowed to marry blood relatives from their mother side.

For example the children of a brother and sister can marry because they would be from different clans. Traditionally, when a boy wants to marry a girl, he will make his intentions clear, and will "zij" ("snatch") her during day light or night at any opportunity that is appropriate. This is traditionally only a symbolic kidnapping. ( Doing that in the US might not be a smart move)

The bride price is compensation for the new family taking the other family's daughter, as the girl's parents are now short one person to help with chores (the price of the girl can vary based on her value or on the parents). The elders of both families negotiate the amount prior to the engagement and is usually paid in bars of silver or livestock. Today, it is also often settled in monetary terms. The usual price of a Hmong bride today in America would just depends on the parents or the value of the bride up to $10,000 USD but the maximum set by leading clan leaders is $5,000 USD.

In the 21st century, Hmong people who practice Christianity may follow traditional Hmong weddings; however, some rituals  are no longer practiced. Some of them follow both traditional Hmong weddings and westernized weddings.  When a husband dies, it is his clan’s responsibility to look after the widow and children. 

The widow is permitted to remarry, in which case she would have two choices: she may marry one of her husband’s younger brothers / younger cousins (never to the older brothers) or she can marry anyone from an outside clan (besides her own). If she chooses to marry an extended member from her deceased, husband's clan, her children will continue to be a part of that clan.

There are traditional gender roles in Hmong society. A man's duty involves family responsibility and the provision for the physical and spiritual welfare of his family. Hmong men have a system for making decisions that involves clan leaders. Husbands may consult their wives if they wish before making major decisions regarding family affairs, but the husband is seen as the head of the household who announces the decision.

Hmong women are responsible for nurturing the children, preparing meals, feeding animals, and sharing in agricultural labor. Traditionally, Hmong women eat meals only after the Hmong men have eaten first, especially if there are guests present in the house.


ANIMISM - SHAMINISM

For followers of traditional Hmong spirituality, the shaman, a healing practitioner who acts as an intermediary between the spirit and material world, is the main communicator with the otherworld, able to see why and how someone got sick. 

In ancient times, it is said that humans and the spirits used to live with each other. However, due to conflict between the two very different beings, the deity Saub had blinded the two from being able to see each other. However, there is this good and evil in both worlds and thus whenever humans come into contact with the evilness of the otherworld, a Shaman is needed to perform rituals to go rescue or call back the sick person’s spirit and/or look at the reason for why the person is so sick. 

Extended family and friends are invited to partake in the ceremony and tie a white string around the wrist (khi tes) of the individual. The strings are blessed by the shaman and as each person ties it around the individual's wrist, they say a personalized blessing.

People that inherit the skills to become a shaman often experience symptoms of unexplained physical illness, bipolar personality, and multi-personality/ schizophrenia. According to traditional Hmong beliefs, these symptoms are the result of shamanic spirits (dab neeb) trying to get through to the Shaman-to-be. For those that still practice Shamanism, they’re able to recognize these symptoms and cure their loved ones by helping them develop into full fledged Shamans. 

For those that are blessed to become a Shaman and do not want to practice Shamanism, they often turn to Christian exorcism, western medicine, and psych wards. For the few that accept becoming Shamans, it is considered an honor to help their own. In the Hmong community, Shamans are highly respected.


PICTURE NOTE: Since the Hmong were mountain people, living in the mountains was easier to defend, and no floods, their unique communication and language skills came into play way before the internet. 

The large drum shown below and culturally kept alive today served as the communication tool. 

Their language has a lot of letters and accentuated to mean different things by tone and  strength. In a drum, or to a drummer, this would be by rhythm and beat adding tone, strike and continuity.  

These drums other than providing music were the mountain to mountain internet and messaging. The horizontal layout provided strong signals to the other mountain tops.

In LAO the Hmong had no written language.  Most of what is known about them is passed down, in story, artwork and generational input.

MORE ABOUT THE HMONG

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