All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


ETHNONYMS: Man, Meo, Miao, Mong


Identification. The Hmong have migrated to Southeast Asia from the mountainous parts of southwestern China, where many still remain. They have settled in the mountainous regions of northern Laos, northern Vietnam, and northern Thailand, and there are small groups of Hmong in Myanmar (Burma) near the Chinese border. Since the ending of the Indochina wars large numbers of Hmong refugees from Laos have been resettled in Western countries, including the United States. There are two main cultural divisions of the Hmong in Southeast Asia, marked by differences of dialect and custom, between the White Hmong and the Green Hmong (who pronounce their name as "Mong"). Hmong religion is based on domestic ancestral worship and shamanism, and they speak dialects of the Miao Branch of the Miao-Yao Language Family.

Location. Southwestern China, Myanmar, and northern Indochina form a unified geographical zone characterized by four main mountain ranges outcropping from the eastern Himalayas and the Tibetan plain, with a semitropical climate and dense tropical rain forest in some areas. At around 1,000 meters deciduous trees give way to evergreen forest. Mountain peaks range from 2,535 meters in Thailand to 7,470 meters in southern China. North-south-running mountain ranges separate fertile alluvial river valleys united in the past only by a network of caravan routes.

Demography. There are some 2 million Hmong speakers in China, approximately 200,000 in Laos, 300,000 in Vietnam, and 50,000 in Thailand. More than 30,000 others are in refugee camps along the Thai border with Laos. More than 100,000 have been resettled in Western countries.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hmong forms part of the Western Branch of the Miao languages, which also include Hmu and Kho Xyong. Miao is related at its upper levels to the Yao dialects, from which a Proto-Miao-Yao can be reconstructed. No relationship to other languages has been firmly established, although the whole group has been influenced strongly by Chinese. The Miao-Yao languages are usually classed as Sino-Tibetan, although some scholars disagree with this. Hmong has eight tones and a complex phonology.

History and Cultural Relations

The Miao were first recorded in Chinese annals as a rebellious people banished from the central plains around 2500 b.c. by the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) of China. Because the Hmong today retain traces in their culture of the earliest known forms of Chinese social organization, some specialists have considered them the aboriginal inhabitants of China, predating the Han. Their legends, however, have led others to speculate that they may have originated from a northern polar region. Records exist of the Miao in China from 1300 to 200 b.c.; from then until a.d. 1200 they were subsumed under the generic Chinese term for southern barbarians (Man). There are, however, good records of the Miao from 1200 to the present, and we can be fairly certain that they refer to the ancestors of the Hmong. Most focus on the many uprisings of the Miao against the Chinese state, bearing witness to a long historical displacement of the Hmong and other southern Chinese minority people from the centers of power as the Han Chinese population slowly expanded southward. Hmong began migrating into Southeast Asia around 1800. The last major Miao rebellions in China were in 1856.

In Vietnam and Laos, the Hmong fell under the authority of the French colonial government. A major Hmong rebellion against excessive levies on opium production broke out in Laos in 1919; it took the authorities several years to suppress the revolt, which assured the Hmong of a measure of self-representation. During the Indochina wars, Hmong loyalties were severely fragmented among the royalists, neutralists, and opposition in Laos, and large numbers fled to Thailand when the Pathet Lao gained control of their country in 1975. In Thailand a similar polarization occurred as a result of the 1959 ban on opium production; the ban failed to suppress opium production, giving rise to a government policy of tolerating an illegal practice. Many Hmong supported the armed rural struggle of the Communist Party of Thailand against the government in the 1960s and early 1970s, which has now largely ended. Policies of tolerance toward opium production have also now ended, and this may facilitate Hmong acceptance of the many programs targeted at replacing opium-poppy cultivation with alternative cash crops.


Houses are usually built directly on the ground rather than on piles. They were traditionally made out of upright wooden shingles notched together or bound with hemp rope and creepers without the use of nails, and thatched with teak leaves or cogon grass. In some parts of China the Hmong live in houses made out of adobe or stone after the Chinese fashion; in Laos and Thailand some have adopted the Thai style of housing. Richer households may be able to invest in zinc or polystyrene roofing, while poorer families may have to construct their houses entirely out of pieces of split bamboo and rough matting. The traditional village numbered only about seven houses, but today, owing to reasons of security and the need for intensive cultivation of the land, villages of between seven and fifty households are more common. They are often arranged in a horseshoe pattern just beneath the crest of a mountain, and are, if possible, sheltered by a belt of forest and located close to a source of water. New villages are carefully sited according to the principles of a geomantic system aimed at ensuring a fundamental harmony between man and the forested environment. Water is often piped down the mountain to the village through a series of semitroughs formed out of lengths of split bamboo, and is collected, usually by women, in wooden or metal buckets. In some areas wells are maintained, or tap systems have been constructed. Usually tall clumps of cooling bamboo, peach, or banana are maintained near the village, while the neighboring slopes are devoted to herbal gardens. Raised wooden granaries are constructed near each house to protect against scavengers; small chicken coops or stables may also be built. Pigs traditionally are not penned but left free to clear the village of refuse. In some villages shops are maintained, often by Chinese traders.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Hmong economy is based on the integrated cultivation of dry rice, maize, and opium poppy as a cash crop. Rice forms the staple diet in most of Southeast Asia, where maize is primarily used as animal fodder, but in southern China and at higher elevations the cultivation of rice for subsistence is replaced by that of maize, millet, or buckwheat. Hunting and gathering play subsidiary parts in the economy, while the domestic husbandry of pigs and chickens provides the main source of protein. In certain areas the Hmong have surrendered the shifting cultivation of dry rice in favor of intensive irrigated rice cultivation on permanent terraced fields laboriously constructed on the flanks of mountains.

Maize and poppy form an integrated cycle because they can be planted successively in the same fields. Maize is usually planted in the fifth or sixth month, after the rice has been planted, and it is harvested in the eighth or ninth month, allowing opium poppy to be planted in the same fields for harvest after the New Year, at the end of the twelfth month. Forests must be burned off for the shifting cultivation of dry rice early in the year, and dried out before rice can be dibbled in the fields fertilized by the nitrogenous ashes. While rice fields can only be used for two to three years, maize fields can be continually replanted for some eight years. It has been argued that the increasing overpopulation of the hill areas of Thailand has led to increases in the length of time the same parcel of land is kept under cultivation, resulting in declining rice yields that force the Hmong to produce opium as a cash crop to buy rice from lowland traders. Opium is the best crop to grow because it adapts well to harsh soil conditions and there is a ready market for it. Many Hmong families are indebted to traders (who tend to be of Yunnanese origin) for their rice, and so must continue to produce opium in order to survive.

Industrial Arts. The Hmong do not produce their own pottery, but are famous for their silverwork, and in most villages there are blacksmiths specializing in the production of farming tools and weapons. Chinese silversmiths also often are employed; there are no full-time craft specialists among the Hmong. Women, however, spend a large proportion of their time spinning, weaving, and embroidering hemp and cotton in the intricate needlework of traditional Hmong clothing.

Trade. The most significant trading activity is that of opium for cash or rice. This takes place on an individual household basis, with organized paramilitary groups whose representatives visit villages on a regular basis, through itinerant traders who travel to the villages after the opium harvest to make their purchases, or through the medium of shopkeepers settled in the villages. There are no full-scale regional markets among the Hmong communities, although individual Hmong may visit lowland markets occasionally to make important purchases and sometimes to sell forest products or vegetables.

Division of Labor. There is no full-time occupational specialization in traditional Hmong society, all adult members of which are farmers. Individuals, however, may specialize as wedding go-betweens, blacksmiths, or funeral specialists. The most prestigious specialization is that of the shaman, whose duties are to cure illness and prevent misfortune. The main division of labor in agricultural work is between men and women. Women take most of the responsibility for housework and child care but also play a crucial part in agricultural activities. Child labor is also important in agricultural work.

Land Tenure. As traditional shifting cultivators, the Hmong have, in general, lacked permanent titles to land and, often, citizenship rights in the countries in which they are settled. Attempts have been made by the Thai government to encourage permanent settlement by issuing land-use certificates, but these remain limited. However, in some areas where the Hmong have turned to permanent forms of rice agriculture, they have obtained land-use rights. In general, land-use rights in shifting cultivation belong to the one who first clears the land, and lapse after an indeterminate period of noncultivation.


Kin Groups and Descent. Hmong society is divided into a number of named exogamous patrilineal clans similar to the Chinese surname groups. The ideal number of these, when they are referred to in ritual discourse, is twelve, but there are in fact more than this, some having been founded by inmarrying Chinese males. Within the clans, the lineage is the basis of Hmong social organization, and the local segment of the lineage acts as the major corporate ritual and political body at the village level. Major lineage differences within a clan are distinguished by variations of ritual at household and funeral ceremonies.

Kinship Terminology. Hmong kinship terminology is more generative than inclusive, distinguishing relatives on the basis of generation, sex, and relative age, and above all between affinal relatives and relatives by descent. As in the Chinese system, patrilateral parallel cousins (having the same surname) are distinguished from all other cousins by a special term. It has been suggested that the system was once a bilateral one that has been considerably influenced by the Chinese system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny is permitted and two or three cowives may inhabit the same house. Owing to the high bride-wealth demanded at weddings, however, it is only the richer men who can afford to take a second wife. On marriage a woman is completely incorporated into her husband's descent group and will be worshiped by his descendants as an ancestor, retaining only her original clan name. The levirate is practiced among the wives of elder brothers. Marriages can be arranged by parents but are more often the result of the free choice of the spouses. Premarital sex is allowed, and marriages often take place at the first pregnancy. A rare form of marriage by capture also exists, usually in the case of parental disapproval of a match. On marriage a woman moves to her husband's home, except in uncommon instances where a family has only daughters or the groom cannot afford to pay the bride-wealth, in which case uxorilocal residence occurs. Divorce, which is very rare, is almost always initiated by men. The fact that the wife's natal family may be unwilling to return her bride-wealth acts as a sanction against divorce. Suicide may be the only recourse left to an unhappy wife, yet the threat of suicide can itself prove a powerful sanction.

Domestic Unit. The household is the main unit of economic cooperation and also the most fundamental unit of ritual worship. Households vary in composition from nuclear and stem to more extended types, since usually some time after marriage, or at the birth of a child, a son will move out with his family to form a new household. These may range in size from one to twenty-five members, including, for example, the children of several living or deceased siblings, and unmarried women of several generations. Such large households, however, are rare.

Inheritance. Shifting cultivation means that there is no land to inherit and little other heritable property. What wealth a family possesses will usually be divided equally among its sons. The house and its belongings, however, will usually go to the youngest son, who is expected to remain in the house to care for his aged parents.

Socialization. Literacy remains uncommon despite state efforts to educate Hmong children in Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, or Chinese. Attendance at rituals provides an important occasion for young boys to learn their traditional customs, while women are educated in the skills of embroidery and singing by their mothers or elder female siblings and friends. Fathers play a large part in teaching young children to speak, and other local languages are often acquired individually at a later stage. Participation in agricultural work by all capable members of the household leads to an early familiarization with subsistence skills.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Hmong social organization is based on the kinship system, divided into patrilineal clans that define affinal relations, and subdivided into local lineages formed out of individual households. The ritual head of the lineage is its oldest living member; ranking within the lineage is on the basis of age seniority, but is largely egalitarian.

Political Organization. There is no political organization above the village level in traditional Hmong society. An assembly of male lineage elders makes local decisions and discusses problems or arbitrates disputes. At these assemblies women also take informal part. The ritual head of the lineage and its shamans enjoy the most prestige and authority in decision-making activities. In many areas local headmen of villages are appointed to deal with external affairs. These men do not necessarily enjoy full authority over their own lineages and cannot represent other lineages in the same village, but tend to be those most skilled in dealing with outsiders.

Social Control. Social control is largely maintained through the importance attached to traditional customs that distinguish the Hmong from other ethnic groups and affirm the unity of the lineage. The knowledge of these customs tends to be the preserve of lineage elders and shamans. Gossip and occasionally accusations of witchcraft also act as mechanisms of social control. The authority of a father (who controls bride-wealth payments) over his sons, and of men over women, is a fundamental feature of this system.

Conflict. Any member of the lineage has the right to summon the lineage to war, although in practice it is the views of the eldest that will be the most respected. In case of conflicts with other ethnic groups or emergencies, the Hmong send out scouting parties in pairs from each village to report on the situation. Conflicts within Hmong society generally take place between local lineages and rarely involve related clan members. The great majority of these disputes concerns marriages and bride-wealth payments, children born out of wedlock, and extramarital affairs. Conflicts over land and the adoption of Christianity also occur, but these are rare.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Hmong otherworld is closely modeled on the Chinese otherworld, which represents an inversion of the classical Chinese bureaucracy. In former times, it is believed, humans and spirits could meet and talk with one another. Now that the material world of light and the spiritual world of darkness have become separated, particular techniques of communication with the otherworld are required. These techniques form the basis of Hmong religion, and are divided into domestic worship and shamanism.

Religious Practitioners. Every male head of a household practices the domestic worship of ancestral spirits and household gods represented at different sites in the architecture of the Hmong house. Particular rituals must be performed by him in honor of these spirits, most during the New Year celebrations. Whereas domestic worship is conducted for the benefit of individual households by their heads, shamanism is only practiced by a few men in each lineage, and is for the benefit of others since its primary purpose is to cure illness. Illness is often diagnosed by the shaman as the result of soul loss; his task is to recall the wandering soul and so restore health.

Supernaturals. The two malevolent Lords of the otherworld are Ntxwj Nyug and Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem. Saub is a kindly deity who periodically comes to the rescue of humanity, and Siv Yis was the first shaman, to whom Saub entrusted some of his healing powers to protect humankind from the diseases with which Ntxwj Nyug afflicted them. Household and ancestral spirits (dab ) are distinguished from the tutelary spirits of the shaman (neeb ). Within the household there are special altars to the spirits of wealth and sickness, of the bedroom, the front door, the loft, the house post, and the two hearths.

Ceremonies. The major calendrical ceremony is New Year, when the household spirits are renewed, the ancestral spirits honored, and the shamanic spirits dispatched temporarily to the otherworld. New clothes are donned, parties of villagers visit other villages, antiphonal songs are sung by courting couples, and courting games of catch are played. Each household sacrifices domestic animals and holds feasts. Weddings are also celebrated with great display.

Arts. Needlework, embroidery, and the chanting of love songs are particularly esteemed artistic skills. The playing of the reed pipes, the notes of which are said to express the entirety of Hmong customs, is an art that takes many years to acquire. New dances, song forms, and pictorial arts have appeared in the context of the refugee camps.

Medicine. Herbal medicine is a specialty of many women who maintain special altars to the spirits of medicine. Forms of massage and magical therapy are also used. Shamanism remains the primary medical and therapeutic technique, although modern medicines are employed extensively.

Death and Afterlife. The ritual specialist at death is not necessarily a shaman, whose business is to preserve life. The purpose of the funeral and mortuary rites is to ensure the safe dispatch of the reincarnating soul to the otherworld. Funerals last a minimum of three days, attended by all local male kin within the household of the deceased. The reed pipes are played each day and a special song is sung to guide the reincarnating soul on its journey. Cattle must be slaughtered. The corpse of the deceased is inhumed in a geomantically selected site. On the third day after burial the grave is renovated, and a special propitiatory ritual is performed thirteen days after death for the ancestral soul, which will protect the household. A final memorial service to release the reincarnating soul, held a year after death, is somewhat similar to the funeral; and some years after death, in the case of severe illness or misfortune, a special propitiatory ritual may be performed for the same spirit.

On the way back to the village of its ancestors, the reincarnating soul must collect its "coat," or placenta, buried beneath the floor of the house. The dangers and pitfalls of this journey are pictured in the poetic geography of the funeral song, which parallels the long historical journey of the Hmong from a country probably to the north of China. The song describes the creation of the first couple, the deluge, and the first drought, and represents a historical journey back to the origins of humanity, to which the deceased must return before being reborn.


Cooper, Robert G. (1984). Resource Scarcity and the Hmong Response: Patterns of Settlement and Economy in Transition. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Geddes, W. R. (1976). Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hendricks, Glenn L., Bruce T. Downing, and Amos S. Deinard, eds. (1986). The Hmong in Transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; Center for Migration Studies.

Lemoine, Jacques (1972). Un village Hmong Vert du Haut Laos: Milieu, technique et organisation sociale. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Lin Yüeh-Hwa (1940). "The Miao-Man Peoples of Kweichow." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 5:261-345.

Ruey Yih-Fu (1960). "The Magpie Miao of Southern Szechuan." In Social Structure in South-East Asia, edited by George P. Murdock, 143-155. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 29. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.


views updated


LOCATION: Southern China; Viet Nam; Laos; Thailand
POPULATION: About 4 to 6 million worldwide
RELIGION: Animism; some fundamentalist Protestant Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Hmong Americans


The Hmong (sometimes called Meo or Miao, terms the Hmong consider pejorative) are an aboriginal people of southern China. They are mentioned in Chinese records as early as 2500 BC. Traditionally they were paddy (wet rice) farmers in China. In the past two centuries, groups of Hmong have begun to filter into the mountainous north of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand to escape the persecution and pacification campaigns of the Chinese. In Southeast Asia they settled in higher elevations, usually above 1000 m (3,280 ft), often on mountain tops where they practiced shifting slash-and-burn (swidden) agriculture—clearcutting and burning off an area of the forest, planting crops until the soil was depleted, and then shifting to a new area after a few years. The Hmong usually grow dry rice, corn, vegetables, and opium poppies. Although they traditionally grew opium poppies for their own ritual and medicinal use, they were encouraged by French colonial authorities in Vietnam and Laos to increase production for sale to the colonial opium monopoly and as payment for head taxes. Thus, opium became an important cash crop for the Hmong.

The Hmong are often at odds with the governments of the states in which they reside because of their independence, opium growing, and shifting slash-and-burn agriculture that is destructive to the environment. They are being encouraged to settle in lowland areas where they can be more easily controlled and can practice more productive wet rice agriculture. Mutual suspicion exists, however, between the Hmong and the majority populations, who tend to consider them ignorant and uncivilized.

The Hmong face a special burden in Laos, for they were divided during the Lao civil war, which was in many ways an extension of the Vietnam War. Some joined the Communist Pathet Lao while others served in the CIA-sponsored mercenary army under General Vang Pao, supporting the Royal Lao Government. The Hmong were considered fierce fighters, skillful in guerrilla warfare in mountainous terrain. Thousands of Hmong fled Laos when the Communists came to power in Laos in 1975, seeking refuge in Thailand and China. A small Hmong insurgency continued, and when Lao and Vietnamese forces were unable to secure Hmong villages with regular forces, they turned to chemical and biological warfare. New waves of Hmong refugees fled the country. Perhaps as many as 200,000 Hmong left Laos. Most were resettled in other countries, but the thousands remaining in Thai refugee camps are being unwillingly repatriated to Laos. The Thai government's hard line toward remaining Hmong is based in part on the perception that the remaining refugees are "economic migrants" rather than people fleeing in fear of their lives.


Estimates of the Hmong population vary, but there are probably 4–6 million worldwide. An estimated 3–5 million continue to live in southern China, mostly in Yunnan. There are about 350,000 in north Vietnam, 230,000 in north and central Laos, and around 100,000 in northern Thailand, plus a few Hmong settlements in Burma (Myanmar).

The Hmong tend to live in mountainous border regions of southern China and northern Southeast Asia. They resist government controls and have paid little attention to borders, often trekking from one country to another. This makes the Hmong population a sensitive issue for governments that seek to control their peoples and their borders.

In Laos, the Hmong and others living in the higher elevations like the Akha, Phu Noi, and Mien (Yao), are called Lao Sung, or upland Lao. The Hmong make up two-thirds of the upland Lao population and about 5% of the total population of Laos, the only country where they are a significant minority. The government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) has tried to include the upland peoples and extend services like health and education to them. By using terms like lowland Lao (basically ethnic Lao), midland Lao (Kammu and others), and upland Lao, the LPDR has tried to de-emphasize ethnicity.

There are about 150,000 Hmong in the United States. There are 30,000 Hmong living in Fresno, California, and significant Hmong communities in other parts of California and in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island. The change from an illiterate agricultural life in remote mountain villages to an urban setting in the U.S. has been immense. Clan organizations have remained fairly strong and mutual help has eased the transition for many. However, the Hmong-American community is also highly factionalized, and there is a widening gap between the older generation, which tends to cling to Cold War values, and the younger generation, which is more inclined toward reconciliation with the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Some Hmong have also settled in Canada, Australia, France, and even in Argentina and mountainous areas of Surinam.

In keeping with its policy to promote stronger relations with Southeast Asia, China is reaching out to the Hmong diaspora with international conferences and other activities. This has had the effect of strengthening the Hmong sense of identity, but it has also alarmed some countries with Hmong populations, particularly in Southeast Asia.


The Hmong language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. There are two major dialect and cultural groups — the Green Hmong (sometimes called the Blue Hmong) and the White Hmong. The colors refer to women's traditional dress. The two dialects are mutually intelligible. In the past there was little intermarriage between the two dialect groups, but it has become common. One's last name is a clan name. About 18 clans have been identified in Thailand and Laos. In Laos, the government supports a Hmong radio news broadcast, the only broadcast in a minority language.

The Hmong did not have an alphabet or writing. Missionary groups have developed a romanized script for the language, but relatively few Hmong are literate in it. However, the first Hmong studies program was established in the United States in 2006 and seeks to promote literature and other works in the Hmong language. The script looks somewhat peculiar: The word "Hmong," for example, is written "Hmoob." The double letter signals a nasalized vowel, and the last consonant is an unpronounced tone marker. There are eight tones in Hmong. Here is a Hmong proverb in romanized script:

Niam-txiv piv tam lub ntuj Parents are like the sky,
Tub-ki piv lub tem. Children are like the earth.

The Hmong language contains many words borrowed from Chinese, Thai, Lao, French, and English. The Hmong are being educated and becoming literate in the languages of the countries where they reside.


Lacking a writing system, the Hmong have passed down their legends and ritual ceremonies orally and in crafts (especially textiles) from one generation to another.

They have many short rhyming expressions with messages of wisdom and show their outlook on the world. Here are a few examples:

    You don't have to sharpen a thorn;
    You don't have to explain to a smart person.
    See a tiger, you will die;
    See an official, you will be poor.
    Tangled hair, use a comb to unsnarl it;
    Complicated dispute, use an elder to solve it.
    Able to weave, don't waste thread;
    Able to speak, don't waste words.
    The mouth tastes food;
    The heart tastes words.
    If the crops aren't good, you lose only one year;
    If your wife isn't good, you lose a whole lifetime.


Most Hmong are animists and believe in a variety of spirits. The spirit of the house provides protection for the family and helps bring prosperity. An altar to this spirit is placed on the wall opposite the front door, and on the first day of the new year, a pig is sacrificed to it. The eldest male in the family conducts the ritual.

Special spirit practitioners deal with the spirits of medicine and conduct magic rituals to exorcise the spirits that cause illness. Herbal specialists may also treat the patient with herbs and massage.

The spirits of nature are always on the lookout for lost or straying souls. Like the Lao, the Hmong believe that the body has many souls that sometimes stray. The hu plig ritual, similar to the Lao baci, calls the souls back to the body. The ritual is performed for someone who is sick, for a newborn on its third day of life (when body and soul are believed to come together), and for a new bride three days after marriage (to tie her soul to her husband's clan).

A shaman might be called in cases of illness that don't respond to other curing rituals. The shaman is one who can fall into trance and communicate with spirits in the sky and bargain with them for the soul of the sick person. One or more pigs are sacrificed so the shaman can trade with the spirits for the soul of the person.

At funerals, cattle are sacrificed so the deceased will have wealth in the spirit world. The Hmong believe that the well-being of the living depends on the well-being of the ancestors in the spirit world.

In Thailand and Laos, 10–20% of the Hmong have responded to missionaries and adopted fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. This is seen by other Hmong as a threat to clan solidarity, since Christians destroy their spirit altars, refuse to sacrifice at funerals, and feel less bound by clan ties.


The Hmong New Year is the biggest Hmong holiday, a celebration for 7–10 days in December after the harvest. It is a time for new clothes, sacrificing a pig to the ancestors, calling on the elders for blessings, eating good food, relaxing, and playing games. The household altar has been cleaned and redecorated. On the eve of the new year, the eldest male in the household calls the spirits home—the father's spirit, the mother's spirit, the children's spirits, the animals' spirits, and the spirits of the crops. The elder throws away the evil and bad words of the old year. The new year is welcomed and named after the first animal they hear cry out. The young men visit the elders, taking whiskey and food; they kneel and wish good fortune to the elders, who bless them in return.

On New Year's Day the young unmarried men and women line up opposite each other and toss a cloth ball back and forth while singing. Each person tries to throw the ball to the person who interests him or her, so it is a kind of flirting. Marriages often take place soon after the New Year.


The main rite of passage is marriage. Hmong marry young, usually in their teens. The girl is usually 15–17, the boy 17–20. Traditionally marriage, often between cousins, was arranged by the fathers of the couple. In more recent generations, young people generally choose for themselves. The boy sends a go-between to the girl's parents with a silver coin to ask for her hand and negotiate a bride-price. Should the girl's parents object, the traditional alternative was a mock abduction to the boy's parents' house, which is in effect an elopement. Marriage negotiations would then begin after three days. In the past, it was common for the bride-price to be 3–10 silver bars, each worth about $100. Communist governments have opposed spending much money on ceremonial and ritual expenses and the Lao government limits the payment to two silver bars. The bride-price recompenses the bride's family for the loss of her productive and reproductive capacity.


The household and the clan are the key units of Hmong life. Primary loyalty is to them, not to a village or region. Hmong like to live near their clan relatives, whom they can call on for social, economic, and emotional support.

Young men and women mix freely, and premarital sex is accepted as the norm, much to the horror of the dominant populations where they reside; women are expected to be chaste even if the men are promiscuous. Pregnancy usually leads to marriage. Men must marry out of their clan. Marriage outside the Hmong community is extremely rare.

Ethnic prejudice against the Hmong complicates their relations with lowland people.


In Laos, living conditions for Hmong are rather poor. Village houses cluster together on barren mountain tops. The house is set directly on the ground with a beaten earth floor. The walls are usually made of split bamboo and the roof of thatch. Usually 6–8 people live in a house measuring 6 x 8 m. Furnishings are minimal—a couple of stools and a table. A sleeping alcove is set a foot or two above the floor. There may be a walled-off bedroom for a couple. Much of the house may be used for storage, with a granary, tools, etc. An open hearth is used for cooking. The pigs and chickens may be brought into the house at night but wander freely in the daytime. There is usually no electricity, no running water, and no sanitary facilities. The pigs keep the village clear of edible refuse and human waste. Access to health care is limited. Travel is usually by foot, although wealthier families may have pack horses. There are few roads. Each family tries to be as self-sufficient as possible. Despite these conditions, Hmong villages are often more prosperous than those of surrounding minorities. This is due in part to remittances from overseas Hmong. In some cases, the income discrepancies between Hmong and their poorer ethnic neighbors creates tension, particularly when Hmong are able to buy the ancestral lands of other groups.


The Hmong have large extended patrilineal families. The household can include parents, children, wives and children of married sons, and other relatives. As married sons establish their own households, the youngest son is left to care for parents and inherit their property. Polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife, is allowed by the Hmong, though governments discourage the practice. In principle, the first wife must consent and, traditionally, an additional wife is taken only if the first wife is barren or produces only female children. The daughter-in-law rises early and works hard, and new brides sometimes register their unhappiness by returning to their parents temporarily. Divorce is possible but discouraged.

The family works together to provide food. Gender roles tend to be fairly strongly differentiated. Women care for the home, cooking, water and firewood, husking rice, grinding corn, care of pigs and poultry, and weeding the fields. Men cut trees, burn the fields, hunt, care for buffalo and cows, and plow. Men punch holes for seed, which the woman puts in and covers over. Both sexes harvest and thresh and carry the crop from fields to village. Children help from an early age, netting small fish, catching edible insects, helping with the animals and gardens, and caring for younger siblings.

Men are accorded greater respect than women. The husband typically walks ahead of the wife, and if there is only one burden to carry, it is hers. But relations between spouses are generally amiable and husbands are advised to consult with their wives.


Hmong are identified by their clothing, which indicates dialect and regional group. The Green Hmong, the White Hmong, and the smaller group of Striped Hmong are known by the traditional dress of their women. Women of the Green Hmong, sometimes called Blue Hmong, wear short, blue, indigo-dyed skirts, each done in intricate batik patterns and containing hundreds of tiny pleats. The skirts usually have cross-stitch embroidery and appliqué as well. The skirt is worn with a black long-sleeved blouse, leggings, and a black apron. An outfit takes about one year to make in one's spare time. Women also wear large silver neck rings. The men wear short, baggy black pants and black shirts, sometimes with embroidery, a long sash around the waist, and a Chinese-style black cap decorated with embroidery.

The White Hmong women wear black pants or white pleated skirts and a black blouse with an elaborately decorated collar piece at the back of the neck. Accessories include embroidered sashes, coin belts, and aprons. The men's pants are not as short and baggy as the Green Hmong outfit. The Striped Hmong women wear blouses with striped sleeves. Women's headdresses may be very elaborate and indicate regional differences. Younger people are more likely to dress like the majority population, in T-shirts and sarongs or pants.


The Hmong prefer white rice to sticky rice, but grow both kinds. Sometimes they have to buy additional rice. Other food comes from their fields and gardens, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Corn is always grown along with squash, melons, and greens of various kinds. Tubers, shoots, mushrooms, and other wild plants are found in the forest. Various rodents and insects are also eaten. Most foods are boiled and seasoned with salt and chilies. Meat is rarely part of the diet, although occasionally a hunter gets lucky. The pigs and cattle they raise are largely for sacrifices to the spirits, but they are eaten on ceremonial occasions once the offering has been made. There are usually bananas and other fruit trees and often some sugar cane. Wild foods and fish are abundant during the rainy season, but little grows in the hot dry season.


Schools have been extended to Hmong areas only in recent years in Thailand and Laos. Many Hmong settlements are still remote from schools. Most Hmong in Laos attend school only for a year or two. Males are more likely to attend school and study longer than females. Most Hmong men can speak the national language to some extent and may have gained some literacy in it. Females are more likely to be illiterate. Education occasionally is an issue in Hmong families in the United States. Sometimes traditional parents want their teenage daughters to leave school and enter an arranged marriage, while their more Americanized daughters rebel.


Because the Hmong were not a literate people, their cultural heritage had to be handed down in other ways. They are noted for their sung poetry and their story cloths. Hmong songs are poems that the singer makes up as the song is sung using rhyme and clever wordplay. Older songs may be memorized, but the singer adds his own lines to them. There are ritual songs, courting songs, and teaching songs. Songs are passed from one generation to another. Many still contain references to life in China, although the Hmong may have left there generations ago. A skilled singer gains great renown among the Hmong.

The Hmong are known in the West for the exquisite appliqué and embroidery of their story cloths, cloth panels with detailed scenes of daily village life for the Hmong: growing corn, caring for pigs and chickens, hauling rice from the fields, etc. Some have a story line that meanders across the cloth. More recent story cloths tell of war, exile, and going to America.


Work revolves around the agricultural calendar of planting rice, corn, vegetables, and opium poppies. Opium was once the biggest cash crop for many Hmong. It is small in volume, high in price, readily portable, and grows well at high altitudes in monsoon climates. However, opium eradication efforts in both Thailand and Laos have unsettled many Hmong communities, despite crop substitution projects. Poverty has forced some Hmong into wage labor, which is generally frowned upon since the Hmong are used to being self-sufficient. Hmong women have been selling their needlework, and their small embroidered squares are sometimes incorporated by Western fashion designers into stylish modern clothes.


The Hmong have no time for organized sports. Even young children may work long hours and have little time for recreation. Hmong boys like to play at spinning tops. Fishing is largely a task left to children and can combine elements of work and play.


Hmong sung poetry is a favorite form of entertainment. Often the songs deal with loss—of one's family, one's love, or one's homeland.


Besides the story cloths mentioned above, the Hmong are famous for their traditional needlework squares with intricate appliquéd designs. Traditionally these were presented by a young couple to their parents and parents-in-law with a blessing. These pieces are placed in the coffin with a person after death. This type of needlework has been incorporated into modern handicraft items made for sale.


As governments have extended their control of border regions, the Hmong are under great pressure to give up their traditional way of life and settle down. Settled agriculture, wage labor, and the cash economy are replacing traditional self-sufficiency and have led to more emphasis on the individual and less on clan ties. Children exposed to lowland life are assimilating the dominant culture. Generational contrast and conflict is particularly acute for refugee families living in modern cities in the United States. It is a challenge to maintain Hmong culture and language while adapting to modern life.


Although societal discrimination against women exists in Hmong culture, several Hmong women have achieved positions of high rank in the Lao government and the Communist Party. The economic dislocation caused by opium eradication in Laos has pushed some Hmong women into prostitution, but the majority of Laotian women that are trafficked are actually lowland Lao. Nevertheless, the Hmong are suspicious of the intentions of overseas Hmong in this regard and popular folklore tends to view "rich" Hmong in the West as potential traffickers.


Hein, Jeremy. Ethnic Origins: The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.

Ovesen, Jan. A Minority Enters the Nation State: A Case Study of a Hmong Community in Vientiane Province, Laos. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 1995.

Savada, Andrea Matles, ed. Laos: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1995.

Tapp, Nicholas. The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Tapp, Nicholas, ed., et al. Hmong-Miao in Asia. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004.

Vang, Lue, and Judy Lewis. Grandmother's Path, Grandfather's Way. San Francisco: Zellerbach Family Fund, 1984.

—revised by C. Dalpino

views updated



Hmong society is based on outmarrying patriclans within which ideals of fraternal hospitality are maintained. Within clans, lineages are clustered around the worship of a common ancestor. Cultural divisions cut across clans to mark different groups of Hmong by dialect, female costume, and architecture. Shamanism, ancestor worship, and a belief in nature spirits form a profound religious complex. There is no traditional form of Hmong writing, but a missionary-invented romanized script is widely used.

Traditionally the Hmong were shifting cultivators of forest at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 feet in the mountains of southern China and the neighboring countries of Indochina, with an economy based on the production of dry rice, maize, and opium as a cash crop, some hunting, and animal husbandry. The household was the unit of production, and hamlets were often settled by members of the same local descent group. There was no hereditary position of political authority, nor any political authority higher than the village. Houses were built on the ground out of wood.

The Hmong form perhaps a third of the Miao national minority of China, which numbered 9.6 million in 2002. Although unknown in Chinese records under the Hmong ethnonym, under the name of Miao it is clear that their history in China is an ancient one, and was characterized by a series of violent clashes against centralized imperial authority.

During the last half of the nineteenth century, Hmong from China migrated into Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and the northern parts of Laos and Vietnam, after the failure of rebellions in south China and increasing pressures on scarce land resources. In north Vietnam, the Hmong were caught up in the First Indochina War (19461954) and were instrumental in the Viet Minh victory against the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954).

During the civil wars in Laos from 1962 to 1973, Hmong were divided along clan and regional lines between support for the rightist parties and for the socialist Pathet Lao. As porters, guides, spies, and fighters, they were crucial to a war effort fought mostly in sensitive border regions; many became regular or irregular troops under General Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army. Casualties were heavy.

With the fall of Laos in 1975, more than 100,000 Hmong fled Laos for Thailand, where they were housed in five refugee camps along the border, from which they have mostly been resettled in third countries. A large number refused resettlement because they were led to believe they would be needed to retake Laos, where a small resistance movement continues with variable support from elements of the old counterinsurgency military establishment. Formal recognition of their support for the American war effort in Indochina was won in the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act of 2000, which allows special consideration for irregular Hmong ex-soldiers.

A new culture emerged in the refugee camps as farming people with newfound leisure produced new forms of culture for sale to the outside world that told of their history and sufferings, such as embroidered story-cloths and the new music championed by the leader of a messianic movement. The Hmong came under increasing Christian influence in the camps, which has led to serious divisions in the community.

Outside China the Hmong have been estimated at 153,955 in Thailand, 315,000 in Laos, 787,604 in Vietnam, and perhaps 2,000 in Burma. Overseas population figures are estimated at 15,000 for France, 1,800 for Australia, 2,000 for French Guyana, 1,200 for Canada, 250 in Argentina, 92 in Germany, and 186,310 in the United States. Resettled Hmong have sought to regroup in areas of better economic opportunity and to join larger groups of Hmong. In the early 1990s, half the Australian Hmong population moved to North Queensland to farm bananas. By 2003, all 150 Hmong settled in New Zealand had joined the Australian Hmong. From 1981 to 1983, 20,000 Hmong arrived in the Central Valley of California, and some 20,000 moved again in 1998 from California to Minnesota.

American Hmong are concentrated in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Particular cultural problems have been caused by ritual animal sacrifices in cases of illness and at funerals, which traditionally take place at home. Pressing social issues include the changing position of women, underage marriages, and the growing prevalence of youth gangs. Although the majority of Hmong refugees find unskilled work or remain on social welfare, there have been many success stories, with the emergence of Hmong singers and poets, publishers, academics, and politicians. The fragmentation of families between two or more countries remains an issue for most of the older generation. Clan organization has proved a vital adaptation mechanism, with lending pools and mutual help societies formed. Some return visits to Laos and Thailand have taken place, remittances are often sent home, and some brides have been sought from Thailand, Laos, or China. Overall there has been a huge change of consciousness as the Hmong recognize themselves as a global, albeit fragmented, community and adopt new forms of communication, such as the Internet and telephone, with facility.


Fadiman, Anne. 1997. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Geddes, William R. 1976. Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand. Oxford: Clarendon.

Tapp, Nicholas, Jean Michaud, Christian Culas, and Gary Yia Lee, eds. 2004. Hmong/Miao in Asia. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Nicholas Tapp