The H'mong are as fascinating as any other people I have worked with. The diversity of their language dialects, history, culture, migration path and tenacity to tradition alongside adaptation to the modern world is a testament to human ingenuity!
Noted most among their many crafts, their embroidery is stunning. The H'mong are among few people left in the world who, for the most part, still make their own clothes independently. Even if they buy the yarn at a local market, they still typically weave and embroider the fabric themselves. Many H'mong, though, still cultivate and dye, using local indigo plants, the cotton and hemp from which they make their clothing. From newborns to the recently deceased, the H'mong are dressed in finery. Other noteworthy crafts include the silversmithing and bronze making of jewelry. Indeed silver acts as a bona fide currency for them. Also musical instrument making is highly developed and widely practiced in H'mong society. (Although, as the young girl above left demonstrates, leaves make a natural musical instrument for the H'mong.)
The H'mong probably originated in China, although some scholars have suggested they may have entered China originally from Tibet, Siberia or Mongolia. In any case, their ancestry goes back many centuries, yet many of their customs survive to this day. Persecuted and marginalized for most of their history at the hands of Chinese feudalists, they began migrating from China about two hundred years ago. That migration has recently taken hundreds to the USA and Australia, as refugees from the Lao People's Democratic Republic following the end of the American war in Vietnam and the liberation of the Lao PDR by the former Soviet Union. Among the religious influences from the Chinese on H'mong spiritual traditions are practices and customs borrowed from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Likewise, the H'mong, who are noted for their extensive knowledge of the natural world, brought with them from China expertise in the practice of herbal medicine, for example. Although knowledge of herbalism is fading, I met one old H'mong man in Northwest Vietnam who claimed to be the most expert herbalist from all the villagers in the area — H'mong and many other groups.
The H'mong are a patrilineal and patriarchal society, in which men are customarily considered superior to women, and are therefore the rulers and decision makers in any household. There are twelve lineages, the major of which are named: Giang, Lu, Ly, Sung, Tan, Thao, Then, Trang and Vang. Family ties are particularly strong within each lineage — even across the international boundaries over which they have emigrated. Although the H'mong do not tolerate marriage within the same lineage, in former times cross-cousins were often married by arrangement. In contrast to many societies found in this part of the world, the H'mong also forbid marriage outside one's own generation.
Marriage itself is a custom undergoing change. Where polygamy was once common, monogamy is now the norm. The custom (called levirate) of a widow marrying her dead husband's younger brother (even if he already has one or more wives) is disappearing. Also less commonly practiced now is marriage-by-kidnap. Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this involves a man, and his male cohorts, literally kidnapping the woman he wishes to marry if she has refused marriage voluntarily. A few days later her family is informed of her kidnap and then, according to tradition, they must give their consent to marriage. I was personally told of a young H'mong girl in Northwest Vietnam who had recently comitted suicide because she did not want the new husband she had been forced to marry.
Another changing aspect of H'mong tradition is their form of income. Traditionally farmers of rice and corn, vegetables and opium poppy, they are now to be seen in areas that have opened to tourism selling their handicrafts. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the small town of Sa Pa in Northwest Vietnam. Originally established by French colonialists as a hill station, the town looks and feels more like the Alps than Southeast Asia. It has seen a rapid rise in tourism over the last five years. These days the streets swarm with H'mong girls as young as seven selling their wares to tourists. These girls are striking in their ability to pick up English with no formal education — their English often surpassing their ability in Vietnamese. One of my guides into the outlying villages, a H'mong girl of just fifteen, had taught herself to speak, read and write English despite having never attended school!
The H'mong in Vietnam face as much challenge to their culture as they do in any other country. With fifty-three minority ethnic groups inhabiting that country (this is the government's official number), in addition to the majority ethnic Viet, government policy toward ethnic minorities is one of "assimilation." While some commentators have labelled it "Vietnamization," it means that the H'mong and others are encouraged to integrate into mainstream Vietnamese society.
One result of this policy is that all state run schools teach using the Vietnamese language with educational materials developed for, and therefore culturally biased toward, its majority Viet population. In Northern Vietnam I came across this school, whose motto appeared, quite literally, to be "spare the rod and spoil the child." These children looked more like they were in a military academy than in the early grade years! Many of the older generations of minority peoples in this area — including the H'mong — never went to school themselves, and so have no understanding of the potential value of education. That coupled with their very labor-intensive farming practices means that many of these students' peers either aren't sent to school or attend so sporadically that it benefits them little.
Their H'mong cousins in Thailand, by contrast, benefit from a relatively higher standard of living and greater access to education. It was during a school vacation that I came across these H'mong children in a village in that country. Shy at first, the young girl pictured right became a natural model within a few minutes and the boys in her village were so engrossed in their playing, I don't think they noticed me at all!
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2020, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
S. Chan, ed. (1994) Hmong Means Free: Life, Laos and Asian American History and Culture. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.