The Hmong Society: An Interrelated Cultural Aspect (Fall 2012)

            There are various regions of the earth that are populated by the Hmong people including China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, United states, and a number of other countries. With all of these places, Hmong people are still known to be original inhabitants of southern China. Their sudden displacements came as a result of their Migration in the 1800’s. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Hmong culture is family, history, religion, politics, and marriage all interconnect.

            Many changes in location of the Hmong are likely to have had some impact on the preservation of their culture along with the other groups they have been categorized with. Authors of the book Culture and Customs of the Hmong, Gary Yia lee snd Nicholas Tapp explain, “The Hmong form a larger group in Asia known as the Miao, which initially carried with it a negative connotative meaning for the Hmong, but today the Hmong are proud of the Miao name used to refer most of the ethnic minorities in China, which allows them to receive many government benefits (5). “Magazine journalist, Yuepheng L. Xiong describes how in different regions they refer to themselves in all different names such as Guo-Xiong, Amaot in the eastern regions. In Yunan they are Meng or Hmong (32). Language is also an important part of culture that helps in the Hmong to maintain a certain part of their identity.

            Noticeable, the Hmong language has many implied meanings. One word can be automatically associated with another based on their way of life. Most of the food the Hmong eat is rice based that even the word for eat in their language means eat rice, noj mov (Lee and Tapp, 144.) Here it is seen how language reflects our realities. The Hmong Language is shared with other culture groups, the Yao and peoples have it related it to a few other languages. 

            Their unique history is the possible reason why the Hmong are classified as a culturally different group of people in Asia. After much investigation, researcher, Teng Moua discovers that according to ancient Chinese history, long before the Hmong occupied the territory of Southern China they occupied the land in central Siberia until China and other Asian groups took over their land and people (4). It forced the Hmong to migrate south into northern China. Here they settled along the Yellow River. Throughout history, Hmong people have peasant or tribal farmers in various regions of Asia. The land along the Yellow River they farmed was fertile. Seeing as Asia was an agrarian society, the lands were very desirable and cause the Hmong to once again lose their land to the Chinese, forcing them to flee to their present well-known homeland in southern China.

             Things became more troublesome for the Hmong people during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. recruited Hmong as a guerilla army to assist them in fighting the Vietnamese as well as Lao communists. As soon as the U.S. removed its forces from the war, the Hmong were left defenseless against the Lao communist government (Teng Moua, 4). In effort to escape the organized genocide, several of the Hmong people that were settled in Laos sought refuge in many different countries. It is estimated that there are currently 200,000 – 300,000 in the U.S. 124,000 in Thailand, in France 15,000, in Australia, 1,500 in French Guyana, 600 in Argentina (Lee and Tapp, 1). Evidently, the separation of the Hmong people led to the current crisis of diaspora that many other cultures are currently facing.

            The separation of the Hmong People must have a dramatic impact specifically on the Hmong culture because of the social system their society has set up known as the Kinship System. Their society organizes each individual into a patrilineal surname group known as clans Lee and Tapp, 3). Basically these clans are kinship groups, each individual is born into one of eighteen different clans and are believe to be biologically related. It is assumed that you can trace your ancestors all the way from the beginning of human creation specifically the father’s side and never the mother’s, which hence the term, patrilineal surname. The distinguishing of clans is important for not only familial reasons but also for religious, political, and marital reasons.

            For instance, clans are important and absolutely necessary in order to be spiritual considering the idea that the Hmong believe in a sort of ancestral worship. Religion is part of what makes these clans as critical as they are to the Hmong culture and many other societal functions are also linked to the Hmong’s religious beliefs. Lee and Tapp clarify how cultural aspect aspects like this intertwine when they explain:
In most traditional [Hmong] societies, it is not possible to separate the fields of law, medicine, politics, and religion as sharply as we do in modern societies. Often single social institution has legal, medical, political, and social functions as well as being religious. This is the case with Hmong Shamanism (24).

            Hmong Shamanism is the religious practice of idolizing ancestors of your kinship group as a sort of commemoration of them. In Shamanism sicknesses are believed to be caused by a disruption of the soul and it is a system believed to be able to cure sicknesses and sufferings such as drought and famine (Lee and Tapp, 23). Religious leaders are called Shamans and they are believed to be able to enter the spiritual realm and contact spirits. So Shamans are often consulted to cure sicknesses and all kind of sufferings upon the land. Because many Shamans act as political leaders, religious ideals are embedded throughout the legal system. Although Shamans are mostly male, females can be Shamans too. It is believed that you are selected by the shamanic spirits to be a shaman ( Lee and Tapp, 23). Importantly, it is not handed down to you through ancestry or any other human connection but it remains essential to be closely tied to your specific clan.

            Unlike the designation of Shamanism leaders, only males are granted the opportunity to extend their clan. They can only do this through marriage. You cannot marry a member of your own clan. You can only marry outside of your clan, this is a restriction called the rule of exogamy (Moua, 6). There are two purposes of a Hmong marriage. The first is to unite a man and woman for procreation and economic production and secondly to create economic, political, and social ties between two kinship groups of the community (Moua, 14). Even though parents find it very beneficial to have social ties to another specific clan for economic reasons, they try not to make undesirable marital arrangements for their offspring. They find that unhappiness in the union will lead to destruction of the marriage and the Hmong dislike divorce. It brings shame upon the family. If a child shows bad behavior or grows to be a bad person it reflects poorly on the whole family. So elders in the family and even the community help discipline a child ( Moua,13). There are various acts one individual can commit that may bring shame upon the entire family.

            When women and young girls have sex and a baby before marriage, it brings dishonor on them and their family. So often the parents of the parents of the young mother will go to the parents of the father of the child and request that he marry their daughter to remove shame from the family and usually he agrees to the marriage. Otherwise, in a formal marriage arrangement usually the male and his family go over to the bride’s family and plead for her hand in marriage (Moua, 18). After permission is obtained, a sum of money is required of the groom’s family to give to the bride’s family is negotiated as a sort of security for their marriage. The bride’s price is usually arranged by messengers sent between both the bride’s family and the groom’s. After the wedding has taken place the bride goes to live with the groom and becomes a part of his clan.

            The woman is expecting to contribute by childbearing, preparing food, gathering firewood, and doing most of the household chores. Also older female children share in some of the responsibilities (Moua, 26). Men are solely in charge of all political, social, economic decisions outside the home. Basically, most of men’s work takes place outside the home and women remain economically dependent on them.

            Hmong parents love all their children just as most parents do in all cultures. However, male children are preferred over females because of their ability to extend their clans and the economic and social benefits they can attain for their family. While females are expected to marry off and they are seen to belong to someone else’s clan. Females are still desirable because the family gains fortune from the bride price. So it is ideal to have even number male and female children, In Shamanism, the Hmong believe that dead ancestors along the family line still need food and money in the spirit realm. They have these sacrificing of material things ceremonies usually on New Years that only males can partake in because females are not view as being part of the family (Lee and Tapp, 153). Again this ceremonial practice exemplifies how the different aspects of the Hmong culture interconnect.

            Moreover, another great aspect of the Hmong culture is the clothing and hairstyles, which are very closely connected to their identities. On these specific aspects of the Hmong culture there is a significant amount of influence from Chinese culture because of how long they were conquered by them. Lee and tap address this characteristic when they explain, “the Hmong traditional costumes for men were fashioned after those of the Chinese during the Qing dynasty with large black trousers, black shirt, and shaved head with a long queue or pigtail (155). “It is interesting how Hmong men have shifted to threads of the western society whereas Hmong women are the ones who remain in their traditional colorful costumes adorn with jewels. 

             Another difference in gender appearance is the distinct hairstyles of both men and women and their symbolic meaning. Until recently, Hmong men kept their hair long braided into a queue and shaved on both sides (Lee and Tapp, 157). Once again religious beliefs played a part in this. They believed that long hair would protect you from evil spirits and pigtail symbolized an object that could be used to scare such spirits away (Lee and Tapp, 157). This is rarely seen by the Hmong men in modern society, however. For women, similar to many cultures hair stays long, mostly to distinguish them as women. Hairstyles are also used to indicate marital status. Married women mostly in certain regions of Laos and Vietnam put their hair up in a top bun to show they are married while single women wear their hair down around their shoulders (Lee and Tapp, 157). Now in modern society Hmong women are rarely distinguished by these hairstyles and they are not very distinct compared to other cultures.

             Lastly, a unique part of Hmong culture is their art: drama, music, or poetry. Again art is another thing that is interconnected with other aspects of Hmong culture. Author of the journal article, speaking through Cloth: Teaching Hmong History and Culture through Textile art, Ava McCall states, “Drawings and pictures are of everyday human activities” (230). So even what seems to be a little aspect of Hmong culture gives us a lot more access to understand Hmong people. The kind of art that Hmong people develop gives others a sense of what Hmong appreciate and find beauty in. McCall, explains, the art they construct are on woven in pictures of their everyday experiences, and often tell stories about the oppression they have faced (230). The type of art they practice is not like most of the modern art we see such as sculptures but it is textile art. They reflect the Hmong’s values and ways of life. Hmong art is a silent expression of who they are as a people and when displayed others are able to gain a better understanding of Hmong people.

            Unfortunately, much of the customs, values and beliefs that make up the Hmong culture are changing and may even grow obsolete in today’s society as a result of diaspora. Their displacement to various regions causes many Hmong people to forget their own practices and adopt those of their present country. For example, older parents in diaspora will most likely be placed in nursing homes whereas in traditional Hmong culture it is customary for the parents to live with the youngest son in their old age (moua, 23). Also the younger generation mainly does not exercise their religion and bride prices are not always required of the family to marry a woman. A young female undergraduate student, Sara Yang explains, “I grew up in a Hmong household with very traditional parents who were stricter on me than my brother, but we rarely ever do anything religious and I’m allowed to date who I want.” This is the reality for many Hmong women in different cultural settings. In fact many Hmong women living in the united states get married in white dresses and parents dislike bride prices because they feel as if they are “selling” their daughters which may enable the groom to be overly possessive of her (Lee and Tapp, 161). However, some adjustments in the beliefs and values of traditional Hmong culture are not seen as bad. With great hope, the Hmong will overcome their struggles and experience will continue to be recorded and shared with the world with great respect.

  1. Lee, G. Y., & Tapp, N. (2010). Culture and customs of the Hmong. Santa barbera, Calif: Greenwood. Print
  2. Moua, Teng. “The Hmong Culture: Kinship, Marriage, and Family systemes. “ Diss.
  3. University of Wisconsin Stout, 2003. The Graduate college of University of Wisconsin stout, 11 May 2003. Web 14 Nov. 2012
  4. Mccall, Ava L. “ Speaking through cloth: Teaching Hmong History and Culture through Textile Art. “Ebscohost 7th ser.90.5 (1999): 230-31. Academic Research Premier. Web 14 Nove 2010.
  5. Xiong, Yuepheng L. “ Chinese Odyssey:. “Hmong Histort in China. Hmong Magazine, Spring 1997. Web 21 Nov. 2012.