Prior to writing this research paper on the Hmong culture, I did not know anything about their history or beliefs. The only time I had heard of Hmong people was in the movie “Gran Torino. ” The movie revolves around a Hmong family living in Michigan and the cultural stereotypes and discrimination they face each day. After reading a few chapters in Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I felt it was necessary to take a further look into the Hmong culture for a better understanding of their way of life. I.
Hmong migration from China to various Southeast Asian countries The Hmong have not had the easiest or most simple life. After reading many different sources reporting their history, I couldn’t believe how many times they were forced to relocate. The Hmong originated as a culturally unique group from Asia. Their original homeland was Central Siberia which was where most of them lived. The first time the Hmong were forced out of their homeland was in 2500 B. C. The Chinese and other Asian groups conquered Central Siberia and forced its people to flee south into northern China (Moua).
Because of this, they resettled and started a new civilization on the banks of the Yellow River. Fortunately, their civilization was prosperous and successful until history repeated itself and the Han Chinese attacked them again for their fertile land along the Yellow River. The Hmong were faced with a decision to either fight or flee. They decided to fight for their land through a series of warfare but were outnumbered and therefore lost their land as well as many men. Consequently, the Hmong were forced to flee yet again.
This time, they settled in the southern parts of China in today’s provinces known as Hepeh, Hunan, and Hubei (Xiong). “There are approximately 8 to 12 million Hmong still living in this region of China” (Quincy, 1988). Throughout history, the Hmong people continued to face hardship. During the Qing Dynasty, three major wars pushed hundreds of thousands of Hmong even further into the Southeast Asian countries of Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. The first war erupted in 1735, the second in 1795, and the third, the largest and longest in 1854-1873 (Xiong).
II. Hmong migration to the USA In the early 1960’s during the Vietnam War, the Hmong in Laos were recruited and trained by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to assist the United States as a secret guerrilla force army. The Hmong fought directly against the North Vietnamese and Lao Communists. That same year, the American forces pulled out of Vietnam and in result, the Lao Communists came to power in Laos. The Hmong were forced to flee yet again. “As a result, hundreds of thousands of Hmong escaped the genocide of the Lao Communist Government.
This time they settled in France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West Germany, the United States, and even Argentina as political refugees in order to continue their peaceful way of life. Statistically, the majority of the Hmong refugees (about 200,000) settled and restarted their new lives in the United States” (Teng Moua’s personal record, 1999). The states with the largest number of Hmong immigrants are California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Yau). III. Hmong religion The Hmong are a very spiritual group of people.
They are animist/pantheist which means that they believe in a variety of natural and supernatural forces. Their world is inhabited by spirits and gods and they believe that their spiritual world has the capability to coexist with their physical world. Some of these spirits that influence their human life are ancestral, household, natural, and evil. If there is contact with a supernatural spirit, the Hmong believe that their life will be affected, either positively or negatively. Ritual ceremonies are performed to please ancestral spirits.
If the spirits are pleased, they will protect the believer’s descendents from illness and natural disasters. To maintain communication with the spiritual world, the Hmong refer to the shaman, who is a healing practitioner who acts as an intermediary between the spirit and physical world. The shaman is the main communicator chosen by the spirits and performs the rituals (Tapp). “While there is no standardization in Hmong religious rituals and practices, Hmong rituals usually revolve around the practices that their ancestors passed onto them.
Clan and lineage variations also are prevalent between and within individual clans as practices are traditional passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition” (Hmong Cultural and Resource Center of Minnesota). Hmong also believe in afterlife. With the guidance from Hmong musical performers during the rituals, the souls of the deceased will come back to their ancestors for reincarnation. IV. Hmong education and language Many Hmong have had no formal education. In Laos, public schooling was limited and in some areas, completely unavailable.
Even after Laos achieved independence, ethnic minorities such as Hmong were still denied schooling. It was not until 1939 that the first village school was built. Even then, only students from the wealthiest class were admitted. Once the Hmong arrived in the United States where they were free people, education has become a main priority. The Hmong have their own language, called Hmoob (Hmong in English). It braches into two main dialects: White Hmong and Blue (or Green) Hmong. The colors represent the colors used in traditional clothing of the different groups in the different regions of China. The Hmong language is one of a group of closely related languages of Southeast Asia and Southern China often referred to as the Miao-Yao languages. Besides being spoken by Hmong people in Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam, the Hmong language is widely spoken by the Miao minority in Southern China. The Hmong language is also related to the Yao languages which include Iu Mien, spoken in Laos and Thailand as well as China, and five other languages spoken by minority groups in the larger region” (Vang).
Because of the lack of education, for many centuries, the Hmong language was only an oral type of communication. There was no alphabet system, no written texts, and no literacy system. Culture and learning was passed down from one generation to the next from memory. Elders had the most knowledge, memories, skills, and abilities. Older Hmong residing in the United States often do not speak English and, because of the recent development of the written Hmong language in the 1950s, may be illiterate in the Hmong language (Helsel, 1993; Queensland Health, 2004; U. S.
Census Bureau, 2000). Young Hmong may be literate in English, but may not be able to read Hmong or Lao, though there is an effort in the Hmong community to teach young people to speak and read their traditional language (Lipson et al. , 1996). V. Hmong beliefs about illness and curing individuals Hmong believe that an illness is caused when one’s soul is lost, captured by evil spirits, or by having offended an ancestral spirit. The shaman will discuss with ancestral spirits who may have been offended by the ill person and see what the spirits want to ask from the living.
Shamans may bargain and struggle with wild spirits who have capture the patient’s soul or locate the lost soul and force it back into its body. When a shaman cures a sick person, he goes into a trance and veils his eyes with a black cloth to see the spirits. He sits on a bench and faces the altar. Then, he calls his teacher spirits to help cure the ill person (Lewis). Shamans differ in ability so when a shaman is unable to help the family, they will look for a more powerful one. VI. Hmong attitudes toward Western medicine
As previously mentioned, Hmong believe in natural and spiritual healing. Most older, traditional Hmong are opposed to Western medicine and practices. Not only does it go against their beliefs, but they also fear that Western medicine may be too potent for Hmong bodies to handle. People of more recent generations, however, are becoming more and more accepting of Western medicine and surgery. Hmong are also using a combination of Western medicine and traditional techniques such as massage, acupuncture, and dermabrasion (Yau). Reading about Hmong culture has been extremely interesting.
I was so surprised to find how spiritual they were. It saddened me to learn about the numerous times they were forced out of their homeland. It’s unfortunate that their people are so dispersed throughout the world, however, in a way it is neat that the Hmong culture is so prevalent in various cultures outside of China. Researching Hmong culture has been a big help in reading Anne Fadiman’s, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Now, I have a much better sense of the Hmong way of life and can see a different perspective on their attitudes and beliefs.