Hmong People

Hmong people (苗族in Chinese)originate from the high steppes of Mongolia and Tibet. Miao is a Chinese term, while the component groups of people have their own autonyms, such as (with some variant spellings) Hmong, Hmu, Xong (Qo-Xiong), and A-Hmao. These people (except those in Hainan) speak Hmongic languages, a subfamily of the Hmong–Mien languages including many mutually unintelligible languages such as the Hmong, Hmub, Xong and A-Hmao.

They migrated from China to Laos between 1810 and 1900. Having a strong desire for independence they rebelled against the Chinese attempts to control and settle them and they fled in successive waves southwards. During the Lao Civil war in the 1960s and 1970s, Hmong were recruited by the CIAs “secret army”, commanded by Hmong General Vang Pao. Hmong villages were relocated in free-fire zones and many died during these evacuations or due to fighting. When the communists came to power in 1975 tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand or emigrated to the US. Today the diaspora is a major economic factor in the province by sending high amounts of remittances fueling significant construction activity.

The Hmong present 6-10% of the total population of Laos and remain most numerous and concentrated in the east of Xiangkhouang. In the province the White Hmong, the Striped Hmong, and the Green Hmong can be distinguished. The easiest way to differentiate these groups is by looking at the women’s dress.

Hmong live in forested mountains between 800 and 1,500 meters elevation and in Laos they are categorized as Lao Soung, highland people, although today there are a more and more villages located in the low lands.

Hmong live in villages ranging in size from 15 to over 60 houses. They are not fenced and are organized by clan. The rectangular houses are on beaten soil and have one room without windows. The walls are made of vertical wood planks and bamboo and a thatched roof. Hmong are known for their knowledge of the forest, herbal medicines, and expertise in raising animals. Their agricultural system is based on rain-fed slope cultivation with slash and burn techniques. They live on ordinary rice, corn and vegetable production, swine and poultry, gathering, hunting, embroidery, and basket work.

Their religion is a form of shamanistic animism with a cult of ancestors and spirits, and a belief in three souls. Certain spirits protect the people within the village boundaries while others maintain their influence over the plant and animal kingdom outside the village.

Hmong women are renowned for their embroidery and weaving. Traditionally clothes are made from hemp and cotton. Batik, used only by Green Hmong for their distinctive skirts is a very long process. Before dying the cloth the pattern is marked with wax. The wax is then removed to reveal the pattern. The wax is applied with a batik pen and the design is completed square by square. Many geometrical patterns exist and they are passed on from mother to daughter. The material is pleated by running a sharp edged stone along the pleat lines on alternate sides of the cloth, and sewing the poles into place at the waistband. The skirts with many other items of Hmong clothing are also embroidered. Embroidery and applique is a social activity, a time for women to sit together and exchange views and news.

The Hmong New Year celebrations in December, starting from the 15th day of the ascending moon, are accompanied by numerous activities including top-spinning competitions, dances, songs, and bull fights. It is one of the main occasions used for finding a wife or a husband. The young men and women toss the makkono, a small fabric ball as part of a courting ritual. The throwing of the ball can go on for hours. During the festivities the Hmong women wear their traditional dresses which are adorned with intricate embroidery and silver jewelry.