The Hmong, which means free, is a very independent ethnic group around Asia; the Hmong have a vibrant and interesting history. Their history and culture have now become intertwined into the country and places where they are presently living.
The Hmong originally came from China, but during the late 18th Century, the Qing Dynasty started to push them out of China into many Chinese border areas. Today many of the Hmong live in the countries along the Chinese southern border. There are many ethnic groups of Hmong. Most of the Hmong are farmers though many of them have recently started to be involved in the tourism industry.
The Hmong, also known as Miao, is an ethnic group that lives in China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Since the Vietnam War, many Hmong have also immigrated to the United States, France, Australia, and Canada.
Learning Hmong history has also been difficult as the Hmong handed down their history orally; Hmong was never a written language, though there is a written Hmong language today. Even today, many Hmong can only speak and not read or write the Hmong language.
The Hmong history is completely oral, so history has been left up to the older people’s memories and what they remember or do not remember. This means that having an exact Hmong history has been difficult to find or discover.
But despite this lack of written history, there are a few things that we know about the Hmong. Most scholars agree that Hmong is a minority group from China and traveled out of China to reside in the southern border areas around China.
In the late 18th Century, many Hmong were pushed out of the Yellow River basin in ‘China, where they settled. As China’s population continued to grow, the Hmong people were forced more to the border areas between China and Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Those that did not leave were persecuted or killed by the Qing Dynasty, the government of China.
Though the Hmong had no political affiliations, they were in open conflict with the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese government of China at the time. This led to the Hmong having mass persecutions within China, forcing many of the Hmong to leave their homes in China and settling in China’s border areas.
Dr. Kim Lacy Rogers, a professor of History and American Studies at Dickinson College and one of the most noted oral Hmong historians in the United States, did a lot of research on the Hmong. Dr. Kim Lacy Rogers wrote:
The Chinese grouped several ethnic minorities and called them all Miao. So in China, Miao does not necessarily mean that the group they are referring to is Hmong; the Miao be an entirely another ethnic group that the Chinese also called Miao.
But for many of the Hmong, their oppression did not stop once they left China. In many of the areas where the Colonial French were in power, the French government also imposed great hardship on them in the form of fines, taxations, and forced labor.
The Hmong King – Chi You
The Hmong are said to have a King named Chi You. This King came from the ancient Chinese town of Zhuolu, which is in northwestern Hebei province. To give you some perspective, this town is about 149 kilometers north of present-day Beijing.
Today if you travel to the ancient town of Zhuolu, you can find a statue of King Chi You in the town. The Hmong people believe that he was their King and that they are descendants of him.
The population of the Hmong
There are about 4 to 6 million Hmong in the world. The population of the Hmong can be broken down as follows:
|Country||Estimated Hmong Population|
|The United States||Over 260.000|
|Myanmar (Burma)||Over 10,000|
As you can see from this chart that many of the Hmong still live in China, with Vietnam being the country with the second-largest population of Hmong. For this reason, we can say that in the present day, most of the Hmong live in Vietnam and China.
As the Hmong in the late 18th Century were pushed out of China’s Yellow River basin, the Hmong settled in the border areas of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Many of the Hmong settled in Vietnam. This could be perhaps because Vietnam was closer to their homeland in China, and the culture and landscape would have been very similar.
But once again, in Vietnam, with the French and the Vietnamese fighting, the Hmong had to choose which side they would be on for this new conflict. Maybe it was in part because the French had caused many of the Hmong to suffer so much, so when the Viet Minh started to fight the French forces for the liberation of Vietnam from the French Colonial rule, many of the Hmong in North Vietnam joined in the fight to fight against the French.
There were some Vietnamese Christian Hmong that decided to side with the French. When the French left Vietnam for good, most of these groups were also forced to leave their homeland as they fled to South Vietnam. So even among the Hmong themselves, not every group and every community were on the same side of the war.
Because of their political associations, many of the Hmong groups have suffered over the years. Since leaving China, they are a group of people who have been forced many times to choose which side of the conflict they would be on.
Hmong in Laos
Perhaps there is no other country where the Hmong clearly made this choice as to what side of the conflict they would be on than the Hmong living in Laos. These groups of Hmong took on a very different role than their relatives on the other side of the Vietnamese border.
In the early 1960s, the U.S Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began to actively recruit, train and organize the Hmong people in Laos to fight against the North Vietnamese army that was fighting a war with the Americans. This was known to be a “secret army” of Hmong Laotian soldiers that was led by General Vang Pao.
It was estimated at this time that over 60% of all Hmong men joined this army. This secret army helped the American soldiers in a lot of ways, from actually fighting the Nothern Vietnamese to going into North Vietnam to rescued downed American pilots. There is no doubt that the Hmong made great sacrifices to help the U.S. Army during this conflict.
I have a friend whose father was one of these Hmong soldiers. In his home village, he told me that the Americans had set up a radar system in the village for the Amerian airplanes. The village’s role was to help control the American pilots’ radar and guide the pilots back to safety.
When the war ended, and the Americans left North Vietnam, his family also had to leave their home village. He was born out in the Laotian jungle and it took his parents several years to make their escape out of Laos.
They had to be careful not to be found and then be killed, so his mother would give him opium so that he would not cry. By the time he had come into the United States, as a small baby, he was addicted to opium.
The different Hmong groups
In Vietnam and Laos, not all the Hmong are the same group. Each Hmong group can have different cultures, festivals, and traditions. Some of them also have different religions, with some groups being Christain based.
Some of the more common Hmong groups:
- Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub or Hmong Dou)
- Striped Hmong (Hmoob Txaj or Hmoob Quas Npab)
- Hmong Shi
- Hmong Phi
- Hmong Pua
- Hmong Xau
- Hmong Xanh (Green Hmong)
- Hmong Do (Red Hmong)
- Na Miao
- Flower Hmong
- Variegated Hmong (Hmong Lenh or Hmong Hoa)
Many of these groups will dress in their traditional clothes, which will be the color of the group they represent. They will live in communities according to their groups.
The Vietnamese Hmong society today
Many of the Hmong are suffering today and being left behind in the current society. There are many reasons for this, but in large part, it is a circumstance of education and where they live.
Today in North Vietnam, many Hmong children may need to walk over 10 miles through the mountain paths to attend the nearest school. For many of these same children to stay in school past the 2nd or 3rd grade, they may need to spend their weeks at the school in a dorm and only be home on the weekends.
Because of this extreme hardship, many Hmong parents may choose not to send their children to school. Many of the younger girls may need to stay home from school to help take care of younger siblings while their parents work out in the fields. This lack of education, of course, adds to the Hmong’s poverty in Vietnam and makes it difficult for many of them to get a good education and get out of poverty.
In the mountain areas, many of the Hmong are living as they did for hundreds of years. It is not uncommon for a Hmong girl to get married at a very young age, such as 13, 14, or 15 years old. Many times the father would be about the same age or just a bit older. It can literally be a bit like children trying to raise their own children.
These young marriages can perpetuate the poverty cycle, as many Hmong will have large families. And they may feel like their children should also get married when they are young just like they did.
Especially in many border areas, Hmong girls have either been forced or have willingly gone into a place like China to be wives for Chinese men or are working in the sex trade. Many groups in Vietnam, including the government, are working hard to stop these social problems. But it can be challenging when many of the Hmong lack education and may feel that life over the border would be easier than at home.
The Hmong and Farming
The Hmong have always been farmers. But as they have been pushed about so much, they have been pushed into the mountain areas and mountain land.
When you travel to North Vietnam, you can see their houses dotted up in the mountain areas. This kind of farming that the Hmong do on the mountainsides is a tough and difficult kind of farming. They are usually growing corn on the mountains for pig feed. As this is grown on the mountainside, no machinery can be used, and it must all be done by hand.
When they cut down the trees and some heavy rains come, there can be land erosion and mass flooding. The farming life for the Hmong today is not easy.
Hmong and tourism
In many parts of North Vietnam, the Hmong have stopped farming as their main income and have started to work in the tourism industry instead. Many young Hmong are working as tour guides. Other Hmong are at the local markets selling some of their wares to the tourist who comes through.
Some Hmong will rent out their Hmong style houses for foreigners to come to stay the night in as a homestay. Others will cook Hmong food for foreign guests or teach them how to make some batik cloth.
This means that many of the Hmong in the tourist areas have stopped living their traditional lifestyles except to show this life to the foreigners as a part of tourism.
The Hmong have a vibrant history, tradition, and culture that they continue to pass down to their children. They are a minority group that has survived for thousands of years, despite having been pushed into various places over the years.
How did Hmong come to America?
The Hmong came to America, as many of them had no choice, especially the Hmong who lived in Laos at the time. They had chosen the side to help the Americans during the Vietnam War, and as the Americans had lost the war, they had little choice. For many, their choice was to stay and probably be killed or to try to escape.
Many of the Hmong escaped Laos and then entered Thailand. In Thailand, most ended up in refugee camps. Those who were considered worthy were then able to go to another country, with many immigrating to America.
But for many of the Hmong that immigrated to America, life was not easy them as they were essentially farmers who were now in a country and place that was very different than their own.
Are Hmong Chinese?
The answer to that is No; the Hmong are a minority group in China, but they are not considered Han Chinese. The Hmong is considered a Chinese ethnic group or a Chinese minority group living mainly in southeast Asia.