Hmong customs and culture

Hmong customs and culture

The Hmong people are a minority ethnic group in several countries, believed by some researchers to be from the Yellow Basin area in China. The Hmong are known in China as the "Miao", a designation that embraces several different ethnic groups. There is debate about usage of this term, especially amongst Hmong living in the West, as it is believed by some to be derogatory, although Hmong living in China still call themselves by this name. Chinese scholars have recorded contact with the Miao as early as the 3rd Century BCE, and wrote of them that they were a proud and independent people. However, after the Han Chinese attempted to impose several new taxation systems and continued expansion of their empire, the Hmong are reported to have rebelled. Many wars were fought, and eventually many Hmong were pushed from China into Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The history of the Hmong people is difficult to trace; they have an oral tradition, but there are no written records except where other people have encountered them. Hmong history has been passed down through legends and ritual ceremonies from one generation to another.

However, throughout the recorded history, the Hmong have remained identifiable as Hmong because they have maintained their own language, customs, and ways of life while adopting the ways of the country in which they live. In the 1960s and '70s many Hmong were secretly recruited by the American CIA to fight against communism during the Vietnam War. After American armed forces pulled out of Vietnam, a communist regime took over in Laos, and ordered the prosecution and re-education of all those who had fought against its cause during the war. Whilst many Hmong are still left in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China (which houses one of the biggest Hmong populations in the world, 5 million), since 1975 many Hmong have fled Laos in terror. Housed in Thai refugee camps during the 1980s, many have resettled in countries such as the United States, French Guiana, Australia, France, Germany, as well as some who have chosen to stay in Thailand in hope of returning to their own land. In the United States, new generations of Hmong are gradually assimilating into American society while being taught Hmong culture and history by their elders. Many fear that as the older generations pass on, the knowledge of the Hmong among Hmong-Americans will die as well.

ocial organization

Clan ("xeem") remains a dominant organizing force in Hmong society. There are about eighteen Hmong clans, each of which traces its lineage to a single male ancestor. [ [ Hmongcenter.Org ] ] Clan membership is inherited upon birth or transferred through marriage, but also occasionally through adoption. All children are members of the father’s clan, through which they will trace their ancestors, at birth. Women become members of their husband's clan upon marriage but often retain the clan name of their father. Members of the same clan consider each other to be "kwv tij", translated as "brothers" or "siblings," and they are expected to offer one another mutual support. [ [ The Hmong ] ] Clan leaders are responsible for conflict negotiation and the maintenance of religious rituals. Members of a clan who share the same ritual practices may identify as a group on the sub-clan level.


Clan groups are exogamous: that is, Hmong may not marry within their own clan group; a marriage partner must be found from another clan. [ [ Hmong Clan Surnames ] ] For example, a Xiong may not marry another Xiong. Traditionally, when a boy wants to marry a girl, he will make his intentions clear, and will 'kidnap' her from her parents' house. This is traditionally only a symbolic kidnapping: the girl is allowed to refuse to go. It should be noted that this is an old tradition that is rarely practiced today in many Western Nations. The parents will not be told, but an envoy from the boy's clan will be sent to inform them of their daughter's location and her wish to be married. When the girl arrives at her intended husband's house, the head of the household will perform a blessing ritual for the ancestors to ask them to accept her into the household. She will not be allowed to visit anyone's house for three days after this. After three days, the couple will return to the girl's family's house and they will prepare a wedding feast at the girl's house, where they are married. Hmong marriage customs differ slightly based on cultural subdivisions within the global Hmong community, but all require the exchange of a bride price from the husband’s family to the wife’s family. The amount is settled by negotiation of the elders of both families prior to the engagement and usually is paid in bars of silver or livestock. Today, it is also often settled in monetary terms. After the wedding, the girl will be given farewell presents and three sets of new clothes by her clan. She will also be given food for the journey. The couple leaves the wife's house and returns to his house where another party is held in celebration.

When a husband dies, it is his clan's responsibility to take care of the widow and children. The widow is permitted to remarry, in which case she would have two choices: she may marry one of her husband's younger brothers/ younger cousins or she can marry anyone from the outside clan. If she chooses to get re-married, the children are not required to stay unless the husband's brother and his family are willingly to take care of the children. Then once they go to the step-father's side of the family there's a ritual ceremony where they will bring the kids into their spiritually clan.

Polygamy is also permitted among the Hmong, although it is not generally considered the ideal form of marriage. It is almost entirely restricted to the wealthier class, who are able to afford the costs of the large families that result. In the usual arrangement for this kind of marriage, the man lives with all his wives under the same roof. Polygamy is increasingly rare among those Hmong who have migrated to Western nations.

Divorce is rare in traditional Hmong society. However, if a husband and wife do decide to divorce, the couple's clan groups will permit a divorce, in which case the bride price must be returned to the husband’s family. By tradition, the man will get custody of all the male children regardless of the circumstances surrounding the divorce. If it is determined the woman had committed adultery, the husband will get custody of all the children; otherwise the wife will get custody of the female children. If a divorced man dies, custody of any male children then passes to his clan group.

Traditional gender roles

There are traditional gender roles in Hmong society. A man's duty involves family leadership and the provision for the physical and spiritual welfare of his family. Husbands consult wives before making major decisions regarding family affairs, but the husband is seen as the Head of the House who announces the decision. Hmong women are responsible for nurturing the children, preparing meals, feeding animals, and sharing in agricultural labor. Traditionally, Hmong women eat meals only after the Hmong men have eaten first, especially if there are guests present in the house.


Contemporary Hmong people cannot be characterized as subscribing to single belief system. Missionaries to Southeast Asia converted many Hmong people to Christianity beginning in the 19th-century and many more have become Christian since immigrating from Southeast Asia to the West. Many Hmong people, both in Asia and the West, perpetuate traditional spiritual practices that include animism and ancestor worship. [ [ The Hmong ] ] According to these beliefs, spirits inhabit animals and other natural objects, but also domestic features, such as doorways. The spirits of deceased ancestors are also thought to influence welfare and health of the living. Individuals perform rituals and supply offerings, including food and spirit money, to appease the spirits and earn their favor.

Each person is thought to have several souls (between three and seven, depending on the tradition.) [ p. 59] Some souls have specific roles. The main soul is reincarnated after death while another soul returns to the home of the ancestors. Another soul stays near the grave of the deceased. The souls of the living can fall into disharmony and may even leave the body. The loss of a soul or souls ("poob plig") can cause serious illness. A soul calling ceremony ("hu plig") can be performed by elders within the community to entice the soul home with chanting and offerings of food. Soul callings can also be performed to encourage good fortune or after the birth of a baby.


For followers of traditional Hmong spirituality, the shaman is a healing practitioner who acts as an intermediary between the spirit and material world. Treatment might include herbal remedies or sacrifices of spirit money or animals. In cases of serious illness, the shaman enters a trance and travels through the spirit world to discern the cause and remedy of the problem, usually involving the loss of a soul.

This ceremony, called "ua neeb", consists of several parts. The first part of the process is "ua neeb Saib": looking to see if the soul has simply lost its way home. If this is the case, the shaman can lead the soul home, called "simple soul recovery" ("ua neeb saib xwb").

However, if during "ua neeb Saib" the shaman observes something seriously wrong with the individual, such as a soul having lost its way home and got caught by some evil being, the shaman will end the first part of the ceremony process by negotiating or pleading with the evil being ("whoever that has control of this individual soul") to release the soul; most of the time this will do. After that, the shaman would lead the soul to its home. Nonetheless, if the first attempt of negotiating pleas and offers to the evil being does not go well, the shaman will have another chance by negotiating with the evil being to make some kind of agreement or deal. Again, most of the time, this second offer will suffice, and if the ill individual recovers his or her soul then that person will offer the evil being some kind of life form in return. Most of the time will be an unlucky chicken or pig. On the evil being's part, it has the choice of accepting or denying the offer by the shaman. If the shaman's offer is accepted, which more than likely will be the case, the shaman will end the first part of the ceremony at this stage and tell the family to wait for whatever interval of the shaman and the evil being have agreed to, normally a month to three months.

After that period, if the sick individual becomes well, then the second part of the ceremony, referred to as "ua neeb kho", will be performed in which they send those life forms (chicken or pig) to the evil being. This part of the ceremony will take a bit longer then the first part.

Not everyone gets to become a shaman; they will need to be called upon by their faith. However, there is a chance for an individual to become shaman if shaman practice has been part of their family history. [ p. 62] This is due to the belief that ancestral spirits, including the spirits of shamans, are reincarnated into the same family tree. Hmong consider it an honor to be a shaman and to carry the duty of helping mankind according to Hmong mythology.

Hmong New Year

The Hmong New Year celebration is a cultural tradition that takes place annually in select areas where large Hmong communities exist and in a modified form where smaller communities coaggulate. During the New Year's celebration, Hmong dress in traditional clothing and enjoy Hmong traditional foods, dance, music, bull fights, and other forms of entertainment. Hmong New Year celebrations preserve Hmong ethnic traditions and culture, and may also serve to educate those who have interest in Hmong tradition. Hmong New Year celebrations frequently occur in November and December (traditionally at the end of the harvest season when all work is done), serving as a thanksgiving holiday for the Hmong people.

Historically, the Hmong New Year celebration was created to give thanks to ancestors and spirits as well as to welcome in a new beginning. Traditionally, the celebration lasts for ten days, has been shortened in America due to the difference between the traditional Hmong farming schedule and that of the American 40-hr work week schedule. It has also served the double purpose of a convenient meeting place and time for the Hmong leadership, from the days of China even until now.

During the Hmong New Year celebration, the Hmong ball tossing game "pov pob" is a common activity for adolescents. Boys and girls form two separate lines in pairs that are directly facing one another. Girls can ball toss with other girls or boys, but boys cannot ball toss with other boys. It is also taboo to toss the ball to someone of the same clan. The pairs toss a cloth ball back and forth, until one member drops the ball. If a player drops or misses the ball, an ornament or item is given to the opposite player in the pair. Ornaments are recovered by singing love songs (hais kwv txhiaj) to the opposite player. [] but in recent times, in such areas as China, the young lovers have been seen to carry tape players to play their favorite love songs for one another.

ee also

Hmong textile art
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a book by Anne Fadiman about the cultural and religious comparisons and misunderstandings between a Hmong refugee family and the California health care system.


External links

* [ My big, fat Hmong wedding]
* [ Lecture on Hmong shamanism] by Txongpao Lee, Executive Director of Hmong Cultural Center in Saint Paul, MN (11 min.)

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