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The Hmong

The Hmong People of Southern China and Southeast Asia

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Hmong People Celebrate Lunar New Year In Milwaukee

Eight year-old Pajai Vanj (C) from Milwaukee watches a dance group at the Hmong New Year Celebration at the Wisconsin State Fair December 11, 2004 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

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Updated February 06, 2014
Members of the Hmong ethnic group have lived in the mountains and hills of Southern China and Southeast Asia for thousands of years, though the Hmong have never had their own country. In the 1970s, many Hmong were recruited by the United States to help them fight the Laotian and Vietnamese Communists. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong have since left Southeast Asia and brought the intriguing Hmong culture to distant parts of the world. About 3 million Hmong remain in China, 780,000 in Vietnam, 460,000 in Laos, and 150,000 in Thailand.

Hmong Culture and Language

Approximately four million people around the world people speak Hmong, a tonal language. In the 1950s, Christian missionaries developed a written form of Hmong based on the Roman alphabet. The Hmong have a very rich culture based on their beliefs in shamanism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Hmong greatly respect their elders and ancestors. Traditional gender roles are common. Large extended families live together. They tell each other ancient stories and poetry. Women create beautiful clothing and quilts. Ancient rituals exist for the Hmong New Year, weddings, and funerals, where Hmong music, games, and food are celebrated.

Ancient History of the Hmong

The early history of the Hmong has been difficult to trace. The Hmong have lived in China for thousands of years. They gradually moved southward throughout China, cultivating rice from the Yellow to the Yangtze river valleys. In the 18th century, tensions arose between the Chinese and the Hmong, and many Hmong moved southward into Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand to find more fertile land. There, the Hmong practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They cut down and burned forests, planted and grew corn, coffee, opium, and other crops for a few years, then moved to another area.

Laotian and Vietnam Wars

During the Cold War, the United States feared that communists would take over Southeast Asian countries, endangering American economic and political interests. In the 1960s, American troops were sent to Laos and Vietnam. The Hmong terribly feared how their lives would change if Laos became communist, so they agreed to help the American military. American troops trained and equipped 40,000 Hmong men, who rescued American pilots, blocked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and learned enemy intelligence. Thousands of Hmong became casualties. The Laotian and North Vietnamese communists won the wars and the Americans left the region, making the Hmong feel abandoned. To avoid retribution from the Laotian communists for aiding the Americans, thousands of Hmong walked through the Laotian mountains and jungles and across the Mekong River to squalid refugee camps in Thailand. The Hmong had to endure hard labor and disease in these camps and rely on aid donations from foreign countries. Some Thai officials have tried to forcibly return Hmong refugees to Laos, but international organizations like the United Nations work to ensure that Hmong human rights are not violated in either country.

Hmong Diaspora

Thousands of Hmong were evacuated from these refugee camps and sent to distant parts of the world. There are also approximately 15,000 Hmong in France, 2000 in Australia, 1500 in French Guiana, and 600 in Canada and Germany.

Hmong in the United States

In the 1970s, the United States agreed to accept thousands of Hmong refugees. About 200,000 Hmong people now live in the United States, primarily in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Cultural change and modern technology shocked many Hmong. Most can no longer practice agriculture. Difficulty learning English has made education and finding employment challenging. Many have felt isolated and discriminated against. Crime, poverty, and depression are rife in some Hmong neighborhoods. However, many Hmong have taken the Hmong’s strong innate work ethic and become highly educated, successful professionals. Hmong-Americans have entered a variety of professional fields. Hmong cultural organizations and media (especially Hmong radio) exist to enable the Hmong to become successful in modern-day America and preserve their ancient culture and language.

Hmong Past and Future

The Hmong of Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas are strongly independent, hard-working, resourceful, courageous people who value their past trials. The Hmong sacrificed their lives, homes, and normalcy in an effort to save Southeast Asia from communism. Many Hmong have resettled far from their homeland, but the Hmong will undoubtedly survive and both assimilate into the modern world and maintain their ancient beliefs.

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