Hmong Culture

The earliest written accounts of Hmong culture can be found in Chinese records dating from the 3rd century BCE. The Hmong are a minority and have spread all over the world. Their traditions have been passed down orally. The Hmong have their own language and customs.

According to Hmong belief, they are descended from a creator couple who made the first Hmong man and woman. The parents taught them all they would need to know to live according to Hmong custom. This couple has been referred to as the great grandparents or the spirit couple. The Hmong worship this couple, believing that they send newborn children into the world, protect the people from misfortune and illness and ensure prosperity.

Many of the Hmong live in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Their primary beliefs are that inanimate objects have spirits of their own. They believe that all misfortunes, such as death and disease, are caused by the supernatural. If one angers a spirit, misfortune will arise. Supernatural elements that can influence one's life include the spirits of one's ancestors. The physical world is only a shadow of the spiritual world. One person has multiple souls which perform different tasks; going on into the afterlife, hovering over the grave of the deceased, and protecting the descendants. These souls must work in harmony and retain balance, otherwise a soul may abandon the body, leaving the person prone to illness and misfortune. The Hmong believe that sickness is the result of a spirit trying to take one's soul away from the body. In order to protect themselves from these powerful spirits, the Hmong practice certain rituals to appease the spirits. The shaman acts as a mediator between the physical and spiritual realms. He will communicate with lost souls and direct them back to their original bodies. The shaman performs rituals and goes into a trance in order to communicate with the spirit world.

The Hmong place special emphasis on family life and community. The well-being of the community supersedes that of the individual, for the individual is a product of generations of Hmong. Multiple Hmong generations live together in one house. When one person marries, the new spouse is considered an addition to the family and joins the household, as opposed to Western culture which views marriage as a means of starting one's own family. When a young man sets his eye on a girl from another clan, according to Hmong tradition, he is required to offer her a present. If she accepts the present, he is free to kidnap the girl and inform the girl's family of his intentions. The male elders are the leaders and problem solvers for individual households and for the community at large. Clans are patriarchal by nature, with the men carrying on the family name. Wives are expected to devote their loyalties to their husband's clan. Marriage within the same clan is frowned upon, yet marriage within the family is permitted as long as the relative is from another clan. Members of the same clan consider themselves to be siblings, so marriage within the clan would be seen as incestuous. The woman is considered naturally subservient to the man, despite her powerful status as mother. Husbands may consult with their wives but in the end they make the real decisions with or without the wife's consent. The husband provides for the family physically and spiritually, while the woman cares for the children, cooks the meals and manages the home. Only the husband can worship the spirits of the ancestors, soliciting their protection and blessing.

Due to the lack of written records in the Hmong culture, customs are passed down orally. This oral tradition poses a threat for the Hmong way of life. More and more members of Hmong do not understand the meaning or purpose behind their practices and do not fulfill them correctly. Authoritative figures have flouted traditions, imposing their own views. Specifically in America, where alcohol is readily available, Hmong members overindulge in alcohol consumption at weddings, corrupting all the wedding rituals and blocking spiritual protection for the new couple. New Hmong generations are slowly assimilating to Western culture, while their elders stubbornly cling to the traditions. Socioeconomic elements have also affected the Hmong culture. In the United States, the domestic skills of the Hmong women are valued to the point that these women can financially provide for their families, thereby displacing the husband's role as provider. Younger generations, due to their grasp of the language and culture, are more likely to be employed than their elders, which can have negative effects on the communal hierarchy of generations. The Hmong communal priorities may also conflict with the individualism of their surrounding society.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America
Sucheng Chan.
Temple University Press, 1994
Hmong History, Culture, and Acculturation: Implications for Counseling the Hmong
Tatman, Anthony W.
Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Vol. 32, No. 4, October 2004
Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women
Nancy D. Donnelly.
University of Washington Press, 1994
Hmong Women and Reproduction
Pranee Liamputtong Rice.
Bergin & Garvey, 2000
Living with Separation in China: Anthropological Accounts
Charles Stafford.
Routledge Curzon, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Exiles and Reunion: Nostalgia among Overseas Hmong (Miao)"
Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China
Tao Tao Liu; David Faure.
Hong Kong University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Kings Who Could Fly without Their Heads: 'Local' Culture in China and the Case of the Hmong"
Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The "Miao" Rebellion, 1854-1873
Robert D. Jenks.
University of Hawaii Press, 1994
Hmong on the Move: Understanding Secondary Migration
Bulk, Jac D.
Ethnic Studies Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, February 28, 1996
Becoming American: The Hmong American Experience
Yang, Kou.
Ethnic Studies Review, Vol. 24, No. 1,2,&3, April 3, 2001
Asian-American Education: Prospects and Challenges
Clara C. Park; Marilyn Mei-Ying Chi.
Bergin & Garvey, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Hmong-American Students: Challenges and Opportunities"
Hmong American Concepts of Health, Healing, and Conventional Medicine
Franklin Ng; Dia Cha.
Routledge, 2003
The Mental Health of Refugees: Ecological Approaches to Healing and Adaptation
Kenneth E. Miller; Lisa M. Rasco.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Hmong Refugees in the United States: A Community-Based Advocacy and Learning Intervention"
Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain
Faye D. Ginsburg; Lila Abu-Lughod; Brian Larkin.
University of California Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Mapping Hmong Media in Diasporic Space"
Dress, Gender and Cultural Change: Asian American and African American Rites of Passage
Annette Lynch.
Berg, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "I Am Hmong, I Am American, I Am a Hmong American Woman"
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