Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands

By Lee, Mai Na M. | Hmong Studies Journal, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands


Lee, Mai Na M., Hmong Studies Journal


Abstract

This article consists of a book review of Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands, a scholarly work focused on the socioeconomic experiences of the Hmong residing in Northern Vietnam.

Keywords: Hmong, Vietnam, Borderlands

Frontier Livelihoods: Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands by Sarah Turner, Christine Bonnin, and Jean Michaud. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 223 pages.

Sarah Turner, Christine Bonnin, and Jean Michaud acknowledge the difficulties in obtaining access to minority groups in Communist Vietnam and China (xi). When official permission is granted, researchers are shadowed in the field by a state chaperone that hinders the ability to obtain accurate information from highland subjects who endure lowland prejudice and fear official prosecution. One can imagine that researchers also would have to watch the kinds of questions posed to subjects lest they unintentionally cause problems for them. Finally, the types of information from the field that is revealed via publication afterwards may also determine future permission to go back to local areas. Access is perhaps even more of an issue when it involves the Hmong who had played a critical role in the Communist victory during the Vietnamese revolution against the French (1946-54), but who have since been shoved aside by state policies. For these reasons, Frontier Livelihoods is a cautious but welcome addition to the accumulating body of knowledge about the Hmong who straddle the borderlands of Vietnam and China. This work of scholarship applies an "actor-oriented approach" to examine Hmong relations with two Communist states and eschews neoliberal, (neo)Marxist metanarratives in the process of investigating the complex ways that this ethnic minority group indigenize modernity and globalization (169). The authors analyze how the Hmong navigate state policies while negotiating for cultural and economic survival.

The authors deftly reveal how highland Hmong society copes with socialist conservationist policies by examining the production and distribution of four highly demanded commodities: the buffalo (Chapter 4), alcohol (Chapter 5), cardamom (Chapter 6), and textiles (Chapter 7). They trace the origins of these products from the Hmong highlands to the lowlands, across state borders from Vietnam to China and, to a limited extent (especially, textiles), across the globe into the upscale boutiques of New York. Along with the flow of these goods, the authors unveil how the manufacture and exchange of these items are intricately entangled with Hmong social networks, as well as how they give indications of Hmong relations with lowlanders, the state, and the larger global community. Although constrained by socialist and developmental policies, the Hmong did their best to be agents of change; they selectively accepted state initiatives, hence, retaining some autonomy. Agency was possible because in highland Hmong society, social capital took precedence over considerations for global profit. The Hmong overwhelmingly exploited clan and exogamous marital ties to carry out business activities. The Hmong cultural system, in other words, contains a barrier mechanism that guards against outsiders penetrating and monopolizing the terms of barter and exchange in the society.

The first several chapters lay the theoretical context for the research on highland minorities, and provide the historical background on trade networks in the highland zone from ancient times to the modern period under the Communist state of Vietnam and China. Chapter 3 focuses specifically on the recent conditions of the Hmong and on their relations with these two states from the period of collectivization to the time of economic liberalization (Doi Moi) in the mid 1980s. Collectivization was abandoned early on in the highlands, but state development policies in the 1990s, which were unevenly and inefficiently applied, have led to gender rights and wealth disparities among the Hmong. …

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