HMONG SOCIETY IN LAOS
Northern Laos was very rural well into this century, with only a few sizeable towns, such as Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Phuong Saly, and Sam Neua (see figure 1). It is an area in which ethnicity roughly follows landscape and thus ecological adaptation. Ethnic Lao cultivate wet rice in the flat lowlands, while various groupings of tribal people live in the hilly hinterlands where they grow upland dry rice and a variety of vegetable crops using swiddening (slash-and-burn) techniques. The highest mountains most removed from the reach of the Lao state were Originally the preferred location for Hmong immigrants, who came from southern China and from Vietnam in the late nineteenth century to pioneer those areas.
How many Hmong lived in Laos before the Second Indochina War1 is open to guess. Dr. Yang Dao, a Hmong scholar from Laos, estimates that there were 300,000 Hmong in Laos by 1960 ( 1976: 24). Yang made a survey of 341 Hmong families, including 3,195 people, or an average of 9.4 members per family; he thus surveyed about one percent of the Hmong population in Laos--an amazing feat considering the wartime conditions. Half the Hmong surveyed by Yang were under fifteen years old. The age pyramid he provides, redrawn in figure 2, rises from a wide base in the 0-4 year category, with about 10 percent more male than female children surviving to age twenty. Between twenty and fifty, the adult male population falls significantly below the female, owing to the war, and then evens out past fifty ( Yang 1976: 25).
Photographs of northern Laos give an impression of vast stretches of tree-covered hills and valleys patched with clear-cut fields. This jungle is not tropical rain forest. At the high elevations where the Hmong live (above 1,000 meters), it contains not only teak, bamboo, and rattan, but also chestnut, oak, pine, and wild fruit trees. Rainfall in Laos averages 1.6 meters per year; in the mountains this often takes the form of persistent drizzle, according to Yang ( 1976: 16). Swidden farmers other than Hmong live in Laos, but at lower elevations, and most sources present the Hmong as splendidly isolated in their mountains.