Who Are the Hmong?

Part 1 of 3

Join us over the next three weeks as we explore this fascinating people group, the incredible revival occurring in their midst, and their ongoing need for God’s Word and Christian material.

Listeners in one particular Hmong village inside Laos in the mid-1950’s were responsive to Christian messages [over the radio], but being illiterate, had no idea how to communicate with the Vientiane Post Office box given on the program. The chief of the village, therefore, sent a delegation down several days’ walk to the capital, to the main post office, where they inquired if there was a religious man associated with a particular mail box. Postal officials did not understand the request and referred them instead to a member of the locally established religious hierarchy, who sent a representative back with the delegation, several days’ walk return trip to the mountains. However, when the chief asked the representative to acquit himself in terms of his views, he was dissatisfied with the result and declared that it was ‘not the same’ as they had heard on the radio. He therefore apologized to the representative and sent him on his way back down the mountain. But the villagers were determined to make contact with the broadcaster. So, again a delegation went back, three days’ walk, down the mountain to Vientiane, where they gave more details to the postal officials, who then decided these people must be referring to a foreigner who indeed had a mailbox. This missionary returned with the delegation, preached the Gospel to the Chief and his men, and all accepted Christ. As is quite ordinary in Hmong culture, the Chief ‘gave permission’ to his village to become Christians, every one. And as a common response to a Chief’s suggestion, the whole village followed suit. [1]

Numerous stories such as this have been trickling out of Southeast Asia over the last 60 years as the Hmong have been particularly responsive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of God’s Word.  They Hmong remind me of the people of Athens in Acts 17; They are reaching for a God whom they do not yet know, yet know they need him and that he has the answers:

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
— (Acts 17:22-28, NIV, 2011)

Background

  Photo: White Hmong mother and daughter in Ha Giang, Vietnam © Pachot | Dreamstime.com

Photo: White Hmong mother and daughter in Ha Giang, Vietnam © Pachot | Dreamstime.com

The Hmong’s story – and the reason why they have embraced the message of the Gospel and the Bible - is incredibly moving. It is like a modern day story of the above passage in Acts 17.

The Hmong (also known as the Meo or Miao in certain areas [2]) are a people group who form a sizable minority in the mountainous regions of southwest China, north Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma.  The rich history of the Hmong can be traced back 4,500 years through both oral tribal tradition and written Chinese history [3] [4]. Originating from the Yangtze plain of China, the Hmong were pushed out over hundreds of years through conflict with various Chinese rulers.  As they were pushed southwest, most of the Hmong population settled in Yunnan province in southwest China and eventually the northern mountain region of Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and China. A sizable population of the estimate 9 million Hmong still resides in Yunnan province, China, to this day even as the Hmong began arriving in Vietnam, Laos and Burma during the 17th century, and in Thailand in the early 20th century. [5]  

The Hmong divide themselves by ethnic affiliation (e.g. Black, White, Blue, Red, Flower, Clear Water, Mountain) with each subgroup differing slightly in language, lifestyle, and dress.  How these names were arrived upon and used is not always clear-cut, but at times does correspond to the color of the ceremonial costumes. [6]   Like many minority people groups in Southeast Asia, the Hmong are often labeled as barbarians in the countries where they reside.  In many of these countries, the government works to keep them economically underdeveloped.  Minority hill people are usually among the very poorest in very poor countries like Laos, Vietnam, and Burma; the Hmong, many of whom still live in mud huts with thatched roofs, are the very poorest of these minorities [7].   The Hmong also tend to be more geographically and culturally isolated compared to other ethnic minorities as their villages are situated at higher elevations (above 1500 meters) to grow the mainstay of Hmong agriculture; Poppies and the production of Opium.   The production of Opium as a cash crop is also a contributing factor to one of the greatest struggles of individuals in this people group – the addiction to Opium. This addiction, along with marginalization and ongoing persecution by governing authorities, has cultivated a deep hunger for freedom from bondage and the restored identity to their creator; the result has been a large turning of Hmong to the Christian Way, in what can only be described as revival. Numerous sources have estimated hundreds of thousands - perhaps even half a million Hmong turning to Christ.  Yet because of their geographic isolation and persecution from the government, the need for Bibles and Christian material in this great turning to Christ is immense; Biblia Global and its partners are working to meet the need, and you can help by praying for our work and giving towards Hmong Bibles through our Bibles for Asia Project.   

Next week, Part 2: The Hmong First Encounter Christ


Notes:

[1] Retold from the Miao Messenger, Vol.6, No.1, Fall 1997, by Hattaway, Paul, “Hmong Daw”, Operation China, (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2000), 626.

[2] For a further discussion on what is the correct terminology (there is no consensus) see the following two sources:

Lee, Mai Na M., “The Thousand-Year Myth: Construction and Characterization of Hmong”, Hmong Studies Journal, 1 (v2n2, Spring 1998).  Retrieved online 9/12/2015 at http://hmongstudies.com/HSJ-v2n1_Lee.pdf

Hattaway, Paul, “Hmong Be”, Operation China, (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2000), 625.

[3] Lee, Mai Na M. “The Thousand Year Myth”.

[4] Schliesinger, Joachim. Hill Tribes of Vietnam: Volume 2, Profile of the Existing Hill Tribe Groups (Bangkok: White Lotus CO, LTD, 1997), 81.

[5] Jaafar, Syed Jamal, “The Meo People: An Introduction”, in Farmers in the Hills; Ethnographic Notes on the Upland Peoples of North Thailand, Ed. Anthony R. Walker (Phoenix Press Son. BHD, Malaysia, 1975), 62.

[6] Cha, Ya Po, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & company, Inc.,2010), 17, 20.

[7] Tapp, Nicholas. “The Impact of Missionary Christianity Upon Marginalized Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1989, 93.