The Hmong (Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand)

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

Who Are the Hmong? A look at a diverse mountain people group in Southeast Asia, how God is working in their midst, and their great need for Bibles.

“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: Black Hmong in Southwest China © Lilizhoufox | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Black Hmong in Southwest China © Lilizhoufox | 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.  Join us over the next three weeks as we explore this amazing people group and their ongoing need for God’s Word and Christian material.

The Hmong (also known as the Meo or Miao in different 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, Thailand 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 called revival.

The Hmong First Encounter Christ

Photo: Black Hmong men In Southwest China © Lilizhoufox | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Black Hmong men In Southwest China © Lilizhoufox | Dreamstime.com

The story of the Hmong coming to embrace Christianity is tremendously compelling. The Hmong, like a number of other Southeast Asian minorities, possessed no written script for their spoken language and therefore had no books for much of their history.  It wasn’t until the British missionary Samuel Pollard devised a script to represent the Hmong language at the turn of the 19th century that the Hmong were able to begin reading and writing. The Hmong themselves had an oral tradition as to why their people had no written language – they had been given a written language and had been given books at one point in their people’s history, but it had been lost (or taken away in other variations of the story) because of the people’s poor choices.  Some versions of the story describe that the Hmong were forced to eat their books because of their hunger as they fled the persecution of the Chinese.  Even though their books had been taken away, a promise was given that one day a book would be given back to them – a book which told of the one creator God of the universe (Vaj Tswv in Hmong).  This story had been told before the Hmong had encountered any western missionary.  William Hudspeth, in his book Stone Gateway and the Flowery Miao wonderfully describes this:

“Before the Pollard script, books and a library were unknown. The great majority of these tribesmen had never handled even a sheet of writing paper or a pen.  They had heard that once upon a time there were books: a tribal legend described how, long ago the Miao [Hmong] lived on the north side of the Yangtze River, but the conquering Chinese came and drove them from their lands and homes. Coming to the river and possessing no boats they debated what should be done with the books and in the end they strapped them to their shoulders and swam across, but the water ran so swiftly and the river was so wide, that the books were washed away and fishes swallowed them.

Photo: Black Hmong Woman in Vietnam © Eermakova | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Black Hmong Woman in Vietnam © Eermakova | Dreamstime.com

This was the story. When the British and foreign Bible Society sent the first gospels and these were distributed, the legend grew – the once upon a time lost books had been found, found in a white man’s country, and they told the incomparable story that Jesus loved the Miao [Hmong]. Only the imagination can conceive what this meant to these hillmen, some of whom travelled for days to view the books.”[8]

Illiteracy has been one of the tools traditionally used in the marginalization of the Hmong. As they were given a written script for their language - and then received and actual print Bible – many Hmong accepted the Bible as the promised (or Golden) book speaking of the one true creator God. The Hmong quickly received Christianity as their own religion.  As many Hmong have experienced marginalization with the surrounding majority ethnicities and the ruling authorities, Christianity has provided an enhancing identity to their marginalization status, providing dignity and worth in a culture which counts them as lower than a dog. Said a different way, Christianity has provided an alternate way to remain Hmong without losing their unique identity by assimilation with surrounding cultures.[9] Christianity, and a relationship with the Lord Jesus has provided a way to escape the addictions many Hmong have found themselves gripped with, the addiction to their main cash crop, Opium.  Most of all, as the Hmong receive Christ and then receive God’s Word, the Hmong highly prize their physical Bibles as they receive it as the long promised book which they once lost but was promised to be brought back to them from brothers and sisters from over the sea.

The Recent Hmong Revival

Photo: Hmong Woman in Vietnam © Pojoslaw | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Hmong Woman in Vietnam © Pojoslaw | Dreamstime.com

The first White Hmong in Vietnam began coming to the Lord through a Gospel radio program broadcast into the country through the Far East Broadcasting Company’s (FEBC) Manila station in the late 1980’s by Hmong pastor Vam Txoob Lis (John Lee)[10].  There are numerous stories of Hmong living in North Vietnam coming across the gospel radio messages from the FEBC in their own language and being astonished at what they heard, as broadcasting in Hmong was forbidden by the Vietnamese government. These people heard the Gospel message about how they could be set free through Jesus Christ and that God loved the Hmong.  What these initial listeners heard and believed, they then shared with their fellow villagers and neighbors on a large, widespread scale.  An estimated 80,000 – 100,000 White Hmong eagerly surrendered their lives to Jesus in one year.  As the revival and listening to the FEBC broadcasts spread in subsequent years in Vietnam, China, and Laos the number of Hmong becoming Christians rose to the hundreds of thousands and continues to this day.

The Hmong Christians currently have three immense obstacles going against them.  In addition to being an ethnic minority – which entirely marginalizes them in the ruling government’s eyes – many Hmong also sided with the American military and CIA during the American war in Vietnam and Laos.  Additionally, Christianity is often seen as an American ploy to control people and overthrow the government.  The result: the Hmong have suffered tremendously and are considered the most distrusted and hated people group in these Southeast Asian countries. Yet the Hmong are still coming to the Lord in great numbers.  With so many Hmong coming to the Lord over the last 25 years, a problem exists which we see too often in our work in restricted nations: the great and growing need for Bibles for these marginalized and persecuted Christians:  

  • It is no stretch to say that the need for White Hmong Bibles exceeds 50,000 and the need for other Hmong groups is just as great.
  • Ten Bibles can be printed for $40 - $70 depending upon the Hmong subgroup we print for and the print method we need to use.

The Hmong are just too tightly restricted to get a total count, but we can say with certainty there are many tens of thousands of Hmong Christians asking for their first Bible.  During this time in human history, God has put us – western Christians – in the unique position to be the ones who can actually do something to help meet our brothers and sisters in Christ’s need either by helping to fund the Bible printing, or actually going and carrying the Bibles to these restricted countries.   

Photo: Flower Hmong women. Brian Snelson, Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Flower Hmong women. Brian Snelson, Wikimedia Commons

Getting Bibles to the Hmong can be a slow and tedious effort due to the security restrictions and many more Hmong come to Christ as we work to get already existing Christians Bibles (some of whom may have been waiting DECADES for their first Bible).  Yet the impact of a Bible for the Hmong is almost incalculable.  The reports from our contacts on the field are that when Hmong believers receive God’s Word and read it, their addictions to Opium are broken and they remain firm in their faith, even as they receive pressure to turn from Jesus from their non-Christian Hmong neighbors.  As in other restricted locations, one Bible is often shared with multiple family members.  Sometimes a Bible is broken up into pieces and shared with multiple members of a congregation, or even among multiple pastors.  This is one of the reasons why the print Bible remains the best means to meet the Hmong’s need for Bibles. Please pray for us as we raise funds for Hmong Bibles through our Bibles for Asia program. What part might you play in getting God's Word to the Hmong? Would God have you give or pray to help meet this need for the Hmong and other persecuted Asian believers*? 

  • Pray for the safety and strength of teams from Biblia Global and other partners who work to get Hmong Bibles into restricted nations. 
  • Please pray that the revival and remarkable growth in the Hmong church and that God’s Spirit continues to touch these people’s lives. 

Notes:

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

[2] For a further discussion on what is the correct terminology - Hmong, Miao, or Meo - see:

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.

[8] Tapp, 77 retold from William Hudspeth, in his book Stone Gateway and the Flowery Miao.

[9] Ibid, 89.

[10] Ngo, Tam, “The 'short-waved' faith: Christian broadcasting and Protestant conversion of the Hmong in Vietnam”, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen.  Retrieved online 9/13/2015 at http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/wp/WP_09-11_Ngo_Short-waved-Faith.pdf


*Your gift to Biblia Global and our Bibles for Asia Project will pay for the printing of Bibles to our Asian brothers and sisters in the hardest to reach places of the globe. Unfortunately we cannot preference gifts to go to an individual people group's Bible printing; we instead pool the money given to the Bibles for Asia Project to fund the next Bible printing for Asian tribes in greatest need of Bibles.  Printing costs are usually $3 - $8 per Bible and transportation cost are roughly $1 per Bible.