Going Global: Hmong Culture

Going Global: Hmong Culture

| By: Britten, Casey

Want to learn Hmong? Check out our class information and schedule at: www.fvtc.edu/global

The Hmong predominantly live in four countries: China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. There is also a huge diaspora of 300,000 Hmong refugees who left Laos after the end of the Silent War in 1975 in Laos, fearing retaliation and persecution from the Laotian government for supporting the United States. The majority of these Hmong refugees were resettled in the United States and by 2003 they had established a Hmong American community comparable in size with the current Hmong community in Laos. The rest of these Hmong refugees settled in Australia, Argentina, Canada, Germany, France and French Guyana.

Hmong population worldwide:

  • China: 3 million
  • Vietnam: 1 million
  • Laos: 500,000
  • Thailand: 150,000

Wisconsin has the 3rd largest population of Hmong residents in the United States, preceded only by California and Minnesota. Based on the 2010 Hmong American Partnership census, out of over 260,000 Hmong people in the U.S., 49,240 live in Wisconsin.

United States Hmong Population:
United States (total): 260,076
California: 91,224
Minnesota: 66,181
Wisconsin: 49,240
North Carolina: 10,864
Michigan: 5,924
Colorado: 3,859
Georgia: 3,623
Alaska: 3,534
Oklahoma: 3,369
Oregon: 2,920

Culture & Traditions:

The Hmong people are an ethnic group in several countries, believed to have come from the Yangtze River basin area in southern China. The Hmong are known in China as the Miao, a designation that embraces several different ethnic groups. There is debate about usage of this term, especially amongst Hmong living in the West, as it is believed by some to be derogatory, although Hmong living in China still call themselves by this name. Chinese scholars have recorded contact with the Miao as early as the 3rd century BCE, and wrote of them that they were a proud and independent people. However, after the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty attempted to impose several new taxation systems and continued expansion of their empire, the Hmong are reported to have rebelled. Many wars were randomly fought, and eventually many Hmong were pushed from China into Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The history of the Hmong people is difficult to trace; they have an oral tradition, but there are no written records except where other people have encountered them.

Hmong people have a culture built on animistic beliefs and a strong faith that after death the soul reincarnates as one of many forms such as humans, plants, rocks and ghosts. Death is often considered the most important time for practicing rituals in the Hmong community because without practicing the necessary rituals the soul will roam for eternity.

Modern History with links to the U.S.:

The modern history of the Hmong nation is long and complex. Hmong soldiers served in combat against the North Vietnamese Army and the Pathet Lao, helping block the Hanoi's Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos and rescuing downed American pilots. As inhabitants of the more mountainous regions of Laos, the Hmong people earned a special place in the hearts of American combat soldiers because of their strong support for the United States in its fight against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces

Little-Known Facts:

  • The clan (xeem) remains a dominant organizing force in Hmong society.
  • Hmong may not marry within their own clan group; a marriage partner must be found from another clan.
  • Traditionally, when a boy wants to marry a girl, he will make his intentions clear, and will "zij" ("snatch") her during day light or night at any opportunity that is appropriate. This is traditionally only a symbolic kidnapping.
  • Before "zij" a girl, the boy must first give a gift to the girl whom he wants to marry. After a couple of days, the boy can then "zij" the girl. If the boy has never given a gift to the girl, she is allowed to refuse and go back home with any family member who comes to save her.
  • During the wedding feast, no pepper dish can be served for it will make the bride and groom's marriage life bitter.
  • In the 21st century, Hmong people who practice Christianity may follow traditional Hmong weddings; however, some traditional rituals are no longer practiced. Some Hmong people follow both traditional Hmong weddings and westernized weddings.
  • When a husband dies, it is his clan's responsibility to look after the widow and children. The widow is permitted to remarry, in which case she would have two choices: she may marry one of her husband's younger brothers/younger cousins (never to the older brothers) or she can marry anyone from an outside clan (besides her own).
  • Contemporary Hmong people cannot be characterized as subscribing to a single belief system. Missionaries to Southeast Asia converted many Hmong people to Christianity beginning in the 19th-century and many more have become Christian since emigrating from Southeast Asia to the West. However, most Hmong people, both in Asia and the West, continue to maintain traditional spiritual practices that include shamanism, and ancestor veneration.
  • For followers of traditional Hmong spirituality, the shaman, a healing practitioner who acts as an intermediary between the spirit and material world, is the main communicator with the otherworld, able to see why and how someone got sick.
  • There are about 18 Hmong clans that are known in Laos and Thailand

Hmong Surnames

Hmong Clan Surname  Common English Spelling 
Faaj (Faj)  Fang 
Haam (Ham)  Hang 
Hawj  Hue, Heu, Her, Herr 
Khaab (Khab)  Khang, Kha 
Koo, Xoom  Kong, Soung
Kwm  Kue 
Lauj  Lo, Lor, Lau, Lao 
Lis  Lee, Ly, Li 
Muas  Moua, Mua 
Phab  Pha 
Taaj  Tang
Thoj  Thao, Thoa, Tho, Thor
Tsab (Tsaab)  Cha, Chang, Tcha, Chah
Tsheej  Cheng
Tswb  Chue, Chu, Tchue
Vaj (Vaaj)  Vang, Veng, Va
Vwj Vue
Xyooj  Xiong, Song
Yaj (Yaaj)  Yang, Young


Meet Koua Thao, Emerging Leader in Hmong Community


   Koua Thao

Koua Thao was born in the mountains of Laos and raised in urban Wisconsin. The son of a Vietnam Veteran Radio Transmitter Operator, Koua is the third oldest of six brothers and three sisters. He is now a family man with three daughters of his own. Koua is an alumnus of the FVTC Computer Network Specialist Program and a recent graduate of Lakeland College's Master in Counseling Program. He is currently the Multicultural Student Services Specialist at Fox Valley Technical College.

Koua is an emerging leader within the Hmong community. Recently he has completed FVTC’s Hmong 1 class to become not only an ethnic speaker, but also a writer. He will be learning Spanish in the near future to better serve and communicate with his Spanish speaking students. Although busy with his current job and three little ones, he still tries to find time to enjoy the outdoors and considers himself a part-time professional fisherman.

Koua’s motivation in signing up for Hmong classes at FVTC was to learn how to read and write in Hmong. After all, he could speak and understand the language. Koua says he also wanted to learn about Hmong history as he didn’t know it very well. He believes that young Hmong people, many of whom were born in the U.S., need to “go back to their roots” in order to build and better understand their identity. Unfortunately, many young Hmong people appear to reject their native culture, and the reason is often that they simply never had a chance to learn it or about it. Koua’s Hmong learning experience at FVTC brought him an appreciation of the wonderful uniqueness of the Hmong culture he had never had before, and it empowered him to be proud of his heritage.

Want to learn Hmong? Check out our class information and schedule at: www.fvtc.edu/global