Hmong hill tribe - History and Culture
Table of Contents
The Hmong people in Thailand
Origins of the Hmong
The Hmong Hill Tribe originally comes from Southern China. During the 18th-century, the conflict between the Hmong and newly arrived Han settlers increased. The Qing dynasty imposed repressive economic and cultural reforms on the Hmong people, which led to the Hmong rebellion (1795-1806). This led to large-scale migrations of Hmong people from their homeland to the south and, eventually, to Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. By the end of the 19th century, the first Hmong villages were established in Northern Thailand.
The Hmong in LaosThe Geneva Accords of 1954 established Laos as an independent country. In 1960 though, civil war broke out in Laos. The Royal Lao Army, supported by the United States, fought against the Pathet Lao. These were insurgents, supported by the North Vietnamese communists. In 1962 another peace conference took place in Geneva. It produced a Declaration on Laos’ Neutrality and a Lao coalition government of pro-American, pro-Communist, and neutral factions. The US, China, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam, and the Royal Government of Laos were all signatories and other countries. The United States, the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, and the Pathet Lao broke the agreement almost immediately. This set the tone for a “secret war” or ‘”covert war.” The CIA funded the Hmong people to fight the war against the Pathet Lao on behalf of the United States. After the Pathet Lao won the war and took over in 1975, they persecuted the Hmong people. Many Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand and were eventually resettled in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
Where do they live?
Laos, Vietnam, and China have very sizable Hmong hill tribe populations. Many Hmong live in the United States, with large Hmong populations in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin. I remember seeing Hmong people in traditional dress selling flowers at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington State.
They live in the least thirteen provinces in North and Central Thailand. About 75% live in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phetchabun, and Tak. There are Hmong villages in Mae Hong Son, Phrae, and Nan provinces as well. They are spread over a vast area, more than any other tribe, apart from the Karen.
In Thailand, the Hmong (ม้ง) are also known as Meo (แม้ว). The Hmong hill tribe has lots of subgroups. These vary in different countries. The subgroups in Thailand are the Black Hmong, White Hmong, and Striped Hmong. The Black Hmong live in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, Phetchabun, and Phitsanulok provinces. Their costume distinguishes them. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee-length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without a collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear a lot of jewelry made of silver.
The Striped Hmong live in the west of Nan province. They wear black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves. The White Hmong live in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long-sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions, they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front, which explains their name.
The Hmong language
The language of the Hmong hill tribe people belongs to the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) language family. In the past linguists placed the Hmong–Mien languages in the Sino-Tibetan family. Nowadays Western linguists agree that the Hmong-Mien is a separate language family.
Some helpful words in Hmong language
Hello(where are you going?)
Goodbye(come back again)
What is your name?
Ka yo mung two?
The Sang Loo
Yung dow dow (as in down)
Bay who djam?
Ma (as in mark)
Counting in Hmong Language
Traditional rice growing and gardens in the hills have made way for various cash crops such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and strawberries. They are substitutes for growing opium.
Traditional Hmong Hill Tribe Textiles
The Hmong embroidery is famous. In 2017 and 2018, we successfully organized textile workshop tours for Haute Culture Textile Tours to the Hmong village Ban Mae Sa Mai. If you are interested, please contact us.
These pictures were taken by Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours for Green Trails. To enlarge, click on the image.
The Hmong and the cultivation of opium
Just as gambling, lottery, and alcohol, the distribution of opium was a Royal monopoly. Thailand had many opium addicts and was dependent on the import of opium in the 20th century.
Terry Grandstaff argues that it is a common misconception that opium played a central role in Hmong culture. Rice is central to Hmong society and culture, not opium. Rice has been by far the most important crop for the Hmong. 1
Bill Geddes and the Meo
The Australian anthropologist Bill Geddes (1916-1989) researched in a Meo village in Northern Thailand. American anthropology student Michael Moerman contacted Geddes in 1959 to ask for advice concerning research. Geddes didn’t recommend Moerman to make the Meo the subject of his research for several reasons: “To reach this group that I studied, I had to walk 25 miles from the road junction and climb up to 6,000 ft. Supplies were difficult. The people did not have any surplus over their own requirements – in fact, they traded part of their opium to get rice. Therefore, all supplies had to be carried into the village.” 2
Also, the language caused a problem because it was highly tonal, and there were practically no writings in it. It had to be learned on the spot. Geddes wrote that the Meo are suspicious of strangers as the government had been showing signs that they wanted to suppress the growth of opium.
The Royal Project and pacification
In 1969 his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Hmong communities on Doi Suthep mountain. Since 1961 the Royal Family has a residence, the Bhubing Palace, on the mountain, which brought the king to the Hmong communities living there. He initiated a project to help the Hmong tribal people eradicate opium cultivation and start growing other cash crops. It was the beginning of the Royal Project that can be considered one of his lasting legacies. The project aimed to lift tribal villages and other disadvantaged communities out of poverty.
Baan Doi Pui
Baan Doi Pui is the most well-known Hmong village on Doi Suthep. This community attracts many tourists on day trips from Chiang Mai. There are a small waterfall and an extensive souvenir market. There are several restaurants, as well. The village also boasts a small museum about Hmong history and culture. Our one-day Opium Trail trekking starts in this village.
Hmong Hill Tribe Villages on Doi Suthep
The Hmong villages on Doi Suthep/Doi Pui have a turbulent history. It is not clear when exactly these communities moved into the Doi Suthep/Doi Pui area. The Hmong migrations into Southeast Asia from southern China have likely taken place in the last 50 to 100 years. It is a reasonable estimate that they arrived in Chiang Mai Province only in the last 40 to 50 years.
There are records of a few Hmong villages in remote areas of Thailand around the century. Still, most likely, Hmong first began arriving in substantial numbers several decades later. The first village in Mae Rim District in central Chiang Mai Province, for example, was founded around 1944. 3
What is certain is that after World War Two, many tribal people migrated from China and Burma to Thailand for different reasons. In short, Thailand was a safer place to live. There are ten Hmong Hill Tribe communities in and around Doi Suthep/Doi Pui National Park. Another well-known national park where Hmong people are living in the park is Doi Inthanon National Park.
Baan Mae Sa Mai
Baan Mae Sa Mai is the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. The village is in Mae Rim district, about one hour drive from Chiang Mai. The Hmong settled here in 1967. In 1981 the village became included within the boundaries of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park. Authorities allowed the people to stay, but their activities are restricted. Our one day Opium Trail trekking ends in this village.
Baan Khun Chang Khian
The location of Baan Khun Chang Khian is close to the summit of Doi Pui. Also, this village is within the boundaries of the Doi Pui-Doi Suthep National Park. Far fewer people visit this community than Baan Doi Pui. The road leading to the village is in poor condition.
In 1974 Indian merchants from Chiang Mai donated money to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej for a school in Baan Khun Chang Khian. The King named this school “Srinehru” in memory of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964).
Interesting links and other sources
For more information about sources on the Hmong people and other ethnic minorities in North Thailand, please go to this page.
The Hmong People in Green Trails tours
The following Green Trails programs feature visit to Hmong villages:
- p.70 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium, and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok
- Letter from Bill Geddes to Michael Moerman, April 24, 1959
- P.71 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium, and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok