H’mong – The People of Sophisticated History and Culture
H’mong – The People of Sophisticated History and Culture
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The H’mong people, officially recorded in international books as the Miao people, are among one of the major ethnic minorities of Vietnam and China, with a population of eight million worldwide and one million in Vietnam. The H’Mong hunt and collect forest herbs and fruits and are less focused on agriculture and field work.
Originally known as the Miao people as a whole, this group of people interestingly has different names. “Miao” (Chinese) commonly refers to those living in China, and Miao people that live anywhere else prefer to call themselves “H’mong” (in their language). In Chinese, “Miao” means seedling, a young plant rising from the earth. It beautifully depicts how closely this ethnicity lives to mother nature. But, “Miao” also sounds like “cat” in other Asian languages, contributing to many misunderstandings throughout the course of history.
A while ago, people from other countries (including the Cantonese people) tended to think of this group as a barbarian tribe living like wild cats in the mountains. Therefore, it has become an insult to use this term to refer to H’mong living outside of China. Please be careful not to call a H’mong person “Miao” anywhere else in the world, except in China.
From the Mighty History of Fire and Drums to the Declining Migration
Legends and burial customs have revealed the originality of the H’mong (or Miao people). Legends say that the Miao were a hunting tribe, originally from a northern area with six months of darkness and six months of light in Europe. Traces show that they moved to Siberia after the Ice Age before migrating to the south of China.
In addition, historians state that the original H’mong people were closely related to Caucasians, with light skin, silver or red hair, and even blue eyes. Long ago, Chinese authorities classified H’mong people into two groups: Domestic Miao and Wild Miao. Domestic Miao were those who lived and bred together with the Chinese people, therefore their original appearance was genetically saturated.
Now, let us dive into more details: the might, the magic, and the romance of H’mong history and culture.
The Wild Miao on the other hand were suppressed and pushed to live in the wild mountains. They were gradually terminated for their bravery, because they stood up and fought for their freedom for thousands of years. In the 17th century, missionaries from Europe came into contact with them in Sichuan for the first time and were dazed by the Wild Miao’s Caucasian-like appearance. Even the rituals of the H’mong burial nowadays are about guiding the spirit of the dead to their ancestors, to a northern land of snow and darkness.
Through the course of history, the Miao were considered as the very first invaders of China and there have been a lot of wars and massacres between the Chinese and the Miao from the first Chinese empire to the last dynasty of Qing. Even in the eighth century, the Miao joined the alliance of five other ethnicities and founded their own country. They struck fear in the enemy’s hearts with their furious warriors wearing silver armor and buffalo-horned helmets, followed by mighty drum beats. Fire and blood covered their trails as the army of the H’mong roamed the battlefield. They invaded many surrounding countries, made their way south and started to inhabit new lands. This marked their first appearance in Vietnam and many other southeastern Asian countries.
But the mighty country did not stand for long before becoming suppressed by the Chinese again. For a thousand years more, up until the end of the 19th century, the Chinese forced the Miao to migrate to the high mountains and stay away from civilization.
In the modern history of the 20th century, the H’mong have contributed a lot to the liberation of the Vietnamese against the French and the Americans, and later became part of the 54 ethnic brothers and sisters living in the country of Vietnam.
Traditions and Customs of the H’mong People in Sapa
The H’mong are the people of etiquette and hospitality, they pay great attention to treating their visiting guests extremely warmly and well. If you have the chance to enter a H’mong home, they will try their best to provide you the best experience. Usually they will butcher one of their livestock to make a feast to treat you, for example a chicken made into a whole range of dishes.
There are two things that you must note when attending a H’mong feast: the chicken (or duck) ritual, and do not overeat. The chicken ritual shares many similar characteristics with how to share a chicken with a northern Vietnamese family. The chicken head is for the eldest, and the legs are for the kids. But there is one difference: the chicken’s heart. In a H’mong treat, the chicken heart is shared between the host and the guest, followed with a toast with a local alcoholic drink. This act pays respect and shows hospitality to guests, but worry not, you can refuse, and they will not look down on you. Also you must eat at a good pace, because over-eating is considered a serious insult in H’mong culture.
The H’mong have one of the most ridiculous marriage customs in the world. Back in the day, a H’mong woman had no right to choose her own partner because of a ritual called “Wife-Snatching”.
The marriage season takes place in the springtime, right after the H’mong New Year. A man who wants to marry must find a way to snatch his prospective wife to his home, without being caught by her parents. The man’s parents will then butcher a chicken and make a charm to offer to the H’mong ancestors, forming an unbreakable and undeniable vow between the couple. After three days, both the man and the woman return to the bride’s home, bringing offerings of jewelry, food and money to complete the ritual.
The bride’s parents have no way to reject the marriage, according to the H’mong norms. The man has to stay at the woman’s home for one night before both of them can settle down in their new home. The wedding must occur, but it is not necessary until the newlywed family has enough money to support the wedding expenses. The couple can have a child before the wedding.
As crude as it sounds, this ritual eliminates the wish of the girl to marry the one she loves. This means a random guy can show up during the night and snatch her away, and there is nothing she or her family can do. The government has put a lot of effort into changing the ritual while still maintaining its uniqueness. Nowadays, the H’mong marriage has adopted Viet customs, where it takes more time for a couple to get to know each other, and the girl can choose to marry anyone she wants to. Then, the customs either proceed as they would in a normal Viet wedding, or the couple can plan a snatch with the approval of both families.
H’mong New Year
The H’mong people celebrate their own New Year festival, according to their own calendar. It usually falls during the eleventh month of the Lunar calendar (late January) and lasts for 15 days. This is the most important festival of the year for them, symbolizing the start of something new and good harvest for the coming year. However, it does not have an exact date. The date of New Year’s Day is only revealed two months prior to the celebration, and the festival is organized rather subtly. They join with the Vietnamese New Year months later, when all the ethnicities also celebrate together.
Nevertheless, this is still a major festival. Visitors who are visiting Sapa during this time can enjoy various traditional musical shows that embody H’mong customs. Women and girls dress up in traditional costumes, wearing silver necklaces and diadems (not to mention, the H’mong are the masters of silver craft). You can take pictures with people in costume and get to know the different stories behind every symbol. You will learn a lot because they actually speak English and French really well!
Other festive attractions also include horse racing and bull fighting, and you can have a taste of the best H’mong wine and smoked bacon of the year. This is also the time of the year when people from many villages gather together and share their memories of the last year. So, you should look forward and plan your trip to Sapa during this interesting holiday of H'mong.