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Chinese Odyssey: Summer Program Offers Students Rare Opportunity to Learn Hmong History in China

For approximately the last six generations, an estimated 300,000 Hmong have come to call Laos home. Most Hmong know their forefathers emigrated from China but that's been the extend of their historical knowledge. Few know of such legendary figures as Chiyou, Tao Tien and Ba yue Wu. Due to limited written documentation, migration and sometimes forced assimilation, Hmong history is seemingly lost and remains relatively obscure.

But relearning and interpreting Hmong roots recently began at China's Xiangtan University in Hunan province where a handful of U.S. Hmong students attended a two-month summer program in ancient Hmong history and culture. The program included a month of intensive (6-hour days, six day weeks) classroom lectures and a month of field research to Hmong villages in southwestern China.

The summer program was initiated by Xiangtan philosophy professor, An-ping Lei. According to Professor Lei, the idea was born in the United States. As a participant in the 1995 International Symposium on Hmong People, Professor Lei discovered that Hmong in the States were particularly interested in learning more about their history in China. Upon returning to China, Lei and a group of Hmong-Chinese professors and research scholars founded a summer program at Xiangtan to share what they know of Hmong history.

Five students - Txianeng Vang, Cy Thao, Cziasarh Neng Yang (all from St. Paul, Minn.), Charles L. Fang of San Diego, Calif. and I - attended this past summer's program. According to the president of Xiangtan, we were their very first foreign students.

Professor Xin-fu Wu lectured on ancient Hmong history and reminded us that although Hmong history is richly unique, it will be rather difficult, perhaps near impossible, to put together all the scattered parts into one coherent piece. He acknowledged that this enormous challenge of uncovering the Hmong people's history is the duty and priority of Hmong scholars in years to come.

Professor Tong-jiang Yang, a 33 year-old Hmong-Chinese historian and author or co-author of more than 20 titles, took us as far back as half a million years, associating Hmong origination with the Peking man (Homo erectus pekinensis) whose remains were discovered not far from Beijing in the 1920s. However, Professor Yang agreed that Hmong history beyond 5000 years remains obscure and speculative. The term 'Miao" appeared in the Chinese Classics and early historical records such as the 'Zhanguo ce' ("Intrigues of the Warring States") and the "Shiji' ("Records of the Historians). After the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D., "Miao" disappeared from historical records until the Song Dynasty (A.D. 947-1279). The reason for the mysterious disappearance remains unclear.

Scholars seem to agree that the Hmong had gone through numerous dreadful periods in history in which the term 'Miao" also underwent some changes: from "Miao" to "Miao-Man" or "Man-Miao", "Wuling Man," 'Wuxi Man," or simply "Man," and then eventually back to "Miao". Whether the ancient Miao are today's Miao is debatable among scholars.

How did the term "Miao' or 'Hmong" come into being? Although the term 'Miao" appeared in Chinese historical records, the term 'Hmong' never did. What did they call themselves back then, "Hmong or 'Miao?'. The answer to this question varied from region to region. For example, the western Hunan Hmong call themselves "Guo-xiong". Those in eastern Guizhou call themselves "Amaot" or "Mo'. And those in Yunnan and southeastern Sichuan call themselves 'Meng" or "Hmong". They may indeed have called themselves "Hmong" as many assumed, but "Miao' is probably a name given to them by the Chinese, at least in writing. In his "Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The "Miao" Rebellion, 1854-1873," Robert Jenks wrote, "The most convincing explanation of the origin of the term 'Miao' is that it represented an effort on the part of the Chinese to recreate the sound of the word (pronounced 'Mong' or 'Mu,' as the 'H' is unaspirated) used by members of the ethnic group to refer to themselves."

Despite its obscurity one thing about Hmong history was clear to J. Mottin, the author of "History of the Hmong. "Of their pre-history only one thing is certain, that is that the Miao were in China before the Chinese, for it is the latter themselves who indicate the presence of the Miao in the land, which they, the Chinese, were gradually infiltrating, and which was to become their own country, " Mottin wrote.

Between five and six thousand years ago, the Hmong people lived in today's Hebei province, said Professors Wu and Yang. Their leader at the time was the legendary Chiyou, and his people were known as the Jiuli tribes. The ancestors of the Han Chinese, ruled by leaders Huang Di and Yan Di, lived to the northwest of the Jiuli Kingdom. As Chinese population grew, they expanded southward into Hmong territory. A major war broke out between the two sides on the northwestern part of modern-day Beijing. Professors Wu and Yang cited that according to legends and folk songs, "the Hmong won nine battles but lost on the tenth."

After their defeat, the Hmong emigrated southward into the lower reaches of the Yellow River where they re-established a new kingdom approximately four thousand years ago. The San-Miao Kingdom and its people were led by Tao Tie and Huan Tuo. Unfortunately, history repeated itself; the Han Chinese expanded, encroaching and taking over on what had become Hmong land. In the ensuing war the San-Miao Kingdom was defeated and "largely exterminated" by Yu the Great at about 2200 B. C., wrote Jenks. The Hmong then became disintegrated and lived dispersely in China's south and southwest corners."

After San-Miao," Professor Wu said, "the Hmong people could never be united again, and be strong as a nation." After the destruction of San-Miao, the Hmong continued to migrate southward into today's Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Much was talked about their living in the Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake areas, where the Chu Kingdom during the Eastern Zhou and Qin Dynasties encompassed. Many scholars, both Hmong and non-Hmong, argue that the state of Chu was a Hmong kingdom. If it was not Hmong, it certainly was not Chinese. Conrad Schirokauer, a published scholar of Chinese history, referred to the Chu state as a "semi-Chinese." Many researchers, including our Xiangtan professors, argue that the intact female corpse (died and buried during the Chu Kingdom and excavated from a highly elaborate tomb in 1972 in Changsa, Hunan) was Hmong because the drawings on her caskets and on the piece of silk covering her coffin are designs unique to the Hmong.

Based on the seal unearthed, this female corpse was named Xin Zhui, the wife of Li Cang who was the Marquis of Dai. Even after more than two thousand years, her body was well preserved and protected from decay by a set of four coffins carefully arranged inside one another.

Along with her body, over 1,400 cultural and funerary objects were buried inside the tomb, ranging from agricultural seeds, combs, mittens, stockings, shoes, gowns, wooden dolls, food and wine containers to zither-like stringed and reed-pipe instruments.

On top of the innermost coffin, there laid a splendid and exquisite T-shaped painting on silk. The painting details a person's three souls - one which remains to watch over the body, the second which goes in search of the ancestors and the third which just wanders. This belief in three separate souls and their duties upon death exist today. Having published a paper on this unique piece of painting, Professor Yang believes this old pictorial lends even greater evidence to the claim that the corpse and the Chu Kingdom could be Hmong. He argued that except for a few minor illustrations on the top left, the rest of the intricate illustrations coincided with legends and folk stories of the Hmong. Pointing to the wooden dolls, a tour guide of the museum mentioned that many visiting scholars argue that they are dressed in Hmong-style clothing.

Throughout history, if the Hmong people found any kind of peace, it never lasted long. They have been forced to emigrate from northeastern China into the country's southwestern corner. During the Qing Dynasty, several major wars further pushed hundreds of thousands of Hmong into Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.

The first major war during the Qing Dynasty erupted in 1735 in southeastern Guizhou province as a result of Chinese southward expansion and forced assimilation. Eight counties and 1,224 villages were said to be involved in this war. When the Hmong were suppressed in 1738, Professor Wu said 17,670 Hmong had been killed in combat, 11,130 were captured and executed and another 13,600 were forced into slavery. Half of the Hmong population were affected by the war.

The second war (1795-1806) was started in three provinces - southeast of Sichuan, east of Guizhou and west of Hunan. The Hmong were led by Ba-yue Wu, Liu-deng Shi, San-bao Shi and Tian-ban Shi. As in the past, this war was launched to resist the Chinese and the Qing government from taking over their land. The popular slogan at the time was, "Get back our fields. Drive the Han people and he Manchus out off our fields."

The last war was the biggest and longest of the three. As a result of the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing government demanded more taxes and labor from the Hmong. The Hmong, led by Xiu-mei Zhang and other leaders, revolted in southeastern Guizhou in 1854 and fought until 1873. In excess of one million people were involved in this war, which spread to cover hundreds of cities and counties. According to Professor Wu, only 30 percent of the Hmong survived the war. Seventy percent of them were either killed or ran away. Zhang, a native of Taijiang, Guizhou, was captured and taken to Changsa, Hunan where his life ended under cruel tortures.

While a major portion of the Hmong emigrated to Southeast Asia during periods of the last two wars, hundreds of thousands of Hmong were left behind in China. According to the 1990 Chinese census, there are still 7,398,035 Hmong scattered in Chinas southwestern provinces - approximately 3,686,900 in Guizhou province; 1,557,073 in Hunan; 896,712 in Yunnan, 535,923 in Sichuan, 425,137 in Guangxi, 200,702 in Hupei, 52,044 in Hainan Island; and 43,544 in other provinces.

Because of the many years of warfare and assimilation, the Hmong in China have been divided into five main branches - Hong (Red), Hei (Black), Bai (White), Hua (Flowery) and Qing (Green) Hmong. They have also been separated linguistically into three main dialects - eastern, central and western. One group cannot understand the other two's dialects. Fortunately, all three groups pay respect to the same ancestry, the legendary Chiyou. Legends, folk tales and folk songs are similar in many ways between the three groups. All of the different groups of the Hmong - in and out of China-have continued to practice the so-called showing the way or qhuab ke in Hmong, a funeral song sung to the deceased. Qhuab ke precisely guides the deceased individuals soul from his present location to the original homeland of his ancestors, tracing backward the migration route from village to village, city to city northeast towards the Beijing area. Besides written materials, Hmong scholars have recently used qhuab ke as a major source to help them relearn and interpret Hmong history.

Although their culture and tradition are similar in many ways, a few major cultural practices are different between those in China and those outside China. Unlike the Hmong in and from Southeast Asia, those in China standardize how a person is called. According to our professors and the Hmong-Chinese community, the Hmong traditionally call each other and oneself by the given name first, followed by the family or last name. Unless one is talking to Chinese people (who go by last name followed by first name), or putting down his name on official document, he would never go by the family name first. In short, inside the Hmong-Chinese community, one is always called by the given name first. On the contrary, a minority but growing percentage of Hmong from Southeast Asia prefer to be called by their last name first, followed by their first name.

Moreover, we also learned that the Hmong in China don't toss cloth balls during new year's celebration. Our professors concluded that the Hmong in and from Southeast Asia may have adopted this practice from the Zhuang or other nationalities in southwest China before entering Southeast Asia.

Our field research to Hmong villages in southwest China was an informative but a physically demanding one. Roads ended in the cities or nearby villages so we walked for miles crossing over mountains and valleys before reaching Hmong villages. There, we were shock to see how they managed to survive living in poverty in mountainous locales.

Experiencing only the natural spring water in Laos and filtered tap water from the kitchen sink in the United States, I could not believe how terrible their drinking water was. The water color wasn't clear but dark yellow. Young boys fished in it. Pigs and chickens are within its vicinity. People and animals take turn drinking from the same pond. That's how it is in many Hmong villages in the remote countrysides. They purify their water by placing limestone (zeb qaub in Hmong) into the bucket of water to separate the dirt from the water.

Educational opportunities are lacking in Hmong villages. For as long as it has come into existence, Hei Shan village, for example, has not produced a single junior high graduate. High school and college education are beyond their dreams. Most of these children drop out before or after fourth grade for various reasons ranging from financial inability to lack incentives.

Economically, the Hmong-Chinese remain undeveloped and backward. This is especially true for those in Yunnan province. Shortage of land for cultivation is their initial problem. Having no money to buy fertilizer to enrich the exhausted soil is another. According to village leaders, they are always hungry six months of every year. They said that if they have fertilizer, they would be in a much better condition.

The barren surroundings where most Hmong live accelerated our concern for their well-being. Most of them seem to give up on everything, even their dreams. A few have just began to develop and enrich Hmong society. A one-year-old committee of Hmong scholars and leaders was organized and is in the process of trying to erect a statue of Chiyou in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou. If this happens, this single statue may become a symbol of national pride, identity, unity and commonality for the Hmong people, regardless of where we're all living on the surface of this world.

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