History in Laos
IN THIS SECTION
Life in Laos
The Hmong in the United States, as well as those at Wat Tham Krabok, are originally from Laos. There, Hmong society has been shaped by life in the mountains, slash-and-burn agriculture, the practice of animism and ancestral worship, and a patriarchal family and clan system. War and dislocation, coupled with a long history of being an oppressed minority, have also altered the Hmong way of life. Yet the persistence of cultural traditions, in the face of forces to change them, is a well-observed feature of the Hmong. As William Geddes noted in his 1976 study of the Mong Leng of northern Thailand, “The preservation by the Miao (Hmong) of their ethnic identity for such a long time despite their being split into many small groups surrounded by different alien peoples and scattered over a vast geographical area is an outstanding record paralleling in some ways that of the Jews.”
Most of the Hmong in the United States come from Xieng Khouang, Houa Phan, Luang Phrabang, and Sayaboury provinces in northern Laos. Slightly larger than Utah, Laos is a land-locked nation of about 157,866 square miles in the center of the Southeast Asian peninsula, bordered by China to the north, Burma to the northwest, Thailand to the west, Vietnam to the east, and Cambodia to the south. In 2003, its population was estimated at 5.9 million.
On the western side of Laos, the Mekong River serves as the natural boundary between Laos and Thailand, with only Sayaboury and Champasak provinces situated to the west of the Mekong River. Laos is full of rugged mountains with steep terrains and narrow river valleys.
Laos has a tropical monsoon climate with a rainy season from May through October, a cool dry season from November through February, and a hot dry season in March and April. Rainfall varies regionally, with the highest amounts recorded on the Bolovens Plateau in south central Laos. Years of high precipitation can be followed by years of relatively low precipitation, causing serious declines in rice yields. Temperatures in Laos range from highs of around 100æ F along the Mekong in March and April to lows of 40æ F or less in the mountain areas where the Hmong live.
More than half of the Hmong in the United States come from Xieng Khouang province in north central Laos. An area of wild and rugged beauty, Xieng Khouang is a mountainous region famous for its karst limestone cliffs.
The mountains of Laos have provided the Hmong with forests full of game, land for farming, security from outsiders, and the relative freedom to run their own affairs. Yet life in the mountains has come with a price: It denies the Hmong access to many of the modern resources—educational, economic, and technological—that others in the country enjoy. The highland environment that provides the Hmong with a measure of independence can also trap them into lives of poverty and isolation.
In the mountains of Laos, the Hmong practice slash-and-burn, or shifting, agriculture, although they have many stories and songs about their past practice of rice paddy farming in lowland areas of China. Shifting cultivation is the reason for the Hmong’s semi-migratory way of life. With this technique, farmers clear a piece of land, burn the vegetation, and then plant crops. After several years, they move on to a new field to allow the old fields to reforest. In most cases, they move back and forth, recycling the fields they left many years earlier, so that their environment can be kept in balance and deforestation kept to a minimum.
Not all the Hmong in Laos practice shifting cultivation. Some have also practiced lowland irrigated rice farming. In his book Hmong at the Turning Point, Yang Dao discusses a U.S. government-funded project in the early 1970s that resettled 1,000 Hmong families to a lowland area where they grew two crops of rice annually, raised large flocks of ducks and herds of water buffalo, and developed commercial fish ponds.
While rice is their main staple crop, the Hmong of Laos grow a great variety of other crops as well. These include corn, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, cabbage, Chinese broccoli, parsley, tomatoes, squash, bitter-melon, radishes, cucumbers, and sugar cane.
The opium poppy is also grown as a cash crop. In the 19th century, the French colonial government encouraged the Hmong to grow opium to pay burdensome taxes as well as to sell to the government. Since then, Hmong have grown opium for the simple reason that it is the only cash crop that they can profitably cultivate. Since the Hmong live in the highlands, far away from cities and towns, they cannot transport their produce and animals to market. In contrast, a kilogram of opium, easily carried by a person on a two-day journey to an opium trader in town, can bring enough cash to purchase a year’s supply of salt, tools, and cloth.
Opium may be used by the Hmong as a medicine for the ill and a pain killer for the elderly. Without access to modern medicine, Hmong have traditionally used opium to treat diarrhea and chronic pain. It is permissible for elders who have successfully raised a family and are in their retirement years to use opium to ease their old age pains. Opium may also be used by the poor to escape lives of poverty and hopelessness. Thus, opium users in a Hmong village tend to be either the very old or the very poor.
In Laos, the Hmong raise many kinds of domestic animals, and it is common for a family to own at least one horse and a cow. Large animals are symbols of a family’s wealth and power, and a well-to-do family might own many horses, cattle, and buffalo, in addition to other smaller animals, such as pigs, goats, chicken, and ducks.
The war in Laos had a profound impact on Hmong economic life, as thousands of men left their villages and families to become soldiers. Many families were split up, with husbands serving in the war zone and the rest of the family staying in the village. In other cases, wives and children accompanied their husbands and fathers to the war zone and sometimes became casualties themselves. Tens of thousands of Hmong ended up in relocation centers, where they depended on U.S. government air drops for their survival. Many teenagers, some as young as 14, were recruited to serve in the army and did not have the opportunity to enjoy a normal village life.
While war disrupted traditional life and brought great personal tragedy to families, it also brought new educational and professional opportunities. By the war’s end in Laos in 1975, more than 30 Hmong students were studying overseas, with one having earned a doctorate degree, and Hmong officials were serving at high levels in the national government.
A typical Hmong village sits on the side of a mountain and consists of about 20 to 40 households. It is small enough to be in harmony with its environment, and large enough to take care of all of its own needs and to maintain the Hmong way of life.
Before the war in the 1960s and early 1970s, most Hmong villages were poor but self-sufficient and largely self-governing. Village problems and disputes were usually settled within the village by village elders. The village chief acted as the leader and the contact person between the village and the district administrator or government representative. The council of the elders guided and assisted the village chief, acted as judge and jury, and served as the means of social control in the village.
Before the war, schooling opportunities for the Hmong were extremely limited, and in a society where literacy was rare and knowledge was transmitted orally, the elders were considered the most knowledgeable members of society. Because their life experiences and knowledge were essential to the survival of the village, the elders were the ones that everyone went to for help, counseling, and guidance in the settlement of disputes.
A typical day for a Hmong family in Laos begins at about 4:00 in the morning or at the first crow of the family rooster. The oldest daughter and daughter-in-law are usually the first to get up. They cook breakfast, prepare foods for lunch, feed the animals, and clean the house. The husband helps his wife feed the animals and grind corn. After breakfast, the working members of the family will head to their fields, leaving the young children with the paternal grandparents.
Children 6 years of age or older may accompany their parents to the fields, doing what they can to help. Hmong children are expected to contribute to the welfare of the family. Children learn to baby-sit their younger siblings and help with other chores at a very early age.
After working together in the fields, the family usually returns home before sunset. On the way, they gather firewood and wild plants and herbs for dinner. At home, there are activities in the evening for everyone. Parents prepare the evening meal, attend to the animals, and make sure there are enough supplies for the next day. The paternal grandparents sit next to the fireplace with their grandchildren and tell stories. Many of these stories concern animism, animals, and the environment; others are about the past, such as when the Hmong lived in the valley of the Yellow River in China. Hmong elders also use stories to explain why things are the way they are—why, for example, the tiger has black and yellow stripes or why the bear has black hair. Outside, in the moonlight, men and teenagers observe the stars and learn to play Hmong musical instruments, while young boys practice the art of Hmong kicking.
When dinner is ready, everyone is called to the table, and it is time to share news and information. A family dinner usually includes rice, meat (boiled, fire roasted, or fried), boiled or stir-fried vegetables, Hmong vegetable soup, and sauce (chili or tomato sauce). Chicken, pork, and wild game are common meats. After dinner, young men may go to court girls in the village or in nearby Hmong settlements.