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home : community : community Tuesday, May 24, 2016

11/21/2007 10:55:00 AM Email this articlePrint this article 
Dr. Gary Yia Lee Discusses the Origins of the Hmong

Amy Doeun

Dr. Gary Yia Lee, a resident of Australia and currently a scholar-in-residence at Concordia University, brings an international prospective to the Center for Hmong Studies. On Thursday, November 15 Dr. Lee addressed over 200 people gathered in Buenger Education Center on the St. Paul campus about the origins of the Hmong. Dr. Lee studied Hmong populations throughout the world.

Dr. Lee explained that there are 9.2 million people classified as "Miao" throughout the world. Of this number only about 1/3 of them are Hmong. The term "Miao" actually refers to 4 cultural groups, one of which is Hmong.

Dr. Lee explained that these 4 groups actually can't understand each other very well, "sometimes we can understand each other 60%, sometimes 80%, sometimes hardly at all." But the cultures of these 4 groups are very similar.

Of the 9.2 million Miao people 3.1 million live in China. More then 200,000 have come to the U.S. since 1975. Almost all of this group are Hmong. "We [international Hmong community] have high hopes for Hmong in America. You have a big burden of representing Hmong, knowing about yourself and your culture," Dr. Lee said.

Dr. Lee then went on to explain some of the various theories about the origin of the Hmong.

Mythical Origin

Dr. Lee said that much of this theory comes from the funeral song "Showing the Way" or "Qhuab Ke," which tells the dead person about the origin of the world. In the first "creation" of the world, there "just was" no reference to ethnic groups "just people." However, there was a great flood, and then a need for a second "creation" which resulted from an incestuous relationship between a brother-sister. At this point ethnic groups began to appear.

Dr. Lee said that Hmong thought they were the only ones with a story of a flood, but "shock of shocks there are 372 versions of this story of different groups in Southeast Asia. And it appears that every culture around the world has a similar story."

Biblical Origins

Dr Lee said this explanation came with a French Catholic missionary named Francois Savinna with the belief that all groups began in Mesopotamia with a Biblical creation. Savinna felt that Hmong folk stories spoke of Bible events; such as the story of the first man simply standing up from the ground and a little later woman came from the same place. Also the stairway to heaven correlated with the tower of Babel. It was this tower and the confusion of languages that began here that caused the Hmong to travel first north to Russia, over to Siberia and South into China according to Savinna.

Genetic Origin

Dr. Lee cited a recent study of genetics conducted by Bo Wien of over 500 people. The study isolated different genetic markers and discovered that marker 157 was unique to the Hmong people. This marker most closely related them to people in Southern China. The National Geographic genotype project says that people with markers 150-177 originated in Siberia. "But then National Geographic says we all originated in Africa" Dr. Lee said.

Linguistic Origin

Savinna also did a linguistic study of 239 words by comparing them with Miao, Man, Tolo, Tibetan, Chinese, Malay, Thai and Vietnamese. He grouped the first four groups of people as of Northern origin and originating in Tourane, a plateau in Northern Persia. The last four groups had a southern origin and originated in India.

However, more recent linguistic studies have found the Hmong language is more closely linked to Chinese. In 1987, studies found that there was "intimate contact between the ancestors of the Miao and Chinese."

Siberian origin

Based on incorrect translation of Hmong funeral songs, Savinna and Jacques Lemoines suggested a Siberian origin. However Dr. Lee feels that this could simply refer to the land of the dead and not a literal place.

Also Dr. Lee talked about the common belief that Hmong and Mongols are related.

Dr. Lee said, "I urge you to stop saying that we come from the North Pole and Middle East. And we are not Mongols."

Culturally, there are almost no similarities between the Nomadic herding culture of the Mongols and the Hmong. Dr. Lee said that it is tempting sometimes to speculate or use metaphor, but "it doesn't matter what you meant, it matters what the reader understands. Sometimes it is important we don't say anything because there can be all sort of misunderstandings."

China origin

Dr. Lee believes this is the only theory that makes sense. As such the Hmong would be among the indigenous people of China and be part of a long history going back 5,000 years. However, this would require an acceptance of the name "Miao." Unfortunately, accepting origin in China allows the "Chinese people to write our history." They only refer to the Miao. The term Hmong does not appear until 1911.

"History is written by whoever knows how to write it. It is science and art: sometimes more art," Dr. Lee said. "You are free to choose what name you wish to be referred to as and whether you want the long version (Miao version) or the short version (Hmong version). The Miao in China have chosen the long version. I don't see any advantages at all with just being Hmong. Long history has a lot of political meaning. We could accept to be both."

Dr. Lee's paper on the origins of the Hmong will be published in the Febuary 2008 issue of the Journal of Hmong Studies. For more information contact the Center for Hmong Studies at (651) 641-8870 or www.csp.edu/hmongcenter.

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