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Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia


Hmong (South-East Asia)

The Hmong, also referred to as Hmung or H'mong, are an ethnic group within South-East Asia. They form part of the wider Miao group which speaks Hmong, one of the Hmong-Mien languages which are also known as Miao-Yao languages. As a group they originated in southern China, and today for the most part they are now concentrated there with a population of about 2.5 million, and in northern Laos, northern Vietnam, and northern Thailand.

Substantial numbers also live in the United States of America and Canada, in French Guiana, in Australia, and in France and Germany. The were formed through at least two major waves of migration which began around 2000 BC, during a general drying of the climate which brought about the end of the Longshan culture. Early Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into the region between Early Vietnam and today's Burma to intermix with local hunter-gatherers.

Those events and many lesser integrations produced a people who bore a highly mixed ethnic heritage, albeit one which was initially provided by Thai migrants as they pushed southwards into South-East Asia from the eighth century AD kingdom of Nanzhao in south-western China.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD the Thai established the principality of Muong Swa (now Louangphrabang). However, this Thai influx into today's Laos displaced or subjugated several aboriginal groups which were already in place there.

The Hmong people were the later form for these aboriginal natives. According to the Hmong themselves, their earliest records date back to 2700 BC in China, with a claim of origination in central China. With the expansion of the Han, the Hmong were driven into southern China. Genetic evidence, however, indicates that it is more likely that their homeland was already there in southern China. The greater number of Hmong migrated from southern China into the highlands of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand in the nineteenth century AD.

The Hmong typically were farmers who grew rice, corn, and vegetables in poor soil, mainly without the help of water buffalo or horses. They practiced shifting agriculture, growing crops until the soil is exhausted and then moving entire villages, which usually were small, to other locations. According to some observers, centuries of contact with the Han Chinese induced them to adopt a more sedentary form of agriculture.

The Hmong have a patrilineal society, one which is organised into clans. Their migration into South-East Asia resulted in two cultural divisions: the 'White Hmong' and the 'Green Hmong'. Each division has its own dialect, dress, culture, and architecture, but the Hmong did not have a written language until 1956.

They also did not possess a central political organisation. The highest official was the head of a village. Occasionally, a shaman acted as a political leader, especially during periods of revolt when the Hmong believed in the coming of a messiah who would give them a system of writing. According to legend, the Hmong had lost their system of writing at the dawn of time.

Marriage customs require husbands and wives to originate in different clans. The husband's family pay a 'bridewealth', mostly in silver, to the bride's family. This payment is held as a guarantee against the wife's bad behaviour, in which case the payment has to be returned. Consequently there has been a high rate of suicide amongst Hmong women. Polygamy has been permitted so that males could have more than one wife.

During the Vietnam War (between 1959-1975), the Hmong worked closely with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when the Americans conducted their 'secret war' in Laos between 1964-1973. The war was eventually lost to communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong organisation in South Vietnam, triggering a major new Hmong diaspora as large numbers fled to avoid communist retribution.

First they headed to refugee camps in Thailand, but ultimately they ended up being distributed across western European countries and parts of the Americas. Hmong in the USA became heavily concentrated in the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, with smaller numbers in California, Alaska, and North Carolina.

Current numbers of Hmong in South-East Asia include an estimated 558,043 in Vietnam according to 1979 Vietnamese authorities. Laos had about 260,000 in 1994, a decrease from 1972 of between 300,000 and 500,000, while Thailand had about 124,000 in 1995 according to Thai authorities.

Outside this region the largest number of Hmong can be found in the United States (a hundred thousand), while a further ten thousand are in France and French Guiana, nine hundred in Canada, and two hundred-and-fifty in Argentina. Some two hundred-and-sixty Hmong from Laos were admitted into China, where 2.7 million Hmong already live.

Laos beach huts

(Information by John De Cleene, with additional information from Kingdoms of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, Gene Gurney (New York, 1986), from Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopaedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Keat Gin Ooi (ABC-Clio, 2004), from Asia in the Modern World, Claude A Buss (Collier-Macmillan, 1964), from Historical Atlas of the World, R R Palmer (Ed, Chicago, 1963), from Times Atlas of World History (Maplewood, 1979), and from External Links: Hmong (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and A Contribution to the Study of Hmong (Miao) Migrations and History, Christian Culas & Jean Micraud (Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 153, 2de Afl, 1997, and available via JSTOR), and Hmong American Center, and Hmonglessons.com, and KeepinItReal, and Stanford Medicine.)

c.2000 BC

Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into a region which stretches between today's Vietnam and Burma. There, they interbreed with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, the first taking place around now and the second around the end of the first century BC.

The migrations seem to occur from prehistoric southern China which, at this time, is not part of the Erlitou culture of the north, but which may still be informed and improved by it.

Map of Xia China c.2000 BC
The semi-mythical first dynasty of China emerged in territory along the Yellow River, quickly conquering and dominating the rival early states around it, especially the Shang tribe who would later pose such a threat to Xia hegemony, but also others such as the largely mysterious Pi, and Ge (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1st century BC

A second pulse of migration takes place between southern China and a swathe of territory which stretches between ancient Burma and the kingdom of Nam Viet. According to Hmong legend, the expansion of the Han has already been driving them southwards into southern China.

Farmers in South-East Asia gradually inherit a genetic makeup which differs in some ways from that of the earlier Man Bac migrants of the Phung-nguyen culture who had left southern China around 2000 BC, but this still closely resembles the DNA of inhabitants of today's southern China.

late 1600s

China triples its population, from one hundred million to three hundred million, in part due to the introduction of maize. Maize cultivation does not require rich soil or irrigation, so the Chinese spread into more mountainous areas of Guizhou, Yunan, and Sichuan.

Yellow River
One of the world's most powerful rivers, and one which is subject to tremendous changes in flow rate, the Yellow River has provided the setting for some of China's most important early cultures

The pressure on the native Miao inhabitants, including the Hmong, brings three different responses: migration either to even-higher altitudes or southwards outside of the Chinese empire, or armed resistance, or assimilation. Major rebellions occur in 1698, 1732, 1794, and 1855. The Miao begin significant migratory movements which carry on well into the early nineteenth century.

late 1700s

Small numbers of Hmong slowly migrate in waves from southern China to northern Thailand, northern Laos, and northern Vietnam. They grow mainly corn and rice, and in higher elevations buckwheat, barley, and millet.


The Taiping and other rebellions, the Nationalist Revolution in China, the Second World War, and the communist revolution all contribute to an acceleration of Hmong migration into South-East Asia.

Scholars now agree that Hmong movement from Sichuan and Guizhou through Yunan into the Indochinese peninsula begins in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Hmong reach as far south as Tak in western-central Thailand. The first concrete western record of Hmong presence in Indochina dates to an 1860 observation in northern Vietnam.

Hmong women in Vietnam
Hmong women in traditional dress thread their way through a market in modern Vietnam (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 2.0 Deed)

Many Hmong are part of the Black Flag, Yellow Flag, White Flag, and Red Flag armies of Chinese Muslims which are escaping imperial forces in the 1860s by fleeing into the Xiangkhouang province of eastern-central Laos.

late 1800s

It is mainly Chinese traders who introduce opium poppies to the Hmong, who then begin to cultivate the crop. This cultivation continues until it is abandoned in the modern period under pressure from the governments of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. The rapid depletion of the soil which is caused by opium poppies stimulates a further Hmong migration, from the Lao kingdoms into uninhabited parts of Thailand.


An English observer notes the migration into Thailand's Nan province of Hmong from southern Yunan in China and from Laos (the country's first documented presence of Hmong), along with Khmu from Luangphrabang in Laos, and Yao people too.

French colonial residence in Laos
The French colonial presence in Laos built the Bureau de la Residence in 1915 (today it serves as the offices of the country's Ministry of Information and Culture)


The Hue treaty which gives France control over Tonkin and Annam brings the highland Hmong of what is now Vietnam within the French sphere of influence, otherwise known as French Indochina.


The Tiensin Treaty between France and China gives the former priority over other European colonial powers in Yunan, the home of most Hmong and Miao people.

1892 - 1912

Christian missionaries and western colonial authorities and anthropologists begin to take an interest in the Hmong of South-East Asia, documenting them in detail for the first time.


France creates a new state formation which is known as Laos by merging together the kingdoms of Champasak, Luang Phrabang, and Vientiane, and the province of Xieng Khouang. Laos is added to French Indochina.

French Indochina
French colonial holdings in South-East Asia were generally referred to as French Indochina, but officially they were the Indochinese Union until 1947, and then the Indochinese Federation

The kingdom of Luang Prabang survives, but the other provinces are placed under the direct authority of a French official. However, Thailand has been refusing to give way to French advances along the Mekong, so French ships make a show of strength off Bangkok.

Later in the year, on the advice of their British advisors, Thailand withdraws from the eastern bank of the Mekong and gives official recognition to the French protectorate within the evacuated territory.


Laos is fully integrated into French Indochina, largely formalising the act of 1893. A colonial governor is later installed in Vientiane and Laos is reorganised from the provinces of Haut-Laos and Bas-Laos into ten provinces.

1901 - 1910

A revolt breaks out in the south of Laos, principally on the Bolaven plateau and involving groups of Lao Theung who are led by a self-proclaimed holy man and his messianic cult. Ong Keo challenges French control over Laos and his revolt is not fully suppressed until he is killed in 1910. His successor and second-in-command, Ong Kommandam, later becomes an early leader in the Lao nationalist movement.

Yer Shau gods
Hmong mythology includes the concept of Yer Shau, the ancestral spirit, which is believed to have a connection with the human realm and is responsible for guiding and protecting the Hmong people

In the north there is unrest from tribal hill chiefs at the imposition of French rule. It is primarily Khmu and Hmong minority groups which lead the resistance to change, but they later concentrate their efforts in protecting the local opium trade.


Two photographs which are taken in Burma are featured in A Handbook of Practical Information by George J Scott, published by the De La More Press in 1906. These document the earliest known presence of Hmong people in that country (only totalling 830 in 1931 according to a census report).

1928 - 1929

The Hmong in Thailand have by 1928 spread to the Phitsanulok and Lomsah regions in the central part of the country. In the following year, 1929, the Hmong are also observed in the Tak region.

1940 - 1945

The pro-Japanese Lo (Lauj) clan and the pro-French Ly (Lis) clan of Hmong in Laos develop a mutual hostility during the Second World War which will extend to taking sides after the war's conclusion. The Lo will support regional nationalists and the Ly the French. Finally the Lo fight alongside the communists against the Ly and the USA.

Japanese troops surrendering at Guadalcanal
Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal was largely successful thanks to bombing attacks on the US fleet, with very few Japanese troops surrendering to the allies, but it marked the beginning of a series of setbacks for Japan

Touby Lyfoung, a Hmong district chief in Xiangkhouang province in Laos, leads resistance in his region in 1945 against the Japanese occupation of French Indochina.

On 2 September 1945 a democratic republic is proclaimed in North Vietnam, with a capital at Hanoi, while on 15 September the kingdom of Laos is proclaimed, without French permission being granted. On the same date the principality of Champasak, nominally a French protectorate, is incorporated as a principality into Laos.

1946 - 1954

Anti-communist pro-French Hmong in South Vietnam engage in hostilities against the Viet Minh. They are reasonable successful, so much so that, in 1952, the Viet Minh ask China for troops to help subdue the Hmong.


France creates an independent 'Tai Federation of Tonkin' within the 'French Union' which consists of the provinces of Lai Chau, Phong Tho, and Son La. The Hmong of South Vietnam and Yao are de facto incorporated into the federation.

Wat Phou temple ruins in Champasak
The ruins of Wat Phou temple in Champasak, today a province and town but once also the seat of an independent kingdom for the best part of two centuries

early 1950s

American fears of the spread of communism prompt the USA to provide support and exert pressure on Thailand to control the Hmong and other 'hill tribes' of northern Thailand. These people have generally been ignored by the kingdom as long as they do not threaten state security.

1954 - 1955

On 7 May 1954 the Viet Minh defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, effectively terminating French Indochina. The democratic republic of Vietnam is confirmed in the north of the country (North Vietnam), but this does nothing to end the fighting.

The Hmong of North Vietnam participate in the battle as allies of the Viet Minh. Hmong who live to the east of the Red River valley, and who had previously collaborated with the French to produce opium, now flee to Laos along with wealthy White Tai and Black Tai.

The newly-declared republic of North Vietnam is recognised internationally by the Geneva Accords, with Hanoi as its capital. South Vietnam is also recognised, officially dividing the country in two.

Ho Chi Minh
Founder of the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and its successor, the Viet-Minh in 1941, and president from 1945 to 1969 of the 'Democratic Republic of Vietnam' (North Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh died on 2 September 1969


The written Hmong language is developed. Until now, the Hmong have had a non-literate tradition, with grandparents passing down their heritage orally.


After vigorous harassment, the Hmong of North Vietnam are subdued by the dominant communist government. Many Hmong emigrate to Laos in a second wave of movement.

1964 - 1973

During the 'secret war' in Laos, part of the Vietnam War which the USA is waging against communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rebel organisation in South Vietnam, the Hmong work closely with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Opposing this are some Hmong who work with the Pathet Lao, a Laotian communist rebel organisation which is allied to North Vietnam. An estimated seventy thousand civilians and soldiers die during the war. When North Vietnam eventually wins, great numbers of Hmong flee to avoid communist retribution.

North Vietnamese army
Not to be confused with the Viet Cong guerrilla forces in the south which were supported by North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese armed forces themselves often came into contact with South Vietnamese and American forces, especially towards the end of the conflict when the south had been partially occupied


Touby Lyfoung, who had helped the royal Lao government fight the Pathet Lao (see 1945), becomes deputy governor of Xiangkhouang province in Laos and leader (mayor) of the Hmong population. When the communists take control of the country in 1975 he is sent to a labour camp where he dies in 1979.


In an outgrowth of the Vietnam War, Thai forces destroy opium fields and Hmong villages in the north. A few Hmong react by fighting. Most, however, try to avoid taking sides either with the Beijing or Hanoi-supported guerrillas or American-supported Thai military.

Instead, beginning in 1967, thousands of Hmong flee from Thailand into Laos. Many of these will return to Thailand in 1975 as the fortunes of war are reversed.

King Savang Vatthana of Laos
Savang Vatthana started a term as prime minister of Laos in 1951, but succeeded his father as king in October 1959 before being forced to abdicate on 2 December 1975 due to the communist revolution within Laos

1975 - 1997

Over three hundred thousand Hmong escape Laos to enter refugee camps in Thailand. During this period, another 50,000-100,000 die from fighting, disease, and starvation. Ultimately up to a hundred thousand settle in the USA, with large numbers also going to Canada, French Guiana, Australia, and France and Germany.

In the United States, the Hmong become heavily concentrated in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, and North Carolina, with smaller numbers in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Georgia.

1980 - 1982

Thailand is able to suppress a communist insurrection in the north through a complicated international arrangement. When Vietnam conquers Cambodia and drives the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge from power, Thailand allows them to escape into its highlands.

China cuts off all support for the Thai communist party, which has operated for decades. The Chinese also ask the Thai communists to cease their military operations. The highland areas in which the Hmong dwell now return to peace.

Riverside huts in Laos
Despite problems which have been inherited alongside a communist government, even one which has introduced China-style market reforms, Laos remains a place of beauty

1980s 1990s

Through Thailand's policies, with the Thais unfairly blaming the Hmong for deforestation and soil erosion, the Hmong become more sedentary, adopting commercially-viable agricultural techniques. The Thai increase educational opportunities in the hopes of better integrating the Hmong into Thai society.


Crown Prince Soulivong of Laos and his uncle, Prince Sauryavong, initiate a 'Royal Lao Conference' in Seattle, USA. Over five hundred Lao exiles and representatives of the Hmong, Kmu, Mien, Thaidam, and the rest of the Laotian ethnic minority community attend. This conference establishes the 'Lao Representative Abroad Council'.

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