The Hmong have always been subsistence farmers. In the past, they practiced slash and burn agriculture, which meant that they had to move every few years when the fertility of their fields became exhausted. They have begun to adopt more settled ways, and now commonly use irrigated fields and terraces to grow rice. Their staple food crop is corn, which is still grown on upland fields, but they often practice crop rotations to maintain productivity. They often plant legumes such as green beans and rice between rows of corn. They also grow hemp and cotton for textile production.
They are also skilled at raising domestic animals. They commonly keep pigs, chickens, horses and water buffalo. The average Hmong family has 30-40 chickens and at least 5 pigs.
Religion: Traditionally the Hmong have been animists or spirit worshippers. Examples include ancestral spirits, house spirits, nature spirits, and spirits of evil. Ancestral spirits include any deceased member of the family. The father's side of the family is believed to have the most powerful spirits. These spirits are seen as returning to and inhabiting the household altar. House spirits are thought to inhabit the bedroom, household stove, the central post, doors, as well as each corner of a Hmong house. Nature spirits include spirits of mountains, valleys, forests, fields, streams, caves, ponds, and winds. The Hmong believe that spirits can affect every detail of life. Spirits are believed to be good or bad, evil or merely mischievous. They can help or harm people, animals or crops. They can bring on disease or injury, physical or spiritual. Spirits can also possess people, requiring a ceremony to exorcise them.
Today the Hmong often combine elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism in their world-view and their society. Their elaborate rituals may invoke magic. A belief in reincarnation is common. Most rituals and ceremonies are performed by the Hmong so as to honor the will of the ancestors and placate natural spirits. They hope that if the ancestors are pleased, they will protect their descendants from sickness and misfortune.
The Hmong wear clothing that is decorated with some of the finest needlework to be found anywhere. Every member of the family, from tiny infants to the elderly, wear embroidered adornments. All of this is done by Hmong women, who also (at least in the past) weave cloth on family looms. The Hmong groups are usually identified by characteristics of women's clothing. For example, the White Hmong women wear skirts of unbleached linen, while the skirts of the Black Hmong and Green Hmong are dyed indigo.
The Hmong keep much of their wealth in the form of silver jewellery. On New Year's Day they wear it all in an impressive display. Even children and men wear silver ornaments. Both men and women, for example, wear silver neck rings and bracelets. Many women wear silver earrings.
FAMILY AND CLAN
Family and clan comprise the most important social units among the Hmong. The eldest male of each unit has unlimited authority over the members. He is responsible for the general welfare, and must settle all disputes. Respect for elders is the most important thing in Hmong culture. There are twelve clans, and at least nine are found in Vietnam. Each clan has its own way of doing things, and it is absolutely forbidden to marry within one's own clan. Taboos vary from clan to clan, so things forbidden in one clan may be allowed within another.
The Hmong, even more than some other tribal peoples, practice a strict male-female division of roles. An illustration of this is the custom of giving a newborn boy a gift of metal so that one day he can forge a weapon. Girls, on the other hand, are taught basic skills like cooking, needlework, and weaving from a very early age. It bears repeating that the society is male-led, and ancestry is reckoned through the male line. Polygamy is not uncommon.
Hmong boys and girls usually marry at about 17 or 18 years of age. They must find marriage partners from a different clan. But it is somewhat common to marry cousins, as long as they are from a different clan. The New Year festival is the main time for courting, and young people pair up to play games and sing songs to each other. The Hmong girl has the right to accept or refuse her prospecitve husband, but the young man must get permission from his parents before marriage. This is because the groom's parents must pay the cost of the wedding and the dowery to the bride's parents. The dowery may be quite expensive, sometimes requiring the newly-married husband to work for his wife's father for a number of years. The wife (and children) do not belong to the groom until the bride price has been paid in full.
There is a custom that allows the girl to be kidnapped by the groom and his friends and "forcing" her to marry him. Most of the time this is all for show, and the girl is quite willing to marry the young man. Sometimes the "kidnapping" is more in earnest. If the young man keeps the girl for two days, he may demand a marriage, and the parents of the young girl cannot refuse. This latter type of forcible marriage has been the cause of much unhappiness.
WHAT ARE THEIR NEEDS?
Western people often visualize tribal people like the Hmong as living in a state of bliss -- in the cool and quiet of pristine mountains, away from urban pollution and stress. The reality is quite different. The dry season finds villages filled with smoke from burning fields. The wet season turns the trails and village streets into a swamp. Woman and children must trudge for miles in search of ever more scarce firewood. Opium addiction, alchoholism and wife beating are depressingly common. Hmong are denied citizenship, persecuted by the government, and harrassed and cheated by townspeople.