Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Song Zuying and Hmong/Miao Transnationalism

"Hmong Singer Receives Grammy Nomination" was the tantalizing headline at Hmong Today online. The article is actually more of a press release about the Chinese singer, Song Zuying, who has indeed been nominated for a Grammy in the category of "Best Classical Crossover Album." Song has been a major figure in Chinese music since the early 1990s and has been developing an international following of late. Still, I've never heard to referred to as Hmong, or as the article in Hmong Today describes her: "Hmong Chinese." She is a member of the Miao ethnic group - one of the 56 recognized ethnic "nationalities" in China - and is recognized for her interpretations of "folksongs" (more on that next time). But as discussed in my previous entries about Ayouduo, being Miao and Hmong isn't necessarily the same thing, although there is a growing trend for using the terms interchangeably. As is noted by authors such as Nicholas Tapp, Louisa Schein, and Jacques Lemoine, it is both Hmong in the West, as well as Miao in China, who are adopting this language. The reasons are too numerous to give in detail here, but often Hmong Americans, uncomfortable with the word Miao (and its negative connotations in Southeas Asia) use Hmong when referring the entirety of the Miao group, which includes not only Hmong, but also Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao people. Offended by the imposition of a non-native, Chinese term over a group of seemingly related people, Hmong in the West end up imposing their own terminology over the same group. At the same time, there is evidence that some Miao people in China have willingly adopted the nomenclature - perhaps in part due to the more fluid nature of ethnic identity in region. In other instances, becoming "Hmong" can have positive economic advantages when trying to engage in international business deals.

There is more to say, but what I'm most interested in here is the use of "Hmong Chinese" in the context of this article, which more closely resembles an advertisement (or at least a press release). Is it an example of a crafty businessperson trying to capitalize on the growing interest in Chinese music among Hmong Americans? Or is it someone who feels a close affiliation with their coethnics in China? Someone who is proud of the accomplishment achieved by one of their own? I don't know who wrote the article (or why), but a little digging on the internet shows that "Hmong" was probably tacked on to pre-existing material about Song Zuying.

The opening paragraph is copied from the Grammy press release, while the end of the article appears to be drawn from the article about her on All Music Guide (written by David Lewis). The key second paragraph that cites her ethnicity seems to be taken from an online article that is now only accessible through the Google cache of the page. The article, "Folk Singer Song Zuying: From Miao Village to the World Stage" is dated Dec. 21, 2006 and appeared on the website (it appears to be offline at the moment). According to notes at the bottom of article, it is the English translation of material drawn from two Chinese news sources: and The original paragraph reads:
Among this year's nominees was the celebrated Chinese folk singer, Song Zuying. Her CD "The Diva Goes to the Movies: A Centennial Celebration of Chinese Film Song" received a Grammy nomination for "Best Classical Crossover Album."
This is identical to the article in Hmong Today, except that in transition the "celebrated Chinese folk singer" has become the "celebrated Hmong Chinese folk singer."

So to review - Song Zuying is described variously as Chinese, Miao, and Hmong. Such multiple identifications are not unusual for people from places like southern China - where ethnic identity is not so fixed as in West. But is she Hmong in the sense of "Hmong and Miao are all the same people" or Hmong in the sense of "a person of the Miao nationality who self-identifies in her home as Hmong." I'm not sure, but I would suggest that it is the former. As the womenofchina article states, she was born in Hunan in a stockade village. While several ethnic groups build communities in this style, I had never heard of Hmong people doing this. Also, looking at the costumes of people from similar villages - they appear to be more similar to Hmu outfits than Hmong. But, I could be totally wrong and in the end, it isn't that important. There are no definite answers to questions of identity and it certainly has no bearing on the quality of her work (which is outstanding [see recently sold out the Kennedy Center]). It is interesting to follow the lines of influence in redefining identity, however, and to ask why these changes take place.

Her music is certainly worth talking about and makes for an interesting comparison with Ayoudou. I'll try to get around to that next time. Until then, you can find her videos on YouTube or check out her fan website (in Chinese - works best in IE - no media files that I can find.)


Anonymous said...

You should try contacting Hmong Today and find out where the reporter got his/her information. I read the article, too, and found it interesting there were no further mention of her Hmong background. If she is Hmong Chinese, versus say Hmu Chinese or a different ethnic Miao minority, Hmong Today should take some time to do a profile on her. As a reporter, that's what I would do in a Hmong newspaper; as a Hmong American, that's what I would want to know.

nickposs said...

I think you're right - it would make for an interesting story. I've sent an e-mail to the paper and I'll update when I hear back. I previously contacted Silk Road Music Co., which appears to be involved with promoting Song Zuying in the U.S. They only provided me with information about buying her CD (you can buy it direct from SRM (based in Hong Kong) for the time being, but there are plans to find a N. American distributor. I have the contact information if anyone desperately wants to buy a CD.)

LadyLionnessKat said...

Even if you can't find someone willing to share her background, if you listen to her Miao songs, you should be able to tell if she is Hmong or Hmu chinese, etc. The beauty of the Hmong culture is that across space, time, and distance, you can still see and tell the similiarity... enough to know if she is one of us. Take Mee Hang, for example... I just heard one of her songs on AOL, I can tell you that she is definitely Hmong.

Anonymous said...

I saw a glimpse of the Beijing 2008 Olympic closing ceremony with Song Zuying singing but did not think twice about her ethnicity. However, I did make a comment to my father about the head ornaments all the female dancers in the background had one, being very similar in style to certain Miao/Hmong heir looms of SW China. And then I came across a forum discussion about Song's ethnicity. While I'll look into the matter out of personal curiosity, I'd like to point out that although the Miao designation does indeed include over 59 ethnic minorities, some of whom are without a doubt not Miao/Hmong period, that Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao are in fact Hmong - not only by Western Hmong standard/belief but also by Miao/Hmong scholars of the aforementioned groups. Of course you've made your argument citing N. Tapp, J. Lemoine, and L. Schein that perhaps these various groups are not "Hmong" and is merely adopting the language for economic reasons etc. But I can assure you that on a grandeur scale regardless of the term or language, these specifics groups among others are in fact "Hmong" had Chinese history/records had not been so cleverly marginalized and diluted. I've also heard arguments that some of these various groups speak unintelligible dialects etc. There is no denying that, but let's not overlook the fact that over several centuries of oppression, laws and mandates were discriminately excercised prohibiting one's native tongue to be spoken or to practice one's religion and wear one's distinct attire. The smallest infracture resulted in swift punishment including public execution.

On that note, it is of little consequence what ethnicity Song is or wants to claim, but to outright desensitize the Miao/Hmong under the shroud of the Chinese Miao designation is rather narrow if not complete disinformation. Perhaps in your next article you may want to broaden your sources etc. prior to making another whimsical public announcement.

suavlwm said...

After reading all of your comments, I felt like I am not as smart or as inteligent as anyone else, or don't have the kind of English education like yours. However, I just want to comment that who ever she is, or does she speak the Hmong language. She is Hmong, one of our sister and we can not deny her. Even if she claims no relation with us. I believe that many of you younger generation have already disclaimed yourselves as Hmong, even though, you know that your stature is small and short, your hair is black, your eye color is brown you still say you are someone else and not who you really are. Or you do not speak Hmong any more. Some young people even trick other people to believe they are Japanese, if their skin color is lighter and stature is taller or have the facial feature similar to Japanese. (this is only one example.) Truthfully, many of us do not speak Hmong any more. If Song would see your comments, what do you think how she feel? Prior to her being famous, she did come in to consult with one of the elders in the Hmong syphany group where Mee Hang established. This man assisted her in arranging her songs in Chinese due to her ability to speak Hmong fluently. Song is Hmong, this is a fact.

Anonymous said...

I would strongly agreed with the fore comment by Nickposs that Homng Times is the best example of a crafty business that are trying to capitalize on the growing interest in Chinese music among Hmong Americans and congratulation you have nailed it right on the point. The fact of the matter is that Hmong in America are no more than a whole bunch of looser and are desparate to acclaim on anything they can. Let's pause and think for a moment that if in fact Song Zuying is partly Hmong then she will is sure will be the first to claim that title and announce to all the proud Hmong Time fans aout there. Good luck and try again.

Anonymous said...

Song Zuying is brave enough to claim that she is Miao (Hmong) for the world to see, hear, and talked about. I believe if Song was not a Miao (Hmong) origin of Hunan, it would be an issue of misinformed identity. Truth of the matter is that we have this gorgeous woman who clams to part of Miao (Hmong). I hope that Song continues to claim that she is Miao (Hmong), despite the challenges in the futures. We all should just take her as who she says she is. If Song is cognizant enough to accept the nationality of Miao (Hmong) as her ethnic identity, so be it.

Anonymous said...

Hey everyone, why don't you guys find a way to contact the Hmong/Miao scholars in China to see what they say. Hmong is a new term that came out in Indochina. If you contact Dr. Yang Dao in St. Paul, MN, he will tell you that the term "Hmong" is created in Indochina. It's not a term that we were associated with back in China. In China, we were Miao then and we are still Miao now. The term "Hmong" get imposed in such a broad spectrum. Personally, I think the terms "Hmong" and "Miao" both describe the same people, depending on what part of the globe you are located. For example, the term "Chicano" is used to describe Mexicans people who were born in the USA. A Chicano is in fact a Mexican descendant. A Hmong is someone who is born outside of China. A Hmong is in fact a Miao. Therefore, Song Zuyin is our Hmong/Miao sister.

Anonymous said...

I am the first Hmong who attended the Kunming Hmong Festival Show in June 13, 1985. Most of the older geneation speak Hmong, but not younger ones. When asked in Chinese, she or he replied as a "Miao." But when asked in Hmong language, she or he replied as a "Hmong."

I asked the man who provided translation to me and he told that she or he is also a Hmong, but could not understand Hmong.

So the term depends on which or what language we are using to ask that person. If you ask in Chinese, then 99.9% they reply as Miao, but if you asked a Hmong to ask in Chinese language and he translateed back to, then 99.9% she or he is a Hmong person. They never told me in my Hmong language that they are Miao. They only told me that they are also Hmong people like me.

Anonymous said...

the term Hmong:
The pronounciation make the Hmong people look differently. For example, in USA, North and South, the accent is sometime pronounce differently. Like, you in the north, but yo or ya in the south.

Hmong, hmu, ahmao, they all similar, excep the spelling is diffrent, but the sound or pronounciation is not much different in comparing with you in MN, WI, NW and UP, comparing to GA, AL, LI, SC, NC.

So hmu is hmong, hmong is hmu, ahmao is hmu and hmong, hmu and hmong are ahmao. So they all are one ethnic group, except they prononunce differently.