Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hmong language and dictionary resources

One of the best Hmong (and Mong) dictionary resources, Jay Xiong's Hmong-English Dictionary Software, is now available for free (although, a $5 donation is suggested). It not only includes the ability to search definitions in both Hmong and English, but also provides sound clips of consonants, vowels, and tones. You can also search the dictionary online at his website and hear sound clips of common words. The print version of the dictionary is also worth the price.

Jay also promotes Tony Vang's Hmong Tutorial that includes a book and software that covers the basics of speaking and writing Hmong. I haven't used it myself, but it sounds like a good place to start for people who want to start learning Hmong language.

It's sad to see that the Saturn School White Hmong Dictionary has been taken offline. Along with the dictionary, it also featured folktales and proverbs--useful information for people interested in Hmong culture. Koua Lee's online Lomation Hmong Text Reader is still available and provides both a sound file of the word and a definition. (Type in the word, or copy and paste some text and click 'Read'. Moving the mouse over the word (after clicking 'Read') causes the definition to pop up.) It's especially handy for getting a quick sense for a sentence since it can pull up definitions for several words at once.

For those interested in a print dictionary, Yuepheng Xiong's recent Hmong-English/English-Hmong Dictionary is probably the best available. You can find it at his book store (ABC Hmong) in both pocket and standard size (although the standard size doesn't appear to be available online at the moment).

I've recently come across a couple of new online Hmong dictionaries, but I won't link them here since it appears that they have scraped their content from other sources without attribution (not to mention, both featured several incorrect definitions). I even contacted the owners of the website to voice my concerns about their potential copyright violations but received no response. You can find my updated collection of Hmong dictionary links here, which includes link to specialized dictionaries for law, health, and religion.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Update: Wang Li and the Hmong of Yunnan

In a previous post, I discussed a song by Wang Li, a self described Hmoob Suav (Chinese Hmong), in which she sings about the interconnectedness of Hmong people all around the world. Several unanswered questions were posed along with an invitation for others to join in the conversation. Since then, the post was reposted on another (now defunct) blog where a commenter not only provided the complete lyrics (and a translation), but also some more background information on Wang herself. The complete comment, made by a poster known only as "May" follows:

Wang Li (Lig Vaj/Li Vang) is a Hmong person living in Paj Tawg Lag (Wenshan, Yunnan, China). She is a fairly newcomer to the Hmong music industry.

The complete lyrics to her song goes:

Koj noos kuv nyob qhov twg, kuv nyob Roob Kuj*
Zoo siab tias kuv yog ib tug ntxhais Hmoob Suav
Koj noos kuv nyob qhov twg, kuv nyob Roob Kuj
Txawm kuv mus txog qhov twg los kuv yeej nco nroov

Txawm tias koj nyob rau Miskais
Los yog koj nyob rau Fabkis
Txhob hnov qab peb yog Hmoob ib yam
Peb lub qub teb qub chaw* twb yog Roob Kuj

Vim tias peb yog Hmoob ib yam
Peb yuav tsum sib hlub sib pab
Txawm tias peb ib leeg nyob rau ib qhov
Tiamsis peb yuav tsum nco nroov peb Hmoob txoj kevcai

Txawm kuv mus txog qhov twg los kuv yeej nco nroov


You ask me where do I live, I live in China
Happy because I am a Hmong Chinese girl
You ask me where do I live, I live in China
Regardless of where I go, I will always remember

Whether you live in America
Or if you live in France
Never forget, we Hmong are all one people
Our old homeland is China

Because we Hmong are all the same
We must love and help each other
Regardless of where you and I (We) live
We must remember our Hmong traditions

Regardless of where I go, I will always remember

Note: The term "Roob Kuj" is a transliteration of "Zhong Gua" and the phrase "qub teb qub chaw" literally translated means "old land, old place."

Other Hmong singers from China are Xiang Ding Xiu 项定秀 whose Hmong name is Mim Haam, Ying Yang and Xin Vang.

Thanks, May, wherever you are. Her response answers several of my questions. "Roob kuj" doesn't mean "mountain," as suggested in my (rather poor) translation. Instead, it's the Hmong pronunciation of the name for the country of China in the Mandarin language, Zhongguo. In this sense, the song is more than a call for Hmong people to remember their common heritage--to come together in a decentralized, transnational community. Rather, it reorganizes contemporary Hmong identity around the locus of the Chinese homeland. For many Hmong Americans, Laos (and perhaps to a lesser extent Thailand) still constitute the "homeland lost." At the same time, the ancestral Chinese homeland remains central to Hmong funeral rituals. As international travel and communication increases, the trend towards identifying China as homeland may increase (as noted in previous discussions of Hmong global identity).

From May, we also learn the location of the performance: Wenshan, China (Google map). The city of Wenshan is in the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (prefecture being a division between province and county). In several such areas in China, ethnic minorities (or "nationalities" as they are called) are given more political authority at the regional and local levels, although approval from the national congress is necessary for most decisions. In Hmoob Dawb, Wenshan is called Paj Tawg Laj, and it has long been a center for Hmong culture and media production. For example, the video for Wang Li's appears to have been shot there. I don't know much about Paj Tawg Laj, but it is clear that the Hmong people there have been effective in promoting their culture abroad. The website (when it was operational) featured several videos of local festivals and music performances (many of these are preserved on YouTube by user tsimmeejLi). If you read Chinese, you might be able to find more on, but the site is painfully slow to load. Other YouTube users have uploaded karaoke and music videos produced by the Hmong of Wenshan, and others have uploaded videos they made themselves.

User bigboymedia has several videos of musical performances in China (along with an outstanding video of Gary Yia Lee discussing the various theories of Hmong origin. His conclusion, in line with linguistic, genetic, and historical evidence: the Hmong most likely originated in China). Here is one that provides short clips of several different performances, including kwv txhiaj, dancing, tshuab raj, and tshuab qeej.

The website, also features a video overview of Wenshan, which includes scenic views of the city and surrounding mountains as well as an interview with a resident who apparently explains why the city is called "Paj Tawg Laj." The interview ends with the gentleman performing on qeej, raj nplaim, and ncas.

These videos interest me for a number of reasons. As someone who has never traveled to the region, its great the see the continuation of cultural practices shared by Hmong around the world. Of course, Yunnan borders Vietnam and Laos, and communication has always been maintained between the Hmong who migrated to Southeast Asia and those who remained in China, so it isn't surprising to see the continuity of tradition. Still, I've wondered to what extent people play the raj in China, and based on these videos, it appears that the practice goes on (although, perhaps like here in the United States, it is kept up mainly by older men who learned it in their youth).

It's also clear from these videos that the language and culture of the people depicted is Hmong: not Hmu, or A Hmao, or another group of people. "Miao" media is often interpreted in the U.S. as "Hmong" media, even when other ethic groups within the Miao nationality are featured. As discussed in other posts, this is part of a trend (although not an irreversible one) towards conflating "Hmong" and "Miao" identity in the transnational context. It's a trend that creates problems for scholarship and intercultural communication. For instance, the cultural practices of non-Hmong groups in China can sometimes be seen as "strange" or even "incorrect" when viewed through this lens. Or, it is sometimes assumed that these "foreign" practices are older or the "original" forms of Hmong culture. There is an underlying complexity and diversity (which I think has value) that is lost in the equation of "Hmong" and "Miao." At the same time, a unified Hmong identity has benefits such as potential for economic development and historical awareness. It can also be a source of pride and provide a real sense of community between Hmong people in disparate locations who often have been politically marginalized. Certainly, the greatest benefit is the opening up of what used to seem like remote parts of the world so that everyone can gain from the experience of others and share in the ongoing conversation.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How well do you understand the raj?

I'm still on my way home from the International Studies Conference on Hmong Studies where I presented a paper on my recent experiments on music and language cognition in Hmong culture. It was a wonderful conference and I'll write more about it soon. In my presentation, I brought up an experiment I did with a number of people who were skilled at understanding messages on the raj. In the experiment, I took a number of common phrases and cut them up into smaller and smaller segments, down to the level of two successive pitches. I presented these to the subjects and asked them to tell me the words that they understood. This allowed some insight into the listening strategies they use. I wanted to play some examples during the talk, but I ran out of time. I've made a webpage with some examples and I'll try to make something a little more extensive soon. On the page, you can play the sound files and reveal the words that the musician played. Let me know what you think. On to the music ...

Note: The page seems to work better in Firefox than Internet Explorer. If you do access it with IE, it might take longer than usual for the page to load due to the javascript needed for the media.