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.