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.


Anonymous said...

i believe that you recently posted a blog comparing the way Ayouduo and Wang Li sang. But i believe that you are still naive, my friend. your thoughts have not yet come to fruition. it's actualy an understatement when you say that Ayouduo doesn't sing in "Hmong" the language in which we speak, but you must understand that there are several branches to the miao family. Hmong people often generalize the word "Miao" when the word "Miao" actually refers to three other groups. one thing that we can say though is that all the Miao groups descend from a common ancestor who is Chiyou.

anyhow, i just wanted to tell you that you unfairly judged Ayouduo just because she doesn't speak the "Hmong" that we are all so use to hearing.

so you should do some more research and update that blog.


Rainrai said...

Thanks for bringing this valuable information here for us to read and aware.

keep it up!!!

Anonymous said...

I think that you are putting way too much thought into all of this. I think that the Chinese would say taht Ayouduo and Wang Li both sing in the Miao Language.

I understand that your research is soley based on Hmong Music, thus the name of the blog. But you have to realize that when the word Miao is used in China, it's not specific to the Hmong language that we speak. The Chinese would say that Ayouduo is Miao and Wang Li is Miao--there is no difference. That is why we have to realize that there are subgroups and that these subgroups speak very differently and have very different cultures.

You write "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." And yes, you are right. But when you google the word "MIAO" what you find is something totally different from what a hmong person is use to. What you find are pictures of Ayouduo or people in clothes such as Ayouduo.

The main point I want to state is that the Hmong that we are familiar have not been been centralized yet into Chinese mainstream music. Wang Li may be popular in the Hmong Media, but it's a totally different story in the chinese media.

You know, hoenstly, you sound smart and i think it's wonderful that you're putting so much effort to understand hmong and hmong chinese music. but face it, homeboy, Wang Li is really nothing compared to Ayouduo or Song Zuying.

I dont mean to be putting you for your efforts but I think you first need to realize that Miao has subgroups and Hmong is only a part of that subgroup. ;)

nickposs said...

As for the language that Ayouduo and Wang Li sings in, I believe there is a confusion of terms. I don't know what "language" Ayouduo sings in, although it might also be referred to as a "dialect" of Miao. This can be confusing, because some linguists classify all Miao languages as Hmong (despite the fact that not all Miao people are Hmong). At the same time there is no "Miao language," per se. Rather it is a large collection of various languages and dialects of those languages. This too can be confusing because much of the classification of Miao languages has been done by Chinese scholars who use different terminology than Western linguists.

So, to clarify Ayouduo and Wang Li are both Miao (in terms of their ethnic nationality within China), but I believe they are from different groups within the Miao nationality that speak different languages.

In response to the last commenter, I agree that Chinese listeners would identify Wang Li as Miao. I also believe that under many circumstances Wang Li would also identify herself as Miao. She likely also identifies as Chinese and maybe many other categories.

But in the song she identifies herself as Hmoob Suav, or Chinese Hmong. She appears to sing in the same dialect that is spoken by White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb) people in Southeast Asia and the United States. True, in China this would be considered a dialect of Miao (although there is no single "Miao language" that is spoken anywhere as noted above.) But her song is clearly addressed to the Hmong diaspora. Both America and France are mentioned in the lyrics. So, I am more interested in how that audience would receive the message of her lyrics rather than a non-Hmong/Miao Chinese audience.

Wang Li certainly isn't at the level of popularity of Ayouduo or Song Zuying. But her music is interesting for a variety of reasons, even if doesn't suit your personal musical tastes.

Ms. Cai said...

There are three main Hmongic-proper dialects: Xiangxi (Eastern), Qiandongnan (Central) and Chuanqiandian (Western and Far-western). The White and Green dialects that we are used to hearing are sub-dialects of the Chuandianqian dialect. Ayouduo speaks the Qiandongnan dialect, and it would be safe to say that Song Zuying, who was born in Hunan most likely speaks the Eastern dialect.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Wang Li and Ying yang they practiced how to speak Hmong like Hmong lao, Thai and US before became a singer because their target client is hmong US. i used to hear hmong chinese they don't speak like Li wang and Ying yang event they claim that they are white hmong(Hmoob dawb). The way they speak is very chinese.

by comparing Li wang and A you duo songs and saying that A you duo is not a Hmong that is a bit