By Kou Yang
ST. PAUL — On April 22, 2014, I was one of two guests of honor for the opening ceremony of the historic Roots-Searching Park of Xingwen County, Sichuan, China.
The Hmong and the local Xingwen government built the park (or monument) to commemorate our quest in search of our roots in the triangle of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan, China. Although this is my ninth trip to China, it was the most touching and emotional one as the opening is not only focused on the park, but there was a religious and social ceremony to welcome me and the other guests to our ancestral homeland. The purpose of the ceremony was to induct other guests and me to be members of the Hmong in Ciu Xing (씽檎)Village in Xingwen County.
Upon my arrival, I saw a newly built gate with a big sign to welcome me (and others) to the opening ceremony of the park. Many elders were standing at the entrance to the gate, which is at the foothill where the Roots-Searching Park is built on.
Standing before the gate were a number of young men and women holding trays with bowls of rice wine as an offering to us. Behind them were young girls and boys, who stood on both sides of the road, singing a welcome song with smiling faces; they represented the future and generations to come.
Every guest had to drink at least one bowl of rice wine before being allowed to pass the gate to the Roots-Searching Park, about a quarter of a mile from the foothill. I was very excited and delighted to see what was going on at the gate.
The weather was perfect; it was a sunny morning with pleasantly warm weather. I slowly got out of the car and walked to the gate, greeting elders and officials, including Yang Yonghua (煖湛빽),
Vice-President of the Hmong Cultural Development Association and the key person in the development of the Roots-Searching Park; they were there to welcome us and escort us to the park. As I began to take part of the ceremony by walking toward the gate, I graciously took a drink from a pair of a young man and a young woman. I thanked them and then entered the gate.
On my way to the top of the hill, I shook hands and received greetings from boys and girls standing on the road. Other guests followed me with their smiling faces, ready to see the Roots-Searching Park. I climbed up near the top of the hill and saw two large biographic posters: one for me and the other one for the other guest of honor.
Upon my entrance into the park, I saw the newly built Ancestral Hall to the north and Roots-Searching Tower to the east. There were several veiled stone tablets and a money tree located west of the park. To the south were an entertainment stage and vacant land to be developed into festival grounds and an exhibition hall (including Hmong American Life and Arts).
The park provides a perfect view of the town and its surrounding hills and valleys. From there local officials escorted me to the front row of seats in anticipation of the formal presentation.
Li Chengliang (쟀냥좋), Director of the Xingwen Religion and Minority Affairs, took the task of making the formal introduction of local officials and guests of honor. Local officials included Huang Yongfu (뼝湛말), Vice-Magistrate of Xingwen County, Li Guowen (쟀벌匡), President of the Hmong Cultural Development, Li Jingui (쟀쏜뱍) Vice-President of the Hmong Cultural Development Association, Yang Yonghua (煖湛빽), Vice-President of the Hmong Cultural Development Association, and several others.
A large number of people gathered there to join the opening ceremony. Local officials made speeches about the purpose and efforts of the local government and its Hmong people to build the Roots-Searching Park. As one of the guests of honor, I delivered my brief speech: thanking them and offering my perspective of the meaning of the event and the park as well as my lifelong quest to search for Hmong history and my identity.
Following the speeches there was a ceremony to unveil stone tablets that were specifically prepared for guests of honor. My stone tablet contained a quote of my writing about the Hmong and their 5,000 years of struggles under the sun. The next ceremony was the planting of the money tree (a ginkgo tree) or Ntooj Nyiaj Ntoo Kub, which is a long tradition of the Hmong in this region.
The last and most important part was a set of several ceremonies. The first, and most touching, was the welcome home ceremony, which included many steps. The first step was to ceremoniously offer us drink before coming home. The second was the singing of a traditional welcome home folk song by an elder, followed by a ritual welcoming home led by the Qeej master. Using the Qeej, the master led a group of girls to escort each one of us from entrance of the park to walk on a Vab (Threshing basket) to our seats in front of the Ancestral Hall, symbolizing the purifying or cleansing of us before coming to our ancestral home after having been gone for many centuries and through so many countries and countless of hardships.
On the way to our seats, elders warmly greeted and welcomed us to our ancestral homeland. After we were seated, the elders offered us tobacco, a Hmong tradition offering warm hospitality to guests. The next ceremony was the tying of white string (khi tes) to our wrists as a welcoming blessing, which they learned from Hmong Americans. Each one of those who tied a string also gave us a red envelope containing different bills of Chinese currency.
After we were welcomed to our ancestral home, we were then escorted to pay respect to our ancestors. We entered the Hall of Ancestors, where the veiled statue of Chi You is housed. The statue of Chi You, who represent our ancestors, was ceremoniously unveiled; it is believed that the Hmong are of the people of Chi You’s kingdom in ancient time.
Following the unveiling was an offering of rice wine and food to the ancestors, then a performance of the Qeej and drum and our turn to bow to the ancestors three times. The first bow was to ask our ancestors to bless us and our families with good health and prosperity, the second was for the prosperity to our Hmong people, and the third was for peace in the country/on earth. All of these activities were officiated and presided over by a shaman or spiritual person, who used the gong and the split-horn (kuam) to communicate with the spirits of our ancestors. After the completion of these ceremonies, we were invited to lunch or more correctly to attend the “Long Banquet of 500 People” at the foothill of the Roots-Searching Park.
A newly paved road was specifically built at the foothill for this event, and to be part of the Roots-Searching Park. The road was officially named the “Long Banquet of 500 People” street.
The banquet included traditional Hmong food or the Hmong’s nine plates of food and eight bowls of wine (Cuaj Phaj Yim Ntim).
Participants of the banquet included government officials, officials of Hmong descent from the county and nearby districts, entertainers, residents of the Ciu Xing Village, where the park is located, and ordinary Hmong people from the town and nearby villages. As soon as everyone was seated, Huang Yongfu (뼝湛말), the Vice- Magistrate of Xingwen County (a Hmong and the host) initiated the first toast, signaling the beginning of the banquet.
Participants began to serve themselves with food and drink. Soon, toasting and drinking songs started; people began to toast each other, young people offered toast to their elders and junior officials offered toasts to their senior officers.
During the drinking, a group of young men with Qeej in their hands and several young women came to the guests of honor to perform drinking Qeej. When the young me finished their performance, the young women offer drink to the quests. And, as tradition dictates, the first and last toast are reserved for the most senior officials or the hosts of the banquet.
After lunch, our group visited the Hmong in Ciu Xing village as a gesture to get to know our long-lost relatives and to see their homes and daily life. On the way, we saw demonstrations of needlework and basket making, and the making of other arts and tools.
Some of our group enjoyed playing the Qeej with the locals, but our skills were not to their level; they can play the Qeej for welcoming and sending guests off, entertainment, courtship and, of course, for funeral rites. A very sophisticated wedding ceremony was also presented. I (and my group) spent the whole afternoon with the villagers, who served us dinner before taking us back to the Roots-Searching Park to enjoy evening entertainment, which included a fashion show, music, dancing, displays of the daily life of Hmong farmers and, most importantly, a bonfire surrounded by dancing and fireworks.
It was a fantastic and unforgettable evening. Our group was treated with respect and with their utmost hospitality and generosity. The people of Ciu Xing village sacrificed their land for the building of the park and welcomed me (and the visiting group) as their long lost cousins.
As a descendant of people of Diaspora, the longing for home has always been in my mind, and the urge to search for the land of my ancestors, Hmong history and my identity has always been part of my life. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint where exactly in China my ancestors came from, but the urge to search has finally ended with the welcoming home by the Ciu Xing Hmong villagers and the establishment of the Roots-Searching Part.
Despite the fact that the Hmong of Ciu Xing Village also don’t know where exactly my ancestors were from, they and I have attached to each other since my first trip there in 2008; we accept each other as long lost relatives. In 2008, during my quest to learn my history and locate the site of my ancestral home in China, I found the Hmong in Ciu Xing Village to be extremely warm, friendly, generous, and kind.
Additionally, they have kept intact much of Hmong culture and language, which are similar to ours in America. Immediately, I feel a connection to them – as if my ancestors have guided me to this village. And, as such, I continued to make more visits.
The more I came, the more I feel as if we are linked one way or another to each other and this must be my fate…the fate that I might be a descendant of a common ancestor with them or member of the same people; as we Hmong people say “bamboos of one clump and trees from the same roots.”
In late 2013, I got a call from Yang Yonghua, a resident of the Ciu Xing Village, and the Vice-President of the Xingwen Hmong Cultural Development Association. He told me about their intention to build the Roots-Searching Park or Center to honor the search for an ancestral home that I and other Hmong have been on. In early 2014, he called me again and told me that construction has begun and he wanted to work with me to set a date for me to come to the opening ceremony. As a result, the dream for a Roots-Searching Park became a reality; a symbol of connection has been made and this type of park might be the first in China or anywhere else. This historic park or monument was made possible in Xingwen because of the visionary leadership and generosity of the local government, the sacrifice of the Ciu Xing villagers, and the unity, generosity, and cooperation of the Xingwen Hmong.
Xingwen County (菫匡群), which shares border with Yunnan and Guizhou, is in the Yibin Prefecture in Southeast of Sichuan (愷뇽) Province. It is situated in the heart of the triangle of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan, the region marked by the historic Long March (낀瀝) from 1934 to 1935, led by Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and other Communist Party leaders.
It is remote, but rich with cultural diversity, history, natural wonders and human resources. The county has a population of nearly 500,000, and the Hmong is one of the larger and more visible ethnic groups. The economy of Xingwen County, especially the rural areas, relies heavily on agriculture (such as tobacco, corn and potato) and coal mining, in addition to services, and other small-scale industries, such as construction and alcohol distillery.
Xingwen and its region are also known to rely on ‘a cup, coffin, bamboo and rock’ – meaning that part of the economy of these areas is supported by alcohol production, and tourism – specifically tourists to see the Bamboo Sea (戡켓賂베벌소무蹈), which cover an area of 120sqkm of mountain slopes at an elevation from 600 to 1000m, is partially used to film the movie “Tiger Crouching, Hidden Dragon,” Hanging Coffins (꺽技및) left by the long vanished Bo ethnic group (who were massacred by Ming Imperial Army 400 years ago), the Tianquan Cave (莖홋떪, the longest cave in China and the well known Stone Forest Geological Park (柯주뒈醴무蹈), one of the top 10 natural wonders of China.
The theme of the visitor center of the Stone Forest Geological Park is on Hmong culture; it includes a Hmong museum, ancestral totems, festival ground, and the House of Hmong King. Also, many Hmong cultural festivals (such as the Huashan Festival) are held at the above mentioned festival ground as cultural showcase for both the locals and tourists; and as a way to preserve Hmong culture.
Another important source of income for the rural people in Xingwen are its young people, who go to work in the cities and send cash home to support their families and the local economy. In some cases, young people leave their children with their parents in the village, and only come home during New Year’s or special events, like weddings or funerals.
Xingwen, once a very remote part of the Southwest China, can now be reached from the airport in Yibin and via cars from Yibin, Zhaotong and Guiyang. A plan is in place to build a railway for a bullet train that will connect Xingwen to Chongqing, Chengdu and the east coast of China, namely Shanghai and other well-developed areas. Linking Xingwen to other cities and the east coast, as well as a major airport and the fast train will provide this county other possibilities, such as tourism and export of local products to other provinces and cities.
In addition to the Hmong in Sichuan (such as Xingwen, Xuyong, Gulin, Gongxian, Junlian), I visited other Hmong communities in the triangle of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Hmong say that people in all three provinces can hear from the crow of a rooster. Hmong villages are scattered along the border of these three provinces; this region is one of the most rugged terrains and inhospitable environments in China.
People here are still in isolation in many ways. An official in Gulin told me that he did not know that there are Hmong in America until about two years ago, when he read a book authored by a Hmong in Xingwen who has visited America.
During the long March, Mao Zedong and his Red Army passed through this region and noted that this is the territory of the Hmong, who were very poor. They found naked Hmong teenagers working in the fields, and said some women did not come outdoors because they did not have clothes. They also wrote that, in some families, one trouser is shared by many men; whoever goes out would use the only trouser they have.
The Red Army noticed that the main staple of the Hmong at the time was corn or maize, nothing else. The Red Army won the heart and mind of many Hmong leaders, and after the war, many Hmong were recruited to join the Communist Party of China.
The Red Army of the Long March, however, left permanent footprints in this region. In a formal banquet in Gulin, my host proudly pointed a dish to me and said, “This dish is made up of wild plants/herbs ate by the Red Army, so we have since adopted it as our dish.” I was also told that one of the many important meetings of the Red Army during the Long March took place in Weixing in the triangle. This was very important meeting because it elevated Mao Zedong to the leader of the Communist Party of China.
Interestingly, the Hmong in this region call themselves “Hmong” and they speak the western branch of the Miao language. This means that they speak the language of the Hmong in Southeast Asia and the United States, though in a varying accent. My theory is that many hundred years ago, the Hmong migrated from this region to Guangxi and Southern Yunnan, and some of their descendants crossed the border into Vietnam, and some of them reached Laos in the late 18th century or early 19th century.
In my previous visits, I found that the dialect of the Hmong in Guangxi and most of the Hmong in Vietnam is very similar to the Hmong of Laos and those who live in the west, including the United States. Additionally, many Hmong I visited use Qhua Yawg, Qhua Zag, Qhua Dub, etc., to refer to their clans – very similar to some Hmong in Vietnam and the Hmong in Laos in the early 20th century. It is believed that these Hmong clan names are Hmong in origin (some scholars have suggested that the clan names, such as Yang, Lee and Vang are not Hmong in origin).
Mountains dominate the terrains of this region; everywhere I went I saw mountains, vertical cliffs, ridges, deep canyons, and narrow valleys. At some vista points on the mountaintop, I could see one mountain after another one and deep canyons, just like in paintings. It reminded me of what an elder Chinese told me in 1993:”The Emperor has 10,000 soldiers, but the Hmong have 10,000 mountains.”
It is very cold during the winter and early spring, but cool in May and early June. In late April, when I passed through the mountainous areas of Gulin and Xuyong (Sichuan province), I felt chill and noticed fog and occasional rain. My bus took me across beautiful mountain ranges through the counties of Gulin and Xuyong, where many Hmong and other ethnic groups live.
Their terraced fields and houses were a reminder of the hard life of the people who tend to them day and night, in addition to carrying crops up and down the fields. The high altitude makes rice an unsuitable crop here, so these terraces are used for corn, potato, tobacco, buckwheat, and other highland crops.
In Gulin, some Hmong officials from Guizhou came to the welcoming banquet, and they, too, call themselves Hmong. One of them, an official of Mo Shan County (Guizhou), is a master of the Qeej and took the stage to skillfully show what he can do with the Qeej. In 2009, I led a group of international scholars to visit Qianxi (Western Guizhou) and the Hmong there also call themselves Hmong.
In addition to these encounters of Hmong in Guizhou, I visited Shimenkan in Weining County, Guizhou, where the Rev. Samuel Pollard had lived, preached and died. The Rev. Samuel Pollard (1864 -1915), was British Methodist missionary to Shimenkan, where he converted many of the Ah Mao (one of the sub-groups under the lumping name, Miao) in Weining to Christianity. He was also credited with building a school for Ah Mao children and creating the Pollard Script or Miao script that is still in use today, mostly by Christian Ah Mao. He died in Shimenkan in 1915 and was buried on the hill, above the site of his home, church and school.
A local Rev. Pollard expert in Shimenkan told me that Rev. Pollard won the heart and mind of the Ah Mao because he, unlike others in the region, treated the Ah Mao as equals adn with respect. Additionally, he ate their food, wore straw shoes and lived a very simple life among the Ah Mao. Moreover, he encouraged them to preserve their culture and tradition, including the use of the Qeej.
In Yunnan, I visited several villages: I visited two villages (the first one is Ah Mao and the second one is Hmong village) in Yanjin, one Ah Mao village in Yiliang, and one Ah Mao village in Zhaotong. I met with many officials of both Hmong and non-Hmong decent in these areas and had good conversations with them about the Hmong in northern Yunnan. They are poor and, like the rest of the region, many young Hmong went to work in the city and send money home to support their families.
These young people have become part of the phenomenon known in China as “floating population” or migrant workers. It is estimated that more than 200 million people in China are floating in the big cities. In Shanghai alone, for example, there are 10,000 young Hmong from Yunnan and other provinces, who work and live there as “floating people.”
To counter a potential ripple effect from American financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese government poured enormous money into building a ‘new China,’ which temporary provided jobs for the floating people (and income to their families back home).
Paved or concrete roads to local towns link most of the Hmong villages I visited in the triangle. Their children have access to education: first to ninth grade is free for all children. They seemed to benefit from the prosperity of the Chinese economy; newly built homes are seen in most villages. Some villages are built by the government as part of relocation program — to move Hmong from the mountains into the lowlands.
After three weeks with the Hmong in the triangle, I left Zhaotong for Kunming to visit Hmong students and Xiong Youyao, whom I have known since 1988. Xiong is an official of the Yunnan’s Office of Minority Affairs, an Adjunct Faculty of Yunnan University of Nationalities in Kunming, and a doctoral student in Shanghai Normal University.
On the way to the Yunnan University of Nationalities to meet with Hmong students, we discussed many issues, including human trafficking, focusing on Hmong girls from Vietnam to China; an issue he spends his free time on remedying. Many Hmong and non-Hmong men go to Vietnam to court girls, asking girl to accompanying him to China where he would marry her and give her a better life. She then comes with him on a motorcycle and they would cross the unchecked border in the rural area.
Once in China, he would sell her out to one of the many rural Chinese men who could not find wives. Most of these cases are underground and no one hears from these girls again. But there are a few cases that have surfaced because of runaway girls.
Occasionally, police call Xiong for help because victims often don’t speak Chinese well or have no contact information of her parents. He said these cases become more common now.
The sex imbalance in China has become a major problem, partly due to the one child policy and the fact that rural Chinese parents prefer a son and other factors. It is estimated that there are more than 20 million men in China without wives. Some of these men and their families are willing to pay up to US$20,000 for a wife.
A group of Hmong students gathered at the Yunnan University of Nationalities to meet with me, and I was delighted to speak to them in Hmong; due to regional accent, some understood me better than the others. Some are more familiar with Hmong American accent because they have access to Hmong American songs, videos and other media. These students wanted to know about Hmong Americans and how to prepare for American universities, so I spent more than an hour with them answering their questions. I also gave them a pep talk about how to survive university, globalization and the 21st century.
After the discussion, officers of Hmong student club joined Xiong Youyao and me for dinner at a local restaurant. There we continued our discussion on Hmong and they shared with me their life before coming to the university. Some of them lived in a very rural area, where they had to help their parents in the fields and raise their brothers and sister. They all knew about poverty; a few of them said their fathers work out of town to support their families.
The majority of them came from farming families and were poor, relying heavily on scholarship to keep them in school. They also knew that they are the few chosen or the lucky ones. Most of their friends back home did not have the opportunity to attend university because of the lack of financial support or poor academic records.
To mark the conclusion of my visit to the Hmong in the triangle of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan, I ordered from the restaurant one dish of Cej (in Hmong) or qiao (逢) in Chinese. Cej is from the family of buckwheat. Old Hmong oral stories often mention “kuam cej kuam xua iab” or bitter buckwheat. It is the staple crop that was used only as a last resort to prevent starvation.
In the highlands with poor soil, they could not grow rice or corn, so they grew buckwheat, which can grow in poor acidic soils without excessive nutrients and nitrogen. Sometimes, they grew all of them in different fields: rice, corn and buckwheat. When they run out of rice, they use corn, and when they run out of corn, they turn to buckwheat.
I ordered this bitter staple food to remind me of my humble background and my ancestors who lived in these regions. It was my way of saying I understand my history and the hardships of my people. Additionally, it reminded me that the Hmong and their officials in the triangle treated me very well; they offered me the best food and drink they had, and welcomed me wholeheartedly to their towns and villages.
In brief, I have always wondered how the Hmong people survive in any place they go-whether in the isolated, remote mountains or in the lowland practicing rice paddy fields, in the rural village or in the city, in impoverish Laos or in America. I think I found some of the answers with the Hmong in the triangle. Although most Hmong in the triangle are doing better economically than when Mao Zedong found their forefathers almost a century ago, the majority of them continue to be poorer, when compared to other people of today’s China.
Some of the Hmong in the triangle live not only in isolation, but poverty due to their environment and lack of access to good education, information, market and technology. The Hmong, like bristle-cone pine on the rock, have been exposed to all types of weather, climate and conditions, but they won’t die. They won’t die because of HOPE. They do not disappear because of their perseverance, adaptability, and strong identity.
Disclaimer: The author uses the first person “I” throughout the article to indicate that the paper covers only his perspective of the visit (not including the perspective of every Hmong-American who joined the visit). In this manner, so others may write their own accounts of the visit. The name, Hmong, is used in this paper to refer to the Hmong in the triangle with a few mentions of the Ah Mao. The Hmong and the Ah Mao are two of at least four large sub-groups who are lumped together under the name Miao (춰)in China.
The author would like to thank Dr. Ida Bowers and Ms. Hlee Lee for their review and proofread this article. He is indebted to his many hosts in China and the many Hmong and officials he met during the visit. He will always remember their generosity and kind hospitality.
The Author ia a Fulbright Scholar and Sasakawa Fellow, Kou Yang is Professor Emeritus of California State University, Stanislaus. With an extensive publication record on Hmong Diaspora, history and culture, the Hmong-American experience, Lao culture and the American experiences of Indochinese refugees, his more than 20 essays have appeared in widely-consulted peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies Review, Asian Pacific Migration Journal, Hmong Studies Journal, Miao Research Journal, Journal of Guizhou University for Nationalities and Journal of Hubei Institute for Nationalities.
In addition, he has contributed chapters to more than five books. He is co-editor of one book and the author of one book. His many articles have appeared in many newspapers, including Asian American Press, Modesto Bee and Fresno Bee.
Since 1986, Professor Kou Yang has added a critical international component to his research and teaching, when he spent six months studying and teaching in China. In 2004, he led the California State University Stanislaus’ Fulbright-Hay Group Project to China, and then, in 2009, he was instrumental in taking a group of international scholars on a post-conference tour of Guizhou.
He has also made an additional seven trips to China, including his 2014 visit, which he was a guest of honor at the opening of the (Hmong) Roots-Searching Park in the triangle of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan. He has presented papers in many international conferences, held in countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
For research and leisure, he has travelled widely, with visits to Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Germany, France, Italy, Laos, Malaysia, Monaco, Switzerland and Vietnam.
Dr. Kou Yang has 15-years experience in Social Work, and a long history of professional and community service. His social work experience includes poverty reduction, child welfare and family services, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health.