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The Hmong: A History of Resistance and Aspirations for Autonomy

The Hmong: A History of Resistance and Aspirations for Autonomy

While many American’s are unaware of the role the Hmong played in the Vietnam conflict, or of who the Hmong are in general, the Hmong greatly aided the United States and sacrificed many men to the cause. Through an analysis of the Hmong’s history of resistance against greater powers and countries, mainly China, it is clear that a main initiative of the Hmong has been freedom and autonomy. Overall, their history of resistance gives an understanding as to why the Hmong were willing to aid the United States during the Vietnam conflict.

The Hmong’s history dates back to approximately 4,600 years ago in central China. Originally, the Hmong came from one of many ethnic groups that the Han Chinese called Miao (1). The name Hmong is alleged to mean “those who must have their freedom and independence" (2). Most always, the Hmong have lived in high altitudes, as they served as “a place of political resistance and cultural refusal" (3). However, it is the Hmong’s history with imperialism and resistance that forced them into living in high altitudes in which they could live in isolation and attempt for autonomy. According to Hmong author Ya Po Cha,

"For as far back as historians can trace, Hmong were perfectly content with what they could grow, hunt, raise, make or trade for. Hmong have always lived a hard life, but have lived it with pride and dignity. Hmong would not hesitate to drop the handle of a hoe and pick up that of a sword or whatever weapon was available to fight to the death for our freedom. The truth is we just wanted to be free—free from other people’s rule and oppression. This philosophy has not changed to this day" (4).

Overall, the Hmong’s desire for freedom became a running theme in their history.

The history of the Hmong consists of only short periods of peace and much bloodshed and war. In the 13th century, the Yuan Dynasty was run by the Mongols, who proved ruthless rulers. The Hmong, together with the Han Chinese, worked to overthrowing the Dynasty. After the fall of the Yuan and under the rule of Wu Tia Bao, the Hmong lived in peace for a short time (5). However, when the Ming dynasty came to power in the 1368, the Hmong experienced much turmoil with campaigns of “extermination” (6). Hmong uprisings continued through the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty and proved the Hmong fierce fighters—often very outnumbered, the Hmong were only defeated in their rebellions with great effort on the part of the Chinese (7). In their resistance against the Ming emperor, only the Hmong who retreated to higher elevations in more remote areas of China were able to live free of Chinese rule (8). In 1622, the Chinese began constructing a wall west of Hu-Nan in an attempt segregate these Hmong from the rest of the population—“a reminder as to how much of a threat Hmong posed to the Chinese” (9).

The Qing dynasty began in 1644, and proved just as ruthless to the Hmong as the dynasty before it (10). Rebellions of the Hmong against the Qing dynasty began due to the dynasty’s heavy taxation of the Hmong. Large-scale uprisings started in 1698 and occurred again from 1733-37, 1795-1803 and 1854-73 (Miao Rebellion) (11). To give a better understanding of the mentality that the Hmong had in ensuring their fate and freedom of oppression, one story speaks great lengths. In 1730 certain Hmong warriors killed their wives and children before leaving for battle, as they believed having no ties and “nothing to lose” would make them better and more fierce fighters (12). Unfortunately, the Hmong were unable to defeat the Chinese forces and during this dynasty they were forced to migrate south into the hills of northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand (13). Journalist Anne Faidman accurately described that:

"The history of the Hmong yields several lessons that anyone who deals with them might do well to remember. Among the most obvious of these are that the Hmong do no like to take orders; that they do not like to lose; that they would rather flee, fight, or die than surrender; that they are not intimidated by being outnumbered; that they are rarely persuaded that the customs of other cultures, even those more powerful than their own, are superior; and that they are capable of getting very angry" (14).

In the end, it was this mentality and half a million Hmong’s new location in the high hills of Indochina that allowed for the Hmong to be utilized by western forces in future conflicts with Asian countries (15).

During World War II, the certain clans of Hmong became involved in the war and in aiding the French. The Hmong had previously fought against French colonial rule in Vietnam, but were unsuccessful in their plight. Thus, the French created the Kaitong, Hmong clan leaders that had to answer directly to the French (16). During the war, Vang Pao became a Major General in the Royal Lao Army and fought for the French against the Japanese (17).

The French’s use of Hmong soldiers created a gateway into the United States utilizing the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Staring in 1963 during the CIA’s secret war in Laos, the United States recruited Hmong soldiers with the help of General Vang Pao (18). The United States believed that if Laos fell to communism, so too would the rest of Indochina. Thus, the United States gave support to the anticommunist government in Laos and also aimed to stop North Vietnams military supply line that ran through southeastern Laos. In this way the United States could fight a proxy war and used Hmong as their guerrilla soldiers—whom came to number over 30,000 (19). The Hmong were not a fan of communism and saw it as another encroachment on their autonomy, and thus they agreed to help the United States (20). Again, as their history foreshadowed, the Hmong proved strong fighters during the conflict. Hmong men “fought the ground war, flew combat missions, directed air strikes, rescued downed American flyers, fought behind enemy lines, gathered intelligence on the movements of North Vietnamese troops and more” (21). Even Hmong women and children took up the cause. One Hmong soldier named Moua remembered that women and children aided men in working day and night to construct the first US airstrip in Laos. Moua stated, “We were willing to die for freedom, and committed every ounce of energy to gain that" (22).

Unfortunately, while many Hmong gave great efforts to the conflict, they were not treated well by the United States. Compared to American soldiers, Hmong soldiers died at a rate ten times higher, and historians estimate that approximately one-tenth of the Hmong population in Laos died during the war—most of which were civilians (23). Moreover, while the United States paid Vietnamese army privates $339/month, Hmong soldiers received a pay of 2,000 kip or $3/month! The former CIA director Colby stated that it was the Hmong who saved thousands of American GIs by keeping the North Vietnamese from furthering the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos. However, it was not until the 1980s that the United States even fully acknowledged their role in the conflict (24).

Hmong experienced more hardship after the Vietnam conflict came to an end and Laos fell to communism. In 1975, the Viet Cong and the Lao communist government began to persecute the Hmong in Laos for their role in the war. The Pathet Lao imprisoned many Hmong in “reeducation” camps (25). Many Hmong tried to escape by crossing the Mekong River and into refugee camps in Thailand (26). Sadly, many Hmong did not make it past the river and either drowned or died from communist fire (27). Around 40,000 Hmong made it to the Thai refugee camps (28). However, those who made it Thailand still faced persecution, as camp conditions were very poor with little food and clean water. Additionally, Hmong faced persecution such the rape of many Hmong women by Thai police, who received little to no punishment (29). Fortunately, the refugee camps did offer Hmong with refugee status and helped to disperse thousands of Hmong into Western countries, such as the United States and France (30). Today, many Hmong have made their home in the United States but, as history could predict, they have held close to their own culture.

Overall, there are clear patterns in which stronger countries have tried to take advantage of the Hmong. Since their beginning, the Hmong have struggled against greater powers in their plight for self-rule. Despite their hardships, it is through an understanding of their history of conflict and their determination for autonomy, that the Hmong can be seen and respected as a people of resilience and perseverance.


Baker, Dian, May Ying Ly, and Colleen Marie Pauza. “Expanding Boundaries: Hmong Nurses in America’s Secret War, 1954-1974.” In Women’s History Magazine. 18-25.

Cha, Ya Po. An Introduction to Hmong Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992. Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 1999.

Lor, Gjinn. “The Vietnam War: Hmong Soldier’s Personal Experiences in the Secret War.” Thesis for the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin-South. December 2008. Accessed February 18, 2016.

Magagnini, Stephen. “Hmong Vietnam War Vets Still Seeking Recognition.” Sacremento Bee. November 9, 2013. Accessed February 13, 2016.

Owens, Christine Wilson. “Hmong Cultural Profile.” Ethnomed. May 1, 2007, Accessed October 30, 2015.

Romero, Mary and Abigail J. Stewart. Women’s Untold Stories: Breaking Silence, Talking Back, Voicing Complexity. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

“The Split Horn.” PBS. Accessed May 1, 2016.

1. Ya Po Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010), 8.

2. Dian Baker, May Ying Ly, and Colleen Marie Pauza, “Expanding Boundaries: Hmong Nurses in America’s Secret War, 1954-1974,” In Women’s History Magazine, 18.

3. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 20.

4. Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 285.

7. Ibid.

8. Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, 11.

9. Ibid., 12.

10. Ibid., 13.

11. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 285.

12. Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 17.

13. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 285.

14. Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You, 17.

15. Ibid.

16. Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, 16.

17. Ibid.

18. Christine Wilson Owens, “Hmong Cultural Profile,” Ethnomed, May 1, 2007, (accessed October 30, 2015), np.

19. Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You, 125.

20. “The Split Horn,” PBS, (accessed May 1, 2016), np.

21. Ibid.

22. Stephen Magagnini, “Hmong Vietnam War Vets Still Seeking Recognition,” Sacremento Bee, November 9, 2013, (accessed February 13, 2016).

23. “The Split Horn,” PBS, np.

24. Owens, “Hmong Cultural Profile,” np.

25. Mary Romero and Abigail J. Stewart, Women’s Untold Stories: Breaking Silence, Talking Back, Voicing Complexity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 230.

26. Owens, “Hmong Cultural Profile,” np.

27. Gjinn Lor, “The Vietnam War: Hmong Soldier’s Personal Experiences in the Secret War,” Thesis for the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin-South, December 2008, (accessed February 18, 2016), 42.

28. Romero and Stewart, Women’s Untold Stories, 230.

29. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 1999), 477.

30. Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, 17.

30. Cha, An Introduction to Hmong Culture, 17.