Beginning in 1975, Hmong refugees from Laos began arriving in the United States. They settled in locations across America, including Utah. Often, their sponsors were religious, and the Hmong would sometimes convert to the religion of their sponsors.
The Hmong who settled in Utah were exposed to Mormonism and many were converted to the religion in the early 80s. This group subsequently resettled in California, where they make up the backbone of the Mormon Hmong population there.
Because an aspect of one’s cultural identity, whatever the culture, is the things you do as a community, preserving their cultural heritage is important to the Hmong. Many Hmong who still practice the “Old Way” of animism and ancestor worship resist converting to any Christian religion because they fear it will take from them what it means to be who they are as a people. Indeed, the clash of traditional Hmong culture with Western societal norms has produced a Hmong identity crisis that has been explored by the Hmong anthropologist, Gary Yia Lee, in his article “Hmong Post-War Identity Production”.
However, for the purposes of this post, I want to draw attention to three key similarities between traditional Hmong cultural rites and values and those of Mormonism. My intention is not to proselytize, either for the traditional Hmong religion or for Mormonism. Rather, it is to present some similarities between the two worlds I inhabit and write about. This may, in turn, help those who are curious about Hmong or Mormon literature to understand the background of each.
I worked with the Hmong as a Mormon missionary in the early 90s. I soon learned that instead of pushing my religion on the Hmong people I met, I should learn about their religion and culture first and then build on things we had in common. During my mission and since, I studied the traditional Hmong religion and culture and found that we do have many similarities. Here are just three things that both Mormonism and traditional Hmong culture focus on, just in different ways.
Focus on the Family
- Hmong: The family unit is the core of Hmong cultural life. In the old country, and sometimes even in America, it is not uncommon to see three or four generations in one household. Not only are the living family relationships important to the Hmong (bound together by tradition and great food), but they also practice a form of ancestor worship in which they venerate and remember their loved ones who have passed on, and propitiate them for blessings upon the household. Many of the elders have the names of their ancestors memorized up to four generations.
- Mormon: At the core of Mormon theology and cultural life is the family unit too. Mormons are encouraged to develop and strengthen their relationships with their family, whether it’s children, spouse, siblings, parents, grandparents, or extended family. Mormons also have a keen interest in learning more about their deceased family members, through genealogy and family history. Mormons will follow their ancestor line back as far as it will go, but the bare minimum encouraged is four generations too.
Focus on the Spiritual
- For the Hmong, everything has a spiritual aspect. In the traditional household, there is the spirit of the doorway (dab txhiaj meej), the spirit of the central pillar (dab ncej cuab), the spirit of the hearth (dab qhov cub), the spirit of the bedroom (dab roog), and so forth. Each of these spirits must be propitiated at certain times for the home to be blessed.
- The Hmong also believe that when a person is sick, his or her spirit has wandered and must be brought back. They enlist the shaman for this. The shaman enters the spirit realm, does battle or negotiates with the evil spirits who took the sick person’s spirit, ransoms it, and then leads it back to its corporeal home.
- The three main life events—birth, marriage, and death—all involve rituals to keep evil spirits at bay and invite good spirits in. Not long after birth, a baby’s spirit is called to stay in the body (hu plig) and is “tied” there with a special necklace. During the marriage ceremony, the bride is blessed as she comes into the groom’s home. At funerals, the deceased is dressed in special funeral clothing that has been hand sewn and taken care of against the event of death. As part of the funeral, at the very beginning, the way-pointer will “tell the way” (qhuab ke) for the deceased’s spirit to pass obstacles on his or her way to the land of the ancestors. Reading or listening to the chants sung at a funeral is truly fascinating.
- Mormons have similar concerns with the spiritual. They believe that we each have a spiritual side that needs nourishment from seeking after spiritual light and truth, often in the form of wisdom literature, and from living according to certain standards of conduct.
- When a person is sick, he or she will ask to be given a Priesthood blessing of healing.
- Ceremonies at birth, marriage, and death also correlate with the Hmong traditions. Soon after birth, a baby will be given a blessing. At marriage in Mormon temples, a couple will make promises to God and to each other, and are promised blessings from God based on their faithfulness. At funerals, the deceased is dressed in his or her temple clothing, assuming he or she was an active member of the Church, and a blessing called a “dedication” is said over the grave. Finally, Mormons believe in doing work, by proxy, for the dead in temples. This belief is one of the motivations for their interest in genealogy.
Focus on Self-Reliance
- Hmong: The Hmong have a long history of being both independent and industrious. When they were in China, they had to defend themselves repeatedly from the Han Chinese, because the Han wanted them to assimilate. Their lifestyle was an agricultural one. They were in touch with the land and the world around them. In the most traditional of villages, before the wars of the 20th century, everything about their lives—their food, clothing, shelter—came from the rural world around them. They depended upon no one. They were free.
- Mormon: Mormons also believe in being self-reliant. They are encouraged to get a good education, work to provide for their families, maintain a storage of food and other necessities that will last at least 72 hours and up to 2 years. In the early days of the Church, Mormons were closer to the land than most of them are now. But as modern society moved away from agriculture to become first industrial and now digital, Mormons have found ways to be self-reliant that depend less on reaping what they sow themselves (e.g., gardening) and more on the surplus of modern living.
This is not an exhaustive list of the similarities, of course. And I recognize that these may just be coincidence, but they may also explain the attraction some Hmong have toward Mormonism. Regardless, the similarities are interesting to think about.
What is your experience with Hmong culture? With Mormon culture?