Hmong Means Free?
This short article is a response to the Author, Chan, in regard to the book Hmong means Free. This article is not to criticize but to clarify the misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “Hmong”. Chan has stated that “The word Hmong means ‘free'” (1994:3). Let me begin by saying that the word Hmong does not mean free. Hmong, like other minority groups around the world, is just a group of people whose lifestyle often clashes with the dominant groups. Currently, millions of Hmong still live in china and through out the world. Graham did research in China and noticed that the Chinese called the Hmong “Miao” which means sons of the soil; however, the author also asserted that the Miao called themselves Hmong. The term “Miao” has been indiscriminately applied to other non-Chinese groups (1954:1). I do not know who coined and translated the word “Hmong” to mean “free”. However, I am sure most of the literatures found in libraries that contain the word “Hmong” either are recent or are from the group of Hmong who used to live in Laos. Very few works have been written by Hmong from other countries such as China, Thailand, etc.
In the book entitled Hmong Means Free, Chan did not cite any source that might support such translation. As a Hmong educator, I know that the Hmong people have not gotten anything for free nor have they ever been freed. The content of the book Hmong Means Free tends to perpetuate the consistency of the Hmong persistent plight to gain autonomy. The oppression and persecution of the Hmong dated as far as its history. In China according to the written literature and oral history, the Hmong people had fought for their freedom but continued to be oppressed by the dominant group. Laos is a good example of such oppression because it was a recent case history, and many elders are now living evidence of that history.
I remember reading some of Dr. Dao Yang’s works during my graduate research in 1993 at Mankato State University. So far as I know, Dr. Yang, a respective member of the Hmong community in the twin city in Minnesota, has asserted that Hmong means “free man” or “those who must have their freedom and independence” (1979). I called Dr. Yang and had a long conversation with him in which he had no concrete evidence to support his translation¯that the word Hmong means “free man” or “free people.” Other authors have used such translation as well (Bertrais, 1977; Knoll, 1982; Santoli, 1988). Many writers tend to overlook the simplicity of the meaning of the word “Hmong”. Many works including Chan’s show a historical sketch of the Hmong; however, no attempt has been made to clarify the translation of the word “Hmong”. As I recall, Yang might be the first Hmong to label the word “Hmong” to have such meaning as “free man” or “free people”. When I questioned him, Dr. Yang said that its because Hmong want to be free and to roam without having anyone controlling them and interfering with their lives. I would recommend that anybody who uses the word “Hmong” to mean “free” either have to change such translation or to do a more elaborate and thorough research. I am sure if given the chance people would want to be free and independent; however, wanting and meaning are two totally different things.
The name “Hmong”, like the name of any other groups of people, has no abysmal meaning. It is just a name given to a group of people. Let me give you some example to illustrate my point. For instance, the word “America” derived from an Italian merchant and navigator named Amerigo Vespucci who discovered the West, which now is known as America or the “American”. Likewise, the word “Indian” was given as a label for the Native-American because the early explorer got lost and thought that they had reached the East Indies. Another example, the word “Chinese” cannot be translated either. The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “Chinese” as “a native or inhabitant of China or one of his descendants.”
It is true that the Hmong people have struggled to gain autonomy from the larger and more powerful groups. Often, which resulted in Hmong being labeled as: “Savage”, “Barbarous”, “Cat”, etc. In certain situations, labeling may have no detrimental consequences. In others, labeling people is another clever way of criticizing and classifying them as less humans than others (see E. B. Tylor). Now that changing the title of Chan’s book might be adamantine, hopefully future researchers and educators who wish to publish an article or a book about the “Hmong” would carefully consider its correct meaning and usage. Although many authors meant well, we as researchers and educators need to do more research before accepting something to be true.