When Western authors came in contact with Hmong people, beginning in the 18th century, they referred to them in writing by ethnonyms assigned by the Chinese (i.e., Miao, or variants).This practice continued into the 20th century. Even ethnographers studying the Hmong people in Southeast Asia often referred to them as Meo, a corruption of Miao applied by Thai and Lao people to the Hmong. Although “Meo” was an official term, it was often used as an insult against Hmong people and it is considered to be highly derogatory.

Unknown Vietnam 2012, stage of Satwa Guna project

In the middle of the 20th century, a concerted effort was made to refer to Hmong by their endonym in scholarly literature. By the 1970s, it became standard to refer to the entire ethnic group as “Hmong.” This was reinforced during the influx of Hmong immigrants to the United States after 1975. Research proliferated, much of it being directed toward the American Hmong Der community.Several states with Hmong populations issued official translations only in the Hmong Der dialect. At the same time, some “Mong” Leng people voiced concerns that the supposed inclusive term “Hmong” only served to exclude them from the national discourse.

The issue came to a head during the passage of California State Assembly Bill (AB) 78, in the 2003–2004 season. Introduced by Doua Vu and Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, District 31 (Fresno), the bill encouraged changes in secondary education curriculum to include information about the Secret War and the role of Hmong people in the war. Furthermore, the bill called for the use of oral histories and first hand accounts from Hmong people who had participated in the war and who were caught up in the aftermath. Originally, the language of the bill mentioned only “Hmong” people, intending to include the entire community. A number of Mong Leng activists, led by Dr. Paoze Thao (Professor of Linguistics and Education at California State University, Monterey Bay), drew attention to the problems associated with omitting “Mong” from the language of the bill. They noted that despite nearly equal numbers of Hmong Der and Mong Leng in the United States, resources are disproportionately directed toward the Hmong Der community. This includes not only scholarly research, but also the translation of materials, potentially including curriculum proposed by the bill. Despite these arguments, “Mong” was not added to the bill. In the version that passed the assembly, “Hmong” was replaced by “Southeast Asians”, a more broadly inclusive term.

Dr. Paoze Thao and some others feel strongly that “Hmong” can refer to only Hmong Der people and does not include “Mong” Leng people. He feels that the usage of “Hmong” in reference to both groups perpetuates the marginalization of Mong Leng language and culture. Thus, he advocates the usage of both “Hmong” and “Mong” when referring to the entire ethnic group. Other scholars, including anthropologist Dr. Gary Yia Lee (a Hmong Der person), suggest that “Hmong” has been used for the past 30 years to refer to the entire community and that the inclusion of Mong Leng people is understood. Some argue that such distinctions create unnecessary divisions within the global community and will only confuse non-Hmong and Mong people trying to learn more about Hmong and Mong history and culture.

As a compromise alternative, the ethnologist Jacques Lemoine has begun to use the term (H)mong when referring to the entirety of the Hmong and Mong community.

The Hmong culture usually consists of a dominant hierarchy within the family. Males hold dominance over females and thus, a father is considered the head in each household. Courtships take place during the night when a man goes to visit a woman at her house and tries to woo her with sweet-talks through the thin walls of the house where the woman’s bedroom may be located. If a man kidnaps an unwilling woman as a bride, she would have to marry him or risk having a tarnished reputation.

Today, bridenapping is uncommon because those marriages can end in divorce since women are no longer afraid of a tarnished reputation. During a marriage, the man pays the woman’s family for taking away a daughter who is economically essential to her parents. Hmong women retain their own maiden names following marriage, but attends to the ancestors of their husbands. The children they bear take their husbands’ clan names. Consequently, the Hmong favour having sons over daughters because sons perpetuate the clan.

The Hmong practice shamanism and ancestor worship. Like other animists, they also believe that all things are endowed with spiritual beings and so should be respected.

See Anne Fadiman’s ethnography The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down for more info.

Hmong families in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos practice subsistence agriculture, supplemented by hunting and some foraging. Although they have chickens, pigs and cows, the traditional staple of the Hmong consists mostly of vegetable dishes and rice. Domestic animals are highly valued and killed for consumption only during special events such as the New Year’s Festival or during events such as a birth, marriage, or funeral ritual.