Hmong Traditional Religion in Australia
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
Published in “From Laos to Fairfield with Faiths and Cultures”, eds. Lee, G. Y. and Vanthavong, P. Cabramatta: Lao Community Advancement (NSW) Co-operative, 2011.
A revised Chinese version was published in MINZU YANJIU – Ethno-National Studies, Vol. 4, 2011. Translation into Chinese by Mr Hou Wanping and submission assistance by Prof. Zhang Xiao of the University of Guizhou, China, are most warmly appreciated. It is the first time that a Hmong scholar from outside China has an academic paper published by this prestigious journal.
This article discusses traditional religion among the Hmong living in Australia, a minority whose many members still reside in southern China and Southeast Asia. Religion is taken to be a cultural system consisting of beliefs and practices that regulate social relationships based on ritual observances, spiritual worship, and clearly prescribed sanctions. The paper explores this belief system in relation to what the Hmong used to follow traditionally in the highlands of their former home in Laos and what they are now able to maintain in their new life in Australia since they moved there as refugees from the Lao civil war after 1975. Also examined are issues relating to social, cultural, and legal barriers against the practice of ancestor worship and other forms of animism and how they affect the future of the Hmong.
Although it is not clear where the Hmong originated from, they form part of the Miao nationality in China with the Qhoxiong, the Hmu and A Hmao peoples who are believed to have lived in China for the past 4,500 years. Those who are now in Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand are descendants of migrants who left China in the 19th century. Today, the Hmong are dispersed into many parts of the world. Together with the other three Miao groups, they number more than 10 million in China. There are nearly 5 million Hmong world-wide if we add the following to the China figure of 3.2 million: 787,604 in Vietnam; 460,000 in Laos; 140,000 in Thailand; some 2,000-3,000 in Myanmar; between 200,000-300,000 in the USA; 15,000 in France; 2,400 in Australia; 800 in Canada; about 500 in Argentina; and 110 in Germany .
The earliest Hmong to settle in Australia as political asylum seekers arrived in March 1976 from Laos and were accepted by the Australian government from refugee camps in Thailand. Like other Indochinese refugees, the Hmong moved to Australia after the communist take-over of Indochina. Small numbers followed in subsequent years, and their number gradually increased. They established themselves mostly in Sydney in the state of New South Wales; Hobart in Tasmania; Innisfail and Cairns and later Brisbane in Queensland; and Melbourne in Victoria. Perth, the capital of Western Australia, also has a number of Hmong families. Brisbane, with its cheaper houses, now has the biggest number standing at 647 in 2009. The Hmong Australian population now totals 2470.
In 1978, the Hmong in various states set up the Hmong-Australia Society, a mutual assistance association to assist with the needs of new Hmong arrivals in Australia. It has done a great deal to guide members through their settlement in the new country. Over the years, the Society has received much help from various levels of government. The Fairfield City Council in Sydney, for example, has generously allowed local Hmong residents access to local parks and community halls in Carramar and Bonnyrigg to hold meetings or to celebrate Hmong New Year festivities. Other local organisations such as the Cabramatta Community Centre and the Lao Community Advancement Cooperative have also given much support to the Hmong during the early period of their settlement.
This paper is concerned with the religious practice of the Hmong from Laos who have settled in Australia. This traditional religion and small variations of it can be found among other Hmong in Southeast Asia, but it may be different from the practices of Hmong and Miao groups who live today in their original homeland of southern China. The paper will examine traditional beliefs that are carried over from China after the Hmong’s migration from there to neighbouring countries in the 19th century, as they still have many Chinese influences. However, due to the scattering of Hmong from Laos and Thailand recently to Western countries, these beliefs also include rituals that have been developed since the migration from China. It is hope that the publication of this paper will help Hmong overseas and those in the homeland to exchange information with each other, and to appreciate the rich culture that different Hmong/Miao groups living in different parts of the world may have, differences which altogether make up the global Hmong/Miao identity.
The Hmong Religion
According to Malefijt , religion can be seen as a social institution, a sphere of culture which is manifested through “actions and interactions based upon culturally shared beliefs in sacred supernatural powers.” Like other major components of culture, it is learned and passed down from one generation to the next, undergoing changes in the process of transmission. In this way, religion is a cultural system . It can range from individual and group folk beliefs that give order and meaning to human existence to organised communal practices which are prevalent among the major religions of the world. It is regularised by well-defined values, rituals and rules set down in written or oral texts considered sacred by followers. Religion is primarily directed at fulfilling intangible supernatural aspirations: (1) states of mind such as peace and salvation; (2) transcendental ends like immortality and purification; and (3) beliefs in sacred creatures or objects such as gods, spirits, heaven and hell .
The dispersion of the Hmong into many parts of the world today means that they have been influenced by many neighbouring cultures and affected by many diverse socio-economic factors that bring changes to their society, culture, and religious practice. Traditionally, the Hmong religion is very similar to folk beliefs found among many ethnic groups in China and neighbouring countries such as the Chinese, the I-mien, Khamu, Dai and Lao. It is an assemblage of many belief systems, based mostly on ancestor worship, Confucianism, and animism. Paying respect to ancestors and honouring them on important occasions are traditions that are likely borrowed from the Chinese, while beliefs in the existence of nature spirits are local influences that exist among rural inhabitants of China and Southeast Asia.
Hmong religion is based on beliefs in the existence of: (1) the soul in humans and animals, and its importance in maintaining good health or in causing sickness; (2) household spirits that safeguard the well-being of a household; and (3) natural spirits that can harm as well as protect one’s health, such as spirits of the woods and trees, rocks and streams – known as “wild spirits” (“dab qus” or spirits of nature). The household spirits consist of the door spirit (dab roog), the central post spirit (dab ncej tas), the fortune spirit (xwm kab) and other household spiritual protectors. These spirits and deities are all important in safeguarding the well-being of household members. The house spirits are called “tamed spirits” (“dab nyeg”).
The Hmong thus practice what Tylor  calls Animism or the belief that living things are “animated” by souls. Harris  distinguishes between “Higher animism” and “Lower animism”. With “Lower animism”, the soul suffers no moral punishment and continues after death, regardless of what it did during life. In “Higher animism”, the soul takes rewards or retributions, based on its performance in life. The Hmong have both forms of animism. They believe that each person has three souls: (1) tus plig or soul that stays with the body to keep it in good health during life, (2) tus xyws or ghost that leaves the body after death to become reincarnated following the “soul-realise” ceremony, and (3) tus ntsuj or spirit that goes to join the ancestors in the Afterlife, to which descendants need to make offering of food and paper money after the death of the person. All three souls are commonly referred to simply as plig. This Hmong belief in the soul is comparable to Tylor’s concept of soul, ghost, and shadow, although these have more to do with different states of consciousness and dreams in a person .
For the Hmong, it is vital that they maintain a fine balance between spiritual and physical well-being through respect for and seeking protection from both sets of “tamed” and “wild” spirits, by making offerings of food, animals, incense and paper money to them. Such offerings should also be made to dead ancestors. This practice is sometimes called “ancestor-worship”, although this term does not accurately describe what the Hmong do. They make offerings to ancestors and spirits to obtain spiritual protection, but do not “worship” them. Physical well-being is also obtained by refraining from offending both tamed and wild spirits by not going into domains reserved for them or believed to be inhabited by them. There is strict separation between the human world and the world of the spirits, which should not be violated.
Place of Worship
The Hmong religion does not use a single community facility to gather worshippers in one place such as a church or a temple. It is a very personal and family-focused practice which requires the head of each family to know the main rituals and to be able to perform them as they are needed. All religious rituals relating to household and ancestral “tamed” spirits are done in the private house of the person concerned, except for those involving “wild” spirits of nature which take place in locations outside the house. No set time for when people should get together for worship is required. There is no regular preaching, no bible and no written rules or precepts.
As stated by Lee and Tapp , “a Hmong’s house is his temple and his place of worship; everything should be in its proper place within it.” The house, a simple rectangular structure, is designed specifically for this purpose with a door facing the East (qhov rooj tag) and one facing the South (qhov rooj txuas) for the White Hmong. Most of the rituals are done at the eastern door. The southern door is for everyday use. Blue Mong houses only have one door for general and religious use. The house altar for the Xwm Kab (Fortune Deity) is set up on the main wall on the West which directly faces the eastern door. In traditional villages, the body of a dead person is hung on a stretcher on this western wall during funeral. Near the fireplace, the central post (ncej tag) holding up the house structure is vital as the central location for the house spirits although there is no altar here for them. For some Hmong, the door spirit (dab roog) that protects harvests, money and domestic animals is kept in a bamboo basket in the bedroom of the household head. For others, it is kept on the side of the eastern door.
Apart from designing their houses for religious purpose, the Hmong strongly believe in the power of feng-shui or looj mem (long me) in Hmong, an influence by the Chinese who have dominated them in China for many centuries. Thus, the positioning of a house or a grave is very important. In the old countries of China and Laos, a grave for an ancestor with the best looj mem means that descendants will enjoy good fortune and prospects in their life. Similar beliefs apply to the siting of houses. In a Hmong village, no two houses should be in the line of each other in any direction as it is believed that such positioning will make one house take away the good fortune of the other. Thus, few Hmong houses or graves will be found to be aligned.
In Australia and other Western countries, it is difficult to have a house designed or positioned according to these feng-shui beliefs. The Hmong are no longer free to bury their dead anywhere they like. They have to share a common cemetery with other people with all the graves very close and in line with each other. In any Australian city or town, all the houses are aligned along a street. The Hmong have to compromise and make do with what they can when they have to buy ready-made houses from other people. Such houses may not have an eastern or southern door, so the Hmong use any door for religious ceremonies. Most Western houses also do not have a visible central post, and may have many internal walls, making it difficult to position the various house spirits. The floor is concrete and not dirt, like in a traditional Hmong settlement so that it cannot be used to bury the placenta of new babies who, in nearly all cases, are given birth in hospitals and rarely at the home of their parents. Many houses also do not have a fireplace, so that the burning of paper money is often not possible during sacrificial offerings to ancestors or house spirits. Western house designs and law regarding where to give birth have changed considerably the Hmong’s practice of their religion. In most instances, a Hmong’s house in Australia is no longer convenient as his place of worship. It is more as an abode for living, a mere shelter.
Ceremonies and Rituals
Depending on the need, ceremonies can be performed by the male household head or the spiritual head of a clan or cluster of male relatives. In his absence, minor rituals can be done by the man’s wife. However, more difficult ceremonies are done by ritual experts, or people who have especially learned to perform them such as soul-calling or hu plig, the shaman for spiritual healing (txiv neeb), and various experts skilled in funeral rites like the reed pipe player (txiv qeej), the soul chanter (nkauj plig) and the blessing singers (txiv xaiv).
The most common rituals are carried out when a person is sick and no physical causes for the illness can be found. In such a situation, the Hmong will resort to spiritual healing through shamanism. They believe that when a person experiences severe fright or when evil spirit captures the soul of the sick person either to exchange for food offering, or to punish for trespassing into the forbidden abode of the spirits. For sickness with a physical cause such as a persistent sore or wound, or a broken bone that does not heal, the Hmong will use herbal medicine or tshuaj – either to drink as a concoction or to put on the surface of the affected area, like many Chinese people do. For the herbal medicine to be effective, a fee will have to the paid to the herbalist. In addition, magic incantation (khawv koob) may also be used, formula that contain Chinese and Hmong words being recited into a bowl of water and the magic water is then used to sprinkle on the wound. These formulas can be learned and used by anyone, not just the shaman.
Thus, in order to heal a sickness, the Hmong will resort to several means of healing. They may consult a shaman who has been called upon to become a healer by shamanic spirits. He can exorcise evil spirits, or spells cast by ill-intentioned persons who have used magic formula (tso dab) on the sick person. The shaman will try to recover the lost or separated soul after he diagnoses that it has been taken by evil spirits. He will then put it back to the body of the sick person through shaman trances. This is usually done in two sessions: one to diagnose the sickness, and a second one to cure, using a piglet but it may be dog or a goat. The animal is killed, and its soul is used to exchange for the soul of the sick person from evil spirits who have taken it to redress an offence or to extract food offering.
In special cases, the shaman may decide to hold a ritual to extend the mandate of life on earth for a frail and sick elderly person. This ceremony is called ua neeb ntxiv siav or ntxiv ntaub ntxiv ntawv (extending life mandate). It involves the shaman performing a trance and the killing of a pig to use its soul to exchange for the soul of the sick elder, so that the person can be left in peace and his or her life on earth can be extended by many more years. A white cross is sewn on the back of the person’s black shirt to indicate that he or she has undergone this life-prolonging ceremony.
Spiritual healing can also be achieved by performing a soul-calling ceremony or hu plig to urge a soul who may have wandered away to come back and reunite with the body of the sick person. In cases where the soul has been captured by evil spirits, food and the soul of a chicken, a piglet or even a bull, may be used to exchange for the human soul. This is a more complex ceremony and only a shaman has the skills to do it, as mentioned above. In Australia, the Hmong usually use modern medical care as a first option by consulting their local doctors or going to the nearest hospital. Some have also converted to Christianity or Buddhism, especially in the USA and Thailand. These converts will not use Hmong traditional healing methods based on beliefs in the power of spirits. However, language problems, medical insurance costs, negative experiences with the Australian health care system or a firm belief in Hmong traditions may lead some Hmong (especially the elderly) to continue believing in their old religion and using the methods of curing illnesses based on beliefs in the existence of the soul and spirits.
Apart from healing ceremonies and rituals, there are occasionally other major events or celebrations that involve religion, the most common being: (a) the New Year festival, (b) the ox sacrifice, (c) the door ceremony and (d) the pig feast.
On the last day before the New Year, those Hmong who belong to the same clan get together to undergo the lwm qaib or New Year blessing ceremony in a designated location in the village or a park for those in Australia. A grass rope is made and tied to a small tree, extending to a post at one end. Everybody walks under this rope, three times backward to thank the old year, and three times forward to welcome the new year. During this walking, an elder will hold a live rooster in his hand at the foot of the small tree where the rope is tied to. He will chant blessings for the coming year and send away misfortunes with the passing of the old year. Traditionally, members of the same clan have their own separate New Year blessing ceremony from other clans. However, all clans usually join the same ceremony in Australia and other Western countries, because of the small number of people involved and the problem of organising separate events. This inter-clan participation was not allowed in the old days, as it is believed to be a violation of clan taboos, a violation that will bring illness and calamities.
After this communal blessing ceremony, those who take part go back home and change the paper decoration on the xwm kab altar on the western wall of their house to make a new one where they will offer food, paper money and chicken to the Deity of Fortune. A rooster will be killed to make food for New Year offering to family ancestors and local spirits (laig dab peb caug). A candle and a set of 5 incense sticks are kept burning in front of the xwm kab altar for the next three days. Other than these ceremonies, Hmong New Year is a time for fun and festivities, especially for young people who come together and play ball game with young men and women tossing a tennis-size ball between each other, singing love songs and making courting exchanges with members of the opposite sex. These festivities can last from a few days to a few weeks, depending on how many young people there are and how much they enjoy playing the ball game. It is also a time for resting for the older people, when all the farm work has been done for the year.
Other major religious rituals are observed by the Hmong from time to time, depending on the need for them. These are the nyuj dab (ox ceremony), dab roog (door ceremony) and npua tai (pig ceremony). The ox ceremony is a food offering ritual that involves the killing of an ox to offer to the soul of a dead parent, after his or her need for food in the Afterlife is made known through a sickness in the family. The door ceremony is offered to the spirit of the eastern door, for it to bring good health, domestic animals, money, and harvests into the family. The pig ceremony is done only by some clans of Hmong people, as a mark of appreciation for a legendary pig who helped the Hmong to cross a big river when they escaped from pursuing Chinese soldiers during their migration from China.
These three major ceremonies are often used by the Hmong to find how closely they are believed to be related to each other. This is done by asking how many bowls of meat a man’s clan use for the ox ceremony or the door ceremony. The number may range from 5, 7, 9, 12 to 30 or 33 bowls. If two Hmong men with the same clan name find that they perform these two ceremonies using the same number of bowls to contain the sacrificial meat (from the ox or pig killed for this purpose), then they are said to belong to the same sub-clan or cluster of male relatives. The Hmong’s world view or religion thus also affects their social structure, the way they organise their social relationships with each other on the male side. It determines how close or distant they are from each other in their individual and group relations, who they cannot marry, and, in whose house, they can die .
The Hmong have a number of important occasions in life where religious ceremonies are used to mark them off as milestones. These major life events consist of birth, marriage, renaming and death.
As the first major milestone in a person’s life, birth is seen as a celebration and a most important event not only for the parents of the new-born but also for the extended family network involved. In the traditional village setting in China and Southeast Asia, birth usually takes place in the bedroom of the parents with the expecting mother crouching on the floor next to the bed, sometimes assisted by an elderly woman of the family. After the baby is born, it is cleaned and fed with the mother’s milk. The placenta is buried in the dirt floor under the bed if the baby is a girl, and beside the central post of the house if it is a boy to symbolise the fact that the boy will grow up to uphold the fortune and rituals of the family similar to the central post which holds the house together. After death, the soul of the deceased is guided in the “Showing the Way” or Qhuab Ke ritual during the funeral to return to the house of birth and resume the placenta, the natural birth cloth, before the soul can join the ancestors in the Afterlife. In Australia where nearly all births happen in hospitals and placentas are not made available for burial in the house of the parents, how will the soul of a dead Hmong person find its placenta in accordance with Hmong traditional funeral rites? There seems to be no answer yet to this puzzling question.
Three days after birth, a naming ceremony is performed by an elderly member of the family who knows how to do the soul-calling ritual. The aim is to welcome the baby into the family by giving it a name. Two chickens are killed for food and a small meal prepared. For some Hmong, another ceremony known as xi poj dab pog or “sending back to Goddess of babies” is carried out a month after the birth. In this ceremony, a soul calling ritual is done, but it may involve the killing of a small pig or even a cow to thank the Goddess of babies for bringing the child to the parents. Members of the village will be invited to take part in the feast, and to do a wrist stringing ceremony or khi tes by tying a cotton thread around the wrist of the baby to give it blessings and to wish it good health – a Buddhist customs borrowed from the Lao and Thai people (the Hmong in China do not have this ceremony).
The Hmong do not have rites of passage for young girls and boys, so the next milestone for them is marriage. Hmong wedding is very elaborate and may last 2-3 days, but most of it does not involve religion. Much time is spent on negotiating the terms of the marriage and on wedding chanting by the four mej koob or negotiators who represent each side of the marriage: two on the groom side, and two on the bride’s side. After the negotiations are completed, a feast is prepared. Before the family members and their guests can eat, a religious ceremony to offer food (laig dab) to the ancestors of the bride is performed. A bowl of rice and a bowl of meat with spoons around the brim are laid on a small table, and the head of the house will call on each generation of dead members in the family to come and join in the food offering as a mark of respect and celebration.
The Hmong usually give a new name to a man after he has 2 or 3 children in recognition for reaching his adult married status. This ceremony is called “tis npe laus” or giving a “mature name”. It is very similar to other ceremonies where a feast is prepared, and wrist-tying is done to the man concerned by his family and the local Hmong community. Everybody eats and drinks as an indication to remember to call him by the new name from that day on. Sometimes, the old name was changed by adding a second name to it, but often a completely different name may be adopted. Before the renaming ceremony, a man’s name often has only one syllable, but the “mature status” name has two or more syllables in it. For example, a man may be called “Yee” when younger, but this name may become “Nor Yee” when he gets his “elder” honorific name.
Renaming is also done for religious purpose when a person has been very sick in an attempt to find a cure, to disguise the person so that evil spirits cannot find him or her after a new name has been adopted. Sometimes, this may involve a baby who cries constantly, and the shaman may diagnose that the baby does not like its name, so that it is renamed with a different one. Sometimes, a traumatic event may lead to the need to change names such as when a twin dies in tragic circumstances, the other twin will be given a new name to avoid the dead twin being able to find the living twin and harm him or her. Such renaming is always done by shamans through elaborate rituals.
The next and final milestone in the life of a Hmong person is the funeral ceremony given after death. As discussed by Falk , Hmong funerals are very elaborate, especially when it involves an elder in the community. Many rituals are performed, and some are repeated a number of times until all are completed and fit into their proper places. If anything is amiss or incorrectly done, then the soul of the departed will not be able to find its way to the ancestors or to be reborn. Hmong funerals can last from 3 to 10 days in their traditional settings in Southeast Asia. In Australia where most people cannot take time off work, funerals usually take place over a weekend, starting on Friday night and finishing on Monday because most cemeteries are closed on Sunday. During funerals, only diced beef boiled with salt is allowed to be eaten with rice, as other dishes are considered too rich and not appropriate for such a sad occasion. Funerals are not seen as a time for feasting and drinking, although much food and drink is consumed.
The funeral process begins with the announcement of the passing away of the deceased. In the traditional village, a gun is fired three times next to the house of the grieving family to let other village people know that someone has just died. Today, however, no guns are allowed to be used in most countries, so the practice has become outmoded. Instead, death notice may be put over the local radio station and in newspapers or is conveyed by telephone. The next step is to consult with family members and clan leaders to find the most auspicious day to start the funeral ceremony, as no two funerals in a particular clan of relatives should fall on the same day of the year. Once the funeral date is known, invitations and a second announcement will be sent out for relatives and friends to come and attend the funeral. Ritual experts then have to be obtained to perform for the funeral, such as the chanter for the “Showing the Way” or Qhuab Ke funeral song, the reed pipe funeral music players, the cooks and the overseer, the blessing or Txiv Xaiv singers, and other assistants. Some of these experts and helpers may offer their services free, but others may have to be paid. Depending on the wealth of the family involved, many bulls will also be bought and killed for sacrifice to the dead and for food for those who come to the funeral. In order to fulfill all the religious and social requirements, a lot of expenses has to be incurred. In Australia, a funeral may cost from $10,000 to $20,000. This cost is met through the funeral fund pool set up by the Hmong Australia Society and similar Hmong organisations whose members contribute a specific amount of money from each living family member. In the USA, funerals for prominent members of the Hmong community may cost up to $80,000.
In traditional Hmong villages, funerals take place in the home of the dead person. In Western countries where many Hmong now live, this is not possible, and funerals are carried out in commercial funeral homes. In the old days, it is believed that only people from the same sub-clan who share similar religious rituals can die and have funerals in each other’s house. In other words, only such related individuals are allowed to have funerals under the same roof. Today, however, this rule no longer applies when Hmong from all clans and with all sorts of lineage rituals have to use the same commercial funeral homes – so far without any known retributions from unhappy dead ancestors.
Before a funeral starts, the body of the deceased is washed and dressed in funeral garments or ris tsho laus in Hmong. These are embroidered Hmong obsequious costumes which are only used for dead people, with a pair of hemp shoes. In Australia and other countries in the West, such garments may be difficult to find in emergency, so Western suits are often used for men. This has led to many stories about Hmong men who died and came back in dreams to their living relatives to tell them that they could not find their ancestors in the Afterlife because they were dressed in Western clothes and not in Hmong funeral garments.
There are many rituals involved in a Hmong funeral, starting with the chanting of the “Showing the Way” (Qhuab Ke) to send the soul of the dead person to join the ancestors in the Afterworld. When the chanting is completed, the first wailing session or the vocal expression of grief will occur from among those who attend the funeral. After this, the reed pipe or qeej/lusheng music will be offered by players who have specially learned this form of funeral music. They will play on and off for the duration of the funeral, starting with the qeej tu siav or expiring song, then the qeej tsa nees or the raising of the body onto the funeral horse (stretcher). The funeral songs are all in poetry, and are conveyed through the reed pipe music, not verbally. Other songs are also played intermittently such as the offering of breakfast, lunch and dinner to the soul of the dead person for each day of the funeral, and “doing war” song or tsa rog to scare away evil people who intent to rob the body or to take away the offered food and drink.
The final major funeral ritual is called the “blessing of the living descendants” or “hais txiv xaiv”. It is also known as hais xim. This is performed by at least two experts in this chanting. It usually lasts all night on the last night of the funeral. All living relatives of the dead person will kneel on the floor before the coffin and listen with a stick of incense in their hands. They will bow occasionally to the dead person as indicated by the chanters. The chanters will sing to them in poetry about the purpose of life on earth and why people die, and will give advice to those present on how to do be good in life as a last farewell act from their dead relative. This is the saddest and most touching part of a Hmong funeral, but the ceremony is only done for elderly people.
On the second last day before the burial called the “guest day” or qhua txws, those on the official list of invited guests will present themselves at the funeral with gifts of paper money, chickens and reed pipe players to pay their last respect to the dead person in the case of an adult. Before departing for the cemetery on the final day, the burning of all the paper money for the soul of the dead will occur, so that it will have money to spend in the Afterlife along with the animals that have been killed as sacrificial offerings. In the old homeland of Laos and China, burial may be at the village cemetery or in a lonely spot on some location with good feng-shui indicators, depending on the status of the dead person involved. Twelve days after the burial or a few months thereafter, a final ritual called the “soul release” or tso plig is performed. A male member of the dead person’s family will go to the grave and invited the soul back to the house for the ceremony which represents a small form of funeral. Funeral reed pipe music is played, wailing occurs, and the soul chanting is offered.
Like other Asian societies, the Hmong believe in reincarnation. They always bury their dead, they do not cremate, except when the person involved has become Buddhist. Burial is preferred because the body is not destroyed and can be preserved whole for the re-incarnation of the soul. If any part of the body is missing at death either from an accident or from autopsy, they believe that the person will be born again without that body part in the next life. For this reason, the Hmong do not like autopsy to be performed on a dead person, nor do they like surgery that will remove a body part. The coffin must not have any nails or metal components, as these may fall on the body after the coffin become decayed in the grave, and that part of the body with the metal object will become the seat of sickness in the next life since metal does not decompose.
Since the beginning of their Australian settlement, the Hmong have found problems with the practice of their traditional religion. This has been for two major reasons: (a) the necessity to kill live domestic animals at home to offer to spirits and to make food as part of their religious rituals is against the law in the new country; and (b) the lack of older people who know how to carry out ritual ceremonies because most of those accepted for resettlement in Australia were young and inexperienced in Hmong religious practices.
There are also some issues faced by the Hmong animists in Australia. The most dominant of these issues is the fast assimilation of Australian society and cultural values by the younger second generation. The Hmong have been living in Australia for only 40 years, but already many of their young people cannot speak Hmong nor show much interest in the ethnic culture and customs of their parents. They prefer to blend in with the majority society. Despite the fact that they look different physically, their thinking and preferences are clearly very Australian. This has meant that many young people, especially boys who should normally learn the more common family rituals, may take part in traditional religious ceremonies, but do not want to know much about the significance of these ceremonies or how to perform them. Apart from not knowing enough Hmong language to do this, many also consider these traditional practices and beliefs to be outdated, as many involve killing live animals as sacrifices. The result is that these young Hmong who are not converted to any other religions seem to be in a religious limbo, having little adherence to any religious doctrines. Overall, however, their situation is very similar to that of most young people from other groups in modern urban settings around the world.
This lack of interest among the young generation in learning rituals and acquiring spiritual healing skills is compounded by the lack of new callers to become shamans and ritual experts. As a rule, these healing experts are inspired to become skilled in their particular art of healing by ceremonial spirits such as the shaman by shamanic spirits (dab neeb), the herbalist by herbal spirits (dab tshuaj). These healing spirits have to call on the chosen person by making him or her sick and learning to become a healer in order to recover from the sickness. This means that not everyone can simply learn to be one out of sheer interest or personal abilities. Thus, not many healing performers exist in a small population like the Hmong in Australia. During the last 30 years, only five persons (two women and three men) have been “chosen” spiritually to become shamans. Other shamans and ritual experts have to be sponsored to migrate or visit from other countries, as the need arises. This is very costly and time-consuming.
Another problem with the practice of traditional Hmong religion in Australia, as already mentioned above, is that it requires the use of live chickens, pigs, and other animals for healing rituals. Australian laws forbid bringing such animals into one’s house and killing them. Some Hmong have compromised by getting dressed chicken and other kinds of meat from shops, but such meat is good only for food. Live animals are needed in order for the shaman to communicate with and use their soul during the ceremonies for the healing to be effective. The same problem applies to Hmong funerals. The use of commercial funeral homes means that the killing of live animals for sacrifices and the consumption of food are not allowed. The opening hours of funeral homes are also restricted mainly to daytime whereas Hmong funerals go on day and night with a lot of music and loud wailing. It is thus difficult to find funeral homes that will allow regular use by the Hmong who need at least three days for a funeral, not just a few hours like people from other religions. Because of these complications, many Hmong have preferred to hold the “soul release” ceremony with relatives in Laos for their departed ones in the final act to complete their funeral process. In this way, as well as being more convenient with local authorities, it is also less expensive.
Another issue is Hmong gender attitudes. Being a patriarchal society with men having more power, Hmong women are still seen mostly as cook and food preparers, instead of ritual performers. Some are shamans and herbalists, but mainly men have ceremonial roles in the family. In general, women do not carry out religious rituals and ceremonies for the household unless no men are present or able to do it. They prepare food and other necessities for the ceremonies, but do not take part or carry them out. While the men do the ceremonies, the women cook and chat among themselves. The only women who have a role in ceremonies are the women shamans or spiritual healers and herbalists. There is no prohibition against women having religious roles, but most women prefer to leave the men to perform family rituals. If women are more active, this will resolve the shortage of skilled ritual performers.
As stated by Davis , religion brings “cohesion or solidarity” to society by justifying and supporting sentiments that make a community cohesive. It asserts the functions of symbolic integration, social control and social organisation by upholding symbols that are seen as sacred and important to keep society together in the midst of differences among its many members . These symbols must be made significant through rituals and are shared or accepted as relevant to the lives of those who live under them. One of the problems with Hmong traditional religion in Australia is that many Hmong who are educated in the Western system based on Christian values see it as somewhat irrelevant to their modern urban needs. This is equally true of the major religions in the world today, when life becomes more and more secular, separated from religious influences. Younger educated Hmong equate animism and ancestor-worship with tribalism and backwardness, compared to the more formally organised religions like Christianity and Buddhism. These religions do not require shamans and personal ritual skills from followers, and they do not need the sacrifice of live animals. Some Hmong, thus, convert to Christianity because it is “too hard” to learn to perform in Hmong religious ceremonies. Fortunately, such conversion has not occurred in great numbers in Australia where the majority of Hmong families still maintain their traditional beliefs. Because of the small size of the Hmong community there, traditional religion still functions to foster and maintain social bonds between its members who regularly join in family ceremonies and support each other as a cohesive group. It still influences and controls their thinking and behaviour, as well as structures them into various clans with different sets of rituals, rules of marriage and mutual relationships, especially in the case of the first generation.
Although many Hmong have converted to Christianity in other Western countries, the majority of those in Australia still follow their traditional beliefs in animism and ancestor worship. They believe that without these beliefs, there would be no Hmong culture and identity. They need to maintain their traditional religion in order to assert their “Hmongness’, their own identity as part of Australia’s culturally diverse society. This cultural assertion will continue so long as there are members in the Hmong community who practice this system of religious beliefs. Unlike other religions that require costly church buildings and temples to worship in, Hmong traditional religion uses the family home, so that no major additional fund-raising activities are needed. Every family has a home to live in and it can also serve for religious purpose.
However, the issues discussed above and the lack of religious knowledge among the younger generation means that this form of religious beliefs will diminish, probably to the point of extinction after the passing of the old generation. It is difficult to see what the Hmong in Australia will adopt as their religion in the distant future. Perhaps, they may convert to other religions, but many will still practice the old traditional beliefs for many more years if not many generations to come as a mark of their Hmong ethnicity, if nothing else.
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