Opium and the Hmong

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.

Paper submitted for Hmong Story 40 Exhibition, Fresno, California, May 2015.




  1. History

  2. How the Hmong Became Involved in Opium Production

  3. Uses and Politics of Opium

  4. How the Opium Poppy is Grown

  5. Future

  6. Footnotes


A little history on opium in China may help us to know why the Hmong became involved in opium cultivation in Southeast Asia and why it became such an important part of their economy in the recent past.

The opium poppy, yeeb (in Hmong) or ying-su (in Chinese), is known to be grown in 3400 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia by the Sumerians who call it Hul Gil or “the joy plant”, and its cultivation was later taken up by the Assyrians and the Babylonians [1]. By 1300 B.C., poppy was grown extensively in Egypt, and opium (the dry sap from the poppy pods) is traded commercially across both sides of the Mediterranean in Greece, northern Africa, and Europe. Around 460 B.C., Hippocrates, "the father of medicine", recognised opium as suitable to treat internal diseases in humans, women sicknesses and epidemics. During his incursion into Persia and India in 330 B.C., Alexander the Great introduced opium to the people there.

However, it was not until 400 A.D. that Arab traders from Egypt were said to introduce opium to China, the original homeland of the Hmong. In the 1600’s, Portuguese sea merchants traded opium directly with China, bringing in large opium cargoes from India to Macao. By 1700, the Dutch also carried out the same trade in China, to be followed also by the British, the French and the Americans. Opium imports soon became such a lucrative trade that in 1793, the British East India Company sought to control it by forbidding all poppy growers in India to sell opium to its competitors. The British planned to weaken the Chinese with opium addiction to make it easier to take over China, and to make money to finance their global colonial activities. Between 1773 and 1790, annual opium imports quadrupled from 1,000 chests (70 tons) to 4,000 chests (280 tons) [2]. Between 1832 and 1884, they increased from 21,000 chests to 81,000 chests. As a result, many Chinese high officials, and members of the upper class with money to buy became opium addicts, including troops in the imperial army and officers of the imperial household.

Faced with this epidemic, Chinese authorities ordered all foreign traders to surrender their opium in 1839. The British responded by sending warships to the coast of China, thus bringing about the First Opium War. The Chinese were defeated in 1841 and had to sign the Treaty of Nanking, paying a large indemnity, and giving up Hong Kong to Britain. To expand their opium trade further, the British and the French renew their hostilities against China in 1856, resulting in the Second Opium War. Again, the Chinese were defeated and had to agree to legalize the importation of opium. This not only allowed more opium importation into China but also greatly increased local production. Poppy cultivation in China could be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618-907), especially in Yunnan, Szechwan, and Kansu [3]. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Kweichow, Kwangtun, Hunan, Hupei, Kwangsi, Fukian and eastern Chekiang also listed the Ying-su among their domestic plants. In the 1880’s, Szechwan had 850,000 acres of land producing 177,000 piculs of opium (23.5 million pounds) per year. In 1877, many parts of Kweichow were under one crop, “the poppy as round as the eye could reach” [4]. The popularity of opium is clear when we look at the annual domestic trades for China at the turn of the 20th century, which consisted of 130 million taels of opium compared to 100 million for rice and 100 million for salt [5].

How the Hmong Became Involved in Opium Production

With increased population [6] in China and heavy competition for arable lands, the Hmong were forced to move higher and higher into remote mountain areas suitable only for slash-and-burn farming. This method involves clearing a new field of its vegetation, burning it and growing crops for 2-3 years until the soil is exhausted, then moving on to new fields. A Chinese book published in 1820, Miao-fang pei-lan, states that the Hmong in their highlands “plant sesame, millet, rice, wheat, beans, calyx grain, kao-liang and jungle wheat…” [7]. Since opium is not mentioned, some writers have inferred from this that the Hmong might not have grown the poppy before this date [8].

However, apart from the impact of higher foreign imports, the increase in the number of opium addicts during the first half of the 19th century in China is also due to increased domestic poppy cultivation. As there were more buyers and addicts, there were also more traders and poppy farmers. By 1880, opium produced in China had exceeded imports from British India [9]. From 1882, opium was grown in the hills as well as the lowlands of Chinese western provinces. It quickly became a popular crop, because it was non-perishable and commercially profitable, fetching a high price from readily accessible traders. Its light weight made it easily transportable. The poppy also grew best in high altitude areas (above 3,000 feet) with an abundance of morning dew to feed its plants – areas where Hmong preferred to settle. These qualities, coupled with poverty and the scarcity of lands for other crops, could push the Hmong to grow opium in their mountain enclaves not long after its introduction to China. This conjecture is supported by the fact that in 19th century China, the poppy was grown mostly in provinces with large numbers of Hmong and other minorities, as mentioned above.

The Hmong outside China today remember well their ancestors’ migration to Southeast Asia due to war with the Chinese – to the point of having such stories embedded in their funeral rituals and folklores. Major Hmong uprisings against the Chinese took place in 1698, 1732, 1794 and 1855 - this latter was led by Zhang Shi-me in Kweichow and lasted 16 years. After their defeat by Chinese troops, the Hmong “scattered in all directions, initiating the migratory movements of the modern period” [10]. It is estimated that only 15% of the Hmong population at the time left for Vietnam, Laos and Thailand [11] – consisting mostly of White and Blue Hmong speakers (living close the border with these countries) while other branches of the Hmong such as the Hmu (Hmoob Txaij), Qho Xiong (Hmoob Dub) and A Mao could not flee (living too far to the north) and remained in China where they are still found in big numbers today (Kweichow, Hunan, Hupei and Szechwan). 

This pattern of migration due to war is well known. What we are not familiar with, however, is the fact many Hmong also migrated out of China in small pioneering groups for economic reasons [12]. Their migration took place slowly but steadily, sometimes from one mountain top to another over many years. It might have started within China but eventually crossed into neighbouring countries. Demographic pressure and lack of agricultural lands caused famine and destitution. Thus, the need to find better farming opportunities elsewhere became paramount. Having learned the skills to grow the poppy in their most suitable highlands, the Hmong would want to find new lands with more freedom to continue with opium production. Still others might have been separated from their kinship groups and wanted to migrate in search of “kwv tij” who might have gone ahead southwards in the hope of finding opportunities for a better life with these pioneer relatives.

Uses and Politics of Opium

For the Hmong, the main aim of poppy cultivation has always been commercial. It is the ideal crop that could be sold for cash, especially silver bars, and coins in the old days before paper money came into use. How much yield a grower gets each year depends on the quality of the soil, the size and altitude of the field, and how many workers a household has [13]. Apart from cash, opium is exchanged for necessities such as salt and clothing materials. Some is used for smoking by village addicts, but their number is usually very low due to strong social stigma against opium addiction in Hmong society [14]. Sometimes, it is used as poison to commit suicide, especially by Hmong women, but it is never used as part of Hmong rituals like rice or domestic animals.

Until the 1950’s before the advent of cars and roads which makes it possible to go to markets at the nearest towns, Chinese trading caravans used to come and sell goods to remote Hmong villages, using horses as transport. The Hmong, in turn, sold or exchanged their opium to these caravanners so that growers had no need to travel anywhere to sell their opium. For this reason, Hmong who migrated to Laos from China often settled along these trading routes. In fact, there are stories about young Hmong men (e.g. Touby Lyfoung’s grandfather) who migrated south, while serving as porters for Chinese traders.

Hmong scholar Dr Yang Dao puts the date of the Hmong’s first arrival in Laos as 1810-1820 [15]. However, most accounts from French colonial officials and local eyewitnesses at the time state that the Hmong first settled in Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang in two waves: the first in 1850 and the second 1871 with the invasion of the Chinese Black Flags and White Flags runaway soldiers [16]. The first wave was not caused by political upheavals but by the need to find new forests to clear for rice and maize farming, and to grow poppy after forest lands in China had become exhausted. Finding Vietnam to be already occupied by White Tai people with less virgin forests available, many Hmong migrated directly from Yunnan and Szechwan to Laos where vast expanses of forests were still abundant. They established themselves in the highlands of Samneua, Xieng Khouang and Luang Parbang provinces where in 1891 they formed 10% of the local population [17].

After the French made Laos a “protectorate” of France in October 1893 and to have money to run the country, the French levied a head tax (se taub hau neeg) on all male residents of the country aged between 19 and 60. For the Lao in the lowlands, this tax was set at 2 piastres (2 txiaj kis) per person per year (payable in cash or kind e.g. domestic animals), along with 20 days of corvee or free labour given to the authorities [18]. For the Khamu, Hmong and other minorities, it was one piastre and 10 days of free labour. In 1896, this tax was increased and payable only in cash [19].


The problem for the Hmong was that Lao local officials/princes also collected their own taxes. In addition, Hmong chiefs who acted as tax collectors for the Lao and French authorities also levied their own tax and corvee labour to get their own money and to have village people doing farm work for them. All these different levels of taxation and corruption greatly inflated the amount of taxes people had to pay each year. Many of the poorer Hmong could not pay, and there are stories of some having to sell or pawn children to richer Hmong to borrow money for their tax obligations. Due to this financial burden, the Hmong had to increase their opium cultivation as the only means to get money to pay for their family needs and their taxes. Even those who previously did not grow opium now had to do it.

The impact of this severe official taxation is that the Hmong rose up in rebellion known as RogVwm or “Mad Men’sWar” under the leadership of Pachay Vue (Paj Cai Vwj). Aided by Hmong messianic beliefs, the rebellion lasted from 1918 to 1921 – starting first in Vietnam and quickly spreading to all northern Laos. The French had to bring colonial troops from other parts of Indochina to put it down [20]. Today, Pachay is celebrated by the Lao PDR government as a revolutionary hero.

In 1957, the first Hmong deputy elected from Xieng Khouang to the Lao National Assembly in Vientiane, Mr Toulia Lyfoung, lobbied against this head tax and it was abolished, thus finally relieving the Hmong and other Lao citizens of this heavy burden.

How the Opium Poppy is Grown

In the traditional Hmong economy, no family would grow only one kind of crop as this would not meet all the family needs. Rice grows best in lower altitudes, so rice fields are often located lower down the mountain slope, away from maize and poppy fields. If a family grows all three major crops, rice, maize, and opium would be integrated into the annual farming cycle, and each family would give equal attention to them, although the labour requirement might differ from one crop to another. Rice and opium have been found to need the same labour intensity (about 220 mandays per hectare), with maize about one two thirds less (80 mandays/ hectare) [21].

Maize (or corn) and poppy usually share the same field as both are suited for the same soil, altitude, and weather conditions, with maize being grown first. All fields are worked by hands as they are often too steep, and growers have no machinery to use. The scheduling of labour for each crop depends on the weather and how many workers are available. Maize fields (teb pob kws) are cleared (luaj teb) in January and February, followed by burning (hlawv teb) in March. Maize planting (cog pob kws) takes place in April, and weeding (dob nroj) in May. The first corn cobs are harvested (ntais pob kws) in June-July, and by September all harvesting should be completed. August sees the preparation of the maize fields for poppy growing, starting with hoeing (faus teb yeeb) – turning up every inch of the soil manually with a hoe (hlau) and burying the dry maize stalks and weeds under. Early sowing of the poppy seeds (tseb yeeb) begins in September and should finish by October, a time when the Hmong are also busy harvesting rice. November and December are spent weeding (dob yeeb) the poppy seedlings and young plants, a time when the Hmong also celebrate the New Year. Using a three-bladed small knife (riam yeeb), workers will tap the opium pods (hlais yeeb) and collect their sap (sau yeeb) with a scraping blade (duav yeeb) in January and February. Once collected, the sap (yeeb nyoos) from all the tappings is put together in a small container and allowed to dry. The year’s harvest is then wrapped in bamboo papers to be stored for safe-keeping and sale. The process completes with growers collecting poppy seeds (muab noob yeeb) in March to be used for the following year, and the next cycle of cultivation starts all over once more.

Today, the Hmong and members of other hill minorities in Laos still grow the poppy in this way, although it has now been classified as an illegal substance. In 1999, the Lao PDR government through its Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision put in place a program to suppress opium production and drug abuse, with the help of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It set 2005 as the target date when opium should be eliminated [22]. To this end, the UN implemented development projects aimed to reduce poverty through the adoption of alternative cash crops such as asparagus and various kinds of fruit trees. Growers who live in areas easily accessible by roads and government authorities have virtually given up growing opium, but those in more remote parts with no road access continue to rely on opium cultivation to meet their cash need in the absence of other better economic opportunities. Using helicopters and satellite images, the UNODC survey teams find that in 2014, a total of 6,200 hectares were still used for opium production in seven provinces of northern Laos [23]. This represents a big reduction from the 26,800 ha in 1998, but a big rise from the 1,500 ha in 2006.


As the Hmong become more urbanised, living in towns and along major roads in Laos away from high altitude areas suitable for opium growing, fewer of them will continue with this cash crop. A few may still do it in their gardens for their household addicts, but not on a large commercial scale.

The Hmong only grow the poppy and use opium in different ways in its raw state. They do not have the skills and means/chemical ingredients to transform it into heroin. However, so long as there is opium available, other people along the world-wide supply chain will make it into heroin and distribute the latter to addicts in other countries. Given this situation, governments may need to get tougher if opium cultivation is going to be eradicated, as has been the case in Thailand and Vietnam where soldiers are used to police poppy growing and growers are severely punished for violating the law.

Laos cannot afford to get tough on growers because it has few resources to assist opium farmers to give up the practice. It is a poor country, with few roads. Many parts of the country are remote and not easily accessible by government officials. There are few economic alternatives for the poverty-stricken rural people to make a living, except doing subsistence farming. So long as this is the situation and so long as people need cash to buy food and other family necessities, opium will continue to be grown in areas hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities. 


  1. Martin Booth, Opium: A History (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

  2. Jonathan D. Spence, “Opium” in Chinese Roundabout: Essays in Culture and History (NY: Norton, 1992), p. 233

  3. Op.cit., p. 235

  4. John McCarthy, “Across China from Chin-Kiang to Bhamo”, Proceedings if the Royal Geographical Society (London), 1879, VIII, p. 496

  5. J D Spence, op.cit., p. 238

  6. From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, the Chinese population grew from 100 million to 300 million, see C. Culas and J. Michaud, “A Contribution to the Study of Hmongv(Miao) Migration and History”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-,Land-, en Volkenkunde (Leiden), August 1997, 153 (II), p. 215 

  7. cited in W. R. Geddes, Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).

  8. C. Culas “Histoire de l’Opium and de ses Usages Chez les Hmong”, Journal Asiatique, 1999, 287(2), p. 634

  9. C. Culas and J. Michaud, op.cit., p. 218

  10. H. Wiens, China’s March Toward the Tropics (Connecticut: Shoe String Press, 1954), p. 90

  11. J. Mottin, History of the Hmong (Bangkok: Odeon Store, 1980), p. 35

  12. In the Hmong Txiv Xaiv, there is a verse which refers to this economic migration from China because “the land has become exhausted” from all the farming. See also R. Cooper, The Hmong (Vientiane: Lao Insights Books, 2008), p.19

  13. D. Feingold, “Opium and Politics in Laos”, in N. S. Adams and A. W. McCoy eds. Laos: War and Revolution (NY: Harper Colophon Books, 1970), p. 329

  14. Although they grow the drug, less than 10% of the Hmong are addicted to opium. See J. Westermeyer, “Use of Alcohol and Opium by the Meo of Laos”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1971, 127 (8), p.1021

  15. Yang Dao, Les Hmong du Laos face au Developpement (Vientiane: Editions Siao Savath, 1975), p. 7

  16. C. Culas, “Migrants, Runaways and Opium Growers: Origins of the Hmong in Laos and Siam in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries”, in J. Michaud ed. Turbulent Times and Enduring Peoples; Mountain Minorities in the South-East Asian Massif, Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000), p. 32 and 41.

  17. Op. cit., p. 36

  18. G. Evans, A Short History of Laos, the Land in Between (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2002), p. 46

  19. M. Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 32

  20. G. C. Gunn, Rebellion in Laos (Denver: Westview Press, 1990), pp. 151-160 

  21. G. Y. Lee, The Effects of Development Measures on the Socio-economy of the White Hmong, PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney, 1981, p. 145

  22. UNODC, Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014: Lao PDR, Myanmar (Bangkok: UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, 2014), p. 23

  23. These provinces are: Phongsali, Houaphanh, Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Bokeo, Oudomxai, and Xieng Khouang. Of the 6,200 ha of opium fields in Laos in 2014, Phongsali is highest on the list (42%), followed by Houaphan (27%), Luang Prabang (18%), Bokeo (6%) and Xieng Houang (5%). Op.cit., p. 28



You may reproduce the articles on this website for private study, research, criticism or review in their original context. Appropriate references and acknowledgements must be made. All opinions expressed are those of the authors. All rights reserved.

© 2020 by Gary Yia Lee