Hmong culture: Textile art and customs As living in California with cultural diversity, it is important to understand and respect others’ cultural values. There are about 8 to 12 million Hmong people in the world, and many researches have been done to explore Hmong culture and beliefs (Yang, 2012). Briefly to introduce, Hmong is a 5,000 year old ethnicity, and they mostly live in Laos with a primarily agrarian life style (Yang, 2012). They left China as victims of Chines oppression and settled in parts of Vietnam and Laos (Yang, 2012).
Multiple generations live together in the same household, and males are the dominant of the family. Also, Hmong people have deep belief in spirituality, and there are many cultural items made to protect themselves from a harmful soul or ghost. Wrist string and handshakes, for example, are uniquely made to strengthen own soul, and those customs provide strong spiritual values (Yang, 2012). Especially, the textile custom of Hmong culture is increasingly recognized with its unique value, and the textile market for tourist also has been growing.
For this paper, information of Hmong culture related to their beliefs, family structure, perspective related to spirituality will be introduced, and the textile pattern, its symbolism, and gender roles in production to market will be discussed. Hmong live a patriarchal, or male-dominated, family structure. Males, as a result, carry more responsibilities than females. Although parents and children makeup the center of the Hmong family structure, it is a patriarch who makes important final decisions (Yang, 2012).
Hmong are ritualistic and deeply believe in spirits. They rely on shamanism for healing and health as they believe illness is caused by the loss of one’s own soul (Yang, 2012). There are three souls in Hmong spirituality: One in the body after death, one wandering in and out of the body, and one protecting the individual from harm (Yang, 2012). Wrist strings (khi tes) are often made to protect the soul from leaving the body (Yang, 2012). Shamans (Tu-ua-neng) are thoroughly respected and perform to offer a spirit to remain strong and healthy (Yang, 2012).
The sprit helper’s position in society are regarded as a significant expression of Hmong’s perspective to spirituality. The traditional Hmong textiles are often identified as one of their most unique cultural art. Hmong’s traditional spirituality and social structure are represented in the textile language. One of best known of Hmong needle art is Paj Ntaub meaning story cloth or flower cloth (Craig, 2010). Hmong began to draw traditional stories so that they would be remembered. Each selection of pattern, colors, and fabric for the custom has an important meanings and functions (Craig, 2010).
Each design and geometric pattern of clothes represents different cultural beliefs, symbols, meanings and functions (Craig, 2010). They often use black fabric with bright colored threads, and one of common patterns seen is elephant’s foot that stands for family (Craig, 2010). The patterns are described and named by nature things like ram’s head, snail house, mountains, and dragon’s tail (Craig, 2010). Their traditional designs serve as a visual art and ritual functions. According to McCall (1999), the costumes were to identify themselves as Hmong, to express the wealth, and to prepare one’s sprit to after death.
The textile customs, Paj Ntaub, are carried from one generation to next for their festivals, ceremonies, and celebrations, such as Hmong New Year in December (Yang, 2012). Female Hmong are primarily responsible in production of the textile, and only a small number of male artists create the cloth by drawing the designs stitched by the women (Yang, 2012). In Hmong’s society, young women are considered as the property to the family and often paid for the thread or cloth (Long, 2008). Paj ntaub is a complex of textile art, and the hand sewing skills are mostly taught by the female family member for years.
They often gathered under trees or sat in the shade to sew while talking (Long, 2008). Interestingly, woman’s textile design skills are considered by men in searching for future wife and seen as an indicator of childbirth (Long, 2008). The textile was significantly worn by young women during Hmong New Year to present themselves for future husband (Long, 2008). Textiles are also made in small needlework squares fabric as a gift give between new husband and wife (Long, 2008). Young wife makes funerary textiles for her parents or in-laws to honor and to offer protection in a symbolic way (Long. 008).
Although there had been a particular gender role the textile art production, some Hmong male began to be involved in designing story cloths as an opportunity to meet economic needs. Production of textile clothes has been incorporated into potential economic gains from tourist commodities. From the tourist trade in Southeast Asia, the traditional patterns of Paj ntaub were influenced (Craig, 2010). The textile artwork became attractive to westerns, and buyers from United States and France started taking decorative pattern designs to manufacture for their voluminous business (Craig, 2010).
Hmong’s identity, spiritual protection and their ritual functions are removed from the traditional textiles. Although hemp skirts and women’s apron is still valued for the New Year festivals, most traditional costumes are now disappeared due to labor intensity and replaced with machine production (Craig, 2010). Through the semester, many specific cultural arts, values, social structure, and symbolic meanings have been learned. It is important to understand that each cultural art is unique and different from others. Especially, art can be formed in many ways, such as clothing, makeup, body image, decorations, dance, painting or music.
It also applies for Hmong’s culture as it has appealed in their costumes and textile products. Although Hmong is well recognized with their uniqueness of the culture, furthers research in Hmong textile art should be more conducted. Despite Paj Ntaub stories, and the textile makers’ stories, external influence on the design of story cloths taught by generation to generation, it is important to formally define, protect and continue Hmong identity. Nonetheless, the importance of educational responsibilities for Hmong’s next generation should be recognized for maintain Hmong culture.