Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Asia / Refugee Stuff: Illiteracy and myth among Southeast Asian tribal peoples.: The Hmong.

In the previous (down one!) post I discussed the "boundaries" of states in Southeast Asian in pre-modern or early modern times.


[I did my best to describe the meaning of the map below. Suffice it to say that the darker territories are more culturally and economically integrated into the dominant society.]

In the areas of southeast Asia that were less integrated into the dominant society, lived a variety of peoples, peoples who today constitute the minorities of China, Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many of these cultures were pre-literate and had no system of reading and writing, at least until contact with the West, an event that often took place in the early twentieth or late 19th century. Today, due in part to conflict over the definition of the boundaries of the states that make up the dominant culture of their reason, many members of these cultures have become refugees.

As stated, traditionally many of these people were illiterate and lacked a means of reading and writing.

This was in marked contrast to the people of the dominant culture in the region, for instance the Burmese or Chinese, who had systems of reading and writing.

Therefore, although illiterate, these peoples were aware of not only reading and writing but also its importance and power.

They turned to myth to offer explanations as to why they did not have reading and writing.

In this post and the next, I will discuss the myths surrounding literacy and illiteracy among two of these peoples, the Chin of Western Burma/Eastern India and the Hmong (also known as Miao or Meo) of Southwestern China and nearby areas of Laos and Thailand. Both cultures are represented among refugees to the United States.

The Hmong, are a Southeast Asian people who live in Thailand, Laos and China (where they are known as the Miao.) Many Hmong were recruited by the CIA in Laos to fight Communism and after the war many became refugees.

According to Nicholas Tapp's anthropology work, "Sovereignty and Rebellion --the White Hmong of Northern Thailand" (1989, Oxford University Press, Singapore) there are several Hmong legends aimed to explain their illiteracy.

Tapp argues that the Hmong define themselves in large part by the absence of characteristics that mark the Chinese, a people with whom they have had much contact and friction. (Tapp, p. 126)

Tapp includes the following story:

This is why we Hmong have no books. It was like this. Long, long ago, Hmong were the eldest sons. They went to the fields to make a living for themselves, but they did not, could not, study books. According to the elders, a long time ago, everybody moved, and crossed the great waters. The Mab Suav (Chinese and others) carried their books on their heads, so that they would be able to learn letters. But we Hmong were so afraid of our books getting wet that we could not do that, and we were hungry, so we ate them all up. That is the reason why now we can only be clever inside, in our hearts and only remember in our hearts, not in books. Before that, we had books of our own. That was in China, where I have heard the Hmong still have books (writing). (Taken from Tapp, p. 122.)

Here's a second similar story intended to explain Hmong illiteracy. Although taken from Tapp, this one is taken from the 1937 writings of William Hudspeth, a missionary to these people.*:

Before the Pollard script, books and a library were unknown. The great majority of these tribesmen had never handled even a sheet of writing paper or a pen. They had heard that once upon a time there were books: a tribal legend described how, long ago the Miao lived on the north side of the Yangtze River, but the conquering Chinese came and drove them from their land and homes. Coming to the river and possessing no boats they debated what should be done with the books and in the end they strapped them to their shoulders and swam across, but the water ran so swiftly and the river was so wide, that the books were washed away and fishes swallowed them. (Taken from Tapp, p. 124.)

A third, related tale comes from Tapp, page 126, this one having been recorded by a missionary to Northern Thailand in the 1960s.:

Why ever did those horses have to eat the books of our forefathers, many, many years ago? These Meo kings were the first there were in the whole great northern kingdom. Indeed in those days we had a land of our own. A Meo king ruled over us. We were the most powerful nation on earth. But the wicked Chinese were more cunning than we. They fell upon us in great hordes. They had better weapons than we had. We fought bitterly and courageously, but it was in vain. The Chinese knew no mercy. They murdered, enslaved and pillaged. We had to surrender. But not quite everyone gave in; whoever could escape did so. When the exhausted fugitives came to a wide river they rested, leaving their packs among the bushes. They were all overcome with sleep. When at last they woke up---O horror---the horses had eaten up the Meo books! Not a single one remained. Since then we have possessed neither books nor script . . .

Tapp also spends a considerable amount of time explaining the significance of literacy in Hmong culture and the emotional impact of finally being given writing by missionaries.

* Tapp does not give Hudspeth's first name. I learned his first name here.:


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