Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ua Neng, Kev Cai Qub or Hmong Shamanism

I admit, this post is written in part due to some recent posts around the APIA Blogosphere regarding spirituality.

Personally, I always find Frederick the Great's address to a convent of nuns to be appropriate: "All religions must be tolerated, for every person must get to heaven in their own way."

That being said, because of both my professional work and perspective as a religion major back in college, I'm frequently asked questions regarding Hmong shamanism in classrooms and community workshops, and how the tradition is intertwined with contemporary issues.

Interesting, but definitely not perfect.

A few years back after the release of Ann Fadiman's "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," people across the country began asking questions regarding cross-cultural medicial practice. TSCY&YFD raised interesting questions while stirring significant controversy particularly among the Hmong. Those issues are fairly easy to google, so I'm not going to go into those.

While there are other earlier books that covered much of the Hmong experience during the war and tried to study the relatively recent Hmong refugee experience, TSCY&YFD made the discussion of the Hmong animist beliefs and shamanism a particularly key focus.

TSCY&YFD ultimately was no doubt an inspiration for at least two TV episodes, one being Chicago Hope, the other Grey's Anatomy. You can catch a Youtubed version here.

Neither were particularly good (ok, they stink.), but it was still interesting to see Tinseltown's first major stabs at the Hmong culture since the dreadful Air America (1990) with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. (A terrible, terrible film.)

Oh Mel, when does your filmic torture of the world end!

But being a big fan of primary sources, I think now is as interesting a time as any to highlight some better resources for people who want to know more about Hmong shamanism, which embodies a significant body of knowledge and tradition that still needs a great deal of documentation and study.

Back in 1989, Dwight Conquergood and Xa Thao worked with Paja Thao, a Hmong shaman to discuss his life and beliefs in "I Am A Shaman."

Over at there is more information about the documentary, The Split Horn, that further discussed Paja Thao's experience.

"Hmong Voices in Montana" published by the Missoula Museum of the Arts Foundation, 1992 was also a favorite of mine, but is now largely out of print, but I like it because it contains the perspective of the shaman Kia Moua Thao, whose experiences and techniques were a little different than most Hmong shamans, and illustrated the variance that can occur within this belief system.

Hmong Voices in Montana. Currently hard to find.

And as always, you can stop by over at and check out the world's first Hmong bookstore, stocking the largest selection of Hmong books and books about the Hmong that you're likely to find at the moment.

But on an interesting side note to all of this:

Over in China a few years back there was a role playing game called Prince of Qin, and a spin-off MMORPG called World of Qin that featured the Hmong (referred to as the Miao) who you could play. One of the main character classes was translated as 'witch' in English, but I think it's safe to say that it's clearly a fantasy version of a Hmong shaman.

This was the character portrait they used:

It's certainly quite different from most of the community's traditional ideas of what a shaman looks like. Apparently they've shut down the World of Qin to unveil World of Qin 2, and I haven't taken a peek over there yet to see if you can play a Hmong person in this version.

In the near future, however, I actually hope we'll start to see more work documenting the metaphysical and cosmological perspectives of other communities from Laos, such as the Tai Dam, the Mien, and others whose beliefs are still largely undocumented.


Anonymous said...

Hmong lesson of the day:

"Ua neeb" describes the act of performing the rituals of Hmong shamanism. "Ua" is the verb--"to perform or do." "Neeb" is the shamanistic ritual, the noun.

"Hmong shamanism" is more accurately described/translated in Hmong as "kev cai qub" (literally "the old practice or rules")or "kev cai dab qhua" ("the practice or rules of the spirits").

I've seen "ua neeb" translated into "Hmong shamanism" in Anne Fadiman's book as well. Everyone, please make sure you get your terms right!

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Good point. I should have been more clear on that.

By and large, this also is one of the issues that we should continue to explore, is how do we create translations of another culture's religious / metaphysical / spiritual systems of belief.

It's much like the concept or term of 'ancestor worship' that I've always seen more as an issue of 'ancestor veneration' or 'reverence.'

Depending on whose beliefs you're looking at,it rarely comes to mean the same as elevating the deceased to full diety status, equal to the great creators or cosmic forces otherwise in action.

Without engaging in excessive levity on the matter, it's more of a more democratic form of achieving sainthood- the ancestors are called upon to intercede and guide the families of the present day.

But there were many years when I'd run into people who were completely freaked out by the ideas of Shinto or Confucianism because they hear the word 'worship' and get hung up on it, when in fact a more nuanced understanding of the word is perhaps required.

Looking forward to further discussions.

HlubTxeejTiam said...

I notice that you are translating things "literally" and you need to realize that Hmong terms cannot be translated LITERALLY! Kev cai qub merely refers to religious practices.....kev cai (in this case, refers to religious practices) and qub refers to "the old" religious practice....which points at shamanism. However, it says nothing at all whatsoever about "spirits" as you suggest. Therefore, yes.....please examine ideas/concepts/and words carefully before you decide to translate it literally......

If you did that....

my goodness, the world would laugh at our language....

For example, Cas koj tob hauv loj ua luaj!!!!

Literal translation, Why you head so big!

It really means you are stupid!