The Impact Of Christianity


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The Impact Of Christianity

  1. 1. THE IMPACT OF CHRISTIANITY Christianity impacted the Hmong community quite early in China. Not only were RomanCatholic missionaries from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) working in the areasof Guizhou, Yunnan, and northern Vietnam where the Hmong lived, but also Protestantmissionaries, particularly from the Methodist churches and from the interdenominationalChina Inland Mission began working among the Hmong and A Hmao peoples from the lastquarter of the nineteenth century in both Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. They were not assuccessful in Guizhou, but in Yunnan several mass conversions were made by one of thefirst missionaries, Samuel Pollard from Cornwall, attached to the Bible Christian movementthat later merged into the United Methodist Mission. Pollard (and his son Walter) left severalaccounts of his work in China at this time and the deprived and desperate position hisHmong and A Hmao converts were in after the failure of their various uprisings againstharsh Chinese rule. In some case he interceded for them against wicked or corrupt Chineselandlords and magistrates. It was Pollard who, with A Hmao helpers, designed the first scriptfor any Miao language, a form of writing that is still being used by the A Hmao of Yunnanprovince. There can be no doubt that converts at this time were in a desperate economicand political position and welcomed the teachings of Christ as a beacon of hope in theirhistory. However, from the start there were confusions and misinterpretations of understanding,which, according to Pollard’s own writings, caused him considerable grief and upset. Manyof the converts took the words of the Bible too literally, believing that the Day of Judgementwas already at hand, and that the Messiah, whom they identified as a Hmong one, wasshortly to be born. The pronunciation of Jesus as “Yesu” sounded a little like the name of theHmong deity Yawm Saub, so they became confused. In one case a Miao woman claimed tobe the sister of Christ and went around winning converts. And it is more than probable that,hearing that Pollard had bought a Book that was specially for them, as he put it, and coupledwith the fact that he was designing a form of writing for their language into which the Biblecould be translated, many converts believed that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy thatone day the lost form of Hmong writing would be restored to them. Without going too muchinto history here, these movements and mass conversions of Hmong to Protestant formsof missionary Christianity have continued to occur at regular frequent intervals in Vietnam,Laos, and Thailand up until the present day. In the midst of the unhappy wars in Laos in the1960s, for instance, three Hmong men traveled about the country claiming to be the HolyTrinity and seeking to convert other Hmong. Around the same time the Communist Party ofThailand tricked many Thailand Hmong into leaving their villages and fleeing to what turnedout to be a communist base in Chiangrai province by spreading rumors of the birth of aHmong Messiah there. The impact of Christianity on the Hmong has been dramatic, unlike the slow adoption ofBuddhist values and practices, and it has differed somewhat between different churches andsects. In general the Catholic missionaries have taken a more long-sighted view of Hmongculture and custom and in many cases actively encouraged or sponsored the documentationof traditional Hmong practices such as the death rituals and shamanic ceremonies.Protestant missionaries such as the Presbyterians who worked in Thailand have generallyadopted an approach that is much more culturally intolerant, often burning household altarsand forbidding any kind of ancestral or funeral practice. And different sects have adopteddifferent approaches; for example, the Seventh-Day Adventists were known for not allowing
  2. 2. even the consumption of pork in northern Thailand. In the last two decades further changeshave taken place in the spreading of Christianity, because most pastors now are Hmongthemselves, unlike tthe fairly recent past when the missionaries were almost all American,French, or from other Western nations. In Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in Laos, Christianity is still disapproved of by thesocialist authorities, and in Vietnam the increasing Hmong adoption of Christianity in recentyears has been seen as a sign of their wishes for subversion and has been savagelyrepressed with the slaughter of household animals belonging to Hmong Christians, theirarrests, and even their executions. The Chinese government, too, keeps a very carefulwatch on mass adoptions of Christianity by the Hmong in its border provinces. The Hmongresponse to this persecution has been in some cases flight (several families disappearedinto Burma from Yunnan for this reason in the 1990s), and particularly in Vietnam, evensuicide. The Christian faith has a very strong appeal, partly because it originated fromWestern missionaries, whom the Hmong have traditionally identified as powerful advocateswho would deliver them from oppression by other local dominant groups. Christianity alsoteaches about the second coming of Christ, which meshes with Hmong mythical belief aboutthe coming of a Hmong king to unite all Hmong under his rule as it did with the convertsmade by Pollard. In such cases Christianity may be seen by converts as a part of theirculture and traditions, an aspect that offers them hope in the face of oppression. The kinship-based clan or lineage is important in Hmong society at every level andthere is a customary need to perform ancestral and shamanic rituals at times of life crisesand at particular points in the annual calendar to affirm and maintain that identity. However,once an individual or even a family or group of families converts to Christianity, it becomesvirtually impossible for communal social activities, such as those at weddings, funerals, oreven the New Year, to be performed together any more. Villages in Thailand and elsewherehave become severely fragmented by these issues. It is fair to say that families, lineages,and whole communities have been riven by divisions between Christians and non-Christians.There are cases of shamans converting to Christianity, or of fathers whose sons refuse tofollow them, or of children converting for reasons of strong faith against the wishes of theirparents. Many younger Hmong also convert on the pretext that the Hmong traditional rituals thateach married male has to perform for his family are too difficult to learn, or are not relevantto their modern needs. However, in many cases these conversions are matters of genuinefaith and belief and arise from a feeling that the older Hmong beliefs are superstitiousor based on fear, as pointed out by Dowman. Often a succession of unfortunate eventssuch as illness or crop failure is pointed to as the result of the conversion, or refusal orfailure to convert. In Canada, the United States, and elsewhere conflicts over the adoptionof Christianity have become endemic. In these countries it was often local churches thatsponsored the arrival of Hmong refugees after 1975 and some converted out of a sense ofobligation to the sponsors, while others came into conflict with their sponsors as occurredwith the sponsorship of Hmong families by the Mennonites in Canada. In Australia theconversion to Christianity of a Hmong shaman who had been sponsored to come to thecountry owing to the shortage of shamans caused deep resentment as the individualconcerned was seen as reneging on his commitment and using the conversion to avoidhis community obligations. For a Christian, perhaps the most serious issue is the inabilityto take full part in the funeral rituals for the soul of a deceased relative or parent. However,debates and disagreements have also centered on other ritual events and practices such as
  3. 3. customary weddings and the traditional practice of bridewealth payments. An important contributing reason to the rifts that have developed within the Hmongcommunity over the adoption of Christianity has been that some Christian denominations,especially in the United States, are so rigid in their teachings that they dismiss all Hmongtraditional practices as paganism, so that their Hmong converts are forced to cut off all tieswith their relatives and clan members who remain faithful to the Hmong traditional system.Some sects see all traditional rituals as tainted by demons, and converts are not allowed tojoin in any feasts arising from these rituals. This kind of cultural intolerance further erodesmutual obligations between family and clan members, because the more fundamentalistChristian Hmong may refuse to provide help with family celebrations or community eventsthat involve some religious activities. Despite this, some of the bigger Hmong churches areactive with their own missionary work among fellow Hmong in China and Southeast Asia,both through conversion in the field and through missionary radio broadcasts from the UnitedStates and the Philippines. One must not forget the agony of individual decision-making that the adoption ofChristianity involves in many cases, besides the communal conflicts drawn attention to here.Cases of conversion back and forth several times are very common. Many Hmong may wishto become Christian or leave their ancestral belief system behind, but feel constrained by thepresence of an elderly parent or relative for whom the absence of a traditional funeral wouldbe a calamity. Where a girl from a traditional family marries a Christian Hmong, or a brotherconverts against the wishes of his father, the personal traumas caused can be tremendous.At Hmong New Year in the United States, Christian Hmong also hold a family feast butcombine it with Christian songs and blessings, while some hold the feast in a restaurant orhotel. It has become more of a private, family celebration than a public event, and may notbe held on the exact date. The issue in the wider sense comes down to one of Hmong identity and how beingHmong is to be defined in the future. The introduction of Christianity often challenges thisvery identity, the traditional leadership structures and often the traditional authority of men inthe family, so that it involves not just relations between men and women, but also relationsbetween the younger generation and their elders, and the traditional aspect owed by wivesto their husbands as by youth to their elders. So the issue of the adoption of Christianitybecomes conflated with other changes in the relations between genders and generationsthat are taking place in the new lives of the Hmong today, not just in the United States orother advanced economies, but also in the rapidly modernizing society of Thailand and themore urbanized parts of Asia where Hmong families and individuals live. Many members ofthe older generation may feel that the younger generation are losing their Hmong cultureand therefore their “Hmong-ness” by not being able to speak Hmong, adopting ways seen asnon-Hmong and turning their backs on traditional customs. But others, not only among theyounger generation, feel that it is possible to remain Hmong while adopting new ways andcustoms, and that being Hmong may and indeed should be defined in different ways fromthose of the past. Besides membership of the Catholic Church, many Protestant groups, including theChristian Missionary Alliance, the Assembly of God, the Baptist, Lutheran, and Pentecostalchurches, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are small groups of messianic Hmongwho seek to revive the traditions of their people in new and unexpected ways, such asa group of four families in Australia who have retreated to the mountains of the AthertonHighlands to practice a new faith with newly designed rituals that they see as traditional and
  4. 4. as a way of remaining Hmong in the face of pressures to become Australian. And there is asmall community of Hmong in Portland, Oregon, who converted to the Baha’i faith in Laos,where some believers still remain. Despite these conflicts and divisions, the overwhelming majority of the Hmong todayremain attached to some degree or other to the more traditional beliefs of their ancestors,and even those in Western countries often try to maintain traditional practices of ancestorrespect and shamanism as best they can. Behind these beliefs there is a strong substratumof wisdom and belief in the harmony of nature and the need of humans to live in appropriateaccord with the natural world that remains an encouragement and inspiration for manyHmong people.Gary Yia Lee and Nicholas Tapp, 2010, Culture and Customs of the Hmong