Belonging in the Karst Mountains: Hmong Ways of Life on The Dong Van Karst Plateau,Vietnam




Tran, Thu

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Research on the Hmong people in Southeast Asia offers contrasting views about their relationship to the mountain landscapes where so many Hmong people live. One view portrays the Hmong as finding self-realisation in mountain settings, which are deemed to provide them a secure refuge from lowland chaos; an ideal place for their distinctive economic pursuits; and a space of cultural and political autonomy. Another viewpoint sees the Hmong relationship with the mountains as being uncomfortable. They are portrayed as refugees, forced to leave their homeland in China, and ending up in remote highland realms in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand under the arbitrary rule of culturally alien lowland states. They have been marginalised, dislocated and reformed according to lowland criteria, and find solace only in millenarianism or conversion to new religions. This thesis contributes a new perspective to this discussion with a case study of Hmong people living on the Dong Van Karst Plateau in Ha Giang, Vietnam. Through the concept of belonging, the thesis uncovers the complex nature of the Hmong relationship to the limestone landscape, which is experienced, with ambivalence, as a place of security, awesome power, hardship, familiarity and accomplishment. In their stories, memories, beliefs and rites; through practices of migration, home-building and farming; and by collaborative effort, endurance and ingenuity, Hmong people establish a sense of belonging in the karst mountains. The findings of this thesis are based on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Meo Vac district of Ha Giang Province. From my base in a village on a limestone mountain near the border with China, I observed and participated in Hmong villagers' daily activities and rites; mapped the social landscape; and conducted informal and in-depth interviews with key interlocutors on their beliefs and customs and narratives of migration and history. These methods enabled me to explore multiple reflections of the relationship of the Hmong people to the limestone landscape. In keeping with the key tension I identified in literature on Hmong relations to the landscape, I found that the Hmong in Meo Vac faced severe, difficult and demanding circumstances living on a high limestone plateau with almost no water and a challenging rocky soil that made house-building and agriculture difficult, and under a nation state with its own powerful agenda for the development of the Hmong. Yet I also discovered how the Hmong have been able to make the mountains their home through their experiences, memories, rituals, labour cooperation and participation in nation-building. I saw that the Hmong's relationship to the mountain environment was interactive and mutually constituted. While the mountains have imposed limits on Hmong agency and opportunities, and forced them to adapt, the Hmong people themselves have shaped the meaning of the mountains through their culture, stories and beliefs; and through old and new practical, ritual and socio-political collaborations. This thesis explores multiple aspects of Hmong experiences of belonging in the limestone mountains of northern Vietnam. These aspects include Hmong people's embodied experiences and narrative appropriation of the landscape; ritual relations with natural and supernatural elements; practical adaptations to the realities of farming and home-making on rocky slopes; and collaborative tactics to overcome dangers and resource hardships. I look at social aspects of belonging, for example relationships within the family and lineage, particularly from the perspective of women. This also includes belonging in a political sense: how the limestone landscape is incorporated as national territory and how the Hmong recall their experiences of nation-building. Through these aspects, the notion of belonging offers a way to understand the Hmong experience of living in karst mountains.






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