WHO ARE THE MONG?  MOOB YOG LEEJ TWG?

The Mong (aka Hmong or Miao) is an Asian ethnic group that originates from China.  The Mong people have a history span of about 5,000 years with the Chinese.  Today, there's an estimate of 7-9 million Mong worldwide including China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, United Sates, France, Canada, and a few other smaller countries.  

For those who may not know, there are two major groups of Mong known as Mong Leng (Moob Leeg) and Hmong Der (Hmoob Dawb).  In the West, Mong Leng is sometimes referred to as Blue or Green* Hmong, and Hmong Der is usually called White Hmong.  Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that all Hmong Der were once Mong Leng.  In this web site, "Mong" is used to refer to ALL groups.

There are still other names such as Striped Mong, Black Mong, Red Mong, Flowery Mong, etc., who live in parts of Southeast Asia and China.  These are all subgroups of Mong Leng or Hmong Der.  These designations are said to have been given to the Mong by the Chinese in earlier dynasties, who tried to divide them by requiring each group to wear different colors of clothing.  Regardless of their labels, all Mong still consider themselves as one ethnic group.  In China, the Mong are known as "Miao," a term that is not exclusive to Mong only.  The majority of these Chinese Mong speak Mong Leng but mixed in with some Hmong Der words.  They also carry the Chinese accent in their enunciations.

Sometimes my non-Mong colleagues asked if the spelling of "M-o-n-g" is a typo?  I often tell them that there are two major groups of Mong and this is how Mong Leng write and pronouce the word.  In fact, the word "Mong" derives from the word "Moob," a term Mong Leng use when referring to themselves.  Similarly, the word "Hmong" is a derivative of the term "Hmoob," a Hmong Der word.  The "H" in "Hmong" is silent.  As seen here, even when written and pronounced slightly different, the two words, Mong and Hmong or Moob and Hmoob, mean the same and refer to the same people.  

How different are Hmong Der from Mong Leng when speaking?  Some say it's like English spoken in England and the U.S.  Others explain that it's like Thai and Lao, where if you speak one language than you'll understand the other.  I say between 60-70% of the words are the same and 30-40% different.  See the examples below.  The differences are in quotes.

 

English: What is your name?  
Hmong Der:  Koj lub npe hu "li cas"? 33% different
Mong Leng: Koj lub npe hu "le caag"? 33% different
English:  Children go to school?    
Hmong Der:  "Me nyuam mus" kawm ntawv? 60% different
Mong Leng: "Miv nyuas moog" kawm ntawv? 60% different
English:  I'm going to see the doctor.  
Hmong Der:  Kuv yuav "mus" ntsib "tus" kws "kho" mob. 37% different
Mong Leng: Kuv yuav "moog" ntsib "tug" kws "khu" mob. 37% different
English:  I would like to use your tripod.    
Hmong Der:  Kuv "xav" siv koj lub "kos".  33% different
Mong Leng: Kuv "xaav" siv koj lub "xaab cum".  33% different
Personal pronouns:  
English:  I you you two you three they % different
Hmong Der: kuv koj neb nej lawv 60% 
Mong Leng: kuv koj  meb mej puab 60% 
Sample words:  
English: go come run fix like money heavy dent
Hmong Der: mus los khiav kho nyiam nyiaj hnyav hmluav
Mong Leng: moog  lug dlha khu nyam nyaj nyaav mluav

It is important to note that some Mong in China speak totally different from the Mong of say Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, or the U.S.   Therefore, the sentences and words above could be uttered completely different from what they are and we may not even understand them.  In the summer of 2009, I traveled to Kuming, Yanan Provice and met a relative of mine whom I met 10 years earlier in Fresno, California.  When I first met him, I could not understand a word of what he was saying.  However, since then, he had learned how to communicate the way Mong Americans do and I was able to comprehend him better.

Clothing used to be another major difference besides spoken words but not that significant anymore.  In Laos, Mong Leng women usually wore red, embroidered skirts; and Hmong Der women dressed in plain, white skirts or usually wore black pants as men.  Nowadays, in the United States or even back in Laos, Mong people wear western clothing so one could hardly distinguish the other unless you hear them speak.  Even at Mong New Year celebrations, Mong children often dress in whatever they feel pretty or "cool."  One noticeable cross over is that most Hmong Der girls now have at least a pair of the embroidered Mong Leng skirts because of it's beautiful designs.  It is also generally agreed that Mong Leng is more humble, while Hmong Der is more assertive.  And most Mong Leng can speak Hmong Der while very few Hmong Der can communicate in Mong Leng.

Today, there are still debates as to which name, "Hmong,"  "Mong," or both, should be used side-by-side.  Terms such as "HMong" or "Mhong" have also been suggested as compromise.  Some Hmong Der argue that using the word "Mong" will only divide us and confuses the outside world.  Mong Leng disagree and say that this is how others have tried to marginalize them.  In fact, they have tried to use the word "Hmong" for the past 30 years in the U.S. and it's not helping them.  They point to the inequities in federal fundings and material translations in government entities such as social services and schools, etc., which are mainly done in Hmong Der.  Mong Leng say they are tired of being treated as a second-class citizen and demanded that they be recognize as who they are, Mong.

So far, there's little compromise on the naming issue, but one sure thing is that the word "Hmong" is now standardized in the U.S.  However, this is not to say that the word "Mong" will disappear or Mong Leng will cave in completely.  There are actually some writers in the U.S. and other countries who use the word "Mong" when writing about our people.  Government agencies in the U.S. have also started to take notice of this sensitive issue and have tried not to take side.  

In actuality, the word "Hmong" is harder for non-native speakers to pronounce.  As seen in Gran Torino, a film about Mong gang violence in Michigan, Clint Eastwood, a legendary movie superstar, pronounced "Hmong" as "ha-mong," which is completely inaccurate.  Most people, native and non-native alike, pronounce it exactly as written and spoken in Mong Leng, which is "Mong."

Will Mong Leng survive as a group and be able to maintain our language and culture as we have done since the dawn of time?  This is all up to Mong Leng as a collective group.  Personally, I believe that for as long as there are Mong Leng, there will always be people using the "M-o-n-g" spelling, though it may never reach the recognition or acceptance as the word "Hmong."  This does not concern me.  Since I was born as a Mong Leng, "Mong" or "Moob" is and will always be my first word choice.  

Regardless of what your believes are, we simply cannot run away from the truths.  Whether we use Hmong or Mong, we must learn to accept and appreciate this unique but very important difference.  It is when we fail to show respect or recognize our diversity that often leads us to misunderstandings and unintended consequences.   Learn both Mong Leng and Hmong Der and just be really proud of what we still have because some people in the world don't even have what we have, which are our names and spoken words! 

Often times when a Mong language class is offered in high school or college, only Hmong Der is taught.  If you truly care and love our people, you shall cover both subjects equally.  You do this not to satisfy your critics but to meet the needs of all your students and to preserve and protect our beautiful languages for future generations.  In fact, being able to speak, read, and write both dialects should be a perquisite for ALL Mong language teachers now and in the future.

 

Note:

*Some Mong Leng reject the use of the name "Green Hmong" because they say it is derogatorily offensive. Hmong Njua and Hmong Leng are also incorrect ways to refer to Mong Leng, they say.  Personally, the use of "Green Hmong" or "Moob Ntsuab" does not offend me.  From what I have heard, there are some Mong Leng who called themselves by that name only.

 

Author:  Tom Hang is a high school Mong language teacher in Merced, California.  For comments or questions about this or any other topics, please feel free to email him.

Updated:  09/16/11