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Hmong and Miao Studies

The First International Workshop on the Hmong/Miao in Asia was successfully held in Aix-en-Provence, from 11 to 13, September 1998, supported by the Asia Committee of the European Science Foundation. Convened by Dr Jean Michaud (University of Hull) and Dr Christian Culas (CNRS), the workshop brought together for the first time a group of international scholars who are specialists on the Hmong and the Miao minorities of Mainland Southeast Asia.

By Jean Michaud

The Hmong in Southeast Asia and their relatives in China, the Miao, from whom they sprang, number nearly ten million people. Despite a relatively long period of intensive observation of the group in the field, Hmong/Miao research has never been consolidated, and even today, it is still being performed by a handful of mostly non-Asian researchers in dispersed institutional situations. The study of specific topics among Hmong refugees in the West has resulted in gatherings and two collective publications, whereas the study of the Hmong/Miao in Asia, where more than ninety per cent of them live, has led chiefly to individual publications on a wide variety of topics. The main purposes of the Workshop were therefore: 1) to take stock of the scholarly research on the group in every relevant discipline in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history, and human geography); 2) to highlight the strengths and weaknesses in our knowledge of Hmong/Miao culture(s), favouring cross-disciplinary exchanges; and 3) to create the conditions and set an agenda for long-term academic collaboration.
The need to launch such a scholarly co-operation is urgent. The re-opening of formerly closed communist States in Asia is forcing a renewal of the negotiations in the relationship between the national minorities and the central powers, and it also changes the research conditions dramatically. Foreign scholars are gaining access to isolated communities in Guizhou, Yunnan, northern Vietnam, and Laos. Local archives are being opened up for national and international consultation. A growing number of young researchers from both inside and outside Asia have found an interest in the Hmong/Miao. The interest shown in particular by numerous Laotian Hmong from the diaspora in their Asian origins brings them back from the USA, France, and Australia to conduct research on their own original society. To meet the growing demand for fundamental knowledge, an assessment of the current state of the study is needed, and the Hmong/Miao scholars scattered throughout the world are now in the position to provide it.

The workshop
Amongst other themes, the workshop focused on 'Identity, Identification, and History'. The historical description of the Hmong/Miao encoded in the Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai languages has given rise to a situation where, today, identifying each group with precision is a delicate issue. Closer collaboration between historians, linguists, and anthropologists, combined with ethnohistorical and ethnolinguistic works based on first hand data, should help to lay the foundation for a scientific distinction of the different Hmong and Miao groups. Another theme was 'Religion, Beliefs and Cosmology'. Both shamanism, a powerful dimension of ritual expression, and messianism, a key feature in Hmong culture, provide fertile ground for research. Mythology and funeral rituals are now better described - especially owing to in particular to Western missionary activity - but many seasonal practices are still unknown. Religious variations between Hmong/Miao subgroups in different countries should be paid specific attention.
On the topic of 'Transnationality, Social Change and Adaptation', it became clear that the relationship between the States and the Hmong/Miao minorities is a sensitive issue. For several decades now, Hmong/Miao communities have had to adapt to national frames. The Hmong/Miao societies in different countries have followed various directions. Connecting and articulating Western and Asian expertise, including scholars of Hmong/Miao origin, can contribute to identifying patterns of cultural resilience, of social and spatial organization, and structures of adaptation, in particular regarding health issues. This work is a prerequisite before getting any further in the understanding of Hmong patterns of adaptation in Asia and the West.

The Future of Hmong and Miao Studies
In the plenary session, the overwhelming feeling was that the meeting had been a success and should be repeated. The issue of whether it would be appropriate and financially viable to set up a permanent association of scholars working on the Hmong and the Miao was also raised. Participants agreed, as a first step in the right direction, to start with preparing a second meeting in two years time, and Chiang Mai (Thailand) has been mentioned as its probable venue. Concurrently, C. Corlin from Sweden has set up an electronic mailbox (Hmong-L@sant.gu.se) where participants and others can continue to exchange ideas on topics related to Hmong and Miao studies and the future creation of an association. To register to the discussion group, one should contact first Dr Corlin himself at claes.corlin@sant.gu.se.

A book will be prepared for publication putting together most of the papers presented at the Workshop. C. Culas, G.Y. Lee, J. Michaud, and N. Tapp were appointed on the editorial committee. For more information, please contact:
Dr Jean Michaud,Centre for South-East Asian StudiesUniversity of Hull,Hull, HU6 7RX, GB, fax: +44.1482.465.758 e-mail: j.michaud@pol-as.hull.ac.uk or Dr Christian Culas, IRSEA - CNRS, 389, Ave du Club Hippique, 13034 Aix en Provence, Cedex 2, France, e-mail: irsea@romarin.univ-aix.fr.

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