Hmong Story Quilts
Lives Of The Hmong People Told In Story Quilts
All arts and crafts are near and dear to my heart. It was no surprise to find me staring at the framed display of an unusual quilt. Mesmerized by the hand-stitched little people and the skill of the needlework, I had to ask what it was and where it came from. I saw it for the first time when I came to teach Watercolor Painting at the Fresno Adult School. This unusual and charming blue quilt displayed in the lobby was simple yet complex. Since that day I have seen several Hmong story quilts, or clothes as they are sometimes called, with the same blue fabric background and triangular patterned border, yet with different stories to tell. The people marching across the cloth are trying to tell me something about the Hmong people. This is their journey and their story.
I apologize for the glare on this photo as there was glass over the original quilt.
Trying To Understand The Culture Better
In my research, I keep the focus on the lives of the Hmong people and not just the "thing" of the story quilt. Trying to understand the culture better and going beyond the surface of the beautiful story quilt, I aspired to find the meanings and definitions placed on them by the Hmong people. To that end, I sought out Say Xiong to help decipher the story quilt displayed at the Fresno Adult School. Also in order to get a detailed account of the quilt, I needed to include a detailed backdrop.
The Hmong people have a long history of searching for a land where they can be free. Their people were subsistence farmers and are said to have come from northern China long ago, and moved southward to avoid persecution. Why they were considered "alien" others is not quite clear. They had their own language dialect, which could have made them different enough to be ostracized. Nevertheless, they clearly developed their own identity and wished to remain free. "The freedom they cherish is an all-encompassing liberty that means far more than their independence from a political government or a system of economics. It is a freedom of the spirit, a freedom to be their own people, and it is the very essence of their being," quoted from Creating Pa nDau Applique: A New Approach to an Ancient Art Form. Finally, they settled in the hill country of Burma, Laos, Thai, and Vietnam, to farm and live as they desired. The hill country was hard to navigate, so the Hmong people were mostly left alone. They would clear a piece of land and farm it until the nutrients were stripped and then move to a new piece of land. This meant that sometimes they had to walk a long way from their village to work the land, even camping there overnight sometimes. This isolation worked for them until the 1950s when Communism came to China and the increasing ease of travel opened up the hill country to increasing traffic.
They wore distinctive dress and could even identify other families and clans at a distance by the design, cut, elaborate embroidery, and colors used for the headwear. Among the H'mong, costume as an important element of ethnic identity.
A Form Of Communal Farming
They engaged in a form of communal farming. "Those that agree to participate in the communal farming go to work with each other. First, we will work on Say’s farm (pointing to Say), the next day we work your farm (point to me), and the next day we all work my farm," explained Eldrick Chang, describing their form of agrarian reciprocity. They worked together in a close-knit community relationship, doing for each other. When they came here to the United States, many were spread out by the immigration services so that the impact on one state or city would not be too difficult. However what this did was to break up close village communities and even families, who later spent years searching for each other. With more educational and employment opportunities here in the US, many Hmong no longer farm. However I have seen many communal garden plots here in the city of Fresno. Working together, they are able to supplement their income by transforming these empty lots into blooming, fruitful garden spots. I love seeing growing things and these hardworking people seem to also.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited many Hmong people to spy against the Vietcong. The Hmong were strong supporters of the United States during the Vietnam War and were in grave danger both during and after the war because of this. After the United States pulled out of Vietnam, many Hmong people escaped persecution by crossing the Mekong River, where many drown in the attempt. One story told in Eldrick Chang's family was of a mother who gave her baby opium to keep him from making noise and giving their position away to the Communist soldiers. Unfortunately they gave the baby too much and he died. According to Chang, there are some story clothes that depict this story as well.
Quilts Created By Women of Other Cultures
Just as Clifford Geertz was interested in the interpretive anthropology of symbolism, and how they were part of the social processes, I needed to understand the deeper meaning of the story quilt and its symbols. In so doing I turned to other quilts created by women of other cultures.
It is not unusual for women to find ways to add color and creativity to their everyday work. In my background there is the tradition of Memory Quilts. A memory quilt may go back much farther than the pioneer days my mother speaks of. When cloth was hard to come by, every piece was utilized even when a child had outgrown their clothes or when a rip had made a garment unusable. Useable pieces of the clothes were then cut out and saved for quilting purposes. Memory quilts were special because each piece of fabric had a memory and a story behind it. One piece from the baby who didn't live past his 6th month, another from the wedding clothes they married in, another from a shirt worn during the last dance attended. Many times the memory quilts included applique shapes of flowers, trees, birds, or even embroidered names and dates. These became cherished heirloom keepsakes passed down to daughters when they wed. Today there are many websites offering the construction of memory quilts using pieces of clothing of the consumer’s choice. One such site told of making quilts for the widow and 4 daughters out of the man’s many signature plaid shirts.
The Hmong story quilts function as the written language of the people for many years, saving their lives, their stories and their folklore. Language is an important part of any culture or organism to share in a society.
Hmong Story Quilts or clothes are called paj ntaub, pronounced "pa daow". The bright colors and the embroidery have evolved over the years. Originally the needlework was used to decorate clothing. These decorative stories were traditionally sewn on the "Qua Sev, a belt that is worn on the Hmong women’s waist," but soon became larger squares used as tablecloths or wall hangings.
The Hmong needlework could be considered "primitive art" in that most did not have any known artist associated with it, partly because the artists were "preliterate". According to Dr. George Leonard, preliterate means that the Hmong people were not illiterate, but that they simply had not invented a written form for their language. In the 1950s, Christian missionaries created a standardized and Romanized Hmong language. Beth Conklin writes in her article that Westerners appreciate "primitive" art because it resonates a visual exoticism and is ahistorical or unchanging. The Hmong story quilts may be considered primitive art; they are not, however, unchanging. Whatever the reason, Westerners have appreciated the Hmong story quilts and have created a source of income for them, allowing for some measure of independence and creative voice.
Pictorial And Symbolic Stitchery To Record Family Lore
The Hmong people used their pictorial and symbolic stitchery to record family lore, which over the centuries, they became very skillful at. The symbols and style is slightly different for each of the clans. Their art is both functional art and representational. Most fascinating are the story cloths where the families can "tell" their family history in pictographs.
In the refugee camps of Thailand, it was discovered that the story clothes were a source of income as more and more Westerners and tourists offered to buy them. While in the camps, the men could not farm and therefore, feed their families, but the women continued to engage in their stitchery. Interestingly enough, it was the men, not the women, who drew the stories for the women to stitch. The stories included not only depictions of everyday life from the old days in the hills of Laos, but also folktales and stories of their escape to freedom. The anthropologist, James Spradley writes that cultures consist of three things, cultural behavior, cultural knowledge and cultural artifacts. The Story quilts contain all three. The women with the knowledge and skill created quilts to sell out of their shared experiences and folktales. Interestingly, the Hmong women were uncharacteristically unconcerned about parting with their craft. It is the emerging generation that has derived more value in the story quilts they still own.
Buy Your Own Traditional Hmong Story Quilt
You can still buy your own traditional Hmong Story Quilt for much less than you would think. They aren't priced like a small used car, but noting the skill, talent and time, they should be. Buying one of these helps support the people both here in the US and some of those still relocated in refuge camps in Thailand and other places.
Traditional Story Clothes
In the United States, the Hmong women do not spend as much time on traditional story clothes because of increased employment and educational opportunities. Because of this it has been a concern that emerging generations may lose the technique and desire to learn the traditional arts. However Eldrich Chang and Say Xiong are encouraged by this second generation of Hmong young people, who are returning to embrace the old skills such as the traditional Hmong flute: qeej, pronounced "kang," and the traditional Hmong New Year celebrations. This is propitious news, for the loss of this culture and art form would be a tragedy. Anthropologically, it would be wrong to ask this culture to remain static, for the creation of story quilts to never develop with the dynamic growth of the culture, but it would also be sad for the stories to discontinue altogether.
The beautiful way these skilled artisans captured their lives and their culture can be compared to the way Grandma Moses captured a time before the twentieth century in upstate New York. She didn’t use traditional perspective rules but in a "primitive way", she still pulled us into her world of quilting bees and making apple butter in the front yard. These story quilts do the same thing. The beholder is drawn in and wishes to know more, just as I did.
My Parents Were Born Over There
"My parents were born over there (Chang points) and came here in the 80's," Chang told me. According to Say Xiong and Eldrick Chang, the story quilt at the Fresno Adult School lobby, contains a year in the life of a village in the hill country of Laos. The upper portion contains a tree with wild birds indigenous to the jungle areas of Laos. There are also delicate mountains stitched in line, and farm animals: chickens, pigs, and donkeys. At the top there is a man working a mortar with is foot. The mortar was used to crack the dry hulls to free the rice for the family meal and even for the chickens to eat. Also at the top of the quilt are houses of the village.
Further down the cloth are villagers walking to the farm, which could be a long way away from the village. The men, women and children, all dressed alike, go together to the farm to work for the day. According to Chang, they would sometimes spend the night, essentially camping out. They seem to leave the village with empty baskets on their backs and on their donkey, but return with them filled with harvested produce. Throughout the quilt you can see crops: rice planted in June through July and harvested in November; long beans planted in March and harvested in October; Banana palm, cucumbers, pumpkin, pineapple, corn, and something similar to yams.
In the upper right side, there is a rope hanging from a tree, which Xiong and Chang indicated was a New Year celebration. "An elder blesses the villagers as they walk clockwise five times and counter-clockwise four times, leaving bad luck and misfortune behind as they welcome the New Year filled with prosperity, good fortune, and health."
Significance For The Blue Background
I asked what the significance was for the blue of the background. Say Xiong said basically, that there was no significance. They just like blue. I asked about the grey and blue triangular pattern around the quilt. "Is it because the Hmong people felt safety in the mountains that they use this type of a mountain border on the quilt?" Say Xiong had to ask an older woman, introduced only as May. She said it was only decoration and had no further significance as far as she knew. On a research web site I found the triangular pattern listed as symbols for mountains. Perhaps I am reading too much symbolism into the quilt where there isn't any, but the triangular pattern is a repeating theme in many of the quilts I discovered online. Perhaps subliminally it is a comforting and familiar mountainous pattern there.
There is no signature on the quilt. It is anonymous as most of them are. The plaque at the bottom simply states that it was purchased October 13, 2005.
Grandfather's Story Cloth
A charming story of a boy dealing with his grandfather's lose of memory due to Alzheimer's disease, so he decides to make a story quilt to record their life together.
Time and effort involved in creating a quilt.
Have you any idea of the time and effort involved in creating a quilt?
Continuing To Transform In Purpose
Although the original purpose of the Hmong story clothes has changed from a personal history record, to a commercial venture, the quilts are continuing to transform in purpose. They are becoming even more than a memory quilt or a consumer item. They are art forms on a cultural level. In the children's story "Grandfather's Story Cloth" the young boy is dealing with his grandfather's failing memory through the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. The boy, Chersheng, feels helpless and sad but had found that each time he shows the family story cloth to his grandfather, the memories of his life in Laos becomes clearer and alive in his memory. In the end Chersheng decides to create his own story quilt so they can all remember that their life and love together is stronger than Alzheimer’s disease, no matter what country they live in. A beautiful story.
Times And Cultures Are Not Static
I wouldn't say that knowing more about Hmong story quilts has changed my own art as much as it has changed the way I see art. Their use of perspective, or lack of traditional perspective, has allowed me to see outside of traditional rules of Western ways of doing art. I think this method of portraying more than one moment in the life of one person or people is fascinating. They have found a way to describe their life together and a year in their world.
I would say times and cultures are not static, but dynamic and flowing. The Hmong people and their story quilts will continue to reflect that. The Hmong artisans may have been their own salvage anthropologists, capturing a moment in time, which may be gone forever, but are immortalized in stitched snapshots.