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The Hmong Hill Tribe : Silver Jewelry & Embroidery
Ancient Origins of the Hmong
The Hmong, also known as ‘Meo’, are a fiercely independent hill tribe people living throughout SE Asia. Hmong parents tell their children the legend of how their ancestors once lived in a frozen land where the icy winters were long and hard. It is thought that the Hmong may have originally lived at the steppes of Tibet, Siberia and Mongolia thousands of years ago and gradually migrated into China. Some records claim that about 3,000 years ago the Hmong lived on the banks of the Yellow River. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hmong migrated into Southeast Asia, fleeing persecution from the Chinese. In more recent times, the Hmong have sought asylum in the USA, Australia, Canada, France and French Guiana following the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975.
There are around one million Hmong living in Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam and sub-cultural groups include the Striped Hmong, Blue Hmong, Black Hmong and White Hmong. Known to be canny entrepreneurs, the Hmong were among the first hill tribes to successfully cultivate opium, though now international pressure has seen a severe reduction in the practice. Today the Hmong are far more likely to be found farming coffee and fruit. In many respects the Hmong have managed to stay connected to the ancient traditions and customs of their culture and are a proud people.
Hmong Tribal Dress : Masters of Embroidery
The names of the different Hmong groups are derived from their own unique style of dress. For example, White Hmong women wear unadorned pleated skirts of heavy white hemp while the blue Hmong costume consists of batik cloth panels made using bees wax and dyed with indigo. For a long time the Blue Hmong were the only people in Southeast Asia skilled in batik. It is said that a needle, strands of brightly colored thread, a piece of cloth and the ingenious hands of a Hmong woman are all that is required for some of the finest needlework in the world to be produced. They skilfully adorn family member’s clothes incorporating a variety of designs and employing many different techniques. Hmong women still choose to weave their own homespun hemp and cotton.
It is said that often the finest embroidery by Hmong women is reserved for making baby carrying cloths for their newborn. Festive occasions such as New Year also see Hmong women devoting their best needlework skills to ornamenting their family member’s clothes.
In an impressive show of pragmatism and acceptance of the inevitable, married women richly embroider the clothes to be worn by themselves and their husband at their future funeral. The pillow that their head will rest on is decorated by other female members of the family. Preparation for the funeral includes tying a piece of red cotton to the finger of the corpse. The purpose of this is to mimic blood – if the departing soul on its journey to the afterlife is interfered with by restless spirits asking them to peel onions or garlic they can decline, pointing to their injured hands. Special decorated shoes are worn to help navigate amongst the giant furry caterpillars on the way to the next world.
Hmong Silver Tribal Jewellery
Hmong Silver Jewelry
The Hmong’s love of silver is famous throughout SE Asia and their silversmith skills are renowned. Much admired by collectors of tribal jewelry and artifacts, antique pieces are hard to come by now and command a high price. Traditionally, the Hmong kept much of their family wealth in the form of silver jewelry and French silver coins. All Hmong wear silver neck rings, at least on special occasions such as the ‘Naming Ceremony’, where a silver neck ring is given to a Hmong baby to avow that he or she belongs to the human world.
To the Hmong, silver symbolizes more than wealth; it is the essence of a good life. Households acquire as much silver as they can and during New Year celebrations a family will display all their silver. White Hmong wear thick round bracelets with incised designs and heavy neck rings. All Hmong are often seen wearing large silver pendants vaguely resembling the shape of an old style lock. Worn at the back or the front, ‘soul lock pendants’ are said to lock the restless spirit in the body and prevent accidental departure into the next world – in sleep for example.
In the past, as the New Year approached, Hmong silversmiths would melt silver coins and old necklaces to prepare new pieces for the upcoming celebrations.
Old silversmiths today are nostalgic for the days when French silver coins and bars were available, lamenting the poor malleability, lustre and tone of commercial silver used today. So popular are Hmong designs today that copy-cat tribal jewellery is produced en masse in China now but the quality is so poor that pieces are easily identified as inferior fakes. To view an excellent collection of genuine antique Hmong silver jewellery and vintage Hmong textiles you can visit here.