The Hmong, a gallant American ally, a "people in exile," a people of dignity

By Ed Marek, editor

March 14, 2010

Laotian history, the Hmong migration and the French arrival in Indochina


Laotian art and culture. Presented by SEASite Laos, Northern Illinois University.

Laotian history is still being debated and discovered. It demands much more study, and more and more of the study needs to be done by Hmong scholars.

Many say that Laotian history began in the 13th century. The reality is that the territory today marked out as Laos boasted many ethnic populations gathered in communities in the river valleys and mountain areas before the 13th century. The region was beset by many migrations of different people with different religions. Many of its people came from China, largely from southern China. With that, of course, came considerable conflict. This is important to remember.

Laos, which is landlocked, is a confederation of many ethnic groups. It is amazing that these many groups insist so strongly on their national sovereignty and remaining united. Laotians scoff at any attempt to divide it. Keith Quincy, in his book, Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat: The Hmong and America's Secret War in Laos, put it this way:

"The people (of Laos) are as varied as the landscape. For much of its history, Laos has been a destination rather than a place of origin. Only the khmu are native to the region."

Each of the kingdoms and dynasties mentioned in the previous section are resplendent with legends. In the case of Laos, there are multiple legends tracing its history. Many would prefer using the word "myth" instead of "legend." Yet, there are scholars who say that parts of the legends-myths do have some historical foundation.


An illustrated signboard within the Wat Aham compound depicts Phou Nheu, Nha Nheu, and the little lion Singkao Singkham from the popular legend of Khun Borom. Phou Nheu was affectionately known as grandfather and Nha Nheu as grandmother, both of whom undertook heroic actions that remain revered to this day. Presented by Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University.

One popular legend has it that the King of Heaven sent his first son, Khoun (also Khun) Borom, to Earth. He sent him from heaven on a royal elephant distinguished by cross tusks to rule on Earth, sometime around 698 AD. Many consider him to be the first King of Laos. I have seen one legend suggesting he descended to what is now known as southern China. The Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University suggests he landed in present-day northern Vietnam. He is the legendary forefather of the Tai-speaking peoples and is considered by the Lao and others to be the father of their race. The Lao people are an ethnic subgroup of the Tai-Dai in Southeast Asia. They often refer to themselves as Tai-Lao.

Khoun Borom's eldest son, Khun Lo, led his people to present-day Luang Prabang, then known as Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. Many consider him to be the first King of Laos. So there seems to be some diagreement here. However, the royal families of Laos have traced their lineage to Khun Lo.


Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, or Luang Prabang, became a centerpiece of the Upper Mekong in the 13th century.

Let me pause just a moment to touch on a bit of geography that will be useful later.


Luang Prabang is in the heart of northern Laos. As mentioned earlier, northern Laos, especially the Plaine des Jars, known as the PDJ to Americans, just to the southeast of the city, was the center of attention during the American Indochina War and is in the center of large Hmong populations.

Back to the history.

Fa Ngum was a grandson of a ruler of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong. That ruler claimed to be a descendent of Khun Lo. This photo is an idealized image of Fa Ngum from the National History Museum, Viang Chan, and presented by wikipedia. He was one of many princes in the 14th century. He was expelled as a child from Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, went to the Khmer Empire, grew up, married a princess there, raised an army, and fought his way back to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong.

Fa Ngum is a major figure in Laotian history, a very aggressive ruler who conquered much of Southeast Asia on his way to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong from Cambodia, or the Court of Angkor. He became the master of the land, won the throne in battle, and set up the kingdom of Lan Xang, with its capital in modern-day Luang Prabang.


The Golden Buddha at Wat Visoun, Luang Prabang, Laos. Presented by motodaconis at

Luang Prabang's name was derived from gold image of Buddha, the Phrabang.

While many of the people in the kingdom arrived from southern China, the culture had strong ties to Indian civilization, the Indians having introduced Buddhism to the region. In turn, the Khmer Empire to the south extended into Laos at which time Hinduism was introduced, circa the ninth century.

If you were to study Laotian history in some depth, you would see that Laos reflects a long period of peaceful and violent interactions and upheavals with present-day Burma, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and, in a most pronounced way, Thailand, then known as Siam. For the record, modern-day Thailand was named Siam until 1939 when it was changed to Thailand. It was re-named Siam between 1945 and 1949, after which it was named Thailand again. I will try to follow this timeline when referring to the country.


Luang Phra Bang (Lan Xang) Flag, circa 1707-1893. Presented by

The Lan Xang Kingdom was known as the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. The flag, shown above, reflects a three-headed elephant known as an Erawan. There is a white parasol above it. The Erawan is the Thai name of a mythological elephant Airavata, which has a Hindu heritage.

Kings claiming lineage to the Lan Xang kingdom fought and led their way to acquire territories comprising what we know today as Laos, along with some territories in northern and eastern Siam. The map here showing the Lan Xang kingdom in about 1500 was presented by You can see that the Khmer Empire had lost much of its territory by this time.

In 1560, Laotian King Sethhathirat moved the capital to Vientiane, largely as a result of a Burmese invasion of Siam.


After a fight with the Burmese, the kingdoms in Vientiane and Luang Prabang joined back together. However, in 1713 Laos divided again into three kingdoms, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassack.


Siamese soldiers in Laos, 1891. Presented by

This opened the way for the Siamese to move in. They took Vientiane in 1779 and made it a vassal state to Siam. They also took everything on the west bank of the Mekong River.


This photo shows Siamese troops in Laos circa 1893, published in l'Illistration, May 27, 1893. Presented by

What followed was all manner of intrigues between Siam, Laos and Vietnam accompanied by ebbs and flows of military fortunes on all sides. The Siamese ended up with a garrison in Luang Prabang in 1882.

From the perspective of this report, two important events were in train during this period (late 19th and early 20th centuries).

First, a major Hmong migration from China to Laos was underway. Second, the French arrived in Indochina, and subsequently Laos.

Let's start with the Hmong migration.


The Hmong had been in the area north of the Yellow River in China since at least 3000 BC, close to modern-day Beijing. Keep this geography in mind. The Yellow River is China's northernmost river, marked by the red arrow on the map above. Most of the Hmong were together in the Yellow River basin outside modern-day Beijing, roughly noted by the red circle. The point to be made is they were pretty far to the north, a far distance from Southeast Asia.

To briefly describe why the Hmong migrated from China, we went to Cy Thao, who has painted wonderful art to chronicle Hmong migrations, and whose story is available at the University of Minnesota.

Sometime around 2600 BC, the Han Chinese had a kingdom nearby, also in the Yellow River basin. The Han expanded their holdings and came up against the Hmong. The fighting was bitter, with wins and losses on both sides, the Hmong holding their own on most occasions. Unfortunately, "most" was not good enough, and the Hmong were pushed to the south.


This map reflects the slow migration of the Hmong to Southeast Asia, but fails to describe the violence and tumultuous uprooting involved. You'll have to study that history separately. But let's briefly address the migrations. Many experts refer to the Hmong as the "People in exile." You'll need to refer back to this map to follow the description of this migration.


Han Chinese attacking Hmong near present-day Beijing, some 5,000 years ago. Art by Cy Thao.

The red arrow points to roughly where the Hmong started, living in what is today the Beijing region. The Han moved into Hmong areas, there were some terrible battles northwest of the modern-day Beijing area, so the Hmong started moving south. This war began the Hmong migration southward.


One thousand years ago the Hmong who migrated south built the San Miao kingdom, "Us Hmong." Art by Cy Thao.

The Hmong managed to form the San-Miao Kingdom in areas roughly designated by the blue arrows, along the southern Yellow River Basin. The Han Chinese continued their expansion and virtually obliterated the San-Miao Kingdom. Following this, the Hmong began to separate out and fragment, continuing a southern march, roughly to the areas marked by the green arrows, some going even as far as Hainan Island. It's worth mentioning that this era was one of great upheaval for all China, with people scattering all over. Kingdoms were formed and re-formed and replaced. It is known to some as the era of warring states. It is worth noting that the Han managed to settle in one form or another most of the eastern half of China, or more.


Flag of the Qing Dynasty, 1889. Presented by wikipedia.

The Manchu Qing Dynasty took hold in northern Manchuria in 1644 and expanded through the late 19th century to hold all of modern-day Mongolia, Tibet, eastern Turkestan, and all China as shown in the next map.


By about the 1730s, the Qing Dynasty pushed hundreds of thousands of Hmong out of the Guizhou and Yunnan provinces into Vietnam, Laos, Siam and Burma. This was a horrific war for the Hmong, who experienced enormous casualties with perhaps half their population affected. There would be three such wars through 1873. It was during the last two wars that most of those Hmong who would go to Southeast Asia made the move. That said, most Hmong that had survived the intense strife over the centuries remained in southern China, spread about in pockets.

The Hmong preferred to live in the highlands. The geographic elevations in southwestern China, Yunnan Province, and northern Burma, Siam, Laos and Vietnam had much in common. As they moved to the south, they found much of the lowlands already occupied anyway, so they went to the uplands and lived fairly peacefully with their neighbors in the lowlands. Opium became a major cash crop. They sold a lot of it to the lowlanders.

For our purposes, we are now at a point in history toward the late 19th century where a sizeable population of Hmong have moved into northern Indochina, and specifically Laos. So, we've got the Hmong in Laos.

Let's now move to the arrival of the French.


Pháp thuoc? (French domination) of Indochina. Presented by "Vietnam History," Sea Gate Travel.

The chronicle of the period from the arrival of the French at Da Nang, Vietnam in the late 19th century through the breakup of French Indochina in 1954 is about as tangled as it gets. It grows even more complicated when seen in the context of everything that happened in East Asia during this period.

The French were among the last European powers to colonize in Southeast Asia. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British got there before the French. When the French arrived in Vietnam in 1858, at Da Nang, they were after trade, not land. As a general rule, the French were far more interested in China than Vietnam. French explorers had shown up in Vientiane as early as 1867, but that was largely part of the search for river routes to southern China, and really to southeastern China.

For their part, the Vietnamese wanted nothing to do with the French and drove them off. France would not let that stand.


A regiment of French soldiers in Saigon, circa 1900-1902. Presented by

They returned and took Saigon in 1861. Following that, Saigon became their launching point. By 1883, the French had taken all Vietnam.


By 1887, most of the region shown by this map became French Indochina, consisting of Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina and Cambodia. Cambodia at the time of French conquest was a kingdom.

Just a couple of notes on this map. Cochinchine included most of the rich Mekong River Delta that would host the capital of South Vietnam. Annam included what would ultimately be the rest of South Vietnam, while Tonkin included what would be North Vietnam. Note the two areas marked by the darkest pink-red, north of Cambodia and west of Luang Prabang. The French took these territories from Siam in 1907. This will pop up as important later on.


French Marines in Indochina, 1888. Reproduction in "La Royale", Jean Randier. Presented by wikipedia.

This magnificent historical photo shows French Marines in Indochina, 1888; presented by Reproduction in "La Royale", Jean Randier and shown in wikipedia.


France took Laos after defeating the Siamese in a war in 1893. This marvelous historical photo shows Siamese forces in Laos in 1893, presented by The Nation Weblog.

We're now at a point where the French are in Laos, and so are the Hmong. It's the late 19th century. We'll now move into the period of
French Indochina, WWII and the Japanese invasion and occupation of mainland East and Southeast Asia.