Traditional Hmong weddings and marriages

The Hmong consists of 18 last (sur) names, making up 18 official clans.  It is taboo to marry someone from the same clan.  For instance, someone with the Yang last name cannot marry another Yang.  In some families, it is also taboo to marry someone with the same clan name as your mother’s maiden name.

There are 3 different ways a couple can initiate a wedding.

The first one is a formal proposal.  This is when a man and representatives from his family do a formal house call.  They bring gifts and money and ask the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage.

The second one is the most common way couples get married.  When a man is interested in marrying someone, he gives her a gift.  If she accepts it, it means she agrees to marry him.  The gift isn’t necessarily an engagement ring; it could come in the form of jewelry, clothes, or simple trinkets.  American Hmong nowadays rarely practice this tradition of gift-giving before marriage.

The groom will then “take” his bride, or she will “run away” with him, on a later date.  This symbolic elopement is to “prove” to the guy that she loves him enough to leave her family.  After the couple gets to the groom’s house, his family will send an envoy to the bride’s family to announce that their daughter is with them.

The third is bride-napping (zij poj niam).  This is a very abusive tradition.  This happens when a man has no respect for the female’s feelings and decides that even if she doesn’t want to marry him, he will force her to.  Sometimes the man will give her a gift (refer to above) and not let his intentions be known.  Here, in the US, he may tell the girl he wants to take her out and instead take her to his house.  In Asia, he may come to her house when her parents are not home and literally carry or drag her home with the help of male friends or relatives.

Now, if the bride had accepted a gift from the groom, there’s basically nothing she or her family can do to stop the wedding from taking place.  (This is why growing up, my grams and mom advised me over and over again to never accept gifts from any boys even when there wasn’t a motive behind it).  If the groom did not give her a gift, or if she didn’t accept anything, she can go back to her family.

Because many Hmong are so tied to their traditions, that even if the tradition is a bad one (like bride-napping), they accept it as a norm.  In the US, the girl’s parents don’t call law enforcement.  And if they call up their clan leaders to object to the wedding, the leaders may say that what’s done is done and there is nothing they can do about it.  The girls—even if they were born in the US and are accustomed to American culture and laws—will abide by whatever their parents say because that is their culture and those are their parents.

Many times, the groom’s family will tell a kidnapped bride that if she calls the police, she will disgrace her family.  Additionally, the groom may rape his kidnapped bride so that she will be too shameful to go back home because now, she is damaged goods.  (Virginity is valued in traditional Hmong culture.  You don’t have premarital sex.  The only time you should have sex is after marriage with your spouse).  Remember that the Hmong culture values family and reputation.  And everything you do, you have to think about saving your family’s face or their reputation.  So, you don’t go to the police and you marry the man who kidnapped and raped you.  And if you had accepted a gift from him, society put the blame on you.

Other times, forced marriages are results of sexual assaults and/or pregnancies.  You have to marry the person who sexually assaulted you and/or got you pregnant.  Why?  Because you have to save face.

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Before a wedding can take place, both clans have to agree on a bride price.  The bride price ranges from $3,000 – $10,000, depending on the worth of the bride (e.g., if she has no sisters, she is worth more; education level—sometimes this may lower or increase the bride price depending on the values of the family; her repuation).

The bride price is given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family.  The bride price is to compensate the bride’s family for the “loss” of a hand to help around the house.  Additionally, the bride price was an assurance for the bride’s family that the groom will treat her with respect.  The higher the bride price, the higher the value of a bride, the more her family expects her new husband to treat her well.  However, this tradition has lost its meaning with time.  The bride price now suggests to the groom that he is “buying” his wife, which means, he owns her.  (The word for “to get married” in Hmong means “to buy”).

Because the bride price carries such a bad connotation, some Hmong families today do not practice this tradition.  And if they do, they give the bride price money to the newlywed couple to start their lives.

It is normal to see age gaps between Hmong married couples.  A middle-aged man may have a wife as young as 16 years old (sometimes even younger).  If a man can’t find a willing young bride in the US, he will travel overseas, mainly to Thailand and Laos, to marry one.  I have heard numerous middle-aged men talk that the Hmong females in America are independent and “hard to control.”  It is much easier to marry someone from overseas who will serve them well as an ideal housewife.

Although it is becoming rare in 1st generation children in the United States, the Hmong still practice polygamy.  (First generation children refers to those born in the US of immigrant parents).  Polygamy gives the Hmong men a message that women (or wives, for that matter) are easily replaced and dispensable.  If you are not happy with your wife, marry another one.  If you cannot have children, it’s the wife’s fault, so marry another one.  If your wife does not bare you sons, marry another one (ignorance towards reproduction).

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Discussion question:
What do you think of the Hmong traditions in regards to weddings and marriages?

25 thoughts on “Traditional Hmong weddings and marriages

  1. I doubt you would be surprised by my reaction: sad, and incredulous that the bride-napping occurs even now among some traditional Hmong overseas …and in the U.S.!

    What is it that some Hmong, enough that you were warned heavily by family members for your safety in the U.S., that has held to enough (or some) modern day Hmong to be bound to abusive practices to women?

    Is it because as an ethnic minority in Southeast Asia, they were/are living in more rural areas that keeps these traditions still occurring..at point that you even as an American, blog about this?

    All I can say, it is yet another example why some people choose to immigrate and live in North America….to begin fresh (if they can) without the baggage of some abusive traditions and other societal expectations from ancestral culture.

    • MaiBao says:

      The Hmong live in rural regions in Southeast Asia and China, so it’s very easy to keep traditions, such as bride-napping, alive. And because it is “tradition,” no one questions it and that just keeps the cycle going from generation to generation. Many cultures around the world have had a history of bride-napping. The only difference between these cultures and the Hmong is that these other cultures no longer practice this abusive tradition.

      It takes time to change the stubborn ways of the Hmong and the only ones who can do it is the newer generations, becoming aware of this problem and choosing to discard it. If not, then the cycle continues.

  2. Bride-napping is a terrible thing to do and I agree that it takes a new generation to make a change. How can calling the cops be equated with bringing shame to the family? I am shocked.

    • MaiBao says:

      Normally, the Hmong deal with their own problems within the family or the community. Bringing in others, such as law enforcement, is not really encouraged, especially when it comes to bride-napping or domestic violence. From traditional Hmong viewpoint, this is our culture and this is what is “normal,” so there is no need for law enforcement to intervene.

    • Jack says:

      Bride napping is always terrible. But being ignorant can be shocking………….Calling the cops is like telling outsiders to come in and tell you what to do. Would you like me to come to your house and tell you what to do?

  3. PLEASE, I BEG YOU. STOP USING THE WORD “DOWRY” and “BRIDE PRICE”. PLEASE !!! If you have to use “token” or “mother’s blessing”.

    Thank you!

  4. LostNConfused says:

    I am a first generation Hmong male born in the US and so is my love interest. We both have Vang last names. She comes from a very traditional family and her father is very active in the Hmong community. My family socially isolated, in regards to other Hmongs. We have been secretly dating for about 8 months now and we love each other very much. My “real” grandfather is of the Her clan and he divorced my grandmother when my father was just an infant. She later married a Vang and so my father was raised a Vang. She is Hmong White and I am Hmong Green. Aside from our last names, there is no direct relationship between our families. I have been told we may not and should not ever marry. Why is it that marriages and relationships like ours are forbidden? Why is it such a taboo? I see so many other issues within the Hmong community that deserves our attention… i.e. Plural marriages, 1st cousin marriages, spousal abuse, youth gangs, underage pregnancies,… etc.

    • MB says:

      My mother told me that the reason why people of the same last names cannot marry is because the Hmong were a small group. In order to expand our population and network with other clans, our ancestors were encouraged to marry outside of their villages and/or last names. And that tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. Many do not break this taboo because it has always been. However, times are changing and I’ve seen many couples who are married and have the same last names.

      In my opinion, just as long as you two are not related by blood, then last names shouldn’t matter, such as a Green Hmong Yang marrying a White Hmong Yang. I’ll make my reply short because I’m saving it for a future blog post. Good luck to you and your girlfriend.

      • N says:

        Thank you for the reply, it is very much appreciated. Some aspects of the Hmong culture truly baffles me… and marriage is one of them. Perhaps I am just trying to justify my own cause, but how is it that 1st cousins, whose parents are brothers and sisters can married? Yet total strangers, whose’ only connection is their last names may not… From a medical standpoint, this is inconceivable. I know it may not happen in my lifetime, but perhaps soon, our views will change and other lovers like us can live without persecution. I look forward to reading your blog on this subject.

    • Jack says:

      MB is wrong don’t listen to her. The reason you can’t marry is because of spirits. Each clan has their own spirit guardian per se. When your grandma married into the vang clan she accepted the vang spirits as so did your father, since he was not taken by your grandfather. There are other reasons too, but that is the main reason. People of the same clan (spirits) cannot marry each other, because it is like marrying your own sister. In your case, if you really wanted to marry this girl, go back to the Her clan try to find your grandfather’s her clan, and have them change your spirits from vang to her.

      • MB says:

        Thank you, Jack, for the info. I found out about spirits after I replied to this comment. Even so, it only just opened up a ton of questions–moreso than before. For example, so technically, you can date someone of the same last name if you no follow Shamanism, because the spirits/ancestors/dab qhuas is only in regards to Shamanism. I do have a blog post that I am working on about this, so I will leave my ranting for that.

  5. Judy says:

    I have been seriously dating a first generation American-Hmong for a good amount of time now. His family, from what he tells me, is not super traditional, yet I have still not met his parents. From the few things he tells me his family is not happy he is dating a “white” girl. I believe I am to meet with them soon and I want to be as respectful as possible, but honestly with all the research I’ve done and their misgivings about me dating their son, I have no idea how to go about it.

    Do you have any advice for me?

    • MB says:

      From my observations of interracial relationships within the Hmong community, I have noticed that Hmong families may not like it at first, but some grow to like/love their children’s partners. Of course, this may take years! And because you are of a different race, they’re pretty forgiving when it comes to traditions and culture. Just be yourself. It sounds like you’re open to learn about the Hmong, so that is a plus. Hmong people are very proud of their culture. One last note: those who will not like you will never give you a chance even if you were to kiss up to them. Good luck on meeting your boyfriend’s family!

    • N says:

      Judy… there are many kinds of interracial relationships within the Hmong community so don’t feel like you’re alone. Honestly, there are those Hmong parents who do understand and do accept whomever they children decide to date/marry. However, there are also those parents who will never understand and will never accept interracial relationships. What’s really bothering you and the real questions are these… Does he really love you and is he willing to do whatever is needed to earn your love? If it comes down to it, is he willing to stand up for you, to choose you over his family? Is this somewhat a close assessment?

      Well, I can tell you that this is not only an issue with dating a Hmong guy. This is a universal issue and a much deeper topic. The quick and simple advice for you is this… Ask yourself and ask him, DOES he truly love you. Find the answer and the issue of you meeting his parents will be a NON-issue. So to clarify, if he loves you, what does it matter? His parents will either come around and eventually accept you for who you are or his parents will never accept you. Of course in a best scenario, his parents would accept you with opens arms and you guys live happily ever after. But if they don’t, does it really matter to the two of you. You still love each other and will always have each other… and in the end, that’s all that really matters. Good luck to you.

    • Jack says:

      Judy, here’s some advice. If you really love this guy and vice versa, you and him will need to step up your game. My brother is going through the same thing. What I told him was, it’s not that they don’t accept it, it is because they are worried for his future. The biggest worry is that outsiders do not understand the hmong culture, and arguments and fights revovle mainly around these misunderstandings. So if you two are truely in love, spend as much time learning the hmong traditions as much as possible and don’t be afraid to take initiative and ask questions. That shows you and him want to make the marriage successful.

  6. Sandy says:

    My question is .. Is it normal for a Hmong man to meet on girl on a dating site and with in 3 weeks be asking for a Hmong weeding? The girls are full blooded Americans and are against the marriage. Grooms family is Hmong and wanting the marriage yet have not discussed spoken to or met the brides family . What can the brides family do ?

  7. Michelle says:

    You did a great job at explaining the wedding process. I feel that sometimes Hmong students are ignorant about the “bride price” concept. The subject gets me pretty heated up. I have known the prior meaning to why Hmong people have a “bride price” because my dad is a Mej Koob. I have understood the importance of it and that the price is not always the case of a family being greedy. I know that in modern times that can be the case but to understand why there is a “bride price,” you have to understand where it originates. Some students who argue that the “bride price” is ridiculous and should be eliminated, lack the knowledge of why the “bride price” was created for in the first place; that it is to ensure that the daughter will be treated right. Hmong people believe that when you get something for free, you don’t value it as much. Like the saying, “koj niam, koj txiv muab koj dawb xwb, koj tsis muaj nuj nqis.” (your parents gave you for free, you’re worthless.) If you pay for something, you’ll take care of it with value because you worked hard for it. For example, in Laos, it will take a well off family a whole year to get 3 bars of silver. A wife may cost from somewhere between 1 silver bar to 3 silver bars, that’s a year’s worth of your hard earned work. Not everyone can work hard enough to even get 1 silver bar. Therefore, it will take a hard year’s work into buying a bride, you will have to invest in someone good. it’s not every year you can make 3 silver bars. That way the bride’s parents would be ensured that the groom’s family will take care of the daughter. If students can openly understand this before arguing the point that the price is a ridiculous concept, I would be more willing to listen but in my experience they are not open to knowing the history.

    There was a Hmong cultural show at a university that showed the “modern bride price” concept. I felt they failed to explain how the bride price came to be. What are we portraying to outside people if we don’t even understand our own culture. We ourselves are misinterpreting our culture. I’m not saying they weren’t right, I’m saying they left out a big explanation. These are university students, there should be a higher level of understanding somewhere. I don’t know……

    Anyways, good explanation.

    • Reh600 says:

      With regards to the “Bride Price”, I would humbly disagree with you. Like most things in life, the “Bride Price” started out with good intentions, but as it stands right now, it is a business transaction. Simply put, parents are out to make a buck. Yes, I understand this is a broad statement and not all parents are like this, but the majority of them are.

      My first cousin married a Xiong girl, who has 6 sisters and 2 boys. My cousin is an orphan, and worked his way thru high school and is now working thru college. He is very determined and I am sure he will make a name for himself someday, but right now, he doesn’t have a penny to this name. His in-laws are asking 7000.00 dollars in “bride price” and another 500.00 for the wedding banquet. That’s 7500.00 up front, without any other cost. If they truly love their daughter as they calm and if they truly have their daughter’s best interest in hand, how can they justified this? How can this help if they are starting their daughter’s in a hole of debt? What kind of love is this?

      Moreover, this same Xiong family has an older girl who ran off with a black man. She got pregnant and gave birth to a boy. Right before my cousin’s wedding, the older Xiong sister came back to live with the family. The parents did not get a penny from the black man. To add insult to injury, they made my cousin pay the older sister 100.00 because my cousin married the young sister!

      So you tell me if this is not greed, what is? From my cousin, who still holds traditional values and loves his bride, they squeezed every penny that they could from him. For the black man who they could not touch, could not say a word to, who will probably never marry or love their daughter, they GOT nothing. Greed is the only word that comes to mind when you speak of those HMONG people who still asks for a “bride price”, nothing more.

      • Michelle says:

        Then I believe that it just depends on your perspective. I never said that there weren’t any greedy Hmong folks. I just stated that some Hmong Youths lack the understanding of the “bride price” origin. My main point was to address their ignorance, not to defend the greedy Hmong folks. I also addressed in the prior comment that the meaning of “bride price” has changed over the years. What I really want is for everyone to understand the origin of the “bride price” before bashing it. What is really frustrating is the generation gap and the lack of understanding of these cultural systems in a Western Society. It is quite depressing to know how much of ourselves we have lost or quite frankly, how much we are ashamed of.

  8. Mel says:

    I have two young half Hmong cousins one 14 and the other 10 years old and the oldest one mention the last name taboo and found this article very informative. My uncle is Nicaraguan and my aunt is Hmong and at the time they wanted to get married (I was very young) he had to pay 10,000 I believe. One of my families concerns is that my cousins will get married too young since all her aunts, girls we grew up with, did. Thank you for your article.

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