Reflecting on culture appropriation and what it means when an American Hmong person dons on Chinese clothing. Is it a definite line that a Hmong person not residing in China should not wear Chinese clothing (hanfu, changpao, cheongsam, etc) or are the lines blurred?
The Hmong have a long history with the Chinese. Hmong oral folklore tells of the Chinese and Hmong as brothers who did each other wrong, which resulted in their children fighting for centuries. Stories passed down from generations in Hmong families speak of genocide and cultural erasure, where Hmong scholars were executed and Hmong women preserved history and language into embroidery, which is now lost to time.
The rebellions against the Chinese government in the late 18th to 19th century resulted in thousands of Hmong folks immigrating to Laos, Vietnam, and Burma. Most of us here in the US are descendants of these migrants. There are still millions of Hmong folks in China, classified under the Miao ethnic group.
Similar to Asian culture worshiping whiteness today, while growing up, my family and many other American Hmong families I knew, internalized a lot of hate towards being Hmong and wanting to be Chinese. This impacted the beauty standards for Hmong women and girls. A Hmong women’s beauty was compared to that of Chinese women. “Zoo nkauj cuag li nkauj sua (As beautiful as a Chinese maiden).” Two centuries after the start of the Hmong exodus out of China and we were / still hold on to these sentiments.
During our time in China, we assimilated and borrowed fashion from the Chinese and vice versa. Our traditional clothing resembles much of Chinese clothing, such as the hanfu and tang suit. There are many similarities among philosophical beliefs, history, and culture.
So, as I reflect on what culture appropriation means and its impact on those whose culture is being appropriated, what does it mean when it comes to Hmong people wearing Chinese clothing? Do thousands of years of history in China give American Hmong a pass to wear Chinese clothing as either part of our culture / history or as appreciation?
* Note: Photos were taken at the Hmong cultural exhibit at the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration in Fresno, CA in December 2018. The fedoras on the male mannequins are not traditional Hmong hats.