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Protestant conversion and social conflict: The case of the Hmong in contemporary Vietnam

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2015


This article analyses the social implications of the recent mass conversions to Protestantism by one-third of the one million Hmong in Vietnam. The conversions have been condemned by the Vietnamese state, while being understood by international human rights activists as acts of conscience on the part of the Hmong converts. This article focuses on the internal debate and divisions surrounding conversion among the Hmong themselves. The converts believe that Protestantism is the only way to alter the ethnic group's marginal status in Vietnam while the unconverted Hmong see conversion as a betrayal of Hmong ethnicity. Such conflicting views have been causing deep fractures in Hmong society.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

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1 Place and personal names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of those who brought me there and are also involved in the story.

2 See for example,; (last accessed 1 Nov. 2013); and (last accessed 11 Feb 2015). Hmong conversion is often used by these organisations to criticise Vietnam's religious policies. The United States has also designated Vietnam a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2004, 2005, and 2014:

3 Nghiem Van Dang, ‘Về Việc Truyền Bá Đạo Vàng Chứ Hay Giả Tinh Lành’ [About the proselytisation of the Vang Chu cult or fake-Protestantism], in Những Vấn Đề Liên Quan Đến Hiện Tượng ‘Vàng Chứ’ [Issues relating to the ‘Vàng Chứ’ phenomenon] (Hanoi: Institute of Religious Studies, 1998); Tran, Huu Son, Văn Hóa Hmong [The culture of the Hmong] (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Van Hoa Dan Toc, 1996)Google Scholar; Duy Quang Vương, ‘Ý Kiến Của Một Cán Bộ Người Hmong Về Vấn Đề Người Hmong Theo Đạo Hiện Nay’ [Opinion of a Hmong cadre on the issue of Hmong conversion], in Những Vấn Đề Liên Quan Đến Hiện Tượng ‘Vàng Chứ’; Vương, Duy Quang, Văn Hóa Tâm Linh Của Người Hmông Ở Việt Nam Truyền Thống Và Hiện Tại [The spiritual culture of the Hmong in Vietnam: Past and present] (Hanoi: Cultural Publishing House and Institute of Cultural Studies, 2005)Google Scholar.

4 Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Religion and policies regarding religion in Vietnam (Hanoi: Government Committee for Religious Affairs, 2006)Google Scholar. See also Oscar Salemink, ‘Enclosing the highlands: Socialist, capitalist and Protestant conversions of Vietnamese highlanders’, paper presented at the Politics of the commons: Articulating development and strengthening local practices conference, Chiang Mai, 2003, (last accessed 1 Nov. 2013); Oscar Salemink, ‘Christian conversion in Southeast Asian uplands: A comparative exploration’, paper presented at EUROSEAS conference, Paris, 2004; Tam T.T. Ngo, ‘The New Way: Becoming Protestant Hmong in contemporary Vietnam’ (Ph.D. diss., Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 2011).

5 Dang, ‘Về Việc Truyền Bá Đạo Vàng Chứ Hay Giả Tinh Lành’; Vương, Văn Hóa Tâm Linh Của Người Hmông Ở Việt Nam.

6 Kammerer, C.A., ‘Customs and Christian conversion among Akha highlanders of Burma and Thailand’, American Ethnologist 17, 2 (1990): 277–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and ‘Discarding the basket’: The reinterpretation of tradition by Christians, Akha of Northern Thailand', Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, 2 (1996): 320–33Google Scholar.

7 Kammerer, ‘Customs and Christian conversion among Akha’.

8 Ngo, Tam T.T., ‘Ethnic and transnational dimensions of recent Protestant conversion among the Hmong in Northern Vietnam’, Social Compass 57, 3 (2010): 332–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 I carried out fieldwork, mainly participant observation and extensive interviews, for fifteen months in Vietnam and six months in the United States, along with eight short field trips to the other side of the Chinese border, one visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and one trip to several provinces in Laos. I studied the Hmong language at Madison, Wisconsin in 2006, while visiting Hmong communities in Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Wausau, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. The contacts established in that year formed the core of my fieldwork networks in 2008.

10 National Population and Housing Census Directing Committee, ‘Appendix ii’, in Official Report of the Result of National Population and Housing Census 01/04/2009 (Hanoi: National Population and Housing Census Publishing House, 2009)Google Scholar.

11 Cooper, Robert, Resource scarcity and the Hmong response: Patterns of scarcity and economy in transition (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1984), p. 28Google Scholar; Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong.

12 In this article, I use HRPA, which was invented and improved by a number of Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 1950s and used to transcribe the Bible and other religious materials. HRPA has been widely adopted by the Hmong in Laos and Thailand as well as in the West (mostly in North America, France, and Australia). In China and Vietnam this script was only adopted in the early 1990s, thanks to increasing contact with the Hmong diaspora, Hmong-language media, and religious materials. See Joakim Enwall, ‘Hmong writing systems in Vietnam: A case study of Vietnam's minority language policy’ (Stockholm: Working paper No. 40, Center for Pacific Asia Studies at Stockholm University, 1995).

13 Fuab Tais (or Huab Tais) means ‘great ruler, emperor, legendary Hmong King, Lord’. See Heimbach, Ernest E., White Meo–English dictionary (Ithaca: SEAP Data Paper No. 75, Cornell University, 1969), p. 56Google Scholar, and Lyman, Thomas A., Dictionary of Mong Njua, a Miao (Meo) language of Southeast Asia (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), p. 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The term is often used to address the supreme deity Fuab Tais Ntuj (Lord of the sky), which Catholic priest Yves Bertrais translated as equivalent to the God, Christian in Dictionnaire Hmong–Français (Vientiane: Mission Catholique, 1964)Google Scholar. Vaj means king and Tswv means lord, master, owner, or proprietor; together, the words usually refer to God. Vietnamese scholars insist that Vàng Trứ (Vaj Tswv) originates in the Chinese expression ‘Miao Wang Chu Shi’ (Miêu Vương Xuất Thế; ‘the Hmong King is coming’), probably used in documents about the Hmong involvement in millenarian movements in southwest China. I agree with Nicholas Tapp (pers. comm., Dec. 2005), however, that it is flawed to translate Vaj Tswv as ‘the King comes’ as neither the Hmong nor the Chinese would construct such a linguistically incomplete expression. See also Tapp, Nicholas, Sovereignty and rebellion: The White Hmong of Northern Thailand (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

14 Scott, James in The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)Google ScholarPubMed argues that for the Hmong as well as other ethnic minorities in Zomia who share this myth about the loss of literacy, the legibility of the state was best resisted by deliberately dispensing with the written arts. In Sovereignty and rebellion, Tapp provides an alternative reading of this narrative of literacy loss as a manifestation of the Hmong's inferiority complex vis-à-vis the highly literate Chinese which tells us more about upland peoples' knowledge of writing in nearby state systems.

15 Millenarian beliefs have been a feature of Chinese religions and continue to be manifested in groups like the Hmong which migrated to Southeast Asia. Tai, Hue-Tam Ho states in Millenarianism and peasant politics in Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar that the Miao were known for their tradition of rebellion, which often went hand in hand with millenarianism. Jenks, Robert, in Insurgency and social disorder in Guizhou: The ‘Miao’ Rebellion, 1854–1873 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994), pp. 5873Google Scholar, points out that less than half of the followers of the late-nineteenth-century ‘Miao Rebellion’ in China were Miao, the majority being Han or other non-Miao. Millenarian religion, Jenks argues, offered justifications for the non-Miao crossing ethnic boundaries to participate in the rebellion as well as its organisational framework.

16 Pollard, Samuel, The story of the Miao (London: Henry Books, 1919)Google Scholar and Tight corners in China (London: Andrew Crombie, 1921).

17 Michaud, Jean, ‘French missionary expansion in colonial Upper Tonkin’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35, 2 (2004): 287310CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Savina, Francis, Histoire des Miao (Paris: Société des Missions-Étrangères, 1924)Google Scholar; Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong.

19 Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong; Dang, ‘Về Việc Truyền Bá Đạo Vàng Chứ Hay Giả Tinh Lành’.

20 See George Linwood Barney, ‘Christianity and innovation in Meo culture: A case study in missionization’ (M.A. diss., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1957).

21 Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong; Lewis, James F., ‘The Evangelical religious movement among the Hmong of Northern Vietnam and the government response to it: 1989–2000’, Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 16, 2 (2002): 79112Google Scholar.

22 Cheung, Siu-woo, ‘Millenarianism, Christian movements, and ethnic change among the Miao in southwest China’, in Cultural encounters on China's ethnic frontiers, ed. Harrell, Steven (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), pp. 217–47Google Scholar; Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John, Of revelation and revolution: Christianity, colonialism and consciousness in South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keane, Webb, Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

23 In 2010, there were approximately 260,000 Hmong in the United States;

24 Tapp, Sovereignty and rebellion.

25 Lewis, ‘The Evangelical religious movement’; Keyes, Charles, ‘Being Protestant Christian in Southeast Asian worlds’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, 2 (1996): 280–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Salemink, ‘Christian conversion in Southeast Asian uplands’; Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong; Walker, Anthony, Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people (New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corp., 2003)Google Scholar

26 See further Ngo, Tam T.T., ‘The short-waved faith: Christian broadcastings and the transformation of the spiritual landscape of the Hmong in Northern Vietnam’, Mediated piety: Technology and religion in contemporary Asia, ed. Lim, K.G. Francis (Leiden: Brill, 2009)Google Scholar.

27 Interview, Phong Hai, 18 Jan. 2005.

28 Salemink, in ‘Enclosing the highlands’, describes a similar development in the Central Highlands. There the sedentarisation programme completely changed the demographic composition and negatively impacted ethnic relations, which indirectly facilitated the massive rise of Protestant conversions among the minorities.

29 See Salemink, ‘Enclosing the highlands’.

30 Cheung, ‘Millenarianism, Christian movements, and ethnic change’; Robbins, Joel, Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

31 Pollard, The story of the Miao and Tight corners in China.

32 Cooper, Resource scarcity and the Hmong response, pp. 82, 169, 179.

33 Ibid., p. 51.

34 Tapp, Sovereignty and rebellion.

35 Vayong Moua, ‘Hmong Christianity: Conversion, consequence and conflict’, 1995, (last accessed 11 Feb 2015); Winland, Daphne, ‘Christianity and community: Conversion and adaptation among Hmong refugee women’, Canadian Journal of Sociology 19, 1 (1994): 2141CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 This was only VND1,600,000 (about US$150 at the time) and 100 kg of pork. This is much less than the standard bride price of at least VND5 million, excluding some silver coins, pork, and one buffalo.

37 Freston, Paul, ‘Pentecostalism in Latin America: Characteristics and controversies’, Social Compass 45, 3 (1998): 335–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin, David, Tongues of fire: The explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)Google Scholar.

38 Martin, Tongues of fire, pp. 202–11.

39 Keyes, ‘Being Protestant Christian in Southeast Asian worlds’: 288.

40 Asian visions of authority: Religion and the modern states of East and Southeast Asia, ed. Charles Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994).

41 Keyes, ‘Being Protestant Christian in Southeast Asian worlds’: 288.

42 Tapp, Sovereignty and rebellion; Keane, Christian moderns; Aragon, Lorraine V., Fields of the Lord: Animism, Christian minorities and state development in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Kammerer, ‘Customs and Christian conversion among Akha highlanders’; Kammerer, ‘Discarding the basket’.

43 Salemink, ‘Enclosing the highlands’.

44 A border police cadre admitted, ‘Foreign radio has studied the Hmong psyche very thoroughly. They understand the Hmong and that's why their programmes are so eagerly received. Plus almost every Hmong household has a radio receiver now. When Hmong cadres come along, the household immediately switches to another station so we can never catch them.’

45 van der Veer, Peter, ‘Afterword: Global conversions’, in Mixed messages: Materiality, textuality, missions, ed. Scott, Jamie S. and Griffiths, Gareth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 221–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Kendall, Laurel, Shamans, nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean popular religion in motion (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 I was told of a Hmong shaman association based in Sacramento, California, whose task is to identify powerful Hmong shamans and herbalists around the world. When possible, the association will facilitate the tours of shamans from Asia in the United States or Australia to conduct rituals for Hmong communities there. When a shaman cannot travel abroad, the association will help Hmong patients from the diaspora go to Asia and find the shaman. Even the son of a prominent Hmong scholar in Minnesota travelled all the way to a remote village in Guizhou to obtain both spiritual and herbal treatment from a shaman there.

48 Hoskins, Janet, ‘Entering the bitter house: Spirit worship and conversion in West Sumba’, in Indonesian religions in transition, ed. Kipp, R.S. and Rodgers, S. (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1987), pp. 136–60Google Scholar; Justine Buck Quijada, ‘Opening the roads: History and religion in Post-Soviet Buryatia’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2009).

49 Jan Ovesen, ‘A minority enters the nation state: A case study of a Hmong community in Vientiane province, Laos’ (Uppsala: Uppsala Research Reports in Cultural Anthropology, No. 14, 1995).

50 Ovesen, ‘A minority enters the nation state’, pp. 22–3.

51 Tran, Văn Hóa Hmong, pp. 174–8.

52 Le, Trong Cuc and Rambo, Terry, Bright peaks, dark valleys: A comparative analysis of environmental and social conditions and development trends in five communities in Vietnam's northern mountain region (Hanoi: National Political Publishing House, 2001)Google Scholar.

53 van der Veer, Peter, ‘Introduction’, in Conversion to modernities: The globalization of Christianity, ed. van der Veer, Peter (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 121Google Scholar.

54 Heffner, Robert, ‘Introduction: World building and the rationality of conversion’, in Conversion to Christianity: Historical and anthropological perspectives on a great transformation, ed. Hefner, Robert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 344CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Ngo, ‘The New Way’.

56 Ibid., chap. 4.

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