Calling in the Soul: Gender and the Cycle of Life in a Hmong Village

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"A gold mine of information for American social scientists. It is a 'must have.'" -Choice

"Calling in the Soul" (Hu Plig) is the chant the Hmong use to guide the soul of a newborn baby into its body on the third day after birth. Based on extensive original research conducted in the late 1980s in a village in northern Thailand, this ethnographic study examines Hmong cosmological beliefs about the cycle of life as expressed in practices surrounding birth, marriage, and death, and the gender relationships evident in these practices. The social framework of the Hmong (or Miao, as they are called in China, and Meo, in Thailand), who have lived on the fringes of powerful Southeast Asian states for centuries, is distinctly patrilineal, granting little direct power to women. Yet within the limits of this structure, Hmong women wield considerable influence in the spiritually critical realms of birth and death.

Patricia Symonds situates her study within the landscape of northern Thai mountain life and anthropological perspectives on the Hmong, and then focuses on "Flower Village," telling detailed stories of births, marriages, and deaths. Recurring motifs emerge: the complementarity of women's and men's roles in daily life and in the otherworld, and their reversal at critical moments; the importance of the brother-sister relationship; the social and spiritual significance of the ceremonial clothing women create, especially their embroidered "flower cloth" and the ambiguously nuanced sev, or "modesty aprons," they wear; the endlessly cyclical nature of life, from birth to death to birth again; the importance of sound and silence at times of transition; the complex connections between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Hmong women's primary source of power in the patriline is their fecundity, through which they influence key spiritual aspects of the life cycle. This value and power is evident in the division of bride-price into two parts: "milk and care money," which compensates a woman's parents for her upbringing; and payment for the "birth shirt," or placenta, of the child the young wife will produce. Through provision of birth shirts for fetuses and of elaborately embroidered cloth shirts for the dead, women literally clothe the soul through cycles of rebirth.

An epilogue and appendixes provide a discussion of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Hmong of Thailand, cultural factors in HIV transmission, and strategies for containment; complete Hmong texts and English translations of "Calling in the Soul," and "Showing the Way," the chant which guides the soul of the deceased through the land of darkness and back to reincarnation in a new body in the land of light; Flower Village demographic information; and an account of a shamanic healing and outline of Hmong health care issues in the United States.

Calling in the Soul will be of interest to sociocultural anthropologists, medical anthropologists, Southeast Asianists, and gender specialists.

Patricia V. Symonds is adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the coauthor (with Brooke G. Schoepf) of HIV/AIDS: The Global Pandemic and Struggles for Control.

"Despite the now quite substantial literature on the Hmong, until now, there has been very little that explores gender issues. . . . Calling in the Soul also makes a substantial contribution to our knowledge about Hmong death rites and religious beliefs." - Charles Keyes, University of Washington

"The volume's strength is its ethnography, . . . in the numerous engaging accounts of particular events - marriages, births, etc." - Nicola Tannebaum, Lehigh University

"A fascinating ethnography. Its firm grounding in an ethnic minority village in Thailand provides an interesting setting for thinking about the life cycle." - Hjorleifur Jonsson, Arizona State University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780295983394
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Pages: 380
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Table of Contents

Notes on Orthography of the Hmong Language
Introduction: Conducting Research in a Hmong Village
1 Hmong Cosmology: A Balance of Opposites 3
2 Mothers, Daughters, and Wives 36
3 Birth: The Journey to the Land of Light 77
4 Death: The Journey to the Land of Darkness 110
5 Reflections on Power, Gender, and the Cycle of Life 163
Epilogue: HIV/AIDS and the Hmong in Thailand 175
App. A "Hu Plig (Calling in the Soul): Hmong Text 189
App. B "Showing the Way" (Qhuab Kev): English Translation 193
App. C "Qhuab Kev" (Showing the Way): Hmong Text 239
App. D Flower Village Demographics 270
App. E A Shamanic Healing in the United States 274
App. F Health Care and Gender Issues of Hmong in the United States 276
Notes 279
Bibliography 289
Index 315
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