Survey of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) use by the Hmong (Miao) of the China/Vietnam border region

Robert C. Clarke1 and Wenfeng Gu2

1International Hemp Association, Postbus 75007, 1070 AA Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Tel/Fax: +31 (0)20 618-8758; e-mail: iha@euronet.nl

2Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, Ethnology Institute, 45 Qi Xiang Road, Kunming 650032, Yunnan, P. R. China, Fax: +86 (0)871 414-1750; e-mail: skm@ns.tenway.com.cn

        Clarke, Robert C. and Wenfeng Gu 1998 Survey of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) use by the Hmong (Miao) of the China/Vietnam border region. Journal of the International Hemp Association 5(1): 1, 4-9. The historical use of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) as a textile fiber by the Hmong (Miao) ethnic group of China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam is well documented. This paper presents the results of recent fieldwork along the China/Vietnam border in southern Yunnan Province, China and Lào Cai, Lai Châu and Yên Bái Provinces of northern Vietnam to investigate the recent historical and present-day traditional uses of hemp.
        Hemp bast fibers are still used by the Hmong for weaving textiles and making other domestic products. The fiber, leaves and seeds are used medicinally and the seeds are used for human food and animal feed. Hemp continues to play an important role in traditional ceremonies such as funerals.
        The use of hemp in recent years is not as prevalent and widespread as it was. The cultural and economic reasons for the reduced cultivation and use of hemp are discussed.

Figure 1. Blue Hmong (Miao) weaver using a body-tension loom near Gejiu in Yunnan Province, China.

        The Miao nationality is one of China's largest minority ethnic groups. They are known as the Hmong in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and are also called Meo in Vietnam. In this article, we will refer to the Hmong or Miao by the former name, which they use to refer to themselves.
        The region we have studied extends across the southern part of Yunnan Province in China and includes Lào Cai, Lai Châu and Yên Bái Provinces in northern Vietnam. This is generally a rugged mountain region, with Fan Xi Pan mountain on the border between Lào Cai and Lai Châu Provinces in northern Vietnam reaching a height of 3,143 meters. Although the Hmong are spread over a much wider range, the villages we studied are generally representative of their Hmong neighbors.
        The more than seven million Chinese Hmong are distributed mainly over Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangdong and Hubei provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (State Nationalities Affairs Commission 1995). More than 896,700 (1990 census) live in Yunnan Province and over 607,700 Hmong are concentrated in the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture and the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture along the Vietnam border. The Hmong of Vietnam number about 558,000 and they are the seventh largest minority nationality (Dang et al. 1993). The Hmong are distributed throughout the highland regions across most of the northern half of Vietnam. The greatest concentrations are found along the northern border with China in Hà Giang, Lào Cai, Yên Bái and Lai Châu Provinces. The majority of the Hmong in southern Yunnan and northern Vietnam live in cold mountainous highland areas above 1,500 meters. The Hmong have been described throughout history as the people who dwelled among the clouds and mist.
        Researchers from many disciplines have either studied only one group of Hmong (Chindarsi 1976, Tapp 1989), or have divided the Hmong either linguistically (Grimes 1996) or by their costume styles (Zhao and Shizhao 1985). We have chosen to divide the Hmong by the sub-group names they call themselves. In several cases, the Hmong names are the same as those used by Chinese, Vietnamese and Western researchers. The White Hmong and Black Hmong are found in both southern Yunnan and northern Vietnam. The Green Hmong are found across southern Yunnan and the Flower Hmong and Red Hmong are found across northern Vietnam. The Flower, Black , Red and Green Hmong may all be branches of the Hmong referred to collectively in Thailand as Green or Blue Hmong (Lewis and Lewis 1984).
        The Hmong language is part of the Hmong-Yao (also called the Miao-Yao or Hmong-Mien) group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Hmong speak a common language and almost all of the Hmong sub-groups can communicate with each other even if they come from distant parts of the Hmong realm.

History and hemp traditions
     Due to their long history in China, and their eventual migration into Southeast Asia and beyond, the identification of the exact group or groups of people from whom the Hmong descended remains uncertain (Reilly 1987). As early as 3000 BC, the ancestors of the modern Hmong may have lived along the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. During the Qin-Han period (220 BC to 220 AD), their ancestors lived in the Wuxi ('Five Streams') district of present-day western Hunan and eastern Guizhou provinces. By this time, the Hmong had already mastered the techniques of weaving with fibers and coloring with vegetable dyes (Lin and Zhang 1987). The Book of Later Han,Volume 86: 'The Legends of the South Man and Southwest Yi Peoples', written by Fan Ye during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), carries an account saying that the ancestors of the Hmong and Yao wove and twisted tree barks, dying them with grasses and fruit juice to make colorful clothes. The Hmong people continued their westward migration and arrived in Yunnan province during the 17th century Ming-Qing period (Zhao and Shizhao 1985). The Hmong first arrived in northern Vietnam at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries and settled in small hamlets in the highlands of Hà Giang and Lào Cai provinces. The repeated migration of the Hmong to Vietnam is closely linked to their struggle against Chinese political rule (Dang et al 1993).
        Throughout their long history, the Hmong have had a rich tradition of hemp weaving. Whenever the family settled in a new place, the women would locate a piece of damp and fertile land on which to grow hemp. They burned off the brush and grass, mixing the resulting ash with the soil as a primitive fertilizer and then planted the hemp seeds they had carried from the last settlement. When the hemp was mature, they would spin yarn and weave jackets, skirts and trousers for the whole family. If a woman could not spin and weave, the family would have no clothing. These were valued and well-cultivated skills among the young girls of the villages and even after several thousands of years of development and change, modern Hmong women still spin and weave hemp fibers by hand.
        The Chinese and Vietnamese governments have both encouraged the Hmong to settle. The curtailing of swidden or "slash and burn" agriculture as practiced by the Hmong is important to the preservation of the dwindling natural habitat of the China/Vietnam border region. As regional transportation and commerce developed, supplies of cotton market cloth reached the Hmong areas. The Hmong's physical, educational and economic conditions improved, paralleling societal advances in the whole of China and Vietnam. Nowadays, Hmong people are slowly giving up the traditional ways of planting hemp and weaving cloth for themselves. The jackets and trousers worn by Hmong men and the blouses and skirts adorning the Hmong women are mostly made from increasingly available soft cotton and synthetic fabrics, which make affordable, colorful and comfortable clothing. The growing of a hemp crop and making of a skirt takes two years or more, depending on the complexity of the decorations. The clearing and preparation of the land, growing of the crop, processing of the hemp, spinning of the yarn and weaving of the cloth takes the first year of work before the wax batik decoration of the fabric can begin. Once the fabric is dyed, the skirt must be sewn and then decorated with embroidery and appliqué. Contemporary Hmong women think that if they plant hemp and make their own clothing, it is a lot of hard work and a waste of their time. Now that they can buy market cloth, the time spent at the arduous tasks of spinning and weaving has been greatly reduced, but they are losing their tradition of hemp weaving. The skills involved in making hemp material continue as a traditional cultural craft, and some girls still learn to weave, but hemp is no longer the focus of life for the majority of Hmong women.
        However, some Hmong still plant hemp, and continue to use the bark to spin hemp yarn, cord and rope, weave cloth and sew clothing and domestic items. It is very difficult to estimate what percentage of households still continue to weave hemp. In one village everyone may have given up hemp weaving 30 years ago, while in a nearby village all of the households continue to weave. In general the number of households no longer weaving far outweighs the households with active weavers. It is likely that no more than twenty to thirty percent of the Hmong households within the study area continue to weave hemp. No other ethnic groups within the study area are known to weave hemp.

Figure 2. A Black Hmong woman joining strips of hemp bark while shopping in the local market in Sa Pa, Lào Cai Province, Vietnam.

Crop cycle
     The highest quality hemp for weaving is grown on the better lands near the village where domestic animals are fed and leave their manure. The size of the hemp field and the quantity of hemp seed sown are decided by the woman's ability to weave and her need for new cloth. In general, the size of each family's hemp field is determined by the area required to sow about 2.5 kg of hemp seeds.1
     When the sowing time comes, women spread a thick layer of manure across the tilled field, before broadcast sowing the hemp seeds and turning them into the soil. The seeds are planted close together like wheat. In this way, the hemp will grow tall, thin and straight, and the quality of the fiber is improved. In Vietnam, hemp plants are often interspersed within maize crops. The hemp seeds are sown after the maize crop has already grown to 10-20 cm tall.
        The crop cycle for fiber hemp usually lasts about three to four months. The Hmong women know exactly when it is the time to harvest. If the hemp is harvested too early, the bark is not consistent and strong enough. If harvested too late, the bark is too thick and it is difficult to spin into yarn. The field is sown with hemp for a maximum of two years before the soil is exhausted, and then the hemp crop is moved to another field.
        After the harvest, the leafy upper portions are removed, the stalks are bundled up according to size (tall, medium and short) and are then dried in the sun for three to five days.

1This is the amount of seed required to seed about one-half mu (330 m 2 ) of land by modern Chinese and European seeding rate of 75 kg/ha.

Figure 3. Blue Hmong (Miao) woman organizing yarn on a straightening frame near Gejiu in southern Yunnan Province, China.

Fiber processing
     The bundled hemp stalks are stored around the house for about 20 days, then the bark is peeled off. The dried stalks are usually retted by soaking or sprinkling them with water for up to two days to loosen the bark before peeling. The stalk is broken about two-thirds of the distance from the root, and the bark is peeled away from the woody core, first from the tip end and then from the basal section. The stripped bark ribbons are tied at the basal ends to form a bundle and are beaten in a stone mortar or on a stone slab until they are free of woody core pieces and become soft, rolled up, shrunken and easily twisted together. The bark is then split into the thin strips required to spin yarn.
        Hemp yarn is twisted by connecting the bark ribbons, one after another, and winding them on one's hand or a chopstick. The narrow lengths of split bark ribbons are joined end to end and twisted slightly to hold them together. Sometimes women wet the ends with saliva to encourage their bonding. The actual spinning of the yarn is a separate process following the joining and twisting of the ribbons. Hemp ribbons can be joined together only if one's hands are free. Women often join and twist hemp while they carry loads on their backs, go to the local market, graze the goats or attend a meeting.
        When all the hemp ribbons are twisted together, they are worked on the spinning wheel. The spinning wheel spins four spindles of hemp yarn at one time. The twisted hemp ribbons are spun into an even round yarn. A woman can spin a year's supply of yarn in one or two days.
        The spun hemp yarn is drawn onto a yarn straightening-and-treating frame. This frame is made up of one vertical pillar about a meter tall forming the central axle, and two horizontal five meter bamboo poles that are interlocked, with their axis placed on top of the vertical pillar. After the frame is correctly positioned, the weavers tie the end of the yarn on one end of the cross frame member, and then turn the frame round and round, stretching the yarn between the four ends of the cross members one after the other, forming a square. The circumference of the yarn straightening frame is almost 16 meters. After the yarn is wound parallel in a long coil, it is removed from the frame and repeatedly boiled in water with kitchen ashes or mineral lime to bleach it white. During the final boiling, a little beeswax is added to smooth the thread. The treated hemp yarn is wound back onto the straightening frame to stretch it out and organize it in a parallel fashion before the frame is rotated in the opposite direction and the yarn is drawn down into a basket.
        The next process, laying the warp, actually dictates the final width of the cloth, which is usually about 20 to 30 cm from selvage to selvage. Four to twelve warp threads are stretched at once by walking the threads between a series of wooden stakes driven into the ground. Hmong women use either of two types of looms, a backstrap body-tension loom or a mechanical self-tensioning wooden loom. The traditional body-tension loom is tied to the waist, and only one foot is used to manipulate the warp by pulling a single heddle (a set of strings attached to every other warp thread). The more modern frame-tension mechanical loom allows the use of two feet to press treadles to shift the pair of heddles, and some modern looms also have a mechanical shuttle, which conveys the weft thread back and forth between the warp threads.
        After weaving, the Hmong batik dyers spread a piece of hemp cloth on a table, melt wax in a small pot and paint patterns on the cloth with a wax knife. Then the cloth is dipped three or four times, or more, in indigo dye to intensify the blue color. When the wax is melted off by boiling in water, the white patterns show through between the blue-dyed areas. Blue is the most common dye color of the Hmong, and they use both natural and artificial indigo dyes to achieve shades from sky blue to nearly black. The patterns are usually painted free-hand from memory.

Figure 4. Flower Hmong woman weaving on a frame-tension loom near Sin Ho in Lai Châu Province, Vietnam.

Clothing styles
     The styles of the traditional costumes of the Hmong women, and to some degree the men, are characteristic of a particular branch of the Miao. Not all branches of the Hmong nationality traditionally used hemp. The most prevalent use of hemp textiles appears to be in Yunnan province of China and Lào Cai, Lai Châu and Yên Bái and Provinces of northern Vietnam. The indigo dye-using branches of the Hmong are often referred to in general as the Blue Miao. They are considered the greatest batik dyers, and many branches use hemp cloth. The costume styles that Zhao and Shizhao (1985) describe as elements of their Sichuan-Guizhou-Yunnan model, can also be classified as elements of the Blue Hmong classification.2
     The pleated hemp skirt, often batik-dyed, is a common feature of all these styles that use hemp. Apparently the Blue Hmong are the only tribal people in mainland Southeast Asia skilled at batik dying (Lewis and Lewis 1985:).
        Hmong women respect their hemp skirts for their strength and durability, which hang naturally and are considered suitable for life in the mountains. The crisply pleated hemp skirts are a symbol of the Miao, now recognized all over the world. According to Hmong mythology, the hemp "hundred pleats" skirt represents the umbrella carried by one of their goddesses to make the sky. Hmong batik skirt designs describe their history, wars, migration routes, native territory, etc. (Anon. 1994). Different branches of the Hmong nationality are represented by slight variations in a woman's skirt patterns. From the decorations on a woman's skirt, the Hmong can know if her ancestors came from the mountain ridges or lived along the river valleys.
        In many cases, these skirts are part of a woman's dowry, and a sign not only of her artistic ability, but of the family's affluence. The pleated skirts made by the bride and her family are often displayed before relatives and friends when the young bride is ready to leave her mother's home for her husband's family (Reilly 1987). When the daughter marries, her mother may also give her a special skirt to save for her burial.
        The White Hmong of the Phong Tho district of Lai Châu province in northern Vietnam still wear the traditional pure white pleated skirts with no indigo dying or added embellishments. In other regions, Hmong women have given up wearing the traditional pleated skirt in daily life, but continue to weave and use hemp. White Hmong in nearby Jinping district of Yunnan province now wear loose-fitting black hemp trousers for working in the rice paddies, although they keep a white hemp skirt for their funeral dress. The Black Hmong of the Sa Pa district of Lào Cai province in northern Vietnam do not wear skirts like the Black Hmong of nearby Phong Tho district and Jinping district, Yunnan province. The Black Hmong men and women of Sa Pa wear a sleeveless dark indigo waistcoat made from narrow calendered hemp cloth. The women also wear a broad hemp belt having an embroidered field on the back.
        The Green Hmong of southern Yunnan also sew the men's short tunic jackets and women's trousers from calendered indigo hemp cloth. The Flower Hmong of the Bac Ha district of Lào Cai province traditionally wore indigo warp-striped hemp skirts similar to those found in neighboring Wenshan district in southern Yunnan.

2Throughout their work Zhao and Shizhao (1985) never refer specifically to hemp. Despite their constant and direct references to flax and linen the English edition, the authors used ma and did not specify any particular 'hemp' (i.e. ta ma) in the original Chinese edition. The skirts and other articles shown in the book are known from personal observation to be made of hemp, but may occasionally be made from cotton or ramie.

Funerary rituals
     The Hmong wear their hemp cloth not only in life, but also in death. When an elderly Hmong woman dies, her corpse must be dressed in a hemp jacket, hemp skirt and hemp leggings. The Hmong man must wear a long hemp robe. Both wear hemp shoes. The Hmong believe that when the dead person wears hemp shoes, they can "ford the caterpillar river and cross the green worm mountain safely, to reach their ancestor's resting place".
        The Hmong women keep hemp skirts for their funerals, but they wear the market cloth alternatives in daily life. When a woman stops weaving hemp, the last thing she weaves is enough cloth to make herself a skirt and her husband a burial robe. At least 12 meters of natural color hemp cloth and a ball of hemp bark to fashion burial shrouds, shoes and rope is saved for each elder in the family in anticipation of their death. This roll of cloth and ball of bark is called funeral "medicine". If there is no hemp saved in the household, then the cloth and bark needed for the funeral must be bought from neighboring households because "the dead need the hemp cloth".
        Each son and daughter must give to their deceased parent one hemp trousers or hemp skirt to be worn in the coffin, and a double width funerary shroud made from two strips of hemp cloth sewn together along the selvage, to cover the body from head to toe. The shroud is placed under the corpse inside of the coffin. The corpse may be dressed in as many as 9-12 sets of clothes. If the dead person has more clothes than can be worn, then they are placed over the corpse in the home and under the corpse in the coffin. If there are more clothes than will fit inside of the coffin, then they are cut into pieces and scattered on top of the grave.
        A White Hmong male corpse wears a long white coat with an embroidered rectangular back collar panel and the woman's corpse is dressed in their traditional white skirts with an embroidered white waistband. Men and women are both dressed in white hemp leggings. Three pairs of shoes are worn by both men and women. The inner pair is made from white hemp, the second pair is Chinese cloth-soled slippers and the third pair is sandals fashioned from twisted and braided hemp bark to guide the corpse to the afterlife. Hemp must be used for funeral dress or the ancestors will refuse the dead’s soul in the afterworld. If a person is buried without a hemp collar then the "sky door’s gods will refuse the dead’s spirit". The corpse is tied onto the funerary stretcher and the stretcher is suspended from the rafters with hemp ropes. The rope for the funeral ceremonies must be made from hemp.
        At Black Hmong funerals the corpse is also dressed in hemp clothing. Several long pieces of natural-colored hemp cloth are hung vertically above the coffin from the top of the wall opposite the door. The coffin is the "horse" and the hemp cloth represents the "horse's tether" that will "lead the horse to the afterworld". Nowadays, hemp is more important in death than in life, among this group.

Food uses
     Traditionally, hemp seeds were eaten whole as snacks, or roasted and pressed in a mortar and pestle to collect their oil. The oil is used for cooking with tea to prepare a drink. The seeds were soaked in water and milled between two large stones. The oily paste was used to cook dishes. Nowadays, Hmong people seldom use hemp seeds to press oil.
        Seeds are still roasted and eaten as snacks. The seeds are also used to make a curd similar to soy tofu. The seeds are ground in a stone mill and placed inside of a hemp cloth sack. Boiling water is poured over the seeds and they are squeezed to express the water and seed meal. The milky water is collected and cooked down and settled to form a curd. The seed meal and seed shells remaining after curd production are fed to pigs.

Medical usage
The Hmong healing system relies largely on supernatural causes of, and cures for, diseases. Some herbal remedies are used by the Hmong, and Cannabis seeds, leaves and stalks are used for various indications.
        Raw seeds are thoroughly chewed and used as a poultice on the forehead for headache relief, on the eyelids to relieve eye pain and strain, and on scalding water burns to relieve pain and promote healing. Milled seeds are boiled and the water is rubbed on the skin for topical treatment of skin disorders such as itching. Hemp seed tofu is said to be good for stomach ailments.
        The leaves, flowers and seeds are ground up together and boiled for use as a poultice on the belly to relieve stomach aches. The Hmong drink the infusion of hemp leaves boiled with water as an herbal remedy to relieve constipation and encourage smooth bowel movements. Leaves are boiled in water and the water is drunk to cure measles in children. Some older Hmong men may rarely smoke Cannabis to "relieve discomfort", but they are not daily smokers.
        When someone touches irritant plants, a rash develops which is treated with hemp stalk ashes boiled in water. The solution is rubbed all over the body to relieve the swelling and itching. Hemp bark is burned, the ashes are mixed with water and then swallowed to cure vomiting. Bark is boiled in water and then balls of it are swallowed to relieve diarrhea. Wetted bark is also wrapped around burns.

Other uses
     Hemp fiber is also used to make rope for tying animals, securing loads to horses and carrying firewood. The Hmong make twine from hemp and hemp is used to make the strongest crossbow strings.
        Sacks are made from the finer hemp cloth strips sewn at a diagonal. The sacks are tall so that the top can be twisted and tied onto a horse’s saddle to support the load of grain within.
        When the Hmong harvest their hemp, they spread the hemp leaves to enrich the land. The fresh leaves are also fed to pigs and goats.
        Dry peeled hemp stalk hurds are used as kindling for lighting cooking fires. In the past, there was no electricity, and the Hmong women burned hemp hurds for light while they peeled the fibrous hemp bark from the stalks. Hemp hurds are also good for stuffing pillows, and the stalks are used for building temporary animal fencing or erecting trellises for climbing crops.

     Hemp cultivation and processing are the responsibility of the Hmong women. In regions where hemp weaving is still practiced, most of the women's time throughout the year, after the requisite daily chores, is spent making clothes. They devote their lives to their craft. Hemp textiles are still a yardstick with which the quality of a woman is judged by her society.
        Changing market conditions have brought factory-made textiles of cotton and synthetic fibers to the most remote regions of the Hmong countryside. An increasing number of women buy more and more modern textiles and plant less and less hemp. The continuation of the hemp weaving tradition is negatively correlated with an increased standard of living, improvements in infrastructure and exposure to market goods. The poorest Hmong living in the most remote villages far from markets are the most likely to continue to weave hemp.
        Hemp seed is occasionally used as a food source. Medicines are prepared from the seeds, leaves and stalks of Cannabis. The medicines are primarily used as topical ointments for skin disorders, but may also be taken internally.
        Although the hemp tradition is still alive in several rural Hmong communities, hemp growing is steadily dying out as common practice in many areas and is preserved by only a few elders as a significant part of their unique cultural heritage. However, hemp maintains a strong significance in Hmong funerary traditions.