Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hmong Story Cloths: History, Culture, and Art

The Hmong people have struggled to preserve their ethnic identity for centuries, pressured to leave China for Laos in the mid-1800s. During the Vietnam War the Hmong people of Laos assisted the American Troops. America left Laos and in 1975 the royal government fell to the Communists, who persecuted the Hmong. Perhaps 100,000 Hmong died in the conflict and the Communist persecution. The Hmong fled to Thailand where they lived in refugee camps.

In the refugee camps the Hmong women created Story Cloths, appliqué and embroidered art depicting their old way of life, the Communist persecution, and their escape to the refugee camps.

America accepted Hmong immigrants in the late 1970s, with about 150,000 settling in the US; about 5,000 settled in Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania. It was a time of economic distress and many Americans resented the special treatment the Hmong received from the government. The extent of the Hmong people's support to America during Vietnam was not well known.

Since we lived in Philly in the 1970s and 1980s I was familiar with the Hmong and their reverse appliqué and Story Cloths. I requested Hmong Story Cloths by Linda A. Gerdner to learn more about the Hmong and their amazing appliquéd historical documents.

Gerdner has worked with the Hmong and traveled to Laos and has an extensive collection of Story Cloths, cultural artifacts, and photographs.

Gerdner first offers a background to the Hmong people, their history, and how they created their Story Cloths. Beautiful photography of the whole cloths and significant details accompany the text. Chapters address specific Story Cloth themes, including The Hmong People's Journey, Traditional Life in Laos, the Hmong New Year, Hmong Folktales, and Neighboring Ethnic People. The detail in the cloths can be overwhelming but Gerdner's analysis explains the message and significance of the motifs.

In an interview with the Hmong Times, Gerdner gave her purpose for writing this book:

  • As a tribute to a special cohort of Laotian Hmong who created a new form of textile art as a means of sharing their cultural heritage
  • As a legacy for subsequent generations of Hmong Americans who wish to learn about their historical and cultural heritage
  • To promote cultural awareness and understanding for those who do not have a Hmong heritage
  • To pay tribute to the extraordinary needlework skills that were used to create this new art form

The book can be enjoyed on many levels: as a social and cultural study, a history, and as a study of a particular art and craft.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Hmong Story Cloths
Linda A. Gerdner, PhD
Schiffer Publications
$34.99 hard cover
266 color and B&W photos

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