Meet the French Hmong adapting ancient healing techniques for the modern world

Ly Nya Tcha meets me at the train station in Louvres, a town located about 20 miles north of Paris. With his lightly accented French, plain clothes, and jovial manner, Ly resembles the thousands of commuters who enter Paris each day on the RER. However, one thing does set Ly apart: he is a Hmong shaman, enlisted to do battle with demons and save wandering souls.

There are 15,000 Hmong currently living in France. Hailing from the mountains of southern China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, France’s Hmong population grew steadily after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Since their arrival in France, the Hmong have struggled to preserve their shamanist beliefs and traditions in the face of assimilation, religious conversion, and the incomprehension of their French neighbors.

For centuries, the Hmong were nomadic subsistence farmers in Southeast Asia, living on the fringes of government control; renowned for their skill as hunters and warriors, the Hmong survived the expansion and collapse of multiple empires. In Hmong society, kinship ties could be as or more important than loyalty to a particular government.

Central to Hmong life were shamanist practices and beliefs, which held that spirits from beyond our world could –for good or ill- determine the course of human affairs. Shamans worked to restore the balance between these worlds.

When the Hmong exodus began, families were scattered across France, Canada, Australia, French Guyana, and West Germany. In France, the Hmong were forced to adapt to an urban way of life in which their cultural practices and religious beliefs could appear antiquated and retrograde. Adding to the stress of adapting to a new country, finding work initially proved quite difficult for the Hmong, many of whom did not speak French.

Surprisingly, given France’s history of xenophobic sentiment towards immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Hmong face little overt racism. Often confused with Chinese immigrants, some Hmong report being the targets of racial slurs normally reserved for French people of Chinese origin. Outside of these instances of verbal abuse, most of the exclusion the Hmong face is of a structural nature. Living in immigrant neighborhoods on the peripheries of large cities, the Hmong contend with the same alienation from the wealthy, predominantly white city centers experienced by their Arab and African neighbors; unemployment continues to be a problem, even as more French Hmong go on to attend university.

Ly, in traditional shaman clothes, holding a gong used in shamanic ceremonies. All photos by: Martin de Bourmont

In the Hmong community residing on the outskirts of Paris, Ly stands as a model of both successful assimilation and loyalty to Hmong traditions. Born in 1974, in Laos’s Xienghkhouang province, Ly spent his early years pursued by war and famine, until his family moved to the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand in 1981. After a year in Ban Vinai, Ly’s family moved to France.

By 1995, Ly was living outside of Paris with a family of his own. He weighed a healthy 175 pounds and describes his general disposition then as “insouciant.” “I took life as it came,” he says with a smile. His life changed dramatically when he woke up from a nightmare one morning with a high fever and an aching body. Six months later, Ly says he weighed only 70 pounds. His sleep was plagued by horrific nightmares and he suffered recurring attacks that left him unable to control his limbs. “I was just a sack of bones,” he says. “I couldn’t stand; I was too weak to eat.” Ly’s life quickly degenerated into interminable cycle of hospital visits and medical examinations.

Before earning their status as healers, shamans often recount battling serious illness, bipolar disorder, or early symptoms of schizophrenia. Described as “spiritual emergencies,” these signs of spiritual distress are described by believers as the “birth pangs of a healer.” Trained as intermediaries between the human world and the world of the spirits, shamans intervene to heal the sick by “traveling” into the spirit world to rescue the souls of those who have succumbed to sickness or mental illness.

Desperate to escape his condition, Ly begged his father for help. As a shaman, Ly’s father could perform a healing ceremony. Ly’s illness did not improve after the ceremony, but his father did make a startling discovery: Ly’s ailments and nightmares were indications of dormant spiritual gifts. “He thought I was ready to become a shaman,” says Ly.

Shamanism had once been integral to their family traditions

I owe my introduction to Ly to Baptiste Cha, who also accompanied me to Louvres. Cha and I met when were both students at The Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). As the only French Hmong currently enrolled at Sciences Po—and very possibly the first—Cha is on a personal and academic quest to gain a better understanding of his community’s history and traditions: otherwise, he tells me, they could entirely disappear within a few generations.

Cha, who was raised Catholic in Lieusaint, a small town 20 miles south of Paris, grew up speaking Hmong. However, like his older brother before him, Cha gradually stopped speaking his parents’ mother tongue as he got older. “It’s pretty standard in Hmong households like mine for the parents to speak to their kids in Hmong and have their kids answer in French,” says Cha.

As a teenager, Cha began to reflect on his assimilation to French society. “I started to notice that no matter how well you spoke French or how long you have lived here,” he tells me, “people will still think of you as being ‘Chinese.’” With only vague notions of what actually constituted Hmong culture, Cha began to wonder if he had a distinct cultural identity. “I came to this realization that I had just been a witness to my own culture,” he says. “A lot of people my age can name particular Hmong rituals without really understanding what they’re for; that was my case.”

To better understand his Hmong roots, Cha began to read books that examined Hmong language and traditions. “All of these books talked about shamanism,” says Cha. “It had always been an important part of Hmong culture.” As he read more about shamanism, Cha realized that its rituals and philosophy still influenced his family.

Cha told me the story of his uncle, Vang Cai Vue, of Caen, the capital of France’s lower Normandy region. Vang had just returned from a trip to visit cousins in French Guyana when he found he couldn’t speak. Unable to determine the cause of his sudden disability, doctors began to recommend increasingly radical treatments, including surgical interventions. Frustrated by the inconclusive diagnoses of multiple doctors, Vang and his wife turned to a shaman for help. Though shamanism had once been integral to their family traditions, the Vangs had been practicing Catholics for decades. A visit from a shaman was truly a measure of last resort.

Vang’s family bought a pig carcass to offer to the spirits as part of the shamanic ritual. Before performing the ceremony, the shaman burned a few sheets of joss paper over the carcass to curry favor with the spirits.

Following the completion of these steps, the shaman began his journey into the world of the spirits. Covering his face with a black thi hauv, a special veil designed to block out the living and demonstrate the shaman’s blindness to human world, the shaman sat on a rooj neeb, a wooden bench symbolizing the winged horse that transports shamans to worlds beyond ours.

As the ceremony began, the shaman’s assistant began to beat a bronze gong, the noise of which is said to give shamans protection as they travel among spirits. Within minutes, the shaman fell into a deep trance, chanting in a language indecipherable to the ritual’s audience.

The ceremony would last two hours, leaving the shaman exhausted, his traditional embroidered jacket soaked through with perspiration. “When you visited Guyana,” asked the shaman through deep breaths, “did you chop down a tree?”

Stunned, Vang replied that he had in fact cut down a tree while attempting to cross a river during a hike. To ensure the tree would remain in place as they crossed, Vang and his cousins had wedged its trunk into what appeared to be an animal’s tunnel. “In doing so, you blocked the mouth of a local spirit,” explained the shaman. “He blocked your mouth in return.”

The shaman proposed a simple solution: have one of Vang’s cousins remove the tree trunk from the tunnel. Within a few days of doing so, Vang could expect to have his voice back. Vang’s family followed the shaman’s advice and his voice returned as quickly and mysteriously as it had vanished, only a day after his cousins fulfilled the shaman’s request.

Joss paper is traditionally used during ceremonies.

In April, Cha introduced me to an old man named Muoa Nya Tong. Muoa and his wife live with their youngest son’s family, just a few miles from Cha’s home in Paris. Although he came to France in the late 1970s, Muoa speaks very little French. Despite the problems this poses when communicating with the younger generations of Hmong, Muoa remains a prominent member in the shamanist Hmong community, although he is not a shaman himself. Because the Hmong have an oral tradition and do not keep written records of their customs, elders like Muoa play a crucial role when it comes to conducting the proper ceremonies at marriages, funerals, and births.

“It’s very difficult to preserve our traditions,” Muoa tells me. “First of all, our culture is not monolithic. Hmong have always been divided into different clans.” Each of these clans engages in different ritual practices, preserved by collective memory. Today, Muoa, who is well into his 80s, is one of the few repositories of this knowledge; one cannot help being awed by his considerable memory, considering the fact that there are as many as 18 Hmong clans in Laos and Thailand alone.

Another obstacle to the preservation of Hmong shamanist traditions, says Muoa, is that crucial parts of these ceremonies elicit disapproval in French society. “It’s difficult to imagine our French neighbors being ok with ritual sacrifices of cows and pigs in their neighbors’ backyards,” he laughs. These cultural differences do not bother Muoa. He accepts that Hmong traditions in France will necessarily differ from those practiced in Southeast Asia. “There are ways to adapt,” he says. When it comes to animal sacrifices necessary for shamanic ceremonies, for instance, French Hmong will purchase animal carcasses directly from the slaughterhouse, to avoid killing them at home.

Still, Moua would like to see a little more flexibility on the part of French society. “It’s much easier for Hmong communities in America to hold on to their cultural heritage, not just because of their numbers, but because American society is more willing to recognize the importance of our rituals,” he says. French hospitals do not appreciate the important role played by shamans as healers and caregivers. Unlike Christian priests, shamans do not have unrestricted access to Hmong patients being treated in hospitals.

“This is different in America,” says Muoa. “American shamans can undergo a certificate program, where they take a course in Western-style medicine before getting a badge and a special vest.” Mercy Medical Center in Merced, California offers seven-week training programs to Hmong shamans in order to familiarize them with Western medicine and hospital procedure. Following the successful completion of this course, Hmong shamans are provided with a certification that entitles them to the same respect and access to patients that one would accord priests, rabbis, and imams.

Listening to Muoa praise the tolerance of the American system, I begin to think there is still hope for the French Hmong to reconcile their shamanist beliefs with French society. In the United States, shamanist Hmong’s aversion to surgeries and blood transfusions, along with their affinity for such practices as “coining,” exposed them to allegations of child abuse and backwardness, as chronicled by the American journalist Anne Fadiman in her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and The Collision of Two Cultures. Decades would pass before the American medical establishment began to take shamanic beliefs and practices seriously.

After the interview, we sit down to a lunch of Khaub Piaj, or chicken noodle soup, with Muoa’s son, his wife, and their newborn daughter. Muoa’s son, like many Hmong men in the Paris region, works as a taxi driver. He tells me that he speaks his father’s language, but admits he knows little of the rituals Muoa oversees. “She won’t know much about these old traditions and she probably won’t speak her language that well,” he says, speaking of his own daughter. “Just like you,” laughs his wife.

Not everyone can become a shaman

For Ly, the shaman living in Louvres, taking on shamanic responsibilities proved an effective cure for his illness. Another shaman—a friend of Ly’s family—performed a healing ritual involving the sacrifice of three animals. “They sacrificed a pig to protect my soul in the other world, a chicken to bring my wandering soul back to my sick body, and another pig to heal me,” says Ly. “I began to regain my health after the ceremony, but it took about six years for me to get all my weight back.”

“Not everyone can become a shaman,” he says. “We are chosen; in my case, there was a transgenerational inheritance of duties and gifts, but for the most part it depends on our sensibilities and comprehension of this world.”

Ly works from seven am to six pm five days a week as a truck driver and officiates shamanic rituals on the weekends. He performs one annual New Year’s ceremony and the rest depends on demand.

The job can be taxing. Ly does not accept payment for his services and he must sometimes travel long distances to perform rituals. He must also face the reality that he is one of the few remaining practitioners of a tradition that may soon vanish into obscurity. “Most of the Hmong community now places more faith in medicine and our tradition has lost its value,” he explains. “Plus, there are new religious beliefs that consider our traditions backwards.” Hmong converts to Protestantism, says Ly, “believe I live in the past and never ask for my help.”

Catholics, on the other hand, are more likely to resort to shamanism. “Some Catholics continue to solicit my work in times of need,” Ly says. “I think they distinguish between practice and belief.”

As for non-Hmong French, Ly says, “I’ve met people who accept shamanism as part of our Hmong traditions whether they take them seriously or not.” Others, he laughs, “have even called me a crazy person!”

“Preserving our traditions will require more than just transmitting our rituals to the younger generations,” says Ly. “It will require us to communicate our practices and their importance to an audience outside the Hmong community.” More importantly, he adds “we will need to lobby the government to recognize our traditions the same way they recognize other religions and beliefs.” Another vital goal, says Ly, should be to “create special sanctuaries where we can discretely perform our rituals and traditions without disturbing neighbors.”

Before we leave, Ly turns to Cha and smiles. “It’s good that you’re studying politics,” he says. “Someday, we’ll need you to represent us.”