image of book goes here
Patricia V. Symonds

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

Seattle and London: University of Washington Press,
2004, 400 pages;
ISBN: 0-295-98326-4 (cloth); $US45.00,
ISBN: 0-295-98339-6 (paper); $US25.00.

reviewed by Nicholas Farrelly

  1. Calling in the Soul is a captivating account of the gendered implications of birth and death in a Hmong village in Northern Thailand. Extensive and sympathetic fieldwork—carried out from January 1987 to May 1988—is the centrepiece for Patricia Symonds' wide-ranging discussion of Hmong life cycles. She set herself the task of learning 'the Hmong women's way' (p. xx: emphasis in original) through their idioms and experiences. Although her major fieldwork took place over 15 years ago, the book's contributions remain highly relevant for scholars interested in the social, political and sexual landscapes of Southeast Asian highland groups. Symonds remained engaged with Hmong issues during the 1990s and cites very recent research by Pranee Liamputtong Rice, Nicholas Tapp, Gary Yia Lee and Prasit Leepreecha, among others. Her ranging and rigorous engagement with Hmong life should ensure that this book remains relevant for many years to come.

  2. Symonds makes a significant addition to the ethnographic record by a concerted engagement with Hmong perspectives, particularly the experiences, ideas and attitudes of Hmong women. These Hmong points of view are a healthy reminder of the contextualisation of gender difference in many rural and remote areas. Symonds relates that at the beginning of fieldwork she made the mistake of 'not realizing that women are socialized, and socialize their children, to think that men are smarter than women' (p. xlv). Symonds relates that, on the part of the Hmong, 'both men and women assumed that I was interested in learning about what they collectively understood to be the most important part of Hmongness - male knowledge' (p. xliv). The nuances and contradictions subsequently explored by Symonds are her way of coming to terms with these gendered expectations. Her study should serve to undermine approaches to the Hmong that overlook 'Hmong women in terms of their own cosmology'(p. xlix) and to highlight women's complex roles within this rapidly changing society.

  3. The study's focus is anonymous, referred to merely as 'Flower Village'. The general description of the village is consistent with most Hmong villages I have visited in northern Thailand. Flower Village is high in the mountains and 'the majority of villagers…came from the border of Laos' (p. 270). Like many other Hmong villages in the region, there has been a high birth-rate. In 1988, in Flower Village over '50 percent of the population are aged under 15' (p. 271). Back then, Flower Village was almost entirely White Hmong but 'intermarriage between Green Mong and White Hmong was becoming more common' (p. 272). These different, but similar, groups are often referred to by outsiders as one, all-encompassing ethnicity by the ethnonym Miao in Chinese and Meo in Thai. However, they maintain distinctions between themselves and 'speak different dialects; they call themselves Green Mong [Mong Ntsuab] and White Hmong [Hmong Dawb]' (p. xxx). Apparently, because of ritual and 'textile art' differences it was difficult for White Hmong women to find a Green Mong husband.

  4. Symonds' introductory comments on 'Conducting Research in a Hmong Village' (p. xix) serve as a handy reminder that participant observation often requires the renouncing of self-consciousness. The particularly gendered ambiguities and sensitivities of her research task led to a somewhat unique fieldwork identity. Symonds shifts, at various times, between the worlds of friend and visitor, insider and outsider, woman and man. This ambiguity, and her position as an older and 'more experienced' woman, allowed her to share some of the most intimate (and usually private) moments of the Hmong life cycle. She argues that a younger, un-married, or less experienced woman may have had fewer opportunities to observe these landmark events.

  5. Symonds begins strongly in Chapter 1 with a discussion of Hmong Cosmology where 'the connection among birth, death, and reincarnation is implicit' (p. 3). The position of women in this cycle of life is defined by reproduction. According to Symonds, 'childbirth is the domain of women, and it is fraught with tension, unpredictability, and danger' (p. 5). It is in the realm of childbirth that Symonds' discussion is at its best. She contrasts the 'noise' of other life cycle events with child birth where the 'Hmong woman does not groan or cry out as she bears the child: she labours in silence' (p. 5). Throughout her discussion of Hmong cosmology, Symonds reiterates the primary position of men and points out the inadequacy of much male research on Hmong women. She argues that 'in the Hmong community there is no compensatory power for women. Women contribute to the continuance of the male hegemonic structure' (p. 9).

  6. In Chapter 2, Symonds discusses the place of Hmong women in more detail. She recounts many fascinating aspects of Hmong gender relations and provides an accessible description of Hmong daily life. While in my experience the Hmong practice of 'bride capture' is a source of much frivolity and good-natured conjecture, Symonds relates a pointed story of cross-cultural miscommunication. In this instance, Hmong refugees in America faced charges of attempted rape when they tried to snatch a girl on a California street. Bride capture is, they find to their cost, not universally acceptable. Symonds goes on to engage with the complexity of marriage in a number of ways and includes a detailed discussion of the 'losses' and 'gains' felt by married women. She writes that 'although no woman wants to become a spinster, a woman usually feels a great sense of loss when she is wed' (p. 70). Crucially she argues that:

      Hmong women explicitly accord less prestige to themselves than to men. They believe that men have better judgement than women and that men are both more intelligent and more capable (p. 75).

    The power dynamics of this internal Hmong view are, however, not all male dominated. Female power comes through reproduction, through providing a vessel for an 'ancestral soul' to return.

  7. The provision of that vessel is canvassed in detail in Chapter 3 where birth is described as 'a very private affair'. Over time, Symonds gained considerable access to pregnant women before, during and after labour. She attended six births while living in the village and provides a detailed description of Hmong birth practices. She also gives a lengthy translation of the ceremonial chant for 'Calling the Soul: The Journey to the Land of Light' (pp. 85-90). Intriguingly she notes that 'the Hmong believe that although women are more suited to giving birth, men were once able to do so, if not very skilfully' (p. 93). There is also discussion of 'Hmong foetal development theory' which is put into its cosmological context. Among the Hmong, giving birth is the way that a woman fulfils 'her most important role in life…she links the ancestors with future generations of Hmong' (p. 109).

  8. Throughout the book Symonds connects death with the reproductive position of women. For students of the communal politics of death and the gender implications of reincarnation, the discussion in Chapter 4 is particularly stimulating. The book concludes, in Chapter 5 with discussion of the role of men and women, as parents and unequals, in Hmong society. This is pithily summed up with the observation that 'women's role is to be private and silent, men's is to be public and vocal' (p. 163). The numerous Hmong village meetings that I have attended certainly lend credence to this assertion.

  9. Symonds ends Chapter 5 by speculating on changes in Hmong society. She argues that:

      As Hmong women encounter and absorb Western freedoms, they, like Western women, both benefit and suffer from the changes brought about as traditional protections are discarded or lost and new freedoms are obtained (p. 174).

    This summary comment leads into a crucial epilogue on the position of Northern Thailand's Hmong groups with respect to HIV/AIDS. It is based on the author's experiences working with an AIDS Education Project in 1993-95. In this section, Symonds notes that 'homosexuality is not even considered a possibility for a Hmong, probably because of the Hmong ideal of complementary opposites' (p.176). She argues that 'because Hmong women's social power is contingent upon their ability to conceive, the adoption of safer sex practices within marriage is not easily negotiated' (p. 177). She also argues that culturally informed and sensitive peer education and empowerment could lead to safer sex practices for Hmong women. The focus, for Symonds, should not be female-centred but rather female-controlled sex education and reproductive choices.

  10. The sensitivity of the wide range of issues which are explored suggests that Symonds possesses unusual tact and timing as a field-researcher. Her insights into Hmong culture are worthy of further examination and deliberation. Ultimately she presents Hmong women as 'part of their own universe, which is one where nothing can be viewed piecemeal, since everything…is interconnected, and opposing elements serve to balance and complement each other' (p. xlix).

  11. This Hmong worldview pervades almost every page of Calling in the Soul. For scholars interested in the gender implications of birth and death, Symonds has provided an invaluable ethnographic case study of the Hmong universe, full of rich detail and copious translation. For future students of Hmong sex and gender issues, Symonds has set the benchmark for intensive and perceptive engagement. Her study of the Hmong should provide much ballast for studies of gender issues in highland Southeast Asia in the years to come.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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