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The paintings of Cy Thao tell traditional and contemporary stories of Hmong culture and migration, from creation beliefs to recent urban American experiences. As a Hmong-American, Thao has created a visual narrative based in the history and culture of his family's heritage.
The Hmong are regarded as one of the earliest groups in Eastern Asia, originally inhabiting the area north of the Yellow River in China as early as 3000 B. C. Hmong legend contends that the two earliest groups in this region were the Hmoog (Hmong) and the Suav (Chinese).
Enduring a legacy of genocide, oppression and multiple migrations, Hmong culture and tradition has remained viable. The initial migration, called "The First Move" began with early Han tribes forcing the Hmong out of their ancestral lands to areas further south in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River Valley around 2000 B.C. Second and third forced migrations created further dispersions of the group into various parts of China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam. Further evidence documents Hmong influence in Japan. Contemporary migrations have created Hmong communities throughout the world, including groups in Australia, Canada, France, South America and the United States.
Beginning with the Hmong creation story of the original hatching from the egg of a butterfly to the everyday life of Hmong Americans in St. Paul, Minn., these images paint a history that emphasizes the resilience and determination of a people.
Director, University Gallery
The ideas for this series came into being when I was a junior in college. I was reading "Tragic Mountain" by Jane Hamilton. In the book there was a drawing of a Hmong village being pillaged, with women being raped and their heads decapitated and men being tortured. This was a drawing by an eyewitness who saw the whole event. He couldn't write so he drew what he saw. This illustration reminded me of the tapestries made in the refugee camps during the late seventies. The tapestries, or story cloths, depict daily lives, people running from war and coming to America. These were like picture books without words.
I thought it would be a great idea to use oil paint to continue this tradition of telling stories without words. I also wanted to stretch the boundaries of this method of story telling by adding my own personal commentary. I gravitated towards oil paint because it was more fluid and easier to manipulate than sewing.
In my junior year (1993) I experimented and completed three pieces. A year after graduating from college (1996), I decided I wanted to make a series out of this. I went to China and started researching the history of the Hmong people. I completed ten pieces from 1996-99. It was hard trying to paint and keep a job and pay the mortgage. In 2000, I received the Bush Artist Fellowship. I was able to spend a whole year concentrating on completing the series. I completed most of the series from 2000-01. To complete the series I traveled to three countries, read countless books, and talked to a number of people who experienced the war in Laos.
I want the series to educate the younger generation, to have some closure with the generation that went through the war, and hopefully to become a historical document for generations to come.
I would like to thank my wife, LeeVang, for her encouragement, patience, and support. I could not have done it without her.
These reproductions and the exhibition 'The Hmong Migration," fifty paintings and text by Cy Thao, is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation.
#1. In the beginning when Gods ruled the earth, someone angered the god of lightning. In his anger he struck the house that stored all the seeds of the world. The house burned down with all the seeds. Unknowingly the god of the seeds blamed the maple tree for burning all the seeds because he used maples to build the storage house. He chopped down the maple tree and when the maple tree fell, a butterfly flew out of a crack in the tree. The butterfly flew to the bank of the water and fell in love with the water. She eventually laid twelve eggs. The eggs hatched into a dragon, tiger, snake, pig, cow, and all the creatures of the world. The last egg hatched into a Hmong person.
#2. Two brothers were working in the field. An old man appeared and told the brothers that a great flood was going to come. Because the older brother treated the old man unkindly, he instructed the older brother to build a metal drum while telling the younger one to build a wooden drum. When the flood came the younger brother and his sister got into the wooden drum. The older brother in the metal drum was lost in the flood, but the wooden drum floated for days until the earth dried. Because the brother and sister were the last two humans on earth they agreed to marry each other. Out of incest they gave birth to a big pumpkin. The brother cut the pumpkin into pieces and each piece turned into a human being. These beings became all the clans of the Hmong family.
#3. Five thousand years ago the Hmong people lived in the basin of the Yellow River where the present day Beijing is. The Han Chinese also had a kingdom nearby. In their expansion the Han Chinese took over Hmong lands. In defense the Hmong waged war. As the first Hmong King, Chi You led the Hmong against the advancing Chinese. The Hmong lost the war. Many fled the area. This started the Hmong migration that eventually ended up in America.
#4. One thousand years later the Hmong people who had migrated to the south built another kingdom. The kingdom was called "San Miao" (Peb Hmoob). In Chinese it means "Three Hmong." In Hmong it means "Us Hmong." The Chinese expansion eventually caught up to the Hmong Kingdom. There we fought another great war. We lost again. The migration continued farther south, close to the borders of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.
#5. The Hmong people who migrated to the north eventually crossed the ocean and ended up in Japan. During the Qin dynasty the Emperor sent 3,000 people to Japan to search for the fountain of youth. On the ships many of the servants were Hmong. The people never found the fountain of youth. Fearing for their lives they sailed towards Japan. Today many Japanese visit Hmong villages with claims that their ancestors came from those areas. Some Japanese have claimed to be Hmong to the Hmong in China.
#6. After defeating the Hmong armies, the Chinese divided the Hmong into groups, assigning them different colors to wear. They hoped that this would ensure that they would never unite again. They believed that it would be easier to defeat the Hmong if they were divided. The Chinese also divided the Hmong into clans to further create division.
#7. To prevent the Hmong from ever retaking their land, the Emperor built a smaller version of the Great Wall. The "Hmong Wall" was about a hundred miles long with guard towers to watch over the Hmong.
#8. The Hmong fought the Chinese with cross bows and used the mountainous terrain to their advantage. They lured whole units into gorges and then rolled rocks onto the unsuspecting Chinese. The Hmong fighters were feared throughout China.
#9. After losing a major battle, a Chinese general sought refuge in the Hmong villages. In return for their kindness, he showed the Hmong how to make guns. Within a few years, the Emperor collected over 20,000 guns from the Hmong at the end of a major rebellion. There's a Hmong saying in China: "Fight a small war every 30 years and fight a big war every 60 years."
#10. In the mid 1800's the Chinese empire lost the Opium War to the British. To pay the British, they taxed the poor heavily, especially the Hmong. Many families had to dig up valuables that they had buried with the dead to pay the heavy tax. Out of desperation we rebelled. A long war broke out. We took back many lands, but in the end we lost again.
#11. The Hmong once again had to leave their homes. This time many of us left China for good. We found untamed and unoccupied land in Southeast Asia (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma).
#12. There were already people in the low lands. The only places left were the mountaintops. This new land gave us the freedom to live freely. Life on the top of the world was difficult. To survive we had to resort to slash-and-burn farming methods. Huge waterworks constructed out of bamboo brought in fresh water.
Site constructed with permission of the artist.
Links to related sites on the Hmong Migration