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I Understand
Volume 4.1 / The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam

Book Review

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The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam

Book Author: Ngô, Tâm T. T
Publisher: Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies. Seattle: University of Washington, 2016. 211 + xi pages. $50.00, cloth.
Reviewed by Jonathan Hoglund,Vietnam

The conversion of Hmong people in Vietnam to Protestantism is notable not only for its size—with an estimated 300,000 Hmong Protestants in Vietnam out of a general population of more than one million Hmong in Vietnam—but also because the first converts came to faith through radio broadcasts. This book examines such a story through a sociological lens. Tâm Ngô lived with Hmong Protestants in northern Vietnam. Her interviews and observations provide the background for the study. The book provides unique source material for understanding conversion in Southeast Asia, especially among the Hmong in Vietnam.

It is no easy task to account for the Hmong Protestant movement in Vietnam. The simplest explanation is that millenarian expectation in Hmong culture blended well with the Protestant message. But similar millenarian tendencies can be seen in much of East Asia. Ngô reminds us of the Taiping Rebellion in nineteenth-century China as well as the Hoà Hảo movement in twentieth-century Vietnam.

Ngô concludes that no single theory can account entirely for conversion on this scale. Yet as a tentative suggestion, she proposes that Protestantism provides an alternative path to modernity for Hmong people, one that bypasses the state worldview of Vietnam (10). Ngô recognizes that this is still not the entire picture. Conversion is complex, and her study illustrates how initial reasons for conversion may differ from the reasons people continue in the Protestant faith.

Chapter 1 describes the plight of contemporary Hmong in Vietnam. Ngô catalogues a series of government programs designed to civilize and manage Hmong groups. These have left the Hmong feeling patronized and belittled. For example, as Vietnam transitioned to a market economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Đổi Mới reforms), the government allowed for partial privatization of land but restricted the size of family land plots so that few Hmong had sufficient farmland for surplus crops. Ngô spent time in a village made up of Hmong who had been relocated in the 1990s from higher elevations. Given the promise of better farmland, they had moved closer to communication routes but found the benefit negligible. Vietnamese government officials, however, blame the Hmong themselves for their poverty because, they say, Hmong people refuse to fully enter the free market system. This attitude has contributed to Hmong distrust of Vietnamese leadership.

Chapter 2 details the first conversions to Protestantism of Hmong in Vietnam through the preaching of John Lee on radio broadcasts sponsored by the Far East Broadcasting Company. Lee intentionally used Hmong folk history interpreted through Christian language in his preaching. Hmong culture already had a Fall narrative, and Lee preached that one could return to the “god of heaven” through Jesus Christ (44–46). FEBC first heard about Hmong conversions in 1991 when a Vietnamese newspaper lamented that so many Hmong had become Christians through FEBC broadcasting. In the early 1990s, Vietnamese authorities tried to impede more of these conversions but without success.

Chapter 3 traces the transnational character of Hmong culture as a significant factor in Hmong conversion to Protestantism. Diaspora Hmong Protestants in the US and other countries have a missionary zeal, which Ngô attributes to their discovery of modern life outside of Southeast Asia. This translates into a strong desire to take part in the evangelism of their former homeland. But Ngô observes that this zeal is double-edged. By introducing the transnational Hmong network of Protestants to the Hmong in Vietnam, Hmong returning as “missionaries” also introduce ways of life characteristic of the contemporary developed world. She concludes that Protestant Hmong in Vietnam will have difficulty maintaining traditional forms of life in the process.

Chapter 4 addresses the suspicion that Protestantism and apocalyptic millenarianism go hand in hand. Ngô tells about how one of her contacts first heard the radio preaching and then responded to local eschatological hype in 1990 by ceasing to farm for a time. In 1992 when the radio instructed Christians to make contact with a church in Hanoi, however, he found Christian resources in Hmong and burned his ancestral altar in a ceremony with all his descendants (85-87). This story is typical and indicates the presence of a millenarian tendency in Hmong culture that can be combined with Christianity so that “little [religious] adjustment is required” (95). But millenarianism is not a tame beast. As recently as May 2011, a large group including some Protestant Hmong gathered in remote Mường Nhé, partially provoked by the prophecy of Harold Camping about Christ’s imminent return. Ngô concludes that Protestantism could not contain Hmong millenarianism. Throughout the chapter, however, she records that many Hmong Protestants deny that such radical millenarianism is a driving force. As early as 1992, Ngô’s contacts began interacting with mainstream Protestantism. Ngô even visited a church group in 2007 that questioned her in order to be sure she was not an apocalyptic preacher (99).

Chapter 5 explores the concrete reasons Hmong convert to Christianity. Especially in the early 2000s, these included certain economic advantages: doing away with costly shaman rituals, eliminating bride price, and a healthier lifestyle. Ngô concludes that the Vietnamese governmental attempts at modifying Hmong culture have failed and have instead opened up the possibility of alternative identities. Christianity, with a transnational message, offers a platform for identity that goes beyond the second-class situation of Hmong in Vietnam.

Chapter 6 details the intricate negotiations between church and state among the Hmong. Constant surveillance and pressure forced most Protestant Hmong to meet in relative secrecy during the 1990s. When church registration was allowed in 2004–2005, Ngô reports that authorities denied many families from joining worship services because they were not officially registered in the community. Worship services were under surveillance and were required to take place exactly as had been planned. Protestant Hmong also face pressure from non-Christian Hmong. Family animosity remains because Protestants refuse to participate in funeral rituals that include animal sacrifice.

Chapter 7 analyzes the changed moral stance among Protestant Hmong, especially in regard to sexuality. Protestant conversion has visibly affected courtship and marriage. Christians speak against secret courtship that often involves pre-marital sex. Christians do not practice paying a bride price and frown on the tradition of bride-capture (often an orchestrated event). The vocabulary in Hmong for personal sexual sin has even been broadened by Protestantism, although Ngô is unclear what this might imply. In short, “Soul searching, introspection, and the conception of sin seem to be some of the most important aspects of the Protestant contribution” (161).

Evangelical missiologists and theologians will find this text a complement to other sociological studies of conversion among ethnic minority groups. Ngô resists the urge for a purely political narrative to explain Hmong conversion, although she prefers the story of a cultural trajectory related to the contemporary developed world. Protestantism provides a jump forward into modern identity structures for Hmong people, a jump that neither Vietnamese Communism nor traditional Hmong religion could provide. While this may help explain certain aspects of conversion, pragmatic reasons do not account for the tenacity of many Hmong believers despite persecution in the early 1990s. In one surprising statement, Ngô compares conversion narratives in 2004–2005 to 2007–2008. Some of the people had said that pragmatic considerations were foremost (e.g., lack of a bride price) in 2005, yet the same people explained that Protestantism was superior as a belief system when they were interviewed again in 2007 (103). Here is an insight for missiologists and disciple-making missionaries. Burning one’s ancestral altar was, for the Hmong, only the beginning of conversion and maturity in Christianity.

Ngô’s work provides an opportunity for evangelicals to reflect on the observable, cultural, and even political nature of conversion. The recognition of public, gathered Hmong churches in communist Vietnam is a testimony to the continuing power of the Christian message. At the same time, this sourcebook of Hmong experience in conversion points out the multiple steps involved in changing one’s identity. The way one first confesses Christ may change after reflection and engagement with Scripture and the global Christian community. Ngô’s work reminds evangelicals that a variety of human factors make up the process of Christian conversion and serves as a helpful resource for recording this history among the Hmong.

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