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HMoob (Hmong/Mong) people turn to magical cosmology to reckon with displacement in the afterlives of imperial violence and war.

“The evening sun had started to set in the distant hills, and I knew my friend and I would not make it back to basecamp. As we scurried to find a safe place to rest for the night, I heard the voices of the elders ringing in my ears: ‘Beware of the Phi Nyuj Vais [p ny-uu y],’ a type of predatory, bloodthirsty, shape-shifter spirit that often takes on the form of a gorilla-size gibbon. I knew I must find a place to hide and rest. As soon as we set down some banana leaves for a makeshift bed, we heard rustling in the nearby trees. Could this be a Phi Nyuj Vais? Immediately, the following words escaped my mouth: ‘I hereby call on lub Ntuj ([loo n-tuu] the Sky), kuv Yawg ([kuu yaw-er] Grandfather), kuv Txiv ([kuu tsee] Father), and Pog Koob Yawg Koob ([po kong yaw-er kong] the Ancestors). Please come and provide your protection for us.’  

I could hear the noises and rustling in the treetops intensifying as if something was getting closer. Suddenly the noise stopped. Then I heard several steps close by. That was when I realized something was circling around us. For a heart-stopping moment we dared not breathe. The steps came to a halt directly in front of our hiding place in the banana leaves.  

Whatever stopped was determined to stay.  

We heard the noises retreat up into the treetops and fade further and further away. After about an hour, we started to feel safer and were able to rest. When dawn broke, I noticed a set of tiger pugmarks in the exact place where the steps had stopped. And I knew it was kuv Txiv who came to protect me.” 

This was one of the magical moments in my grandfather’s life.  

“What does this mean, Iv Yawm ([e-yer] Maternal Grandfather)?” I remember asking when he told my siblings and me—then children—about his late-night hunting adventure.  

The HMoob American author Kao Kalia Yang, writes that HMoob people believe that when humans die, we become tigers, a mystical and spiritual animal that protects and haunts the mountain caves and forests of Southeast Asia. For Iv Yawm, the tiger was his deceased father who came to protect him from the maleficent Phi Nyuj Vais.  

Bridging dimensions 

Magic for HMoob people occurs in a place that fuses the spiritual, psychological, and physiological world. An Indigenous group from the sub-Mekong region in Southeast Asia (contemporary Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and southern China), we have had to assert ourselves against imperial and colonial powers to weather genocide, political persecution, and forced migration. Our survivance throughout this often-violent history lies within the secrets of this magical world.  

HMoob cosmological belief is rooted in a worldview in which human souls reincarnate across three different realms: Nplaj Teb (earth realm), Dlaab Teb (spirit realm), and Sau Ntuj (upper realm). While human souls travel between these three realms, they can fill any vessels they choose for their reincarnation. Thus, these souls occupy two seemingly separate dimensions: Yaj Ceeb, the one for the living souls, and Yeeb Ceeb, the one for the spiritual souls. The distinction between Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb lies in how the souls occupy a body—whether human, animal, plant, water, or even rock. While Yaj Ceeb is the physical world where our souls reside in a living body, Yeeb Ceeb is a place our souls can escape to, a magical and mystical realm in which they can communicate and play with the ancestors and other spirits.  

The living and the dead souls do not exist in a neat binary, rather the two dimensions mirror one another: all souls exist simultaneously. The bridge between these two dimensions began to close as younger generations lost their spiritual connections. Today, we can only enter Yeeb Ceeb in moments of desperation when the stars align and the portals between Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb emerge as one.  

According to the old tales, there were no barriers between the living and the spirits. But forced migration and political persecution prevented the elders who knew and lived between these realms from preserving their knowledge from generation to generation. As they pass, the elders take with them the deep knowledge of this world; the younger generations are left with only fragments.  

My Iv Yawm is one of those youngsters who could only feel the presence of Yeeb Ceeb in these magical occurrences. He reminded us, “If one day, you find yourself in any trouble, call for the Ancestors and the Sky. They will come and protect you.” In that split second out hunting, his desperate call for ancestral protection opened the gateways between Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb. Iv Yawm’s father was able to enter the physical realm as a tiger to protect him from the Phi Nyuj Vais.

“If one day, you find yourself in any trouble, call for the Ancestors and the Sky.”  

As a stateless people, HMoob people were historically oppressed by the ruling kingdoms in the sub-Mekong region. Iv Yawm told us stories about being criminalized and discriminated against by Lao and Thai officials because he was HMoob. He shared tales of HMoob people being forced to bow and crawl to the Lao officials before they could access water. HMoob people were heavily taxed by Lao officials. They were forced into the opium trade to survive imperialism and French colonialism. When Iv Yawm’s father passed away, he became the next patriarch to care for his widowed mother and younger siblings.  

As a fatherless young HMoob man growing up during the political turmoil of the Secret War (1962–1975), Iv Yawm also did not have a stable or secure place to call home. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited HMoob men and boys to fight a covert proxy war in Laos on behalf of the United States. Thousands of HMoob people were forced to participate to protect their families and an estimated 30,000 died in the war. When the United States lost, HMoob people were abandoned and had to seek refuge in nearby Thailand. Shouldering the weight as the eldest son, Iv Yawm struggled to prevent his younger siblings from joining this Secret Army. While he could not change the conditions of his life, Iv Yawm could temporarily escape by exploring and hunting in the forest. 

As with his nighttime encounter with the dangerous Phi Nyuj Vais, Iv Yawm turned to HMoob magic in moments of extremity or despair to create a place of belonging and to counter the laws of Yaj Ceeb. He would call on the ancestors of Yeeb Ceeb to provide guidance and to help resolve social and political problems in Yaj Ceeb.  

Similarly, many of the HMoob youths I work with in northern Thailand also use this magical world to make sense of their own experiences of displacement and loss.  

Magical hauntings 

During fieldwork in Ban HMoob Zos, I had the privilege to learn from several young HMoob students aged 13–18. The village is in a rural, predominately HMoob sub-district and former camp established for HMoob soldiers in the Royal Thai Army (RTA) during the communist insurgency in northern Thailand (1965–1983). Occurring during the same period as the Secret War, the insurgency began with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) movement to establish communism in Thailand. Enticed by the CPT’s goals of ethnic inclusivity and societal equality, most of the HMoob population in this highland area joined the CPT. The RTA then aggressively recruited HMoob people to fight the CPT. Given that war happened in their backyards, HMoob people in Thailand had to join, some under threat of force and some voluntarily. When the insurgency subsided, HMoob RTA recruits were granted resettlement in Ban HMoob Zos while Secret War refugees and CPT soldiers had to seek temporary asylum there. Today, HMoob people who joined all sides reside in Ban HMoob Zos.  

One sunny afternoon, a group of seventh graders spent their study hall hour gossiping about the dab ([daa] ghosts) that occupied the teachers’ dormitory.  

Although most of the Thai teachers commute from the nearby town, some of the junior teachers live in the dormitory. One year, a young Thai man starting his practicum as a teacher stayed in the dormitory. Assigned to teach seventh graders who are notorious for having low academic skills and poor discipline, he did not treat the youngsters well. He disciplined them for no reason, forced them to redo their assignments, and required them to wash the lavatories. The students were convinced that this teacher did not like them because they were not ethnically Thai. Then one day a seventh grader whispered to a dab to haunt this teacher. He was so terrified that he left within six months and without finishing out his term.  

Perhaps this was a cautionary tale shared for fun among friends. The story is also an example of young HMoob people turning to their magical ancestors to exorcize the violence they experience in Yaj Ceeb.  

The students often shared about their sense of displacement as political refugees and stateless Indigenous people in the afterlife of war. The Thai government neither recognizes HMoob as Indigenous people nor true Thai citizens. While they are granted legal citizenship under a special code, HMoob people are deemed an ethnic minority, preventing them from claiming place and origin in Thailand.  

As second-class citizens, HMoob youths are expected to learn and adopt Thai culture, language, and religious practice through formal schooling. They cannot use or learn their own heritage language or religious practice in school. In fact, they are often punished for speaking HMoob and celebrated only when they show off exotic culture. It is not surprising, then, that young HMoob people often internalize these messages that being HMoob is not valuable. Yet outside the formal classroom, they would pass the time by teaching one another about being HMoob. Despite their assimilative education, HMoob youngsters turned to the magic of Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb to counter these exclusive practices and violent histories, calling on the dab of the communist past to haunt the Yaj Ceeb present. 

Credit: Placebo365/iStock

Reckoning with violence 

Ban HMoob Zos experienced an abundance of HMoob deaths during the communist insurgency. In this hazardous time of war, only a few of the surviving families were able to perform the rites to release their loved ones’ souls to be reincarnated. The remnants of their spirits linger around the village, hungry with vengeance. Their death on Yaj Ceeb is tied to the long history of HMoob dying at the hands of imperial and colonial machinations. Their life in Yeeb Ceeb becomes an eternal displacement from which they cannot be reborn.  

The dab are the manifestation of Yaj Ceeb’s violence; their souls are alive in the realm of Yeeb Ceeb to hold perpetrators accountable in Yaj Ceeb. As the seventh grader requested, the magical ancestors showed up to protect them from the ill treatment meted out by their young Thai teacher. The ghostly haunting is both retribution for this discrimination and the unresolved wrath of these lost souls.  

When the doors of Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb met, my Iv Yawm bore witness to a magical world where his sense of stability and safety was guaranteed. He did not depend on nation-states to save him but turned to the ancestors. Similarly, the seventh grader did not seek an official authority to reprimand the teacher; they consulted the ancestors instead. In their different ways, Iv Yawm and the seventh grader each used HMoob magic to survive precarious moments of displacement within the afterlives of imperial and colonial violence. 

Not only are ancestors summoned as magical protection against the harms of Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb, but their existence also offers a reckoning with displacement. These spirits moving between Yaj Ceeb and Yeeb Ceeb are not just in an eternal limbo awaiting a spiritual opportunity to reincarnate. Instead, the existential magic of this HMoob cosmology compels us to humanize the experiences of displacement. HMoob magic offers a social critique of how nation-state-building projects displace minoritized communities. And, with the help of magic, HMoob youth manifest agency over their own lives. Through this self-education, we foster a world that exceeds ethnic-national hierarchies and the borders of nation-states.  


Choua P. Xiong

Choua P. Xiong is an assistant professor of Hmong studies in the Department of Anthropology, Global Religions, and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Trained as an educational anthropologist, her research focuses on displacement, statelessness, belonging, and citizenship education for and by minoritized youth.

Cite as

Xiong, Choua. 2023. “Ancestral Magic.” Anthropology News website, August 9, 2023.

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